Tuesday 14 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.


Anonymous said...

Seems Mary will be the subject of much discussion. Scot McKnight has a book on Mary out too, and "The Nativity Story" movie will also spur the discussion.

wn said...

Francis Turretin, Charles Hodge and Herman Bavinck all seemed to have a place for Mary as θεοτόκος. [Read quotes here] So in some respects understanding that Mary was the mother of the whole Christ, both divine and human, one person and two natures, is old news to historic Reformed thought. She does seem to be the ideal disciple. Her faith does not appear to waiver throughout the Gospel narratives. She is the first witness to our resurrection hope. This being said, it is Christology that informs our understanding of Mary and not the other way round. A healthy view of Mary would enhance our Chalcedonian understanding of Christ not detract from it.

You might also find John Meyendorff's work from an Eastern Orthodox Historical Theological approach to be interesting. I would suggest reading the book, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought by St. Vladimir's Press. I have thorough chapter summaries at Nielsen's Nook which might help non-Orthodox digest the dense material found in Meyendorff's work.

Anonymous said...

Hi w. nielsen.

I am sure that that the Theotokos is correct. But how is it that Mary is the "ideal disciple"? There is nothing in the synoptics to support such an accolade - indeed Mark 3:31-35 (cf. Matthew 12:46-50, Luke 8:19-21) suggests the opposite, and Mary is not even reported to have been at the crucifixion. Whence her unwaivering faith? In John, of course, Mary does appear at the cross, and Luke tells us that she was among the earliest Christians (Acts1:14), but, again, "ideal disciple"?

As for Mary being "the first witness to our resurrection hope", are you confusing her with Magdalene (John 20:11ff.)? Her son James is the only member of Joseph's family to whom the risen Christ seems to have appeared (I Corinthian 15:7).

One of Freedom said...

I've actually become comfortable with the title Theotokos this semester. Mary has been prominant in two classes (Ecclesiology and Eastern Studies). I have trouble with the Papal decrees on Mary, especially the doctrine of Mary's Immaculate conception (I have no problem with Jesus' immaculate conception) which seems to be based on an excessive notion of Original Sin and a bad notion of reproductive science. Lumen Gentium is actually helpful here (Vat II) as redemptrix is not named as a title and the titles that are acknowledged are couched in the caution that they should not take anything away from the role of Christ. The term Theotokos simply affirms that Mary has a crucial role in the economy of salvation by her pattern of saying 'yes' to God. I think most of my own reservations have been with regard to excesses of Mariolotry (I'm not far from Quebec and the Army of Mary movement). This looks like a book I would quite enjoy reading.

Anonymous said...

For a liberal Catholic postition that draws on Mary based on the Gospels, feminst theory, and Vatican II, you should read Elizabeth Johnson's book Truly our sister. I should be amenable to Protestans of all stripes.

wn said...

Kim -

Are you inviting dialog on my post? If you are there are some additions on which I might enjoy your feedback. It is just hard to know if folks who post comments come back or if they are disposed to dialog or not. I don't want to spend a lot of time on this if you won't be back to read or are not really interested in dialog. I think you make some points that are worth discussing, so just let me know and we'll enjoy the discussion.

Anonymous said...

Hi W.

Well, I'm not sure what you mean by "dialog". I don't think I want an extended discussion (not least because there are so many other interesting things to discuss on this great blog alone - and there is only so much time!). But I'm certainly happy for you to answer my queries - and by all means to set me straight if I've got it wrong. Can you do that here? Everyhting else you say I agree with wholeheartedly.

One of Freedom said...

I've actually read part of Truly our Sister, Johnson is a Lutheran so you are right it is Protestant (I don't like that label myself) friendly.

Anonymous said...

Re: One of Freedom's comments on the immaculate conception... you're confusing two separate Catholic doctrines, the immaculate conception of Mary and the virgin birth. (That's VERY common, actually.)

The Catholic teaching is that Mary's conception and birth, from a biological standpoint, were totally normal-- i.e. the result of sexual intercourse between her mother and father. However, as far as the state of her soul is concerned, she was preserved from any stain of original sin. Here's the exact quote: "in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin." Not that she didn't need a Savior; rather, that her Savior (Jesus) acted in a totally unique way in granting her saving grace, due to her totally unique role in salvation history. In the act of creating her soul and infusing it into her body, God simultaneously infused her with saving grace to prevent any stain of original sin touching her.

A related point is that Mary never committed a personal sin during her lifetime, again due to God's gifts of grace. Another, separate but related doctrine is the perpetual virginity of Mary (i.e. that she remained a virgin throughout her life, had no other children, etc.) You've been patient to read this far, so I won't go off on the tangent of presenting the evidence for that...

