St Mary and Ecumenical Theology

(This is Neil.) For the upcoming Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I would like to contribute a couple short posts that might fit under the loose category of ecumenical theology. This first contribution is based on a recent article in Worship by Cody C. Unterseher entitled “Mary in Contemporary Protestant Theological Discourse.” I hope to quickly (and painlessly) accomplish three things here – to point out, despite popular belief, that there is presently common ground in Catholic and Protestant Mariology, that Catholics can learn from contemporary Protestant theological discourse on St Mary, and, finally, that the promise of further convergence exists. (Incidentally, I’ve already posted on the Blessed Virgin Mary and ecumenism here and here.)

I should also note that Unterseher’s article is well worth reading for his concise discussions of the recent ARCIC document, Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, and the devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe. But I won’t discuss those subjects, fascinating though they are, in this humble post.

Instead I would like to focus on Unterseher’s discussion of three “dominant theological images or categories” that contemporary Protestant theologians are using to understand Mary.

The first is Mary as exemplar or model disciple. In Luke’s account of the Annunciation, Mary submits before the Word of God – “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” and so, as the Baptist theologian Timothy George rhymes, “Mary was a disciple before she was a mother, for had she not believed she would not have conceived.” As she “ponders” and “treasures” these things, Mary takes her experience into the encounter of prayer. Later, she must adapt to Jesus’ redefinition of familial relationships (see Mark 3:31-35), and so, as the Presbyterian theologian Daniel Migliore writes, “Mary exemplifies the reality of Christian discipleship that all followers of Jesus and the church as a whole must be semper reformanda: always being reformed by the Word of God.” Finally, Mary shows us the meaning of discipleship in her loyalty to Jesus even at the foot of the Cross.

This means that Mary points us to the importance of the Word of God – a very good message for Catholics to hear. But taking Mary as a “model disciple” might prove to be insufficient. The Presbyterian exegete Beverly Roberts Gaventa warns us of “the sort of Protestant moralizing that reduces biblical texts to their outcomes in human conduct.” Mary, then, “becomes a tonic to render readers into better people.” Instead of merely seeing Mary as a useful “model,” perhaps a more sufficient account would suggest that understanding Mary means actually coming into relationship with her. Mary is a disciple of Jesus, but she is also the mother of Jesus: Jesus is always Jesus as Mary’s son. If we are to follow Jesus (perhaps at Mary’s own behest), we are to inevitably discover Mary’s maternal relationship. Mary, then, is not merely a disciple, but, as mother of Jesus, the disciple pro nobis.

Our second theological image is Mary as prophet. She is the recipient of the promise “nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). She voices the Magnificat, recapitulating Hannah’s hymn (1 Sam 2:1-10) and the prophetic tradition of Israel, and foreshadowing Jesus’ own preaching that the Spirit of the Lord “has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor” (Luke 4:18).

This is perhaps another good message for Catholics to hear. Although Unterseher says that “this model seems to present fewer theological difficulties than Mary as a disciple,” we can still try to develop the prophetic model further. Unterseher quotes the great Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson as saying that a prophet, besides speaking God’s word, was himself (or herself) a place where God could be encountered: “In a way, a prophet was a sort of historically functioning mobile Temple; the building in Jerusalem could not go with the people into exile, but prophets could.” So, when God’s Word fully came into the world, we can say “Mary brought him forth as though she were all the prophets put together.” The prophetic tradition, then, would lead us to reflect upon the idea that Mary not only proclaimed God’s Word but embodied it.

Our final theological image is that of Mary as Mother of the Church. Unterseher notes that this image has been “problematic” for Protestant writers. Catholics can learn from this unease, because there is a theologically disastrous way of imagining Mary’s mediatorial role. The Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson has described this:

One of the key roles of the mother in a patriarchal family, where she is supposedly the “heart,” is to intercede on behalf of her children with the rather more distant father, who is supposedly the “head.” Her merciful influence can soften punishment and obtain benefits that would otherwise not be forthcoming. Reinscribing this human institution into heaven makes Mary the merciful mother who intercedes for her wayward children before a basically loving but definitely just, perhaps testy, sometimes even angry God the Father. The whole scenario of her maternal mediation derives from this scenario.

How should we envision Mary as “mother of the Church”? The Lutheran theologian David Yeago suggests that we must begin with Christ. When we realize that Christ the savior is the scriptural Christ, we encounter Mary as mother of him who is really “firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29), and, thus, our mother. How do we envision this motherhood? Quoting the Christian Methodist Episcopal theologian Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan, Unterseher suggests we see this “in terms of solidarity and companionship.” As Kirk-Duggan writes of Mary, she “knows the character of herself and especially of her children. She is a trustworthy leader and helpful companion.”

This is a helpful correction to the images of Mary’s motherhood of the Church as reinscribing the patriarchal family in heaven. But it is also promising for future ecumenical dialogue, because if Mary knows and takes care of her children, isn’t she acting on her own initiative? And isn’t this a form of intercession? Unterseher writes, “The assistance, the presence and the solidarity sought in calling upon Mary as Mother of the church derives solely from her configuration to Christ, and comes ultimately from God alone,” and says that this is plausible for both Catholics and Protestants.

