What Sacred Tradition Is and Is Not: 7 Answers to Common Misconceptions

Saints Peter and Paul, by El Greco

Saints Peter and Paul (between 1605 and 1608), by El Greco.

This started out as a response to someone’s blog, but I got carried away. Here are some answers to some common misunderstandings regarding the Sacred Tradition of the Catholic Church, especially with reference to the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura. Pardon me for just dumping it here with so little introduction or conclusion, but I hope it will be helpful to someone.

1. Sacred Tradition — including Sacred Scripture — started out as oral tradition.

Of course, all Christian teaching started out as oral tradition. Until the Gospels were written, decades following Christ’s Ascension, the sayings and teachings and doings of Jesus were transmitted solely by word of mouth. Over the course of the first century, that was recorded in the books of Sacred Scripture we now call the New Testament. As you admit yourself, not everything Jesus did was recorded. There’s no doubt that not everything Paul preached was recorded; he often refers in his letters to teachings he gave in person, the content of which we are left to infer. Paul was a gifted writer, but we have from him only a handful of letters written for specific purposes, handling local business or offering correction or rebuke to specific situations and problems. None of the authors of the New Testament set out to write a compendium of the Christian faith or a catechism for teaching everything there was to know.

You believe, as the Catholic Church affirms, that Sacred Scripture is the heart of Divine Revelation, the very, infallible, written Word of God. But what do you suppose happened to all the stories of the other things Jesus said and taught and did, all the other things that Paul and the Apostles taught? Did people just forget them? And did these things somehow become less valid or less real because they weren’t written down? Everything that came from the mouth of Jesus was the Word of God. Did it cease to be the Word of God, cease to be Divine Revelation, because it was among those “many other signs Jesus did”?

Codex Vaticanus

A leaf from Codex Vaticanus, one of the earliest extant manuscripts of the Greek New Testament.

2. Sacred Tradition is the Word of God.

No, of course it didn’t, and the early Christians did not forget. They cherished every word that issued from the mouth of God through Christ, every word taught to them by the Apostles. Did the words of Jesus cease to be Divine Revelation because it was the Apostles repeating them and teaching them? Did they cease to be Divine Revelation after the Apostles died, and their disciples taught them to the next generation of Christians? No, the Word of God spoken orally was and still is just as much the Word of God as the Word of God written in Scripture — just as much as when we memorize and recite Scripture, we are speaking the Word of God. Memorizing and reciting the teachings of Jesus taught from one generation of Christians to the next is no less the Word of God — in fact, we depend upon it. You do, too. This is how the teachings of Jesus were transmitted for the generation or two before they became Scripture. Proclaiming the Gospels as the Word of God depends on the oral tradition of Christ’s teachings being and remaining the Word of God.

You believe that at the death of the Apostle, Divine Revelation was closed. We, the Catholic Church, go even further than that: Jesus Himself, the Word spoken by God, was the ultimate revelation. The New Testament is the New Testament not just because it was written by the Apostles, not even solely because it was inspired by Holy Spirit (which it was), but because it records the words and teachings of Jesus, the words of Divine Revelation Himself. What distinguishes the documents accepted into the New Testament canon as Scripture, versus the ones from only a generation later, such as the Didache or the Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians (1 Clement) — which were both among those documents considered for inclusion in the New Testament — was the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but also the fact that the canonical books were written by the Apostles or their associates, witnesses to the life of Christ Himself, or who were taught immediately by such witnesses — and above all that they consisted almost purely of the word and teachings of Jesus carried on and taught by the Apostles.

But did the words of the Word of God cease to be Divine Revelation because they weren’t written in Scripture? Did they cease to be the Word of God at the death of the last Apostle? Why the arbitrary cutoff at the death of the Apostles?

St. Thomas the Apostle

St. Thomas the Apostle.

