I am a layman, not a theologian, so what I write is from a personal view. It is therefore useful that I don’t write about theology because my questions may be quite simplistic. Nevertheless, I am not a Catholic, so I can presumably question some of the tenants of that faith. I do this with some trepidation and a great deal of respect, knowing that centuries of dogma prevail in the Catholic tradition.
However, one troublesome (to me) phrase refers to the virgin Mary as the “Mother of God.” The saying came up again in a course my wife and I were taking, put out by the Great Courses, called “The Lives of Great Christians.” At least one of the church Fathers (or Mothers) referred to Mary as the “Mother of God.”
I believe, as the Apostle’s Creed says, that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary and that she was “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.” This doe not, however, make her the mother of the Holy Spirit, who is also God. I have not read of anyone would claiming she is or was “Mother of the Holy Spirit.”
The endorsement of Mary as “Mother of God” is a title that was given to her (by the Catholic Church), not one that she claimed herself.
In fact, Mary was very humble about what God required of her in the virgin birth. She called herself a “lowly servant” and not the Queen of heaven. Catholics call her that because of her Divine Motherhood of Jesus Christ and because they believe she has an unique role in the work of salvation.
What Mary said was that all the people of the earth would call her blessed “because of the great things the Mighty God has done for me” (Luke 2:49). She acknowledged the Mighty God and did not claim to be his mother, which would seem ridiculous. She also said “His name is holy,” not her own name and only later, much later, did the Roman Catholic theologians make her holy and, in some accounts, even “co-redemtrix.” (This dogma, however, has been controversial and not an official part of the Catholic church. Related to this is the concept of Mary as Mediatrix, which implies her role as intercessor.)
Mary knew of the promises made to her ancestors and (perhaps) that bearing Jesus would fulfill them, bringing redemption through his birth. Compare this with John, Jesus’s cousin, who, when about to be born, Zachariah, his father (filled with the Holy Spirit) proclaimed he would “be called a prophet of the Most High God” (Luke 1:76). Both Mary and Zachariah were given insight and messages by the Holy Spirit and both were obedient to the “Most High God.”
In Mary’s case she was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit (Apostle’s Creed) and in Zachariah’s circumstance, he was “filled with the Holy Spirit,” and made bold predictions about his son John. In both instances it was the power and working of God’s Holy Spirit in them, giving them a prophetic voice—it was not divine power summoned by their own command.
To begin with, the Catholic (and others) conclusion of that Mary is the “Mother of God” follows two propositions or premises:
- A mother is someone who carries a child in her womb
- Mary carried Jesus in her womb
- Therefore Mary is the mother of Jesus
The reasoning is of course true, as is the following:
- God is triune: Father, Son and Holy Spirit
- Jesus is Son
- Therefore Jesus is (also) God
The account of Jesus as a part of the godhead is true, but what follows is the following supposition:
- Mary was the mother of Jesus
- Jesus is God
- Therefore Mary is the mother of God
The reasoning omits two, in my opinion, additional premises with their questions:
- The Holy Spirit is God
- Is Mary, therefore the mother of the Holy Spirit?
- The Father is God
- Is Mary, therefore the mother of the Father?
We might say of course not, because the Holy Spirit, in a literal and perhaps metaphorical sense as well, is the father of Jesus. Would we want to imply then, even in a metaphorical sense, that Mary was conceived by her Holy Spirit Father. That would be heretical at best, blasphemous at worse. No, the Holy Spirit does all kinds of wondrous things, such as when Zacharias was filled with the Spirit, but it does not mean that the Spirit was his Father.
There are others who support Mary as the mother of God, including some of the more famous church fathers. These two premises and conclusion follow:
- The church fathers pronounce matters of truth for the church
- They proclaim that Mary is Mother of God
- Therefore, it is true that Mary is the Mother of God
But is something true, just because some church Fathers said so, or because some council or pope decided that it was?
When Jesus was born, he was a human, not an all powerful god, nor God the Father or God the Holy Spirit. Both already existed in the Godhead and always had. It seems to me then that Mary did not bring God into the world; rather, she bore Jesus, whom the Father sent into the world.
If God is the Father of Jesus and Mary is the mother, what should be inferred about the relationship of Mary and the Father?
Did Jesus belch and fart like all babies (and others, of course) do? Of course— he had a human body and, at least some of the time, human limitations: he got hungry, cried, became fatigued, slept, ate and drank, and so on. But he was also different (divine): he withstood immense temptation, pain and suffering, he disappeared, walked on water, healed people, turned water into wine, made a bit of fish and bread into a feast for thousands, and so on. He was not like any ordinary human. Mary recognized he was different and she thought deeply about the things she saw and heard (Luke 2:19). But she did not turn water into wine, heal anyone (despite certain Church claims and her “Miraculous Medal”). She also had other children besides Jesus—although, again, the Catholics have a way around this by enlarging the semantics of “brother” and “sister”, or that a different Mary is referred to.
And what about poor Joseph? Did he just tolerate a celibate life with his wife after the birth of Jesus and never “know” (to use the biblical euphemism) her? That seems ridiculous, but it is a necessary kind of ridiculousness if her perpetual virginity is upheld. And it is propagated with all the power and persuasion of the Catholic hierarchy and tradition.
As Protestants we should honor Mary, but in my understanding from Scripture, she was not a perpetual virgin, she did not miraculously ascend into heaven, there was no halo around her head (nor that of Jesus), and she was not “holy”, that is, without sin, although some of the church “fathers” again have claimed she was. They claim she was somehow protected from sinning and she is therefore perpetually sinless.
Building on the tradition, popes of the Catholic church eventually gave Mary an eminence that is indeed God-like and shrines and medallions around the world witness to this point. So we have to ask: Do such images and stories of Mary direct people to God or to her—and of course to the Catholic church? Catholics need to ponder that question.
There are other Catholic doctrines that trouble me: transubstantiation, Mary’s miraculous ascension into heaven, purgatory, penance and indulgences, rosaries, bones as blessings, bells and smells, praying to saints, popes and so on. I also question tradition as being—in any sense—equal with Scripture.
I also can’t help but wonder how comfortable Jesus would feel with the college of Cardinals, Vatican city, and the enormous wealth of the Catholic Church. Or, put differently, how do these square with the teachings of Jesus?
Of course there are many Catholic Orders that are genuine in their teachings of Jesus. Many of them, however, were first founded in secluded areas and in the desert. Their priests and monks were not living in Rome.
There are multitudes of Catholic scholars and intellectuals that have no problem, it seems, with the issues I mention. However, it puzzles me how such honest intellectual people can simply dismiss such questions and embrace all of the teachings of the Catholic Church. Perhaps they are like we Protestants –we simply ignore certain limitations and problems of our denominations and churches.
I therefore leave these difficulties where they belong: in the minds and hearts of Roman Catholic (and Protestant) worshipers. It is indeed foolish to try to combat such traditions and teachings of such a powerful church—or, in the case of my conscience, is it?
“And because of God’s gracious gift to me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you should. Instead, be modest in your thinking, and judge yourself according to the amount of faith that God has given you” (Romans (12:3).