Once A Virgin – Always a Virgin?

This is an excerpt from Chapter Four of my book Mary-An Evangelical Catholic Debate–written with David Gustafson

Dwight: As I said in the previous chapter, when the early Christians used the title “Virgin” for the Mother of Jesus they did not simply mean that she was sexually inexperienced.  Instead the title “Virgin” was a sign of Mary’s essential character. She was virginal not only in body, but also in mind and spirit as well. (I Cor. 7:34.) Now this essential character trait didn’t just disappear. By God’s grace, Mary’s character matured and grew. She too had to grow up into the full stature of God in Christ Jesus. So her essential virginity became a mature kind of purity. She went from being an innocent young girl of a virgin to be a venerable, pure, and holy matron.  From the very earliest times therefore, Mary’s virginity (which was a physical sign of her spiritual character) was assumed to have continued until her death. This is what we Catholics refer to as the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

To show what the early Christians believed about this, consider the whole point of The Protoevangelium of James. It was written about fifty or sixty years after the death of the last apostle, and it says Mary was subject to a religious vow of virginity, and that Joseph was an elderly widower assigned to be her guardian. As patristics scholar Johannes Quasten says of The Protoevangelium: “The principal aim of the whole writing is to prove the perpetual and inviolate virginity of Mary before, in, and after the birth of Christ.”

This belief appears very early in the Church: “When it comes to the mystery of Mary’s perpetual virginity, Origen (c.253) not only has no doubts but seems directly to imply that this is a truth already recognized as an integral part of the deposit of faith.”

Origen taught, “There is no child of Mary except Jesus, according to the opinion of those who think correctly about her.”

We Catholics defend this belief in solidarity not only with the whole of the early church, but also with virtually the whole of orthodox Christendom down through the ages. The Perpetual Virginity of Mary is a beautiful and fitting belief upheld by the Eastern Orthodox as well as many Anglicans and Lutherans. Furthermore, it was defended not only by the ancient Church fathers, but by Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and the classic Anglican theologians.

John Wesley also believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary writing, “I believe he [Jesus Christ] was born of the blessed Virgin, who, as well after as she brought him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin.”

Catholics therefore find it odd when Protestants deny a belief that the founders of Protestantism held firmly. Furthermore, we don’t understand the point of denying the perpetual virginity of Mary, a belief that in no way contradicts Scripture or orthodox doctrine. The continued virginity and holiness of Mary up to her death does not distract from the saving work of Christ in any way. Denial of the perpetual virginity of Mary only denigrates Mary. Is there any virtue in this denial? In what way is it a positive thing? All we can conclude is that some Evangelicals dispute this point simply because they think it is “Catholic” and they have to knock it over for that reason alone. Is that it? Surely not.

David: No, I wouldn’t say that arguing for Mary’s perpetual virginity necessarily distracts from Christ’s work.  As I’ll explain in due course, our principal objections are that the doctrine denigrates sex and marriage, and impugns Christ’s humanity. But to take last things first: You ask how Evangelicals explain their failure to follow Protestant luminaries like Luther and Calvin in affirming Mary’s perpetual virginity.  This is a question that an Evangelical might not even think to ask.  By and large, most Evangelicals knowingly disagree with both these theologians on a wide range of important issues-baptism, eschatology, ecclesiology, predestination, free will, etc.  Luther and Calvin were no less fallible than any other theologian, and we submit their opinions to the same Biblical scrutiny to which we submit Catholic dogma.

Dwight: Wow! The ease with which you dismiss fifteen hundred years of virtually unanimous Church teaching is breath-taking. So the modern Evangelical waves his hand and says with a straight face, “You see, everybody (including our own founding fathers) had it wrong for the first fifteen hundred years…” And this from the folks who accuse Catholics of altering the historic faith with later distortions!

David: Catch your breath!  You overstate things a bit to attribute belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity to “everybody” in the early Christian centuries.  No less formidable a Christian than Tertullian (d. 220) taught that Mary bore other children (by Joseph) after Jesus’ birth.

Dwight: Tertullian’s is the only voice from the early church that suggests such a thing.

David: I admit that by the close of the fourth century, the consensus is clearly in favor of the perpetual virginity.  However, as instructive as it is to know what Luther, Calvin, Origen, and Tertullian thought about this subject, the critical question is whether we have any Apostolic teaching on the point.  A post-Apostolic novelty is a distortion, whether it originated in the sixteenth century or the second. So, no, to learn that Mary’s alleged perpetual virginity is another issue on which we disagree with Luther and Calvin is not a great shock.

