Friday, December 17, 2004

Mary's Status as (V)(v)irgin

I am attempting to catch up on some of the past blogs that involve me. Some of these are entries that are now buried under several layers of new blog entries, so they may be difficult to reference. I have the original text that I copied and pasted long ago; so while the comments are accurate, you may have to do a bit of searching for the original articles.

The blog entry I will address here is one by Kevin Johnson in which he answers questions regarding his view of the status and role of Mary. Since he mentions me in a disparaging way, I thought it appropriate to respond.

In response to the question, “how would catholicity be advanced by capitalizing ‘Virgin Mary’ in the creeds?” Johnson answers:
This question I'm going to leave temporarily, because I would love to hear from our Catholic friends if they even considered this point important and in need of change as I have considered in other contexts. I have my own thoughts and will share them eventually, but I'm sure some of our Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Anglican regulars might be interested in responding. I invite you, then, gentlemen to wax eloquent on this point if you think it's worth pondering.
Such a “response” usually suggests the writer has no idea why we should do this, except to give a more important status to Mary. The reason Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox capitalize it is usually due to the beliefs of each system that Mary was perpetually a virgin. Is that what Johnson believes as well?
For those who aren't aware of the change, most Reformed hymnals and or liturgical guides use the words "virgin Mary" when printing the Creed. The Book of Common Prayer and most other more Catholic sources tend to use the form "Virgin Mary". If the Reformed world didn't have such a pre-disposed bias towards the role of Mary in our salvation, I don't think it would be all that important. One has to wonder though...why the change?
Actually, the better and more telling question is, Why the desire to retain the capitalization? In response to the follow up question, “Do you think that Mary remained ‘ever virgin’ throughout her earthly life?” (a completely spot-on question, and one that sees through Johnson’s desire to retain the capitalization), Johnson replies:
I'm not sure how or why my own personal opinion would be relevant to the matter.
The reason they are relevant, of course, is because Johnson is the one making the capitalization of the word “virgin” a criterion for catholicity! The question of “personal opinion” is both completely reasonable and completely relevant.
I can tell you this. Prior to our more modern age, many if not most of the Reformers and the Church fathers before them believed in Mary's perpetual virginity. Even John Calvin made it appear as if he believed in the doctrine by supporting Jerome against the long since forgotten father in the Church who opposed the doctrine. There is no question that Luther endorsed the doctrine. Surprising to many Reformed folks is that Turretin--Calvin's successor in Geneva--clearly held to the doctrine and defended the ancient church's opinion on the matter.
Do we take this as a “yes.”
Of course, a more in-depth study of Calvin will show that while not seeing evidence for this doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary in Scripture he more than likely did believe it was an ancient and well-received doctrine of the Church.
And rightly so, since there is no evidence that anyone of note in the earliest centuries of the church believed it, and every evidence that those of note rejected it (see my book for that evidence).
A clear example of the difference between many who call themselves "Reformed" today and the magisterial and other Reformers regarding Mary and any biblicial [sic] evidence for her perpetual virginity is seen in the work of Eric Svendsen. Svendsen's attempt to categorize the meaning of different Greek words (with all of his lists of their usage--as if that is how near-native or native speakers of the language would have looked at it!) . . .
Who claims that native speakers would have looked at it that way? Does Johnson even understand the process of Greek exegesis and lexical analysis? His comments betray a marked ignorance of how a scholar goes about determining Greek word usage. The absurdity of Johnson’s criticism against categorizing words to determine usage is best illustrated merely by pointing out that Greek grammars and lexicons categorize words and usage in the same way. Is Johnson now saying that Greek grammars and lexicons are illegitimate, and that we should now simply defer to the “brilliant” observation of Johnson—who evidences no knowledge of the Greek language—regarding the views of the Reformers? In fact, the very Bible translation that Johnson uses to verify what Matthew 1:25 says in the first place is possible only because Greek scholarship has previously engaged in this same categorizing of words to determine what those words mean! How else could Johnson be certain that his English translation of the Greek phrase heos hou (“until”) is right? Who told him it meant that? Does he think those words just translated themselves? The only way he could possibly know that heos hou means “until” is to assume that all those Greek studies he just dismissed out of hand are in fact legitimate after all! He has cut off his nose to spite his face.
and hence his defense of "until" or other phrases really meaning what we today think of "until" reminds me very much of the Darwinists of our own day who in their academic snobbery are quite happy to present all sorts of evidence for evolution in thousands of fossil records, geological surveys, mathematical probability, carbon dating and the like.
That’s only because Johnson has no knowledge of this field. And Johnson’s response here is typical of his associates (we have seen the same “fears” inherent in TGE’s writings as well). Keep in mind, Johnson is not criticizing my methodology alone (as though I invented Greek exegesis), but the methodology of biblical scholars at large! Johnson’s approach to this is little different from that of any backwoods fundamentalist. He obviously fears that which is for him unknown and unreachable. It’s just too complicated, so he simply dismisses the entire world of Greek and New Testament scholarship along with their “new fangled” methodologies for determining meanings of Greek words. And his analogy to evolution misses the mark entirely. Evolution is a theory of origins. Greek exegesis is a practice. The parallel of evolution would be closer to something like textual criticism; though even there, the parallel isn’t exact, since in text criticism (1) we know for a fact (not theory) that manuscripts were copied and changed, (2) we have all the “intermediate forms,” and (3) it is now merely a task of putting together all the pieces.
The only problem with such evolutionary theories is that the foundational presuppositions underlying the position have absolutely no basis at all in fact and are merely the wishful thinking of scientists bent to undo what they see as the ignorant mythical understanding of our origins in this universe.
You'll get no argument from me concerning evolution. But if Johnson is attempting to apply this to Greek exegesis (as I suspect he is), then this is just another way of saying, “I don’t get it, so it must not be true!”
Svendsen shares the same sort of modernistic presuppositions in looking at the text of Scripture--he's just working in a different field. For one thing, his work is done without recourse or respect to the tradition of the Church and it is as arbitrary as it would be if he placed all of the Greek words he examines on little yellow balls and put them in a lottery cage and drew out numbers just like they do every week here in Phoenix on Channel 3:
This statement leads me to believe that Johnson has not read my book. I interact with the early church extensively in my treatment of Mary. Here’s how church historian Tom Nettles described my book:

"Who Is My Mother? by Eric D. Svendsen incorporates the best sort of holistic argument for a controversial theological topic. Dealing with the question of the exaltation of Mary in Roman Catholic theology and her elevation to mediatorial status, Svendsen makes biblical exposition the key contributor to his argument. His exposition, however, brims with pertinency for he allows history to inform the texts and the particular questions he asks about the texts. Every key text used for the development of Mariology, or even Mariolatry, is subjected to careful scrutiny. Bibliographical knowledge, theological reasoning, logical examination, historical awareness, and clear biblical interpretation form the substance of each chapter. I give my humble but heart-convicted endorsement of this book. I know of no other such clear and thorough treatment of one of the central dividing points between Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants."

Johnson continues:
"Let's see what "until" means in Matthew 1:25 tonight," Dr. Svendsen says holding a microphone in his hand. [Tacky music playing, machine drops a ball which rolls down a metal slide and gets picked up by a pretty blonde who hands it to Dr. Svendsen]. "Ahh yes," Dr. Svendsen says with the sort of academic hubris only an expert in these things can muster, "Until" means "Mary was a virgin until Joseph had relations with her...Tune in next week and we'll be examining whether justification in Scripture means anything besides "forensic justification".
I wonder whether Kevin Johnson realizes just how “backwoodsy” these kinds of statements in his so-called critique of my work makes him look? I’m embarrassed for him. And I’m convinced (as I alluded to above) it is completely driven by fear. These men are afraid that “it’s all too confusing!,” and “what if we lose some valuable teaching of the church!” It’s better to “cover our basis” and perpetuate what may be an error because “Who knows, Rome might be right after all, and what will be do then?!”

I have more to say about Kevin Johnson's continuing Rome-like facination with Mary, but I'll save that for another time.