Some of my dearest colleagues and students are Roman Catholic. My friendships with them compel me to explore our common ground and disagreements. To that end, I will periodically dip into a new book edited by Reformed theologian Timothy George and Catholic theologian Thomas G. Guarino, Evangelicals and Catholics Together at Twenty: Vital Statements on Contested Topics. This afternoon I began my exploration by reading the ecumenical statement, “Do Whatever He Tells You: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Christian Faith and Life.” The authors rightly insisted upon this modus operandi for any discussion about Mary’s unique role in the economy of salvation: “Whatever is said about Mary is ever and always in the service of what must be said about Christ.”
In the Evangelical letter to Catholics, I affirm: “We both want to avoid Marian excess on the one hand and Marian narrow-mindedness on the other, but we continue to differ on what is excessive and what is too restrictive. In our approach to one another, we desire the humility so evident in the mother of our Lord.” The authors confess:
With our Catholic brothers and sisters we say without hesitation: Mary is for all Christians. The Reformation has been called a “tragic necessity.” The neglect, almost the disappearance, of Mary in Protestant theology belongs to the tragic side. The Reformers rightly rejected an overemphasis on Mary’s role in late medieval piety—the sweet mother placating her stern Son—because it obscured the supreme glory of Jesus Christ and salvation through him alone, but they also spoke of Mary with a love and respect that is instructive for us today. As heirs of the Reformation, Evangelicals do well to revisit the Marian thought of the Reformers.
With Catholics and sixteenth-century Reformers Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, and John Calvin, I recognize the possibility, even probability of Mary’s perpetual virginity. Although the Bible mentions that Jesus has brothers (James, Joseph, Simon, Judas) and sisters, an assumption of biological siblings is not necessary because “the Greek word adelphoi has a range of meaning and could refer to Jesus’s close relatives, either cousins or the children of Joseph by a previous marriage.” Therefore, “Mary’s perpetual virginity is an adiaphorous teaching, neither required nor forbidden by Scripture itself.” With Evangelicals, I reject the immaculate conception, bodily assumption, and invocation of Mary because they are unnecessary and unbiblical beliefs for the reasons mentioned in the Evangelical letter to Catholics. Finally, I appreciate the titles given to Mary in the Catholic tradition – Mother of God, Mother of the Church, Seat of Wisdom, Ark of the Covenant, Queen of Heaven – because they can “illuminate the facets of her role in the plan of salvation,” but I do not regard them as articles of faith. The titles Blessed Virgin and Theotokos (God-bearer) are appropriate and even necessary because they originate from Scripture and counter heresies.
Here is my favorite excerpt from the ecumenical statement:
Mary is always and ever a creature among creatures and no less in need of redemption than any other human being, Jesus only excepted. Mary is always and ever in the role of subordinate and servant. As she said to the angel, “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38). Her message, first spoken to the servants at the wedding of Cana, and also to us, is simply this: “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5).
We agree with St. Augustine who wrote: “Indeed the blessed Mary certainly did the Father’s will, and so it was for her a greater thing to have been Christ’s disciple than to have been his mother, and she was more blessed in her discipleship than in her motherhood. Hers was the happiness of first bearing in her womb him whom she would obey as her master” (Sermon 72A.7).
In a response to the ECT document, Reformed theologian Michael Horton wisely remarks:
Mary ought to be honored as the chief of saints for her unique role in redemptive history. Nevertheless, as Calvin argued so long ago in making this same point, the greatest significance of her example for us is that she, though a sinner, was the recipient of God’s free grace and blessing in the Son whom she bore for the salvation of us all. Let us, with her, embrace that Good News so that we, with her, may be blessed forever.