I paused in writing that previous sentence.  I hesitated over the phrase “Mary’s alleged perpetual virginity” for fear that the word “alleged” would sound like sneering.  As I write this, I wonder how seriously I am offending Catholics to say that I presume Mary had sex with her husband Joseph after Jesus’ birth.  My impression is that Catholics wince at such talk.  However, I need to be frank, since being too overly delicate on the subject may be tantamount to conceding that there would be some shame or unholiness to Mary’s having sex with her husband.  On the contrary, for Mary (or any other wife) to have sex with her husband would, of course, be shameless and holy, and pleasing to God.  I therefore reject the whispering, tip-toeing approach, and resolve to address this question directly and cheerfully:  The question is whether Mary had sex with her husband, or instead remained celibate, even though she was married.

Dwight: Yes, that is the question, but while we Catholics treat such a delicate subject with respect and decorum, we do not treat sex with the hush-hush embarrassment you imply. We acknowledge that sexual relations between husband and wife are normal and good, but we also say that when celibacy is dedicated to God, that is also a good thing.

David: Paul did teach that it can be good to remain single (1 Cor. 7:1, 26); that celibacy can liberate someone to “be concerned about the Lord’s affairs-how he can please the Lord” (7:32); that the virgin has a special opportunity to “be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit … in undivided devotion to the Lord” (7:3435); and that celibacy is a “gift” (7:7).

I have to concede that in my experience we Evangelicals have a very deficient understanding and appreciation of celibacy (or “consecrated virginity”).  There is no special status or honor accorded to celibacy in Evangelicalism; on the contrary, I hear that in many Evangelical churches, single adults find great difficulty just fitting in.  Where is the recognition that a vocation of celibacy, with its “undivided devotion to the Lord”, is a “gift” to the Church?  It’s one thing to disavow monasticism, as we have done, but it’s another thing thereafter to fail to construct some other means of cultivating and employing this gift.

By contrast, when I read Roman Catholic writing on consecrated virginity, it is obvious that some of the best Catholic minds have contemplated this subject very fruitfully over the centuries, and have come to understand celibacy as a great spiritual gift to the Church.  We Evangelicals probably have much to learn from Catholics on this subject.

Dwight: On the other side, I’m one of those Catholics who feel that we have often over emphasized celibacy to the neglect of marriage. We’re still struggling with what I personally feel is a misguided discipline of mandatory celibacy for priests for example. There has been an element in Catholic teaching that has viewed any sexual activity as degrading, and we have been too slow to promote a mature understanding of the true value of sex and married love. I don’t think Catholics have a monopoly on prudishness, but I admit we have had our share. Despite this danger, we still rightly uphold the value of virginity and the sacredness of celibacy.

The reason celibacy is honored is because it’s a higher spiritual calling. I know in our egalitarian day we dislike the idea that one way of holiness might be better than another, but this is a gospel principle. Martha served the Lord by giving him a meal. Mary served him by sitting at his feet in love.  Jesus praises Mary for choosing the “better way.” (Luke 10:42.) Martha isn’t condemned for her more practical service; Jesus just establishes that there is a good way and a better way.

In 1 Corinthians chapter seven Paul says that celibacy is a better way. He says it is a good thing not to marry. (vv.1, 7-8.) He recommends single people and widows to stay as they are, and actually calls marriage a “concession” (v.6) because there is “so much immorality” (v.2). From the earliest times, the Church valued consecrated virginity, but this had also been part of the Jewish religious tradition. The Essenes, a Jewish sect contemporary with Jesus, encouraged celibacy; and Philo Judaeus, a Jewish philosopher and another contemporary with Jesus, records the existence of an order of Jewish virgins who give their lives in pursuit of God’s wisdom.

The Jewish tradition was that Elijah and Elisha were celibate. John the Baptist followed in their footsteps of celibacy, and Jesus said there was no one greater than John. (Matt. 11:11.)

