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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Marian Doctrines - The Affirmed Teachings of the Church


The recent elections of November 6, 2012, have left many of us who are strong in our Christian convictions a little shaken, in that we have elected a man (Obama) again who could potentially cause a lot of damage to the US, even possibly our demise as a national entity.   As I am writing, it is the "morning after" that crushing experience, and I am still personally in a bit of shock over it.  However, despite having this person occupying the White House, it is important that I continue to do the work that I need to do, and while maintaining a spirit of resistance against these developments, I also cannot be distracted by them - neither can you, my readers, either.  We have a mission to carry out as the Remnant Church, and must be faithful to that mission.   That being said, I am continuing today with a teaching I wanted to present as I am wanting to get back to a few basics of what it means to have a Catholic faith. 

Being probably the only Catholic graduate student at a Pentecostal university, I have attracted a lot of interest from both my professors and my classmates, and 99% of it has been generally very accepting - most of them are fairly intelligent people, sincere, and although I am on a campus which has been affected significantly with postmodernist theology, one positive is that much of the anti-Catholicism that was once on this campus has disappeared, and that is something I find refreshing.   However, it is only natural that some questions do arise, and one of the common ones regards how our Church views Mary.   That being said, I want to do a brief teaching here on the basic Marian teachings that the Church has historically affirmed.  I don't expect blanket agreement with them obviously, as some of my readership is Evangelical and/or Pentecostal, but that is fine - I am not out to "convert' anyone to these views, but rather to inform as to what the Church correctly teaches so as to clear up any lingering misunderstandings. 

All Catholics - Roman and non-Roman - give the Marian doctrines importance, and for the most part they are universally agreed upon except for two which are specifically Roman Catholic innovations that many of the rest of us who are non-Roman Catholic do not accept.  The four universally-held doctrines are as follows, and each will be discussed specifically:

1.  Mary as the Theotokos (God-bearer)
2.  Mary's bodily Assumption into heaven upon her repose
3.  Mary as Ever-Virgin (the doctrine of Perpetual Virginity)
4.  Mary as an Intercessor

Our Roman Catholic brethren have two additional doctrines - the Immaculate Conception and the dogma of Mary as Mediatrix - that the rest of us do not accept as they have no basis in Scripture or in the Holy Tradition as universally accepted.  That being said, I want to now take these items and discuss them individually.

1.  Mary as the Theotokos

Many liturgical texts, especially in the Christian East, devote much attention to Mary as "Mother of God" and "God-bearer," and the popular understanding of the Greek word Theotokos is often accepted in the context of both.  However, the word itself does literally translate "God-bearer," and it emphasizes Mary's role as a sort of "Ark" if you will that bore the Holy Manna (Christ, the Bread of Life) in the same way the Ark of the Covenant held the manna in the Old Testament.  As a matter of fact, in some of the older Roman liturgies Mary is sometimes referred to by the name/title "Ark" in regard to this, and this is even more profoundly expressed in Eastern Christian iconography when the classic icon of the Theotokos, showing her with her arms outstretched and a circle in her belly with the Christ Child in it, is often seen over the Eucharistic table in a typical Orthodox or Eastern Catholic Church.  There are variations on the theme of this icon, and the one I want to give here as an example is a contemporary icon painted by Robert Lentz entitled "Captive Mother of Zion" which has Hebraic flavot, but it is nonetheless depicted in a classic form:

A more traditional Byzantine icon of this as you would see in a typical Greek church would look more like this, as composed by Fr. Luke Dingman, a gifted Orthodox iconographer:

The doctrine of Mary as Theotokos is also intimately connected to the fundamental doctrine of the divinity of Jesus Christ as God the Son as well, for in her title "God-bearer" she was the chosen vessel (the Ark, if you will) of bringing God Incarnate in Christ to redeem mankind.   Pokurat, Golitzen, and Peterson, in their Historical Dictionary of the Orthodox Church (Lanham, MD:  Scarecrow Press, 1996) that Mary's "yes!" to the divine becomes the pivot of the world's salvation, as her own obedience and reception are the model for our response as individual human beings to God's soteriological initiative (Pokurat,, p. 212).  She is thus seen as a living Temple and altar of the Presence, sharing in God's providential love as ultimately expressed in Christ (John 3:16).

2.  The Assumption of Mary into Heaven at Her Repose

This doctrine has ancient roots that go back to Apostolic times, and maintain that upon her death, Mary was raptured into heaven to be united with her Son.   The word in the East for this is the Dormition rather than the Assumption, but the same idea applies.   It is observed in the Church as a feastday on August 15th, and the Scriptural basis for it lies in John 5:24, which notes that those who have seen Jesus will not come into judgment, but rather pass from death to life.  For most of us, that entails the Rapture, that last resurrection of the dead when Christ returns for His Church, but in the case of some (Moses, Christ Himself, and in this case the Virgin Mary) it happens immediately at their repose due to a consecration/sanctification they have received in this life (in Jesus' case, He was God in the flesh and sinless).  We look to the Dormition of the Theotokos then as a witness to our own rapturing one day to eternal life in Christ.   It ties into the whole endowment of the Theotokos role Mary received as well, for she was a sacred vessel consecrated unto the Lord.  This was codified by the Roman Church as dogma in 1950, although in the East it is accepted as a fundamental teaching but is not defined as much in precise terminology (Mark Haverland, Anglican Catholic Faith and Practice Third Edition{Athens, GA:  Anglican Parishes Association, 2011} p. 66).  Iconography is also rich with the imagery of the Dormition/Assumption, as is demonstrated by the following icon:

