What About Mary? Part One – What We Don’t Believe
by Ed Vasicek
One of the great differences between Biblical evangelical (fundamental) Christianity and Roman Catholicism is our varying views about Mary. They are not just a little bit different, but extremely different. Although our views differ, we must remember to respect the right others have to believe as they choose, even if we disagree with those views. We are not out to bash but to contrast. It is important to understand these distinctions because a blossoming, but compromised, evangelical movement within Catholicism is backwashing Roman Catholic teaching into Protestant evangelical churches. So let’s examine our differences.
On the one hand, Biblical evangelicals believe Mary was a good woman but chosen primarily because she was a descendent of David. God was gracious to her by allowing her to experience the dream of every Jewish young woman: mothering the Messiah. It was God’s grace, and not Mary’s merit, that gave her this blessing. She was not necessarily the godliest woman at the time, though she was a godly woman of faith. In our viewpoint, women as godly as Mary could be with us today. But we are quick to admit that no woman will ever fulfill the special role Mary had.
We believe Mary was a sinner who needed a redeemer like everyone else. She miraculously conceived Christ by the Holy Spirit and delivered Him while she was yet a virgin. This belief is called “the Virgin Birth” and should not be confused with the additional Roman Catholic belief of “the Immaculate Conception” explained below. Both Catholics and evangelicals believe in the Virgin Birth, but Bible-oriented evangelicals believe that only the God-man, Jesus Christ, was born without a sin nature. Catholics tend to believe that Mary was also sinless.
Catholicism exalts Mary to having been miraculously conceived herself (thus the term “Immaculate Conception”), and they believe Mary’s body was resurrected and assumed into heaven. Catholics teach that Mary serves as a mediator between Christians and Jesus. They also believe it is appropriate to sing praises to her and to pray to her–acts of worship that would be considered sacrilegious to us (we would argue such acts are only appropriate when directed toward God). Catholics refer to Mary as the “Mother of God;” we refer to Mary as the “Mother of Jesus,” the term used in Scripture. Although both groups would acknowledge that she was the mother of only Jesus’ human nature, calling her “the mother of God” is often misunderstood at the popular level. The great divide over Mary is massive.
How can two groups, both claiming to follow Christ, hold such divergent views? The answer boils down to authority–how does Christ lead? Catholicism recognizes three sources of infallible doctrine: (1) the church’s decrees and accumulated traditions, (2) the Pope, and (3) Scripture, respectively. Most Catholics sense no burden to defend these beliefs Scripturally; they trust their church. They acknowledge that many of their beliefs have evolved over time, and see nothing wrong with that.
Evangelicals/fundamentalists believe in Sola Scriptura, that the Bible is the only infallible source of doctrine. Every doctrine is to be challenged and refined by accurate Bible study; even the church is accountable to the Scripture and not to be trusted implicitly. The result is that the two belief systems sometimes converge and at other times diverge.
To make matters more confusing, the Eastern Orthodox and the Episcopal/Anglican churches often have a view similar to Roman Catholicism when it comes to the authority of church tradition, though neither group recognize papal infallibility. These churches also perform acts of worship directed toward Mary, but they do not believe in the Immaculate Conception or the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary. These are relatively recent Roman Catholic beliefs.
Catholics believe Mary remained a virgin for her entire life; our understanding of Scripture is that Joseph “kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a son” (Matthew 1:25). We also maintain that Jesus was her “firstborn son” (Luke 2:7), not her only-born son. We lean toward the view that she and Joseph had several children after Jesus was born, four sons and a number of unnamed daughters, as per Matthew 13:53-56:
And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, and coming to his hometown he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? 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? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?”
Roman Catholics accommodate this passage by postulating that Joseph was an older man and that these children were born from a previous marriage, which is why he is portrayed as much older than Mary in Catholic artwork and some Christmas cards. But, in light of the fact that Joseph only kept her a virgin until Jesus was born, and that Jesus was called Mary’s firstborn, such a conclusion seems strained to most evangelical interpreters. We would argue that such a belief evolved over the centuries but was foreign to both the New Testament and the first-century church.
We also believe that, “For there is one God and ONE mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).
Now that we have contrasted our beliefs with those of Roman Catholicism, we will begin laying a Biblical foundation: what we DO believe about Mary. Mary’s name was not actually Mary, but Miriam, a common Hebrew name. Miriam was probably named after Moses’ sister, and there is at least one point of convergence. Miriam was a prophetess who sang a prophetic song (poem) to the children of Israel, tambourine in hand: “Sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea” (Exodus 15:21). When Mary was expecting Jesus and visited Elizabeth, she prophesied a poem as well (Luke 1:46-55), sometimes called “The Magnificat.” There are 13 quotations in the poem from the Old Testament.
Mary’s name is also related to the Hebrew word, “Marah,” meaning bitter. Some have understood her name to be prophetic of the bitter suffering she would experience, seeing her Son crucified. The elderly Simeon prophesied to her in Luke 2:35, “and a sword will pierce even your own soul.”
Besides her name, we need to remember that Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and all the Apostles were Jewish. Christianity’s first description was “a sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5), and that it was. The early Christians were so devoted to Judaism that the big controversy in the early church was whether a gentile needed to become a Jew FIRST (beginning with circumcision then keeping all the laws of Moses) before becoming a Christian (Acts 15). The idea that Jesus came to start a new religion, completely separate from Judaism, is incorrect. Christianity is best understood as a form of Judaism (Messianic Judaism), with most of us relating to God as God-fearing gentiles who are grafted into Israel (Romans 11:1-32).
Joseph and Mary were devout Jews, and they reared Jesus as an observant Jew. Note Luke 2:21-24 to see an example of their obedience:
On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived. When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”
Join us next month for the second installment.