On August 15, 2011, W. Bradford Littlejohn uploaded an interesting posting: “Honouring Mary as Protestants” on his blog: The Sword and Ploughshare. What is so striking about this blog posting is that it is by a young Reformed scholar reflecting on his recent worship experience on the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.
The posting is significant because it is evidence of a growing interest among young Reformed scholars in rediscovering the historic roots of the Christian faith. Littlejohn is a protégé of Peter Leithart; he is currently doing his doctoral studies at University of Edinburgh.
The subject of the Virgin Mary is a huge stumbling block between Protestants and the historic Christian churches. The divide is not just doctrinal but also emotional. Littlejohn writes:
We Protestants certainly have a problem when it comes to Mary–so allergic are we to any sign of Marian devotion that we flip out and run the other way at any sign of it, including thoroughly orthodox phrases like “Mother of God” and “Hail Mary, full of grace.”
West vs. East
On the same day that Littlejohn found himself in an Anglo-Catholic parish in Scotland celebrating the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, I was at a Greek Orthodox parish in Hawaii celebrating the Dormition (Falling Asleep) of the Theotokos. What Littlejohn experienced that day was influenced by Roman Catholicism which is quite different from Eastern Orthodoxy. I plan to discuss Littlejohn’s blog posting from an Eastern Orthodox standpoint.
The term “Assumption” stem from the Roman Catholic belief that Mary did not die but was “assumed” or taken up bodily into heaven. The Eastern Orthodox term “Dormition” stem from the belief that Mary “fell asleep,” that is, died a natural death. This points to a major theological divide. Roman Catholicism believes that Mary was immaculately conceived, meaning that she was completely untouched by Original Sin even from the moment of her conception. Orthodoxy believes that Mary was affected by the Original Sin and subject to mortality like the rest of humanity. Eastern Orthodoxy rejects the Catholic dogma of Mary’s immaculate conception and her bodily assumption into heaven as theological innovations.
The belief in Mary’s immaculate conception implies a parallel humanity that is ontologically separate from our fallen humanity. If so, then the Roman Catholic position contains the disturbing implication that Christ does not really share the same human nature as ours which raises serious questions about the meaning of the Incarnation. The Eastern Orthodox understanding is that while sharing in a human nature that was mortal and susceptible to corruption, Mary was preserved or protected from sinning by God’s grace. For this reason the Orthodox Church refers to Mary as “Panagia” (all holy). How this happens to be is a mystery rooted in God’s mercy. While quite similar to the Catholic position, the Orthodox understanding of Mary safeguards the doctrine of the Incarnation.
Virgin vs. Theotokos
Both terms, “Virgin” and “Theotokos”, are accepted by Eastern Orthodoxy. However, it becomes clear after listening to the Divine Liturgy that the Orthodox Church prefers to address Mary as “Theotokos” (God Bearer). Alexander Schmemann notes:
It is significant that whereas in the West Mary is primarily the Virgin, a being almost totally different from us in her absolute and celestial purity and freedom from all carnal pollution, in the East she is always referred to and glorified as Theotokos, the Mother of God, and virtually all icons depict her with the Child in her arms. (p. 83; emphasis in original)
Thus, the different titles ascribed to Mary in the Anglo-Catholic service attended by Littlejohn and the Greek Orthodox service I attended are far more than interesting trivia. They point to the quite different angles Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism have taken in the way they view Mary. I hope that in his quest to discover the ancient roots of the Christian faith Littlejohn will look into the Eastern Orthodox tradition.
The Ecumenical Councils on Mary
Littlejohn was mistaken when he said that the term “Theotokos” was coined to refute the heresy of Nestorius. Actually, the controversy began when Nestorius rejected the term “Theotokos” which was already in use at the time. What the third Ecumenical Council did was to formally endorse the title “Theotokos.” I appreciate Littlejohn’s openness about his lack of familiarity with the early Ecumenical Councils, but still I am disconcerted by this gap in historical theology. If someone with his educational background happened to be confused about the Nestorian controversy, to what extent have others in the Reformed tradition forgotten the historical roots of their Christology and belief in the Trinity?