The classic understanding of the Adam and Eve story is that part of their primal perfection was that they lived together in a kind of child-like innocence. That’s why, with the fall, they suddenly became aware of their nakedness, and only after the fall did Adam lie with Eve and have children. This indicates that virginity is part of the un-fallen human condition. To confirm this, Jesus teaches that this higher state is what we are destined to return to. This is why there is to be no marriage and sex in the resurrection life. (Mark 12:25)

There are other passages of Scripture that suggest that celibacy is in fact both a special and a higher calling. Jesus himself was the consecrated virgin par excellence. He actually recommends perpetual virginity as a way of total consecration to God in Matthew 19:12 and so implies that lifelong celibacy is a higher calling. The Book of Revelation also teaches that virginity is a higher spiritual calling. In chapter fourteen John has a vision of the throne of the Lamb before which a great crowd are singing a hymn of glory to the Lamb. “These are the ones who have kept their virginity and not been defiled with women; these follow the Lamb wherever he goes; they, out of all people, have been redeemed to be the first fruits for God and for the Lamb.” (Rev. 14:4) Presumably they are “out of all people…the first fruits” because they followed Jesus in the higher way of perpetual virginity.

As Catholics we believe that the Virgin Mary identified with her son by following this higher spiritual calling and remaining a virgin for her whole life.

David: I join in affirming that celibacy can have great value, and celibacy is certainly the better way for those particular people whom God calls to celibacy.  In the hope that our readers will check you out on the Biblical examples and passages you cite, I’ll resist the urge to go tit-for-tat on your arguments that celibacy is somehow “higher” in a general sense, because I don’t think we need even to reach that question:  To state what should be obvious, celibacy is a gift for unmarried people.  It is an exception.  God’s general will for the human race in this age is to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”  (Gen. 1:28.)  God repeatedly pronounced His unspoiled creation as “good” and “very good (Gen. 1:431)-with one exception:  “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18), so God created woman, and then blessed human sexuality (Gen. 1:28, 2:24).  The normative human state is marriage and procreation—even for the clergy (1 Timothy 3:2-5, 11; Titus 1:6); and marital sex is “honored” and “pure” (Heb. 13:4).  Even if celibacy were in some sense a “higher” thing, we’re discussing here the supposed celibacy of a married couple.  You haven’t shown any reason why celibacy should be higher for married people, nor have you shown that Mary is somehow diminished if she consummated her marriage.

Let’s be clear about what it would mean for Joseph’s wife Mary to remain a virgin after Jesus’ birth: Even though, with angelic encouragement, Joseph “took Mary home as his wife” (Matt. 1:20, 24) in fulfillment of their having been “pledged to be married” (1:18); and even though thereafter Joseph was “the husband of Mary” (1:16) and she was his “wife” (1:20); and even though they lived together as husband and wife, and as a family together with the child Jesus (Matt. 2:14-23; Luke 2:39, 51)-despite all that, Mary and Joseph supposedly never consummated their marriage.  Instead, they lived under one roof but refrained from normal marital relations and vowed themselves to celibacy. So Jesus grew up in a household that we call “the Holy Family”—but which was really more a convent than a family, where the parents were never intimate with each other, and He, out of the corner of His eye, never saw them smile coyly at one another or linger over a kiss.

The basic questions are:  What is the evidence for this alleged marital celibacy? and, what was the reason for it? I know of no direct Biblical evidence for Mary’s perpetual virginity.  We have already observed that Mary was probably the source for Luke’s narratives of Jesus’ infancy, but Luke—so deliberate and emphatic about the Virgin Birth—finds no occasion to assert that Mary remained a virgin after Jesus’ birth.  If Joseph was the source for his story in Matthew, then the only recorded information that he gave includes no direct statement as to whether the marriage was consummated after Jesus was born.  Thus, these two sources, which seem most probably derived from the only people who really knew, do not report that they remained celibate.

Dwight: Luke and Matthew may not have mentioned the perpetual virginity of Mary because it was assumed. The second century Church documents indicate that this assumption was widespread, and that the matter only needed clarification later. You are right in saying that the Gospels do not report Mary and Joseph’s marital celibacy, but neither do the Gospels report that Mary and Joseph did consummate the marriage physically. In fact the gospel record is inconclusive on the matter.

David: I admit the Gospel accounts are not absolutely decisive on this point.  But recall the indirect Biblical evidence that tends against Mary’s perpetual virginity: (1) Matthew 1:25 asserts that Joseph “had no union with her until she gave birth to a son”.  (Does this imply that he did “have union” with her afterwards?)  (2) Luke calls Jesus Mary’s “firstborn” (2:7).  (Does this imply that others had followed?)  And (3) the New Testament includes several references to Jesus’ “brothers” and “sisters” (see, e.g., Matt. 13:5556).  (Were these Mary’s younger children by Joseph?)  As a reader of the English New Testament, I find that these details—even if they are not conclusive–add to my impression that Mary and Joseph consummated their marriage.

