The Veneration of Mary: An Introduction for Protestants

The Immaculate Conception

The Immaculate Conception (1670), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, my favorite painter of the Virgin.

So since I’ve been on the defensive for the past week (really the posts about indulgences were part of the same strand), I thought now seemed the right time to address another major aspect of Catholicism that Protestants have difficulty with, that is very often misunderstood: the veneration of Mary.

This is a huge issue. Part of the reason I’ve never gone there in these pages before is that it’s something that I have struggled with also, so it has been a sensitive spot. But I now feel secure enough to address it. This will be the first of many posts on this subject, I have no doubt. But I wanted to briefly share some basic ideas and explanations, to introduce especially my Protestant brethren to these concepts, and tell how this fits into the story of my journey.

My First Steps with Mary

Despite hearing allegations growing up, I don’t recall ever thinking that Catholics “worship” Mary. Especially as I learned about the Catholic Church in school, I always stood up to defend the Church when such attacks arose. But what I did think, growing up and even recently as I approached the Church, was that Catholics overemphasized Mary, gave her an unbiblical role in the story of salvation and an inappropriate degree of veneration.

In fact, if anything jeopardized my journey or threatened to turn me from my Catholic path, it was doubts about Mary. I had been attending Mass for about six months without a problem, and was just about to begin RCIA (and this blog), when all of a sudden and without warning, they hit, and hit hard. My friends Audrey and Jeff had just given me my first Rosary — perhaps that’s what brought me face to face with my doubts. But then, there they were. I could no longer evade them; it was either go through them, or leave this road.

My deepest doubt about Mary and Catholicism was that so much of the doctrine about her wasn’t in the Bible. Even after I had let go of sola scriptura (which happened fairly early in my quest), it seemed wrong that these ideas seemed to come out of nowhere at very late dates. For example, the doctrines of Mary’s Immaculate Conception and Assumption were not declared dogma until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. So what, then? Did they just make these up? I talked to Audrey; I talked to Brad; I e-mailed several other dear Catholic friends; I e-mailed Father Joe, asking questions and searching. I am very grateful for everyone who took the time to talk to me and reply.

But what brought me through these doubts more than anything was reading. My historian’s heart yearned to get to the root of these doctrines. Every other aspect of Catholic doctrine could be traced through the entire history of the Church — could these? I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit guided me to Fr. Luigi Gambero’s Mary and the Church Fathers, a book that seemed to be specifically tailored to my desires and needs. Gambero steps through the entire history of the Church, from the earliest Apostolic Fathers (the first generation after the Apostles) to the end of the Patristic Age (about the eighth century), and taking each Father, examines his thought and writings about Mary.

Through Gambero’s book, I found that every single doctrine that the Church holds about Mary has existed in some form since the very earliest days of Christianity. Some ideas were slow to develop into the fully-bloomed doctrines we know today — but every idea was born in seeds planted by the Apostles. In the days since I’ve discovered this, my love and my devotion for Mary has been ever-growing; she has a very special place in my heart.

The Assumption

The Assumption of the Virgin (1670), by Murillo.

Marian Doctrines

What are some of those doctrines, that are particular to the Catholic and Orthodox churches? I will enumerate them here. Many of these, to Protestant eyes, will seem fanciful and far-fetched: I thought so, too. But every one of them can be attested to in Tradition very early on. Many of them have at least some scriptural support. None of them conflict with Scripture. I will, in posts to come, examine each of these doctrines in greater depth, and give quotations from the Fathers to chart the blossoming of these ideas.

  • A prefatory word: Catholics don’t worship Mary. We honor her; we love her; we venerate her; but we fully acknowledge that she was a human just as we are. We venerate her as we venerate the saints, only more so: she was the first Christian, the first one to believe in Jesus, and as His mother, someone who was very special to our Lord, and so she is special to us. She is the most honored of all the saints.

  • Mary’s Perpetual Virginity — The Church believes that Mary was a virgin her whole life; that not only when Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, but even through his birth, her virginity remained physically intact; and that following Jesus’s birth she never engaged in sexual relations, though married to Joseph, and never bore any other children. Mary’s womb, having borne the Son of God, was a sacred and consecrated vessel. Jesus’s “brothers” and “sisters” (Matthew 12:46, 13:55; Mark 3:31-34, 6:3; Luke 8:19-20; John 2:12, etc.) — or “brethren” — are not the children of Joseph and Mary: the Greek words αδελφός (adelphos, “brother”) and αδελφή (adelphē, “sister”) could also mean “kinsman” or “kinswoman,” and especially in the Hebrew and Aramaic languages, from which these traditions were originally passed down, there was no word for “cousin.” Jesus’s “brethren” are said to be either children of Joseph by a prior marriage (an early view), or cousins (the current view, with some scriptural support).

