By Dwight Longenecker
What do you do when a Protestant Christian challenges Catholic devotion to Mary as being excessive and distorted? My favorite correspondent came up with some Catholic quotes that were real showstoppers. Among others he quoted Pope Pius IX who, inUbi Primum,[i], wrote these words in praise of Mary:
From our earliest years nothing has ever been closer to our heart than devotion‑-filial, profound, and wholehearted‑-to the most blessed Virgin Mary. Always have We endeavored to do everything that would redound to the greater glory of the Blessed Virgin, promote her honor, and encourage devotion to her…. Great indeed is Our trust in Mary. The resplendent glory of hermerits, far exceeding all the choirs of angels, elevates her to the very steps of the throne of God. Her foot has crushed the head of Satan. Set up between Christ and His Church, Mary, ever lovable and full of grace, always has delivered the Christian people from their greatest calamities and from the snares and assaults of all their enemies, ever rescuing them from ruin…. The foundation of all Our confidence, as you know well, Venerable Brethren, is found in the Blessed Virgin Mary. For, God has committed to Mary the treasury of all good things, in order that everyone may know that through her are obtained every hope, every grace, and all salvation. For this is His will, that we obtain everything through Mary.
My Protestant friend made the point that if Pius IX’s references to Mary were replaced by references to Jesus Christ, the quote would be uncontroversially Christian. As it is, he protested, it says things of Mary that should be said only of God. Was it true that nothing was closer to Pius IX’s heart than devotion to Mary? Could it be true that the foundation of all [his] confidence” is Mary? Is it really through her that we obtain “every hope, every grace and all salvation”?
On the face of it, this is rather difficult to answer. Pius IX’s words do seem excessive. But when you put them into context the emphasis changes. First of all, the quotation in question is part of Pius IX’s letter to the world bishops consulting with them about the wisdom of defining the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. In other words, he is speaking within a Marian document. Second, Pius IX is expressing his own opinion and love for Mary. He is not making a formal doctrinal pronouncement. Third, this statement has to be placed within the context of the whole worship and life of the church. Taken on its own it sounds like Pius IX worships Mary. Taken in its context its clear that he doesn’t. When the words are read closely it is clear that he is referring ultimately to Jesus Christ. He is the foundation who is found “in Mary.” Jesus Christ is the one who is the source for “every hope, every grace and all salvation” and he comes to us through Mary.
Pius IX’s words can be explained, but there are two underlying points to remember when discussing Marian devotion with non-Catholics. First of all, if we are confronted with florid language about the Blessed Virgin we mustn’t apologise. Devotion to Mary has been part of the worship of the Church from the earliest days. There are many examples of what might seem like excessive language about Mary from the first centuries of the church. Here is just one sample from the writings of Athanasius:
O noble Virgin, truly you are greater than any other greatness. For who is your equal in greatness, O dwelling place of God the Word? To whom among all creatures shall I compare you, O Virgin? You are greater than them all. O [Ark of the New] Covenant, clothed with purity instead of gold! You are the Ark in which is found the golden vessel containing the true manna, that is, the flesh in which divinity resides. Should I compare you to the fertile earth and its fruits? You surpass them…If I say that heaven is exalted, yet it does not equal you…If we say that the cherubim are great, you are greater than they, for the cherubim carry the throne of God while you hold God in your hands.[ii]
Protestant Christians look to Athanasius as a hero of the faith. He’s the one who defended orthodoxy against the heretics. He’s the one who stood up against the whole world in defence of the Christology that Protestant Christians embrace today. If some Christians object to Catholic veneration of Mary as being excessive or distorted then they are not only disagreeing with Pope Pius IX in 1849 but also with Athanasius in the fourth century.
Furthermore, proper devotion to the Blessed Virgin was considered to be a sign of a proper understanding of the Incarnation and a full devotional life for Jesus Christ. It may not be those who honor Mary, but those who neglect her who are distorting the historic faith. Those who dishonor Mary should pay attention to Epiphanius who also writes from the fourth century that “who dishonors the holy vessel [Mary] also dishonors his Master”.[iii]
The main problem with the Protestant criticism of Catholic devotion to Mary is their basic mindset. They see the whole question in terms of “either-or” not “both-and”. Because Catholics venerate Mary, non-Catholics assume that this devotion must take the place of proper devotion to the Lord Jesus. A powerful analogy can be used to show non-Catholics how strange this seems to Catholics.
If an Evangelical Christian believes that devotion to Mary replaces proper devotion to Jesus ask him to imagine what it would be like if he discovered that another Christian group thought Evangelicals were in grave error because of their emphasis on the Bible. Ask him to imagine that these fictional Christians accuse Evangelicals of neglecting Jesus because of their devotion to the Bible.
