Why Protestants Need to Talk More about Mary

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By Amy Peeler

“A class on Mary called ‘Mother of God’? At a Protestant school?” My admission that I teach such a class arouses incredulity, because not many transgress the ecumenical divide. Reflections on Mary have remained robust for millennia, but not in all Christian circles (mine included). 

Not to say that Protestants are absent from the discussion. For example, Tim Perry’s Mary for Evangelicals provides an in-depth look at the biblical texts, the history of doctrine, and theological implications. He often engages with the insightful and eloquent exegesis of Beverly Gaventa found in her monograph Mary: Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus or her edited volume with Cynthia Rigby, Blessed One.1 Scot McKnight’s The Real Mary situates the biblical Mary historically to show her exemplary faith.2 More recently, Courtney Hall Lee brings a womanist reading to the conversation in Black Madonna: A Womanist Look at Mary of Nazareth, and Alicia Myers devotes significant sections to Mary in Blessed Among Women: Mothers and Motherhood in the New Testament.3

Such eloquent and important work has not, I’m afraid, received a sustained hearing. Passing strange, it seems to me, for the culture at large as well as the Church has been captured by the crisis of women’s experience. In the era of -#MeToo, the young pregnant woman at the fulcrum of the Christian story has much more to say. 

For my students, however, she is not a go-to option. If I had a penny for every time I was asked about the canonical view of women, gendered implications of the fatherhood of God, gender roles in marriage, and women in the ministries of the church, I’d be a millionaire. Yet those conversations primarily remain circumscribed within the contentious proof-texts in the Pauline corpus. My suggestion to consider Mary offers a previously unconsidered pathway. 

mary blog

The fact that God became incarnate through a woman shapes all of Christian theology. The implications are vast, I’ve discovered, but here I’ll give examples of those that have proven to be most pedagogically powerful. 

At the beginning of every session in the Mary class, we say together Mary’s Song, the Magnificat. A few weeks into the semester, some of the more musically gifted students begin to lead us in chant, and by the end we have become a choir of creative polyphony. By memorizing this text, the words root their way into our hearts and come up persistently in our conversation.

Luke sets Mary as one of the prophets, who looks back to affirm the heart of God from Israel’s past and who looks forward to preview what will be true of the ministry of her son. Like a multifaceted jewel, at times the Magnificat comforts us when we feel downtrodden; at others it calls us to champion the oppressed. When conversations about race and poverty are politicized and fraught, the Magnificat is our centering tether. And when we are tempted to become self-righteous in the idea that we are on the right side of history, it challenges us to ask in what ways we are the mighty, the full and rich who need to be toppled.  

Our class also becomes united in our awe for the theological power of the incarnation. The text and tradition never waver on this point. The Son of God was conceived; the Son of God was born. God could have redeemed humanity in whatever way would be consistent with the being and character of God. God was not constrained by the necessity that salvation play out this way, which shows even more strikingly God’s choice for this method. 

The evangelists, too, had choices. Matthew and Luke could have passed over the story of Mary and Joseph—as do John and Mark—but they chose to include it in their narratives. Their readers would have been familiar with the stories of the gods impregnating human women, and in telling the story they invoke the association. Are their accounts examples of protesting too much, with the possibility of illegitimacy lurking in the background?4 They could have avoided such questions if they would have remained silent about Jesus’ birth. But they did not. 

Our students come to see that Matthew and Luke were taking a risk, and then ask why they did so—and why God did so. The birth of the divine Messiah shows God’s participation in the fullness of the human condition from conception to death; he assumes our entire journey. But to show the birth of God confirms in a different way the humility of God. Many texts argue for the servant nature of Christ, chiefly in the cross. God’s willingness to be born similarly shows God’s willingness to become vulnerable on our behalf. 

Finally, Mary’s story also corrects a common heretical perception of God. One of my classes includes a unit on theological language—how to speak rightly about God. I usually begin with this question: “Is God male?” I’m intentionally ambiguous, specifying neither Father, Son, nor Spirit, and intentionally blunt. I get a surprising number of immediate positive answers. We call God “Father”; does that not mean that God is male? Mary Daly’s concern still has currency.

