Swimming the Tiber 28: For All Have Sinned

For [there] is not a distinction, for all [men] erred [on a particular occasion] and are behind the glory of God, being justified as a gift by his grace through the ransoming in Christ Jesus; which God set out as propitiatory through faith in his blood unto a demonstration of his justice, on account of the dismissal of the failures(errors/faults/sins) that came before, in the forbearancelit. holding-back of God, towards the demonstration of his justice in the present time, in order that he may be just and justifying the [one who lives] out of faith in Jesus.

– Romans 3:22-26 (my translation, simplified)

I have simplified my translation of the above passage because, frankly, rendering it like the original Greek may be informative, but it’s also confusing. My aim here is to clarify, not obfuscate.

Before I started looking closely at Catholicism, I had never heard this doctrine about Mary, but it’s possible some of you have. In addition to being born without original sin, remaining virginal throughout her entire life, being the worthy queen mother of the King of Creation, and indeed being the very Mother of God, Catholic doctrine holds that Mary never committed personal sin in the course of her life.

Like me, you are probably quick to reply with Romans 3:23 above or Ecclesiastes 7:20 or Psalm 143:2 or Galatians 3:22. “Scripture clearly indicates that all have sinned!”

Well, let me ask this: Did Jesus sin?

Before you answer, remember your Christology. Jesus is fully God, yes, but he is also fully man, meaning that if statements about “all men” are absolute and without exception, then he is included. But of course Jesus did not sin, despite being tempted in every way just as we are (Hebrews 4:15).

Now that we have established the prime exception, let’s look at the secondary one. Ecclesiastes 7:20 can be safely cleared, first, because it was true when it was written, and because the phrase “on earth” (like “under the sun” elsewhere in Ecclesiastes) reinforces that such things are impossible without God. Psalm 143:2, likewise, was true at the time, and in that psalm, David is asking the Lord to do exactly as Paul says in Romans 3. Galatians 3:22 depends on the verse immediately before it, which frames the statement in terms of the law: “Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law.” (NRSVCE) This is the context in which all are imprisoned under the power of sin: exactly what Paul says in Romans 3:19-20.

So let’s focus on the Romans passage, since it seems to be the hinge on which this whole question swings. Like classic exegetes, let’s look at each phrase to determine the meaning of the whole. Before we do, it may be beneficial for you to refresh yourself on the concepts of soteriology, which I discussed at length early in this series.

  • For there is not a distinction. Jews and Greeks are on equal footing. Knowing the law of Moses does not help you. Sacrificing at the temple in Jerusalem does not help you. The justice of God is available to all equally, and its necessity is obvious to all.
  • For all [men] erred. “All” is masculine, but collective. All men are all people. Everyone commits discrete acts of sin (presumably, excepting any exceptions, like Jesus). The aorist is used here, though a translation in the perfect sounds more natural (“all have sinned”) and is frequently used instead. The tense provides that sense of discrete acts, which is what clearly distinguishes this from original sin.
  • And are behind the glory of God. This is often translated “fall short,” but I retained a more literal translation because it recalls Romans 3:9, not to mention 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 and 2 Timothy 4:7. The point is that, though we try to win, we lose the race when we run it alone.
  • Being justified as a gift by his grace through the ransoming in Christ Jesus. Our justification is a gift by the grace of God (see the rest of Psalm 143). We are released from the bindings of sin because God freely gives this to us, specifically through the atonement of Jesus’ death on the cross.
  • Which God set out as propitiatory. God gives his grace, our justification, to reconcile us to himself.
  • Through faith in his blood unto a demonstration of his justice, on account of the dismissal of the failures that came before, in the forbearance of God. In short, faith grants us access to this justification, because the blood of Christ acquits us of sin at God’s discretion. This we already know from our examination of soteriology.
  • Towards the demonstration of his justice in the present time, in order that he may be just and justifying the [one who lives] out of faith in Jesus. This brings to mind verses like Psalm 71:10-13, where enemies of God’s people claim that he has abandoned them, but he proves himself and brings glory to his holy name. Note also that God is justifying the one out of faith, that is, the one who lives from faith or comes from faith; this suggests that he is justified not merely who assents, but he whose life reflects his faith.