Dwight: Matthew 1:25 does not necessarily mean that Mary and Joseph did “have union” after Jesus’ birth, since “until” does not always mean that a change took place after the noted event.  (When I tell my children to “be good until I return home”, I don’t mean that they can start being bad when I arrive.) In the fourth century a fellow called Heldivius brought up these same points, and Saint Jerome wrote a long treatise in reply. About the “firstborn” question Jerome answered, “the divine Scriptures are accustomed to call someone firstborn, not because other siblings come after him, but because he is born first.”

An only child is therefore called “the firstborn” because he is the one who “opens the womb”. (Ex.13:2.)

Did Jesus have brothers and sisters? The Protoevangelium of James says that Joseph was a mature widower, and that the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus were the children of Joseph’s first marriage. Other writers in the early church said they were simply Jesus’ cousins or the kinsmen of his extended family. The terms for “brothers” and “kinsmen” in the original languages are ambiguous.  Several times in the Bible “kinsmen” are referred to as “brothers.” (Gen. 29:10; Gen. 14:14; Deut. 23:7; et al.) Furthermore, when Jesus, Mary, and Joseph go up to Jerusalem with the twelve-year-old Jesus, there is no mention of younger brothers and sisters.  And when Jesus is dying on the cross, he commends his mother to the Apostle John (John 19:26), something he would not have done if he had younger brothers and sisters to look after Mary

David: I think these arguments from details in the Gospel stories miss the forest for the trees, and ignore the main Biblical problem with the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity:  Simply put, sexual union is definitional to marriage,

and Mary and Joseph are said to have been “married” as “husband” and “wife”.  This fact raises a natural presumption that, as a married man and woman, they consummated their marriage. This leaves me assuming confidently that Mary and Joseph did have normal marital relations, and leaves me with no reason to suppose otherwise–unless other credible evidence is brought forward.

Dwight: Your assumptions are natural, and the Protoevangelium of James was written partially to address these same questions that the second and third generation Christians had. The Protoevangelium explains that Mary was a consecrated Virgin.  That explains her surprise at the angel’s announcement that she will have a child.  She says, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” This is not the response one would expect from a typical engaged woman, who would have simply been thankful that in time she would be blessed with a child. Mary’s surprise may well show that she did not expect to have a normal marriage relationship with Joseph, despite their engagement.

Mary had been set aside for God in two ways. If she had taken a vow of celibacy, then she was committed to God. According to the Protoevangelium, Joseph knew of this commitment and the obligation for the marriage to be a “guardianship” from the beginning. I will get into this topic in more detail in the next chapter, but Mary was also set aside for God by virtue of what happened at the Annunciation. In effect she was “married to God” in an astounding new way, and that also confirmed that her marriage to Joseph could only ever be a legal and pastoral necessity.

I agree with you that sex within marriage is a good and wholesome thing. It is the norm for a husband and wife to make love, but Mary and Joseph’s relationship was not the norm. How could their relationship be “normal” when Mary had participated in the totally unique event of the Incarnation of God’s Son?

Saint Jerome asks, “Would he [Joseph], who knew such great wonders, have dared touch the temple of God, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, the Mother of his Lord?”

David: This is another argument based on what may seem fitting (or not), but we simply can’t calculate what would be fitting in the event of an Incarnation of God.   Would anyone who understood the Incarnation have dared treat Jesus like a human being?  But when Peter did the “fitting” thing and declined to have Jesus wash his feet, Jesus chided him.  (John 13:8.)  Evidently, when God became a man, He expected to be treated as a man.  And there’s every reason to suppose that He likewise expected His mother to be treated as a woman.

If Mary and Joseph were vowed to celibacy, then just what was Mary and Joseph’s betrothal?  Even assuming that Joseph was an older man,

the relationship that you propose for him and Mary sounds like foster care, or an adoption, not an engagement.  What was the “pledge” that Mary and Joseph made when the Bible says that they were “pledged to be married”?  It seems, rather, that according to the Protoevangelium, and in your view, Mary and Joseph had pledged never to be married. Even if the Protoevangelium were not a pseudonymous grab-bag of unlikely tales, it would not be sufficiently weighty to overcome this difficulty.

Dwight: This “pseudonymous grab-bag of unlikely tales” was considered reliable enough for the church fathers who lived less than two hundred years from the events described, but not for you who are separated by nearly two thousand years. Who’s more likely to be right here?