These hypothetical Christians say, “You evangelicals stress the Bible to the neglect of Jesus. You call your churches ‘Bible’ churches and have ’Bible’ colleges instead of ‘Christian’ churches and colleges. Inside your church you don’t have pictures of Jesus, you don’t have any crucifixes; and you don’t have the Stations of the Cross. Instead, all you have is a big central pulpit to preach the Bible.”
The accusers could go on and point out that “The New Testament says the early Christians ‘devoted themselves … to the breaking of the bread’ (Acts 2:42) and that the way to remember Jesus and proclaim his death is through the Eucharist (1 Cor. 11:24-26); yet you Evangelicals have the Lord’s Supper once a month, or even less often, and the main feature of your church service is a long Bible sermon. You have removed the cross of Christ and replaced it with the Bible.”
These accusers say, “You Evangelicals even have a formal doctrine named sola Scriptura. This man-made dogma is a later distortion and addition to the Christian faith—something that is unheard of both in the Scriptures themselves and in the early church. This dogma (which you treat as infallible) states that the Bible and not Jesus is the only source of Truth. You teach your children to memorize Bible verses instead of receiving Jesus in communion. You teach them to sing, ‘The B-I-B-L-E, / Yes that‘s the book for me. / I stand alone on the word of God….’ Notice how they are not to stand alone on the sure foundation of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:11), but on the Bible instead! Evangelical preachers say that there is no way anyone can come to God without believing the Bible. They declare their undying love for the Bible instead of Jesus. They say how their lives are totally dedicated to preaching the Bible instead of the cross of Christ.”
If someone were to make this charge a good Evangelical might well snort with dismay and bewilderment. How could someone so misunderstand his position? Surely they are doing it on purpose! The good Evangelical would patiently explain to his critic, “You have misunderstood completely. Sola Scriptura doesn’t set the Bible in opposition to Jesus. It does exactly the opposite: it helps us to glorify Jesus. Don’t you see that we love the Bible because it gives us access to our Savior? It’s true that we believe people need to know the Bible, but that’s because the written Word and the incarnate Word are inextricably intertwined. You can’t have one without the other. It is really Jesus we worship and proclaim through the Bible. If you just look at our whole practice and teaching with an open mind you would see how misguided and mistaken you really are.”
But the critic of the Evangelical won’t have it. He replies, “No, no. That all sounds very plausible, but you will never convince me. I just know that you worship the Bible instead of Jesus, and all your clever word play just goes to show how blind you really are.”
To prove his point, the critic then says, “I know you Evangelicals worship the Bible instead of Jesus. Just look at this quotation I found that proves it. This comes from an Evangelical one of your classic theological text books.
The Bible … has produced the highest results in all walks of life. It has led to the highest type of creations in the fields of art, architecture, literature, and music.… [Y]ou will find everywhere the higher influence of the Bible. … William E. Gladstone said, “If I am asked to name the one comfort in sorrow, the sole rule of conduct, the true guide of life, I must point to what in the words of a popular hymn is called ‘the old, old story,’ told in an old, old Book, which is God’s best and richest gift to mankind.” [iv]
“You see,” the critic continues with a flourish, “your famous Evangelical leader says that it is not Jesus, but the Bible that is his ‘one comfort’, his ‘true guide’, and ‘God’s best and richest gift to mankind’? It just shows that Evangelicals worship the Bible and not the Lord.”
Of course this is a ridiculous distortion of the Evangelical view, but the extended analogy may help Protestants understand how Catholics feel when they make similarly extreme charges about the Catholic devotion to Mary.
In the face of such charges Catholics reply, “Are you serious? How can you possibly make such a fundamental and basic mistake about what we believe? We don’t venerate Mary on her own, but because she has given us our Savior and because she constantly leads us to him. If you took time to study our whole teaching and practice you will see how this is true.”
In debate with non-Catholics we should admit that some Catholics may over-emphasize Mary, just like some Evangelicals may take extreme views on the Bible. But we should also admit that both Catholics and Protestants warn against such dangers, and as we ask them to understand our point of view we should also try to honestly understand theirs.
Dwight Longenecker is editor of The Path to Rome and co-author of Challenging Catholics—A Catholic-Evangelical Debate. His book Our Lady? is another debate with Evangelical, David Gustafson. It will be published in 2003 by Brazos Press.
[i]. Pope Pius IX, Encyclical Ubi Primum (2 Feb. 1849); reprinted at .
[ii] L.Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1999, p. 106-7.
[iii] Gambero, p. 127.
[iv] Henry Thiessen, Introductory Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), p. 86.