Consider also that, when Jesus forgives sin, he makes a request of us: “Sin no more” (see John 5:14; 8:10-11).

We already know that God has given Mary a special grace to escape original sin. This passage in Romans suggests that it is God’s grace which frees us also from personal sin and makes it possible for us to obey the Lord and “sin no more.” We also know that Jesus’ atonement is retroactive (that is, it applies to the saints and holy ones who lived and died before Jesus did, such as the patriarchs–see Hebrews 11).

There should be no danger, then, in saying that God, by his discretion, could give Mary the grace not only to escape original sin, but also to resist temptation and avoid personal sin throughout her life.

“But why?” you may say. I certainly did. I argued, “Well, fine, maybe it’s possible, but what purpose could there possibly be in doing this?”

Well, remember what we’ve been talking about these past few weeks. Mary is, first of all, a vessel for the Lord God Almighty; should not such a vessel be holy and pure in God’s sight? But more than that, Mary is Jesus’ own mother, and Jesus never sinned–so we know he obeyed the commandment to honor his father and mother. What greater honor could he do her than to free her first from the shackles of sin in which we have all been enslaved?

Next week, we have one final topic about Mary before we move on; it should be less controversial than these, if for no other reason than it’s not unique to Mary. Look forward to an examination of the bodily assumption of Mary!

Swimming the Tiber 26: How Will This Be?

And the angelhere and throughout, (messenger / envoy) said to her, “Fear not, Mary, for [thou] found [on a particular occasion] grace(favor) besidehere and throughout, (before / with / in the presence of) God. And behold, [thou] will conceive in [thy] belly and [thou] will bring forth a son and [thou] will call his name Jesus. This [man] will be great and will be called [the]1 son of [the] highest [one] and the lord God(God, as lord,) will give to him the throne of his father David, and [he] will be king(rule) over the household of Jacob unto the ages and of his kingdom [there] will not be an end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since [I] do not know a man?” And having answered, the angel said to her, “A holy spirit will come upon thee and a power of [the] highest will overshadow thee; wherefore also the holy [one] being brought forth2 3 will be called [the] son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, also herself has conceived a son in her old age and this is the sixth month for the [one] called barren; because no word will be powerless4 beside God.” And Mary said, “Behold the slave of [the] lord; may [it] come to be for me according to thy word.” And the angel departed from her.

– Luke 1:30-38 (my translation, emphasis added)

In my experience, most Protestants don’t think often of this passage; without any devotion to Mary, evangelical/Baptist communities don’t ascribe much importance to it. Sure, it mentions a few crucial details about fulfilling prophecies and such (Jesus was born of a virgin), but its details don’t come up very often.

It doesn’t help that interpretation often interferes between the text and the English translation in most Bibles. The passage I have made bold above, being the second most important quote from Mary in the passage, is often translated, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” or, “How can this be, since I have not known/lain with a man?” The former is passable, but I think cleverly evades the point; the latter is outright fabrication because the tense is objectively and purposefully wrong.

There are a lot of comments available in the above passage, most of which are interesting, but beside the point–but I left out my especially nerdy commentary on the bold text because I wanted to make sure you saw it. First, let’s look at the easy part: “a man.” Even bad translations of this passage get this part right, and the meaning is obvious: Mary does not know (Biblically) any man. She knows no man. This is indefinite specifically because no particular individual is mentioned (nor any particular class, since it is a singular noun). It is the generic noun “man.” She doesn’t know man. It’s not that she doesn’t know the man; she doesn’t know any man.

Well, fair enough, you say. That seems straightforward.

Then let’s look at the harder part, the part that Protestant translators avoid translating accurately: “[I] do not know.” This is in the present tense. As I said above, it is bad translating to render it in the perfect tense (an action in the past–or in this case, a lack of action in the past–with an effect on the present, emphasizing the current state of affairs). Translating this as the perfect relegates it to the past quite naturally; if she has not known a man, then she may yet know a man. It implies a malleable state–this thing has not happened, but it can.