3. Sacred Tradition was all most of the Apostles left us.

Most of the Apostles were too busy preaching to the ends of the earth to do much writing. That in itself, by the way, is an argument against sola scriptura: if the Apostles had any anticipation that only their written teachings would remain the Word of God after their deaths, wouldn’t you think they’d have done a lot more writing? What about St. Bartholomew, who preached in Armenia, or St. Thomas, who brought the Gospel all the way to India? Or St. James the Greater, who is traditionally held to have preached in Spain? Would they have given their lives as martyrs for the Lord so eagerly, never having written down their teachings, if they believed that all their preaching and suffering was worth smack — that after they died, their teachings would bring no one else to salvation, their deaths would turn no hearts, but that their mission fields would have to wait for someone else to write and compile and disseminate the New Testament? In any case, most of the Apostles, common men of Galilee, were probably barely literate if at all, as were the people they preached to.

But as for the rest of the Word of God — that that didn’t get written in Scripture: People didn’t just forget it, or dismiss it as no longer necessary now that they had the New Testament, which was “sufficient to lead a person to eternal life.” They didn’t decide, at the death of the last Apostle, that “nothing else was needed” and that the other teachings they had received from the Apostles and their followers were extraneous and no longer to be preserved or believed. Yeah, that story about St. Veronica wiping the bloody face of the suffering Savior? That’s not in Scripture; we don’t need that anymore. That liturgy you’ve been developing? No longer necessary; we have the New Testament now. Early Christians were even more excited than you are to preserve the Word of God, to learn and pass on the teachings of their Savior, the Son of God! They received no instruction from Scripture that they should discard and no longer believe the rest of the deposit of faith they had received. Not only did they receive no such instruction, but the fact is plain that they did not, since without a doubt these traditions continued to be transmitted by the earliest Christians. And if you suppose they had received such teaching to reject unwritten traditions about our Lord from the mouths of the Apostles themselves — then the idea of sola scriptura depends on an extrascriptural tradition and is self-contradictory.

St. Augustine

St. Augustine (c. 1645-1650), Philippe de Champaigne.

4. Sacred Tradition didn’t stay “oral tradition.”

Many Protestants speak of Catholic “traditions” — as you do above — as if the teachings of the Catholic Church consist of and depend solely on “oral traditions,” the kind of folklore American Indians tell around a powwow — passed down from pope to pope for 2,000 years like a tragic game of telephone. Protestant critics complain that “tradition” is something nebulous and undefined that Catholics can say is whatever they want it to be. “You made that up!” “No I didn’t, it came from tradition!”

But that is a fundamental misunderstanding. I’ve been writing about the first generations of Christians who faithfully preserved and passed down the words and teachings of Jesus, eventually recording them in Scripture. I’ve shown, I hope, that the other teachings of Jesus and the Apostles, those that were passed down (that’s all “tradition” means, by the way, is “that which is passed down”), didn’t cease to be Divine Revelation just because it was spoken and not written. They didn’t forget — it was crucial not to forget. Paul exhorted Timothy, “What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2) — and that’s exactly what the early Christians did. They taught to others these teachings, and ensured that they were passed on intact, just as carefully — even more carefully — than the bards passing on the epics of Homer, who memorized the whole of those vast poems and carried them for centuries.

But unlike Homer, the Church didn’t have to carry them for centuries. Over the first few centuries, thankfully, the Christian faith found its way to learned and literate men who, bit by bit, set these remaining teachings of Jesus and the Apostles — the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27) — to writing. We call these men the Church Fathers.

St. Cyprian of Carthage

St. Cyprian of Carthage

5. Sacred Tradition is just as much Divine Revelation as Sacred Scripture — but not the same.

I’ve often heard it charged from Protestants that the Catholic Church “places Scripture and Tradition on the same level” or “equal authority.” Well, in a sense, yes. But I would dispute the claim that the two have “equal authority” — as if the two are “equal” to each other. They are not. Both Scripture and Tradition form one deposit of faith, but the two have very different characters.

