147. Does Mariology Imply A Diminished Role for Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit?

March 1st, 2018

One common refrain in ecumenical discourse is that all historical religious traditions (Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, various branches of Protestantism) differ in the way they understand salvation (e.g. justification, renewal, deification) and the nature/role of the church and the sacraments, but agree on the tenets of the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and Christology. While at one level this is formally true – each of these traditions adheres to the Apostles’ Creed – a deeper and closer look shows some cracks in this widespread assumption.

Mariology is a testcase that provides an opportunity to see to what extent the Trinity and Christology belong to the shared faith. In the Roman Catholic tradition, at least, Mary is prayed to and is a venerated person surrounded by a vast array of “Marian” devotions, e.g. rosaries, processions, and pilgrimages. The titles with which she is referred to (e.g. Heavenly Queen, Mediatrix, Advocate) resemble those ascribed to her son, Jesus Christ. Mariology is also the theme of two recently promulgated dogmas (i.e. binding beliefs): the 1854 dogma of the immaculate conception and the 1950 dogma of the bodily assumption into heaven. Mariology impinges not only on the doctrine of Revelation, but also on the doctrine of the Trinity.

How Central Is Mariology?

While the outspoken intention of Roman Catholic Mariology is that Mariological doctrines and Marian practices in no way detract attention from Jesus Christ, the reality is that the line that Rome wishes to preserve is indeed crossed in multiple ways. When entire shrines or processions or prayer chains are dedicated to Mary so as to completely shape the devotees’ lives, one finds it hard to attribute it simply to the devotional excesses of poorly educated popular piety. Separating Christian worship duly expressed from cultish practices fraught with paganism is a soft, even liquid border line that is not maintained and safeguarded enough, despite the good intentions expressed in the official teaching. The question is whether or not Mariology as it currently stands, with its dogmatic outlook and devotional pervasiveness, involves an inherent proximity, if not blurring, with what is not biblically defendable. The indisputable evidence of many of these devotional acts and habits indicates that in many people’s lives the centrality of Mary is experienced much more than reverence and obedience to Christ. All this happens not in spite of what the Roman Catholic Church teaches but because of what it explicitly or implicitly endorses.

Mariology Superseding Christology?

Since the dogmatic pronouncement of the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD (when Mary was given the title of “Mother of God”) the Mariological trajectory has been strongly pushed forward in ever-expanding and almost self-referential terms. After Ephesus the veneration of Mary became prominent in devotional practices, doxological patterns, and the religious arts. Christianity went through a Marian shift in terms of liturgy and general orientation. The paradox was that the Council that wanted to re-affirm the full deity and humanity of Jesus ended up promoting a functional heresy. Individuals, groups, and movements began to develop quasi-obsessive Marian interpretations of the Christian faith and Mary became the figure most prayed to in daily life. She was not meant to detract attention from her Son, but her post-Ephesus perception functionally superseded Him in terms of experiential forms of Christianity.

The Son always depicted in the company of the Mother, the Mother often portrayed as bigger than the (baby) Son, coupled with a growing prayer investment directed toward her, contributed to the gradual reconfiguration of Christian spirituality away from Christ (who began to be seen as too distant, too divine, too remote to be approached) and towards Mary with her maternal, tender, and compassionate attitude. Christ’s humanity – which is essential in recognizing his role as a mediator connecting the incarnate Son with us creatures – was progressively rarefied at the expense of His divinity. Christ’s divinity was eventually pushed to the forefront, making Him too far above to be invoked directly.

The balance of the confession in the early creeds of Jesus Christ being “fully God, fully man” was nominally maintained but practically abandoned by the increasingly Marian spirituality of the post-Ephesus church. The vacuum left by the lack of appreciation for the humanity of Christ was filled by the growth of the role of Mary the Mother. The nearness of the Mother of God was the answer to the remoteness of the Son of God and even caused the Son to be perceived further as being too distant to understand and take care of the struggles of life. In other words, perhaps unintentionally, the Mother swallowed the Son. Orthodox Christology based on the Councils of Nicea (325 AD) and Chalcedon (451 AD) continued to be formally professed and defended; in reality, the appropriation of these Christological truths became a far too abstract discourse and of little spiritual benefit. What was practiced at the popular doxological level was an all-embracing Mariology that accounted for the spiritual needs of the people and whetted further theological development along Mariological lines.

Mariology Obscuring the Work of the Spirit?

There is more than that. In Trinitarian relationships, the work of the Son is strictly connected with that of the Holy Spirit. According to the Bible, the Son’s role as mediator is worked out by and through the Spirit. For example, it is the Spirit who helps us in our weakness by interceding for us in accordance with God’s will (Romans 8:26-27). Christ is the Mediator to the Father and the Spirit enables us to come to Him. What happened with the unchecked rise of Mariology? By pushing Christ’s humanity outside of the picture and filling the void with the intercessions of the Mother of God, Mariological development diminished also the role of the Holy Spirit by not recognizing His vital involvement in the mediatoral work of the Son. In becoming the figure nearer to the Son who could be always invoked and felt closer than the Son, Mary practically unraveled the bond between the Son and the Spirit and undermined the relationship between the faithful and the Spirit. The “gain” of Mariology was the “loss” of the Holy Spirit. The impressive growth of Mariology meant the disturbing disappearance of the Spirit.

