What lies beneath

As some of you will have seen, there was an long and heated (though still friendly) debate over at the Boar’s Head Tavern yesterday on the subject of Mary. (I’m posting my reflections on that discussion here rather than on the BHT to avoid reigniting the glowing embers!)

It is striking how strong people’s reactions are when the subject of Mary comes up. When I did a series of posts on this subject a couple of years ago, it attracted more comments than any other subject before or since on this site.

Early in the discussion yesterday, Bill MacKinnon asked:

[W]hy do we have to think about her at all? (I mean, any more than we need to think about Peter, James, or Pilate).

But as the ensuing debate made clear, the real question is “Why do we think about her so much?” – especially those of us who reject the Marian cult.

I suspect part of the answer is this: there are deep, but usually hidden, disagreements between Christians on the nature of fundamental issues such as the Incarnation of Christ and the resurrection of the dead. These differences rarely arise in an overt form: instead, they manifest themselves in strong disagreements over other issues that are a consequence of those deeper beliefs.

So for example, the division between Lutherans and the Reformed over the Lord’s Supper arise, in large part, from differences over the nature of the Incarnation. Lutherans and Reformed both claim to confess the Chalcedonian faith in relation to the Incarnation, but Lutherans (along with the Roman Catholics and Orthodox) do so like this and the Reformed do so like that. This difference then manifests itself in heated disagreement over whether the human nature of Christ can be present on an altar here on earth.

Similarly, differences over the nature of the final resurrection are a major driver in disagreements over eschatology.

Mary then becomes a source of particularly fervent disagreement because she is a lightning conductor for both these areas of tension and disagreement. The impact of beliefs about Mary on our understanding of the Incarnation was a common theme on the BHT yesterday, and my own view is (as I said yesterday):

There is a strong correlation, it seems to me, between the tendency to regard the Incarnation as merely the necessary condition for the Atonement, and the tendency to regard Mary as merely the necessary condition for the Incarnation.

Whether or not Mary remained a virgin after giving birth to Jesus (“semper virgo”), the idea of the semper virgo does at least reflect an awareness of the unique nature of the conception of Christ, and of Mary’s vocation as Mother of God (and indeed of Joseph’s vocation as “foster-father” of Christ).

Similarly, the assumption of Mary either happened or it didn’t happen – personally I haven’t the faintest idea, any more than I have with the semper virgo – but when it is dismissed as absurd (or “patently ridiculous”, as one email correspondent put it to me) I begin to wonder why the immediate resurrection of Mary and her assumption into heaven should be any more absurd than the ultimate resurrection of all people at the return of Christ from heaven. And I begin to suspect that there is a link here with the tendency (noted by NT Wright among others) to shift the Christian hope from the resurrection of the body to “going to heaven when we die”.

So the debates about Mary are, in part, a proxy for other debates about the person of Christ and the nature of the Christian hope. This is only to be expected: after all, the very title “Mother of God” (or “Theotokos”) was adopted by the church not to exalt Mary, but to preserve the truth of the Incarnation.

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17 Responses to What lies beneath

  1. Phil Walker says:

    You gotta admit, calling it the Assumption is asking for trouble. 🙂

  2. Phil Walker says:

    And a more serious observation about a different allied point… Why, when people debate the title “Mother of God”, does Luke 1:43 never get mentioned? While Elizabeth doesn’t use the term itself, her language is near enough as makes no odds. Is it bad form to point it out or something?

  3. Carson Weber says:

    To answer Bill’s question: “[W]hy do we have to think about her at all? (I mean, any more than we need to think about Peter, James, or Pilate)” –>

    According to John’s Apocalypsis, events in heaven have direct significance upon events on earth, and so Mary’s current role in heaven would have great import for those of us walking planet earth right now.

    We know that Jesus came specifically as the Son of David to renew the Davidic Covenant (2 Sam 7), and if so, then we would expect for his mother to serve as the Queen Mother in the office of Gebira’h as every Davidic King’s mother had dating back to Solomon’s institution of that office in 1 Kgs 2:19.

    We know that our king does not reign from an earth Jerusalem, but from the Heavenly Jerusalem, where he mounted his throne, which is none other than the throne of David (Acts 2:30-31).