Sacred Scripture is, the Catholic Church teaches and affirms just as much as any “Bible Christian,” the very written Word of God, inspired (“breathed out”) by the Holy Spirit. As such, it is infallible, inerrant, and indisputable in matters of faith, doctrine, and morals. God has spoken. We do not believe that Scripture is “perspicuous” or “self-interpreting” — a ridiculous claim to anybody who has spent time or energy laboring in scriptural translation or textual criticism or exegesis. Scripture is thousands of years old, written in languages and idioms no one speaks anymore, in ancient cultures and contexts very different than our own. The act of translation is itself an act of interpretation, so anyone claiming that their English Bible is “self-interpreting” is already mistaken.

Sacred Tradition, on the other hand — not “oral traditions” — is a very different animal. The writings of the Church Fathers are not infallible; they are not even inspired. The Church Fathers are not Sacred Tradition, but they do contain Sacred Tradition. They contain Divine Revelation not as Sacred Scripture — which is “pure silver, seven times refined” (Psalm 11:7), the pure, unadulterated Word of God — but more as unrefined silver ore — which contains pure silver, but also a lot of dirt and rock. The Church Fathers record the precious teachings of Jesus and the Apostles that they received from their teachers, who received them from their teachers, who received them from the Apostles themselves (in some cases, as with St. Clement of Rome or St. Ignatius of Antioch or St. Irenaeus of Lyons, as close as a generation away) — but they also have a lot to say that is merely their opinion or reflection. And sometimes they are plain wrong. Sometimes, many times, the Church Fathers even disagree with each other! But it is the things they agree upon, the core of apostolic teachings, that we receive as Sacred Tradition.

It is only the pure silver that is absolute and authoritative. If we could obtain the pure, undiluted Sacred Tradition in the form that came directly from the mouth of Jesus, it would be just as absolutely authoritative and divinely inspired as Scripture — since Scripture, too, originated as words from the mouth of Jesus. But the dirty ore of the Church Fathers is not that. The Sacred Tradition contained especially in the Church Fathers, but also in the ancient liturgy of the Church, in the pronouncements of Church councils, or even in the works of other writers, has to be refined in order to be authoritative. In the sense that Sacred Tradition comes from the exact same source as Scripture, the very words of Jesus — it is absolutely equal in authority. But practically speaking, since we don’t have that pure Tradition, it functions as a secondary authority — no less authoritative, but dependent on and supported by Scripture — which Tradition also supports.

Guido Reni, Assumption of the Virgin (1580)

Assumption of the Virgin (1580), by Guido Reni.

6. Sacred Tradition cannot contradict Scripture.

Protestants complain that Catholic Tradition “contradicts Scripture.” Such is, to begin with, patently impossible: if the two come from the same source, how can they contradict? Catholic teaching does not contradict Scripture. Perhaps it contradicts Protestant interpretations of Scripture — but such interpretations have little grounding in history or tradition. The fact is, even speaking practically, the Church Fathers, as the earliest recipients of Scripture and Tradition and of all Christian teaching, know how to interpret Scripture and Tradition in light of each other better than anyone else. Catholic teaching, coming both from Scripture and from the Tradition received from the Church Fathers, is in agreement with the Church Fathers: both what they believed, and how they interpreted Scripture. If these ancient interpretations contradict Protestant interpretations, then the Protestants have a much greater problem of contradiction than Catholics do.

It is the Magisterium of the Church — the teaching authority — that puts the pieces together; that reads and interprets Scripture authoritatively, and that gleans and refines from the Church Fathers and other sources the silver of Tradition. Protestants often complain that this places the Magisterium “above the authority of Scripture,” but such is also impossible. The Magisterium is constrained by what Scripture and Tradition say — what we have received in the deposit of faith. The Magisterium is not free to “make stuff up,” or pull Blessed Virgins out of hats, or any other such. Everything the Magisterium pronounces must be contained in Scripture and Tradition and in accord with both. The Magisterium cannot pronounce, say, that adultery is now perfectly moral and legal and okay in God’s sight, since such plainly contradicts the direct word of Scripture, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and since this contradicts the unbroken teaching of the Church for 2,000 years.

