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Evangelicals and Mary, Theotokos

Greg Strand – December 17, 2013 Leave a comment

At this time of year, we are often taken with Mary, the role God had for her in the bearing of the God-man, Jesus Christ, and the humility with which she undertook this task.

Often Evangelicals have avoided recognizing and acknowledging the graces evident in her life over a concern that it sounds too much like Roman Catholicism, or at least gives a head-nod to the Roman Catholic position of Mary. This is known as Mariology, that is Marian dogma and Marian devotion, or as Evangelicals would refer to this, Mariolatry.

There are many important things to learn from Mary. Here are two major statements in church history, one positive, the other negative.

The positive: theotokos (from theos, God, and tikto, to bear or bring forth), not christotokos (from christos, Christ, and tikto, to bear or bring forth). Theotokos, the term and truth championed by Cyril of Alexandria, affirmed the full deity of the incarnate Son of God from His conception in the womb of Mary. Its use became controversial when Nestorius rejected it in favor of christotokos, who believed the term undermined the full humanity of Christ, so it was his attempt to give more attention to Christ’s humanity. The truth of Mary being the mother of God, theotokos, was affirmed by both the Council of Ephesus (431) and the Council of Chalcedon (451).

The reminder – often heresy arose due to the perception that an important truth was being overemphasized such that another aspect of that truth was being forgotten or underemphasized or denied. In this case, Nestorius was concerned that the full deity of Christ was being affirmed, theotokos, at the expense of His full humanity. In response Christ’s humanity, christotokos, was emphasized. But often, as in this instance, it was emphasized so significantly that it undermined or denied the other aspect of the truth of Jesus’ full deity. The lesson – when we respond to what we perceive to be overstatements or understatements of biblical truth – and there are many today, which has been the case throughout church history – respond to that but as you do make sure you affirm the whole truth.

The negative: immaculate conception, not miraculous conception. This is the view of the Roman Catholic Church that states “from the moment of her conception the Blessed Virgin Mary was, by the singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of mankind, kept free from all stain of original sin” (Bull “Ineffabilis Deus” of Pius IX 8 December 1854).

So how are we to understand Mary? What can we as Evangelicals learn from her and about her in the Scriptures? In the past couple of years there were three brief articles by Evangelicals (Timothy George and Scot McKnight) to which I link below. I will include the lessons/principles to learn, but I would encourage you to read them. If you already have, it would be a good refresher to speed-read through them again. And as you do, allow her response to the God-man be reflective of our response to the Messiah, the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Timothy George, “Evangelicals and the Mother of God,” First Things (February 2007), writes the following:

So why should evangelicals participate in and celebrate the Marian moment that seems to be upon us? The answer is: Precisely because they are evangelicals, that is, gospel people and Bible people. Mary has a pivotal and irreducible place in the Bible, and evangelicals must reclaim this aspect of biblical teaching if we are to be faithful to the whole counsel of God. When it comes to the gospel, Mary cannot be shunted aside or relegated to the affectionate obscurity of the annual Christmas pageant. In the New Testament, she is not only the mother of the redeemer but also the first one to whom the gospel was proclaimed and, in turn, the first one to proclaim it to others. Mary is named a “herald” of God’s good news. We cannot ignore the messenger, because the message she tells is about the salvation of the world.

Evangelical retrieval of a proper biblical theology of Mary will give attention to five explicit aspects of her calling and ministry: Mary as the daughter of Israel, as the virgin mother of Jesus, as Theotokos, as the handmaiden of the Word, and as the mother of the Church.

After delineating these five different aspects of Mary’s calling, George concludes the following:

Perhaps we should ask what Catholics, without ceasing to be Catholics, can learn from evangelicals about Mary. Certainly we should ask what evangelicals, without ceasing to be evangelicals, can learn from Catholics about Mary. If Catholics need to be called away from the excesses of Marian devotion to a stricter fidelity to the biblical witness, evangelicals should reexamine their negative attitudes toward Mary, many of which derive from anti-Catholic bias rather than sound biblical theology. They need to ask themselves, as the Groupe des Dombes suggested, “whether their too frequent silences about Mary are not prejudicial to their relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Can there be a proper place for Mary in the prayer and devotional life of evangelicals? The early Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century thought so. Evangelicals do not pray to Mary, but we can learn to pray like Mary and with Mary-with Mary and all the saints. Evangelicals can join with all Christians in a prayer like this: “And now we give you thanks, Heavenly Father, because in choosing the Blessed Virgin Mary to be the mother of your Son, you exalted the little ones and the lowly. Your angel greeted her as highly favored; and with all generations we call her blessed and with her we rejoice and we magnify your holy name.

In another piece George notes “it is time for Evangelicals to recover a fully biblical appreciation of Mary and her role in the history of redemption. It is time to “bring Mary in from the cold.” George summarizes,

This is why we cannot understand Mary apart from the long prophetic prologue of the Old Testament which flows into her standing in the temple with Anna and Simeon and all those who were “looking for the consolation of Israel.” The virginal conception of Jesus foreseen by the prophet Isaiah (7:14) is a part of this tapestry, as is the declaration of Mary as Theotokos, the “one who gave birth to the one who was God,” as Jaroslav Pelikan translated this Marian title from the Council of Ephesus.

