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Once a Virgin, Always a Virgin?

This is a chapter from my book Mary-A Catholic Evangelical Debate written with an old college friend, David Gustafson. David takes the Evangelical stance and I defend the Catholic position. This chapter is on the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Dwight: One of the interesting things about our meeting again after a twenty-year gap, was how little either of us had really changed. I don’t know about you, but, apart from the waistline and hairline, I found myself talking to the same guy I’d remembered all those years before. It interests me how much anybody’s character changes or stays the same. On the one hand I am who I have always been and you are who you have always been. It is written not only in our genetic code, but in the greater code set before the dawn of time. However, while our essential personalities remain, they don’t stay the same. If we are continually alive to God’s grace, then our essential self can continue to mature and grow to the full statue of God in Christ Jesus. (Eph. 4:13.)

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. Continue Reading