    Likewise, Mary’s Assumption/Coronation is this: her son, the New Solomon (like the first), seats his mother at his right hand as Advocate for the Kingdom’s subjects. This is why the crowned feminine figure in Rev 12:1 (which is the same figure as the Ark of the Covenant – see the last few verses of Ch. 11) is none other than an apocalyptic way of describing Queen Mary, who is an icon of the New Israel, the Church.

    This has tremendous import for us today, right now, for Mary plays a powerful role in the New Kingdom.

  4. John H says:

    Carson: I confess my response to this is a not-particularly-constructive “uh-huh”.

    But I’ve posted your comment over on the BHT to see if anyone else has any thoughts.

  5. John H says:

    Michael Spencer at the BHT offers the following:

    Inventing an OT type that is completely ignored in every NT book is unacceptable. Saying the David/Bathsheba relationship is scriptural background for Jesus and Mary is completely bizarre, and that is being kind.

  6. The Scylding says:


    Good post. Maybe it was an anti-Catholic over reaction, complaining about “Theotokos”. It seems to be impregnated into the modern evangelical DNA.

    But you’re right, the Incarnation has consequences – even when they sound “too Catholic” for somebody. Apart from Church tradition, we have no idea of
    the assumption or semper virgo – but what interests me more is whence the violent reaction? Maybe it is psychological – like Pavlov’s dogs, evangelicals salivate in opposition when the assumption, semper virgo or even the term “Theotokos” are mentioned. Well honed, Boettner & even chick-tract fuelled anti-catholocism jumps in, and reason flies out the window.

    Do you have to believe in the assumption or semper virgo? Not unless you’re catholic. But neither does it mean that as protestants, we should over react.

  7. Carson Weber says:

    I disagree that it is ignored. About a month ago, I read a doctoral dissertation titled “Queen Mother” (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road, 2005), wherein Dr. Ted Sri shows how the Queen Mother was (yes, really) a motif for the authors of the NT.

  8. John H says:

    Carson: go on, I’m listening…

  9. CPA says:

    Listening to the BHT conversation, it confirms what I’ve already thought: large swaths of Protestant Christianity adhere to two beliefs:

    1) Jovinianism, which I would define as the idea that virgins are less than fully human and that those with weak or absent sexual desires are defective human beings. [Jovinians of course argue their position by caricaturing all non-Jovinians, i.e. those who think that virgins are fully human, as thinking sex as “dirty.”]

    2) Nestorianism, which means that there is no communication of attributes, such that nothing can be predicated of Jesus except that which is predicable of both God and a sinless holy man.

    And when I think of Queen Mothers in the Old Testament, I usually think of Athaliah. Of course Bathsheba egging on her son Solomon to stick it to all his one-time or potential rivals comes to mind too.

  10. Lawrence says:

    Carson Weber – “Likewise, Mary’s Assumption/Coronation is this: her son, the New Solomon (like the first), seats his mother at his right hand as Advocate for the Kingdom’s subjects. This is why the crowned feminine figure in Rev 12:1”

    A couple thoughts to throw into the mix:

    I appologize for my lack of elloquence… by I think my points are clear.

    1. Mankind if often referred to as the Bride of Christ. The woman in Rev 12:1 bearing children could also illustrate the worldly (fleshly) birth of humankind. And the Church is also often considered as the Bride of Christ. From this perspective, the woman referenced is a reflection of all us humans who making up Christ’s Church.

    2. The person defined by Christ as the Advocate for the Kingdom’s subjects is Christ Himself. If Revelation is identifying someone else as Advocate, then it contradicts what Jesus previously said in about Himself. I don’t believe that the Revelation account is contradiction what Jesus so clearly articulated.

    3. It is my understanding that “the New Man” idea references Adam, not Solomon. (Maybe I’m missing a siginificant piece of the discussion here). Could we argue that the Risen Christ represents the new Adam? Or is it that we become like a new Adam in Christ? I always get brain-tied on this one.

    4. There are 4 critically unique characters in the Biblical account. Characters who’s contributions to human history where very specific and never dupicated. Adam, Eve, Mary, and Jesus. Yes, we have Noah, David, Solomon, Joseph, Moses, the Patriarcs, etc, etc, but the contributions of these people pale in comparison to the birth of mankind via Adam and Eve, and the birth of Jesus via Mary.

    However, the critical issue here is, only Jesus is also Christ (God incarnate). And only Christ has the power or the authority to Advocate for us in regard to our salvation.