The present tense isn’t like that. Where the perfect tense refers to past events with an effect on the present, the present tense does the opposite: it refers to events happening right now. Now, obviously, she’s not in the process of knowing a man, which the angel can plainly see, so that’s not what she’s saying. The present tense here indicates imperfective aspect in the primary sequence. That means that it refers to habitual or ongoing action in the present or future. As I just said, ongoing is ruled out because she wouldn’t need to mention it (like the dad joke where someone asks, “What are you doing?” and the answer is, “Talking to you”–it’s funny because it’s unnecessary and obvious). The alternative is habitual action–it’s not that she hasn’t yet known a man, it’s that she doesn’t do that kind of thing. She’s not a virgin just because she isn’t married, but because she has chosen to be a virgin.

Of course, you’re free to disagree. I’m sure more than one Greek-literate person out there is yelling at their computer screen, “No, it’s because she’s habitually virtuous up to that point!” That’s fair, I guess, although I maintain that the perfect tense would suit that meaning… perfectly. ( YEEEAAAHHH!)

But consider that this also explains why she asks “how” this can happen. She’s not woefully uneducated; she surely understands the logistics. And the angel’s word is prophetic (you will conceive), so if she were about to enter a normal marriage to Joseph, this doesn’t seem like a complex question. Compare this to Zachariah’s confusion in Luke 1:18 or Sarah’s in Genesis 18:12. The main difference here is that Mary is asking not because pregnancy is technically impossible (she is not barren), but because of her vow to remain celibate before God. The question is not doubting God’s power, but trying to reconcile her duty to her vow and her wish to accept the word of the angel.

If you’re still wondering what I’m talking about, it’s this: the Catholic Church teaches the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, which is to say, there was no point in Mary’s life during which she was not a virgin.

If you’re like I was, you’re saying, “Wait, what? Why? What about Jesus’ brothers? What about Joseph?”

Legitimate questions, all. First, I’ll repeat myself: It is a doctrine of the Catholic Church that Mary remained virginal her entire life.

As for the why, you’re bound to get a few mixed responses on that. The quickest answer is always, “Because that’s the way God wanted it,” which is pretty unsatisfying, let me tell you. Another reason is to maintain the purity and virtue of Mary (recall my post on the virtue of virginity?) as the holy vessel through which God Himself entered the world. (You may recall that some earlier vessels for God required absolute reverence–Exodus 3:1-6; 2 Samuel 6:6-7.)

Tradition is pretty strong on this point, generally speaking. St. Augustine, considered by many historically-minded Protestants to be one of the “good ones,” points to the east gate in Ezekiel’s vision as a type of Mary:

Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east; and it was shut. The Lord said to me: This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut. Only the prince, because he is a prince, may sit in it to eat food before the Lord; he shall enter by way of the vestibule of the gate, and shall go out by the same way.

– Ezekiel 44:1-3 (NRSVCE)

Reading that in the context that Augustine did, it doesn’t seem to mean anything but the perpetual virginity of Mary.

An early (second century) document called the Protoevangelium of James (though not canonical) points to the ancient status of this teaching. The story goes like this: Mary’s parents devoted her as a child to the Lord (in the manner of Samuel, in 1 Samuel 1:11, and of the women serving in the temple of the Lord, who, though meant to be virginal, were defiled by Eli’s sons in 1 Samuel 2:22, and also in the manner of Anna in Luke 2:36-38). Eventually, it became necessary that Mary be married, in order to protect her virginity, and so Joseph (according to the Protoevangelium, a widower with children from his first marriage) was chosen for the job. Not all of those details are part of the doctrine, but the story was intended to explain confusion about that relationship in particular.

For the first few centuries of church history, the “brothers” of Jesus were considered step-brothers (the children of Joseph’s first marriage). St. Jerome (a strong proponent of Mary’s virginity and virginity in general) suggested that, because of a Jewish idiom of the time, the term could also refer to Jesus’ cousins.

