Mother of God? Coming to grips with Mary as a former evangelical

Aaron Peiffer and I are both converts from what some call the “New Calvinism” of evangelical Protestantism. We used the English Standard Version of the Bible, listened to guys like C.J. Mahaney and John Piper, and certainly didn’t talk much about the Virgin Mary (only at Christmas, I repeat, only at Christmas). You should check out Aaron’s blog, As Christ Intended, and read his guest post below. I’d also like to add an asterisk to Aaron’s comments about Mary being necessary for salvation. If you are an evangelical reading this post, please take time to understand the Catholic understanding of salvation and justification before calling him a heretic. I certainly don’t understand everything yet! Feel free to comment with questions.

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An Evangelical Unhinging

I remember how late in my college years something of the mystery of the incarnation slowly started to unsettle my evangelical mind. Not that I ever found the incarnation puzzling or troublesome per se as an evangelical, but the Catholic understanding of the incarnation left me unsettled. I had no problem believing that the eternal God took on human flesh in Christ Jesus and was born of Mary–provided we say no more of Mary! She played her role two thousand years ago and is now worshiping Jesus in heaven, so why all this praying to Mary business? Why the Immaculate Conception, the Perpetual Virginity, and the assumption into heaven? Why the various pompous titles such as Queen of Heaven, Mother of God, Virgin of Virgins, Mother of the Church, Our Lady of Victory, et cetera? Why all the feast days, rosaries, icons, statues, devotions, confraternities, and churches dedicated in her honor? Does not this all amount to so much superfluous praise and unnecessary devotion if not idolatry plain and simple? Why is devotion to Mary necessary when we can just pray directly to the Lord Jesus? Does not devotion to Mary tend to impede true devotion to our Lord?

Mother of the Church

Slowly I began to understand that there is something disingenuous about a love for Christ that does not extend to his very mother. Without devotion to Mary our faith is stunted and our love incomplete since to speak of love for Jesus, but to act in indifference towards his mother, is to disregard his very Sacred Heart. It is the Catholic conviction that there is a depth and perfection of love for Christ that can only be acquired through the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Can we imagine that in heaven Christ is embarrassed and ashamed of how often and devoutly people speak to his mother? Christ is not a jealous demiurge that spurns association with lowly men, rather he is our very brother through the humanity he received from Mary. Simply put, if Christ is our brother then Mary is our mother. God formed the body of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit in the virginal womb of Mary and likewise he produces Christ in all the members of his Mystical Body on earth through Mary. As St. Louis De Montfort eloquently explains,

“If Jesus Christ, the Head of men, is born in her, then the predestinate, who are the members of that Head, ought also to be born in her, by a necessary consequence. One and the same mother does not bring forth into the world the head without the members, or the members without the head; for this would be a monster of nature. So in like manner, in the order of grace, the head and the members are born of one and the same Mother.” (True Devotion to Mary, 32)

Later as a young Catholic neophyte I still had a somewhat deficient understanding of the necessity of devotion to Mary and the depth of the Church’s teaching on her. I certainly believed in the importance of devotion to Mary, but I did probably would not have said it is necessary for salvation, and yet this is just what our holy Church teaches us. Hence St. Louis De Montfort pointedly declares “He who has not Mary for his Mother has not God for his Father.” (True Devotion to Mary, 30). As the Catechism teaches “She is mother wherever he is Savior and head of the Mystical Body.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 973) After all, Mary’s intercession and that of all the saints is superfluous if our prayers alone are a sufficient means of obtaining every grace necessary for salvation from God. Certainly Christ is the only mediator between God and man, but Mary’s intercession “in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power.” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 60). God has freely chosen to associate man in his work of redemption, and nowhere is this seen more clearly than in Mary Immaculate (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2008). We cannot help but contemplate in awe her sublime faith and humility and spontaneously declare with St. Elizabeth, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”

Question: Is Mary important to you?

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17 thoughts on “Mother of God? Coming to grips with Mary as a former evangelical

  1. Why would Mary be important to us in a personal way? After all, no one has a presonal relationship with her and Scripture never exhorts us to.

  2. Why would you convert to Roman Catholicism without understanding the doctrines and implications on Mary?

    You say that Mary is necessary for salvation. Do you know the Scripture well enough to know this is not true?

