Mary—Mother of God?
Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, generated a flurry of interest and discussion regarding the Christian religion. Since Mel declares himself to be a Catholic, the movie naturally elicited a consideration of the Catholic perspective on various aspects of the life of Christ on Earth. One unique feature of Catholicism is the role and status assigned to Mary. While many Catholics will “hedge” when in private conversation about the veneration given to Mary, the official pronouncements of the Catholic Church are forthright and unreserved in declaring her to be the “mother of God,” and in sanctioning the offering of worship to her, and assigning to her an intercessory role. Consider the following authoritative decrees of the Vatican II Council:
Mary was involved in the mysteries of Christ. As the most holy Mother of God she was, after her Son, exalted by divine grace above all angels and men. Hence the Church appropriately honors her with special reverence. Indeed, from most ancient times the Blessed Virgin has been venerated under the title of “God-bearer.” In all perils and needs, the faithful have fled prayerfully to her protection…. This most holy Synod…charges that practices and exercises of devotion toward her be treasured as recommended by the teaching authority of the Church in the course of centuries, and that those decrees issued in earlier times regarding the veneration of images of Christ, the Blessed Virgin, and the saints, be religiously observed…. Let the entire body of the faithful pour forth persevering prayer to the Mother of God and Mother of men. Let them implore that she who aided the beginnings of the Church by her prayers may now, exalted as she is in heaven above all the saints and angels, intercede with her Son in the fellowship of all the saints (Abbott, 1966, pp. 94-96, emp. added).
Of course, rejecting the concept of abiding strictly by the Bible (sola scriptura), the Catholic Church has maintained for centuries that God’s Word is transmitted through (in addition to the Bible) the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, i.e., through the papacy and supporting church authorities. But for those who remain unconvinced of the right of post-apostolic men to speak by inspiration, the Bible continues to be the only rule of faith and practice—the sole receptacle for God’s Word since the close of the first century A.D.
The Bible is abundantly clear on the role of Mary in the divine scheme of things. The Bible nowhere indicates that Mary ascended into heaven. Nor does the Bible ever use the expression “mother of God.” The expression, in fact, carries with it misleading baggage. It leaves the impression that Mary somehow is being credited with originating Jesus or bringing Him into existence—ludicrous notions at best (cf. John 1:1; Colossians 1:16-17). A fair representation of Scripture would recognize the need to provide clarification by using different wording (e.g., Mary was the mother of Jesus in His incarnate form). In reality, Mary’s body merely served as a host. Matthew worded it this way: “[T]hat which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20). Someone has gotten “way off track” by overemphasizing the role of Mary—thus giving rise to Mariolatry (the worship of Mary) among Catholics. Using the expression “mother of God” is, therefore, an example of decontextualization. The meaning of the phrase “the mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:43) has been greatly expanded, thereby causing the expression to convey more meaning than the Holy Spirit intended.
The Bible likewise does not give Mary any special status above others. It is acknowledged that she was selected to be the female through whom the Holy Spirit implanted the seed that brought forth the Lord (Luke 1:26-38). It is true that Mary’s relative, Elizabeth, referred to her as “blessed” (Luke 1:42). And it is true that Mary, herself, felt that “henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). But notice that nothing is attributed to Mary that is not attributed to many, many other followers of God in Bible history. Many people, in fact, have been “blessed.”
To “bless” in Bible jargon simply means to wish intended good, favor, and well-being upon the recipient (cf. Gray, 1939, 1:487). For example, consider how Melchizedek, king of Salem, extolled Abram: “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand” (Genesis 14:19-20). Rebekah was similarly blessed: “And they blessed Rebekah and said to her: ‘Our sister, may you become the mother of thousands of ten thousands; and may your descendants possess the gates of those who hate them’ ” (Genesis 24:60; cf. vs. 31). Abimelech announced to Isaac: “You are now the blessed of the Lord” (Genesis 26:29). The entire nation of Israel was pronounced blessed: “You shall be blessed above all peoples; there shall not be a male or female barren among you or among your livestock” (Deuteronomy 7:14). Moses directed multiple assurances of blessedness toward the Israelites (Deuteronomy 28:1-8).
In fact, the Bible pronounces as “blessed” all people who follow Jesus: “Blessed are all those who put their trust in Him” (Psalm 2:12). Many people in Bible history were found in the “favor” of God (e.g., 1 Samuel 2:26; Proverbs 12:2). Nowhere does the Bible even hint at the notion of Mariolatry. When on the cross, Jesus said to John: “Behold your mother!” (John 19:27), He certainly was not calling for the veneration of Mary! He was merely assigning to John the responsibility of caring for His mother. Mary’s husband, Joseph, was undoubtedly deceased. If veneration of Mary is necessitated by this statement of Jesus, then the immediately preceding statement directed to Mary pertaining to John (“Woman, behold your son!”—John 19:26) would necessitate the veneration of John! Likewise, the notion of Mary’s “perpetual virginity” is a contradiction of Bible teaching, since she and her husband, Joseph, had several children after the birth of Jesus (Matthew 12:46; 13:55-56; Mark 6:3). The New Testament is completely silent on these doctrines (Mariolatry, assumption into heaven, perpetual virginity) that have evolved within Catholicism long after the first century.
Abbott, Walter, ed. (1966), The Documents of Vatican II (New York, NY: America Press).
Gray, James M. (1939), “Bless,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. James Orr (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 1974 reprint.