The Unfortunate Conception of Mary: The Displacement of Christ and the Demise of the Church

Today, the 8th of December, is the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. In a blog post on the National Catholic Register, Marge Fenelon explains that

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, proclaimed in 1854 by Pope Pius IX, states that Mary was free from all stain of original sin from the moment of her conception. Thus, Mary’s Immaculate Conception. In other words, she was in a state of grace from the very beginning and free from sinful inclinations.

Fenelon concludes her article by asking why the Immaculate Conception is important. She answers:

It’s important because it gives us the perfect role model for following Christ. Mary is what we should strive to become. St. Ambrose said it like this:

“Mary’s life should be for you a pictorial image of virginity. Her life is like a mirror reflecting the face of chastity and the form of virtue. Therein you may find a model for 1268px-henry_ossawa_tanner_american_active_france_-_the_annunciation_-_google_art_projectyour own life . . . showing what to improve, what to imitate, what to hold fast to” -St. Ambrose of Milan – Doctor of the Church, The Virgins, 2:2:6, 377 AD

In his mind’s eye, God has an image of what we would be had we never been touched by original sin. That’s what we’re called to discover and continuously strive toward as disciples of our Lord. Looking to Mary provides us with a detailed outline of what that new self or personal ideal should be. 

Fenelon’s thoughts on the importance of the Immaculate Conception – the example it provides of “what we should strive to become” – reflect Karl Barth’s astute observation that

In the doctrine and worship of Mary there is disclosed the one heresy of the Roman Catholic Church which explains all the rest. The “mother of God” of Roman Catholic Marian dogma is quite simply the principle, type and essence of the human creature co-operating servantlike in its own redemption on the basis of prevenient grace.[1]

This is indeed true, but, as Barth points out in the preceding passage, there are many more problems with Roman mariology than what this statement alone would suggest. Barth elucidates these problems as he offers an extensive analysis of Roman mariology as it developed historically in contradiction with the biblical witness. Whether one is a Protestant perplexed over the Catholic view of Mary or a Catholic who clings to this unfortunate view and its attendant practices, Barth’s assessment is highly insightful and bears quoting at length. He writes:

The New Testament, like the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, takes a christological and only a christological interest in the person of Mary. This is particularly true even of the Christmas story and its pre-history…Neither can we gather from the scene between the angel Gabriel and the Virgin (Lk. 1:26–38) a single statement that does not point away from Mary to Christ. In this category is to be put the well-known κεχαριτωμένη of Lk. 1:23, which, translated [full of grace], has given rise to so many mariological speculations, against which it ought to have constituted a serious warning. In the same Gospel (Lk. 11:27f.) we read of the woman who lifted up her voice and (far too mariologically, one might say) said to Jesus: “Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the breasts which thou didst suck!” She received the unmistakable answer: “Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it!” We should also remember here the repudiation: “Who is my mother and who are my brethren?”, and the declaration that these my disciples are “my mother and my brethren. For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Matt. 12:48f.).

As Luther understood it in his perfectly correct exegesis of the Magnificat, the greatness of the New Testament figure of Mary consists in the fact that all the interest is directed away from herself to the Lord. It is her “low estate” (Lk. 1:48), and the glory of God which encounters her, not her own person, which can properly be made the object of a special consideration, doctrine and veneration. Along with John the Baptist Mary is at once the personal climax of the Old Testament penetrating to the New Testament, and the first man of the New Testament: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Lk. 1:38). She is simply man to whom the miracle of revelation happens. This man may, perhaps, be the holder of an office like the apostles, and so this office in its relation to the office of Christ may become the object of a doctrine. But it is the office, not the person of Paul, Peter or John. How much less is it the person of Mary who has no such office, but who, in conceiving the Lord, can only represent man (both Old Testament and New Testament man alike) in his reception of God. Such a one need not remain nameless or unnoticed. In her very lack of emphasis, in the infinite significance of her reserve, just because she is only
important as the one who receives and is blessed, the figure of Mary is an indispensable factor in Bible proclamation. But every word that makes her person the hans_kung_with_barthobject of special attention, which ascribes to her what is even a relatively independent part in the drama of salvation, is an attack upon the miracle of revelation, because it is, after all, an attempt to illumine and to substantiate this miracle from the side of man or of his receptivity. What happens in the New Testament is the very opposite…

Mary is spoken of partly for the sake of Christ’s true humanity, partly for the sake of His true divinity, but not for her own sake. When perpetual virginity was ascribed to her, as was, of course, the case even at an early date, even this was still done in a christological, not in a specifically mariological interest…It is admitted that the first four centuries do not know either the later dogma of Mary or the later worship of Mary…But all that changed. What had been an annexe to Christology (for that is how the [“God-bearer”] must be conceived) became the chief proposition of an everexpanding special “Mariology” and the dogmatic justification of a luxuriantly unfolding liturgical and ascetic practice with legendary accretions. And there is no doubt that the change meant a twisting both of the New Testament witness and of the sound christological tradition of the first four centuries. However we interpret it, in increasing measure men began to listen to the voice of a stranger, not to the voice of the Word of God, the founder of the Church…

