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Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate by Dwight Longenecker and David Gustafson

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Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2003, 240 pages.

This review is written at the time of the great public debate concerning Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ. The debate has pitted the Hollywood establishment versus Mel Gibson, the unbelieving world versus Christians, and within Christendom, liberal Christians (who would have preferred an emphasis on the teachings of Christ) versus evangelical Christians (who believe the atoning work of Christ is the centerpiece of Christianity). However, the debate has also pitted evangelical Christians versus evangelical Christians on certain issues. To see some of the areas of disagreement among evangelical Christians, refer to the “Reviews and Reflections on the Movie” in the special Passion section of the website of the Biblical Studies Foundation (/docs/theology/christ/passion.htm ). Issues of debate have included violence, anti-Semitism, Biblical accuracy, artistic license, narrow focus (to a 12 hour period in the life of Christ), and the degree to which Gibson’s conservative Catholic views give the movie a “Catholic spin”. One particular aspect of the latter that comes up for discussion and disagreement is the place of Mary, mother of Jesus, in the film. Was the overall depiction of Mary “restrained” (as per Reg Grant in one of the aforementioned reviews) or “theologically disturbing” (as per J.B. Hixson in another review)? Hixson said “while Catholics may applaud such veneration (of Mary), evangelicals should deplore it”.

But the purpose of my writing is not to evaluate the movie. In view of all the public and private discussion of the various issues raised by the movie, I believe the book I am reviewing is very relevant. Just what do Catholics believe about Mary, and what is the basis for those beliefs? That question is answered very clearly in the book Mary: An Evangelical-Catholic Debate. The pairing of the two individuals to represent the opposing sides is very intriguing in itself. Dwight Longenecker (Dwight) and David Gustafson (David) both went to Bob Jones University (BJU) at the same time, and were acquainted with each other; thus, both received a fundamentalist and most decidedly protestant Christian education. They went in different directions after college, and were reunited 20 years later when Dwight posted a note in a religious forum on the internet asking for any BJU graduates out there who might be interested in discussing religion and, to his surprise, received a reply from David. That led to a six-year period of religious discussions over the internet, and eventually to this book.

David, who represents the Protestant side in the debate, has remained Protestant since his BJU days. After graduating from BJU, he got a law degree and a job with the Justice Department. Over the 20 years since leaving BJU, he has developed a great interest in the historic church and diligently studied it as a layman. He eventually settled in a conservative Episcopal parish because he believed that was the church “best suited for worshiping as Christians have always worshipped, and studying the Bible in light of what Christians have always believed” (page 19).

Dwight, on the other hand, had begun attending a breakaway Episcopal church while at BJU, called the Holy Trinity Anglican Orthodox Church. This attraction to the Anglican Church led to a love of all things English, and he eventually took advantage of a chance to study in England. He said he was drawn to “an expression of the Christian faith that was ancient, historical and rooted in European culture” (page 17). He spent fifteen years in the Anglican Church—ten of those as an Anglican priest. By the early 1990s he was married with two children, and was a country parson in England. However, he had begun feeling that the Anglican Church was becoming unsure of her beliefs and drifting away from the “mere Christianity” that he sought to follow. At the same time, he was becoming more and more interested in Catholic spirituality, liturgy, and history. He began to feel he had more in common with his Catholic friends. And so, in 1995, his spiritual journey culminated in he and his family entering into full communion with the Catholic Church. And this brings us to the issue of Mary, as Dwight says:

One of the final obstacles in becoming a Catholic was the problem of Mary. I had accepted certain basic Marian devotions in my spiritual life, but still had trouble with the theological dogmas that Rome expected us to give assent to. In the summer of 1994, those final problems fell away and I realized there was nothing to stop us from entering the Catholic Church…For now I stand here calling myself an evangelical Catholic. I value, and thank God for, the evangelical customs and traditions in which I was brought up. I want ordinary Catholics to become more aware of the riches of that evangelical tradition., but I am also keen to share with Evangelicals more of the riches of the Catholic faith. One of the treasures of the faith is Mary, the Mother of Our Lord…So my intention in this discussion is not to prove you wrong, but to challenge you a little. If the Catholic Church is my home, I’m inviting you to come and visit my Mother (page 17).