No, I say; both text (John 4:24) and tradition affirm God as spirit. God is not created; God the Father is not human; and so God the Father is not gendered. Such a statement—God the Father is not male—sounds counterintuitive. The best way to understand the paradox is to focus on the story of the incarnation. [pullquote]

The birth narratives claim a Son has been born to a woman without the involvement of a human father. [/pullquote]

While the Old Testament, a handful of times, uses the metaphor of fatherhood to describe the intimate relation of God with Israel or Israel’s king, such language explodes in the New Testament. God is the Father of Jesus Christ and therefore those who are in Christ come to be related to God in the same way. Why, though, is familial language the best way to describe the relationship between God and this man Jesus? Because the birth narratives claim a Son has been born to a woman without the involvement of a human father. The power of God, the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit in a non-sexualized way, has caused the birth of a Son. God is truly his Father, and so for Christians this language is fitting for God.

The name Father, located in this story, achieves two things. First, it affirms Jesus’ unique connection to the God of Israel; they are related as Father and Son. Second, at the central point at which the text affirms God’s fatherhood—divine incarnation through a woman—it also denies that God is male. 

If God the Father is not male, then women have a place in a religious system whose God is not Other than them, and men have a place in a religious system in which they are not privileged as more like the divine. Both male and female in the image of God (Gen 1:26–27) in Christ (Gal 3:28) finds its restoration in the particular mode of the incarnation. 

Certainly, this discussion raises numerous exegetical and theological questions, which proves my point: Protestant biblical and theological scholarship needs more Mary.  

mary blog

Amy Peeler’s primary research centers on Hebrews, which has prompted her to explore ancient rhetoric, the use of the Old Testament in the New, Israel’s sacrificial system, and atonement.

This article originally appeared in the November 2019 edition of Didaktikos: Journal of Theological Education (Lexham Press, Bellingham, WA), pp. 12–13.

 

  1. Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Mary: Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999); Beverly Roberts Gaventa and Cynthia L. Rigby, eds., Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002).
  2. Scot McKnight, The Real Mary: Why Protestant Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2007).
  3. 3 Courtney Hall Lee, Black Madonna: A Womanist Look at Mary of Nazareth (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017); Alicia D. Myers, Blessed Among Women? Mothers and Motherhood in the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
  4. Origen’s Against Celsus I.28, 32, 39, 69 (citing no longer extant Celsus, True Doctrine, ca. AD 178); Jane Schaberg, The Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), 165–69.

Comments

  1. Jeff Marshall says

    If Mary was the mother of God then how is it that the God she gave birth to died?
    If women are equal to men then why didn’t God make them the same in ever way and where are all the women leaders that where chosen by God to lead man?

    • Hi Jeff!
      I am looking at three questions here, and so I will take them in the order given. I am going to presume an understanding of a Christian Framework, though if that isn’t the case for you, let me know and I can backfill a little more.
      1. If Mary was the mother of God, how is it that the God she gave birth to died?
      I think this is just a language problem to some extent. Jesus Christ was fully God, in all that this entails. In the beginning was the Word (which is to say Jesus), and the word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1). No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known (John 1:14).
      Jesus, who we see that John twice (in his opening) affirms as God was certainly born of Mary. He was conceived, gestated for a period of around 9 months, and was born (Luke 2:6-7. 21). In all ways, that makes Mary his mother, she bore him, cared for him, and raised him. And Jesus is God, which makes Mary the mother of God.
      How did Jesus die I think is a question that causes us to reconsider our definition of God. I think that the assertion that Jesus is God forces us to consider very seriously what a divine nature means, since apparently he could die.
      2. Why are women not the same in every way, if women are equal to men?
      The first ringing alarm bells go off here, as this argument is pretty similar to the one used to justify racism (People group X are obviously different, you can physically see the differences, therefore they are unequal). I will presume that isn’t what you mean here and discuss the root.
      In what way are women specifically different from men that you are considering? I know women who exhibit more traditionally masculine characteristics than I do, and I don’t consider myself to be particularly effeminate. I think if the discussion is on anything other than biological realities (Women don’t have a Y chromosome… women are able to bear children… etc.), I would ask you to defend your position more so it can be discussed better.
      3. Where are the women leaders that were chosen by God to lead men?
      Deborah (Judges 5), Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10), I would include the character of Wisdom in Proverbs, as well as Junia, Priscilla and Phoebe (Romans 16). Lydia seems like she must have been the primary leader of the church in Philippi.

      • I do not know if I can put these in the right perspective, but I can tell you that there are many instances where the bible indecate that God is male, at least for the purpose of redemption. when Jesus died, he died physically not spiritually, God was a spirit, Jesus is both Physical and spirit, When Adam was created all that God did was breath into the nostral of the clay form, there is no sexual contact. It is obvious that men, and women are not equal, at least as far as several abilities women can do and men cannot do, I think men and women are equal in that they are both humans, It is also clear that man was to rule over the woman.