  • UPDATE: See my expanded post on Mary’s Perpetual Virginity: “Some light on the Perpetual Virginity of Mary

  • Mary’s Sinlessness — Mary is said to have been a pure vessel, and never sinned in her life. This is the one with which I had the most trouble. The way Brad explained it to me, that really helped, is thus: Jesus was fully God and fully man. He inherited his divine nature from the Holy Spirit, and He inherited his human nature from Mary. For this reason, Mary’s human nature had to be free from the original sin of Adam.

  • Mary’s Immaculate Conception — Many people (even some Catholics) think this refers to the Virgin Birth of Christ, but this is something else that relates to the previous doctrine. In order for Mary to be born without the stain of original sin, she had to be immaculately conceived — through which she was conceived naturally by her parents (who tradition holds were St. Joachim and St. Anne), but shielded by the Holy Spirit from inheriting original sin.

  • Mary’s Assumption — Tradition holds that Mary, at the end of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into Heaven to be with her Son. Catholic dogma leaves open the question of whether she first died, but the idea is that this was her last moment on this earth. In Orthodox tradition, the Assumption is known as the Dormition (the going-to-sleep), and in this view, she died before rising to heaven.

  • UPDATE: See my expanded post on the Assumption: “The Assumption of Mary: Scriptures and texts

  • Mary as Queen of Heaven — Many Protestants think this is a granting to Mary of heavenly authority, making a goddess of her, but it is in fact a sign of her great honor in Heaven. Her Son is the King; therefore she, as his mother, is the Queen Mother — just as we accord high honor to the mothers of monarchs on earth.

  • Mary as Mother of God — this one really troubles Protestants — and it shouldn’t. The title arises as a translation of her title in the East, Θεοτόκος (Theotokos) — the God-bearer or Mother of God. Giving her this title has less to do with Mary than with Christ: By affirming Mary as the Theotokos, Christians were affirming that Christ was fully God as well as fully man: Mary bore God and not just a man. Anything less, such as the patriarch Nestorius’s preference for “Christotokos,” was interpreted as a rejection of Christ’s full divinity. Especially in the first Christian centuries, when Christological questions and heresies raged about the true nature of Christ, His earthly origins — down to the womb from which he was born — were of the utmost importance and concern.

  • Mary as Mediatrix — Scripture says that there is “one mediator between God and men,” Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5) — and Catholics fully affirm this, that Christ is our one Mediator to God. And we are fully capable of reaching Christ ourselves, through prayer; and He is with us in every Sacrament. But that doesn’t preclude the idea that there can’t be other mediators (i.e. people in between) between us and Christ. Just as we can ask friends and family members and pastors to pray for us to God — making them mediators — we can ask Mary and the saints to intercede for us. And Mary, by her special place and her unique relationship to Christ, is a powerful intercessor indeed, we believe. There is another side to this, Mary as the mediatrix of graces, that I will save for another time.

There are others to talk about, but these are the most prominent. There will be much more to come. If you have any questions you would like me to address or explore further, please do feel free to ask them. I am always looking for blog-fodder.

38 thoughts on “The Veneration of Mary: An Introduction for Protestants

  1. It took me some time to warm to the idea of the Most Holy Theotokos as the Mother of God, let alone prayers that were addressed to her, but now it gives me a great deal of joy to ask for her intercessions. Imagine my initial horror when I saw the words “no other intercessor have I but thee, O Mother of God”! But this is just poetry. Now my favorite hymns are Marian hymns. The Akathist hymn, along with Agni Parthene (if you aren’t familiar with them, I suggest you check them out) are two of my absolute favorites. Doctrinally, there are some important differences between how Rome and the Orthodox view of the Mother of God (immaculate conception being a very important difference that touches on differing ideas of salvation), but overall there is more agreement than disagreement.

    Most Holy Theotokos, save us!

    • The Akathist hymn is in my Mary book. 🙂 The book does a fairly good job of keeping feet in both Western and Eastern Marian thought. Salve Regina here in the West has become my favorite hymn. Its words are always on my lips, and I pray it a couple of times a day.