This latter use is reinforced via a particular reading of the Gospels. In Mark 6:3, we see that the list of Jesus’ brothers includes “James and Joses and Simon and Judas.” In Mark 15:40, we see that a certain Mary, the mother of James and Joses, was at the crucifixion. In John 19:25, we see that Jesus’ mother Mary, and also Mary’s sister Mary (not even the Romans, who numbered their children, gave two living children the exact same name, so “cousin” makes sense here, too), and Mary Magdalene were present at the crucifixion. A syncretic reading of the two passages suggests that Mary, the wife of Clopas, is the same Mary, the mother of James and Joses. Of course, those were all common names, so that James and Joses might not be the same James and Joses mentioned nine chapters earlier, but Mark did have a tendency to name-drop (cf. Alexander and Rufus in Mark 15:21).

There are other points of contention for this issue. Many Catholics point to John 19:25-27 as evidence in favor of Mary’s virginity. After all, if Jesus were the eldest, and Mary had other sons, he should pass off responsibility for her to one of his brothers, but instead he chooses the beloved disciple (the apostle John, according to tradition). That he chose John as his replacement suggests that he had no brothers to choose. (The counter-argument, of course, is that he was not on good terms with his brothers, or perhaps simply that none of his brothers attended the crucifixion. This is reinforced by Matthew 12:46-50–see also Mark 3:31-35; Luke 8:19-21–and John 7:1-10. It’s a fair point, so these arguments balance out, in my estimation.)

Consider also that in Luke 2:41-52, there is no mention of siblings at a time when siblings should be appropriate to the story. Consider that the behavior of the “brothers” toward Jesus are like that of older relatives (see John 7 again, and Mark 3:21), but would not have been appropriate to younger siblings.

In response to the so-called linguistic arguments against Mary’s perpetual virginity–that “until” in Matthew 1:25 implies a change in behavior, or that “first-born” implies that a “second-born” must have existed, I have little to say, because I remain flabbergasted that I also used these arguments in the past.

The words “until” and “till”–in English, in Greek (ἕως), or in Hebrew–do not strictly require a change in behavior after the time described. If I say, “He did not write another word until he died,” did he start writing again after death? The point of the word is to describe a span of time (from point A to point B) during which a certain fact was true. If nothing states that things changed afterward (and nothing in Scripture does), then we cannot assume Mary and Joseph began to have sexual relations after the birth of Jesus on the basis of this word alone.

This supposition about “first-born” implying the existence of a “second-born” is utter nonsense. If a woman bears only one child, that child is her first-born (because no child has been born from her before that one). In the same way, if I drive a motorcycle tomorrow, that will be my first time driving a motorcycle, even if I never drive one again; or if I were called upon to coach the Green Bay Packers, I would coach my first professional football game, and then I would never coach another–but the one I coached would be no less my first.

One final point to address: “What about Joseph?” For a long time, this was a sticking point for me. It was unfair, said I, even unconscionable that Joseph should be married to a beautiful young woman and be forbidden from intercourse with her. Withholding sex can even be grounds for an annulment in some cases, suggesting that one or both parties did not comprehend marriage before entering into it. But recall again my post on the virtue of virginity, and recognize that any family containing the only-begotten Son of God is going to be holy, set apart, and dedicated to purity and devotion to God. In that context, it’s important to recognize that Joseph knew what he was getting into (even if he were not an old widower, Mary’s vow of celibacy would have been specified up front, not a surprise for the wedding night).

Consider also the words of Sts. Augustine and Jerome:

Thus Christ, about to be born from a virgin, who–before [she] knew who had been about to be born from her–had resolved to remain a virgin, [Christ] preferred to approve holy virginity, [rather] than to command [it]. And thus also in the woman herself, in whom he accepted the form of a slave, [he] wanted virginity to be freely chosen.

– Augustine, De Sancta Virginitate 4 (my translation)

You say that Mary did not remain a virgin: I assert to you more that Joseph himself was a virgin on account of Mary, in order that a virgin son was born out of a virgin union. For if fornication does not befall a holy man, and [it] is not written that he had another wife: but to Mary, whom [he] was reckoned to have [as wife], [he] was a more capable guardian than husband: [it] remains that he who merited to be called the father of the Lord stayed a virgin with Mary.

– Jerome, De Perpetua Virginitate Beatae Mariae
Adversus Helvidium
19 (21) (my translation)

All that to say, St. Joseph is even more saintly than I thought. Hardly a rip-off, especially when you get to raise the Son of God, teaching him your trade and getting to know him intimately as only a father can, all while living alongside the greatest of the saints, Jesus’ own mother, Mary.

