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.

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17 thoughts on “Venerating the Virgin: Orthodox Christian Reflections for Protestants

  1. Thank you so much for this piece. As a Protestant converted from Catholicism I couldn’t ask a saint for anything because of such an entrenched fear of idolatry. It’s odd that we would ask each other to pray for us all the time. And why not ask a person who was closer to God than I am when s/he was in the flesh and is most certainly closer to God now. So there is another fear in Protestantism and that is the fear of death. One of the main reasons for my conversion is the Orthodox focus on resurrection and life rather than death, fear, and guilt. I’d rather meet a living God in the Liturgy than give the Resurrection lip service while I sit in guilt and fear. Mary as our mother and exemplar of what I need to be as a Christian does help me. She is far from dead but is alive with us and praying for us even when we cannot pray. What better sign of God’s living grace is there than that?

  2. I wonder where it is that the idea that the Blessed Theotokos was NOT a perpetual virgin started? Especially given Luther, Zwingli, and Wesley’s views. That’s a sizable chunk of Protestantism that seems to have conveniently overlooked the theology of their founding fathers.

    • At this point in Protestantism, i don’t think there’s much thought about the source and reasons why some wouldn’t believe she was a perpetual virgin. It really is the tradition of men at play here.
      I sympathize with Protestants. Heck anyone in any tradition that has to face new facts. It’s really, really hard to disconnect yourself from a lifetime in a pre-supposition.

    • In Luther’s time, most Christians did not have a Bible they could read. As more Christians became literate and Bibles became available, we Protestants could read for ourselves.

      Matthew 1:24-25 reads, “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.”

      Mary was his wife. There is nothing in this passage (or in the rest of Scripture) to suggest they did not have normal marital relations after she gave birth to Jesus.

      In other words, Protestants believe what we can read in, or prove through, the Scriptures.

      • Luther could certainly read the Bible. Do you think he (a translator) was unaware of the passage you cite? And what about the bishops of the 4th century who completed the canonization process of the Scripture and also manifestly believed in the Virgin’s ever-virginity? Do you think they simply hadn’t read that passage?

        Context—including interpretive tradition—is everything. There is also nowhere in Scripture that it says that Joseph and Mary had relations. It also nowhere calls anyone a child of Mary except for Jesus. So what you are reading in the Scriptures is also an interpretation which fits a view not shared throughout Christian history.

        Do you think that nearly every Christian everywhere for 1700 years was so illiterate that they all simply missed what to you is so plainly stated in the Bible? Or do you think it’s possible that a new tradition of interpretation arose that denied the ever-virginity?

        For more on why the “until” in Matthew 1 does not mean “he didn’t sleep with her before the birth, and then he did later,” see this article.

  3. She is also a model for discernment; she didn’t see an angel and simply submit, she used the brain God gave her and considered what she was presented with, then made her decision and accepted God’s will. Everything in her life from that point on was hard by any human standard. Her strength, faith and good choices – in the face of so much toil! – are quiet and understated.
    As the first to know who He was, and the closest physical experience of a human being with God, there are two more ways she is holier than the rest of us. Choosing *not* to hold her up as a model for other Christians is a matter of cutting women short, both in terms of equipping them for life, and appreciating their contribution.
    When people feel the need to say “our Father and Mother who art in heaven” it is the result of undervaluing Christ’s relationship with the Theotokos. She modeled devotion, discernment and lifelong commitment. Clearly, He valued that and cared for her. She nursed him, followed Him throughout His life, and accepted that God’s plan for her child was more important than her access to Him. That is a strength toward which any Christian mother can strive.
    Why would anyone want to minimise her contribution? How can removing her benefit anyone? I would argue that the only benefit would be to tell women they weren’t of value, that they don’t need to use discernment, that their will is forfeit without their choice to submit, and to insist on their inferiority and weakness. Having the foremost member of the Church of Christ be His mother says a lot about His opinion of the value of a good woman.

  4. Thank you. It is three years (plus) now since I was chrismated into the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church (Antiochian).
    I came to belief in God, as the Holy Trinity, at the age of ten (out of a lukewarm Protestant childhood). I asked my parents for permission to become Roman Catholic, at that point. Permission was declined. (“That is too serious to make a commitment on at the age of ten.). So, through many years of wandering, searching and generally getting quite lost and confused, I went to the Roman Catholic Church as a teenager. I was subsequently baptized and attended Mass each morning. But as I went on to a Catholic College (studying Religious Studies), I became increasingly uneasy with the amount of actual worship of the Virgin Mary.
    After a few years I began to go to an evangelical baptistic denomination. I was increasingly uneasy with how much just-plain-Mary teaching I heard. At the last Christmas pageant there, the young girl who had practiced to play the part of Mary, fell ill just previous to the pageant. It was decided that, “Oh well, let’s just go ahead without her.” By this time I was being led by God to discover Orthodoxy.
    All that to say, the teaching around the Holy Theotokos I have encountered has felt – well – just true! So many pieces of Scripture that did not fit – just fit now.
    Thank you for your thoughtful article. I appreciate it very much.
    There were other reasons that I have converted, but this is one of them.

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  7. ” I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete…..In that day you will ask in my name. I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. No, the Father himself loves you and because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. I came from the Father and entered the world; now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father.” John 16:23-28 Jesus says that we can ask in His name and/or go directly to the Father.
    In John 17:1, it says, “After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed: “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.” Where Jesus looked when He prayed, to Whom Jesus spoke when He prayed…that’s the example He calls us to follow.
    Of course, there is also the Holy Spirit. “I will pour out my Spirit on all people….and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Acts 2:17, 21. “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” Acts 4:12 All power and authority is given to Jesus. Mary whom God chose is not mentioned. Although she is of infinite worth because God chose her. She is now in Heaven because of what Jesus did. She wants us to spend our time thinking about Him…not her.
    (I am obviously no scholar. But, I owe everything I am and hope to be to Jesus before Whom everything and everyone in heaven and earth will bow. He is worthy of our praise.)

    • I think this is right on many dimensions – ancient Christianity portrays Mary as “she who shows the way”. What way? To Christ.

      But I do want to add that Christianity is about imaging God in loving relationship toward others – the greatest commandments are to love God and others. God so loved us that he have up His Life for us – in order to give us a share in that Life. We are called to love others in the same way.

      Life in Christ is communal too. In the Church we are members one of another. So I do think that your comment is right but it need not be in contradiction to the blog post. Our love and honor toward others is a big part of being a Christian and participation in the Divine Life.

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  11. This was great thank you so much for posting…I thought it was so great how you employed the use of historic background, to support the given belief, tradition and belief.

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