(This is based, in part, on John Gerstner’s Primer on Roman Catholicism from a compilation of his primers in the book Primitive Theology. I am using Primitive Theology for my Sunday School class. For this lesson, I will also draw from James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy, (Bethany House, 1996).There is a growing list of links on the left for the posts for this class.
Overview of Marian DoctrineIn this lesson, we’ll take a brief look at all the important doctrines the Catholic Church teaches about Mary. Catholics have four official Marion dogmas: (1) that she is the Mother of God, (2) that she was a perpetual virgin, (3) that she was conceived immaculately and (4) that she was bodily assumed into heaven. Finally, we will look at a potential fifth and perhaps most controversial of all—the movement within the Catholic Church to have her declared (infallibly) as “co-redemptrix”.
1. Mother of GodAccording to the Catholic Church, Mary's most fundamental privilege is that of being the Mother of God. They do not teach that Mary in anyway produced or was responsible for Christ’s divine nature. They mean, quite simply, that since her Son is God, so then she is the Mother of God. Thomas Aquinas wrote that "From the fact that she is the Mother of God, she has a sort of infinite dignity from the infinite good that God is.” There is, of course, seemingly irrefutable biblical support for this:
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-38)Mary conceived Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit (v 1:35). The Archangel Gabriel first told her that her Son was to be the Son of the Most High. However, any devout Jew could be called a son of God, so Gabriel made an important distinction, telling Mary that her son would reign over the house of Jacob forever, thereby designating him as the Messiah, for Jews then commonly believed the Messiah would reign forever. Finally, the angel said He would be conceived when the Holy Spirit would "come upon" her.
We take a moment to remind ourselves of the heresy known as Nestorianism, which denies that Mary is the mother of God. Like many heresies, Nestorianism resulted from good intentions “run amok.” Others before Nestorius erred by denying Christ’s human nature. Nestorius went to the opposite extreme, stressing Christ’s humanity to the extent that there were two distinct personalities—one divine and one human—within the same living consciousness. In arguing his position that the divine and human natures of Christ were separate, Nestor stated that “God was never a two month old baby.” The litmus test of Nestorianism was whether or not you were willing to grant Mary the title theotokos, or “she who gave birth to the child who is God,” or more informally, “Mary, Mother of God.” Nestorius and his followers were unwilling to grant Mary that title, arguing that she bore only the human half of the duality. They would only refer to her as “Mary, mother of Jesus.” Now of course (and for no real good reason) many Protestants are loath to use the phrase “Mary mother of God,” because of its association with Roman Catholicism. We Protestants should fear not, the honorific “Mary mother of God” is self evident.
2. Perpetual VirginityThe Catholic Church teaches that Mary was not only a virgin at the time of Jesus’ conception, but remained a virgin throughout her life—essentially a faithful wife wed to the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, according to Rome, when the Gospels speak of the "brothers and sisters" of Jesus, they do not mean other children of Mary. The Hebrew words were very broad, according to Catholics, and they could cover any sort of relationship. In addition, those who defend the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity point out that Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ and his disciples, lacked a specific word for "cousin", so brother and sister were often used in lieu of cousin. Even modern English, they point out, uses “brother” and “sister” more broadly for members of fraternities and sororities. Proponents also claim there is implicit evidence of Jesus being without living brothers or sisters at the time of his crucifixion in that Jesus entrusts his mother to John instead of a sibling.
In addition, it is sometimes argued that if “brothers and sisters” really means brothers and sisters, it refers to Joesph’s children from a previous marriage. In this view, Joseph was much older and died much earlier than Mary.
This doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity is very old. This doctrine underwent a period of discussion until the late 4th century when general consensus emerged. The earliest witness to the perpetual virginity of Mary seems to appear in the apocryphal Protogospel of James (ca 150). Tertullian (ca 220) denied the perpetual virginity of Mary. Origen (d 254) appears to have affirmed it. In the East, St Athanasius strongly defended Mary's virginity after the birth of Jesus. Shortly after, St Basil the Great (d ca 380) accepted Mary's perpetual virginity and claimed that it reflected the general sense of believers; though he did not consider it to be a dogma. Around the same time, in the West, Jovinian and Helvidius denied the perpetual virginity while Ambrose (d. 397), Jerome (d. 420) and Augustine (d. 430) defended it.