    • Hi James! I just reposted my original conversion story. It describes my journey a little bit better. People come to the Church in different ways, and mine was through being thoroughly convinced that Sola Scriptura was not true and that apostolic succession was true. Once I was convinced of these things the other doctrines fell into place. For me, also, there’s a difference between “understanding” intellectually but also really getting it. I understand the Marian doctrines, but I don’t always “get it.” That’s why we call this a journey.

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. evangelicaltocatholic,
    How do you define Sola Scriptura? How could apostolic succession be true when its not taught in Scripture or any evidence for it in the 1st-2nd centuries?

    In my dialogues with Protestants who convert to Roman Catholicism I have found they don’t know Scripture well, they don’t understand RCC church claims and church history.

  4. James,

    Sorry to butt in on the conversation, but I think it’s a bit dismissive to assume that Protestant converts to Catholicism don’t know Scripture well or understand Catholic dogma and history. In my experience it is precisely Protestants that know the Scriptures deeply and attempt to understand them in the context of Church history and teaching that end up becoming Catholic. It is one thing to have knowledge of the Scriptures, but a completely different matter to have a true interpretation of them. I’ve known many respectable Protestant seminarians, pastors, theologians, and laity that have “swam the Tiber” and were subsequently labeled as deficient in their theology or faith by their Protestant peers. Just check out the contributors at http://www.calledtocommunion.com. I think it is somewhat disingenuous to assume that a convert in question has a deficient understanding of Protestantism. Don’t we all have gaps in our knowledge and errors in our thinking? Just saying.

  5. Aaron,
    It is not dismissive to believe that a Protestant who converts to Roman Catholicism is deficient in Scripture and church history. RC’s have a very rose colored way of ;looking at the Roman Catholic church in terms of its claims, doctrines and history. Take the papacy. RC’s will tell you there has been a papacy since Matt 16 and yet when one looks for the office of a papacy in the NT you will find it does not exist. You will also find no evidence for it in the first few centuries of the church. There is no one in the first 5 centuries that claims to be the leader of the entire church or that any of the churches acknowledge such a person in Rome.

    When you converted to Roman Catholicism did you study these things? Did you challenge what the Roman Catholics were telling you about their church and their doctrines? Did you compare them with Scripture? Did you talk to your pastor about Roman Catholicism?

  6. James,

    There is a difference between viewing history and doctrine with rose colored glasses and believing in the faithfulness of Christ to preserve his Church from error and heresy, but I understand what you are getting at. There is plenty of evidence both in Scripture and in the first five centuries of the Church for the papacy for those who wish to find it, but that is something I would have to debate with you elsewhere.

    On a more personal note, I did spend a good four years in college debating Catholics on the Christian faith as a Protestant. I talked with my pastor and a number of close Protestant friends along the way about my concerns. I am deeply grateful and indebted to them for their friendship and support. Believe me, I started studying Catholicism in an effort to intellectually disprove the Church of Rome, but the more I studied Scripture, history, and the teachings of the early Church, the more Protestantism didn’t make sense.

    Of course, one could spend their whole life just reading and studying the works of Luther or the Marian dogmas or justification or any one theological difference between Catholics and Protestants, but prayer is most important. For the sake of sanity I decided to focus my efforts on the issue of authority by directly studying sola Scriptura from both a Protestant and Catholic perspective. In the end I came to the conclusion that sola Scriptura is not only unbiblical, but it is also theologically, philosophically, historically, and practically untenable.

    In doing so I implicitly accepted the divine authority of the Catholic Church to teach, sanctify, and rule in Christ’s name. The saying of St. Anselm is especially true in regards to accepting the teaching of the Catholic Church: “Faith seeks understanding. I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand.”

  7. Aaron,
    Give me an example of something in Protestantism that did not make sense.
    Again, take the Marian dogmas. The early church did not believe Mary was sinless or that she was assumed into heaven or that she was the queen of heaven. You don’t see any of this kind of thing in the first few centuries.
    Another thing to keep in mind is that the NT nor the church for the first few centuries was Roman Catholic.

  8. James,

    Any distinctly Protestant doctrine starts to disintegrate when you compare it to the teachings of the early church and Scripture — especially sola Scriptura and sola fide. These teachings only make sense within their own interpretive framework, but once you step outside the Protestant metalogic they lose their coherence and intelligibility. As convert Blessed John Henry Newman stated, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” I find your assertion that the “NT nor the church for the first few centuries was Roman Catholic” strange having read the apostolic fathers in considerable depth myself prior to entering the Church. Are you implying that the Church became Catholic and apostatized after the first few centuries?