What about some of the doctrines that Protestants claim “contradict Scripture”? What about the big one, the veneration of Mary? First, Scripture plainly demonstrates the beginnings of devotion to the mother of our Lord: “My soul magnifies the Lord, / and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, / for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. / For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:46–48) — by all appearances an early liturgical prayer or hymn, which we today call the Magnificat. There is nothing in Scripture to demonstrate that we shouldn’t honor our Lord’s mother, for Jesus Himself loved her and honored her. And as for pulling Virgins out of hats — the tradition of honor given to Mary dates to the earliest centuries of the Church, found among the earliest Church Fathers and ecclesiastical writers. There is nothing in the Church’s doctrines regarding Jesus and Mary that isn’t well attested to in the writings of Tradition. The Church doesn’t “make stuff up.”

Pope Paul VI

Pope Paul VI, who re-called the Second Vatican Council following the death of Pope John XXIII in 1963.

7. Sacred Tradition is transparent and open.

I have heard Protestants complain that the Tradition of the Church is something closed and unknown, a well-guarded secret that only the prelates of the Church are privy to, with the result that the Church can proclaim anything as “Tradition” that she wishes, and no one will be the wiser. But such, again, is patently false. Every bit of the body of material that comprises Sacred Tradition is readily available, much of it online. I have never seen an organization go to greater lengths to be open and transparent as to the content and basis of its doctrines. Front and center, the Church publishes the Catechism of the Catholic Church in a dozen or so different languages, available free on the Vatican website, which not only lays out clearly and succinctly the doctrines of the Christian faith, but gives exhaustive references to Scripture, Church documents, and the Church Fathers to locate where and on what each doctrine is based. Many if not most of those Church documents (certainly the recent ones) are available for free on the Vatican website. Many of the most important writings of the Church Fathers are readily available online, both from Catholic and Protestant websites. (For what it’s worth, even New Advent, the Catholic site, reproduces a Protestant edition of the Church Fathers, the same one as on CCEL, since that is the most extensive English edition of the Church Fathers readily available in the public domain, and it’s generally a pretty fine one.) A distillation of the doctrinal sources of most important Catholic doctrines is readily available in the Enchiridion Symbolorum or Sources of Catholic Dogma. So, no, the idea that the Tradition of the Church is closed and unknown is without foundation.

Ending abruptly, because I don’t seem able to wind this down: I hope this clears up some confusion.

16 thoughts on “What Sacred Tradition Is and Is Not: 7 Answers to Common Misconceptions

  1. Reblogged this on catholicboyrichard (Stephen Francis) and commented:
    RICHARD’S THOUGHTS–if you are missing out on this blog you are missing out!!! This good brother’s blog is full of well-thought-out gems such as this article, and I believe his studious insight is worth checking out. This issue, by the way, has been my biggest stumbling block to remaining Roman Catholic or not. Where or how does Sacred Tradition fit into the picture and balance with the written Word? After being “Bible only” for 20 or more years and then “only” for another 10, which by the way is the logical and ultimate conclusion of the Sola Scriptura path eventually (and if you do not believe me read some of the “new” evangelical thinking by folks such as Rob Bell, Jay Bakker, Brian McLaren, and even John Shelby Spong or now-atheist Bart Ehrman if you do not believe me. All of them started out with the position of “Bible only” and eventually moved past it due to relying upon their own reasoning as the ultimate interpreter of what is or is not “Sacred.” Why? Because they are evil folks who all hate God and others? I have met most of these guys and I do not think so. Not at all in my opinion in fact. But the untenibility of the Sola Scriptura position takes away one of the most urgently important concepts within Christianity, and that is the Church and her understanding as the bigger context of Biblical reading, and reading the Bible without it can very easily make us each our own Pope, making ex cathedra statements based upon what we read last night just before bed and which “spoke to me” in some intangible way, whether based upon 2000 years of Church thinking and prayer or not. And yes I admittedly have been there too at times, and more than once too unfortunately. Even after becoming Roman Catholic again in 2005 I have spent and worked through (even months at a time on a few occasions) the futile attempting to iron out this balance between oral and written Tradition on my own. But it cannot be done and was never meant to be. The Word of God is such precisely because it comes from the Church, not the other way around. And if not so, as Flannery O’Connor so brilliantly wrote of the Holy Eucharist, then “to hell with it.” Enjoy.

