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The Church’s teaching regarding the Holy Virgin Mary is one of the greatest stumbling blocks for Protestants to overcome. For Evangelicals, in particular, the traditional veneration offered to the Theotokos and prayers offered to her evoke not merely theological objections but a highly charged emotional reaction. The traditional practices of the Church are literally frightening to many Evangelical Christians. In speaking to them we must keep this in mind, as we are not just dealing with logical arguments but with fear. The source of that reaction is the fear that veneration offered to the Mother of God amounts to “worship,” and ultimately places the Virgin on par with the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. This would be tantamount to denying the unique role of Christ as God and Savior. Some of this fear results from real or imagined corruptions of piety found in the Roman church at the time of the Protestant Reformation or even currently. Due to that fear, Evangelical Christianity has been whitewashed of any genuine honor toward the Virgin Mary.
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, promoted and finally officially adopted by the Roman church after the Great Schism, has helped to fuel the fears of Protestants. The doctrine states that Mary was miraculously born without original sin, i.e. without the guilt of Adam’s sin or the sinful nature of fallen Adam. It indeed places Mary outside the stream of the rest of humanity, potentially making her into a demigod. It may be important to distinguish the position of the Orthodox Church with that of Rome.
The Orthodox have always rejected the doctrine of Immaculate Conception as untrue and unnecessary. We believe Mary was born of holy parents but with the same fallen humanity as all born of Adam. She therefore was in need of the Savior, and was not “saved” at birth. It was through her personal fidelity to God that she rejected sin and was favored of God. She did receive grace at the time of the Annunciation when the Holy Spirit overshadowed her and Christ was conceived in her womb (Her “Pentecost”). Yet still, she was subject to death as all fallen humans and her humanity needed to be renewed by the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Her Son.The Orthodox also reject the definition of “original sin” that came to be prevalent in the West. We do not understand original sin as a stain of guilt that condemns one to hell and makes our nature utterly incompatible with God’s grace. It is due to this belief that the Roman church felt compelled to exempt Mary from such a condition. Otherwise, how could she give birth to Christ who is not subject to sin? The Orthodox hold that we do not inherit personal condemnation from Adam but rather the fallen condition and subjection to death.The Church has always made a distinction between veneration (i.e. showing honor or reverence) and worship. Worship is only due to God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and in the Orthodox Church is never given to anyone or anything else. However, while this distinction always existed in reality, distinct words were not necessarily used to describe these different actions and intents (whether in Hebrew or Greek). For instance, in the Old Testament the same word is used for the worship given to God and for the reverence shown to human beings. The same word – which meant “to bow before” – was used. Distinct words for worship and veneration began to be used clearly after the Iconoclastic controversy. In his defense of the icons St. John of Damascus developed the use of the term “latreia” for the absolute worship given to God alone and the word, “proskinesis,” for the Saints or sacred objects.We cannot deal with all the issues Protestants have with the Church’s teaching on the Theotokos, i.e. Her Ever-virginity, who “Jesus brethren” were, etc.
The issue of the veneration of the Virgin brings up the topic of veneration in general. Evangelicals generally do not venerate anyone or anything (perhaps there was time when veneration was shown for the Bible itself). It is helpful to begin with the question of whether the Bible expresses the possibility of veneration in general.
Veneration offered to angels and men:
Lk. 24:4-5 The Myrrh-bearing women bow down before the two angels at the empty tomb of Christ.
Rom. 16:16: The Apostle Paul instructs the believers to greet one another with a holy kiss, a show of veneration toward fellow Christians.
Gen. 19:1 Lot bows down to the two angels.
Gen. 23:7 Abraham bows down in respect to the sons of Hamor, non-believers.
Gen. 33:3 Jacob bowed down to the ground (seven times) before his brother Esau.
Gen. 33:6-7 Maidservants, Leah, and Joseph and Rachel bow down before Esau.
Gen. 42:6; 43:26; 43:28 Joseph’s brothers bow down before him.
Gen. 47:7 Jacob bows before Pharaoh, who represents God’s providence.
Gen. 48:12 Joseph bows down before Jacob.
Ex. 13:19 Moses takes with him the bones of Joseph in reverence.
Ex. 18:7 Moses bows down before and kisses his father-in-law
Num. 22:31 Balaam falls flat on his face before the angel of the Lord.
Josh. 5:14 Joshua falls on his face and “worshipped” the angel.
Jdg. 13:18-21 Manoah and his wife fall to the ground on their faces before the angel of the Lord.
Ruth 2:10 Ruth bows down before Boaz.
1 Sam. 20:41 David bows down three times before and kisses Jonathon.
1 Sam. 24:28 David bows down before Samuel
1 Sam. 25:23 Abigail bows down before David.
1 Sam. 28:14 Saul bows down before Samuel.
1 Kg. 2:19 King Solomon bows down before Bathsheeba.
2 Kg. 1:13 King Ahaziah sends a captain to kneel before Elijah and say: “O man of God, I pray thee, let my life, and the life of these fifty thy servants, be precious in thy sight.”