Marianism then obscured the nearness of the Son and froze the unique contribution of the Spirit. Beyond excesses in devotional practices – which are nonetheless intrinsically related to the nature of Mariology itself – the Roman Catholic view of Mary poses serious questions at the level of its Trinitarian implications.

Formal adherence to the creedal basis of the person and work of Jesus Christ needs to be matched with a coherent spirituality centered on the praise of the Triune God —Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — something that does not happen in Mariology because of its inflated view of Mary and its consequent marginalization of Christ and the Spirit. In spite of the stated intention not to divert attention from the Son, Mariology tends to be an intruder into Trinitarian harmony and an obstacle to a full appreciation of who the Triune God is and what He has done for us.

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146. Why Are Younger Evangelicals Fascinated by Roman Catholicism?

February 1st, 2018

Present-day Evangelicalism has a strange relationship with history. On the one extreme there are those who endorse a “gap theory,” whereby their experience of the Christian life has little if anything to do with a sense of historical continuity. On the other, recent fascinations with romantic and selective appropriations of “tradition” show how easy it is to uncritically embrace beliefs and practices that are idiosyncratic with regards to Scripture. What is at stake is the historical nature of Evangelicalism as such.

In his new book In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), Kenneth Stewart wrestles with the present-day discussion on if and what Evangelicalism has to do with history. As a learned historian and acute theologian, Stewart helps the reader come to terms with the diachronic dimension of Evangelicalism that runs through church history, taking different shades and colors but ultimately responding to the same principles of biblical faithfulness and spiritual involvement.

This book is a vigorous and rigorous rebuttal to John Henry Newman, according to whom “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” Stewart is convinced that to be deep in history one does not need to turn to Rome (become Roman Catholic) nor to Antioch (become Orthodox). To be Protestant means being rooted in Scriptural teaching first and foremost, as well as to be connected with a historical stream within Christianity throughout the centuries that has always carried an “evangelical” banner.

The book is much needed in times in which the label “evangelical” (mainly in the US context, I should say) is again going through a stress test, being too closely associated with political attachments and too loosely defined by its theological core. As this short piece is part of the Vatican Files series, this is not the place to write a full appreciation of the book. Its scope goes beyond an evangelical analysis of Roman Catholicism. Suffice it to overview the book’s final chapter, where Stewart helpfully tackles the question “Why Are Younger Evangelicals Turning to Catholicism and Orthodoxy?” (pp. 253-273).

Reasons Behind the Drift

In recent decades there have been some “conversions” of well-known evangelicals to Roman Catholicism, from Thomas Howard in 1985 to Francis Beckwith in 2007, followed by significant numbers of younger intellectuals attracted to Rome. After acknowledging the primarily North American context of this phenomenon, Stewart also readily points to the fact that the “traffic” of those leaving Roman Catholicism for forms of Protestantism far exceeds the movements in the opposite direction. There is no sign of a massive turn of evangelicals to Roman Catholicism. Nonetheless, what is happening is worth investigating.

A number of reasons are offered to explain the phenomenon. For some, it is simply a return to the church of one’s upbringing. These are people who were born in Catholic families and left Rome at some point in their life out of personal dissatisfaction, then returned to it at a later stage. For others, it was the search for the “historic church” as a haven from sectarianism. After experiencing naïve forms of evangelicalism characterized by isolationism and localism, some young evangelicals looked to Rome as the “mother” and universal church. For still others, it was a desire for the liturgical and doctrinal stability promised by Rome, in contrast to sectors of evangelicalism that tend to run after what is new and creative and therefore lose any sense of tradition. Finally, an admiration for the Catholic intellectual and theological traditions caused some to distance themselves from the apparent shallowness of the (lack of) evangelical thought.

Tools to Face the Challenge

Thinking through the list of reasons presented by Stewart provides much food for thought. Most of them derive from the lack of an historical sense of identity that often marks Evangelicalism. These weaknesses are real issues and are entry points for Roman Catholicism to look appealing to dissatisfied evangelicals. To them, Rome appears in an idealized form rather than its complex, and at times contradictory reality.

Ending the chapter and the book, the author helpfully suggests ways to recover an evangelical awareness of its being an historical movement grounded in the Bible and in continuity with the historical church. Of course, modernity has influenced the present outlook of Evangelicalism, but its doctrinal and spiritual shape has always been marked by the constant recovery and appreciation of the original (and therefore biblical and ancient) form of Christianity. Christian antiquity and historical legacies must be nurtured in connection with the fact that each evangelical congregation is part of the “catholic” church and the present-day global church. Cultivating both diachronic and synchronic dimensions of the evangelical faith will give antidotes to the allures of Rome.

There is a final point that needs to be underlined. Often the fascination towards Rome is characterized by a certain idealization of Roman Catholicism which can be significantly removed from reality. Roman Catholicism has its own intellectual traditions but is also home to folk traditions, syncretistic practices, and mystical trends that run contrary to this image of a solidly intellectual religion. People who turn to Rome often have a selective and faulty view of Evangelicalism and a selective and idealized perception of Roman Catholicism. This is why the current discussion on the evangelical identity crisis needs to take into account Stewart’s excellent piece of scholarship.

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