In Byzantine iconography, you will note that when the Lord "assumes" his mother into heaven, she is symbolized by an infant.  That was fascinating to me, and led to my looking this up to see what that meant.   I found the explanation in an Orthodox catechism I had from a Bible study we attended at an Antiochian parish years back, and essentially what the author of the text said it symbolized was that Mary's soul was truly renewed as it ascended to heaven, and thus the imagery of the newborn babe (Olga Dunlop, transl.  The Living God Volume II {Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir Seminary Press, 1999} p. 384).   This is similar to some teachings I have heard over the years from even Pentecostal sources depicting a sort of age-reversal in our glorified bodies - Church of God evangelist Perry Stone talked about this in a teaching once regarding a dream he had concerning his father's passing (which he had several years before Fred Sr., his dad, passed on) in which his father was transformed from an old man to a young man almost instantly.  Who is to say what our glorified bodies will look like in heaven once we either enter there by rapture or repose, but sufficive to say we are promised that sickness and death will cease from plaguing us, and in our glorified state will will be "made new."  Perhaps this is what the iconographer who composed this beautiful icon had in mind.  

3.  Mary as Ever-Virgin

A lot could be said about this doctrine, as it is a very controversial one when it comes to our Evangelical Protestant brethren and even some fellow Anglo-Catholics.  I personally uphold it as a doctrine of the Church, and in essence it is tied into Mary's title as the Theotokos, and upholds her as a consecrated vessel.  I am not going into all the argument now about the whole "brothers of the Lord" debate, as I plan on devoting a more detailed article to that sometime in the near future, but will say that I have studied Aramaic, and was actually taught by a Syriac monk who was a native speaker.  One of the things I learned is that in some contexts, the Aramaic word for "brother" - Ahuno - is also used to refer to a cousin, and thus I can understand why some confusion arose when the translators of the Holy Scriptures came across this term - sometimes, our Western grammar doesn't quite capture the linguistic dimensions other languages have, such as Biblical languages in particular, and as a result it can lead to conflict and debate when it comes to certain verbiage being used.  As mentioned though, that is for another discussion and won't be elaborated more here except in reference to this doctrine. 

It appears that from the earliest times, many Church Fathers upheld that Mary did remain a virgin until her repose and Dormition, as she was considered a consecrated vessel.  Among the Fathers who upheld her ever-virginity were Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, and Irenaeus of Lyons (David Bercot, Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs {Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998} pp 438-439).  Archbishop Mark Haverland, in his book Anglican Catholic Faith and Practice, also notes on page 64-65 that this doctrine had much conciliar and patristic support that is affirmed at the Second Council of Constantinople and the Synod of Trullo in 692 AD.   And, as Haverland notes, this was held universally by the Church from the 5th century forward.  It was also held by Protestant Reformers such as Luther, Wesley, and Zwingli, and more tacitly by Calvin, as is evidenced by their own quotes:

"The Blessed Virgin Mary, who, as well after as when she brought him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin."
- John Wesley

"Christ, our Savior, was the real and natural fruit of Mary's virginal womb . . . This was without the cooperation of a man, and she remained a virgin after that." - Martin Luther

"Christ . . . was the only Son of Mary, and the Virgin Mary bore no children besides Him . . . I am inclined to agree with those who declare that 'brothers' really mean 'cousins' here, for Holy Writ and the Jews always call cousins brothers." - Martin Luther

"I have never thought, still less taught, or declared publicly, anything concerning the subject of the ever Virgin Mary, Mother of our salvation, which could be considered dishonourable, impious, unworthy or evil . . . I believe with all my heart according to the word of holy gospel that this pure virgin bore for us the Son of God and that she remained, in the birth and after it, a pure and unsullied virgin, for eternity." - Huldreich Zwingli