        • I take exception in your last sentence. As the saying goes, women was not taken from the head of man to dominate her, neither from the foot of man to be trampled upon, but from the ribs, near Adam’s heart, to be loved and cared for.

    • David Huntley says

      Thank you Amy Peeler for this insightful article on Mary.

      In answer to Jeff Marshall I would make a few basic observations. Jeff, your first question about the necessity for Christ to die, is off topic, but deserves an answer. Romans 6.23 answers it this way, “the wages of sin are death”. If we sin, we die, and we all sin. So, if we are going to inherit eternal life, the only other option is if someone dies in our place, but that person would have to be perfect, and not otherwise deserving of death in themselves. Moreover, Jesus who lived a perfect sinless life, the life that you and I could have lived, if we had not been born as fallen creatures, showed us what it looks like to live that life. What it looks like is to sacrifice oneself for the sake of others. Your second question seems to assume that equality implies sameness. I would humbly suggest this is a misunderstanding. I can have an apple and an orange and both will be fruit, but they will be as different as God created them. They will appear different, and if I consume them, will function in my body in some similar ways, but also with some differences. Notice that not all men are the same, and are they not equal as your question infers? Some will have different hair color, eye colors, different complexions, different interests, mechanical, language and mathematical skills, different appetites, etc. God seems to delight in genetic variation, and sexual reproduction was His chosen vehicle. Finally, Jeff, I would submit for your consideration that all men are led by women in this life; those are the women we call ‘mothers’ of which Mary is perhaps the supremely positive example. You might want to say that they are *only* leading children, and not men, but in reality, human experience argues that the wise men are being guided by women long after they reach the age of majority!

  2. Andrew Michaels says

    I have a question for the Faithlife Staff; did you even read Amy Peeler’s “article”?

    While Ms. Peeler’s initial thoughts on Mary piqued my interest, her eventual conclusions smack of the gender denying/fluidity chaos foisted upon the world by those (and I am NOT attacking Ms. Peeler’s faith, I am questioning her reasoning and theology; not a personal attack upon her) who have no faith in the God of the Bible. Is Ms. Peeler suggesting that the Lord God, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, eternal and immutable, He that is perfect, would allow such a discrepancy to exist in the Bible only to be discovered thousands of years later in an epiphany by her ?

    2 Timothy 4:3–5 (NKJV)

    “3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; 4 and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. 5 But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”

    What exactly are you doing at Faithlife? I request the favor of an answer to my question.

    • Karen Engle says

      Thank you for your comment, Andrew. At Faithlife, we publish books by authors across denominations and theological views, and in this case, a magazine article that we republished here. If you are interested in learning more about Logos and our philosophy as a company, I recommend reading this statement from our CEO, Bob Pritchett: https://www.logos.com/about/publishing-philosophy. Let me know if you have any questions. I hope you have a great day!

      • Andrew Michaels says

        Thanks for your reply and the link to Mr. Pritchett’s reasoned approach toward Faithlife’s publishing logic and position as a library rather than perhaps, a gatekeeper.

        Have a Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year…

        p.s. I remain standing in disagreement with Ms. Peeler’s article though :-)

  3. Is Mary mother of God, No. Is Mary mother of Jesus, Yes.
    We have to distinguish the dual personality of Jesus, as man and as God.
    There is purpose why Jesus has to be born as man. Otherwise, considering Mary as Mother of God defeats the purpose.

    • Is Mary the mother of God? The Council of Ephesus in 431 determined Yes. If Mary was not the mother of God, then God did not become incarnate, and Jesus was not both fully God and fully Man. One of the early Church theologians pointed out that only a man could die for our sins, but only the death of God could atone for them, so Jesus needed to be both for His death to be efficacious. Therefore, Mary is the mother of God.

      Several good histories of the early Church go into a lot of detail about this, and how it follows from the Council of Nicea of 325, which gave us the first version of the Nicene Creed, still used in many churches.

      • David Magee says

        I’d have to agree with Dan. Since God created Mary how then can she be the mother of God? Mary was chosen by God as an instrument of His will for the incarnation. I have no doubt that Mary considered herself the mother of Jesus but her humility would certainly not have allowed her to regard herself as the mother of God who created her. For me, I can’t really see how the term is at all useful or helpful.

