In recent years growing numbers of Evangelicals have become interested in Orthodoxy. Many want to convert to Orthodoxy but have difficulty with certain Orthodox teachings. Without question, one of the most difficult obstacles for any Protestant Evangelical interested in Orthodoxy is Mary.
A large part of the problem lies in a communications gap between Evangelicals and Orthodox. Unlike Eastern Orthodoxy which has ancient roots going back to the Early Church, Evangelicalism is very Western, very modern, and very American in its thinking. Part of the communications problem is due to the fact that Protestants and Orthodox operate from different theological paradigms. Paradigms are frameworks that scientists use to organize their data and formulate their theory. These differences have resulted in Protestants and Orthodox using similar words with quite different meanings.
This is further complicated by a cultural gap. Many Orthodox Christians born and raised Orthodox are not fully aware of the mindset that many Evangelicals bring with them. Evangelicalism is a subculture with its own values and its own vocabulary. Evangelicalism’s distinctive vocabulary includes: “being born again,” “being Spirit-filled,” “making a decision for Christ,” “assurance of salvation,” “eternal security,” having a “daily quiet time,” “prayer partners,” “witnessing for Christ,” “feeding on the word of God” etc. Thus, there is a need for bicultural Evangelical-Orthodox who can bridge the two worlds, that is, who can explain Orthodoxy using the familiar accents of the Evangelical lingo. As an Evangelical convert to Orthodoxy my goal in this paper is to explain the Orthodox understanding of Mary in terms familiar to Evangelicals.
Mary in the Bible
Because the Bible is the bottom line for what Evangelicals believe, we start here. One of the first things to note is that although biblical references to Mary are sparse, they are there and they are located in strategic places in the Bible. The first reference we find of Mary is in Genesis 3:15, after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Speaking to the serpent, God said: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (NIV translation, unless noted otherwise).
In this short passage God provides a bare outline of the great plan of salvation that would be filled out later on in greater detail and colorful brush strokes in the rest of the Bible. What is so striking about Genesis 3:15 is the twofold enmity: (1) between Satan and the woman, and (2) between Satan’s offspring and the woman’s offspring. Many Evangelicals will acknowledge that the woman being referred to is not Eve, but Mary who gave birth to Jesus. The question that the Evangelical must ask is this: Why did God see fit to include a reference to the woman? Why couldn’t God just have made reference to the one who would crush Satan’s head? Why in this proto-evangelium did God pair the Savior with his mother?
This pairing of the woman and her child is a theme that occurs repeatedly in the Bible all the way up to the last book in the Bible, Revelation. The next biblical reference to this pairing is in Isaiah 7:14. In this passage Isaiah prophesied: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”
According to Matthew’s Gospel, this prophecy was fulfilled in the birth of Jesus Christ.
But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.” (Matthew 1:20-23)
In his letter to the Galatians Paul writes that Christ’s being born of the Virgin Mary was not a chance occurrence but something that took place in the fullness of time, i.e., at the most strategic moment in human history: “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons” (Galatians 4:4-5).
What is interesting about these verses is that they imply that the Incarnation was instrumental in our salvation. This challenges the Protestant paradigm which views our salvation almost exclusively in terms of Christ’s dying on the cross.
The next time this strategic pairing is found is in the book of Revelation (Note 1). The book of Revelation is quite popular among many Evangelicals for it teaches them about God’s plan of salvation for the entire world and how world history will culminate in the Second Coming of Christ. In Revelation 12 we come across a grand tableau depicting the cosmic war between Christ and Satan:
A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth…. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. (Revelation 12:1-2, 4-5)
An Evangelical reading Revelation 12 is bound to become uncomfortable with the effusive language used to describe Mary. Mary is described in vivid symbolic language that refers to her being clothed with the divine glory (her being clothed with the sun), her preeminence in the order of creation (her standing over the moon), and her preeminence among God’s elect (the twelve stars representing either the twelve tribes of Israel in the Old Testament or the twelve apostles of the Church in the New Testament). This is a far cry from the humble virgin that gave birth to Christ in the manger and then quietly retires to the side lines in Protestant theology.
In summary, when we take into consideration the entire scope of the biblical witness from Genesis to Revelation we find a clear pattern bearing witness to the strategic role of the Virgin Mary in salvation history. According to the Bible Mary does not occupy a peripheral or marginal role but a strategic role in salvation history. The critical turning point of our salvation was when God entered history as a man.
During the month of August the Orthodox Church remembers the life and example of Mary. One of the assigned gospel readings is taken from Luke 11:27-28. In response to the woman who cried out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you,” Jesus responded, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” At first I was surprised to hear this verse because many Evangelicals use this verse to put down Mary. But as I gave it further thought, I began to understand what it is that made Mary a model of faith. The woman thought that what made Mary great was her physical motherhood but what made Mary truly great was her willingness to do God’s will (Luke 1:38). In submitting to God’s will Mary did what the first Eve failed to do. In saying “Yes” to God, Mary became the Second Eve who reversed the Fall and opened the way for the Savior to enter into history. Mary’s giving birth to Christ is a unique experience, but her obedience to the word of God is something all Evangelicals can share in (Matthew 12:46-49, Mark 3:31-35, Luke 8:19-21).