  2. I guess I’m just too much of a doubter. It seems like too much stretching, and fitting together of earlier and more recent ideas. In an attempt to consolidate and justify a modern position. I won’t downgrade anybody’s beliefs, but why even try to justify everything? Just seems like it would be easier to accept and move on.

    • Well, I’ve always had faith in the basics — in God, Christ, the Resurrection, all of that. I don’t hold it to a scientific standard of proof, but faith has borne many fruits in my life, and I’ve seen it bear fruits in other people’s lives. There always seemed to be something missing in it, though, until I found the Catholic Church. The fact of its continuity and consistency over 2,000 years makes me confident that what I believe is true. It convinces me intellectually the way historical sources convince me — because the sources and traditions can be verified back to a generation or so after Jesus. As for Mary, no crucial part of my faith rests on the truth of these traditions, but the Church teaches it and attests to it also — and it too bears fruits.

      I don’t see it so much as a fitting together of ancient and modern ideas, as a holding on to ancient ideas passed down in the modern world. As a Catholic, I have the sense of being out of place and out of time, more than I ever did as an evangelical. It’s a faith that self-consciously flies in the face of modernity.

      Faith is a gift from God, to those who seek. The intellect can’t get anyone entirely across the chasm of unbelief, though it can take one pretty far. In the end, there has to be a leap of faith.

      Do you believe anything? I know years ago you didn’t.

    • I’m not sure what he meant, but definitely these are a lot of very old ideas and traditions that we have been passed down through the ages to modernity, and we have to find a way to hold on to them today.

      • That’s what I thought- that they were very old ideas so I was confused by his comment. I hope I can do my part to venerate Mary. Thanks

  3. I’m in much the same boat as Mark. My Anglo-Catholic friends and colleagues have done a lot to open me up to the veneration and honour of Mary and all the saints, and I can say I’ve come quite a way. Your last point about asking others to pray for us was one of the points that really made things make sense.

    Regarding Mary, I used to shun most things about her because I too misunderstood it. But I still find most of it useless. It does not matter to me one bit of Mary was a perpetual virgin or not (but it mattered to those for whom sex was a no no). It does not matter to me if she was without sin or not, because I don’t need to construct a rational framework dictating how the Holy Spirit works. And it does not matter to me if she was assumed into heaven because at the end, it won’t matter for any of us. Most of the arguments are trying to apply a human logical framework to fit human theological ideas that only developed much later.

    Mother of God though is a pretty awesome title though.

    • I agree — the Perpetual Virginity and Assumption don’t really matter much at all to one’s faith in Christ. But they are beautiful traditions that I’m willing to affirm with the Church. As I pointed out, there are a couple of hints in the Gospels that Mary might not have had other children — I’ll write about that sometime. I have had questions about the sinlessness and Immaculate Conception, too, wondering how an intercessor who never sinned can really understand what we’re going through as humans; but the way it was explained to me, is that she received the firstfruits of Christ’s grace, before He was even born. She was full of Christ’s grace from the moment of her conception. She was cleansed of original sin the same way we are by baptism, as the Church teaches, only before she was ever born into sin. She went through life with human weaknesses and human problems and human temptations, same as us, but she constantly walked in God’s grace that had been poured out for her. In that sense she’s the model for all Christians and for the Church — she is what we can be and what we’re called to be, through the grace of the Holy Spirit.

      And yes, Mother of God is pretty awesome. 🙂

  4. I came here via ‘crossingthebosphorus’ and am so overjoyed to find you. This is the most beautiful tribute to Our Lady, and so useful for any Protestant who has not understood that she leads us always to her Son. I love what you write, and will be following you faithfully as a really interesting site with some marvellous information; thank you for writing this blog.

      • Thank you Joseph. I am reading and really enjoying what you write. As a High Anglican who has a great veneration for Our Lady, I found this piece particularly moving, but everywhere I look here there is so much good material – thank you for sharing it with those of us on the pilgrim road. May the Blessings of SS. Peter and Paul be with you.

          • Well, how marvellous that two years after my brother in law crossed the Tiber (on the feast of SS. Peter and Paul 2010) I should find this guide. I have a great veneration for Our Lady and pray the Rosary every day. Your post here touched my heart, and the content fires my imagination – so thank you, again.