... because we still have to talk about the virgin birth. That refers to the conception of Jesus, not Mary. The doctrine means that the Catholic Church holds that the story of Jesus' miraculous conception as told in the Gospels is literal truth (i.e. it was not as a result of sexual intercourse). However, you can't speak of Jesus' "immaculate conception" since, if He is truly God, and God is truly all Good, then there can be no question of sin (original or personal) in Him... that's not a miracle granted to a creature, that's a definition of Who He Is.

I hope that clarified that there is no "bad reproductive science" involved with the doctrine of the immaculate conception, nor any "immaculate conception" of Jesus. I don't so much mind you disagreeing with me, as long as you are disagreeing with what I actually believe, not a hand-me-down mistake. (Likewise, I try not to fall into that myself with respect to you!)

Now as for whether the Catholic beliefs on original sin are "excessive", or taking on that old "Mariolatry" strawman... well, those will have to wait for another day, I think. I'm consuming enough bandwidth on someone else's blog. :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Janet.

Thanks for the clarification. It's a common confusion (though the virgin birth would be more accurately called the virginal conception).

But, well, a lot of us - and not only Protestants - have problems with many things that Roman dogma declares about Mary, though I respect the intentio fidei of the magisterium. St Bernard and the Angelic Doctor himself, of course, actually rejected the immaculate conception. Mary's bodily assumption begs all kinds of biblical and theological questions. And as for the semper virgo, no reputable biblical scholar would now try to finesse the fact that Jesus had siblings (as used to be done with the suggestion that they were cousins) - not least his brother James, who became the head of the church in Jerusalem!

I'm afarid that Mariology continues to be one of the great ecumenical stumbling blocks - especially if the reply, open or implied, is that what Rome says is the case - because Rome says it is the case.

Anonymous said...


Sadly, I have to agree with you-- Mariology is very contentious. Christians have been arguing about Mary since at least the third century. The funny thing is, none of the arguments are really about Mary. They are usually either about Christ-- as in the Theotokos controversies-- or about human nature-- about what it means to be truly human, embodied souls, and what God wants humans to be. These are fundamentally important questions, ones with real and serious consequences for daily life... and we disagree.

Since we have serious things to talk about, I'd like to clear out the silly arguments-- the Pope doesn't know where babies come from, nobody noticed the phrase "the brother of the Lord" before now, the Pope said so now you shut up, etc.

I don't actually believe that I can bring anyone to faith in anything-- only the Holy Spirit can. At most, I can be an opportunity for His action in another; usually, though, my role is simply to avoid putting more obstacles in the other person's path! So the comments below are merely my poor attempts to give you a straight answer to the questions you have raised.

You mentioned that a bodily assumption begs some theological and biblical questions. You can't avoid those questions just by denying the Catholic doctrine, however. The Bible clearly states that both Enoch and Elijah were assumed bodily into heaven [2 Kgs 2:11, Gen 5:24, Heb 11:5], and hints that Moses was too [Jude 9]. Also, Matt 27:53 states that after Jesus died, OT saints were raised from the dead and went walking through Jerusalem. Then what? I can't imagine they walked back to their tombs and died again-- so where did they go? For that matter, what happened to Jesus's resurrected body at the Ascension? And how do you explain the rapture that St. Paul describes in 1 Thess 4:16-17?

PS: one way to describe the Assumption of Mary is exactly that-- that she was "raptured" at the end of her life on Earth. Some "flavors" of Protestants are more comfortable with that word choice.

As for semper virgo, I'll let St. Jerome lay out the case; see his "Letter to Helvidius" at www.newadvent.org/fathers/3007.htm (sorry, can't get the HTML link to work; just cut and paste). His wording is, um, brisk, as always. Your specific comment about St. James is addressed in paragraph 15.

Lastly, regarding the Immaculate Conception... you're right, both St. Bernard and St. Thomas Aquinas addressed the question of whether Mary's soul could have been sanctified before being infused into her body. Logically, this would mean that she would need no savior, since a just God would never condemn a truly innocent soul. Both men realized that that was just the Pelagian heresy reformulated; also Mary herself refers to "God my Savior" in Lk 1:47. So they both plumped for option #2, that Mary was sanctified a moment after her conception instead. It was Duns Scotus who realized that there was option #3, that she was sanctified at the moment of conception. And that is the way the dogma is phrased today; the essential roots of the doctrine extend back to the time of the Fathers, however.

So you can see, we're not really disagreeing about Mary. We're disagreeing about the physical resurrection of human beings; or what "heaven" means for embodied creatures; or whether sex is simply the satisfaction of a bodily need (like eating or sleeping), or does it have an effect on the soul as well; or what is sanctification and how does it happen; and lots more where these came from. Big stuff.