Mary played no small role in the findings of the Ecumenical Councils. This is because the Incarnation is key to Christology. Mary’s role in the economy of salvation is touched upon in three councils: (1) Nicea I (325), (2) Ephesus (431), and (3) Chalcedon (451). The first Council promulgated the Nicene Creed which is recited at every Sunday Liturgy in Eastern Orthodox churches. The Nicene Creed states:
For us and our salvation he came down from heaven
and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and became man. (emphasis added)
In this pivotal sentence our salvation is directly linked to the Incarnation. The Incarnation could not have happened apart from Mary’s free consent. By this act of faith and obedience Mary became the New Eve who helped reverse the Fall of Adam and Eve.
At the third Ecumenical Council, the Council of Ephesus, the Church affirmed the application of the title “Theotokos” to Mary and condemned those who refused to call Mary the Theotokos (NPNF Vol. XIV p. 206). The Chalcedonian Formula explicated the two natures of Christ stating that Christ received his full humanity from Mary the Theotokos.
Reformed Christians who affirm the Ecumenical Councils need to be aware of the high view of Mary articulated by the fathers who attended the Councils.
If anyone shall not confess that the Word of God has two nativities, the one from all eternity of the Father, without time and without body; the other in these last days, coming down from heaven and being made flesh of the holy and glorious Mary, Mother of God and always a virgin, and born of her: let him be anathema. (NPNF Vol. XIV p. 312; emphasis added)
…begotten of his Father before all ages according to his Godhead, but in these last days for us men and for our salvation made man of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary, strictly and properly the Mother of God according to the flesh…. (NPNF Vol. XIV p. 345; italics added)
Most Protestants would have no problem accepting the theological rationale behind giving Mary the title “Theotokos” or “Mother of God” in their intellect but would gag at the thought of saying that title out loud in a worship service. Despite their claim to have accepted the Ecumenical Councils — most Reformed Christians profess to accept the first four Councils — their reluctance to honor Mary as “Theotokos” or “Mother of God” raises the possibility of their being de facto Nestorians.
Lex Orans, Lex Credens
The ancient principle: lex orans, lex credens (the rule of prayer is the rule of faith) teaches that the way we worship shapes what we believe and vice versa. This means that by observing how a congregation addresses Mary in its liturgical services tells us much about what they believe about her. Littlejohn recounts how at the end of the service the congregation rose facing the statue of the Virgin Mary and began reciting the Ave Maria:
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you,
Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
This is not the practice of Eastern Orthodoxy. The seventh Ecumenical Council allowed for flat two-dimensional icons but disallowed the use of statues in worship. In Orthodox services Mary is honored through the veneration of the icon showing her holding the Christ child in her arms.
Where Roman Catholics recite the Ave Maria, Eastern Orthodox Christians sing the hymn Axios Estin (It is Truly Right):
It is truly right to bless you, the Theotokos,
ever blessed and most pure and mother of our God.
More honorable than the Cherubim,
and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim,
incorruptibly you gave birth to God the Word.
We magnify you, the true Theotokos.
A thoughtful Protestant will readily recognize that both prayers are grounded in Scripture. But even given the biblical basis for these prayers, many Protestants will struggle to say them out loud in a worship service. Littlejohn observes:
For to honour Mary theologically in the way I described might seem like one thing; to honour her liturgically quite another.
Much of the difficulty here rests with the way Protestants have understood the nature of worship. Kimberly Hahn, wife of Scott Hahn, a former Presbyterian minister who converted to Roman Catholicism, made an illuminating observation.
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. (p. 145)
This astute observation is one that an Eastern Orthodox Christian could also endorse. Hahn’s observation underscores how much Protestantism has drifted away from an Eucharistic-centered understanding of Christian worship to a sermon focused understanding of worship.
Diagnosing the Protestant Allergic Reaction
The difficulty that Protestants have in honoring Mary is more than an emotional hang-up. Underlying the visceral “allergic reaction” Protestant feel when they contemplate praying to her are a number of theological and world view issues. To put it simply and bluntly: Protestantism is a modern, secular religion. It contains assumptions and beliefs that depart from the historic Christian faith. What are the assumptions that prevent Protestants from honoring Mary?