  5. Pingback: The Same Gospel: A Plea to Protestants « The Lonely Pilgrim

  6. I’m coming at it from the other direction – I have certain faith in the reality of Mary; now I have to find a way to reconcile that with the Muslim world in which I live here in Indonesia. I’d rather have my ‘problem’ than to have to try to cajole a fistful of doctrines into a heartfelt belief…
    I have a gut feeling that the Catholic Church understands ‘Mary’ more deeply than she has ever expressed, but that the explanation would cause more chaos than clarity.
    Religion is a tough racket, though, isn’t it? No wonder for every four priests you’ll find a fifth.
    Liked your article

  7. Pingback: What is a Saint? An Introduction for Protestants « The Lonely Pilgrim

  8. Hi, Joseph.
    For the sake of simplicity, I’d describe myself as Protestant, and I do believe that much of the Catholic doctrine surrounding Mary is unbiblical, but I wanted to thank you for posting this concise and clear description of those doctrines. I will be very briefly touching on these issues as I preach a short sermon this morning to a very diverse congregation (pretty much everything, from Baptists to Catholics to tribal superstition) and this will help me avoid the common errors which I was certainly unsure of before.
    Thank you.

    • Thank you, Oliver. I’m glad to help. I would love to read or hear or know the gist of your sermon. Yes, some of these are not explicitly biblical; but I don’t think any of them are opposed to Scripture and suggested by Scripture. We reap a lot from the deposit of faith that was handed down orally from the Apostles and what has been written by Church Fathers over the ages.

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    • Yes, I realize this post is a but weak in that department. I’ve provided deeper support for several aspects on this theology in other posts in this blog. But of your fundamental thesis: What makes you believe that anything worthy of belief must be positively stated in Scripture? (For one thing, the belief that anything worthy of belief must be positively stated in Scripture, is not positively stated in Scripture.)

  10. 2 Tim 3:16
    “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness..”
    Other than that..there’s none..

    • The standard Protestant response. And you’re correct, that’s the only response. But where does this tell us that for a doctrine to be worthy of belief, it must be positively stated in Scripture? Scripture is useful for teaching. But why should we believe that “Scripture alone” is useful for teaching? That isn’t what the text says.

  11. A typical catholic response. But when the bible says “All Scripture is God-breathed” would you look for other teachings and beliefs according to traditions? That is why the Lord said “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?”, it’s not that traditions are bad but it should be in harmony with biblical teaching and would not oppose God’s words in any way.

    BTW I don’t call myself a protestant, i’m a Christian who believes in Christ teachings and by His grace doing my best to follow it as well. I may not respond to this blog anymore.

    • I’m confused, then. Why did you comment on my post if you didn’t want to have a discussion? You’re right that I’m giving Catholic responses — because I’m a Catholic. Did you expect something different?

      First, you refer to “other teachings and beliefs according to traditions.” I think you may be misunderstanding what the Catholic Church teaches about Sacred Tradition — not “traditions,” but the Word of God spoken by Jesus Christ and handed down by the Apostles. Are His spoken words and teachings not as much the Word of God as those that were written? Here’s a post that may shed a little light. Here’s another with specific attention to Marian doctrines.

      Second, neither these doctrines nor any others held by the Catholic Church oppose God’s words in any way. They do in fact form a beautiful harmony. Do you suppose differently?

      Third, you’re asking me to embrace a doctrine that you yourself admit is not found in Scripture — that a doctrine must be declared positively in Scripture to be worthy of belief — a doctrine which neither the Early Church nor any Christian prior to Martin Luther ever held; and you’re asking me to reject doctrines that are very much supported by Scripture, to which the whole received tradition of the Church attests, which Christians have believed since the earliest times. How exactly is that any sort of compelling argument?

      I apologize for being a bit gruff earlier. You caught me before I had my coffee. Welcome here, brother, and thanks for your comments! I do enjoy discussions with my Protestant brethren. And yes, the beliefs and understandings of Christ’s teachings and of His grace to which you adhere are very much in the tradition of the Protestant Reformers and the churches they founded. You can call yourself whatever you’d like, but I’m going to call you what you are.