  2. You make a good argument. Where Sola Scriptura comes in for me is the answer to the questions, “What is the essence of Christian faith?” and “Where can salvation be found?” I hope you know by now that I’m not one of those crazy Protestants that believes that the Scriptures fully and completely (and plainly) reveal everything God has ever said about life, the universe, and everything, and that anything not found in its pages does not belong in the Christian life. That’s an extreme form of Sola Scriptura I do not subcribe to.

    • As I often have to point out to Protestants, a denial of sola scriptura as defined does not mean that the Catholic Church doesn’t answer those questions with Scripture. Like so many things — nearly everything — when it comes to questions between Catholics and Protestants, the answer is not either Scripture or something else, but both Scripture and all the many other glorious things in the patrimony of the Church that enhance it and augment it. No answer that the Church would give to those questions — “What is the essence of the Christian faith?” “Where can salvation be found?” — would not be rooted firmly in Scripture. The doctrines that are favorites for Protestants to pick at — in particular the Marian doctrines — whose foundation in Scripture is less clear — are not answers to those questions at all, not central to the Gospel or salvation, but instead a copious exhibition of the Gospel at work, of the saving power of God, which is nonetheless beautiful and valuable.

      • This may be a chance to enlighten me, but since the Marian doctrines are dogma, doesn’t that mean that they are required for faith, as their denial is heresy and automatic separation from the church, which is where salvation is found?

        • We should be precise in our language. Yes, the Marian doctrines (her Perpetual Virginity, her Immaculate Conception, her Assumption) are dogma. No, that doesn’t mean that they are “required for faith,” in the sense that they are required for faith and salvation in Christ. That something has been declared a dogma means that it is a revealed truth, contained in the Word of God, written or unwritten. And yes, Catholics are obliged to accept dogma. Heresy is not the mere denial of a tenet of the faith — it has a precise and formal definition — and there is no “automatic separation from the Church.” Here’s something I think you will find most interesting, quoted from one of my books, under the heading “Heresy”:

          Heresy, according to St. Thomas [Aquinas], implies a profession of Christian belief, so that persons who have never been Christians, or who have utterly renounced Christianity, are infidels and apostates, but not heretics. The heretic, he says, is right in the end which he proposes or professes to propose to himself—viz. the profession of Christian truth—but he errs in his choice of the means he takes to secure this end, for he refuses to believe one or more of the articles of faith “determined by the authority of the universal Church.” St. Thomas adds that this rejection of Catholic dogma must be deliberate and pertinacious, so that his teaching, which is that of all theologians, may be summed up in the following definition. Heresy is error pertinaciously held and manifestly repugnant to the faith, on the part of one who professes the faith of Christ. It is clear from this that such Protestants as are in good faith and sincerely desirous of knowing the truth are not heretics in the formal sense, inasmuch as they do not pertinaciously reject the Church’s teaching. Their heresy is material only—i.e. their tenets are in themselves heretical, but they are not formal heretics: i.e. they do not incur the guilt of heresy, and may belong to the soul of the Church. (William E. Addis and Thomas Arnold, A Catholic Dictionary, 6th ed. (New York: Catholic Pub. Soc., 1887), 400.

