As someone who grew up evangelical Protestant, I always viewed the doctrinal distinctives of the Church of Rome with suspicion. To me, one of the stranger elements of Roman piety and practice was devotion to the Virgin Mary. I always believed Mary was important and special. She miraculously conceived our Lord, after all! However, because of Roman dogmas, such as her perpetual virginity or Immaculate Conception, and practices, such as invoking her in prayers using the rosary (all of which seemed strange and unbiblical to me), I and my tradition shied away from offering her significant attention outside of the Christmas season. Even then, I never spent much time thinking about her or her role in the Advent story directly.
As I have continued to develop my theology and have come into the Anglican Church, I have had some major shifts in the way I view Mary. I believe that Scripture and the history of the Church teach us that Mary ought to be remembered highly for three main reasons:
- Her role as the theotokos, the Mother of God
- Her typological fulfillment of figures in the Old Testament
- Her exemplary life of faith
Protestant recovery of these truths will lead to a deeper reverence in the faith and edification in our churches.
Theotokos is a Greek word meaning “God-bearer” that is applied to Mary as the mother of Jesus Christ. As the one who bore the Incarnate Son in her womb, Mary is called the Mother of God. This statement does not claim that God’s existence somehow depends on Mary or that Mary is the source of God. Rather, it claims that the human child born to Mary was and is truly God. Calling Mary the theotokos or the Mother of God is one of the most powerful ways we can witness to the mystery of the Incarnation, without which we have no hope of salvation.
This is exactly the debate that occurred in the fifth century between St. Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius. Nestorius was uncomfortable using the title theotokos—God-bearer—so he taught that the appropriate title for Mary ought to be christotokos—Christ-bearer. In this way, Nestorius thought, we more accurately describe what Mary did without diminishing God by claiming he could be borne in a human’s womb. The problem, which St. Cyril vehemently challenged Nestorius on, is that doing so undermines our salvation by undermining the truth of the Incarnation, which is that God himself became a man. “The Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14). If the One to whom Mary gave birth is not God himself, the Incarnation is not able to save us because the one born is not the eternal Son of God.
Recovering the title theotokos allows us to witness to the mystery of the Incarnation by recognizing whom Mary gave birth to and what that means for us and for our salvation. Using the title theotokos for Mary points us to Christ as we are reminded of his Incarnation.
“In typology, certain people or things in the Old Testament have definite parallels with corresponding people or things in the New Testament, in the fulfillment of God’s covenantal purposes in Christ” (Robert Letham, Systematic Theology, 249). Typology is a sort of theological foreshadowing, where someone or something (the “type”) points forward to someone or something (the “antitype”) in the future of God’s plan of redemption. As it pertains to Mary, we see in her and her life the typological fulfillment of Old Testament types. Two, in particular, are worth noting.
First, Mary is the new Eve. While Eve said “no” to God in the garden, choosing to follow the desires of her own heart in regard to the fruit forbidden to her, Mary said “yes” to God at the Annunciation when Gabriel announced she would give birth to a Savior, choosing to submit to the will of God regarding the fruit of her womb. In this way, Mary fulfills Eve’s role by accomplishing what Eve didn’t. Mary obeys where Eve disobeyed; her choice leads to life where Eve’s choice led to death.
Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Trypho, an early work of Christian apologetics, speaks of this connection between Mary and Eve:
[Jesus Christ] became man by the Virgin, in order that the disobedience which proceeded from the serpent might receive its destruction in the same manner in which it derived its origin. For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her, and the power of the Highest would overshadow her… (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chap. 100).
Mary is also a typological fulfillment of the Ark of the Covenant. As the Ark in the Old Testament was the space on earth where the revelation of God dwelt (the tablets of the Law), in Mary’s womb, the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus dwelt within her (Col 1:19). The holy place wherein the revelation given to the people of Israel was kept safe and kept before the eyes and minds of the people corresponds to Mary’s role as the bearer of God and the one who brings Christ, the Incarnate Word, before us on earth. Parallels in language used in the Old Testament of the Ark and in Luke’s Gospel of Mary (e.g., the Holy Spirit covering the tabernacle in Exodus 40:34 and Mary in Luke 1:35) reinforce the comparison of the two (Neal Flanagan, “Mary Ark of the Covenant” Worship, [s. l.], v. 35, n. 6, p. 370–375).