Dwight expresses his opinion that American Evangelicalism “is largely cut off from the grand sweep of Christian history from before the Reformation”(page 19), and states that in this discussion he will be quoting from writers from the first four or five centuries of the Christian Church. However, he says:

I should make it clear that I do not quote from these documents as if they bear the authority of Scripture. I use the letters, sermons, hymns and theological writings from the first five centuries to show what the early Christians believed. I quote them for their historical authenticity and authority—not because they are the inspired Word of God (page 19).

Dwight further says that because of his background, he understands the Protestant deep-seated suspicion of “things Catholic”, and he has not forgotten what a “scandal” Mary has become to Evangelicals. In fact, he says that during the formative period of his movement toward the Catholic Church, he found that when he put his past prejudices aside:

I discovered that devotion to Mary dates from the very earliest days of the Christian Church. I found that the vast majority of Christians both now and down through the ages have understood devotion to the Mother of the Lord as a natural and simple part of their whole faith. Therefore, we Catholics find the Evangelicals’ neglect of Mary to be a sort of scandal—a late invention by a small segment of Christianity, that has diminished the historic faith in a significant way (page 20).

The Introduction concludes with David acknowledging that he too “has learned an enormous amount by discovering the writings of the church fathers” (page 19), and that whereas in some respects that discovery has “smoothed off some of the harder edges” (page 20) of his differences with Catholics, in other respects, the differences remain or have gotten even more pronounced, and one of the issues in the latter category is his view of Mary.

The Introduction is preceded by two Forewords commending the book. The first is by Richard John Neuhaus from the Catholic side, and J.I. Packer from the Evangelical side.

Then begins chapter one, which is titled: I Stand Alone On the Word of God: The Biblical Evidence About Mary. David begins by acknowledging that when you examine the Scriptures, you find that the Bible does have a great deal to say about Mary, and that he senses that much Protestant thinking about Mary is “disproportionately negative…(and) a reaction against Roman Catholic devotion.” Further, whereas “we do seem to be very emphatic about what Mary is not…(we) do fail to appreciate all that she is” (pages 22-23). And that, he says, should change.

However, David says that is where his concessions end, and his disputes begin, for he says “the New Testament is also remarkable for its overt deemphasis of Mary, as seen for example by four occasions when Jesus seemed to downplay Mary’s maternal connection to him. He concludes that the Gospels do not show Jesus creating for Mary a place of special honor or attention, or to be someone of continuing importance to his followers." Secondly, whereas the New Testament epistles are full of the doctrinal significance of specific events of Jesus’ life and death, there is no apparent doctrinal significance attached to Mary’s person or actions, with the one exception of the virgin birth. So David concludes:

For now I will generalize this biblical data: if Mary has special importance in the life of the believer or the life of the church, it is an importance not evident in the plain text of the Bible (page 29-30).

As part of his rebuttal to David’s conclusion, Dwight cites Mary’s presence in the upper room at Pentecost (Acts 1:14), and the interpretation of Mary as the woman in Revelation 12. Further, he uses typology to find Mary prefigured in many places in the Old Testament. For example, he cites fourth century teaching by Ambrose, Augustine and Athanasius that saw the Ark of the Covenant as a type of Mary. Dwight’s main point is that Mary “does not just appear in salvation history out of nowhere” (page 33), and that from the symbols and types of the Old Testament, “the Catholic Church from the earliest centuries has deduced the true role and function of the Lord’s mother in God’s plan for the human race” (page 33).

Thus concludes the first chapter. I might add at this point that each chapter in the book is followed by helpful questions for study, reflection and discussion.

