Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
At this time of year, we are often taken with Mary, the role God had for her in the bearing of the God-man, Jesus Christ, and the humility with which she undertook this task.
Often Evangelicals have avoided recognizing and acknowledging the graces evident in her life over a concern that it sounds too much like Roman Catholicism, or at least gives a head-nod to the Roman Catholic position of Mary. This is known as Mariology, that is Marian dogma and Marian devotion, or as Evangelicals would refer to this, Mariolatry.
There are many important things to learn from Mary. Here are two major statements in church history, one positive, the other negative.
The positive: theotokos (from theos, God, and tikto, to bear or bring forth), not christotokos (from christos, Christ, and tikto, to bear or bring forth). Theotokos, the term and truth championed by Cyril of Alexandria, affirmed the full deity of the incarnate Son of God from His conception in the womb of Mary. Its use became controversial when Nestorius rejected it in favor of christotokos, who believed the term undermined the full humanity of Christ, so it was his attempt to give more attention to Christ’s humanity. The truth of Mary being the mother of God, theotokos, was affirmed by both the Council of Ephesus (431) and the Council of Chalcedon (451).
The reminder – often heresy arose due to the perception that an important truth was being overemphasized such that another aspect of that truth was being forgotten or underemphasized or denied. In this case, Nestorius was concerned that the full deity of Christ was being affirmed, theotokos, at the expense of His full humanity. In response Christ’s humanity, christotokos, was emphasized. But often, as in this instance, it was emphasized so significantly that it undermined or denied the other aspect of the truth of Jesus’ full deity. The lesson – when we respond to what we perceive to be overstatements or understatements of biblical truth – and there are many today, which has been the case throughout church history – respond to that but as you do make sure you affirm the whole truth.
The negative: immaculate conception, not miraculous conception. This is the view of the Roman Catholic Church that states “from the moment of her conception the Blessed Virgin Mary was, by the singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of mankind, kept free from all stain of original sin” (Bull “Ineffabilis Deus” of Pius IX 8 December 1854).
So how are we to understand Mary? What can we as Evangelicals learn from her and about her in the Scriptures? In the past couple of years there were three brief articles by Evangelicals (Timothy George and Scot McKnight) to which I link below. I will include the lessons/principles to learn, but I would encourage you to read them. If you already have, it would be a good refresher to speed-read through them again. And as you do, allow her response to the God-man be reflective of our response to the Messiah, the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Timothy George, “Evangelicals and the Mother of God,” First Things (February 2007), writes the following:
So why should evangelicals participate in and celebrate the Marian moment that seems to be upon us? The answer is: Precisely because they are evangelicals, that is, gospel people and Bible people. Mary has a pivotal and irreducible place in the Bible, and evangelicals must reclaim this aspect of biblical teaching if we are to be faithful to the whole counsel of God. When it comes to the gospel, Mary cannot be shunted aside or relegated to the affectionate obscurity of the annual Christmas pageant. In the New Testament, she is not only the mother of the redeemer but also the first one to whom the gospel was proclaimed and, in turn, the first one to proclaim it to others. Mary is named a “herald” of God's good news. We cannot ignore the messenger, because the message she tells is about the salvation of the world.
Evangelical retrieval of a proper biblical theology of Mary will give attention to five explicit aspects of her calling and ministry: Mary as the daughter of Israel, as the virgin mother of Jesus, as Theotokos, as the handmaiden of the Word, and as the mother of the Church.
After delineating these five different aspects of Mary’s calling, George concludes the following:
Perhaps we should ask what Catholics, without ceasing to be Catholics, can learn from evangelicals about Mary. Certainly we should ask what evangelicals, without ceasing to be evangelicals, can learn from Catholics about Mary. If Catholics need to be called away from the excesses of Marian devotion to a stricter fidelity to the biblical witness, evangelicals should reexamine their negative attitudes toward Mary, many of which derive from anti-Catholic bias rather than sound biblical theology. They need to ask themselves, as the Groupe des Dombes suggested, “whether their too frequent silences about Mary are not prejudicial to their relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Can there be a proper place for Mary in the prayer and devotional life of evangelicals? The early Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century thought so. Evangelicals do not pray to Mary, but we can learn to pray like Mary and with Mary-with Mary and all the saints. Evangelicals can join with all Christians in a prayer like this: “And now we give you thanks, Heavenly Father, because in choosing the Blessed Virgin Mary to be the mother of your Son, you exalted the little ones and the lowly. Your angel greeted her as highly favored; and with all generations we call her blessed and with her we rejoice and we magnify your holy name.
