Wednesday, 15 November 2006

Tim Perry: Mary for Evangelicals

Tim Perry, Mary for Evangelicals: Toward an Understanding of the Mother of Our Lord (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 320 pp. (with thanks to IVP for a review copy)

Since Vatican II, we have seen remarkable developments in ecumenical understanding between Roman Catholics and Protestant evangelicals. But Mariology has remained a point of special contention. The progress in ecumenical understanding was most evident in the CCET’s 2002 conference on “Mary: Mother of God” – and in recent years, American writers like Donald Bloesch, Timothy George and Robert Jenson have made significant steps towards the development of a Protestant Mariology. But until now we have not witnessed a full-scale Mariology written from an evangelical perspective.

In this bold and ambitious new book (released last week), Tim Perry seeks to fill this gap, and to provide a biblical, historical and dogmatic account of the place of Mary in the faith of the church.

Perry begins with a careful exegetical analysis of the diverse portrayals of Mary in the New Testament. For Paul, Mary is merely as an anonymous mother, while Mark portrays her negatively as a misguided opponent to Jesus’ ministry and Matthew focuses on the scandal of Mary’s pregnancy. Only in Luke/Acts does Mary begin to emerge as “a major character” (p. 63) with her own theological significance. Perry admits that it is impossible to reconstruct a “historical Mary” based on the material in Luke/Acts; Luke’s infancy narrative is “theological history,” and as a result our interpretation must be concerned not with “the history behind the text” but only with “the text itself” (p. 66). It is especially by “relocat[ing] the locus of God’s salvation from the death and resurrection of Jesus to his miraculous conception and birth” that Luke is led to confer “a new, higher status” on Mary (p. 94).

If the Lucan Mary bears some traces of symbolic representation, it is in the Johannine literature that Mary becomes virtually submerged in theological symbolism. Paradoxically, on the one hand the Johannine literature treats Mary as “a highly developed literary device” (p. 113), but on the other hand Mary’s individuality almost entirely recedes from view. (For instance, the Fourth Gospel refers to Mary simply as “the mother of Jesus” or even “woman”!) Thus Perry observes that the Johannine Mary is, in some ways, really not far from Paul’s depiction of an anonymous mother (p. 113).

Perry therefore concludes that there are two main ways of depicting Mary in the New Testament: there is “Mary the person” and “Mary the symbol.” And in his finely drawn survey of the historical development of Mariology in the West (pp. 119-263), Perry highlights the ways in which the symbolic Mary “has come almost completely to suffocate” the individuality of Mary the person. If we are to develop a biblically responsible Mariology, then, we must give far greater emphasis to “Mary the person,” to the one “who hovers on the margins of her society and on the fringes of the biblical text” (p. 263).

Turning at last to a constructive dogmatic Mariology, Perry argues that Mariology finds its “theological anchor” in the confession of Theotokos, Mother of God (p. 267). The Theotokos makes it clear that Mariology “naturally arises out of Christology – what the church confesses about Mary stems from and is intended to clarify what it believes about Christ” (p. 269). And, for Perry, the importance of the Theotokos can hardly be overstated: “if Mary did not bear God in her womb – if she is not Theotokos – human beings are not saved” (p. 271).

Next, Perry follows Karl Barth in emphasising the sign-character of Mary’s virginity. Her virginity is not primarily a matter of sexual abstinence, but it is the positive determination of her being as “wholehearted fidelity to the prophetic calling of bearing the Word of God” (p. 284).

Further, Perry focuses on divine predestination as the determination of Mary’s place in God’s plan. Drawing closely on Robert Jenson’s account of election and pre-existence, Perry argues that just as the Son’s pre-existence is not an atemporal preincarnate existence but rather a (supralapsarian) movement towards incarnation, so too Mary herself must be regarded as eternally elected to be Theotokos: “If the man Jesus Christ is elect from all eternity to be the humanity of God, then the woman Mary is elect from all eternity to be the mother of that man who is God” (p. 288). Moreover, Mary’s holiness should be understood not in legendary or quasi-biological terms, but simply as “the faithfulness with which she embraced and pursued the divine commission to be the slave of the Lord” (p. 293). Mary’s sanctity, then, consists precisely in her “paradigmatic human response to the grace of God disclosed in Christ” – and not in any legendary notions of a miraculous beginning or end to her life (p. 295).

Finally, on the basis of Mary’s role as Theotokos, Perry argues that we can give a proper place to her role as intercessor, mediator and advocate – although he suggests that, from his own Reformed perspective, Mary’s role as coredemptrix can be affirmed “only in the weakest possible sense,” since from this perspective Mary cannot be regarded as cooperating synergistically with grace (p. 306).

The underlying argument of this whole dogmatic account of Mariology is that some of the central loci of Christian theology will be incomplete and unbalanced unless they also integrate Mariological reflection. Christology requires an emphasis on Mary as Theotokos; the doctrine of God requires an emphasis on Mary’s place in divine election; and ecclesiology requires an emphasis on Mary’s ongoing role in the faith and life of the church. In short, “to pass over Mariology … inevitably leaves other central Christian doctrines underdeveloped” (p. 268).

With its sophisticated historical and exegetical grounding, its careful subjection of church tradition to the witness of Scripture, and its ambitious attempt to integrate Mariology into the whole structure of Protestant dogmatics, this book offers an important and challenging contribution to the contemporary ecumenical conversation.

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