Religion News Service, Dec. 7, 2002
Kevin Eckstrom – Religion News Service
Beverly Roberts Gaventa had never thought much about the Virgin Mary. She was, after all, a Presbyterian who was rather suspicious of all the attention lavished on the mother of Jesus.
So when she was asked to help edit a book about Mary, Gaventa at first declined. ”I can’t do that,” she said. ”I’m a Protestant.”
But the more she explored Mary, the more Gaventa grew to like her. As a mother, Gaventa found a maternal kinship. As a Christian, she found a soul mate who wrestled at times with God’s will. This Mary had a strong faith, with real questions and real emotions.
”For most Protestants, Mary is little more than a character in the Christmas story,” she writes in her new book, ”Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary.”
”She creeps into our consciousness along with the Advent wreath,” she writes, ”making a brief appearance perhaps in sermon and song, and then she disappears along with the creche, no later than Epiphany.”
Gaventa, a professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, is one of a growing number of Protestant theologians who say it’s time for Protestant churches to give Mary another look.
In short, Mary shouldn’t belong only to the Catholics, especially at Christmas.
”It’s clear in the Gospel of Luke that all generations will call Mary blessed, and we really haven’t done that,” Gaventa said. ”What we’re saying is that attention we have given Mary is very negative rather than the positive attention she might deserve.”
For Christianity’s first 1,500 years, Mary fared pretty well. Her legacy birthed universities, conquests and cathedrals. But then, with the Protestant Reformation, Mary became a theological lightning rod between Protestants and Catholics.
Protestants, led by Martin Luther, were concerned that Mary and all the saints had usurped the importance of God’s grace in the salvation process. The statues, the stained glass, the rosaries were all too much for the iconoclastic Luther. In the process, Mary dropped off the Protestant radar screen.
”After the Reformation, Catholics had a severe case of fixation on Mary and Protestants had a severe case of amnesia,” said Sister Elizabeth Johnson, a theologian at Fordham University in New York. ”We went into our extremes.”
Things only deteriorated when, in 1854, Pope Pius IX declared that Mary had been born without the stain of original sin — the Immaculate Conception — and in 1950, when Pope Pius XII declared that Mary did not die like other mortals but had been ”assumed body and soul into the glory of heaven” — the Assumption of Mary.
Both doctrines carried the weight of papal infallibility. Most Protestants rejected both because neither is explicitly found in Scripture, and they were equally uncomfortable placing Mary too close to the throne of her son, Jesus, the ”one mediator” between man and God.
Johnson, who conceded that some Catholics ”went off the rails” in their devotion to Mary, spent eight years on a Catholic-Lutheran dialogue team discussing the issue. The group’s final report in 1990 said Catholic prayers to saints are neither ”idolatrous or injurious” to Christian faith, but ”must be protected against abuse.”
The 1990 statement was the first major step in dismantling the theological wall that had grown up around Mary and separated Protestants from Catholics.
Joel Green, an evangelical professor at Asbury Theological Seminary who contributed to Gaventa’s book, said there is much that even conservative Protestants can learn from Mary.
Green said Mary — immaculate or not, assumed or otherwise — really teaches all Christians about evangelicals’ two favorite words: faith and grace. The Christmas story, he said, ”is much more about the Holy Spirit than gynecology.”
”Her sin or sinlessness is not on the table,” said Green, a Methodist. ”What is on the table is God’s grace and her embracing the vocation God has put before her . . . that’s the bottom line. I don’t need an immaculate conception to get there.”
Many Catholics could agree with that, though many also would go further. The Rev. Johann Roten, director of the world’s largest Marian library at the University of Dayton in Ohio, said both sides can agree that Mary was, in fact, the first Christian.
”Who is the ultimate embodiment of the Christian faith?” said Roten, a Catholic priest. ”It’s Mary. Everything begins with her. It’s because of her ‘yes’ that things begin to happen. The nativity was possible only through the naked faith of Mary.”
Certainly there are aspects about Mary that will continue to divide the two sides. Nancy Duff, who teaches with Gaventa at Princeton, argues that Mary makes a strong case for women’s ordination, a notion that would offend most Catholic leaders.
Duff, also a contributor to Gaventa’s book, said Protestants will still ”recoil” from the idea of praying to Mary or displaying statues. In other words, don’t look for a St. Mary’s Baptist Church any time soon.
”We don’t venerate the saints, but we can see Mary as a significant biblical figure who gives witness to Christ,” she said. ”There’s just no reason for us to overlook Mary.”