        • Aaron E McGruder says

          Was Jesus God? Absolutely, if we don’t hold to this, the Bible is worthless. Jesus as fully God is one of the foundational tenets of Christianity. As a bare starting point, Phillipians 2, Colossians 1, and John 1 give you no wiggle room on this.
          Was Mary the mother of Jesus? Luke 2:33-34, 48, 51 all seem to think so. As does Matthew 1:18, 2:11. Matthew 2:13 has the angel of the Lord call Mary Jesus’ mother.
          So, if Mary is the Mother of Jesus, who is God, then Mary is the mother of God. If we separate out persons of the Trinity, clearly she is not the mother of the Father, clearly she is not the mother of the Holy Spirit, and I don’t think anyone would argue that. But, she is absolutely the Mother of God, as mother of the Son.
          This does mean that we reconsider what some definitions are, since Jesus is co-eternal with the Father. So, Jesus pre-exists his mother and that is absolutely weird. But it is still true.
          As far as use for this, I think it really centers on if we believe that Jesus was fully man.

          • My simple analogy and belief lies, as mentioned, on the 2 personality of Jesus – as fully God (exists even before creation) and as fully man (born of Mary). What is the primary purpose of Jesus to be a fully man ? If we go back to the creation in Genesis, man thru Adam commit the first sin of disobedience, thus came the fall of man. We need rightheous human (not God that is perfect in all ways) to be considered worthy of saving grace thru Jesus as man qualified for redemption from the fall of man in Adam’s sin. When Satan tempted Jesus, after 40 days of isolation in the wilderness, did Jesus used his being God to not to be tempted ? When Jesus lives on earth as man, did he ever use his being God ? Is it God who died on the cross and get resurrected after 3 days ? When Jesus prayed to God the Father, is he being human or as God ? The word “Holy Trinity” is nowhere in the bible. But we believe in the mystery and refer to the Holy Trinity to be the God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Each has its role in the mystery. So is Jesus who has a special role being fully man emptying himself being fully God. Thus, it is important to take cognition when Jesus is fully man and when is fully God. If we consider Mary as mother God, then we do not recognize Jesus to have been a fully man. Mother Mary deserve honor and respect being chosen as an instrument for Jesus to be a born as man in this world, in the same manner that Moses was chosen to liberate the Hebrews, and for apostle Paul to be transformed by Jesus himself and for other Apostles and Prophets ordained by God as messenger, for a purpose.

  4. Aaron E McGruder says

    Dan,
    Thanks for your reply. I would push you pretty hard on your language here. Rather than personality, I think the appropriate language is nature. In that Christ’s personality was one. If you end up with more than that, you could end up creating a duality within the trinity (which might be a tetrarchy?).
    Most of what you wrote seems to go against the council at Chalcedon (I don’t know how much weight you give to early creedal statements, but they are reliable expositors of scripture). The Chalcedonian Confession argues what is considered the orthodox (and I would say Biblical) position that Christ is both fully God and fully Man and that the two natures should be considered “inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably”. As a matter of fact, that same confession also deliberately calls Mary the Mother of God.

    I think your concern is on the nature of the Hypostatic Union itself, which can’t really be processed through a comment thread (though research on the council at Chalcedon is a great place to start.

    • Aaron,
      I appreciate clarification on the preferred language on the ascribed status of Jesus being of nature rather than of personality. Either way, it does not change the way of my perspective to understand the nature of Jesus and yet we both agree that Jesus is fully man and fully God. Honestly, I have not read about the council at Chalcedon as a biblical resource and I cannot comment on it. But whatever resource is used as reference for better biblical understanding, I think the Bible is still the main focus of reference. Any other theological resources, for me as a layman, are a complement to a better understanding of the Bible, to the extent it should not in anyway lead to contradicting or giving a different meaning in the Bible. The message of the New Testament, in particular the Gospel, is about Jesus. Instead of thinking that Mary becomes the mother of God by giving birth to Jesus who is God, I would think another way that thru blessed Mary, Jesus took on human body and everything that is human (that makes Jesus fully man). If Mary is mother of God (which can mean Mary is God and conceived in my mind as another form of deception by Satan), can we say Jesus is fully man ? Did the council at Chalcedon explained why the mother of God was not mentioned when Jesus commissioned his followers in Matthew 28:19 “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,…” Would it not be disrespectful of Mary being left alone as mother of God ? For me as layman, this understanding is a great revelation and empowerment, as being Christ’ disciple.

      Once I asked this question to then a fellow Catholic believer. If you were asked to choose between blessed Mary and Jesus, who do you go for ? If you ask this question to Satan, who you think Satan will choose ?