A possible objection to viewing Mary as a typological fulfillment of Old Testament figures is that we should only apply typology to Christ himself. It may be that it is one thing to look to Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac and see typological connections to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and quite another to start pointing to mere human figures as types. However, the New Testament itself frequently uses typology for things and people other than Jesus. One example is the typological references to baptism. In Colossians 2:11-12, Paul links baptism with circumcision, indicating a foreshadowing in circumcision of Christian baptism. Peter links baptism with Noah’s ark in 1 Peter 3:20-21. Both of these passages use typology to relate figures in the Old Testament to New Testament baptism. They show us how typology can be helpful in contexts other than learning about Jesus himself.
Exemplar of Faith
Finally, Mary serves as an exemplar of faith for us to look to and imitate. This is perhaps the most simple and yet most profound lesson that Mary can teach us. Mary stands as an exemplary figure of faith, worthy of imitation in that her faithful obedience points us to Christ and to our own faithfulness to God.
Mary’s “yes” to God as she stands a young, poor virgin before the heavenly messenger revealing God’s nearly unbelievable plan for her to take part in teaches us the posture of faith that we ought to have before God. She humbly submits to the will of God in her life, even as it comes to her in the form of a difficult, seemingly impossible event proclaimed by a being that almost certainly would have been a terrifying sight to behold. Despite the audacious manner of the Annunciation and the fact that saying “yes” almost certainly guaranteed social ostracization, as Mary became pregnant prior to consummating her marriage to Joseph, Mary’s response is, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). I’m not convinced there is a more beautiful posture of humility, reception, and submission to the God who uses the poor and marginalized, who confounds the wisdom of the wise, and whose power is perfected in weakness. Truly, may we all have the faith to say to God, “May it be done to me according to your word.”
I have presented several theological reflections that provide compelling reasons to reconsider the lack of attention Protestantism—and especially evangelical Protestantism—has tended to give the Virgin Mary. Like all good things, however, attention to Mary can be misused and abused. There are theological concerns that are important and valid and ought to be taken seriously in order to guard against.
Retrieving Mary in a Protestant context does not mean uncritically adopting Mariology from other traditions. The Roman dogma of the Immaculate Conception, for example, has serious implications for the Incarnation that ought to trouble Christians from any background. If Mary’s flesh was immaculately conceived in such a way that she was protected from the natural fallen state caused by sin, how is it that Jesus receives a human nature from her that is the same as that of the rest of humanity? If Jesus has a different nature than I have, how can he save me? These questions only scratch the surface, and a full treatment of the Immaculate Conception is beyond the scope of this essay, not to mention the theological debate around whether Christ inherited a fallen or unfallen human nature. Whatever the conclusions one comes to on these various questions, it is clear that Mary and her role in the Incarnation are important considerations in the debates. These questions are also worth noting as an example of possible pitfalls if Protestants merely appropriate wholesale a view or a doctrine of Mary from a different tradition.
As with the memory of any saint, it can be tempting to put Mary on a pedestal due to her miraculous role in the Incarnation or her example of faith and obedience to God. As was made clear above, these are truths to meditate and reflect on in order to devote ourselves more fully to Christ. However, if these things cause us to elevate Mary in such a way that she becomes more than human, or if our spiritual gaze is directed away from Christ instead of toward him, that is problematic and ought to be avoided. Calling Mary blessed—as she declared all generations would in the Magnificat—is a statement about God and his grace before it is a statement about Mary as the recipient of that grace. It is vital to maintain that proper perspective on the life and role of Mary.
Protestants have, in many ways, forgotten the mother of Our Lord. Mary is presented in Scripture and the tradition of the church as the theotokos, the God-bearer, who God uses to bring his Incarnate Son into the world for us and for our salvation. She typologically fulfills figures in the Old Testament in a way that highlights God’s plan of redemption in history. Finally, Mary’s obedience to God gives us a profound model and example of what it means to serve God and listen to his plans in our lives.
Reflection on these truths ought to spur us on to further and deeper devotion to God and Christ, the Incarnate One who, from the foundations of the world, was slain in order to redeem his people who submit to his will for his glory and their benefit. In my own spiritual life, I have seen the drawbacks of being raised in a tradition that downplays Mary and the ways that retrieval of a biblical picture of Mary serves to edify Christians and form us theologically in a healthy way. I would ask every Christian to meditate on the story and words of Mary in the early pages of Luke’s gospel as a devotional practice to direct our minds and hearts to the Lord.