Anyway, I’ve said before I don’t use The Protoevangelium as Scripture, but as an ancient document that helps “shed light on Scripture”.  But it is not the only evidence that points to a marriage that is permanently celibate. Such arrangements were part of the Jewish background of the New Testament Church. Both the classical historian Philo and the Dead Sea Scrolls tell us that permanently celibate marriages were part of the religious customs of the first century Jewish Essene community at Qumran.

1 Corinthians 7:36-38 may suggest that relationships like this were encouraged in order for the couple to devote themselves to prayer and the Lord’s service. Paul may also be recommending this type of marriage when he advises “those who have wives to live as if they have none.” (1 Cor. 7:29.)

David: 1 Corinthians 7 is a very slender reed on which to balance this argument.  The interpretation of the passage is difficult; Paul almost disclaims its authority (v. 25: “I have no command from the Lord”); and it is tailored to an unusual circumstance (v. 26: “Because of the present crisis”).  Your view of this passage puts it in some tension with Paul’s instructions about clergy properly being husbands and fathers (1 Tim. 3:2-5, 12; Titus 1:6).  Most important; the people involved in the arrangement Paul permits are expressly held not to be bound by vows, but to be free to marry (vv. 28, 36). The clear, pedestrian teaching about marital sex in this chapter is in verse 5: “Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time ….  Then come together again….”  There’s little evidence that vowed celibate “marriages” existed in the Apostolic-era Church, and no evidence that Mary and Joseph had such a marriage.

Dwight: I give historical, Scriptural and cultural evidence from first century Judaism and Christianity, but that isn’t enough. But consider: What other arrangement could have been made for a young Jewish girl who found herself pregnant? (Especially if she had taken a vow of celibacy.) By all appearances she had committed a heinous sin and the law demanded her to be stoned. She couldn’t be sheltered by her family. Joseph had intended to “put her away” but when the angel informed him of the circumstances he changed his mind. But he couldn’t just take Mary in and shelter her as an unwed mother. That would have been scandalous for both of them. His going through with the planned marriage and adopting the girl by marrying her was the only option given the extraordinary circumstances.

David: The only option?  How about the option the Bible describes?—He took her as his wife.  If it would have been a scandal for Joseph to shelter an unwed woman, I don’t see how the scandal is relieved by his taking her in under a pseudo-“marriage” in which (according to the Protoevangelium, chapter 15) it would have been a “grievous crime” for them to have sex.  There was still no chaperone.

Dwight: You don’t account for the possibility that an older man might just look on a young girl in such a situation as a man might regard a daughter or a niece. Neither do you account for the fact that Mary and Joseph would have been surrounded by an extended family and closely-knit community who would have helped keep an eye on the situation.

David: No, I do understand the concept; I just don’t understand calling it “marriage”.  I don’t think any real evidence accounts for this doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity.  It seems, rather, that the “evidence” of a celibate marriage was cooked up to bolster a conclusion that someone had already deemed fitting. And that brings me to the second question, which is, What would be the reason for Mary’s supposed perpetual virginity?  Your answer is that her continued virginity is a fulfillment of her virginal character.  You link-and equate-virginity and holiness.  In order for Mary to be really holy, she would have to be a virgin; a woman who has had sex—even just with her husband—can’t be really holy.  However, virginity is not always a mark of holiness, and for a person who is married but is still a virgin (and there are such people), that virginity may be a pathology (and grounds for an annulment, I think).

A husband or wife who deliberately refuses sex to his or her spouse is not holy in so doing; he or she would be selfishly “depriving” his or her spouse. (1 Cor. 7:25.)   On the contrary, the ideal for married people is a well-ordered and fulfilled sexual relationship.

You describe Mary in her maturity as “a venerable, pure, and holy matron”.  I hope you wouldn’t say that this status is impossible for a married woman.  And yet you said that it “denigrates” Mary to suggest she had sex with her husband.  Do we “denigrate” married women—our mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters—if we presume that they have had normal relations with their husbands?  Not at all.  But it’s evidently not enough for you that Mary be spiritually pure; she must, though married, remain physically a virgin in order to remain truly pure.  I resist that.  It misunderstands sex, marriage, and virginity.

Dwight: It denigrates Mary not because she might have made love with her husband and was therefore “dirty”. Instead it denigrates her because it suggests that she followed a lesser way of holiness.