What do you think about these “theological images”? Obviously, not every problem can be clearly resolved – we haven’t discussed the Marian dogmas defined in the past few centuries – but there is reason for hope.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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8 Responses to St Mary and Ecumenical Theology

  1. Anne says:

    Thank you for this Neil. Here are some thoughts IMHO.
    I think one of the problems that hursts ecumenical dialogue regarding Mary is that she is viewed by many (mostly Catholics) as a white skin Roman Catholic type. How did that happen anyway? She was Jewish from the Middle East so most likely had dark skin. She never was a gentile. Depicting her as a blue eyed blond woman who was meek and humble dishonors Mary IMO. She was a simple peasant woman but strong (according to scripture) and didn’t seem to care what people thought of her. Yes a model disciple in the sense that she did what she believed to be the will of God. However, even in her belief in God she must have had a lot of confusion and anger….yet she agreed in faith. She trusted in God while knowing that big changes in her life were about to happen (The Annunciation). She got pregnant out of wedlock, something that could have put her life in danger with society in those days. She ordered her son to do something about the wine at the wedding at Cana. Women in those days would not have told a man what to do. She had to be a strong willed woman.
    I think it was Paul VI who said that how we view Mary must change (as the church changes) in this ecumenical age and as women take on more important roles in the church and society. I don’t see much change coming from the RC Church in regards to Marian theology.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Anne,

    Thank you for your kind reply.

    If I may be permitted to quickly speculate, I would suggest that there might be three causes of the problems you describe:

    1. Most devotional traditions have never been overly concerned with historical accuracy, at least as it would be defined in the last two centuries. Furthermore, most Catholics seem unconcerned with reading Jewish history or biblical exegesis save for apologetic purposes. Thus Mary easily remains a “white skin Roman Catholic type” in many of our imaginations.

    2. Our views of Mary remain shaped by other things besides the Scriptural witness – the idealization of and nostalgia for a sort of motherhood, the romanticization of feminine suffering, etc.

    3. Insofar as Mariology is deeply related to ecclesiology, focusing on Mary’s “confusion and anger” (as you put it), or her subversion of accepted social roles, can serve as a uncomfortable criticism of (or challenge to) the existing Church.

    Just a few certainly debatable thoughts. I am a bit more optimistic regarding change.

    Thanks again.


  3. Liam says:

    And I would suggest that, just as we identify anachronisms of the past (Mary as Hitlerjungenlich maiden or a Chaucerian Griselda-type), we avoid anachronisms of the present (Mary as necessarily angry – confused is clearly indicated in Luke at least, but anger is projection (however understandable) from us). Fortunately, the Catholic church has a rich tradition of many different ways of imagining Mary visually – the key strength of the pre-Renaissance approachs is that they were deliberately non-naturalistic, and thus avoided the problems of equating naturalism with reality that later art has been saddled with.

    That said, we can accept anachronisms (just like fake relics) in the devotional context if they enable us to get closer to God. After all, Mary’s own final recorded words are: “Do whatever He tells you.”

  4. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    It is true that Mary’s “anger” is not explicitly mentioned in Scripture, but it is not unreasonable to imagine her praying Psalm 44 during the flight into Egypt or perhaps Good Friday.

    I have no objection at all to the “tradition of many different ways of imagining Mary visually.” But we should take care that:

    1. We do not consider our “different ways of imagining” to be strictly equivalent to the actual historical events or the meanings communicated by the biblical narratives. (I wonder how many people still take Mel Gibson’s movie to really be “it is as it was.”)

    2. We do not let our “different ways” effectively blind us to (or shield us from) counterintuitive meanings communicated by the literal sense of Scripture (e.g., that Mary was Jewish and not European).

    Finally, given the historical consciousness of our times, we should embrace anachronisms and dubious relics with extreme caution. I worry that their long-term fruit will often be skepticism.


  5. Liam says:


    It’s not unreasonable to so imagine, but it’s our anachronistic imagining, which I can accept as such if it helps us get closer to God.

  6. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    “Anachronism” (if I can borrow from Wikipedia once and only once) is:

    anything that is temporally incongruous in the time period it has been placed in—that is, it appears in a temporal context in which it seems sufficiently out of place as to be peculiar, incomprehensible or impossible.

    It isn’t clear to me why Mary’s hypothetical “anger” is anachronistic. We can imagine her praying Psalm 44 or 109 or 83, words that would hardly be chronologically “out of place.”

    This, of course, doesn’t mean that we have to imagine that Mary was angry.

    Thanks for writing.


  7. Cody Unterseher says:

    Dear Neil,

    Thank you for your post, which I discovered just poking about the web to see if it had gotten any press. You accurately and fairly represent my own humble efforts at bridging the Mariological gap between Protestants and Catholics, as well as adding your own original thoughts — which, in some sense, is the whole point of publishing, whether on the web or in a journal.

    And now for a shameless plug: Watch for the article to appear again in a revised and expanded version, in a collection of articles by Protestant authors entitled ” ‘Lupe is Everywhere: Protestant Reflections on the Virgin of Guadalupe’ “. Edited by Maxwell Johnson and published by Liturgical Press sometime in 2009.

    Again, thanks for your efforts. God bless!!

    Peace in Christ,
    (Fr.) Cody Unterseher, M.A., S.T.M.
    Theologian in Residence,
    Christ Episcopal Church, Bronxville, NY

  8. Neil says:

    Dear Fr Unterseher,

    Thanks for your very kind comments. They mean a great deal to ome. I hope that I was able to give your excellent article a few more readers. I’ll make sure to look for your essay in the edited collection and mention it on the blog in 2009.

    One of the things – really, the main thing – that I try to do here is to direct readers to theological scholarship that might otherwise attract only academic attention.

    Thank you again.


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