I mentioned yesterday that I attended two seminars at the National Workshop on Christian Unity (NWCU) in Columbus, April 8–11. The second was titled: “Mary in Ecumenical Perspective.” It was taught by one of the leading liturgical scholars in North American Christianity, Dr. Maxwell Johnson, Professor of Liturgical Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Johnson was marvelous. He was engaging, interesting, lucid and very funny. No one seemed bored for one moment and the room was alive. When he was done the questions flowed out of his outstanding presentation. Let me explain, very briefly, his thesis.
While many Protestants believe Mary presents a rather significant barrier to Christian unity Dr. Johnson believes the exact opposite is the case, both in our respective church traditions and in a growing awareness of Mary’s role in Christian life and devotion. A major source for Johnson’s argument was rooted in Martin Luther. This was the strength of his paper since he is a Lutheran himself. He showed, quite plainly, how Luther honored Mary and retained all the ancient-faith beliefs about her as “the mother of God” (which is the proper designation for theological reasons, not simply “the mother of Jesus” as some say). The issue of “mother of God” was crucial in the ancient church because of the emphasis upon the true humanity of Jesus. If Mary was not the mother (humanly) of the divine Son of God then Jesus’ human nature was not real. A study of the creeds, and the debates surrounding them, make this point very clearly. Christians never confessed that Mary “generated” divinity in her womb but rather that she was the real human mother of the God-man who is himself fully and completely divine, thus she is “the mother of God” (theotokos).
Honoring the mother of the Christ child is as old as the third and fourth centuries, if not older. It is rooted in the infancy narratives in the Gospels and in the common practice of all Christians for centuries. Most Protestants resist certain Roman Catholic dogmas, such as the immaculate conception – the doctrine that Mary was conceived without the corruption of original sin. Protestants reject this doctrine because they do not consider the development of dogma to be authoritative apart from clear biblical evidence and this dogma is not taught in the Bible clearly. The formal pronouncement of Mary’s Immaculate Conception by the Catholic Church in 1854 alienated some Protestant churches partly due to its implication that not all have sinned.
The other dogma that is not generally recognized by most Protestants, and by the Orthodox as well, is the assumption of Mary into heaven. The Catholic Church teaches that the virgin Mary “having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” This doctrine was dogmatically defined by Pope Pius XII on November 1, 1950, in the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus, through the exercise of papal infallibility. While the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church both believe in the Dormition of the Theotokos (her immediate bodily resurrection after her death) the death of Mary has not been dogmatically defined.
Dr. Johnson explored the lex orandi, lex credendi (Latin, loosely translatable as “the law of prayer is the law of belief”). These words refer to the relationship between worship and belief. They established an ancient Christian principle which provides a measure for developing the ancient Christian creeds, the canon of scripture and other doctrinal matters which were based upon the prayer texts and liturgy of the church. In the early church there was liturgical tradition before there was a common creed and before there was an officially sanctioned biblical canon. These liturgical traditions provided the theological framework for establishing the creeds and canon. In my evangelical background I knew very little about either the “lex orandi” (the way we operate) or the “lex credendi” (the way we believe). Devotion to Mary is more often than not a matter of lex ordani before it ever becomes something that we believe. Consider the various cultures of the world and how they view motherhood and the feminine. Johnson rightly noted that the two most powerful symbols of our faith are both signs of weakness: a creche and a cross! That is good, really good.
One of the more interesting discussions in the seminar was the observation that worship, at least for the early church, did not function as evangelism. I think this is beyond dispute. I also think that a number of problems would be solved in evangelical churches if we seriously considered this point and the theological reasons for making it. Our services very often have very little to do with worship, especially since we are so anti-liturgical, thus they are about a pulpit and some music before and after a sermon or lesson. By this means we have turned church into a lecture hall or, worse yet perhaps, a place to “get people saved” or to “draw seekers” closer to the gospel.
All of the above is written to underscore that diversity about Mary remains while deep and growing interest in her role as a major figure in salvation history and Christian devotion seems to be growing ecumenically. Dr. Johnson actually mentioned the growing interest in Mary among evangelical scholars, which I found to be both refreshing and accurate. What I had not considered was how this could actually fuel ecumenism in a healthy way as we remain divided about Mary but converse about the role of our mother, the theotokos. Many evangelicals will find this discussion distressing, especially if they grew up Catholic. I believe this reaction is very often one of fear rather than faith. A great deal of genuine progress toward unity can be made by considering both what we disagree upon, and why, and then what we may agree about and have never seriously considered. For me the doctrine of Mary rightly came into the ecumenical conversation at this year’s NWCU. I benefited immensely.