Subsequent chapters deal with each of the various aspects of Marian devotion, one at time, such as Holy Mary, Mother of God (chapter 2); The Virgin Birth (chapter 3); The Perpetual Virginity of Mary (chapter 4); Spouse of the Holy Spirit (chapter 5); The Immaculate Conception (chapter 6); The Glorious Assumption (chapter 7); Apparitions of the Virgin Mary (chapter 8); The Veneration of Mary (chapter 9); The Rosary (chapter 10); and finally, Co-Redeemer, Mediatrix, and Advocate (chapter 11).

Early on in the book, in chapter 2 on Mother of God, a key difference between Dwight and David’s positions comes up for discussion. Dwight will cite early church teaching on various aspects of Marian devotion to show how it has been around for centuries. But there is generally a gap between the apostolic era and the time when those doctrines regarding Mary began being taught. As David says:

Let’s assume (as you would assert) that not all the apostles’ teaching was committed to the canonical Scriptures, and that some of the genuine apostolic “traditions” were passed on orally (see John 20:30, 21:25; 2 Thess 2:15). If that were true, and if the alleged teaching was well-attested, was early enough, and was widespread enough, then we might well justify Marian doctrine or devotion…by the example or teaching of the early church—that is, we could presume that the early Christians were doing what the apostles had taught orally. However, reconstructing apostolic-era practice doesn’t seem to be the Catholic method for guiding Marian devotion. Instead the Roman Catholic Church is frank to admit that its understanding of Mary, and its devotional practices related to her, have evolved (page 43).

In support of his comment that Marian devotion has evolved, David goes on to quote a Catholic writer, Luigi Gambero, who stated that during the first centuries the Fathers and other Christian writers “rarely speak of Mary apart from Christ”, but that as the centuries passed, especially from the second half of the fourth century on, those same groups “began to pay more attention to Mary” (although he acknowledges that the quantity of Marian literature produced in that period was still modest). Gambero says that it was after the Councils of Ephesus (431 AD) and Chalcedon (451 AD) that there was “a sharp increase in the level of Marian doctrine and devotion” (page 44). Several times in the book, David reiterates that premise (for example, page 107).

In response, Dwight said that while Gambero recognizes the subordinate role of Mary in the early church, Gambero also makes clear that:

Faith, devotion, and interest in the ineffable mystery of the Mother of the Lord were never lacking among the people of God, even though the manifestations and expressions of faith and doctrine may vary in different historical periods (page 44).

While Dwight acknowledges that Catholic understanding of Mary’s role and identity has “developed and matured over the years”, he says the same can be said of other aspects of Christian theology and practice. However, he acknowledges that “this is a very important point and I think we ought to give it more time later” (page 44).

In chapter 3 on The Virgin Birth, one might have expected basic agreement. However, that is not the case, as Dwight says that since Jesus received his human nature from Mary, then “her virginity had to be of an extraordinary kind…it had to be unique in human history” (page 54), and that for Jesus’ human nature to be really human and really sinless, “its human source must have been uniquely pure” (page 55). In other words, was Mary a recipient of grace by being chosen to bear the Christ child, or was she chosen to bear the Christ child because she already possessed some special grace of purity or holiness? To David, this is “pious speculation”.

As you move on through the rest of the chapters, be ready for some surprises. I certainly found some. For example, in chapter 4 I was surprised to learn that the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary was held not only by most of the church fathers, but by Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and even John Wesley (page 64). In response to this, David restates the premise that underlies much of his thinking.

As instructive as it is to know what Luther, Calvin, Origen, and Tertullian thought about this subject, the critical question is whether we have any apostolic teaching on the point. A postapostolic novelty is a distortion (reviewer’s emphasis), whether it originated in the sixteenth century or the second. So…to learn that Mary’s alleged perpetual virginity is another issue on which we disagree with Luther and Calvin is not a shock (page 66).

