Venerating the Virgin: Orthodox Christian Reflections for Protestants
One of the more divisive issues between Orthodox Christians and Protestants is how Mary, the Theotokos, is viewed by the Church. I frequently meet people who are on the fence about what church to attend, who have a great interest in Orthodoxy, but who are uncomfortable with the place of Mary in our faith and worship services. The purpose of my article is to shed light on some of the major points of contention and add historical perspective to the debate.
The first Protestant objection is that even though Mary is Jesus Christ’s mother, she was still just an ordinary woman who doesn’t deserve an elevated status in the Church. To sing hymns to her, celebrate her feast days, or venerate her icons is akin to idol worship.
In response to this objection, Orthodox Christians argue that no ordinary woman could give birth to God’s Son and that she was chosen by God because she was a holy young girl whose will was aligned with His Will. Certainly, she was ordinary in that she was a human being like the rest of us, but her submission to God set her apart for the most important job a human could ever fulfill.
In the Old Testament, prophets were chosen by God to deliver God’s words to His people; by comparison, Mary was chosen by God to bear the Word of God in her womb and physically deliver Him to his His people. This is the culmination of revelation, and there is no Christianity apart from the Incarnation of God. Not only did Mary carry God in her womb, she also gave Him flesh and bones of her flesh and bones. This is why we call Mary the New Eve. Just as humanity was born from Eve, Christ the New Adam was born from Mary.
Irenaeus of Lyons wrote in Against Heresies:
The Lord, coming into his own creation in visible form, was sustained by his own creation which he himself sustains in being. His obedience on the tree of the cross reversed the disobedience at the tree in Eden; the good news of the truth announced by an angel to Mary, a virgin subject to a husband, undid the evil lie that seduced Eve, a virgin espoused to a husband.
As Eve was seduced by the word of an angel and so fled from God after disobeying his word, Mary in her turn was given the good news by the word of an angel, and bore God in obedience to his word. As Eve was seduced into disobedience to God, so Mary was persuaded into obedience to God; thus the Virgin Mary became the advocate of the virgin Eve.
Christ gathered all things into one, by gathering them into himself. He declared war against our enemy, crushed him who at the beginning had taken us captive in Adam, and trampled on his head, in accordance with God’s words to the serpent in Genesis: I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall lie in wait for your head, and you shall lie in wait for his heel.
The one lying in wait for the serpent’s head is the one who was born in the likeness of Adam from the woman, the Virgin. This is the seed spoken of by Paul in the letter to the Galatians: The law of works was in force until the seed should come to whom the promise was made.
He shows this even more clearly in the same letter when he says: When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman. The enemy would not have been defeated fairly if his vanquisher had not been born of a woman, because it was through a woman that he had gained mastery over man in the beginning, and set himself up as man’s adversary.
That is why the Lord proclaims himself the Son of Man, the one who renews in himself that first man from whom the race born of woman was formed; as by a man’s defeat our race fell into the bondage of death, so by a man’s victory we were to rise again to life.
We revere the great faith and holiness of Mary because she is truly a blessed and glorious lady, more honorable than any other woman. We sing her praises only because this brings glory to God—nothing she did was for her own glory—and we pray, asking her to pray for us and for the salvation of the whole world because we know her will is aligned with God’s. If Jesus loved his mother, shouldn’t we?
The second Protestant objection is that Mary was not a perpetual virgin and Jesus Christ was not her only child. Many Protestants believe the Bible supports these claims. In actuality, the Orthodox belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity is entirely biblical and well supported by Church tradition. Church Fathers such as Athanasius, Epiphanius, Jerome, Augustine, and Cyril taught that Mary is ever-virgin and the Second Council of Constantinople (Fifth Ecumenical Council, 553-554) twice referred to Mary as “ever-virgin.” Even many early Protestant leaders asserted the same:
- Martin Luther: “It is an article of faith that Mary is Mother of the Lord and still a virgin. … Christ, we believe, came forth from a womb left perfectly intact” (Weimer’s The Works of Luther, English translation by Pelikan, Concordia, St. Louis, v. 11, pp. 319-320; v. 6. p. 510).
- Ulrich Zwingli: “I firmly believe that Mary, according to the words of the gospel as a pure Virgin brought forth for us the Son of God and in childbirth and after childbirth forever remained a pure, intact Virgin” (Zwingli Opera, Corpus Reformatorum, Berlin, 1905, v. 1, p. 424).
- John Wesley: “The Blessed Virgin Mary, who, as well after as when she brought him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin” (“Letter to a Roman Catholic”/In This Rock, Nov. 1990, p.25).
We can also see in the Bible that Jesus Christ is Mary’s only child. The strongest example of this is in John 19:26-27:
When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home.
If Mary had other children, Jesus would not have had to entrust his mother to his disciple at the time of his death. And if Mary had other children, this act by Christ would have been an insult to them. This scene at the foot of the cross only makes sense if you conclude that Christ asked John to care for his mother because He was indeed her only son.