Anonymous said...

For Kim Fabricius: actually the Synoptic passages (particularly Luke 11) you cite support "Mary as ideal disciple" if one looks carefully at the conjunction with which Jesus begins his response. It supports well a translation as "yea rather" blessed are those who hear and keep the word; combined with the infancy narratives it can be understood as pointing precisely to Mary as the one who kept and pondered the word and kept the Word also for 9 months in her womb.

In that reading, Jesus endorses the anonymous woman from the crowd who venerated his mother qua His mother.

Of course this "reads into" the text but so too does the alternative reading of these passages which has Jesus rejecting the anonymous woman's veneration of His mother. Given the way ancient writers deliberately used subtle intertexuality, I think the first reading of the passage, in which Jesus subtly endorses the woman while making an even larger point about discipleship is the more credible one.

Even so, the claim that Mary is the ideal disciple rests not on these synoptic passages so much as on simple historical fact (which is found in Scripture): Mary was the first to hear the word about the Incarnation, the first to be informed of the fulfillment of the types and shadows of the OT. And she believed the word. She was simply in fact the first disciple of Christ--at the moment of his conception. She believed when she could have disbelieved. Precisely for those who value "faith coming by hearing and hearing by the word of God" she was the first. And she remained steadfast to the Cross in her faith.

Abraham doubted. Paul praises his faith as exemplary. Surely Mary's discipleship and faith exceeds his because she was given the inside word on the exact manner of our salvation in these last days and she accepted it. John Paul II developed this (drawing on long tradition of exegesis of the synoptic passages and the infancy narratives) in his encyclical, Redemptoris Mater.

Not a bad set of characteristics for the "ideal disciple."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all that, Janet, it's really helpful. I'll reply to just a few points.

First, re. the "silly" arguments: I don't think I said anything about the first; the second has actually been used in Roman apologetics; and the third is serious enough - in the form of the doctrine of papal infallibility - to be worrying the Archbishop of Canterbury as he prepares to meet the Pope.

Second, re. the assumption: there is a whole discussion to be had on the nature of the OT texts you deploy to support your belief in bodily assumption; few NT scholars would take Matthew 27:52-53 literally, rather it is an example of eschatological symbolism; while it is a serious theological error to assume the resurrection of Jesus into the category of assumption; and as for the "rapture", well that's better, to coin a phrase, "left behind".

What you say about the immaculate conception, on the other hand, is good stuff and needs to be heard. I am a great admirer of the late Herbert McCabe, and he writes very sensibly and convincingly about the doctrine. It's not in scripture, he admits, nor can it even be deduced from scripture, "and as a doctrine it was unknown to the early Church." But the doctrine, he says, cashes in like this in the difference it makes: "We are not to look for this difference in the biography of Our Lady, in her character or behaviour. In this sense the doctrine is not about that. It is not, for instance, about the fact that she committed no sin. . . The Immaculate Conception does not make that sort of difference to Mary; it did not make any noticeable difference to her - . . . there is no reason to suppose that she knew about it. What it makes a difference to is our understanding of what it means for her to be redeemed and therefore what it will eventually mean for us to be redeemed. . . that we too are to become radically holy." Good stuff.

But, finally - and this gets to the heart of the matter - to deny a dogma like the immaculate conception is not necessarily to deny what it is saying - though it may be - but it may be only to deny that it should be said like that, and for any number of reasons. And your final paragraph: it seems to assume that those who deny the basic tenets of traditional Mariology thereby deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus, reject the notion that the reality of heaven may have something to say about the nature of bodily existence, and think that sex is just about physical gratification. Though I may disagree with you about Mary, I do not disagree with you about these things at all, nor (I dare say) would most Protestants.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dennis.

I didn't actually say anything about Luke 11:27-28, but now that you mention it, the Greek menoun requires that v.28 be taken as a correction of the woman's statement in v. 27, and the polemical context of Luke 11 supports the rendering as "no, rather". And there are the texts I do mention.

But let's not argue the exegesis further, let me rather thank you for what you say subsequently, particularly your allusion to Luke 1:38, to Mary as a paragon of faith and obedience, right up there indeed with Abraham, who you might call the Protestant Mary.

Could I also, with Karl Barth, put in a good word for Joseph? Barth said: "I find this biblical figure, so moving and obedient and subservient, much more appropriate as a protector (et exemplar) ecclesiae than Mary." Though I don't suppose that you'd go quite that far!


Fred said...

the virgin birth would be more accurately called the virginal conception

Well, virgin birth in addition to virginal conception was contemplated at length by the Fathers of the Church...

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