Chapter 6, The Immaculate Conception deals with the Catholic belief that Mary was sinless from the moment of her conception to the end of her earthly life. Dwight says he expects that this is one of the Marian doctrines most objectionable to Protestants, and he acknowledges that it is not stated explicitly in the Scriptures. David responds that theoretically a case for Mary’s sinlessness could be made, even in the absence of direct biblical support, if there is evidence that “the first-century church had received it orally

from the apostles, or if Mary’s sinlessness is implicit in what the apostles taught” (page 98). Regarding the latter, Dwight makes much of the translation of the Greek word kecharitomene in Luke 1:28 with which the angel addresses Mary, and which comes from the root charis which is generally translated grace. Catholics therefore translate this as “full of grace”, while Protestants translate it as “highly favored one”. Catholics understand that Mary was “so completely, perfectly, enduringly endowed with grace” that sin was absent (page 99). This is not the sole base of their case of course, as Dwight acknowledges:

I accept your point that the implications of two biblical references are not proof of a dogma…As you’ve observed…Catholics do not rely on Scripture alone for the development of doctrine…At Pentecost the Holy Spirit inspired the apostolic church, and now the church is the pillar and foundation of truth. We therefore submit our own theories to the dynamic and living tradition of the church. For 2000 years the best Christian minds have been reflecting, praying, and debating these issues, guided by the promised Holy Spirit. One might be able to formulate other theories, but we believe that the consensus of the church in this matter is the right one (page 106).

To which David responds:

It’s not just any tradition to which Christians adhere; it’s apostolic tradition… The church is the “pillar and foundation of the truth” when it faithfully perpetuates what the apostles taught (and, arguably, what the apostles’ teaching implies); the church is not a perpetual revelation machine. The “faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3) consists of what the apostles wrote and taught. Other ideas—even if generations of Christians have thought those ideas fitting or sweet—are simply not part of what was “once for all entrusted” (page 107).

Dwight ends that particular conversation by saying that he basically agrees with what David has said, but that Catholics “have a larger understanding of apostolicity” than the position described by David (page 107). Whereas he agrees that there can be no new revelation, he says that the church over the course of time comes into “a fuller and fuller” understanding of the “faith once entrusted to the saints” (page 107).

However, surely the most difficult concept for Protestants to accept is the subject of chapter 11: Co-Redeemer, Mediatrix, and Advocate, which seems to fly in the face of 1 Timothy 2:5: “For there is one God, and one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus”. However Dwight notes at the beginning of this discussion that the understanding of Mary as Co-Redeemer and Mediatrix of grace is not a formally defined dogma of the Catholic Church, but rather a “pious opinion—a useful devotional and theological way of meditating on Mary” (page 190). He acknowledges that it is controversial even among Catholics, as some ardent Marian devotees want the Church to define this role for Mary as a “final Marian dogma”, while other Catholics feel Mary has been honored enough and believe dogmatizing this role for Mary would encroach on the unique redemptive role of Christ and would hurt ecumenical efforts. Dwight says he is among the cautious on this issue.

Mary’s role is described as follows:

Mary cooperated with the redemption in a unique way with her total “yes” to God at the Annunciation. In agreeing to be the God-bearer she actively cooperated with God in bringing the Redeemer into the world (page 195).

Dwight recognizes that the terminology of Co-Redeemer could create confusion, implying that Mary had an equal role to that of Christ in redemption. He therefore suggests the term “partner.” However, to David even referring to Mary as a junior partner in the event still causes problems because for Protestants Christ had no partners; he accomplished “not just 95% of our redemption, not just 99%, but all of it” (page 197).

They then move on to Mary as Mediatrix. David quotes 19th century Pope Leo XIII:

Thus as no man goeth to the Father but by the Son, so no man goeth to Christ but by His mother…Mary is this glorious intermediary (page 199).

Dwight agrees that Leo’s language is extreme, but says that “since Jesus came into the world through Mary we have to admit that the grace of Jesus Christ came through Mary”, and that whereas it is not a formal doctrine, Mary’s role of Mediatrix was taught from the early fourth century in the church and has gone on to become an established part of the fullness of the faith. David, however, doesn’t “see any good reason to transmute Mary’s one-time role as mother of Jesus into a role of her being his eternal agent…there is no basis for granting Mary a role as Mediatrix that is continuing and that is unique to herself (page 201).

