Protestant Mariology

Protestants rightfully disagree with the popish treatment of Mary which sprung up from medieval contaminations and grows increasingly dogmatic (thanks to papal infallibility) and increasingly idolatrous – often referred to as ‘Mariolatry’. This is a very sad situation, since, as much as it is demeaning to Saint Mary herself to exult her to such lofty positions, it also risks making her name almost taboo in evangelical circles – the name of her who is blessed among women.

Popish superstitions concerning Mary

Popery ascribes to Mary such titles as ‘Mother of God’ (Mater Dei). This is a poor translation of Theotokos which more accurately means ‘God-bearer’ and is also not found in scripture as a title, though it may be defended. The title ‘Mother of God’, however, promotes superstition akin to calling her Goddess, progenitor of the Creator himself. What we can securely say concerning the Holy Virgin is that she is the Mother of the Lord in that she did indeed bear in her womb the eternal Word in his fleshly incarnation, who is unceasingly both fully man and fully God. While I do not wish to go as far as to commit the Nestorian heresy by splitting the two natures of Christ into two persons, the popish stance on Mary is too worshipful and too great a stumbling block.

One doctrine underlining this stance is the Immaculate Conception which, while completely unwarranted in scripture, teaches that Mary was – like Christ – conceived untainted by original sin. While we can ascertain that the Holy Virgin was a righteous Jew and blessed among women, we must still acknowledge that she was a human under Adam and, as such, requires the salvation of Christ in the same manner as any other. If Mary were conceived in such a way, if she were completely sinless, then Christ would not be unique and she would moreover be equal to Christ. The only reason to invent this doctrine is the unscriptural belief that Christ’s conception by the Holy Spirit was not enough to preserve him from Adam’s sin. Indeed, the Immaculate Conception is a paradox because, should one hold such a belief, if Mary were to be ‘immaculate’, then her mother also must have been, and so on, all the way back to Eve. The ridiculous dogma of Immaculate Conception is blasphemy against God and also dishonours the Holy Virgin.

A further blasphemous practice is the praying to saints in heaven, including Mary, for intercession. Firstly, Christ alone is our Mediator and secondly, who dare give God’s glory to men by presuming that men in heaven are somehow omnipotent in hearing our prayers?

Perpetual virginity, Assumption and true honouring of Mary

While hating popish Mariolatry, I am of the view that modern Protestants are too quick to dismiss Mary’s perpetual virginity. All Christians must agree that Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus. But what happened thereafter is not explicitly stated in scripture. I hope that I am not impious in my treatment of this issue, but rather exhort Christians not to ridicule an early teaching in a way that gives some ammunition with which to attack us. The early Reformers, while cautious because of scriptural ambiguity and while not infallible, did not reject the tradition of perpetual virginity.  The word ’till’ in Matthew 1:25 does not imply that Joseph did afterwards know Mary and, while Greek had distinct words for brothers and cousins, it was not usual among Hebrews to distinguish between them and the Greek word for ‘brother’ is nevertheless used to translate ‘cousin’ and ‘nephew’ in the Old Testament. Zwingli appeals to Ezekiel 44:2 in defence of Mary’s perpetual virginity: ‘And the LORD said to me, “This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it, for the LORD, the God of Israel, has entered by it. Therefore it shall remain shut.”‘ However, it must also be acknowledged that, while celibacy is a gift for some, vows of celibacy are not scriptural and that there is nothing impure about marital relations, which is also a gift from God. In an ordinary marriage, it is not proper for a spouse to withhold such relations from the other spouse without mutual agreement.

The bodily assumption of Mary into heaven is also not rejected outright by early Protestants. One Zürich Reformer, Bullinger, enthusiastically supported this tradition in a work wherein he attacked a number of superstitious doctrines. There is no scriptural basis at all to confirm or to reject the Assumption of Mary, and the Romish Church is wrong to teach both this doctrine and perpetual virginity as dogmata. Such matters, which are acceptable but not irrefutable to those who hold a biblical faith, should remain in the domain of Christian liberty. If, however, the Romish Church moves even further towards confirming Mary as a ‘Co-Redemptrix’ or ‘Co-Mediatrix’, as is popular among some Papists, we must combat such a move with the sword of the Spirit, and exploit it as an opportunity to reaffirm the truth of the gospel, that salvation comes through Christ alone.

Forever may we honour the Holy Virgin Mary by worshipping the living God only, for it so pleased him to bless her womb with his only begotten Son, who is our salvation!

Religious worship is to be given to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and to him alone: not to angels, saints, or any other creature: and since the Fall, not without a Mediator; nor in the mediation of any other but of Christ alone. (Westminster Confession of Faith 1646 21:2)


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6 Responses to Protestant Mariology

  1. Elliot

    Bullinger was not a Genevan reformer and, in fact, never visited Geneva in his life. Was this a mistake for ‘one Zürich reformer’?

    • Sean Anderson

      Well done on finding that mistake! In fact, if I rewrote this article now, I might have said more about rapidly changing views on Mariology among Protestants. The Puritan Matthew Poole, for example, though he would not rule out Mary’s perpetual virginity altogether, recognised that there was no reason why she should remain a virgin while in a godly marriage.

    • Sean Anderson

      Are you Dr Elliot Vernon?

  2. Elliot

    Dear Sean, I am. Please forgive me for the pedantry, but I couldn’t resist in an otherwise fine essay. It would be nice to see something on later Puritan Mariology, and anything on Matthew Poole.

  3. Excellent points. The Eastern Orthodox will point out that the title of ‘Theotokos’ (lit. ‘birth-giver of God) was ascribed to Mary by the Council of Ephesus (431) in order to guard against Nestorianism. Nestorius refused to call Mary ‘Theotokos’ and instead called her ‘Christotokos’, (birth-give of Christ) since he didn’t believe that Mary was the mother of Christ’s divine person.

    However, I would like to point out that the perpetual virginity of Mary rests in part on a fallacy called ‘illegitimate totality transfer’ – taking the meaning of a word in one sense or context and applying it across the board in a different context. Papists will defend Matthew 1:25 by referring to verses like 1 Corinthians 15:25 “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” and say “will Christ continue to reign after he has put all his enemies under his feet? Of course not!”. They take the meaning of the word ‘until’ in that context and transfer it to Matthew 1:25 to make the verse say something that it doesn’t say. If Mary and Joseph had remained celibate then surely Matthew would have written “and he knew her not all the days of his life”. This would have been more miraculous than Mary having other children after Christ – the perpetual virgin has a son! Matt Slick of has a very good article on this verse and Mary’s perpetual virginity:

    • Sean Anderson

      Yes, I think the early Protestants accepted Mary’s perpetual virginity as a pious (but not dogmatic) tradition, but later on the doctrine came under more assessment. Why should Mary have remained a perpetual virgin? people such as Matthew Poole asked. I do believe that although it is a very early teaching, it was probably inherited from an erroneous (Hellenistic?) asceticism in the late first century. A view that Jesus would somehow be defiled if his earthly parents shared a normal marital relationship – which is of course not true.

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