          So the idea that Vatican II somehow changed Church teaching regarding Protestants is false. Vatican II does teach that there is a “‘hierarchy’ of truths, since they vary in their relation to the fundamental Christian faith” (Unitatis Redintegratio 11). And the Marian dogmata, though they are revealed and essential, are not “required for faith” in the sense you seem to mean.

  3. I salute you. Well done!
    I can empathize regarding that an answer to a blogger turns into a full-blown article. I had that experience when someone objected to the fact that the Virgin Mary had no other children besides Jesus. “Short answer” became a post on my blog.

  4. Absolutely! But Mary might be a good place to start. Here we have a doctrine – a fairly elaborate, specific and practical doctrine that one could never ignore as a Catholic – that is . . . please forgive me . . . if not simply made up, it outweighs any Scriptural warrant by at least a power of 10 (to be precise). Let’s take the Gospel of Luke’s account and leap every day in light of Mary – absolutely, the Protestants don’t get it and we need good teaching . . . but that’s 1 little portion of Scripture that led to a million statues. My understanding is that Mary had to be prominent for us to understand who Jesus truly is. Theologically without an affirmation of who Mary is, Christ falls short. See? I can get that! Call me Catholic . . . until you start making up a whole lot of stuff about her until she is not human anymore. I guess that’s what it comes down to. It seems to me the teaching is she was perfect – I don’t know many humans who are perfect so she seems less human to me and God seems less able to come all the way down to my level . . . she seems anti-sexual – so here again, this teaches me God has no real connection with sexual beings and finds the whole thing rather dirty, the same theme is God doesn’t really want to come all the way down to my level . . . she is an Enoch who once God truly touches, no one can touch her and she really doesn’t have a place on planet earth anymore – again, the theme that God wears anti-septic gloves. When I read Luke it clearly says Zechariah and Elizabeth are the “perfect” ones – they are called righteous and even blameless if I’m not mistaken (and yes, I know that doesn’t mean perfect) . . . but then when he gets to Mary . . . he says nothing about her sin-state, only that she is Blessed. I guess I want a Mary of Scripture that is also expanded in the way Christian tradition rightly expanded her in order to better understand that God truly came all the way down to our level and was not dependent upon finding another Enoch. Now, the flip side of this is Mary’s practical deification does say something about the human condition, that maybe we are destined for greater things that we can imagine. Is that where I need to put the emphasis in order to solve my anthropological dilemma about Mary? I imagine so. Thanks for letting me talk to myself.

    • Well, even the language you are using exhibits that you are misunderstanding the Church’s teachings about Mary. And I can relate, because these are some of the same misunderstandings and objections I had.

      You suggest that someone is “making up a whole lot of stuff … until she is not human anymore.” Let’s start there. The Church teaches that Mary was fully, absolutely human, just as human as you or me. And she was in need of a Savior just as much as you or me. There is no teaching was “she was perfect.” Only Jesus was perfect. The Church teaches that she was preserved from sin, both the stain of original sin and the wound of ever committing actual sin — but that’s no reflection on Mary. She was not “perfect.” It’s all about the power of Christ to save. Christ’s power to save is so perfect, so absolute, that He could save His mother from the very moment of her conception, to make her wholly clean and pure in preparation for His coming. That Mary did not sin does not mean that “she was perfect” — it means that Christ’s grace is perfect. It is only by that grace that she was able to resist and avoid sin. And in the same way, we who are saved, who receive that same grace, have the power to resist sin! It does not mean that God is “less able to come all the way down to [the level of imperfect beings]” — it means that, by God coming to every one of us, we all can be made perfect by His grace!

      (We say that Mary is “immaculate” — which does not mean “perfect.” “Immaculate” means “without a stain.” “Perfect” means “completely finished.” And we — just as Mary — are only “perfect” when we are “completely finished” works of grace.)