    For the purpose of this thread we should stick to Mariology, but I wouldn’t mind if you wanted to continue the discussion on Protestantism and the early church privately via email. You can contact me at aaron “dot” peiffer “at” Gmail “dot” com.

    Returning to the Marian dogmas, I think it is a logical fallacy to assume that since X is not mentioned in writing for Y centuries, X was not believed during Y centuries. For example, we cannot assume that silence in the first few centuries concerning the assumption or Mary’s sinless life means that she wasn’t assumed or sinless, unless you can point me to explicit statements to this regard. Likewise it would be equally fallacious for me to argue that this silence supports these dogmas. The evidence for many dogmas is inconclusive or scant in these first few centuries, although the seed is always present. Just consider the fact that the very canon of Scripture was not solidified until the late forth century!

    Starting in the mid third century and overwhelmingly by the forth we find unanimous support for the belief that Mary was preserved from all sin by the grace of God. Sin is hailed especially in the east from most ancient times as Panagia, or “All-Holy. Consider just two examples:

    “This Virgin Mother of the Only-begotten of God, is called Mary, worthy of God, immaculate of the immaculate, one of the one.” Origen, Homily 1{A.D. 244).

    “Mary, a Virgin not only undefiled but a Virgin whom grace has made inviolate, free of every stain of sin.” Ambrose, Sermon 22, 30 {A.D. 388}.

    You are basically left with three options: 1) The church fell into heresy and apostasy within the first few centuries;; 2) the same church that defined the deity of Christ down to a Greek iota simply overlooked and never protested these “heretical” teachings; 3) the same Church that dogmatically defined the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the canon of Scripture, and the Divine Maternity of Mary never fell into error and continues to transmit the true faith throughout all generations.

    All truth, all times, all people: that’s what Catholic means.

  9. Aaron,
    Without evidence of the assumption, all you have is speculation. The fact is there is no evidence for it. This first time we become aware of it is in 377. In regards to her being without sin or kept from sin we look to the Scripture since the Scripture is all that we know of her that is reliable. What we find here is not one shred of evidence that she believed herself without sin, that the Lord Jesus taught that she was or that anyone else thought she we sinless. Its not even in “seed form” whatever that is.

    It is not true that by the 4th century there is unanimous support for that she was preserved from all sin. Take these early church fathers:
    Augustine “ He, Christ alone, being made man but remaining God never had any sin, nor did he take of the flesh of sin. Though He took flesh of the sin of his mother.”

    N.D. Kelly comments:
    “Origen insisted that, like all human beings, she [Mary] needed redemption from her sins; in particular, he interpreted Simeon’s prophecy (Luke 2, 35) that a sword would pierce her soul as confirming that she had been invaded with doubts when she saw her Son crucified.” (Early Christian Doctrines [San Francisco, California: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978], p. 493)

    Ambrose (c. 339-97) commenting on Luke 1:35:
    For wholly alone of those born of woman was our Holy Lord Jesus, Who by the strangeness of His undefiled Birth has not suffered the pollutions of earthly corruption, but dispelled them by heavenly majesty.

    Saint Ambrose of Milan, Exposition of the Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke, trans. Theodosia Tomkinson (Etna: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1998), Book II, §56, p. 59.

    Augustine (354-430):
    This being the case, ever since the time when by one man sin thus entered into this world and death by sin, and so it passed through to all men, up to the end of this carnal generation and perishing world, the children of which beget and are begotten, there never has existed, nor ever will exist, a human being of whom, placed in this life of ours, it could be said that he had no sin at all, with the exception of the one Mediator, who reconciles us to our Maker through the forgiveness of sins.
    NPNF1: Vol. V, On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins, and on the Baptism of Infants, Book II, Chapter 47.

    What we see in the early church after the apostles is a deviation from apostolic teaching i.e. Scripture. This is not surprising given that the apostles battled false teachings while they were alive and predicted that false teachers would come into the church and deceive many. See Acts 20:28-30; 2 Peter 2:1. Revelation 2:14-15 is an example of a false teaching taking hold in a church.