Mary the Mother of All Evangelicals
One of Jesus’ last words as he hung on the cross were his words to Mary and to the apostle John. To Mary Jesus said, “Woman, here is your son,” and to John he said, “Here is your mother” (John 19:26-27). This passage can be interpreted on two levels: literal/historical or allegorical/typological. Both approaches are valid. On the typological level it can be said that John represents the Christian and that in accepting Jesus’ death on the cross the Christian receives Mary as their mother. Mary was not only Jesus’ mother, she is our mother as well.
In Revelation 12:17 we read that all who obey God’s commandments and who hold to the testimony of Jesus are Mary’s children. What is striking about this verse is that it describes the two distinctive traits of Evangelicals: their zeal to be biblical and their zeal to be witnesses for Christ. If so, then in light of Revelation 12:17 Mary is the Mother of all Evangelicals. Protestant Evangelicals need to get over their hang-ups and in obedience to the Bible, accept Mary as their Mother.
The Bible teaches the concept of spiritual motherhood. This principle can be found with respect to Sarah, Abraham’s wife. Peter writes, “You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear” (I Peter 3:6). Paul uses the Sarah/Hagar example in Galatians 4 and uses this contrast to make the point that the Church is our mother (Galatians 4:26).
Thus, to be Mary’s children means to be like her, following her example. Just as Mary was committed to doing God’s will, so we should be committed to doing God’s will. When she heard the astounding announcement from the angel Gabriel she responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be done to me as you have said.” (Luke 1:38) Mary, likewise was devoted to bearing witness to Jesus. At the wedding at Cana she instructed the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5) Doing whatever Jesus tells us to do means total acceptance of Christ’s lordship over our lives. Accepting Mary as our Mother does not weaken our commitment to Christ, rather it strengthens our commitment to Christ. Drawing closer to Mary leads us closer to our God and Savior Jesus Christ.
Mary in the Liturgy
For the Evangelical visiting the Sunday Liturgy is the best way to learn what the Orthodox Church really believe about Mary. (It is strongly recommended that the visiting Evangelical attend a parish where the Liturgy is in English. Going to an ethnic parish where the Liturgy is even in a mixture of English/Greek or English/Russian can be distracting and confusing.) For the Orthodox the Divine Liturgy is theology in action. The beginning part of the Liturgy consists of several litanies—set prayers—that close with a reference to Mary and then with reference to the Holy Trinity. When the priest reaches the end of a litany he will then say: “Remembering our most holy, pure, blessed and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, with all the saints, let us commend ourselves and one another, and our whole life to Christ our God.”
At the end of our prayers we are reminded of Mary’s total commitment to Christ and that we are also remembering the example set by the other Christians who have gone before us. The call to commit our lives to Christ should warm the heart of any Evangelical. Years ago I made a personal commitment to Christ and now years later I’m renewing that commitment every Sunday in the Liturgy. Several times during the Liturgy I recommit my life to Christ and at the same time I commit the lives of my friends and family to God’s loving care.
As the Liturgy progresses we encounter Mary again in the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed is recited every Sunday and at every liturgical celebration. The Nicene Creed starts off with what the Church believes about God the Father, then what it believes about Christ’s divine nature and his human nature: “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven and became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man” (emphasis added).
The first thing to note is that the Nicene Creed situates “our salvation” in relation to the Incarnation, not in relation to the Crucifixion as Evangelicals are wont to do. The next thing to note is that the Incarnation involved the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. Mary played an integral part in the Incarnation; without her cooperation the Incarnation would not have happened.
Then, following the consecration of the bread and the wine the congregation sings:
It is truly fitting to call you blessed, O Theotokos; you are ever-blessed, utterly pure, and the Mother of our God. More honorable than the Cherubim, and far surpassing the glory of the Seraphim, remaining inviolate you gave birth to God the Logos. Truly the Theotokos, we magnify you.
Here an Evangelical might cringe at the effusive language praising Mary, wondering: Is all this exalted language biblical? A careful reading of the Bible show that it is:
- Blessed—”Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” (Luke 1:42)
- Theotokos (God-bearer)—”Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” (Luke 1:42; see also Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:21-25, Luke 2:6-7, Revelation 12:5)
- Ever-blessed—”From now on all generations will call me blessed….” (Luke 1:48)
- All-holy—”But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.'” (I Peter 1:15-16)
- Utterly pure—”Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8). “Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure.” (I John 3:3)
- Mother of God—”The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel—which means, ‘God with us.'” (Matthew 1:23, cf. Isaiah 7:14)
- More honorable than — “You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings the Cherubim and crowned him with glory and honor.” (Psalm 8:5) “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ.” (Ephesians 2:6)
Many Protestants are afraid that venerating Mary will eventually lead to worshiping her. Protestants’ confusion when Orthodoxy claims that it venerates Mary but does not worship her arises from differences in their understanding of worship. Where the sermon is central to Protestant worship, the center of Orthodox worship is the Eucharist. Kimberly Hahn, an Evangelical who converted to Roman Catholicism, makes this observation:
I could not figure out why it was that it seemed to be that Catholics worshiped Mary, even though I knew worship of Mary was clearly condemned by the Church. Then I got an insight: Protestants defined worship as songs, prayers and a sermon. So when Catholics sang songs to Mary, petitioned Mary in prayer and preached about her, Protestants concluded she was being worshiped. But Catholics defined worship as the sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Jesus, and Catholics would never have offered a sacrifice of Mary nor to Mary on the altar (Rome Sweet Home, p. 145).