2 Kg. 2:15 The sons of the prophets bowed down before Elisha.
Dan. 2:46 King Nebuchadnezzer fell down and worshipped Daniel and commanded that incense be offered to him.
Dan. 10:9-15 Daniel falls down before the angel.
1 Kings 2:19 King Solomon bows down before Bathsheeba.
1 Kings 2:19 King Solomon bows down before Bathsheeba.
Veneration and reverence toward holy objects:
Ex. 3:5 Moses takes his shoes off while standing on “holy ground.”
Joshua 7:6 Joshua falls down before the Ark of the Covenant repenting to God.
1 Sam. 5:4 The statue of the “god” Damon falls on its face before the Ark.
Consequences for lack of veneration and reference toward holy objects:
1 Sam. 6:19 God strikes down the men of Beth Shemesh, because they looked into the ark of the Lord.
2 Sam. 6:6-7 Go strikes down Uzzah for touching the Ark of God, even in order to keep it from falling.
1 Chronicles 13:10 God strikes down Uzzah for touching the Ark.
Veneration of the Virgin Mary:
In the Scriptures the Theotokos receives veneration from both angels and men and herself prophesies that “all generations shall call me blessed.” It is therefore the will of God that she is should be honored. The Lord also honors her both by obeying her at the wedding in Galilee (Jn. 2:3-10) and by ensuring her well being, giving her over to the Apostle John, even as He suffered, hanging on the cross (Jn. 19:26-27).
Lk. 1:2 -29 The Angel Gabriel venerates the Virgin acknowledging her as “full of grace, and “Blessed are you among women.”
Lk. 1:40-43 St. Elizabeth, mother of St. John the Baptist, also venerated her, praising her with the words of the angel, “Blessed are you among women.” She places herself below the Virgin and considers herself unworthy to receive “the Mother of my Lord.” These praises are accentuated by the fact that semitic culture would normally require the younger woman to show honor to the elder. Here the proper order is reversed. According to the Scriptures these words of Elizabeth are not mere personal sentiment but are inspired by the Holy Spirit (Lk. 1:41). Elizabeth also praised Mary’s faith saying, “Blessed is she who believed….”
Mary in the Old Testament:
In both the writings of the Church Fathers and the hymnography of the Church the Virgin Mary is consistently and universally understood to fulfill many of the figures and events in the Old Testament Scriptures.
The New Eve
From earliest times Mary was praised as the “New Eve.” By her obedience to God’s will she overcomes the disobedience of the first Eve. While Eve’s “no” to God brought sin and death to all mankind, Mary’s “yes” brings the restoration of paradise to humanity through her Son who overcomes sin and death on behalf of all men. Eve became the mother of a race of sinners, but through Mary a new race of redeemed man began.
The Virgin and the Ark
In the Church Fathers and in the hymnography of the Church Mary is also likened to the Ark of the Lord which was the holy receptile for the tablets of the Law. The Ark is understood to be the “type” of that which was to come. The Ark is fulfilled in the person of Mary who held within her womb the very Word of God in the flesh. If the Ark made of wood and gold was treated with such fear and reverence, than surely the human vessel that contained the uncontainable God is worthy of even more honor and reverence. Just as the Ark respresented the very presence of God in the midst of His people, the Virgin Mary becomes the abode of His glory and makes possible His tangible presence in the midst of the Church.
Just as the Ark was worthy of honor because of the commandments of God it contained, so the Church teaches that the honor shown to Mary is due to the fact that the Lord who dwelt in her.
Ex. 25:10-11 “Thus you shall make the ark of testimony from incorruptible wood….You shall overlay it with pure gold; inside and out you shall overlay it…..”
As the Lord Himself directed that the Ark should be made with great care out of incorruptible wood and pure gold, He also prepared a holy Virgin out of all generations and adorned with purity to become His dwelling place.
Ex. 25:17-22 “You shall also make a mercy seat of pure gold….There I will make Myself known to you, and I will speak with you from above the mercy seat….”
The “mercy seat,” the place where God is made know, has now become the holy Virgin through whom He took flesh, through whom we have seen and know the Lord and His salvation. She is the mercy seat of the world since it is due to her that Jesus Christ speaks to us.
3 King. 8:8 When the Ark of the Lord was brought into the newly built Temple of Solomon the glory of the Lord filled the Temple to such a degree that the priests could not even remain there.
The same glory of God, but even more directly in the Person of the Word of God, filled the Virgin Mary.
Num. 10:33 The Ark of the Lord goes before the people as they journey.
Of old the people of Israel processed with the Ark in the first place. In the Church the personal Ark of God, Mary, is also given the first place among the people of God.
1 Samuel 6:13 “Now the people of Beth Shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley; and they lifted their eyes and saw the ark, and rejoiced to see it.”
