Wednesday, July 20, 2005

A Reply to Kevin Johnson, Regarding Mary

Kevin Johnson has written four responses to my article yesterday on Mary and the earlier church fathers. Kevin linked to three of his four responses in the comment box of yesterday's article, and I replied to him there. What I want to do here is reply to his fourth article.

In that article, Kevin refers to "whether Mary was a perpetual virgin, sinless, or whether she was assumed". But those aren't the only issues I addressed. I also discussed Marian typology, praying to Mary, and the veneration of images of Mary, for example.

The opening of his article explains:

"The fact is that very few statements regarding Mary exist in the earliest fathers and generally those statements are connected to Christological formulations."

The comments of the fathers can be relevant to Mary without Mary being the focus, even without Mary being mentioned by name. When Clement of Alexandria and Origen deny that anybody other than Jesus was sinless, for example, the natural implication is that they didn't think of Mary as sinless. And some of the fathers even describe sins they think Mary committed. Tertullian, for example, refers to her "keeping aloof" from Christ and her "want of adherence" to Christ, and he refers to Mary's "unbelief" (On the Flesh of Christ, 7).

Anybody who read my article yesterday knows that I cited a variety of evidences, with differing degrees of probability and significance. As I explained yesterday, it's possible that the earliest fathers viewed Mary as a New Testament parallel to the ark of the covenant, for example, without ever saying so in their writings. But since the fathers repeatedly comment on the subject, and they refer to Jesus or some other entity as the ark rather than Mary, why would we think that they held the Marian view, yet repeatedly mentioned a different view instead when commenting on the subject? The best that can be said for the Roman Catholic view is that it's a speculative possibility. If a few different ante-Nicene sources discuss a New Testament parallel to the ark of the covenant, and they all mention some entity other than Mary, that's closer to what we see in Protestantism than what we see in Roman Catholicism. Similarly, when so many fathers comment on the subject of bodily assumptions, and they repeatedly give the examples of Enoch, Elijah, and Paul, without mentioning Mary as an example, is it possible that they thought Mary was bodily assumed? Yes. Is it likely? No.

Kevin continues:

"And, anyone who studies the fathers knows well that the Marian doctrines in question did develop naturally and almost without resistance over the next thousand years after the Apostles passed from the scene–so much so that Mary made her way into the creeds and the early councils of the Church."

I was focusing on the earlier church fathers, but let's include the later fathers for the moment in order to evaluate Kevin's assertion. Does the view that Mary was sinless from conception onward "develop naturally" from the widespread patristic belief that Mary sinned in her behavior? Does the view that Mary was sinless from conception onward "develop naturally" from Augustine's denial that Mary was immaculately conceived? When Philip Schaff writes...

"Henceforward the Immaculate Conception became an apple of discord between rival schools of Thomists and Scotists, and the rival orders of the Dominicans and Franciscans. They charged each other with heresy, and even with mortal sin for holding the one view or the other. Visions, marvelous fictions, weeping pictures of Mary, and letters from heaven were called in to help the argument for or against a fact which no human being, not even Mary herself, can know without a divine revelation. Four Dominicans, who were discovered in a pious fraud against the Franciscan doctrine, were burned, by order of a papal court, in Berne, on the eve of the Reformation. The Swedish prophetess, St. Birgitte, was assured in a vision by the Mother of God that she was conceived without original sin; while St. Catherine of Siena prophesied for the Dominicans that Mary was sanctified in the third hour after her conception." (The Creeds of Christendom [Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998], Vol. I, pp. 123-124)

...are we to conclude that the Immaculate Conception developed "almost without resistance"? Or when the conservative Roman Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott tells us...

"Owing to the influence of the Old Testament prohibition of images, Christian veneration of images developed only after the victory of the Church over paganism. The Synod of Elvira (about 306) still prohibited figurative representations in the houses of God (Can. 36)." (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma [Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1974], p. 320)

...are we to conclude that the veneration of images of Mary developed "almost without resistance"? Remember, if Kevin chooses to limit himself to only some Marian doctrines, his arbitrary choice to do so doesn't change the fact that I was discussing other Marian issues as well in my original article.

One of the issues I was discussing was praying to Mary. When the earlier fathers condemn praying to the deceased, are we to conclude that the later practice of praying to the deceased, including Mary, developed "naturally and almost without resistance"?

When Epiphanius writes that nobody knows what happened to Mary at the end of her life, are we to conclude that the Roman Catholic assertion that Mary's bodily assumption is an apostolic tradition always held and taught by the church is something that developed "naturally and almost without resistance"? Anybody who has read my article on the Assumption, linked in my article yesterday, will know that multiple church fathers denied knowing of any apostolic tradition of an assumption. Even if none of these church fathers had made such comments, what reason would we have for believing in a bodily assumption of Mary?

The earlier church fathers repeatedly either don't mention or contradict modern Catholic claims about Mary. If they don't mention something like Mary being bodily assumed, why would anybody conclude that they would approve of the later development of such a concept? And if they contradict concepts such as Mary being sinless from conception, praying to Mary, and venerating images of Mary, how can contradictions be considered natural developments?

Kevin goes on:

"We forget too that Athanasius and other greats of the Christian faith clearly involved themselves in commemorating Mary and honoring her beyond what certain fundamentalist types deem as acceptable orthopraxy."

I was addressing earlier fathers, and I was making a comparison to Roman Catholicism, not Reformed Catholics who hold a view of Mary that's somewhere in the middleground. Kevin cites Athanasius, but I could cite Epiphanius denying that any apostolic tradition had been handed down regarding the end of Mary's life, John Chrysostom referring to Mary sinning, Augustine denying that she was immaculately conceived, etc. The fathers held a variety of views of Mary. But the earlier fathers are far from the Roman Catholic view of her, and even many of the later fathers contradict what Catholicism claims about her.

Kevin concludes:

"Incidentally, the early fathers didn’t interpret the Bible the same way most Protestants (scholars or not) do today. What is good for the goose is…well you know."

How do you know how the early fathers interpreted the Bible? By applying a historical-grammatical method to their writings? Or can we interpret the fathers in the same way you interpret the Bible? If you think it's acceptable for Roman Catholics to see the Immaculate Conception in Luke 1:28, for instance, would it be acceptable for me to interpret the church fathers in such a speculative way in order to conclude that they agreed with me? I doubt that you're applying the same method to the fathers that you're applying to the Bible.

I have no objection to seeing typology, allegories, etc. in scripture, as long as everything is given its proper weight and place. For example, we may comment on parallels we see between the life of Joseph in the book of Genesis and the life of Jesus, but we can't claim to know that an event occurred in Jesus' life just because that event would be needed in order to further the parallel between Joseph and Jesus. Nor can we claim to know that a parallel was intended by God if God hasn't told us that the parallel is intended. When the Roman Catholic Church dogmatizes something like the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption of Mary, and it commands all Christians to accept it and refers to the doctrine as an apostolic tradition always held and taught by the church, we're not dealing with a church father who reads the book of Genesis and comments that he sees some parallels between Joseph and Jesus. You'll find many Evagelicals doing the latter. No Evangelical, however, should do the former. The issue isn't whether we can go beyond the grammatical-historical method. We can, and Evangelicals often do. The issue is whether we can dogmatize on the basis of such unverifiable methods. We can't.