One, there is this unspoken belief that physical matter is spiritually neutral. Littlejohn writes:
We claim to have a high doctrine of creation, but many Protestants–at least Reformed Presbyterians, don’t like creation to play much of a role in worship, purging our churches of any kind of imagery. While of course part of this might be legitimate avoidance of idolatry, more of it seems to be part of the same old Puritan fear that to honour God through his creations is to dishounour him.
While Protestants reject Gnosticism’s heretical view that physical matter is evil, they also reject the historic Christian view that physical matter can become a channel for divine grace, i.e., become a sacrament. They believe that physical objects can become signs and symbols that stimulate faith in our hearts and remind us of God’s grace in Christ. But they are quite reluctant to believe that a physical object can acquire a sanctity that sets it apart from ordinary use and is reserved exclusively to God. They have abandoned an ontological understanding of holiness for a functional understanding of holiness. In the Protestant world view holiness resides in the intended purpose, not in the object itself. This is evident in the way they handle the leftovers from a Communion service like leftovers from an ordinary meal. This is evident in the practice of allowing the church sanctuary to be used for secular functions after hours.
The problem with the Protestant understanding of physical matter as spiritually neutral is that this is essentially a secular world view. Missing in the secular world view is the notion of approaching creation with respect, gratitude, and restraint. The secular world view opens the door for modern science’s manipulation of the physical universe to test scientific hypotheses, including thermonuclear explosions, genetic modifications, and the creation of exotic toxic chemicals. It also opens the door for modern capitalism’s exploitation of the natural environment and the creation of a consumeristic culture. This in turn has spurred a backlash in the form of the resacralizing of creation through quasi-religious belief systems like veganism and Rastafarianism.
This secular outlook seems to underlie modern Protestants disregard for Mary’s perpetual virginity. Mary having other children besides Jesus is the closest thing to a dogma among Protestants. Practically all Protestants today hold this view, despite the fact Luther and Calvin both affirmed Mary’s perpetual virginity. It goes hand in hand with Protestantism’s rejection of celibacy and the monastic lifestyle. Protestantism seems to want to anchor Mary solely within the present age and overlook her role as an historical-eschatological figure who links the present age with the age to come. The secular world view has led to the rejection of marriage as a sacrament. This has led to marriage being viewed as a civil right, sex as a recreational activity, and the family as a social unit bounded by social conventions.
Two, the Protestant world view assumes that those who have died are completely out of the picture. This is not a formal teaching of Protestant churches but a widely held and unquestioned assumption. Littlejohn notes:
...there is not necessarily any idolatry or heresy in the notion that we could call upon some deceased saint and ask them to pray for us, though we Protestants might well doubt whether there was any way they could hear us.… (emphasis added)
The severance of ties with the afterlife results in a strong this-wordly orientation. This is at odds with the biblical world view which views the faithful here on earth being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). In Revelation we are told that the deceased stand before the throne of God in heaven engaged in worship day and night (Revelation 7:9-15). Revelation 6:10 tells how those recently martyred plead with God for justice. A similar perspective can be seen in the Transfiguration narrative that appears in all three synoptic Gospels in which Moses and Elijah enter into a conversation with Jesus. For the Orthodox the dead in Christ are very much alive in Christ. In contrast, the Protestant view of the afterlife reduces Mary and heroic martyrs to a abstract historical figures.
Three, in reducing Mary to a distant historical figure or a piece of theological datum, Protestant theology have taken on an abstract and impersonal quality. This is at odds with the line in the Apostles Creed which profess faith in “the communion of saints.” This line has been long understood to mean Christians enjoying fellowship with the living and the departed.
The Orthodox veneration of Mary is based upon the doctrine of the communion of saints. It goes beyond thinking of Mary as a distant historical figure to a real personal presence. Jim Forest in Praying With Icons recounts a conversation between a Dutch theology professor and an elderly Russian woman during the Cold War.
She began to cross-examine him. “And you also are a believer?” “Yes, in fact I teach theology at the university.” “And people in Holland, they go to church on Sunday?” “Yes, most people go to church. We have churches in every town and village.” “And they believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?” She crossed herself as she said the words. “Oh, yes,” Hannes assured her, but the doubt in her face increased — why had he not crossed himself? Then she looked at the icon and asked, “And do you love the Mother of God?” Now Hannes was at a loss and stood for a moment in silence. Good Calvinist that he was, he could hardly say yes. Then he said, “I have great respect for her.” “Such a pity,” she replied in pained voice, “but I will pray for you.” Immediately she crossed, kissed the icon, and stood before it in prayer. (p. 109)
This anecdote vividly illustrates the differences in attitude Reformed and Orthodox Christians have towards Mary and the communion of saints.