  10. James,

    I agree that we ought not to establish doctrine upon speculation, and this is why I’m saying we cannot argue from silence. I accept the living voice of the Church and I don’t doubt teachings that are initially unclear or rudimentary in church history. The feast of the assumption has it’s origin in the fifth century and this teaching was never denied and gradually became confirmed universally in the Church, both east and west. You keep saying there is no evidence for the assumption, but this is not true unless we limit ourselves to the scant writings of first few centuries and the explicit testimony of Scripture. You subscribe to sola Scriptura and don’t believe in Sacred Tradition, so I understand where you are coming from.

    In regards to the Scriptures we must acknowledge that nowhere do they specifically mention Mary as having sin. One must assume that what is said about the universality of sin in places like Romans 3:23 applies to Mary. I have yet to see a church father that specifically applied this assumption (no pun intended!) to Mary in its full implications (see my comments on Origen below). We all have our assumptions don’t we?

    In regards to the quote from Augustine, by “flesh of sin” he seems to be referring to human nature; meaning Christ received his humanity from Mary although without sin. In any case the wording is somewhat ambiguous and I cannot seem to find the source/context of the quote, although it is reproduced on numerous Protestant apologetic websites. Maybe some help here?

    What we do know is that elsewhere St. Augustine unambiguously states that “We must except the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom I wish to raise no question when it touches the subject of sins, out of honour to the Lord; for from Him we know what abundance of grace for overcoming sin in every particular was conferred upon her who had the merit to conceive and bear Him who undoubtedly had no sin.” (On Nature and Grace, 42)

    His quote from the On Merits and Forgiveness of Sins, and on the Baptism of Infants is emphasizing the universality of sin and how even the guilt of concupiscence is forgiven through the grace of the sacrament of baptism (sounds strangely Catholic, poor deluded Augustine!). I think it is rather clear that Augustine would not have Mary in mind in a discussion on concupiscence and sin, especially considering what he says in the quote above!

    I think the same reasonably applies with St. Ambrose, else we have to assume he contradicted himself quite badly or changed his mind!

    In regards to Origen, he draws the conclusion that if Mary “did not suffer scandal at the Lord’s passion, then Christ did not die for her sins.” (Homily on Luke, 17:6). This seems to suggest that she remain free from sin except in that instance. This might explain why he could also refer to her as “immaculate of immaculate.” Of course, Origen is not the Magisterium of the Catholic Church and he later became a heretic, so I don’t place too much emphasis upon what he says. In any case his intuition was correct in affirming Mary’s need for redemption, although he was wrong to assume this meant she must have committed actual sin.

    It’s all too convenient to dismiss the teachings of the early church and to pick and choose what we wish to believe based on a private and fallible interpretation of Scripture. For my part I place more confidence in what some many holy and astute popes, bishops, priests, monks, and martyrs received from the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church and not what any so called “reformers” taught based on their fallible interpretation of Scripture. Indeed Christ warned his apostles of heresy, but he also promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church and that he would remain with her until the end of the ages (Matt. 16:18; 28:20).

  11. Aaron,
    The assumption of Mary is based on silence. There is no evidence for it. For there to be evidence you need documentation from the first century and that is something you do not have. Just because the “feast of the assumption has it’s origin in the fifth century” and no one denied it, is not evidence. If anything, this is how false teachings begin. No evidence but speculations are presented as facts. Claiming also this is “Sacred Tradition” only confuses the issue. Without evidence it is a superstition.
    Scripture is clear that Mary was a sinner like all men because she inherited the sin nature of Adam. See Romans 5:12. If any father tries to make the case that she did not sin would be deceptive. Its deceptive because Scripture does not support the idea that anyone conceived of 2 human parents are without sin.
    You should place your confidence not in “popes, bishops, priests, monks, and martyrs” but in the Scripture. Remember: only the Scripture alone is the inspired-inerrant Word of God. All other things are fallible.

    • – ON THE ASSUMPTION
      WE ARE NOT TEACHING THAT MARY ASCENDED INTO HEAVEN. INSTEAD WE ARE TEACHING THAT MARY WAS ‘ASSUMED’ INTO HEAVEN. MARY DIDN’T GO TO HEAVEN LIKE JESUS OUR GOD BUT HE WAS BROUGHT UP BY THE POWER OF GOD LIKE ENOCH, LIKE ELIJAH. INDEED THE BIBLE PROCLAIMS THAT THE MOTHER OF THE KING OF ALL NATIONS IS CLOTHED WITH THE SUN IN HEAVEN [cf. REV 12:1]

      – The vision of the woman clothed with the sun and of the great dragon her persecutor.

