Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Mary and the evangelical mind

In the November 2009 edition of First Things, a Roman Catholic journal on religion, culture, and public life, the Statement of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) article: “Do Whatever He Tells You: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Christian Faith and Life” addressed the issue of Mary, which is an important to our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters.   It was very balanced and well thought out in my opinion. Previously, I have heard the defense for Mary from a Catholic point-of-view but what stands out most in this article was the evangelical admission of ignorance of doctrinal beliefs held by Catholics regarding Mary.

Despite all this common ground, however, both Marian dogma and Marian devotion remain contentious issues. Evangelicals understand that the Catholic Church does not equate adoration of God (latria) and veneration for Mary (hyperdoulia). It seems to many Evangelicals, however, that the devotion of some Catholics to Mary can obscure the preeminence, unique sinlessness, and sole salvific sufficiency of Jesus Christ as well as the common pneumatological ground of worship for all Christians who pray “through Christ in the Spirit.”

Emphasis on Mary’s intercessory role, coupled with prayers to Mary, can create confusion between adoration and veneration—and risks leading people away from, rather than to, the Savior. This is especially true in contexts where devotion to Mary is a deeply ingrained part of cultural identity. We do not think this is the intention of Catholic teaching as expressed in Lumen Gentium, and Catholic members of ECT have addressed in helpful ways exaggerations of Marian piety. In an age of syncretism and radical pluralism, the recent statements by Pope Benedict XVI declaring Jesus Christ the one and only Savior are an encouragement to all faithful Christians. We acknowledge that there is little Evangelical reflection on any of these Marian themes, certainly nothing commensurate with the vast Catholic literature in the field. This stems from Protestant neglect of Mary, born of a conviction that the Catholic portrait of Mary exceeds its biblical warrants. Full article…

The mysterious claims of apparitions of Mary at Lourdes, Fatima, and Guadalupe have occasionally caught my attention, hence, the mystique behind Mary.  However, deep inside, I admit that I have secretly held Marian teaching with a slight contempt, simply because it seems like Mary’s humanity should be so obvious to us as Christians.  We regard her as a person not without sin, therefore, the Catholic doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception is unnatural to the evangelical mind.  I have read and heard many Catholics address her as The Blessed Virgin Mary.  To address her as such gives us evangelicals a funny feeling inside because the concept of her being so blessed would almost stand on the verge of idolatry.  That is why evangelicals do not even go there.

We ask ourselves: “Is Mary really that blessed that she should deserve the title The Blessed Virgin Mary?…and why Mary, and not Peter, Paul, James and John?”  Sure Mary was blessed to give birth to Jesus the Christ but she was still only a human being.  However, the more I think about this, I don’t think I would have any problem with this title of honor.  However, what seems to give us evangelicals problems concerning Mary is the adoration and veneration given to her; herein lies the underlying fear.

I know the ECT article addressed this, but protestants, in general, do still get the impression from Roman Catholics that Mary is so highly regarded as a saint that the veneration of her as a saint could lead one to worship her, and pray to her as a secondary mediator after Jesus.  Evangelicals and protestants do not pray to Mary, let alone to any other saint.  In the evangelical mind, it would be on the verge of idolatry to pray to anyone else but to God Himself.  As evangelicals, we have always been taught that the only mediator and intercessor between humans and God is Jesus Christ himself.

I have no trouble with Mary’s virgin birth.  In fact, Mary’s virginal concept is an orthodox doctrine that evangelicals cherish.   It is actually seen as a bellwether test of orthodoxy, and it is usually included in many of our statements of beliefs.  However, this doctrine of Mary’s virgin birth is not on the forefront of the evangelical mind.  Should it be?

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Reflections on when faith & the scriptures intersect life & society.

8 thoughts on “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Mary and the evangelical mind”

  1. Hi Ron, thanks for your comment. Just learned of Francis Beckwith who converted to a Roman Catholic from evangelicalism. It always fascinates me when I hear of evangelicals converting to Catholicism. They must have delved deeply into the theology of the RC church.

    There must be an attraction that pulls some evangelicals toward re-examining the Catholic faith. Very intriguing to me. I wonder if Mary is a turning-point for conversion or if it’s another doctrine? Mary is worth further investigation for more evangelicals today.

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  2. I know I’m late to this conversation,. For quite a few years I thought First Things was a Jewish Theological site. I have been a big fan of David L Goldman’s who wrote quite a few articles for them.

    Dr. Timothy George, Dean of Beenson Divinity School, said something interesting during a dialog with Francis Beckwith (I think in 2011 or abouts), suggesting that Roman Catholics and Evangelicals should come together and investigate Mary. He stated something like, Protestants have missed a lot that Mary brings to the Gospel, such as she is at the Incarnation, she is at the foot of the Cross, and she’s at the first Pentecost. I believe her to be the spouse of the Holy Spirit and an Intercessor for us to Jesus based on what she does at the Wedding at Cana.