The Virgin is (and should be) a cause of rejoicing to the faithful inasmuch as it was through her that the Lord was made manifest to us.
2 Samuel 6:12 “Now it was told King David, saying, ‘The LORD has blessed the house of Obed-Edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.’”
The Mother of God is a source of blessing to those who receive and honor her.
Objections and Responses:
O: As recorded in the Scriptures, when a man bows down before another man or an angel, he is instructed not to bow down before anyone but God.
R: As we have seen this is not the case, but only when worship (as opposed to reverence) is being falsely offered to someone other than God as a deity. When the pagan people of Lystra desired to offer sacrifice to Paul and Barnabus as “gods” (Acts 14:8-16), the Apostles corrected their misconception of many “gods”, and taught them about the one God who is the creator of all things. Even John the Apostle was once carried away during his revelation and bowed down in “worship” before an angel. Because of this the angel corrected him. He accepted John as equal with himself since the Apostle was in state of prophetic vision (Rev. 22:8-9). Furthermore, the angel refused veneration since God (the Lamb) was present and thus he insisted that the Apostle worship God. When the King is present the prince does not accept honor.
R: The Virgin Mary is mentioned more and given greater honor than any other woman in the Bible. There is much as regards the mystery of our salvation that is not explicitly stated in the Scriptures. There is something greater than words in the often repeated statement of St. Luke’s Gospel: “And Mary pondered these things in her heart.” Early Church tradition says that, out of humility, Mary did not want much written about her. Many things are held by Protestants that are not explicitly recorded in the Scriptures. For example, the New Testament never refers to “a personal relationship with Jesus” or “accepting Jesus into your heart.” Neither does Scripture instruct Christians to worship on Sundays nor provide instructions for how to worship. The Scriptures do, however, explicitly state that “all generations shall call me blessed.” How and when do you bless Mary? How and when does your church bless Mary?
O: If Mary is worthy of veneration why did the Lord seem to disrespect her on several occasions? When it was told to Him that His mother and brothers were asking to see him, He turned to His disciples and said, “Behold, my mother and my brethren” (Matt. 12:48). This seems to indicate that His mother was of less importance than His disciples. When His mother prodded Him to do something at the wedding in Cana He said, “Woman, what do you have to do with Me?” (Jn. 2:4). On another occasion, a woman called out to Him, praising the womb that bore Him and the breasts that nursed Him. He responded, “No, rather blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk. 11:28). All of these passages give the impression that Jesus played down any honor that might be given to His mother.
R: Let’s take each passage of Scripture individually.
Matt. 12:47-50 In the case of His mother and brothers asking to see Him, there is no disparagement. Yet He did have to show that his physical kinship and family ties could not take priority over His spiritual mission and the spiritual relationship that was the purpose of His ministry. In this way He taught – both his family and his disciples — that it is more blessed to be in spiritual relationship with Him rather than merely physical. And so He adds, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my mother and sister and brother” (Matt. 12:50).Jn. 2:1-10 At the wedding in Cana of Galilee, the Lord honored and obeyed His mother by hearing her request and acting upon it. She had great influence on Him and interceded with Him for the sake of the wedding party. Most English Bibles mistranslate His response, “Woman, what do you have to do with Me?” which more accurately is translated, “Woman, what is that to you or to Me?”Lk. 11:27-28 In the last passage, again the Lord does not disparage the role of His mother but redirects the enthusiasm of the woman to the more important virtue of His mother, that she “heard the word of God and kept it.” This passage is also sometimes mistranslated so that it sounds as if the Lord is contradicting and rejecting the woman’s praise of His mother. However, in reality Jesus agrees with her assessment but adds something more to it. It can be translated, “Yes indeed, but more….” As the New King James translates, “More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.”
Mary and the Protestant Reformers:
The Church’s appropriate practice of the veneration and honor of Mary was not lost on the Protestant Reformers. Most Protestants, and certain Evangelical Christians, do not hold the position as their fathers in the faith.
Martin Luther (1483-1546)
The veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart. (Sermon, September 1, 1522).
[She is the] highest woman and the noblest gem in Christianity after Christ . . . She is nobility, wisdom, and holiness personified. We can never honor her enough. Still honor and praise must be given to her in such a way as to injure neither Christ nor the Scriptures. (Sermon, Christmas, 1531).
No woman is like you. You are more than Eve or Sarah, blessed above all nobility, wisdom, and sanctity. (Sermon, Feast of the Visitation, 1537).
John Calvin (1509-1564):
“To this day we cannot enjoy the blessing brought to us in Christ without thinking at the same time of that which God gave as adornment and honour to Mary, in willing her to be the mother of his only-begotten Son”.
“It cannot be denied that God in choosing and destining Mary to be the Mother of his Son, granted her the highest honor.”
Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531):
God esteemed Mary above all creatures, including the saints and angels – it was her purity, innocence and invincible faith that mankind must follow. (from: http://www.davidmacd.com/catholic/martin_luther_on_mary.htm)