Likewise, it is impossible for Orthodox Christians to worship Mary. This misunderstanding of the Orthodox veneration of Mary can be traced back to Protestantism’s departure from the historic Christian pattern of worship.
After repeated visits to Orthodox worship services, I saw that the focus of Orthodox worship is on the Holy Trinity and Mary plays a secondary role in Orthodox theology. Evangelicals are afraid of being misled by tradition run amok unchecked by Scripture. The important thing is to understand that Orthodox faith and practice is based on the teachings of the Apostles. The Sunday worship service uses the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom which dates back to the fifth century and which has changed little in the centuries following. Because the Liturgy does not change, it protects our theology. The Liturgy functions like the two rails that keep the train on track and heading in the right direction. It should be reassuring for Evangelicals to know that the Liturgy guards us from excesses like putting Mary on the same level as Jesus or separating her from Jesus and that the Liturgy leads us to Christ. This is different from when I was a Protestant and was worried that some strange new doctrine might come down from the denominational headquarters.
The Ecumenical Councils
Many of the titles for Mary used in the Liturgy come from the early theological debates. The debates were not so much about Mary but about Christ’s two natures, the Incarnation, and the Trinity. It was at these Ecumenical (Universal) Councils that the Early Church defined the essential elements of the Christian Faith. The Councils’ decisions to assign various titles to Mary: The Virgin Mary – Nicea I, A.D. 325, Theotokos – Ephesus, A.D. 431; Ever-Virgin – Constantinople A.D. 553, were all intended to safeguard the divinity of Christ.One would think that the Councils’ language would be effusive in their description of Mary. However, the language of the Councils was quite austere with respect to Mary. In order to understand what the Ecumenical Councils taught about Mary, it is important to understand how the titles ascribed to Mary served to protect a right understanding of who Christ is. Timothy Ware writing about the title Theotokos notes:
The appellation Theotokos is of particular importance, for it provides the key to the Orthodox cult of the Virgin. We honour Mary because she is the Mother of our God. We do not venerate her in isolation, but because of her relation to Christ. Thus the reverence shown to Mary, so far from eclipsing the worship of God, has exactly the opposite effect: the more we esteem Mary, the more vivid is our awareness of the majesty of her Son, for it is precisely on account of the Son, that we venerate the Mother (The Orthodox Church, p. 262).
Here we see the deep links between the Liturgy and the Ecumenical Councils. For Orthodoxy, church history is living history. Church history is not something found in the history books but something we relive every Sunday in the Liturgy.
Mary and the Icons
An Evangelical visitor will be struck by the visible prominence of Mary in the architecture of the Orthodox church. Looking towards the front of the church, one sees the icon of the Virgin Mary on the left of the royal door leading to the altar and the icon of Christ on the right side. Above the altar one may see the expansive icon of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child. The icons are not just pretty pictures. They depict powerful truths about Christ and our salvation.
The huge, eye catching icon of Mary that catches the attention of so many Evangelicals needs to be viewed in its proper context. In Orthodox architecture if one looks up at the ceiling one will see the icon of Christ the Pantocrator (“Ruler of All”) —signifying Christ’s being in heaven as the All Ruling One. Then as one’s gaze moves further down one sees the icon of the Virgin with Child—signifying Christ’s coming down from heaven for our salvation. After that, if one looks directly at the altar one sees the cross—signifying Christ’s descending even further to the point of dying for our salvation. This is Paul’s famous hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 in visual form.
The icons by the royal door also teaches us about salvation history. The icon of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child on the left represents the First Coming of Christ and the icon of Christ on the right represents the Second Coming of Christ. In the first coming Christ comes in humility to save us and in the second coming Christ comes in glory to judge humanity. It is significant that it is the practice of the Orthodox church for confession to be done before the icon of Christ on the right. On a symbolic level the icon of the Virgin Mary depicts the age of the Church in which the Church presents Christ to the world as a witness to God’s saving mercy. The altar area beyond the icon symbolizes the age to come.
Mary’s Virginity—The Biblical Evidence
One objection that Evangelicals have is the Orthodox belief of Mary being ever-virgin, i.e., her perpetual virginity. Every icon of Mary shows three stars or diamonds on her forehead and her two shoulders. These three stars or diamonds represent Mary being a virgi