Finally, they move on to the third issue of chapter 11, Mary as Advocate. By this, Dwight says Catholics mean that “Mary prays for us” (page 202), and says that this tradition goes back to the second century where they find a prayer that says:

Under your mercy we take refuge, O Mother of God. Do not reject our supplications in necessity, but deliver us from danger (page 202).

He also cites Saint Ephraem who called Mary “the friendly advocate of sinners” (page 202). Not surprisingly, David finds this in direct conflict with 1 John 2:1 which says that “If anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous” (NASB).

And it is at this point that David says:

I have to pause at the very threshold of this issue, and, in effect, question the whole reason for this discussion (i.e., the discussion of chapter 11)…we reach with these doctrines—Mary as Mediatrix, Co-Redeemer and Advocate—a point where I simply have to say no. From time to time in the history of the Church, orthodox Catholicism has had to suppress a Marian enthusiasm that went too far, and I believe this is one of those times. I urgently hope that sober and responsible Catholics will insist that these titles go too far. I am sure that the proponents of these doctrines mean well…But by their objective terms these doctrines ascribe to Mary titles that, in the Scriptures, are uniquely ascribed to Christ...I am grateful that, so far at least, the Roman Catholic Church has declined to define these terms as binding dogma. I pray that this restraint will persist, and that attention will be directed toward Jesus’ loving readiness and ability to be our Mediator, Redeemer, and Advocate (page 206).

Dwight finds himself in agreement with this hope, though he believes that a “proper, minimalist definition” could put the whole issue in its proper perspective and “inhibit further Marian extravagance” (page 206). He further says that “time will tell”, and expresses his belief that, despite some excesses, “the Catholic Church finally gets these things sorted out” (page 206).

The final chapter is a summary and conclusion titled: Our Lady or Your Lady? In it, David says one thing he has learned from the discussion that has made the issue of Mary more of an open question for him, at least intellectually, is the antiquity of Marian devotion as he feels very keenly a connection with the historic church. Yet even before that statement could soak in, he says:

However, I’m sorry to say that your arguments about antiquity haven’t carried the day for me. Whenever you point out that such-and-such an instance of Marian devotion can be traced all the way back to the third century, my reflexive response is that you’re a couple of centuries short. As I’ve surely made tediously clear, my primary determination is to know what the apostles taught and did in the first century…the church’s practice two hundred years after the apostles is inconclusive evidence for what the apostles did (page 211).

Further he feels that Marian devotion is more likely to be a hindrance than a help for future fellowship between Evangelicals and Catholics. He notes that among the Evangelicals who have converted to Catholicism, most say that the issue of Mary was problematic, and one of the last issues they resolved. He thinks the most that can be hoped for is Evangelical toleration of some measure of Marian devotion. Dwight says he shares David’s concerns, but while admitting that there have been excesses:

It would be dishonest for me to downplay devotion to Mary too much (since) an exalted view of Mary has been part of Christian teaching from the earliest centuries. The proper thing is not to reject Marian devotion, but to correct it (page 214).

To conclude this review, the book provided a very helpful discussion of the role of Mary in historical and contemporary Catholicism, as well as clearly showing the differences that divide Evangelicals and Catholics on the subject. I thought both individuals were very knowledgeable about both sides of the Mary issue and by historical church writings, and the “debate” was carried on in a civil and charitable manner. I think the choice of having the opposite sides represented by two individuals who had both gone to Bob Jones University at the same time was particularly interesting. In addition, my knowledge about the issues was very superficial at best, and so I gained a great deal of insight from reading the book. Although I was not moved away from the Evangelical position regarding Mary, I now have a greatly enhanced understanding of the opposing positions and a greater appreciation for the Evangelical side. Toward that end, I would certainly commend this book to any interested readers.

Related Topics: Christology, History, Catholicism