Four, its independent stance to Mary gives Protestant spirituality a rugged individualism. Having abandoned the notion of the communion of saints, Protestants, especially Reformed Christians, have become detached from Mary and the saints in their prayer life. It has given rise to erroneous impression that asking the saints for their prayers is a form of necromancy. This ludicrous notion shows how far they have departed from the historic faith.
The communion of saints provides the basis for the corporate approach to prayer. For the Orthodox the corporate approach to prayer extends beyond the Sunday Liturgy to the daily Morning and Evening Prayers.
Having risen from sleep, we fall before you, O good One,
and sing to you, mighty One, the angelic hymn:
Holy, holy, holy are you, O God.
Through the prayers of the Theotokos, have mercy on us.
(Morning Prayers in Daily Prayers; emphasis added)
Here we see the individual Orthodox Christian praying in unison with Mary. Likewise, praying with Mary leads us to praying with the other departed saints in heaven.
Intercede for us, holy Apostles, and all you saints,
so that we may be saved from danger and sorrow.
We have received you as fervent defenders before the Savior.
(Prayers Before Sleep in Daily Prayers; emphasis added)
This approach to prayer takes us beyond individual and the local congregation into the vast corporate worship in heaven described in Hebrews 12 and Revelation 5-7. This is the way Christians understood worship until the Protestant Reformation and especially the Puritan movement stripped away a rich spiritual heritage.
Protestants’ acute “allergic reaction” is rooted in the assumptions in the Protestant world view. Having broken with the historic Christian faith Protestantism has evolved into a modern, secular religion. Protestants who witness the honoring of Mary in the historic churches — Anglo-Catholic, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox — find their theology and their world view being challenged on the deepest levels. To overcome this “emotional hang-up” Reformed Christians will need to critically scrutinize the foundational premises of their belief system and their relation to the historic Christian faith.
Reforming Reformed Worship?
Littlejohn objects to the language used to honor the Virgin Mary deeming them “genuinely idolatrous language.” Yet he also recognizes that Protestantism has suffered an impoverishment of their faith in their reaction to the extremes of Roman Catholicism. He writes:
On the other hand, it certainly seems that Protestants have impoverished their faith by completely excising from it any real consideration of Mary, and the disregard this shows for the faith of the early Church does not boost our credibility when we claim to be recovering that faith. Finding the appropriate balance is sure to prove a difficult task, but continuing to neglect that task is not a responsible option.
Much of the imbalance in the Protestant understanding of Mary can be traced to a reaction to Roman Catholicism and the Puritans’ desire to carry out the Reformation further than the original Reformers had intended. It will be impossible to recover this balance unless there is a historical benchmark for doing theology and ordering worship. I would urge W. Bradford Littlejohn and other like minded Reformed Christians to do three things: (1) examine what the early Church Fathers have to say about Mary, (2) examine what the Orthodox Church has to say about Mary in its liturgical prayers, and (3) reread Scriptures from the standpoint of the early Church.
Littlejohn closes his posting suggesting the need to recover a balance to counter the long standing neglect of Mary in Reformed worship. I think he is overly optimistic in his belief that this balance can be brought to Reformed worship. It would be fair warning to Littlejohn and others that the quest to recover a balanced view of Mary can lead to some disturbing questions about the basic premises of their Reformed theology. However, realigning one’s faith and worship with the historic Christian Faith will bring the blessings of receiving “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.”
Michael Hyatt’s “Most Holy Theotokos, Save Us” At The Intersection of East and West Series on Ancient Faith Radio podcast, April 4, 2009.
The Seven Ecumenical Councils. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (NPNF). Second Series Vol. XIV.
Daily Prayers. Edited by N. Michael Vaporis. (1986)
Little Compline With The Akathist Hymn. By the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese. (1981)
“The Mystery of Love.” In For the Life of the World. By Alexander Schmemann. (1988)
Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism. By Scott and Kimberly Hahn. (1993)
Praying With Icons. By Jim Forest. (1997)