Tuesday, April 04, 2006

"Behold your mother" (John 19:27)

I have mentioned Scot McKnight's article, Is The Reformation Over? McKnight is describing, what he calls, the purple theology generation. A purple theology means that Catholics and Protestants put aside their biases and try to listen carefully to what the other side is saying. In so doing we might better understand one another and find much more common ground. We don't ask questions with the assumption that we already know the answers. Rather than insisting that we know what the other side believes we allow one another to formulate their own positions.

A couple of days ago I read a comment posted there by a J. R. Dollins, who expressed his concern over the Catholic's "citizenship in the Kingdom of God." His comments revolved around Catholic Marian beliefs - specifically, "Mary-worship." I think this is where that need for a purple theology comes into play. What non-Catholics need to know is that the Church strongly condemns Mary-worship. Although we still may disagree on the role of Mary, I think it's important to really understand what Catholics believe about her. I thought I'd post my response here. .
Dear Mr. Dollins,

Your concern for the “citizenship” of Catholics in the kingdom saddened me. Let me say a few things about the Catholic understanding of Mary. Obviously, this is not a book length treatment. But I hope the following will provide some helpful clarification and perspective. I’ve broken up my comments into seven points.

First of all, Mary is not divine, a goddess—she is a human being. Offering her the worship due only to God is indeed a grave sin. And yes, I wish Catholics—especially in Latin American communities—would be more clear on this.

Second, you may associate the presence of Marian statues with Mary-worship. Statues are especially problematic for Protestants, since Protestants read the 10 Commandments as forbidding all graven images. Catholics, of course, have a different interpretation: it is a sin to make a statue and then to worship it.

You may not agree with it, but at least allow yourself to understand this view and see how it comes from an honest reading of Scripture. This interpretation flows from a canonical reading of the Decalogue. Not long after giving Moses the Decalogue, God goes on to give Moses instructions for building two statues of angels to place on the ark of the covenant (Exod 25:18). Note, the holiest object in Israel had statues on it! Later, in Numbers, God even commands Moses to make a statue of a serpent (Num 21:8-9).

Statues are used to remind us of the saints—they are like older brothers and sisters who have gone before us as examples of faith. Moreover, we believe that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1). We believe that the saints are not dead—in a sense, inasmuch as they are in heaven, they are more alive than we are! (Much more could be said, e.g., the incarnational dimension of faith and the role the physical senses play in belief, but this will have to suffice).

Third, the Catholic belief of the communion of the saints is also problematic for Protestants. Catholics, of course, insist that “there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5; cf. Heb. 9:15, 12:24 ). Yet the sole mediatorship of Christ does not mean that Christians should not pray for one another. Scripture encourages us to summon the leaders of the community to pray for us in time of need: “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him…” (Jas 5:14). Other examples of Christians praying for one another could also be cited (Rom. 15:30–32, Eph. 6:18–20, Col. 4:3, 1 Thess. 5:25, 2 Thess. 3:1).

Catholics believe that the saints are a cloud of witnesses that not only surround us with indifferentism but with fraternal concern for us. We believe that death is not able to prevent them from praying for us. In the Apocalypse, the twenty-four elders—a symbol of Christians in heaven, likely an image of the martyrs—hold “golden bowls of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev 5:8). In fact, throughout the Apocalypse, there is a profound connection between the worship of the saints in heaven and the events on earth. For example, in Revelation 19 the saints are aware that the wicked city has been destroyed and rejoice because of it. Moreover, as the entire book unfolds we read that the liturgy of heaven affects and propels the events on earth.

Fourth, this understanding may seem like a contradiction of Scripture’s clear teaching against necromancy: “There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, any one who practices divination, a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord’; and because of these abominable practices of the Lord is driving them out before you” (Deut 18:10-12).

I have often heard the Catholic practice of asking for the intercession of the saints condemned as a violation of this prohibition. Keep in mind that this is an injunction against sorcery, séances, and conjuring up the dead through necromancy. The Church doesn’t encourage that! It simply recognizes that the saints are alive, that they are somehow aware of our present condition, and that they can pray for us.

Or does God condemn us for thinking that our brothers and sisters in Christ, who have gone to be with him, continue to keep us in their prayers?

Has death overcome our communion with them in Christ? I don’t think so.

Reading James and Revelation canonically, I think it’s not a stretch to say that just as our “elders” on earth pray for us with powerful effects so too our elders in heaven intercede on our behalf.

Fifth, Scripture seems to teach us that Jesus wanted believers to see his mother as their mother. This, of course, stems from a reading of John 19 where Jesus tells the beloved disciple—who is understood as a model for all believers—“Behold, your mother” (John 19:27). Catholics have very strong heartfelt love for this woman who we believe is given to us to be our mother as well. The importance of Mary in Catholic tradition stems from a desire to honor one of Jesus’ dying requests.

Sixth, Mary was so united to Christ, Simeon tells her, “a sword will pierce through your own soul also that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 1:35-36). Another passage along those lines appears in Colossians 1:24, where Paul states, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church…” Our suffering, when united with Christ’s, seems to have a redemptive role to play. As his mother, who remained by him until the bitter end, Mary is a model for all of us believers who offer their sufferings in union with Christ’s (cf. Rom 8:17).