But just how great is Mary? Let’s dig deeper next week, when we talk about the Catholic doctrine that, in order to prepare a holy vessel worthy of himself, God ensured that she would be born without the stain of original sin.

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The Queen Mother

Back to the passage
1 Whether the definite article is implied here or not is not clear. Because this (as in verse 35 below) is a predicate (that is, the same construction as the subject, but only describing the subject, not working as one), the definite article is omitted even when it would otherwise be included specifically to denote this as the predicate. Including the article would either make it the subject or indicate that no new information was being provided. The former makes no sense, and Mary’s reaction to this suggests that the latter use would be inappropriate (this is new information to her). You a perfectly free to translate this as indefinite (“[he] will be called [a] son,” etc.), but there is no reason to weigh that interpretation more heavily than the one I have rendered.
2 This phrase is neuter, probably agreeing with the implied τέκνον, “child.”
3 Some manuscripts insert: from you; others: in you
4 Literally every word will not be powerless; there is also a good chance this is a Hebraism rendered in Greek, where ῥῆμα–here and in the next verse rendered “word”–means “the matter at hand” or “the subject of which I am speaking.”

Swimming the Tiber 25: The Queen Mother

When I first heard the title “Queen of Heaven,” I must admit that I was troubled. In the limited context in which I grasped monarchy (and divine relationships), I said something like, “So Mary is supposed to be the spouse of Joseph, but she’s really the spouse of the Father (as the Father of Jesus) or the Holy Spirit (as the one who ‘overshadowed’ Mary), and now she’s the spouse of Jesus (the King)?”

Well, first of all, the Incarnation lacks the vulgar carnality of Zeus’ conquests. There was nothing sexual about the entire arrangement (after all, we know that Mary remained a virgin, or else there would have been no virgin birth). We also know that Mary was the spouse of Joseph (he did not break off their engagement, and he raised the Son of God as his own son).1

But the real crux of this question was in Mary’s relationship to the King. As an ignorant American, I had very little experience with the methods and manners of monarchies. All I knew was that England had kings and queens and sometimes they were spouses and sometimes a king or queen had a bunch of lovers (instead of spouses) to avoid sharing power. There was probably also an element of taking fairy tales at their word: if you marry a prince, you get to be queen when he becomes king.

But I never knew the concept of the queen mother. The queen mother is not the ruling monarch (Queen Elizabeth is a queen and a mother, but not the queen mother), but rather the spouse of the ruling monarch’s father. That is to say, she was married to the king, and then the king died, and her son became king. This is the context in which Mary is the “Queen of Heaven.” With Jesus as King, his mother holds a special place in Creation.

The concept of the queen mother can be found in a few places in Scripture. First, there’s the place in 1 Kings 2:13-21, where Adonijah goes to Bathsheba (the queen mother of King Solomon) to request her aid. When she goes on his behalf to Solomon, we see that Solomon sets up a throne for her, and she sits at his right hand. We see that the queen mother has authority and respect and influence (since she is sought to make this request of Solomon).

We see, in a way, a reflection of this event in John 2:1-11. Mary comes to Jesus to intercede on behalf of those hosting the wedding–“They have no wine.” Unlike Bathsheba, she has not been deceived by those requesting something of her (Adonijah is trying to steal the throne by marrying one of King David’s wives), and unlike Solomon, Jesus does not make promises that he fails to deliver on (in the verses following those referenced above, Solomon goes on to kill Adonijah and anyone who supported his claim to the throne). Instead, we see Jesus express his desire not to participate, but Mary’s request (as the queen mother) has influence, so he performs his first public miracle. (This incident, combined with the reality of intercessory prayer that I talked about a couple of weeks ago, is behind almost all Catholic devotion to Mary as an intercessor, someone who can pray on our behalf and ask for our aid.)

The prophet Jeremiah also mentions the queen mother in Jeremiah 13:18; 22:26; 29:2. The idea of a queen mother is also a thing that still exists. (It’s entirely possible that my own ignorance of this throughout my youth is an isolated incident, and most people know what a queen mother is.)