David: As I’ve said, I don’t think you can show that marriage is a “lesser” way of holiness.  I know that you are not arguing that sex is “dirty”, but I can’t help thinking that such an attitude was behind the doctrine.  One historian observes that the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity “spread in close connection with the ascetic overestimate of celibacy, and the rise of monasticism.”

But what really suggests this to me is that right alongside the teaching that Mary did not consummate her marriage is the strange idea that the birth of Jesus was miraculous in not disturbing Mary’s physical traits of virginity.

To “prove” this miracle, the Protoevangelium tells a most repulsive story (at chapters 19-21).  By this light, not only does ideal holiness require abstinence even from marital sex, but also it evidently requires physical resemblance to a woman who has never given birth.  There’s something almost Gnostic about this abhorrence of natural procreation.

The Bible says that Mary “gave birth” to Jesus (Matt.1:25), and that Jesus was “born of” Mary (Matt. 1:16);

and without getting into the obstetrical details, we know what this means.  Hypothesizing, instead, a “birth” other than through the birth canal is a self-contradiction, and it impugns Jesus’ full and real humanity.  It impugns marriage, sex, and childbirth.  To put my own position positively, I affirm a full, real humanity for Jesus, not a magical birth that left his mother unaffected, and not a childhood in a stilted environment where his parents had vowed not to be a real husband and wife.

Dwight: We are referring to a miraculous event here.

The whole idea that a woman becomes pregnant by the Holy Spirit is pretty astounding. The belief that Mary’s virginity was preserved through the birth process as well as after is not due to some repulsion about sex. The story you refer to is a simple, vivid support for the total fact of the Virgin Birth. The Protoevangelium was written to bolster belief in the Virgin Birth, and for good or ill, the episode was included in the Protoevangelium for that reason alone. You can’t blame this view on sexually repressed monks. The perpetual virginity of Mary was established well before the rise of Christian monasticism in the early fourth century.

Let’s get back to the real point. You ask, “What is the reason for Mary’s perpetual virginity?” Athanasius, that great defender of orthodoxy in the fourth century, answers your question quite succinctly, “Mary, who gave birth to God, remained a virgin to the end [in order to be a model for] all to come after her.”

In other words, Mary’s perpetual purity was a model and example for all those who would strive for that “better way” of discipleship that identifies most fully with the example of Jesus. In other words, Mary’s perpetual virginity makes sense because it reflects the glory of her Son—the virgin par excellence.

I can see your worries that this belief denigrates marriage and impugns Christ’s true humanity. That might be true if the Catholic Church’s teachings generally supported such views, but they don’t. On the contrary, of all churches, it is the Catholic Church that has the strongest, most consistent, complete and life-affirming view of marriage, sex, and procreation. Likewise, the doctrine could impugn Christ’s true humanity only if the Catholic Church actually took that position. It doesn’t. The Catholic Church has been both the definer and defender of the true Christology for the last two thousand years. The only other question is whether the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin must lead to other more unpalatable doctrines about Mary. In other words, is it the thin edge of the wedge?

David: I guess that’s one way of putting it.  In the fourth century, Basil of Caesarea observed that if Mary had had normal conjugal relations, “That would not have affected the teaching of our religion at all, because Mary’s virginity was necessary until the service of the Incarnation, and what happened afterward need not be investigated in order to affect the doctrine of the mystery.”

Therefore, Mary’s supposed perpetual virginity marks the point where Marian doctrine stops being about Jesus and starts being about Mary.

Dwight: You left out the last part of Basil’s observation. He goes on to say why he does believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary: “since the lovers of Christ [that is, the faithful] do not allow themselves to hear that the Mother of God ceased at a given moment to be a virgin, we consider their testimony to be sufficient.”

That leads me to end where I started. The perpetual virginity of Mary is a beautiful, fitting doctrine that has been held by the vast majority of Christians, including the Protestant Reformers, at all times and in all places from the earliest days of the Church. The only Christians who deny this doctrine are modern Evangelicals. It is possible, I suppose, that the vast majority of Christians have got it wrong, but I know where I’d place my bet.

David: On this one, we’ll have to disagree. However, you do state a good point to leave us Evangelicals thinking about:  Are we paying adequate attention to the testimony and wisdom of the historic Church, especially as it relates to a concept—consecrated virginity—on which our own thought, meditation, and experience may be lacking?   And if consecrated virginity is an unfamiliar concept for Evangelicals, how much more unfamiliar will be our next subject—the Catholic idea of Mary’s espousal to God.

 


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