Most Christians recognize March 25 as Good Friday. But a growing number of Protestants also are taking note that this year it overlaps with the day of Annunciation. Long celebrated by Roman Catholics exactly nine months before Christmas, it commemorates Mary being told by the angel Gabriel that she would bear a son.
Time magazine seized on the occasion with a March 21 cover story on growing interest in the mother of Jesus among Protestants who say their traditions may shortchange her role in Scripture.
Devotion to Mary existed in the early church, developing into her being declared the “Mother of God” at the Council of Ephesus in 431. After the Reformation, Protestants rejected many Catholic teachings, such as veneration of the saints, including Mary.
That gap widened as Mary’s role continued to expand in Catholic teachings, including her Immaculate Conception in 1854 and her bodily Assumption into heaven in 1950.
More recently, however, some scholars are asking if Protestants went too far in reacting to Catholic excesses lumped together as “Mariolatry,” to the point of ignoring concepts about her that are supported in Scripture.
“It is time for evangelicals to recover a fully biblical appreciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her role in the history of salvation,” Timothy George, a Baptist historian and dean of the Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, wrote in a 2003 article in Christianity Today. “We may not be able to recite the rosary or kneel down before statues of Mary, but we need not throw her overboard.”
In the Christianity Today article, George offered five biblical ways for non-Catholics to think about “The Blessed Evangelical Mary.”
Among them, George said, evangelicals should join other Christians in celebrating the Virgin Mary as “God-bearer.” While most evangelicals find the “mother of God” term strange or inappropriate, he said, the intent of the ancient language is not to elevate Mary but rather to assert the Son of God was “born of a woman,” or God in the flesh.
George also reminded that the New Testament portrays Mary as among the last at the cross and among the first in the Upper Room. At the foot of the cross, he said, Mary represents the church as a faithful remnant, an image that should speak to a church today that in many parts of the world is persecuted. As a member of the early Christian community, she represents the church in its call to discipleship and witness.
“This is the Mary Protestants can and should embrace,” George wrote. “We do not think of the mother of God, an object of devotion by herself, in isolation from her son. We need not go through Mary in order to get to Jesus, but we can join with Mary in pointing others to him.”
Time introduced Mary Burks-Price, manager of clinical pastoral education at Norton Healthcare in Louisville, Ky., as a “Marian Baptist,” who first identified with the mother of Jesus at the birth of her own child and years later while mourning the loss of a friend.
In 1998, grieving for a close friend killed in a plane crash, she found consolation in a marble statue of Mary on the grounds of a retreat center run by a Catholic convent.
“Her hands were outstretched, and her face was looking down on me with this great compassion,” Burks-Price told Time. “I realized that she knew what it was like to see her son die on the cross, to bear that sorrow and grief. I felt she was giving me a window into the compassion God had for me in my own experience.”
While still a Baptist, the article said, Burks-Price decorates her office with porcelain statuettes, laminated prayer cards and icons of Mary. She keeps a rosary for Catholic patients, and sometimes, she said, knows the prayer better than they do.
Beverly Gaventa, a New Testament professor at Princeton, portrays Mary as victim of “a Protestant conspiracy of silence: theologically, liturgically and devotionally,” according to Time. To remedy the omission, she wrote a book called Mary: Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus and began using terms like First Disciple and Mother of All Believers that she says are consistent with Scripture.
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler dismissed such new “theological constructions” as “overreaching,” “wishful thinking” and “flirting with Catholic devotion.”
“Insofar as evangelicals may have marginalized Mary’s presentation in the Bible, it needs to be recovered,” Mohler said in Time. “But the closer I look at the New Testament, the more convinced I am that it does not single her out for the kind of attention that is being proposed. We have not missed the point about her. To construct a new role for her is simply overreaching.”
Mohler said he is most troubled when “Mary is held forth as the maternal face of God, some dimension that is fundamentally absent from Scripture. God’s love is presented in biblical terms without and need for Mary as an intermediary. To suggest that need, even as ‘symbolic’ instead of doctrinal, this is the Reformation in reverse. It’s simply unbiblical, and it leads to the worst excesses of Marian devotion.”
Expanding in a March 18 Weblog, Mohler attributed much of the renewed interest in Mary to feminist theologians who argue that a male-oriented world of biblical scholarship relegated her and other women in the Bible to secondary roles, a view he opposes.
“To refer to Mary as ‘Mother of all Believers’ is to go beyond the biblical text and to assign to the mother of Jesus a role that is, to say the least, not explicitly found in Scripture,” Mohler wrote.
Mohler went on to chastise Burks-Price, a graduate of Southern Seminary and an ordained minister who attends Highland Baptist Church not far from the seminary campus.
“In this case, Burks-Price is not merely flirting with Catholic devotion but accepting it whole scale,” Mohler observed. “She may claim to remain a Baptist by affiliation, but she has accepted theological assumptions and spiritual practices that are fundamentally at odds with both the Bible and Baptist tradition.”
“Those who argue that Mary offers us a more compassionate understanding of God than is revealed in Jesus Christ alone insult both the person and work of Christ and accept the worst excesses of Catholic piety,” he continued.
In an e-mail statement to EthicsDaily.com, Burks-Price wondered how a news story illustrating a small part of her Christian life could lead Mohler to draw conclusions about her theology.
“My small quotations in Time magazine illustrate a part of my Christian walk as an ordained Baptist minister,” she said. “It is about how God used the biblical example of Mary to help me experience God’s mysteries of birth, death and resurrection. Mary is a strong model of feminine discipleship with uniquely feminine experiences.”
“While I’m not offended to be compared to Catholics, my Catholic clergy colleagues have certified that my theology on Mary is not Catholic in doctrine,” Burks-Price said. “Ironically, Dr. Mohler and I agree on our theology of Mary as a human model of piety who points us toward Jesus.”
“I believe that Mary offers me a way of understanding God’s compassion,” she continued. “If there is a problem with this, we need to stop talking about Peter, Paul, the apostles, Annie Armstrong, Lottie Moon or any other person who offers us models to understand and more fully follow Jesus.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.