To further connect Mary to Jesus as the queen mother, we see Luke 1:43 (Elizabeth’s greeting of Mary, “the mother of my lord”). We also see John use frequent royal language about Jesus in John 18:33-37; 19:2-5, 10-15, 19-22. When we get to verse 25, we’re well aware of Jesus’ kingship (mostly because of John’s excellent use of irony).

And [they] stoodlit. had been made to stand before the cross of Jesus, his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the [one] of Clopas, and Mary the Magdalene. Jesus, therefore, having beheld the mother and the disciple standing nearlit. having stood near, whom [he] loved, [he] says to the mother, “Woman, behold your son.” Then [he] says to the disciple, “Behold your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own [things].

– John 19:25-27 (my translation)

The full importance of this moment involves a position for Mary that we’ll discuss later, but we clearly see Jesus’ mother being identified in a special way in the midst of his crucifixion, at which point we’re acutely aware that he is the King. Her status as queen mother is reinforced here.

There is one final passage to look at: Revelation 12:1-6. Here we see Mary “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” How do we know this is Mary? Because she’s pregnant, and the devil sought to consume her child as soon as he was born (recall Matthew 2:16-18, compare Exodus 1:15-16). We see that this child is to rule (literally shepherd) all the nations (compare Matthew 25:31-36; John 10:1-18), and that he is taken at birth to the throne of God.

I hope that clears up the question a little bit. Mary is the Queen of Heaven, not as the reigning monarch, but as his mother. We ask for her prayer because there is established precedent that Mary can (and does) make requests of Jesus, which he fulfills out of love for her. She is given special consideration as beautiful and regal, with her own throne (as with Bathsheba in 1 Kings) and her own crown (as in Revelation). Every aspect of this is based not on her own merit, but on the grace granted her by God through Jesus Christ.

Next week, we’ll be tackling another major point of contention about Mary: the doctrine of her perpetual virginity and just how that relates to all these “brothers” Jesus is said to have in the Gospels.

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1 It’s important to note that Mary is called the spouse of the Holy Spirit in several places, as well as the spouse of St. Joseph. Polygamy should not be presumed here, but a mystical relationship that I will tackle a little bit more next week. Suffice it to say for now that Mary’s relationship to the Holy Spirit does involve the conception of Jesus, but does not involve a carnal act of conception.

Swimming the Tiber 24: Theotokos

And then Anastasius, teaching upon [the] church, was saying, “Let no one call Mary ‘God-birther’; for Mary was of man; and [it is] impossible that God be brought forth from man.” This [thing], having been heard, troubled both many priests and all laymen in [the] same [way]; for they had been instructedThis is a periphrastic form (see note 6 from a few months ago for more general information on that) focusing on the current state of the people hearing Anastasius’ speech. before to {speak of Christ in terms of God},I have rendered this text thus for clarity in English; literally, it is something like, to theologize about Christ, or, to discuss theology in regard to Christ. and not even one [had been instructed] to divide him from the economy [of incarnation], as a man, in accordance with [his] divinity…

– Socrates Scholasticus, Ἐκκλησιαστική Ἱστορία VII.32 (my translation)

Socrates Scholasticus’ Ecclesiastical History records for us the moment at which the Nestorian heresy began. (Some of you may say, “But wait! Why isn’t it the Anastasian heresy?” The short answer is that Nestorius brought Anastasius to that particular party and probably defended him in person; he proceeded to assert “Christotokos” (literally, Christ-birther) over the traditional “Theotokos” (God-birther) for the rest of his life. Nestorius may or may not have personally denied the hypostatic union of Christ.)

This moment is important, because from the very beginning, we see the real problem with questioning Mary’s title as “Mother of God” or “God-bearer” or “God-birther.” In the first place, some people (like Anastasius and many modern Protestants) think it means that we’re saying Mary somehow predated God the Father, or the entire Godhead, and that she (rather than God) is the original originator. But no one’s saying that at all. I don’t think even the wildest, most heretical, crazy people say that.