Mary was all of this, but she was also more. She was the one who heard the Word of God and who responded to it in faith. Thus she was a model of fides ex auditu—faith that comes from what is heard—namely, the promise and proclamation of Christ (cf. Rom. 10:17). For this reason, Mary’s overshadowing by the Holy Spirit has been often depicted in Christian art as something which came to her through her ear, which complements the other Marian motif of the handmaiden of the Word who sits in contemplation with her Bible opened. As Augustine and many others after him would say, Mary was a disciple before she was a mother, for had she not believed, she would not have conceived.

But there was no passivity in Mary’s faith. The Word which she heard and believed and in turn declared to others was filled with prophetic verve. We see this most dramatically in Mary’s Magnificat, which might be called the Battle Hymn of the Kingdom of God. This great anthem can still make tyrants totter and demons tremble (Luke 1:46-55).

Scot McKnight, “The Mary We Never Knew,” Christianity Today 50/12 (December 2006), introduces his article in this way:

Instead of asking what the real Mary was like, we tend to debate what she was not: whether she and Joseph refrained from sexual relations and whether she had a sin nature. A cursory reading of Jaroslav Pelikan’s brilliant Mary Through the Centuries will acquaint any reader with the fulsomeness of such debates. Because Protestants have spent their time debating about Mary, they have rarely attempted to claim her as their own. Consequently, she has become little more than a delicate piece in a Christmas crèche, whom we bring out without comment at Christmas and then wrap up gently until we see her again next Advent.

McKnight focuses on the Magnificat (Lk. 1:46-55) and concludes this reveals that Mary was both subversive (this is a word about subverting unjust leaders) and dangerous (both to the powers and anyone else connected with her). He concludes:

Mary was a subversive and she was dangerous, first, because she knew the identity of her son and, second, because she began to tell his story. Remember, Gabriel told Mary her son would be “Jesus” (Savior) and “Son of the Most High God” and that he would sit as a Davidic king on the eternal throne. At the bottom of the entire history of Christology are the titles and categories given to Mary to pass on to others. God first tells her the true identity of Jesus. Thus, we first learn to see who Jesus was and is through her witness. Mary was the only person in the world who could have told the stories that now appear in our Gospels. She alone heard the potent words of Gabriel; she alone was with Elizabeth; perhaps she is the one who told Luke about Zechariah’s song; only she and Joseph knew about the shepherds and the magi.

The Gospels come from many voices, and one of those was Mary’s. Her voice tells us what God would do through her son to subvert the injustices of Herod and the pretentiousness of Augustus. Her voice tells us that somehow, some way, someday, God would establish a kingdom of peace for the whole world. The real Mary, in the story rarely told, changed the world by surrendering to the angel Gabriel with three words: “May it be.” And God used her to set loose the power of God, the gospel of the kingdom. This is the real Mary, and we need to reclaim her voice as our own.


Jennifer Senior interviewed Justice Antonin Scalia in New York: “In Conversation: Antonin Scalia.”  Many issues were discussed during the interview. One very interesting exchange pertained to heaven and hell and belief in a real Satan. For context, Scalia is a Roman Catholic and committed to the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church.

Here is the exchange, the bold consisting of Senior’s questions, the plain text Scalia’s responses.

You believe in heaven and hell?
Oh, of course I do. Don’t you believe in heaven and hell?

Oh, my.

Does that mean I’m not going?
[Laughing.] Unfortunately not!

Wait, to heaven or hell? 
It doesn’t mean you’re not going to hell, just because you don’t believe in it. That’s Catholic doctrine! Everyone is going one place or the other.

But you don’t have to be a Catholic to get into heaven? Or believe in it? 
Of course not!

Oh. So you don’t know where I’m going. Thank God.
I don’t know where you’re going. I don’t even know whether Judas Iscariot is in hell. I mean, that’s what the pope meant when he said, “Who am I to judge?” He may have recanted and had severe penance just before he died. Who knows?

Can we talk about your drafting process—
[Leans in, stage-whispers.] I even believe in the Devil.

You do?
Of course! Yeah, he’s a real person. Hey, c’mon, that’s standard Catholic doctrine! Every Catholic believes that.

Every Catholic believes this? There’s a wide variety of Catholics out there …
If you are faithful to Catholic dogma, that is certainly a large part of it.

Have you seen evidence of the Devil lately?
You know, it is curious. In the Gospels, the Devil is doing all sorts of things. He’s making pigs run off cliffs, he’s possessing people and whatnot. And that doesn’t happen very much anymore.

It’s because he’s smart.

So what’s he doing now?
What he’s doing now is getting people not to believe in him or in God. He’s much more successful that way.

That has really painful implications for atheists. Are you sure that’s the ­Devil’s work?
I didn’t say atheists are the Devil’s work.