In another piece George notes "it is time for Evangelicals to recover a fully biblical appreciation of Mary and her role in the history of redemption. It is time to "bring Mary in from the cold." George summarizes,
This is why we cannot understand Mary apart from the long prophetic prologue of the Old Testament which flows into her standing in the temple with Anna and Simeon and all those who were “looking for the consolation of Israel.” The virginal conception of Jesus foreseen by the prophet Isaiah (7:14) is a part of this tapestry, as is the declaration of Mary as Theotokos, the “one who gave birth to the one who was God,” as Jaroslav Pelikan translated this Marian title from the Council of Ephesus.
Mary was all of this, but she was also more. She was the one who heard the Word of God and who responded to it in faith. Thus she was a model of fides ex auditu—faith that comes from what is heard—namely, the promise and proclamation of Christ (cf. Rom. 10:17). For this reason, Mary’s overshadowing by the Holy Spirit has been often depicted in Christian art as something which came to her through her ear, which complements the other Marian motif of the handmaiden of the Word who sits in contemplation with her Bible opened. As Augustine and many others after him would say, Mary was a disciple before she was a mother, for had she not believed, she would not have conceived.
But there was no passivity in Mary’s faith. The Word which she heard and believed and in turn declared to others was filled with prophetic verve. We see this most dramatically in Mary’s Magnificat, which might be called the Battle Hymn of the Kingdom of God. This great anthem can still make tyrants totter and demons tremble (Luke 1:46-55).
Scot McKnight, “The Mary We Never Knew,” Christianity Today 50/12 (December 2006), introduces his article in this way:
Instead of asking what the real Mary was like, we tend to debate what she was not: whether she and Joseph refrained from sexual relations and whether she had a sin nature. A cursory reading of Jaroslav Pelikan's brilliant Mary Through the Centuries will acquaint any reader with the fulsomeness of such debates. Because Protestants have spent their time debating about Mary, they have rarely attempted to claim her as their own. Consequently, she has become little more than a delicate piece in a Christmas crèche, whom we bring out without comment at Christmas and then wrap up gently until we see her again next Advent.
McKnight focuses on the Magnificat (Lk. 1:46-55) and concludes this reveals that Mary was both subversive (this is a word about subverting unjust leaders) and dangerous (both to the powers and anyone else connected with her). He concludes:
Mary was a subversive and she was dangerous, first, because she knew the identity of her son and, second, because she began to tell his story. Remember, Gabriel told Mary her son would be "Jesus" (Savior) and "Son of the Most High God" and that he would sit as a Davidic king on the eternal throne. At the bottom of the entire history of Christology are the titles and categories given to Mary to pass on to others. God first tells her the true identity of Jesus. Thus, we first learn to see who Jesus was and is through her witness. Mary was the only person in the world who could have told the stories that now appear in our Gospels. She alone heard the potent words of Gabriel; she alone was with Elizabeth; perhaps she is the one who told Luke about Zechariah's song; only she and Joseph knew about the shepherds and the magi.
The Gospels come from many voices, and one of those was Mary's. Her voice tells us what God would do through her son to subvert the injustices of Herod and the pretentiousness of Augustus. Her voice tells us that somehow, some way, someday, God would establish a kingdom of peace for the whole world. The real Mary, in the story rarely told, changed the world by surrendering to the angel Gabriel with three words: "May it be." And God used her to set loose the power of God, the gospel of the kingdom. This is the real Mary, and we need to reclaim her voice as our own.