The official acts of the Fifth Ecumenical Council held at Constantinople in 553 refer to Mary as aeiparthenos (ever-virgin). For example, an anathema against the 'three chapters' condemns those who deny:
that nativity of these latter days when the Word of God came down from the heavens and was made flesh of holy and glorious Mary, mother of God and ever-virgin, and was born from her ...These statements were not made in reference to a direct discussion of Mary's virginity. Hence, some argue that this statement was not a dogmatic definition. For Catholics, such definitions may be made by the Episcopal college, in communion with its President, the Bishop of Rome, or by the Pope in virtue of his Presidency over the entire Episcopal college. Such definitions must be derived, at least implicitly, from the revelation closed at the death of the Apostles.
Though not an Ecumenical Council, the Lateran Council of 649 convened by Pope Martin I also issued an important statement affirming Mary's lifelong virginity:
If anyone does not, according to the Holy Fathers, confess truly and properly that holy Mary, ever virgin and immaculate, is Mother of God, since in this latter age she conceived in true reality without human seed from the Holy Spirit, God the Word Himself, who before the ages was born of God the Father, and gave birth to Him without corruption, her virginity remaining equally inviolate after the birth, let him be condemned.After Constantinople II the title was universally accepted by the Church. Finally, it should be pointed out that Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, the three main reformers, all demonstrated support for the doctrine.
Objections to the DoctrineA first objection arises from the reference to Jesus as Mary’s firstborn:
It should be remembered that Luke wrote long after both Mary and Joseph were dead. If Jesus was Mary's only child, with hindsight, he would likely not, it is argued, have used the word firstborn.
6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:6-7)
A second objection comes from the fact that all the gospels refer to Jesus’ brothers and sisters, for example:
Again, the Catholic explanation of these (and other) passages is that either (a) brothers and sisters was used for other relatives such as cousins, or (b) they refer to Joseph’s children from a previous marriage. It should be pointed out that Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, is not referred to as her sister but rather her relative. (Luke 1:36)
Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? Matt. 13:55)
31 And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. 32 And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” (Mark 3:31-32)
Those opposed to the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity argue that Jesus entrusted John with his mother because, at the time of his death, it appeared that none of his siblings were believers (John 7:5). Of course, most Protestants believe that references such as:
Clearly indicate that James, author of the Gospel of James, was Jesus’ brother. How did he come to believe? Apparent by an unrecorded visitation of the risen Christ, perhaps similar to Paul’s, for Paul writes:
But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord's brother. (Gal. 1:19)
6After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Cor. 15:6-8)It is interesting to read what Calvin has to say about Gal. 1:19:
Who this James was, deserves inquiry. Almost all the ancients are agreed that he was one of the disciples, whose surname was "Oblias" and "The Just," and that he presided over the church at Jerusalem. Yet others think that he was the son of Joseph by another wife, and others (which is more probable) that he was the cousin of Christ by the mother's side: but as he is here mentioned among the apostles, I do not hold that opinion. Nor is there any force in the defense offered by Jerome, that the word Apostle is sometimes applied to others besides the twelve; for the subject under consideration is the highest rank of apostleship, and we shall presently see that he was considered one of the chief pillars. It appears to me, therefore, far more probable, that the person of whom he is speaking is the son of Alpheus [The husband of Mary’s sister]. (Calvin’s Commentaries)A final objection to the doctrine comes from the passage:
24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matt. 1:24-25)To most Protestants, this passage clearly implies that Joseph and Mary had normal sexual relations after the birth of Jesus. To Catholics, who argue, in part, based on the subtleties of the Greek word hoes, (translated as until) this passage states nothing more than what happened during the time period under discussion—from the conception of Jesus until His birth, with no implication for what occurred afterwards even though in modern English we infer that the “until” means that the situation later changed. And not just Catholics teach this—Calvin writes:
This passage (Matt. 1:25) afforded the pretext for great disturbances, which were introduced into the Church, at a former period, by Helvidius. The inference he drew from it was, that Mary remained a virgin no longer than till her first birth, and that afterwards she had other children by her husband. Jerome, on the other hand, earnestly and copiously defended Mary's perpetual virginity. Let us rest satisfied with this, that no just and well-grounded inference can be drawn from these words of the Evangelist, as to what took place after the birth of Christ. He is called first-born; but it is for the sole purpose of informing us that he was born of a virgin. It is said that Joseph knew her not till she had brought forth her first-born son: but this is limited to that very time. What took place afterwards, the historian does not inform us. Such is well known to have been the practice of the inspired writers. Certainly, no man will ever raise a question on this subject, except from curiosity; and no man will obstinately keep up the argument, except from an extreme fondness for disputation.Calvin’s position, as I read it, is that he affirms the Catholic viewpoint that this passage says nothing about what happened after the birth of Christ, and furthermore he laments that it is the fodder of excessive argument.
Next: Immaculate Conception, Assumption of Mary, Co-Redemptrix