      And the idea that Mary is “anti-sexual” — I had the same objection: that the Church’s teaching on Mary’s perpetual virginity somehow implies that sexuality is “dirty” and that sex would somehow taint her all-holiness. But this is a misunderstanding. Certainly if the Church thought sexuality (especially women’s sexuality) were sinful (as many have in the history of civilization) — and if the Church were free to “make up stuff up” — then it would have Jesus being born from a rock or a seashell or coming down from heaven fully-grown or some other such — not coming out of a woman’s gross lady-parts. The very act of Jesus being formed in a human womb and born by a natural human birth intrinsically makes Mary in some sense “sexual” — but the fact is that this is not “dirty.” The fact is that God did come down to her, in a miraculous and wonderful way.

      But her perpetual virginity — why did she not have sex after Jesus was born? Does this not say that sex is somehow “dirty” and that for her to have sex would be a sin? No, it means that sex is something worldly — and Mary’s womb, by the very fact that it contained God Himself, is something consecrated, set aside for a higher purpose. From the earliest Tradition — from apostolic times — the Church has hailed Mary as the “Ark of the New Covenant” — the box that contained Christ, the incarnate God, and bore Him into the world. See, for example, Revelation 11:19–12:1. The chapter break (which was not in the original text but only added later) causes many to overlook it, but here John plainly says, “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple…. And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun” (Revelation 11:19–12:1) — a woman from whom is born “a male child, one who is to rule all the nations” (Revelation 12:5). Certainly the child represents Jesus, and the mother Mary, and the mother is implied to be connected with the Ark of the Covenant in the heavenly temple! The Ark of the Covenant, a consecrated vessel, the very gate between Heaven and Earth — that is why Mary’s womb is held to be something that no man could touch, not because the sexual act is somehow “dirty.” There is evidence from Scripture, even, that Mary was intended to be a consecrated virgin — as an early (mid–second century) apocryphal gospel, the Protoevangelium of James reports. In Luke 1:34, Mary asks the angel Gabriel, “How shall this be, since I know not man” — ἄνδρα οὐ γινώσκω, present tense, a Greek phrase that translators have been struggling with for centuries. Many translations render it “since I am a virgin,” but that doesn’t quite get it; not does “for I have no husband.” It says Mary was betrothed! Certainly she had every expectation of having a husband, and unless she was not aware of the facts of life, would have fully expected having marital relations with her husband in the near future and conceiving children naturally! Why, then, did she ask this question?

      And regarding the Assumption — again, you are missing the point of the teaching. It is not that Mary is someone special who, “once God truly touches” her, “doesn’t have a place on planet earth anymore” — but that every one of us whom God truly touches doesn’t belong to this earth, but has a place, body and soul, in His eternal kingdom. Look to this post I made about it. Mary is the firstfruits of His inheritance to all, the assurance that every one of us who are in Him have a heavenly reward awaiting. The liturgy of the Mass for the feast of the Assumption puts it better than I ever could: “It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give You thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord. For today the Virgin Mother of God was assumed into heaven as the beginning and image of Your Church’s coming to perfection and a sign of sure hope and comfort to Your pilgrim people; rightly You would not allow her to see the corruption of the tomb since from her own body she marvelously brought forth Your incarnate Son, the Author of all life.” God came down to touch and to save not just one, not just Mary, but every one of us.

      You are right that “righteous” and “blameless” don’t mean “perfect” — something that Protestants should be reminded of, since they love to point to Paul’s quotation that “no one is righteous” (Romans 3:10) as evidence that we are all “totally depraved” and incapable of being righteous. But yes, Zechariah and Elizabeth were “righteous” — even though they sinned (for which Zechariah was stricken dumb, for doubting the angel’s words).