What we are saying is that Mary is the mother of Jesus, and that Jesus is God. I have started my discussion of Mary with the term Theotokos because it’s honestly the easiest discussion to have. Calling Mary “Theotokos” says almost nothing at all about Mary, but it says everything about Christ. If we refuse to consider Mary the “Mother of God,” then we are refusing to say that Jesus Christ is God. But we know that Jesus is God. You may recall a list of verses supporting in my recent post on marriage (about a third of the way down, under point number 4).

Christology was central to the argument in the fifth century about “Theotokos,” and it is the reality of Christ’s hypostatic union of two natures that justifies the term. If you object to the term “Theotokos” on the grounds that Mary is not the mother of God the Father, or that she is not the mother of the whole Trinity, then recognize both (1) what Catholics are actually saying about Mary, and (2) what you’re actually saying about Jesus.

Because, as I said a moment ago, we’re not saying that Mary predated the Father, or that Mary is somehow a parent to the Godhead; all we’re saying is that Mary is the mother of Jesus and that Jesus is God.

And if you disagree with that, then you’re denying the Scripture on one or both counts.

I’m sure you have other objections about Mary, besides the term “Mother of God.” Don’t worry; we’ll get to them. Like I said earlier, I started with Theotokos because it’s the easiest to explain, so this short post is your reward for sticking with me on this. Next week, we’re moving on to another of Mary’s controversial titles: Queen of Heaven.

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The Queen Mother

Swimming the Tiber 23: When the Saints Go Marching in

God creates out of nothing, wonderful, you say: yes, to be sure, but he does what is still more wonderful: he makes saints out of sinners.

– Søren Kierkegaard, trans. Alexander Dru (emphasis original)

But these [men], remaining behind in confidence, inherited glory and honor and both were raised and became written by God in their memorial into the ages of the ages. Amen.

It is also necessary therefore that we be glued to examples such as these, brothers. For [it] has been written,1 “Glue [yourselves] to the holy [ones], because the [ones] being glued to them will be made holy.”

– First Letter of Pope St. Clement I to the Corinthians
between AD 95 and 97 (my translation)
With the loyal you show yourself loyal;
with the blameless you show yourself blameless;
with the pure you show yourself pure;
and with the crooked you show yourself perverse.
– Psalm 18:25-26, NRSVCE

There are, perhaps, two primary elements of Protestant argumentation against the saints. Okay, three. We’ll go with three, because there are probably more, and I don’t want to spend months on this subject.

In the first place, I used to say, Scripture uses “the saints” to refer to all Christians, not just the dead in heaven. This is plainly evident in Acts 9:13, 32, 41; 26:10; Romans 8:27; 12:13; 15:25-26; 16:2, 15; 1 Corinthians 6:1-2; 14:33; 16:1, 15; 2 Corinthians 1:1; 8:4; 9:1, 12; 13:12; Ephesians 1:1, 15; 3:8; 4:12; 6:18; Philippians 1:1; 4:21-22; Colossians 1:2, 4, 26; 2 Thessalonians 1:10; 1 Timothy 5:10; Philemon 1:5, 7; Hebrews 6:10; 13:24; Jude 1:3; Revelation 13:7, 10; 22:21.

But you know where it’s less evident? In Scripture. Specifically, in Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Ephesians 1:18; 2:19; 5:3; Colossians 1:11-12; 1 Thessalonians 3:13; Revelation 14:12; 18:20; 19:8. Sure, it’s fewer verses, but I really only need one to point out that use of the term is not universally consistent. The word itself means “holy” or “sacred” (I translated it “holy” in the passage above by the fourth Pope, as I usually do), not merely “Christian” or even “faithful,” so that’s strike one against it being synonymous with “believer.”

These passages point out what we already know quite intuitively: we are not already saints. We are “called to be saints” (Romans and 1 Corinthians) with a “glorious inheritance” to acquire (Ephesians 1), so we may be united with (others who are called) saints (Ephesians 2); all the while we are called to a higher standard of behavior (Ephesians 5). This inheritance belongs to the holy ones in the light, to which we must gain access by God’s grace (Colossians). The saints, too, are those who will return with Jesus when he comes to us again (1 Thessalonians). The saints adhere to righteousness (Revelation 14), though we on earth only strive to do so. They are counted among those in heaven (Revelation 18), and they have done “righteous deeds” (Revelation 19).