  12. I’m glad to have found this blog, even though it’s a couple years old, so I don’t know if you wil see this response. I have been an Evangelical Protestant Christian for 45 years (since I was a teenager) and never imagined that I would consider becoming Catholic, but after reading, for the first time, writings of the Church fathers, I find myself in RCIA, with the only thing holding me back being the Marian dogmas. To be confirmed I need to be able to say that I believe the teachings of the Catholic Church, and the dogmas, as I understand, aren’t optional. I am so drawn to the sacraments. I have been attending mass for a couple months and go forward for a blessing each week, but long to partake of the elements. But when it comes to Mary, I am fearful of saying that I believe something which seems to have neither Scriptural nor historic basis. I understand that the perpetual virginity, Immaculate Conception and Assumption don’t contradict scripture. It bothers me though that there isn’t more in Scripture. If Mary went to live with the Apostle John, and he subsequently wrote a gospel, three epistles and the book of Revelation, why would he not have mentioned anything about her assumption into Heaven? Here’s where I am- I love the Church. I love Mass. I feel closer to the Lord now than ever before. Even just receiving a blessing each week – I so look forward to it. It feels like a glimpse into Heaven. So when these doubts and concerns about Mary crop up, they sadden me more than anything, because I WANT to be a Catholic. I don’t know if you can relate but from your blog it sounds like you went down the same road. My entire family (husband, kids, grandkids) are Evangelicals and most of them (other than my husband) don’t know yet that I am on this journey. I know they will have concerns and I know they will ask about Mary. I feel like I’m in limbo now somewhere between Protestant (I can’t go back) and Cathoic Christianity.

    • Robin, thanks so much for your kind comment. For the month or so that I was panicking about Mary, I felt very much the way you do: like I’d already gone so far to the Church, that I couldn’t go back, but that I wasn’t sure I could go forward. For me, when it came to Confirmation, I wasn’t 100% sure about every doctrine, particularly where it came to Mary, and I admit even today I entertain doubts — and there’s nothing wrong with that. What ultimately brought me to Easter was acknowledging that no, I’m not completely sure, but what I am sure about is that this is the Church of Christ, and I believe what she teaches is true. Reading about these doctrines, finding their ancient, primordial origins, helped a lot — realizing that in affirming them, I am affirming what Christians have always believed, the faith that has been preserved since the earliest generations of Christians, not something that was made up yesterday. No orthodox Christian ever seriously doubted or questioned the perpetual virginity of Mary until the skeptical, 18th century “Enlightenment”; both Martin Luther and John Calvin affirmed it, as an essential evidence of the divinity of Christ. The fact that Christians have always believed these things does have an historical basis, one that can be studied and examined.

      Since I made the decision to “take the plunge” into Confirmation anyway, my step of faith has been confirmed repeatedly in a myriad ways, and even the truth of the beliefs about Mary have been reinforced to me. Read this post too, about the perpetual virginity, if you haven’t. The bottom line for me is that even though these doctrines don’t always make rational sense to me, they are good, they are beautiful, and they impart to us an unparalleled example of grace and pave the path for us to follow the Lord. Mary, more than anybody else, shows the way.

      The thing about John’s letters, his Revelation, and even His Gospel, is that he simply shies away from many personal details. He doesn’t even name himself in the Gospel! His epistles are notable for not mentioning anybody but Christ, not a single personal name or greeting or detail, unlike Paul, who greets and calls out everyone he knows. So it’s not surprising at all that John would refrain from sharing his personal connection with the mother of our Lord, more than he did in the Gospel. But John does share a stunning image in the Revelation, of the “woman clothed with the sun,” who bore “a male child who would rule the nations” (Revelation 11:19-12:6) — which is almost certainly an image, on some level, of Mary. This woman is shown “in heaven” (12:1) and is identified, by juxtaposition (though the chapter divisions can obscure it if we are not careful) with “the ark of the covenant” in the temple of the Lord (11:19). This passage, traditionally, has been understood as the most vivid depiction of the Assumption. (See my post on that, too.)

      I am glad to discuss these things more with you and do my best to help you work through questions! God bless you and His peace be with you, and may He guide you home to His Church!

  13. Dear Joseph, thank you for your blog which I have found very useful. I have been a Christian for nearly 40 years of a nondenominational protestent kind. I have worshipped in any church I felt called to attend. I have never considered joining with Roman Catholics. The only reason for the exception has been my misunderstanding of the veneration of Mary and the Saints.

    I live in a country which is largely RC. The Anglican Church which I attend often shares worship events with the RC cathedral. They have always been joyous occasions.

    Soon we will be moving to a place where the only church in the community is RC. Thank you for explaining clearly what my neighbors believe. This will make it much easier for me to worship with them.

    Thank you for your blog and the work you have put into it.

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