One of the most powerful arguments in defense of the ever-virginity of Mary is to consider what kind of madness it would have been for Joseph, a devout Jew, to dare touch a woman who had given birth to God. Joseph surely knew what had happened to Uzzah when he had touched the ark of the covenant—he died instantly. The ark of the convenant only held tablets on which God had written. Mary, however, is a living ark which had held God in the flesh and Joseph would never have viewed her simply as his conjugal partner. He would have certainly kept her pure and cared for her as a father-figure and guardian. The Protoevangelium of James, while not considered Scripture, is a reliable tradition describing how Mary, a young virgin dedicated to God by her holy, elderly parents and living in Solomon’s temple, was betrothed to Joseph, an older man who was to be her guardian. This ancient story of Mary’s life contains further evidence in support of her ever-virginity.
Other Protestants point to Matthew 12:46, speaking of Jesus’ brothers and sisters, as proof that Mary was not an ever-virgin. These passages can easily be explained in the Orthodox context. The Greek word used in those passages is adelphoi, which is a translation of an unknown Aramaic word, translated as “brothers” in English. Adelphoi can refer to brothers or sisters, but also cousins or kinsmen. It is the word used in the Greek Old Testament to describe the relationship between Abraham and Lot, who were uncle and nephew. Since the Greek term is not as precise as “brother” or “cousin” in English, it must be understood according to the full context of the Scriptures and Tradition. Orthodox Christians, then, interpret this word to mean cousins or other relatives in Christ’s extended family. These “brothers” might also be children Joseph may have had from a previous marriage. Either way, there is substantial evidence to support the historic Christian belief in Mary’s ever-virginity, and Orthodox Christians uncompromisingly uphold it.
The final Protestant objection I will address pertains to Orthodox prayers to Mary, particularly prayer asking her to “save us.” At several points during the Divine Liturgy the choir softly sings “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” This can be confusing and sometimes alarming to newcomers. Even some Orthodox people may have questions about why we sing this.
Orthodox Christians affirm that only God can save our souls and that we are indeed saved by grace through faith. What part does the Theotokos play in our salvation? The answer is basic and biblical: since Mary said yes to God and willingly bore His Son, Jesus Christ, she participated with God in her own salvation as well as in our salvation. Through her actions, she exemplified what any other person can do by faith—we can all say yes to God and we can all cooperate with Him in bringing salvation to the world. So when we pray “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” we acknowledge what she has already done in giving birth to our Saviour. At the same time, we ask the quintessential disciple of God to pray for our salvation.
It is also important to examine the various ways the word save is used in the New Testament in order to understand what it can mean to ask someone to “save” us.
The Greek verb sozo (Strongs number 4982) comes from the word soaz, meaning “safe.” It means:
to save, keep safe and sound, to rescue from danger or destruction; to save one (from injury or peril); to save a suffering one (from perishing), i.e. one suffering from disease, to make well, heal, restore to health; to preserve one who is in danger of destruction; to save or rescue; to save in the technical biblical sense.
It is used in the New Testament 101 times. Here are a few examples:
- Matthew 10:22: “You will be hated by all because of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved.”
- Luke 8:48: “And He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”
- John 12:27: “Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour.”
- 1 Timothy 4:16: “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.”
- 1 Corinthians 7:16: “For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband ? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?”
- Ephesians 2:8: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God…”
- James 5:15: “…and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.”
As you can see, the verb sozo (“to save”) is used in a variety of ways in the New Testament. Many times it refers to the salvation of souls, but it is also used to describe healing and temporal deliverance from trials. Occasionally, it refers to what people can do for other people, not only what God can do for us. For this reason, we can pray “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!”
From the earliest days of Christianity, the Theotokos has been honored in the Church. The Ecumenical Councils upheld and crystallised Christian teachings about Mary the Mother of God that were part of Apostolic tradition and the life of the Church for centuries before. Even major figures of the Magisterial Reformation, such as Luther and Calvin, retained some traditional Orthodox beliefs about Mary. But as Protestantism continued to develop, the role of Mary in Protestant churches diminished. Now, many Protestants reject all devotion to Mary as idolatry and superstition. When I was a Protestant, the common belief among my fellow Protestants was that praying to Mary and venerating her was a denial of our true God and Savior. These feelings came from a genuine desire to worship God alone and not let anything else impede that profoundly important personal relationship. But is it fair or good to discard the first sixteen centuries of Christian teaching about Mary?
I hope this article will give Protestant Christians a reason to rethink their pre-conceived ideas about Mary and re-embrace the historic Orthodox Christian teachings about her. She is a beautiful example of faith, humility, long-suffering, and selflessness. She loves us all very much and I am writing this to tell you that it is okay to love her back. It is okay to ask the Mother of our God to pray for you, help you, even “save” you. She points us to Christ, she brings glory to God, and she exemplifies what it means to be a true disciple. It is my desire that Protestants will feel free to embrace her as a true friend and spiritual mother and that by doing so, their faith in Christ would be greatly enriched.
Jodie Anna Boychuk converted to Orthodoxy in 2010 and writes the blog Imperfectly Ordinary. She lives with her husband and three young daughters and attends Christ the Saviour Antiochian Orthodox Church in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.