National Catholic Register


Mary Beckons

Protestants Flock to Jesus’ Mother as Patristic Renewal Flourishes



February 24-March 1, 2008 Issue | Posted 2/19/08 at 1:35 PM


ST. LOUIS — When Anglicans and Catholics agreed in May 2005 that Marian dogmas were consonant with Scripture, few guessed the accord would signal a veritable Marian regeneration.

Yet, in the nearly three years that have followed, the increasing acceptance of Mary among Christians has been witnessed in everything from theology to pop culture.

The 2006 sleeper hit The Nativity Story, for instance — widely acclaimed by Catholics and Protestants alike — was written by Mike Rich, a nondenominational Christian.

“From the standpoint of ecumenism, the subject of Mary is one we can speak about with a number of groups we’re in dialogue with,” said Lawrence Welch, associate professor of systematic theology at Kenrick-Glennon seminary in St. Louis. He has served on Vatican committees on ecumenism.

“It’s cautious, and among some it’s still taboo,” Welch added, “but there is openness to speak about Mary’s role in salvation history and in the life of Jesus.”

Mary’s inspiration has been most spectacular, however, in the process of conversion.

In a move that amazed evangelical Protestants and Catholics alike, and continues to rock Christian blogs, Francis Beckwith resigned his high-profile post as president of the Evangelical Theological Society, revealing that he was returning to full communion with the Catholic Church.

That was in May 2007. Providentially, May has long been held in the Church as a particular month of devotion to the Blessed Mother.

Now associate professor of philosophy and Church studies at Baylor University, Beckwith cited an easing of reactionary tendencies among Christians as a chief pathway to reconciliation.

“Many Protestants are asking: Can we honor Mary in a way that’s not so adoring as Catholics but acknowledges that she was the greatest Christian?” he said. “I would speculate that this movement is responding to the accusations against Christ’s divinity by liberal scholars.”

That quest for the “historical Jesus,” which is associated recently with researchers like dissidents John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg of the Jesus Seminar, does not accept the dogma of Christ’s two natures in one person, which was defined at the council of Chalcedon in 451.

“Interestingly, a huge increase of Marian devotion occurs right after Chalcedon,” Beckwith noted. “Cardinal Newman was right: The necessity of the Immaculate Conception protects the Church from second-guessing Christ’s divinity and humanity; it protects us against Docetism and Arianism. Evangelicals are realizing this and asking: Do we want to pass this uncertainty to the next generation?”

Church Fathers

Clear about the Mariology he wishes to pass to his students, Daniel Akin, president of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, preached at Christmastime on the Magnificat, Mary’s hymn of adoration found in the first chapter of Luke.

“Mary is a great lady, a wonderful wife and mother, and a hero in the faith,” he said. “We as Christians should be grateful and rejoice in her life.”

Akin was wary, though, of what he perceives as excessive devotion to Mary.

“If she were with us today, she’d be scandalized by the way some have elevated her,” he said. “There is no indication in Scripture that she was sinless. She was a sinner, like the rest of us, who needed to be saved by her son.”

That same debate raged back in the fifth century, when St. Leo the Great wrote hundreds of sermons and letters defending Mary Immaculate. In particular, letter No. 28, popularly known as The Tome, led inexorably to that famous declaration at Chalcedon, which included a definition of Mary’s undefiled virginity.

“I’m familiar with Leo’s Tome,” commented Akin. “I think the language there and what the council used is confusing, and I do not agree with Leo’s interpretations.”

Until recently, an open discussion of St. Leo’s work would be a rarity at best. But Kenrick-Glennon’s Welch pointed out that the resurgence of interest in patristics — the theology of the Church Fathers, who wrote in the first six centuries of the Church — has led to greater dialogue among Christians on a range of topics.

“I’ve seen great interest in my book on St. Cyril of Alexandria from evangelicals,” he noted, “maybe even more activity recently than from Catholics.”

And as they turn to the Church Fathers, more Protestants are beginning to work out Marian theology in dialogue with Catholics.

“I recently had a public dialogue with Timothy George, founding dean of Beeson Divinity School, which is Baptist,” Beckwith reported. “We’re both familiar with Scot McKnight’s book (The Real Mary: Why Evangelical Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus), and George is at work on his own book on Mary.”

Naturally, then, Protestants have returned to the Church Fathers with renewed vigor to understand the devotion proper to Mary.

Jim Anderson, assistant director of the Coming Home Network International, encountered in his studies a class dedicated to the subject team-taught by a Presbyterian and an Eastern Orthodox. “I was Methodist, and then a Lutheran, but that course on the early Church removed a lot of hurdles for me.”

Now a Catholic working with Marcus Grodi, the former Presbyterian pastor who hosts EWTN’s “The Journey Home,” Anderson points to Mary as pivotal in the conversions he witnesses.

“To understand Christology you have to understand Mary,” he said. “Faith brought understanding for me, just as it has for a lot of our [formerly Protestant] clergy. True, the Holy Spirit works differently in different people’s hearts. But the numbers of people wanting to know more about the early Church and Mary is like a drumbeat that keeps getting louder and louder.”

Stephen Mirarchi

writes from St. Louis.