So while we are all “saints” (Christians), we are not all “saints” (holy). Both uses of the term were common in the early Church. As time went on, the “holy” usage (technically, the original usage) won out, because we called ourselves Christians and didn’t need euphemisms for it once people stopped killing us all the time.

The second major point I made against “the saints” as a Protestant was this: “You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear” (Deuteronomy 10:20, NRSVCE). Because, okay, sure, maybe there are some saintly folks in heaven–but that doesn’t mean we should worship them! Talking about “venerating” the saints, “revering” them, and so on–that’s idolatry, plain and simple!

But is that what veneration is? Is it “worship,” which is reserved for God alone? I would say not, and Scripture agrees with me. In the first place, most of our “veneration” is looking to the saints as examples (see the Clement quote above). We want to emulate the saints, and in so doing, emulate Christ (compare 1 Corinthians 4:15-16; 11:1-2; Philippians 3:17; 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 1:6-7; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9; etc.). We treat them with respect and honor (which is not worship, or else we would not be commanded to do it so often – compare Romans 12:9-10; Ephesians 6:1-3; 1 Timothy 5:3, 17-18; 1 Peter 2:16-17). We consider them paragons of virtue and people to be admired and followed (compare Hebrews 11).

“But what about angels?” you may say, “You venerate angels, too, and Revelation 19:10 clearly says not to do that.”

On the other hand, Joshua 5:13-15 seems to have no trouble with it whatsoever. The angels, like the saints, are faithful to God, obedient to his will, serving and worshiping him always; we should be so blessed as to live as they do. (And, I say in hope, someday we shall, worshiping and praising God in that eternal day.)

There seems to be little in Scripture to suggest that properly due veneration is forbidden, but rather setting people or things at or above God’s place is. The former is appropriate, the latter is idolatry. Catholics do the former and repudiate the latter as much as anyone. We follow the saints only insofar as they lead us to God.

My third argument against the saints was about what Catholics frequently do in venerating the saints: prayer. “You can’t pray to the saints!” I said, “Even if you don’t count veneration as worship, prayer must be!”

In a profoundly anticlimactic way, I ask, “Must it?” Let me refer back to my very first post in this series, wherein I defined the term “to pray” for the purposes of this conversation. For Catholics, “praying” doesn’t mean “worship,” but it means “making a request.” We are not worshiping the holy dead, but asking them for their assistance. After all, “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (James 5:16, NRSVCE) and, “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer” (1 Peter 3:12, NRSVCE). We know that the saints are in heaven, praising and worshiping God, and so we know that they are righteous; especially in the midst of our sin, their prayer would be effective indeed at getting us the grace and help we need.

This has nothing to do with adding a layer between us and God. Of course we can still pray to God. Catholics have more prayers to God than any other denomination.2 This is asking for help from people perfectly willing to offer it. Look at the full text of James 5:16. “Pray for one another.” Consider also Matthew 18:19-20; Romans 15:30-32; 1 Thessalonians 5:25; 1 Timothy 2:1-2; etc. We should pray to God for each other, and we ask each other for prayer. Christians of all denominations submit prayer requests to their local church or Bible study group or Sunday school. We submit these requests because we know that we are one Body in Christ with our fellow believers–but we are also one Body in Christ with all the saints in heaven; why should we not ask for their prayers as well?

Here ends my primer on the saints. I have answered the three points I thought were heavy-hitters when I was Protestant. Perhaps I have missed others, but I have confidence in the faith. Feel free to ask via comment or email if you have questions. Next week, we begin to tackle my greatest challenge yet; this one part of the Catholic faith tripped me up more than any other, but it is no stumbling block. The driving force behind my repulsion here was not sound theology or prophetic utterance, but simple emotional reactionism, couched in my ignorant youth. The topic for the next several weeks is the greatest of all the saints, Mary, Jesus’ mother.

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1Coincidentally, no one is quite sure where this is written, but Clement certainly thought highly of it.
2Probably. I mean, it’s almost guaranteed, statistically speaking. Just by the numbers.