Friday, October 14, 2005

Mary's Perpetual Virginity in Light of the New Testament Evidence (Part I)

Paul Owen has recently posted a blog entry in which he argues that the Roman Catholic view of Mary’s perpetual virginity is “catholic, wholesome, reverent and biblical.” Since Roman Catholic beliefs about Mary vis-à-vis the New Testament is my field of study, I thought this might be a good place to jump into the fray.

Dr. Owen begins:
The Protestant Reformers, unlike modern Evangelicals, believed in the Perpetual Virginity of the Mother of God.
This is a commonly overstated assumption whose all-too-confident strength of conviction lacks a commensurate level of support. Luther’s view of Mary went through an evolution; and his later writings are not nearly as supportive of the RC view of Mary as his earlier ones are. That is not at all surprising, and in fact is to be expected. First, Luther was a pioneer in many respects, and a pioneer cannot be expected to get everything right all at once. It stands to reason that his views would evolve (as do all of our views as we mature). (See James Swan’s articles to this effect here and here).

Moreover, Luther was frying trout, not smelt. He was focused on the bigger fish. One must set priorities; and the priorities for Luther (and the other Reformers) were authority and justification. Luther was reversing a several-centuries old trajectory, and that was not going to happen overnight—indeed, not even in his own lifetime. No one can possibly be expected to be so ambitious as to reform every single teaching of Rome in one lifetime.

As for Calvin, we will get to his views in a subsequent installment of this series. Suffice it to say here that there was no uniform view of Mary among the Reformers as is so often merely assumed.

Owen continues:
Since I am a Reformational Christian, I think it wise to also affirm this doctrine. It is wholesome, reverent, Catholic and biblical to do so.
It may well have been “catholic” in the sixteenth century, but it certainly is not now; nor was it ever biblical—nor by extension “wholesome” or “reverent.” How could it be? Mary is not honored by ascribing to her something that is not historically true; and there is certainly nothing “wholesome” or “reverent” about believing a falsehood about her.

The question becomes, Just what makes a belief right and "wholesome" by virtue of its “catholicity”? Indeed, what exactly makes a belief "Reformational" in Owen's view? The Reformers held that Rome taught a justification by works akin to the error of the Judaizers, as did the Westminster divines. Yet Owen denies the significance of the “catholicity” and “wholesomeness”--not to mention "Reformational" quality--of that belief, holding instead to a view that is more akin to N.T. Wright than to Luther. The Reformers held that the pope is the antichrist—and the Westminster Confession expressly affirms that belief. Yet Owen rejects it. He also rejects the “wholesomeness” of “catholic” beliefs such as transubstantiation, indulgences, the papacy, the confessional, and a whole host of other "time-honored" and “catholic” beliefs.

Arianism was “catholic” in the days of Athanasius, who stood virtually alone in his struggle to defend the deity of Christ against the universal consensus of the “catholic” bishops, in both the East and the West. Does Owen believe Athanasius should have accepted the catholicity of the Arian belief as “wholesome,” “reverent,” and “wise to affirm” as well? If not, why not? Because it’s unbiblical? Yep, and Athanasius did his best to convince the “catholic” magisterium of just that point. But you see, opposing that “catholic” belief on biblical grounds was a decidedly un-"catholic,” “sectarian” thing to do; and that's the very thing Owen argues we should not be doing in the case of belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity. And that’s just the point. The entire argument for subscribing to a belief merely on the basis of its “catholicity” is problematic at its core. Not even those who subscribe to it do so consistently.

We’ll address Owen’s proposed New Testament support for his thesis, which is the heart of his article, in the next entry.