      • Aaron E McGruder says

        Hi Dan,
        I agree that the Bible should be our primary source. I also think that the early creeds and confessions were written by people who took and read the Bible and provided sound exposition of scripture. Biblically, we get clear statements like “I and the Father are one”, and we need to find categories to talk about it, which is what the councils did. They took prominent questions at the time, brought together those who were most concerned, and spent an incredible amount of time and effort hammering out exactly what was being said through God’s revelation found in the Bible. This is also why most protestants tend to disregard later councils, like the Council at Trent. Because after the split, they became closer to echo chambers.

        Through Mary, Jesus became human in all ways that exist- This is absolutely true.
        Mary is God doesn’t seem to be a logical extension of being the mother of God, and the Bible never makes this leap. It absolutely makes the leap to say that Mary is Jesus’, who is God, mother and I don’t think we can back down from that. I can’t think of a denomination that seriously considers Mary to be part of the Godhead. Catholicism certainly doesn’t, nor does the Reformed traditions, Lutherans, Baptists, Charismatics.
        In calling Mary the Mother of God, I don’t think there is any real sort of statement to say that she is part of the Godhead. She clearly isn’t co-substantial with the Father, nor with the Son. I also wouldn’t affirm that she was sinless at the point of conception, all have sinned and fallen short, including her. I just don’t think we can minimize the calling which God placed on her, which is to give birth to the Son (who is also eternal, begotten of the Father.
        I do think that we consistently hit a language problem in speaking of the Trinity and the Hypostatic Union (Jesus’ position as both Fully God and Fully Man). How can one who is eternal, begotten before all ages, be born in a specific year to a specific woman? (It apparently happened) How can God, Mary’s Creator, choose a woman to give birth to God? (It apparently happened). I think the Incarnation forces us to consider what attendant properties are actually attached to the words we use, and be significantly more specific in meanings than we ever are in normal discussion. Fundamentally, we are talking about God being a paradoxical being (Or the church has historically called these mysteries), which he apparently holds within himself and it is okay that we don’t understand it all.

        • Sometimes we may agree to disagree on certain points. But it does not make us enemy because we know that we are seeking for the truth. When I encounter bible verses that I cannot explain or difficult to understand, more so does not make sense, I rely on Isaiah 55:8-9 “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.” In God’s time, an explanation will cross my path to understand what I do not understand, to know what I do not know leading to the truth. So if in the scripture Jesus said “I and the Father are one”, I simply have to accept it because God said so. If blessed Mary was overshadowed by the power of the Holy Spirit and chosen to be the virgin mother of Jesus as clearly written in the scripture, how am I to dispute it if I believed that the scripture is God-breathed and inspired. Isaiah 55:8-9 is a reminder who I am.

          I believe that Jesus is the physical human representation of an invisible God being the main character in the Gospel. Having said that, attributing mother of God to mother Mary does not help me a bit to connect or gain a meaningful explanation of Jesus as fully man and fully God. On the contrary, focusing on blessed Mary as mother of God may misled the faithful to take away the attention from Jesus to her. Who will benefit from such if it does happens? I really hope that will not be the case and I am not judging anyone since Judgement belongs to Jesus.

          • Aaron E McGruder says

            Thanks Dan,
            I agree with your relying on Isaiah 55:8-9. That is a good stance to hold.
            I just want to end by saying I never sought to treat you as an enemy and hope I didn’t come across that way.
            Have a Merry Christmas reflecting on the glories of His Incarnation!

  5. May I point out that Mary, Paul and all the other apostles are just human instrument God use to accomplish the purpose to redeem what Eve and Adam lost in the garden through the tempter, the focus there after is what God the Father was able to accomplish there after to redeem what was lost in the Garden through the fall of the clay as it was of adam and then to Eve. The fact that in Geneses 1;26 And God said, Let us make man in [our] image, notice the word “Our” and the word “us” plural, also “Likeness” plural. Galatian 3:28 tells me that both male and female has equal rights to be redeemed from the state of sin. John 4:24 God is spirit and unless one enter into the redemptive power of God through Jesus his Sons physical death to pay for sin, and spiritual resurresurrection for justification of the lost man, woman before God and through the Holy Ghost power that abides in man. I can’t see any other explanation, or as you say these scripture meant to say.

  6. Sorry but my respond does not mean to imply that man is to dominate or trample upon any one, for it is evident that God so loved that he gave.