      [1] And a great sign appeared in heaven: A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars: [2] And being with child, she cried travailing in birth, and was in pain to be delivered. [3] And there was seen another sign in heaven: and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads, and ten horns: and on his head seven diadems: [4] And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to be delivered; that, when she should be delivered, he might devour her son. [5] And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with an iron rod: and her son was taken up to God, and to his throne.

      A woman: The church of God. It may also, by allusion, be applied to our blessed Lady. The church is clothed with the sun, that is, with Christ: she hath the moon, that is, the changeable things of the world, under her feet: and the twelve stars with which she is crowned, are the twelve apostles: she is in labour and pain, whilst she brings forth her children, and Christ in them, in the midst of afflictions and persecutions.

      – WE CATHOLICS FAVOR MARY BECAUSE GOD HIGHLY FAVORED HER. WE BELIEVE MARY TO BE IN HEAVEN BECAUSE GOD FILLED HER WITH HIS GRACE AND SALVATION COMES BY GRACE [Eph 2:8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God]. IN FACT, IF YOU TRULY READ THE BIBLE YOU WOULD HAVE REALIZED THAT WE CATHOLICS WOULD NOT HAVE KNOWN MARY OF NAZARETH IF HER NAME IS NOT WRITTEN IN THE BIBLE. THUS, OUR LOVE OF MARY IS VERY BIBLICAL WHILE OPPOSITION AGAINST MARY IS FROM THE DEVIL.

      IF GOD LOVES MARY AND FAVORED MARY THEN THE DEVIL HATES MARY AND THAT IS WHAT MARIAN DEVOTION TO THE MOTHER OF JESUS (Praying the Rosary) – Genesis 3:15: I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed. He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel.

      – IT IS THE BIBLE WHO TAUGHT US THAT THE MOTHER OF JESUS IS A VIRGIN AND THE BIBLE REPEATEDLY STATED THAT MARY IS A VIRGIN BUT THE BIBLE NEVER TAUGHT THAT MARY IS “NO LONGER A VIRGIN”. READ ISAIAH 7:14, MATTHEW 1:23, LUKE 1:26-27.

      – INDEED MARY INTERCEDES FOR THE BELIEVERS BECAUSE SHE HERSELF IS A BELIEVER OF JESUS. IN FACT SHE IS THE FIRST BELIEVER OF JESUS AHEAD OF THE APOSTLES AND OF JOSEPH. LUKE 1:26-35 TESTIFIES TO THAT. ST. PAUL SAYS THAT IT IS THE DUTY OF EVERY CHRISTIAN TO INTERCEDE:

      1 Tim 2:1 I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, INTERCESSIONS, and giving of thanks, be made for all men

      – AS REGARDS MARY AS THE MOTHER OF GOD INDEED GOD HAS A MOTHER BECAUSE JESUS OUR GOD, THE DIVINE LOGOS, BECAME MAN [Jn 1:14] AND WAS BORN BY MARY. FOR THAT REASON THE HOLY CHILD BORN BY MARY IS CALLED ‘GOD WITH US’ [MATTHEW 1:23]..

  12. James,

    You are repeating yourself here and I feel like we are running in circles. Again, you are assuming Romans 5:12 applies to Mary. Where do the Scriptures say they alone are the inspired-inerrant Word of God and all other things are fallible?

  13. Aaron,
    Rom 5:12 applies to Mary. Scripture makes no exception for her. There is nothing in Scripture that says she was without sin.
    Do we not agree that at least 66 books of the Scripture are inspired-inerrant? Do we not agree that these books are the Word of God? The answer would be yes.

    Now, is there another inspired-inerrant Word of God? If so, what is it and how do you know? Also, please give me some specific examples of it so I’m clear what it is.

  14. James,

    We know what the inspired-inerrant Word of God is through the authority of the one Church he founded upon St. Peter and the Apostles. The early Church acknowledged the inspiration of the 73 book canon which included the deuterocanonical books at the Councils of Hippo (393 A.D.) and Carthage I (397 A.D.). I believe we have reached an impasse and I don’t think we should flood Anthony’s combox here with a debate on the canon (although I wouldn’t object to doing so elsewhere).

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