Finally, seventh, Mary proclaims: “henceforth, all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). That’s the whole point—to recognize the powerful thing God was able to accomplish in Mary. Of course, in whatever way Mary’s role is appreciated, the glory is all God’s. Honoring Mary does not detract from the glory due to God. Mary is only holy because she is “full of grace” (Luke 1:28).

If, in the end, we give Mary too much credit, it’s only because we give Christ too much credit.

On the last day, I’d rather tell God, “I’m sorry—I guess I over exaggerated the power of your grace,” than, “I’m sorry God—I really didn’t think your grace was that transformative.”

Ultimately, these questions stem from a deeper issue. How do we interpret Scripture? The Reformed view seems to me to be a precursor to the Enlightenment’s vision of what Roger Lundin calls the “orphaned individual.” There is no decisive (extra-biblical) authority. There is no tradition. Interpretation is principally a private work accomplished by the individual. As Lundin, Gillespie and others have shown, this was Nominalism applied to theology.

Yet without the authority of something other than the Bible, how does one know which books belong in the Bible in the first place? How do we know which books are truly inspired by the Holy Spirit? No biblical book gives us the list. (And even if one did, how would we know that it itself was inspired?) It seems therefore that the Bible’s authority is not sufficient—there’s a need for something more than Scripture in order to know what belongs in Scripture.

Catholics believe Scripture must be read in light of the same tradition and authority through which it came to us in the first place.

Much more could be said. I just want to communicate to you that the Catholic view may not be as naïve or simplistic as you might think. Yes there are a lot of people calling themselves Catholic who misrepresent what Catholics believe. But there are also a lot of people out there who call themselves Protestants who give the Protestant tradition a bad name as well.

I know you won’t agree with everything we believe. But recognize that we’re not all dunderheads. Yes—thank you very much—we know the bible speaks of “brothers of Jesus” and we know Jesus said “Call no man father” (etc., etc., etc.). But there are many Catholics who have seriously wrestled with the Protestant critique and come to an honest disagreement here. The theological issues run deep—much deeper than a post on a blog! It cracks me up to see that somehow it seems we’re all trying to do that here!

I encourage you to read Scott Hahn’s book, “Letter and Spirit: From Written Text to Living Word”, which is a more scholarly reflection on the role of Scripture and liturgy. He’s no slouch and yet somehow he became Catholic! I also highly recommend Ignace de la Potterie’s book, “Mary in the Mystery of the Covenant”.

May God continue to bless your ministry and may your love for Christ and Scripture continue to inspire others as it has inspired me.

In Christ,
Michael Barber


Anonymous said...

Beautifully put.

Unknown said...

Michael, I was just at another site that said that Rome stands in opposition to the gospel. You handled the Marian criticism beautifully, how do you cope with these judgments from Protestants? I know few Catholics - am beginning to meet a few more - and most of my world is still Protestant though I am not. It stings me deeply to hear such words, even though I know they are false and stated (mostly) in ignorance. Do you have any suggestions for dealing with the pain of such statements?

Unknown said...

Michael, both you and Dennis Martin have done an excellent job explaning the catholic faith on the combox over there. As a former evangelical protestant midway through my Tiber-swim, I appreciate it!

Unknown said...

Scott, I'd like to hear Michael's answer on this, cause I'm no apologetics expert. I think one of the first steps is just getting some definitions on the table and then being able to explain the catholic side.

For example "opposition to the Gospel" is a loaded statement! Often people simply use the word Gospel as a code-word for their tradition's specific formula for justification.

Unknown said...

I appreciate it, Chad. It's what I'm trying to do - and I suppose as a Catholic now, it comes with the territory. I need to allow Christ to fill me more perfectly with his grace that I, in turn, might be gracious when I respond to such criticism - to be gracious even though I might be bleeding inside.

Unknown said...

Yep, a convert or revert in your position is an apologist by default. Catholics tell me it's an "incredible opportunity". =) Sometimes it's hard to see it that way, but we know it's true.

Now stop whining and pray that my wife will join me in the Church like yours is doing! ;o)

Unknown said...

lol - whining over, praying begun.

Anonymous said...


This blog just keeps on getting better and better.

Not a day goes by that I don't stop by to do a little Windows shopping.

CowPi said...

A friend gave me a cross with a small oval image of Mary and the words of the Hail Mary inscribed within. This has become a wonderful metaphor for me, a convert, in understanding Mary and all of the saints. When I look at Mary and the saints, I see them within the Cross. They point to Christ. I see Jesus in them.

Michael Barber said...


When I hear these hurtful things about Catholicism I just remind myself of Luke 6:26: "Woe to you when all men speak well of you."

Actually, we bear these insults redemptively in as much we suffer for Christ and unite our sufferings to his.

Thanks so much for reading the site!

Liam said...


Everything you said was beautifully expressed, and also patient, kind, and respectful. You explain your (and my) position confidently while not attacking the other position.

I think we need more of this kind of an approach not only in dealing with other Christian denominations, but in dealing with non-Christian religions, non-religious people, and especially with those in our own faith with whom we disagree. It seems that Catholics save their nastiest fits of intolerance and scorn for other Catholics in a different "camp."

Did you post this on the other site as well? Did the fellow respond?

Thanks for the post.