(The above quotes, as well as other valuable information, can be found at

The fact many Protestant Reformers affirmed the Ever-Virginity of Mary may come as a shock to many Evangelicals, and indeed some Evangelicals have even said that this was due to some "lingering taint of Catholicism" or something in their thinking.   I beg to differ, because for one thing the Reformers didn't have issues with these doctrines to begin with, and in Wesley's case, he remained a devout Anglo-Catholic clergyman throughout his life.   Also, many of these men had studied the Church Fathers in great detail, and thus they maintained much of the Apostolic faith as was codified in the early Church and its teachings.   Romophobia on the part of some staunch Fundamentalists and Evangelicals often makes them read stuff with the tainted lenses of some writers who have only been around for about 200 years, and in doing so they ignore often a lot of teaching of the early Church, even dismissing it as being a "Catholic innovation" despite the fact the modern Roman Catholic Church (which is often the target of these attacks) had little to do with the whole thing.  Taking that into consideration, I must uphold the Vicentian Canon, which affirms that I as a Christian must "take the greatest care to uphold that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by everyone."   Notice that I didn't do a lot of "chapter-and-verse" quotes, and that is because it is not specifically mentioned that Mary was ever-virgin in Scripture, but the idea does have Scriptural support from John 2:1-11, 19:26-27, and Revelation 12 - it is in connection with a common typology that is accepted of Mary being a "new Eve," and as such she is a pure and undefiled vessel who also is a picture of the Church, the Bride of Christ.   However, as you can see, the doctrine of Mary as Ever-Virgin does have strong historical merit, and as a Catholic Christian myself I accept it as such. 
In Eastern iconography, this doctrine is often represented by three stars that appear on the image of Mary, usually on her head and on each shoulder.  Note the example below depicted on the famous Russian icon Our Lady of Kazan:

In short, the Ever-Virginity of Mary, just like our born-again experience and the doctrine of the Real Presence of the Eucharist, qualifies as what is called a "mystery of faith."  What that means is that it is a truth which our human understanding cannot often place into words, but the Holy Spirit bears it out as truth in our spirits.   Historical evidence, and even indirect Scriptural reference, bear out the legitimacy of this doctrine, and it is affirmed by the testimony of the Church.   Although some - in particular Western Evangelical Protestants - may have issue, it must be remembered also that this is not something upon which one's salvation rests, nor does it detract from the importance of Christ and His deity.  But, at the same time, I take a Vincentian approach and accept the truth of Mary being Ever-Virgin as it is a doctrine that the Church as a whole has affirmed for centuries.  

4.  Mary the Intercessor

Although Roman Catholics take this to an extreme at times, almost making Mary the "fourth member of the Trinity," there is a reality that Mary does agree in prayer with us and in prayer for us, and it doesn't contradict any foundational Scriptural premise.   Mary's role as an intercessor is connected to the broader teaching of the Communion of the Saints, which we will deal with in detail at some other time.   This is also something many Evangelicals have issue with when it regards Catholic Christians, because misunderstandings abound.  For one, Evangelicals wrongly assume that when we ask Mary or any other of the Saints for prayers, we are praying to them as a form of worship.  Second, Evangelicals often say that there is a Scriptural injunction against talking to dead people.    However, both of these are not true, and a proper understanding of the Church will hopefully clarify some of this stuff.

To begin, we have to understand that the Church itself is made up of three aspects, and these are as follows:

1.  The Church Militant - that would be us, the living Christians
2.  The Church Expectant - the Communion of Saints, those who are with Christ
3.  The Church Triumphant - in the last day, this will be the glorified Bride of Christ made up of all
     faithful people, living and departed.

Mary is part of the Church Expectant, and contrary to much teaching Evangelicals have about people developing this sort of amnesia after they 'go onto glory," in reality the Saints are not even dead, but are very much alive and still the Church.  As such, they I believe pray for their living loved ones, and in some aspect they may even hear our prayers and agree with us concerning them.   To me, asking Mary or one of the Saints in glory to pray for us is like going to our pastor, prayer group, etc., and asking for their prayers - we are supposed to pray for each other, and so why not seek the agreement in prayer of our departed brethren in the faith?  And, they are not dead - they are very much alive in Christ, although the bodily resurrection hasn't happened yet and will not until Jesus returns.   Also, it must be noted that the Church is actually pretty strict about how we approach this - prayer is to God alone, as an act of worship, and is not to be directed toward anything or anybody apart from the Triune God.   But, there is nothing wrong or idolatrous about asking Mary or some other Saint to agree in prayer for us, just as it is normative for Evangelicals even to have prayer groups and "prayer partners." To put it into American Evangelical terminology, Mary and the Saints in heaven are the ultimate "prayer partners," because they have direct access to the Lord Jesus Christ!  You can't get any better prayer support than that, now can you??   And, let's say that maybe it wasn't possible to ask for saintly intercessions; it is therapeutic and doesn't violate any Scriptural injunctions, so no harm is done anyway!  But, I believe in the communion of saints, and I thank God for them, because oftentimes it is easier to ask one of them to pray for you than it is someone that is "living" on earth, and to be honest, they are far less judgmental and prone to gossip than many so-called "prayer partners" in churches on earth are (I have seen more gossip perpetrated by "prayer groups" in churches than I care to document here, and I know some of you have likewise experienced that).  Therefore, looking at it from that angle, it is then not so spacy and "heathen" to ask for Mary's agreement in prayer, is it?  If you still have a problem, I would advise then not asking anyone to pray for you then, because by your own definition this is a form of idolatry.  Hopefully, that will challenge some bad thinking.  


I suppose much more could be said, as this maybe won't answer all the questions, but it is a good simple synopsis of what we as Catholics - Roman and non-Roman - essentially believe about the Virgin Mary.   Take it or leave it, the purpose here is to inform rather than to indoctrinate, and in that spirit you are welcome to accept or reject anything said.   But, I would challenge you to read a little more carefully the writings and teachings of the earliest Christians, as you might be surprised at what you find.   God bless until next time.