Mary: Exploring the church’s thought on the mother of Jesus


As Christian History & Biography was preparing to put out issue #83 on “Mary in the Imagination of the Church,” I spent some quality time poring over sources on the mother of our Lord. As usual, a few of those were culled out for the issue’s “Recommended Resources” section. Here they are:

[On why evangelical Protestants should even care about Mary in the first place, see here.]

Mary: Recommended Resources
A few good places for Protestants to explore the church’s thought on the mother of our Lord.
Steven Gertz and Chris Armstrong

Those looking for a starting place for a thoughtful modern Protestant reclamation of Mary may wish to browse Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary, a compact set of scholarly essays on the subject edited by Beverley Roberts Gaventa & Cynthia L. Rigby, eds. (Westminster John Knox, 2002). For those wishing to cut straight to the most highly contested points of Marian doctrine, a stimulating read is Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate (Brazos Press, 2003), by an articulate and sometimes passionately opposed pair, Dwight Longenecker & David Gustafson.

Four historical explorations

There is no better place to start an in-depth study of Mary’s place in the historic church than Jaroslav Pelikan’s magisterial Mary Through the Centuries (Yale University Press, 1996). Every chapter brims with insights—a few of our favorites are “The Second Eve and the Guarantee of Christ’s True Humanity,” “The Face That Most Resembles Christ’s,” and “The Model of Faith in the Word of God.” Pelikan’s interpretation of Mary in the history of faithful art and devotion—East as well as West—brings the subject alive in a way familiar to readers of that author’s Jesus Through the Centuries.

What did the Fathers think about Mary? Did they plant the seeds of devotion that would grow up around her? Luigi Gambero has served well those readers seeking an accessible, comprehensive collection of the Father’s sayings about Mary, with his Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin in Patristic Thought (Ignatius, 1991). Arranged in chronological order, this 400-plus page book begins with the apostolic age of Ignatius of Antioch and ends with John of Damascus (d. ca. 750), providing brief introductions and salient quotes for each figure.

Rachel Fulton’s exhaustive study of medieval Marian piety, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ & the Virgin Mary, 800-1200 (Columbia University Press, 2002) links the evolution of devotion to Mary with the monastic imitation of Christ’s suffering and Mary’s grief at her son’s passion. As clerics meditated on and imagined the passion of Christ, they also dwelt on “the compassionate mother who suffered in spirit all the physical pains of her Son.” Readers may find the sheer mass of Fulton’s book forbidding, but her attention to narrative makes for engaging reading.

In The Magnificat: Musicians as Biblical Interpreters (Paulist Press, 1995), biblical scholar Samuel Terrien begins by asking, Was Mary, in fact, the originator of Luke’s Magnificat? and Was the Magnificat originally composed in Hebrew or Greek? Showing command of both the intricacies of Hebrew poetry and the theology communicated by the Magnificat, he goes on to analyze the interpretations of Mary’s song by both Renaissance and modern composers.

Three theological takes

Considering the papacy’s role in declaring controversial doctrines as dogma (Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven and her role as “Mediatrix” or “Coredemptrix”), why should Protestants attend to Mary: God’s Yes to Man—John Paul’s Encyclical Redemptoris Mater (Ignatius Press, 1988)? Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger answers the question in his introduction, “The actual importance of this encyclical stems not the least from its encouragement for us to rediscover the female line in the Bible with its specific significance in salvation history.” Readers will want to note John Paul II’s clarification of Mary’s mediatorial role as subordinate to that of Christ—the sole bridge reconciling humanity to God.

Two assessments of Mary rooted in women’s studies, very different yet equally engaging, are Maria Warner’s Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (Knopf, 1976) and Elizabeth A. Johnson’s Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (Continuum, 2003). Raised a Catholic, Warner trains an appreciative yet critical eye on Mariology. From Mary the Intercessor to Mary the Queen of Heaven, Warner studies beliefs about Mary in their historical context. Her conclusions about Mary’s cult are pessimistic: that the twin, paradoxical virtues of virginity and motherhood embodied in Mary will not survive modernity but “be emptied of moral significance.”

Johnson’s book argues for a Marian theology rooted in both Scripture and a feminist historical criticism. Readers will want to pay special attention to chapters 7-9, an intriguing discussion that looks at Mary in the context of 1st-century Jewish life, as well as chapter 10, a detailed analysis of the Mary of the Gospels. The latter chapter has appeared in revised form, with an added bibliographic essay, as Dangerous Memories, A Mosaic of Mary in Scripture (Continuum, 2003).

Copyright © 2004 by the author or Christianity Today International/Christian History & Biography magazine.
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2 responses to “Mary: Exploring the church’s thought on the mother of Jesus

  1. darrell a. harris

    Thanks for this valuable post. I suspect the entire cloud of witnesses play a much more significant role in our lives than we realize, and perhaps could do even more so if we paid any attention to them at all. And I believe an appropriate re-appreciation of the Virgin Mother could deeply impact men’s struggles with both sexual lust and misogyny.

    • Darrell: Just so. Mary’s role in the central redemptive moment of the Incarnation shows that not only Mary, but all women, are “highly favored” in God’s eyes. This is certainly a good start against misogyny–at least for those who claim to be “biblical” in their thought and action.

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