Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Early Patristic View of Mary

In an article this past Saturday, I mentioned that critics of Evangelicalism are often unreasonably selective in their discussions of what the church fathers believed, and they often have false priorities. An example is the patristic view of Mary as contrasted with the Roman Catholic view. Catholics will often cite some fathers referring to Mary as a Second Eve, for example, and suggest that the fathers therefore venerated Mary and had a higher Mariology than Protestants.

It is true that the perpetual virginity of Mary was popular among the later church fathers, and there were some fathers who viewed Mary as sinless in later centuries, for example, whether sinless from conception or sinless sometime after conception. But there's no reason to assume that the later fathers always agreed with the earlier fathers. Sometimes differences can be demonstrated between the beliefs of the earlier fathers and those of the fathers of later centuries. When we look at the views of the earlier fathers, it can't reasonably be denied that their perspective of Mary was much closer to Protestantism than Roman Catholicism. And even the later fathers often said nothing about or contradicted popular Catholic views of Mary.

I'm going to be giving some examples of what I have in mind in the remainder of this post, but fuller documentation can be found in my Apologetics Log series on the NTRM Areopagus discussion board. See, for example, here and here on the sinlessness of Mary and here on the Assumption of Mary.

Catholic apologists put a lot of emphasis on the patristic belief that Mary was a Second Eve or New Eve. They often cite early fathers such as Justin Martyr and Tertullian referring to Mary in such a way. But the Second Eve concept doesn't logically lead to a Roman Catholic view of Mary. Some of these same fathers who refer to Mary as a Second Eve refer to her as a sinner, directly or indirectly, elsewhere. Tertullian, for example, describes Mary as a Second Eve in chapter 17 of his treatise On the Flesh of Christ, but describes her committing various sins in chapter 7 of that same document. Justin Martyr describes Jesus as "the only blameless and righteous Man...the only blameless and righteous Light sent by God" and denies that his Jewish opponent Trypho can cite any human who completely obeyed God so as to not need the salvation Christ offers (Dialogue with Trypho, 17, 88, 95). The same sort of view is found in Clement of Alexandria and other ante-Nicene sources.

Although the concept of Mary being a perpetual virgin eventually became popular among the fathers, the most natural reading of men like Hegesippus and Tertullian is that they viewed her as having other children after Jesus (which is also the most natural reading of the New Testament and Josephus). The earliest fathers have no concept of praying to the deceased, but instead repeatedly condemn the practice, which would include praying to Mary. The ante-Nicene fathers opposed the veneration of images as well, which, again, would include images of Mary. The earliest fathers not only have no concept of Mary being bodily assumed, but also repeatedly discuss historical figures who have been bodily assumed without mentioning Mary as an example. They repeatedly mention Enoch, Elijah, and Paul (2 Corinthians 12:2-4), but they never use Mary as an example.

A significant contrast between the earliest fathers and modern Catholicism, a contrast not often mentioned, is how Biblical passages and imagery often associated with later Catholic doctrines were interpreted differently by the earliest fathers. For example, while Catholic apologists often argue for a Marian interpretation of Psalm 45, Justin Martyr comments that the woman of Psalm 45 is the church (Dialogue with Trypho, 63). The earliest patristic sources who see the ark of the covenant as a foreshadowing of a New Testament entity identify Jesus or something else, not Mary, as the parallel to the ark: Irenaeus (Fragments from the Lost Writings of Irenaeus, 48), Clement of Alexandria (The Stromata, 5:6), Tertullian (The Chaplet, 9), The Five Books in Reply to Marcion (4), Hippolytus (On Daniel, 2:6), and Victorinus (Commentary on the Apocalypse of the Blessed John, 11:19), for example. The earliest interpreters of Revelation 12 see the woman as some entity other than Mary (Hippolytus, Treatise on Christ and Antichrist, 61; Methodius, The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, Discourse 8:5; Victorinus, Commentary on the Apocalypse of the Blessed John, 12:1-2).

Catholics often respond by arguing that the fathers might have believed that these passages refer to Mary, even though they don't say so in their writings. That's possible, but how likely is it? For example, if so many ante-Nicene fathers comment on the ark of the covenant, and none of them draw the parallels that modern Catholic apologists are drawing, how likely is it that they held the modern Catholic view, but just happened to repeatedly mention some other interpretation instead? As these fathers show us, we can make sense of these passages of scripture without appealing to a Marian interpretation. Why, then, should we think that some additional Marian interpretation is appropriate?

Even among the later fathers, we often find references to Mary sinning in her behavior, denials that she was conceived without sin among those who viewed her as sinless later in life, denials that she had the mediatorial role Catholics often associate with her, denials that any apostolic tradition had been handed down regarding the end of her life (whether she was bodily assumed), etc.

If the evidence suggests that the earliest fathers widely or universally viewed Mary as a sinner, had no concept of her being a perpetual virgin, had no concept of a bodily assumption, didn't pray to her, didn't venerate images of her, didn't view her as having the mediatorial role often assigned to her by modern Catholics, and interpreted passages of scripture associated with her differently than modern Catholics do, then why should we consider these church fathers to be the predecessors of Roman Catholicism? They didn't believe in the Roman Catholic system of authority, so it can't be argued that they would accept whatever Marian doctrines the Catholic system of authority eventually developed. Besides, Catholics have often claimed that some of their Marian beliefs have always been held and taught by the church, so how much of an appeal can be made to development? Instead of just making vague citations of the earliest fathers viewing Mary as a Second Eve, we ought to examine the specific claims they made, and those specific claims aren't just non-Roman-Catholic. They're often anti-Roman-Catholic.