Mary, bless her, has been a trouble-maker in the church, that’s for sure.

Not that she herself is to blame; it’s entirely what different groups of Christians have made of her. Certainly she tops the list of factors alienating Protestant believers from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. As soon as they hear, ‘Hail, Mary, full of grace…’, Protestants jump to point out that she isn’t ‘full of grace’ at all, as if she were some reservoir or channel of it, but that Gabriel’s phrase in addressing her simply means ‘highly favoured one’—the one to whom God has shown grace—as every English translation renders it.[1]

They also react strongly to praying to her or through her as if she were some kind of mediatrix—it’s the idea that Jesus will always have a soft spot for his mum, so if you want something from him, ask her to have a word with him on your behalf. When Protestants suffer apoplexy at this very thought they have my sympathy, for normative prayer in the New Testament is to the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. Jesus, not Mary, is the ‘one mediator between God and human beings’[2]. And reactions grow even stronger when Catholics allege Mary to be co-redemptrix, that is, in some way a redeemer alongside Jesus.

This pushing back onto Mary of factors applicable biblically only to Christ himself finds expression in other ways, notably the Roman Catholic doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. The first of these claims that, unlike every other human being except Jesus, Mary was born free from the stain[3] of original sin—the fallen nature of all Adam’s children.[4] The second claims that she didn’t die like everyone else but at the end of her life was taken up, body and soul, directly into heaven, à la Enoch and Elijah.[5] Now these claims about Mary are either true or they are not, and if Scripture is any guide at all in the matter, they are not. And it won’t do to say that these are ‘theological events’ rather than literal ones, spiritual constructs emerging from a growing tradition. Christianity stands solidly on a body of propositional truths, revealed in Scripture, concerning certain historical events that happened in this time-space world. The New Testament shows one of these, the resurrection of Jesus, to be the lynch-pin of the entire Christian faith, and we can be no less insistent that other allegedly key events be firm in their historicity. It is dangerous nonsense to say that ‘the Assumption is not a once-for-all event to be dated to a moment in past history, but a continuing process which is going on at this very moment… The Assumption is a “theological event”, for a theological event is not tied to a moment of time. It can take effect and be present at all times.’[6] We have to be unwavering here. Was Mary assumed to heaven? No, she wasn’t, and that’s the end of the matter.

We must be equally direct about another Marian doctrine beloved of Catholics and Orthodox: her ‘perpetual virginity’. This, too, lacks any vestige of New Testament foundation. Its supporters argue that Joseph quickly disappears from the New Testament picture (which is true), probably because he died, leaving Mary as a widow (which is not unreasonable). But after that it is pure speculation: he died when he did, they say, because he was much older than Mary, and the children attributed to Mary [7] were in fact her step-children, the product of Joseph’s first marriage.

That Mary remained a virgin up to the birth of Jesus is beyond question,[8] but the natural reading of the New Testament data is that she enjoyed normal marital relations with Joseph after that and gave birth to several children, including James, Joseph, Judas and Simon, and at least two daughters.

So, in the light of all these factors, it is a massive understatement for one writer to say, ‘There is quite a wide gap between the Mary who is presented in the New Testament and the Mary of modern catholic theology and spirituality.’[9] ‘Quite a wide gap’? It’s a yawning, unbridgeable chasm for anyone who takes Scripture seriously.

And here’s an unfortunate problem because, in overreacting to these wild extremes of Marian doctrine, non-Catholics miss out on the blessings that a character-study of Mary can offer. She was a wonderfully godly young woman with much to teach us, and as such is to be honoured and admired. Though she was likely no more than fifteen years of age at the time of the Annunciation, her response was exemplary. Wise enough to grasp that what Gabriel was proposing would make the locals assume that she and Joseph had had sex before their marriage,[10] she accepted the proposal anyway, in deference to God himself: ‘I am the Lord’s servant…May it be to me as you have said’ [11]. Wonderful!

In spite of her privileged role she didn’t court publicity or set up Mary Ministries. Instead, as the amazing events surrounding the birth of Jesus unfolded—the angelic visitation, the visit of the shepherds and the angel-choir and, later, the magi and their expensive gifts—she ‘treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart’ [12]. The Magnificat [13] reveals her as a true worshipper, expressive, poetic and well versed in the Hebrew Scriptures. Later, at the Cana wedding, she showed herself confident in Jesus’ power [14] and, later still, prayerfully expectant as the birth of the New Testament church drew near[15]. These and other character traits evident in the biblical account will repay careful study and encourage growth in godliness.

But Mary wasn’t perfect. Like every other human being she needed a Saviour and looked to God to meet that need [16]. It is clear, too, that at times she doubted the rightness of Jesus’ mission. Concerned at his ministry lifestyle and busyness, she and the family concluded, ‘He is out of his mind’ and went to try and rescue him [17]. But she remained faithful and stayed close to him, even when he hung on the cross.[18]

Mary’s imperfections and her godliness thus combine to make her a figure with whom we can all identify, and I, for one, am glad that her record stands in Scripture for my encouragement.

Copyright © David Matthew 2008

Read a review of Macquarrie’s Mary For All Christians, referred to in the footnotes.

1. The Greek in Luke 1:28 is κεχαριτωμένη. The Latin Vulgate, for centuries the main Bible of the church, unhelpfully translates this as gratia plena, ‘full of grace’, and from there this phrase entered the English tradition.

3. ‘Stain’ in Latin is macula.

6. J. Macquarrie, Mary For All Christians, T. & T. Clark, 2001, p95.

Mother of Jesus

Honesty over Mary

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4. This became official Roman Catholic dogma only in 1854 and is officially stated as follows: that she ‘was, from the first moment of her conception, by the singular grace and privilege of almighty God and in view of the merits of Christ Jesus the Saviour of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of Original Sin.’

5. Though it is claimed that Catholics believed this long before, it became dogma only as recently as 1950: ‘She finally obtained as the crowning glory of her privileges to be preserved from the corruption of the tomb and, like her Son before her, to conquer death and to be raised body and soul to the glory of heaven, to shine refulgent as Queen at the right hand of her Son.’

9. J. Macquarrie, Mary For All Christians, T. & T. Clark, 2001, p47.

Mary the mother of Jesus

10. Which the locals evidently did, and the rumour spread—see John 8:41 on which Robertson, for example, says it is ‘possible that in this stern denial the Pharisees may have an indirect fling at Jesus as the bastard son of Mary (so Talmud).’ (A. Robertson, Word Pictures In The New Testament, Oak Harbor, 1997.

2. 1 Timothy 2:5

7. Galatians 1:19; Mark 6:3

8. Matthew 1:25

11. Luke 1:38

12. Luke 2:19

13. Luke 1:46-55

14. John 2:3-5

15. Acts 1:13-14

16. Luke 1:47

17. See Mark 3:20-21, 30-32

18. John 19:25

Mother of Jesus

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