    5. Or… maybe I just don’t know what I’m talking about.

  11. Lawrence says:

    “Mary, as perpetual virgin.”

    6. This always bothers me.

    First, this gives the impression to may people that Mary should also be considered sinless. (Virginity equated with purity and then allegorically as sinless).

    Problem is that even Adam and Eve who were created sinless became sinful, and everyone born after is sinful. Except for Jesus (as God Incarnate.)

    So, It doesn’t really matter if Mary was a virgin or not because she was born sinful just like everyone else. If she were eternally virgin and it was important to salvation, then I believe Jesus would have said so. But He didn’t.

  12. Jon says:

    The Queen Mother….? Oh! You mean in a generic OT type sense! But surely you could argue the same about anyone else mentioned in the birth narrative… i.e. Herod = king therefore he’s the type of the OT King blah blah blah etc. Seems a bit too conceptually abstract i.e. give me a narrative and I’ll make some nice juicy types.

    As far as I can see, Mary was important originally because of her place as “Theotokos” which not only testified to the Gregory of Nazianzus idea that “the unassumed is the unredeemed” i.e. contra the Gnostics/docetists, but also corrected the Nestorians who (cf. above) posited a “moral” union of natures rather than an ontological union. (Whether or not Nestorius taught this is a different matter) As far as I can see, and this seems to be the general consensus in the discussion here, is that Mary is a litmus test for orthodoxy and a core definition of the nature of the Incarnation. Mary was so important because as “Theotokos” she provided the cornerstone of one half of the argument at Chalcedon and prevented “separation”. In this sense, it seems to me that talk of Mary IS important. Should we always bang on about her… No! Obviously not. We should talk of Mary in the pursuit of seeking to understand more fully Christ.

  13. Al says:

    A few comments:

    1. I am not sure that I find Michael Spencer’s argument against the Bathsheba/Solomon-Mary/Jesus connection convincing. Biblical typology just doesn’t work that way. Typology doesn’t have to be pointed out to genuinely be there. The fact that no NT author uses a particular type does not mean that there is no type there to use. This said, I don’t find the particular connection in question very convincing.

    2. Regarding Revelation 12, I think that the woman clearly refers to Israel. The birth pangs are the death of Christ; the new birth is the resurrection (cf. John 16:20-21; this is also why the male child ascends immediately after the birth). Within John’s gospel Mary plays a very important symbolic role. Significantly she is never referred to by name but only by title (like the Beloved Disciple). She appears at very significant moments. Particularly interesting is the fact that John gives Mary such an important role, without ever explicitly mentioning the first birth of Christ. The significance of Mary is not merely about the Incarnation.

    Mary seems to represent old covenant Israel. Her importance (like the importance of other Johannine figures such as Mary Magdalene and the Beloved Disciple who have typological significance) is not so much by virtue of her significance as a particular individual as it is that which she embodies and represents. This is where I believe that many take a wrong course.

    3. Roman Catholic societies generally seem to be more closely attuned to the dynamics of patronage than Protestant societies are. Protestant societies tend to operate differently. In a patronage society personal ties with powerful individuals are very important. Society is built upon the strength of such ties and on the exchange of favours. Protestant societies seem to be bound together more by legal and government structures and the like and the role played by patronage is far more limited. Catholicism in Britain and the US is not Catholicism in its natural element. Catholic countries generally seem to have different sorts of social dynamics.

    The significance of Mary is more often than not understood in terms of her proximity to Christ. In a patronage society one gains access to a powerful patron by people who are closer to him. Family members are some of the best candidates. Mary is supposedly the most closely related to Christ and so she is someone that we approach to have closer access to Christ.

    There are a number of problems with this, not least the fact that Jesus consistently downplays the significance of family bonds in the gospels (Matthew 10:37; 12:46-50; Mark 3:31-35; Luke 8:20-21; 11:27-28). The kingdom is bound together by water, not by the blood of first birth, but by the blood that we are giving to drink — the blood of new birth. Jesus died to his old relationship with his mother and was born to a new relationship. The new birth of the kingdom alters previous relationships.

  14. Jon says:

    Wow! A typology that you aren’t happy with Al!

  15. John H says:

    Al: thanks for this fascinating input. I agree entirely regarding Rev 12. Your point about patronage is very telling.