    In Christ,

    Ron

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  3. John Paul, welcome to this blog and thanks for your warm comments. Protestants and Catholics still do have some natural theology differences, but I think many, if not most, Catholics believe in the salvation through Christ alone and through faith alone but we may not realize it.

    I do wonder if other Catholic practices (which may be extra-biblical) may be obscuring our protestant perception of how Catholics perceive “faith alone”?

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  4. Kevin, I like the tone and the content of your blog and the comments of your friends. It seems to show the same mutual respect that the Evangelicals and Catholics Tgether have been able to show oneanother as they have earnestly sought a deeper understanding of the Christian faith and our divisions.

    I have also posted on this statement from a little different perspective that you may be able to appreciate as a fellow-protestant. In your own quote from the Protestant statement to the Catholic which I did not post, the part-

    “devotion of some Catholics to Mary can obscure the preeminence, unique sinlessness, and sole salvific sufficiency of Jesus Christ as well as the common pneumatological ground of worship for all Christians who pray “through Christ in the Spirit”- is only one of several significant “discomforts” that Protestants feel justified in and therefore feel the division between our communions must be maintained. As a protestant missionary who lived and ministered in a pre-dominantly and historically Catholic country (Brazil), I can assure you that the dangers in the Catholic teaching are real and in fact cause multitudes of the faithful to be confused regarding salvation in Christ alone. These same multitudes will not be able to benefit for years to come of the open dialogue you and I now enjoy on the inter-net.

    John Paul Todd
    e4unity.wordpress.com

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  5. Tim, interesting. If the already deceased Jeremiah was interceding for those still alive on earth, does it mean that they can hear our prayers? I have to admit that I find it difficult to get passed the idea of praying to the living saints in heaven. In my protestant mind, this would seem to decrease our need to pray to Jesus directly. I have wondered if this is possible but I still doubt like Thomas. But if it were possible, then there would be another dimension of our prayers that we protestants are missing out on.

    I like the Maccabean books and consider it very good history of the Jewish people. But as you know, the Deuterocanonical books are extrabiblical books for protestants including Lutherans. Regarding Revelation, you might be surprised to learn that Luther thought that Revelation was neither apostolic or prophetic. It could have been struck out of the protestant canon but he left it in. I’m not too sure what to think of it but if it was excluded from the canon and put into the deuterocanonical books I don’t think I would lose sleep over it. This would seem to strike down both biblical sources of praying to the saints. But I’m not crossing out the idea that saints intercede for us in heaven. It is a fascinating idea to this one evangelical protestant.

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  6. Kevin,

    There are a couple of passages that we turn to in regards to the intercession of the saints.

    The first, depending on whether or not you accept 2 Maccabees, is from 2 Macc. 15:12-16. In it, Judas Maccabeus relates a dream to his troops which shows the already deceased prophet Jeremiah praying on behalf of the Jewish people. Of course, this may not mean anything since it is in the Deuterocanonical books, but for us it is considered another book of the Old Testament.

    Two other important verses comes from the Book of Revelation (5:8), where it says that John sees that “the twenty-four elders [the leaders of the people of God in heaven] fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints”. The angels seem to also be involved, “[An] angel came and stood at the altar [in heaven] with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God” (Rev. 8:3–4).

    Ultimately, it comes down to the belief Catholics have that the saints, who are in heaven, are alive and are worshipping and praying before the Lamb. Thus, we pray to them asking for their prayers, since “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective (James 5:16).”

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  7. Hey Tim, thanks for your input. I’ve always wondered about why Catholics pray to Mary and to other saints. All protestants also believe that saints are alive and with the Lord but I have not seen anywhere in the bible the saints can pray for us from heaven. I’ve always wondered about how that works and if it really works and is it biblical?

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  8. Kevin,

    I just wanted to point out that First Things is an interreligious journal. While there are certainly prominent Catholics involved in the journal, there are also evangelicals, other Christians, and jews.

    From a Catholic’s perspective, I do recognize why some Protestants are uneasy with Marian or other devotions to the saints. And we could debate for a long time the four dogmas in the Catholic Church regarding Mary, but I will just comment briefly on the whole idea of praying to her or other saints. For Catholics, and Orthodox too, the saints are not dead, but rather alive with the Lord in heaven. They are close to Him and await the resurrection of the Body at the end of time. Therefore, since they are with the Lord, we ask them to pray for us. They are as alive as any person on earth, however in a different state (sans body). So, just as we would ask someone on earth to pray for us, those who are alive with Christ in heaven we too ask to pray on our behalf.

    Just my 2 cents.

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