Jesus Only Christianity

Since a new set of interlocutors has emerged of late I am going to persist with a contrast between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism that seems to be fairly crucial for considering the Reformation — namely, what to do about Mary. May seems to the month of our Lord’s mother, hence a number of posts at National Catholic Register (see what EWTN did there?) about Mary. To contrast the liturgical and national calendars, please keep in mind that for Americans May is Asian Pacific Heritage Month.)

Mark Shea persists with a defense of Mary’s immaculate conception and concludes that the church arrived at a two-fold doctrine of salvation (and we’re not even talking about God’s covenant with Jews — though since Mary was Jewish, I guess we are):

Jesus saves from sin in two ways just as a doctor saves from sickness in two ways: cure and prevention. Mary was prevented from contracting original sin in the moment of her conception by a singular act of grace through Christ. In her, we see, not the absence of Christ’s saving grace, but its fullest expression. Hence, she is “full of grace” and praises “God my savior” (Luke 1:47).

For confessional Protestants, that seems like a stretch since we believe in only one mediator between God and man. This implies that some persons can have a different relationship with God. If one has a unique relationship with God, why not a lot more? Why didn’t God simply reboot after Adam’s sin and “prevent” Cain and Abel from sinning?

Meanwhile, Dwight Longenecker tries to explain why Mary as Mediatrix or Co-Redemptrix is not an offense but affirms the sole mediation of Christ:

Once we have recognized that Mary suffered with Jesus we should take a moment to try to understand the depth of that identification with her son. Remember she is linked with her son like no other Mother and her son is like no other Son. How often have we seen and experienced the deep identification between a mother and her child? The child suffers at school. Mama bear steps in for she has suffered too. The child experiences hardship and tears. The mother’s heart is broken too. Only when we understand the depth of Mary’s suffering and the depth of her unique identification with her son will we begin to understand the Catholic doctrines of Co-Redeemer and Mediatrix.

We should be clear that we are not saying that Jesus’ work of redemption on the cross was in some way insufficient. Neither is his work as mediator between God and Man inadequate. We acknowledge that his redemptive suffering on the cross was full and final and totally sufficient. We acknowledge that he is the only saving mediator between God and Man. So what do we mean with these titles for Mary?

What we mean is that she participates in the full, final, sufficient and unique work of Christ on the cross for the salvation of the world. She walks beside him and through his work she joins in that work. It is like Christ’s love and sacrifice is a fast flowing river, but Mary swims in the current of that river. Her work is dependent on his work. Her participation and co-operation could not happen without his work going before and enabling all that she does.

But again the question arises, why single out Mary? Aren’t all believers united to Christ? Don’t we all swim in the current of his work? And wouldn’t it be fair to say after a reading of the New Testament that the apostles (and prophets before them) participated much more directly in Christ’s work than Mary (who is on the sidelines for most narratives)? Why not at least call Peter a Co-Redemptrix? He is after all the original Vicar of Christ. And why appeal to a special relationship between mother and child when Christ himself said that his followers bore a special relationship to himself in ways that were closer than blood relations (“Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.’ But he answered them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it'” [Luke 8:19-21].)

The point here though has less to do with some of the questions that Longenecker and Shea raise (even as they try to answer objections). It is instead this: what would Christianity lose if Mary was not understood the way these apologists conceive her? Would Christianity be somehow deficient without the immaculate conception or Mary as co-redemptrix?

Simplicity is not always a good thing. But one way of reading the Reformation is as an effort to remove the clutter that had accumulated after a millennium of passing on the faith. Anyone who has changed residences knows the unenviable task of deciding what to do with the basement. Reformers did just that with the western church in the sixteenth century. Some might argue that they donated too many boxes with useful items to United European Charities, Inc. But if Longenecker really does affirm that Christ’s work was sufficient in and of itself (along with Christ’s Spirit, of course), why the attachment to Mary? What does her uniqueness profit the gospel or the Christian religion more generally?

And if Protestantism is really about trying to exalt the work of Christ — and doesn’t mind stepping on traditions that get in the way of seeing Christ’s sufficiency — why would it generate the hostility that it did from Rome?