    As for Mary in the Gospel of St John, I hadn’t thought about the non-use of her name. But the following point had already occurred to me: how a sacramental reading of John’s Gospel illuminates our understanding of the book.

    Some would argue you can’t read baptismal regeneration out of John 3 or the “real identification” (to use Al Kimel’s happy formulation) out of John 6. They’re probably right if you insist on starting with a blank sheet of paper. But once you read the gospel as being written in and for a church living out that sacramental life, those passages (and many others – e.g. Cana) take on a whole new dimension of meaning. I’ve come across a similar point made about reading the Revelation liturgically.

    Perhaps a similar point can be made about Mary. Once we see John as writing from a context of profound shared respect and veneration for the Mother of Jesus – well, it takes us to some interesting places. (Though not to the RC position. Or at least not without another couple of thousand years of further speculation.)

  16. Carson Weber says:


    I apologize for the delay in responding. Michael spencer had written, “Inventing an OT type that is completely ignored in every NT book is unacceptable. Saying the David/Bathsheba relationship is scriptural background for Jesus and Mary is completely bizarre, and that is being kind.

    Here, I will show that this type is present in Matthew in three ways. In Chs. 1-2 of his Gospel, Matthew clearly places Jesus in the context of the Davidic Kingdom. He then highlights Mary’s role as the mother of this new Davidic King in ways that associate her with the queen-mother figure of the Davidic Royal court.

    (1) The Royal Genealogy

    First, he places Mary in Jesus’ royal genealogy after having done the same with Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (all of whom would have been considered scandalous to some extent, which helps prepare the reader for Mary’s extraordinary motherhood). Mary appears as the mother of the Messiah, associated with not only the matriarchs, but the first queen mother of the Davidic Kingdom: Bathsheba.

    (2) The Fulfilment of Isaiah 7:14

    Matthew associates Mary and Jesus with the queen-mother and royal-son prophecy of Isaiah 7:14. In the Isaian oracle, the queen mother of Immanuel brings forth a child who would ensure the perseverance of the Davidic dynasty. Here, Mary does the same, bringing forth the Davidic heir who would secure the true Davidic kingdom forever.

    (3) Madonna and Child

    There is great significance in Matthew frequently placing the newborn King alongside his mother. Mathtew constantly mentioned the child and his mother together (5 times in Ch. 2 alone). Matthew’s recurring phrase “the child and his mother” has a Davidic responance that might bring to mind the way the Book of Kings repeatedly instroduces each new Davidic king alongside the queen mother.

    Why does Matthew focus on Jesus and Mary, leaving Joseph out of the picture when the three magi pay the child Jesus homage? All throughout the narrative in Matthew 1-2, Joseph is much more prominent than Mary. Matthew traces Jesus’ genealogy through Joseph. The angel appears to Joseph three times. It is Joseph who leads the Holy Family to Bethlehem, to Egypt, and back to Nazareth. However, in this particular scene of the magi coming to honor the newborn King, Mary takes center stage, and surprisingly, Joseph is not mentioned at all in the entire pericope.

    This link between royal child and mother in such a regal context brings to mind the queen-mother tradition. If Jesus is the newborn “king of the Jews” in this scene (2:2), then Mary, as the mother of this King (cf. 2:11), could be understood as a queen mother. The queen mother background would explain the interest Matthew has in Mary being with the child as the nobles of the East reverence the new king, a scene where Joseph is not even mentioned. Matthew includes the significant detail of showing “the child with Mary, his mother.” In this way, he assocaites and confirms Mary as the gebirah of the messianic kingdom. It is she who enthrones and presents the king-Messiah to the adoration of the magi, exercising one of the specific missions of the gebirah: to ensure the enthronement of her son, the rightful heir to the Davidic throne.

    This information above is presented in the Doctoral Dissertation I mentioned above: Ted Sri, “Queen Mother” (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road, 2005). He goes on to look at the other three Gospels and shows much more than what I’ve given here, but this is a good appetizer.


    Mary is presented in the New Testament as the Ark of the Covenant by Luke. Have you been introduced to this?

  17. Carson Weber says:

    Lawrence, you said, “It doesn’t really matter if Mary was a virgin or not because she was born sinful just like everyone else. .”

    N.B. – Luther, Calvin, and Augustine all held that Mary was sinless.

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