      But regarding Mary — you suggest that “one little portion of Scripture led to a million statues.” Really? You think that the Church’s devotion to Mary is the result of a misunderstanding — of someone misinterpreting St. Luke when he says that Mary was “blessed”? Please remember that the Catholic Church is not like Protestant churches. We did not take the Bible and read it from scratch and interpret the Scriptures only for what we thought they meant. We received the Scriptures as part of a living Tradition — not just receiving the texts, but receiving teachings from those who wrote the texts, who taught us how to understand them and who gave us the fullness of revelation. Go back to the beginning and read these words and try to put yourself in St. Luke’s mind: why did he write that “all generations would call [Mary] blessed”? Or that she was “highly favored” or “full of grace”? Was he just saying nice things about Jesus’s mother, or did he know more about her than he wrote in Scripture? By every indication, Luke knew Mary and talked to her, as one of the “eyewitnesses of the word” (cf. Luke 1:2) — or at least he talked to those who had known her very well. He had very personal and immediate knowledge of the circumstances of Jesus’s Nativity, things only Mary would have had knowledge of. Would Luke say that “all generations would call her blessed” — very high praise indeed — if there were not very good reasons why would all generations would call her blessed — if the generations of the Church were not already calling her blessed in their liturgy?

      You suppose that the Church’s Marian doctrines are tradition getting out of hand, something added on later as people got carried away; and this is a common Protestant view. But from the very earliest Christian writers, we have testimony to the extraordinary things which the Church believes about Mary — that she was perpetually a virgin, that she did not sin, that she was assumed body and soul into heaven at the end of her earthly life. The Protestant view supposes that the Church, so careful to preserve intact and uncompromised the faith that had been received from the Apostles, so determined that she would condemn heretics for deviating from that Truth, would, at the same time, “make stuff up” about the mother of Jesus, and “deify” a mere human to a point that entirely departs from that Truth — and that all the same Christians who would persecute heretics for alternate understandings of the divine and human natures of Christ would be entirely okay with this. Think about whether that makes sense.

      I think, toward the end of this, you are starting to figure out for yourself where the Marian doctrines might truly be directed: “that maybe we are destined for greater things that we can imagine.” That is absolutely it! We say in the Salve Regina, my favorite Marian hymn, that Mary is “our hope.” Does that mean that we “hoping” in Mary for our salvation? No — what it means is that Mary is everything we hope for, everything we hope to be. And everything we can be, by God’s grace. I would highly recommend a book, Mary and the Fathers of the Church, by Fr. Luigi Gambero, a book that made a profound difference in my understanding of the Church’s Marian doctrines. Gambero goes through all the Church Fathers, from the very earliest writings to the medieval age (for which he has a sequel, Mary and the Middle Ages, which I don’t have yet but it’s on my list), and surveys the teachings of each regarding Mary, giving quotations that demonstrate that all the things the Church believes have been believed since the earliest times — that this Tradition isn’t just something “made up,” but something real and received. Mary is not the Gospel — but she is the demonstration of the Gospel, our living witness and assurance that all the promises of the Gospel are true.

      • I (in my mind and heart at least – this is not sarcastic, but sincere) will sit in sackcloth and ashes before your patient, thoughtful and well-studied response. The Lord Bless you and Keep you, may the Lord’s Face shine ever before you.

        • I meant to share that I prayed several Orthodox prayers that mentioned the Theotokos. I usually skipped over that part. But as I continued to pray and learn, I found myself praying the Theotokos part and my thoughts were wholly on Christ. So from that moment on I knew there was something going on I didn’t understand, and like many deep matters could only understand once I had begun to practice it. That also reaffirmed that we need to be carefully in stereotyping other religious traditions since most of them have many deep layers to them. Blessings.

          • And yes, it’s true — if there’s any part of Marian devotion that Protestants ought to embrace, but is so often misunderstood, it’s hailing Mary as the Theotokos. The whole Nestorian heresy resulted from Nestorius’s denial of Mary as Theotokos — because if Mary did not bear God, then she bore only a man. Every bit of Marian piety developed in magnification of Jesus, not of Mary herself. What she said in the Magnificat is true: “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” Peace be with you.

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