Over and above the doctrine of the divine motherhood…there developed a doctrine of the so-called privileges of the mother of God. The first to be regarded as such was the [perpetual virginity], and this was made a dogma at the first Lateran Council in 649. To this there was naturally added the doctrine of the [immaculate conception], that although naturally begotten, Mary is by prevenient grace set free from all taint of original sin, and has entered upon existence in a state of sanctifying grace…Among the doctors of the Middle Ages, together with many others, Anselm of Canterbury, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventura seem to have adopted an attitude of reserve towards it, though not of rejection. It was Duns Scotus who led it to victory in the field of theology. But it was not till 1854 that it was raised to a dogma by Pius IX (Bull “Ineffabilis Deus,” Denz. No. 1641)…According to Thomas Aquinas, the basis of all these privileges is that because of her motherhood, the dignity of Mary, as that of the first to be redeemed by her divine Son, is like that of the humanity of Christ, infinite and surpassing that of all other creatures (S. Theol. I qu. 25 art. 6 ad. 4). To her, too, according to Thomas, there belongs a [special relationship to God] (S. Theol. II 2 qu. 103, art. 4 ad. 2). [Queen of Heaven], and whatever other predicates of being may be ascribed to her in mariological language, cannot possibly now be only lofty expressions. From this dignity, and the privileges derived from it, it follows further and pre-eminently that, as the mother of the Saviour, Mary is the mediator, the mediatrix of our salvation: i.e., as mediatrix of the Mediator she is herself the [Mother of grace]…

As we may read in numerous mariological passages in the Missale and Breviarium Rom., Mary is the subject of an independent [intercession] of her own. Since this is so, there accrues to her “a veneration essentially less than the worship of God, but outreaching the veneration of all saints and angels” (Diekamp, Kath. Dogma, vol. 2, 1930, p. 392)…“For what binds us to God and leads us heavenwards is, along with Christ and in subordination to Him, the most blessed Virgin. It therefore involves an upsetting of the ordinance made by God and a dissolution of true Christianity, if Mary is separated from Christ in worship, and it is therefore a mark of the true Church of Christ that she venerates Mary; where Mary is not venerated, there the Church of Christ is not” (Diekamp, op. cit. p. 395). We can only confront Diekamp’s declaration with the equally definite Evangelical declaration that where Mary is “venerated,” where this whole doctrine with its corresponding devotions is current, there the Church of Christ is not…

We reject Mariology, (1) because it is an arbitrary innovation in the face of Scripture and the early Church, and (2) because this innovation consists essentially in a falsification of Christian truth…In the doctrine and worship of Mary there is disclosed the one heresy of the Roman Catholic Church which explains all the rest. The “mother of God” of Roman Catholic Marian dogma is quite simply the principle, type and essence of the human creature co-operating servantlike in its own redemption on the basis of prevenient grace, and to that extent the principle, type and essence of the Church.[2]

This post is already quite long, so let me simply make two summary observations regarding Barth’s analysis. First, he rightly asserts that the incorporation of Mary into the creeds and confessions of the early church was strictly christological. Nestorius, for example, distinguished to sharply between Christ’s divine and human natures, effectively separating them into two persons. Symptomatic of this was the title he assigned to Mary as “mother of Christ”, a calculated evasion of the biblical teaching that the Christ born to Mary was God and man indivisibly united in one person. Over against this, the church affirmed that Mary was indeed the “mother of God”, not to exalt Mary per se, but rather to safeguard the orthodox confession that the one person of Jesus Christ was not only man but irreducibly God as well. It was also the case that when the full humanity of Christ came under attack, the emphasis on his birth to a human mother aimed to protect this vital 0440b9516432f5eb7e9001de997fff46element of the Christian faith. As Barth rightly notes, the peculiar “glory” of Mary in the biblical accounts is not her lofty position but that of her Son! To raise her to the level of her Son is, in reality, to compromise her very importance within the gospel narrative, which is to magnify the grace of God in condescending to one of “low estate”.

Second, Barth forcefully argues that “where Mary is ‘venerated,’…there the Church of Christ is not”. No doubt this statement will elicit seething objections from faithful Roman Catholics. Nevertheless, I am convinced that Barth is absolutely correct in this assessment. Why? It is because, as he explains, the exaltation of Mary has the effect of displacing Jesus Christ as the sole mediator between God and humanity (solus Christus). When Mary is elevated to the rank of co-mediatrix alongside Jesus Christ, when she becomes the object of honor and veneration that belong to God alone, when she usurps the intercessory role of Christ and the Spirit on our behalf, then how can the Church of Christ exist any longer? I find it not a little ironic that St. Ambrose, to whom Fenelon appeals as an authority on Roman mariology, warned against the very error that we see today in Roman Catholicism:

And let no one divert this to the Virgin Mary; Mary was the temple of God, not the God of the temple. And therefore He alone is to be worshipped Who was working in His temple.[3]

Ignatius of Antioch famously quipped, “wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church”. The obverse is also true: wherever Jesus Christ is not, there the Catholic Church is not. Thus, when Mary displaces Christ in the Church, what else can be the result except that the Church of Christ no longer exists? It may claim for itself the title “church”, but it is certainly not the Church of Christ.

This is a call for reformation. As Barth starkly put it: “Mariology is an excrescence, i.e., a diseased construct of theological thought. Excrescences must be excised.”[4] Only in this way could the Church of Rome ever become in reality what it purports to be. So on this day dedicated to the very unfortunate conception of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, let us pray that to the one and only Lord of the Church that he would see fit to finally bring about true reformation and return to the truth of the gospel in the Church of Rome.

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[1] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 2, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.143.

[2] Ibid., pp.139-143.

[3] Ambrose of Milan, 1896. Three Books of St. Ambrose on the Holy Spirit. In P. Schaff & H. Wace, eds. St. Ambrose: Select Works and Letters. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, p. 146.

[4] Ibid., p.139.

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