In my recent trip to Europe (hence the grainy pic above) where I visited several beautiful, historic Catholic churches there were several questions that came to mind. As a Protestant, one of them was why the big deal about Mary? My Catholic tour guide (he was fantastic) paralleled the current Pope to Michelangelo in their preference to pray to Mary over Jesus. I’ve heard that before but it still always strikes me as curious. Why the need to make Mary more than the biblical authors do and when did it all start?
Of course, to be a bit simplistic, I think part of the problem clearly lies in the fact that most people were illiterate in the church’s history, and the Bible was, unfortunately, kept away from the eyes and ears of the people. However, I still found something intriguing and wondered if any Catholics who once belonged to these ancient churches ever asked why Mary wasn’t in the story pictures. By story pictures, I’m referring to those paintings (usually on ceilings) that were meant to tell biblical stories–often the overarching biblical story–to people who couldn’t read and wouldn’t have Bibles even if they could read. What I noticed is that in these paintings of biblical stories (meaning stories actually based on the texts) is that other than the birth of Christ, Mary remains noticeably absent from the other paintings. Wouldn’t anyone in the church ever have wondered why Mary was being elevated when she’s clearly absent from the paintings retelling the biblical story? Yes, there were many paintings and statutes of Mary throughout the churches I went too, but these weren’t part of the paintings retelling the biblical story. I find this fascinating. My hope isn’t to offend Catholics but to really understand more of the history behind mariology.
After returning home, I was given the chance to read a bit of early church history in preparation of teaching a session at our church. Since I don’t do well with letting things go I thought I’d do a tiny bit of digging as to when references to Mary developed as something more than just the virgin mother of Jesus. I’m just scratching the surface on this and related issues so I’d appreciate any feedback or sources.
I’ve been reading a bit of Irenaeus since my talk focuses on the rise of bishops and why apostolic succession was so important for the church’s unity. Irenaeus was the first guy I came across who talks about Mary in detail, although I later found that he probably was reiterating what he read in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue With Trypho the Jew. [Note: Although Justin Martyr parallels Mary with Eve he seems to focus on what both of them conceived, not their merit or actions.] It seems like (from my limited reading) Mary was referenced early as the church combatted Gnosticism. Most forms of Gnosticism denied the genuine humanity of Jesus, so Mary the mother of Jesus was used to defend the humanity of Jesus. It seems this quickly progressed into something more. This is a good time to stop and remember that the earliest theologians (2nd-3rd century AD) were still grappling both with who Jesus was and what salvation actually meant. Unfortunately, many of these early church fathers had a theology of salvation or atonement that was quite under-baked. Once persecution settles down and Athanasius enters the scene we’re provided with a much more robust theology. Back to Irenaeus, who is known for how he sees the NT recapitulating the OT. In his Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching, he takes the biblical parallel between Adam and Jesus as the 2nd Adam (cf. Rom 6 & I Cor. 15) and stretches it so that Mary parallels Eve. Here’s one quote (thank you Google Books):
“And just as through a disobedient virgin[,] man was stricken down and fell into death, so through the Virgin who was obedient to the Word of Go man was reanimated and received life….For it was necessary that Adam should be summed up in Christ, that mortality might be swallowed up and overwhelmed by immortality; and Eve summed up in Mary, that a virgin should be a virgin’s intercessor, and by a virgin’s obedience undo and put away the disobedience of a virgin.” (Dem 33)
After this, other patristic theologians wrote similar things (Tertullian, Ambrose, Jerome) and it seems like Mary’s role and importance grew at different times in later history. Then, in the 19th and 20th century we can see how Roman Catholic dogma had progressed to not just seeing Mary as playing an important role in bringing Life through Jesus, but to actually playing a part in redemption with Jesus. In 1854, Pope Pius IX put into dogma via papal bull the doctrine of Immaculate Conception, stating that Mary was conceived without original sin. Then, in an Encyclical from Pope Pius XII in 1954, he states the following (there are several similar statements): “39. Certainly, in the full and strict meaning of the term, only Jesus Christ, the God-Man, is King; but Mary, too, as Mother of the divine Christ, as His associate in the redemption, in his struggle with His enemies and His final victory over them, has a share, though in a limited and analogous way, in His royal dignity.”
I was more interested in the historical factor of where an interest in Mary came from (and still am since this is only one factor among many). As a bible-thumping Protestant, I strongly uphold our redemption in the 2nd Adam, and since Mary is never mentioned or hinted at in regards to our salvation or paralleled as a 2nd Eve I strongly disagree with Roman Catholic theology in this regards. Not only is it a big stretch to making Mary a 2nd Eve because Jesus is a 2nd Adam, but it also seems to be a big stretch even to get from the quotes of the early church fathers on Mary being significant (because she conceived Jesus and therefore conceived life) to the later Roman Catholic teaching that she is an associate in our redemption.