Well, you’re saying the Devil is ­persuading people to not believe in God. Couldn’t there be other reasons to not believe?
Well, there certainly can be other reasons. But it certainly favors the Devil’s desires. I mean, c’mon, that’s the explanation for why there’s not demonic possession all over the place. That always puzzled me. What happened to the Devil, you know? He used to be all over the place. He used to be all over the New Testament.

What happened to him?

He just got wilier.
He got wilier.

Isn’t it terribly frightening to believe in the Devil?
You’re looking at me as though I’m weird. My God! Are you so out of touch with most of America, most of which believes in the Devil? I mean, Jesus Christ believed in the Devil! It’s in the Gospels! You travel in circles that are so, so removed from mainstream America that you are appalled that anybody would believe in the Devil! Most of mankind has believed in the Devil, for all of history. Many more intelligent people than you or me have believed in the Devil.

I hope you weren’t sensing contempt from me. It wasn’t your belief that surprised me so much as how boldly you expressed it.
I was offended by that. I really was.

This says a great deal about our society and culture. This was an acceptable belief. However, as this interview reveals, and which we have known, we no longer live in a day when this is believed. Interestingly, when a culture “progresses,” often the first thing to be questioned are the truths and morals taught in the Bible. In many ways, it affirms the initial sin in the Garden through the means of the Enemy when he duped and deceived Adam and Eve by questioning God, His character and His Word. Though the outer garment changes with the times, the tactic often remains the same.

We in the EFCA affirm the inspiration, inerrancy, authority and sufficiency of the Bible. We believe that the Bible is authoritative in matters of faith and practice and of science and history.

In our Statement of Faith we explicitly affirm this truth in Article 2, The Bible. Because the Bible teaches Satan is a real, historical being, we believe it. We make explicit reference to Satan in Article 3, The Human Condition. The real, historical Adam and Eve “sinned when tempted by Satan.” We also affirm that Satan is a deceiver (Rev. 12:10) and the father of lies (Jn. 8:44). As such, he defies God, blinds the minds of unbelievers (2 Cor. 4:4), and does what he can to “kill, steal and destroy” believers (Jn. 10:10).

Jesus came to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn. 3:8). He is a defeated foe, having been triumphed over in the cross of Christ (Col. 2:15). As we affirm in Article 8, Christian Living, we “combat the spiritual forces of evil,” with Satan as the chief of the demonic realm and demons and all the forces of evil, “with God’s Word, the Spirit’s power, and fervent prayer in Christ’s name.”

This is the word of God. This is the teaching of the Bible. This is the teaching of the Church. This we believe.


Kenneth J. Stewart serves as Professor of Theological Studies in Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, GA. He has Free Church roots. In fact, Rob, his brother, serves as a District Superintendent in the Lower Pacific District of the Evangelical Free Church of Canada (EFCC).

I have appreciated much of what I have read from Kenneth. He is currently writing Evangelicalism Navigates the Past (to be published by IVP). As he works on that, he leaks out certain writings upon which he is reflecting. One of those that he released recently was titled “Should Evangelical Churches Re-baptize Catholics?: An Irenic Proposal.”

Here is how he introduces this topic:

“On what terms might persons who had been baptized, reared, catechized and confirmed into Catholicism be received into Protestant churches?”

Today we return to this question because of two profound demographic shifts: a) Catholic immigration (now chiefly from Central and South America) and b) a Catholic migration including (but not confined to) Hispanics, into our churches. In cities such as Houston, Chicago, and Atlanta former Catholics now gladly associate themselves by the thousands with evangelical Protestant churches. These new allegiances involve vastly more people than the often-highlighted reverse process: the “going home to Rome” phenomenon. The crux of the question is: “Should re-affiliated Catholics be required to be re-baptized?” How one resolves this issue is determined by the way one answers collateral questions.

In theology and practice, the EFCA is primarily believer baptism by immersion. But this is also one of those areas of doctrine and practice in which we will “debate but not divide,” which in the EFCA is referred to as the “significance of silence.”

How then would you respond to the question raised by Stewart? If one is truly a Christian, if one is truly converted, if one has truly been born again (and other ways that can be described), would you require that person to be rebaptized before becoming a member in the local church? This is not having experienced no baptism at all, but one who has experienced infant baptism who is now a true believer.

Here is Stewart’s conclusion:

We have accommodated ourselves both to considerable lapses of time between believing and being baptized (among credobaptists) and to similar lapses of time between being baptized and believing (among paedobaptists). As a result, we have in many cases only approximations of the baptismal ideal. Still, our two evangelical understandings do succeed in preserving the importance of both believing in Jesus Christ and being baptized. In the end, since baptism belongs to Jesus Christ who received it (Matt. 3.13-17) and authorized it (Matt. 28.19, 20), since the church Jesus founded affirms but “one baptism” (Eph. 4.5) and since our own personal spiritual biographies regarding Christ and baptism are non-uniform, we ought to extend the charity we grant to one another to persons who received Catholic baptism. At their professions of faith, we should welcome them unreservedly into our churches.

A few questions to ponder.

  1. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
  2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of such a position?
  3. Would you allow a non-baptized believer to become a member?
  4. How do you apply this “significance of silence” in the local church where you serve?