The Greatest of them All

From the red-letter part of Scripture:

“I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7:28)

Unless Mary was not born of a woman — a whole new meaning to immaculate conception — Jesus’ words would seem to rank John the Baptist higher than the Virgin Mary.

Calvin comments:

Accordingly, Christ extols and places him above the rank of the prophets, and gives the people to understand that he had received a special and more excellent commission. When he elsewhere says respecting himself that he was not a Prophet, (John 1:21,) this is not inconsistent with the designation here bestowed upon him by Christ. He was, no doubt, a Prophet, like others whom God had appointed in his Church to be expounders of the Law, and messengers of his will; but he was more excellent than the Prophets in this respect, that he did not, like them, make known redemption at a distance and obscurely under shadows, but proclaimed that the time of redemption was now manifest and at hand. Such too is the import of Malachi’s prediction, (Malachi 3:1,) which is immediately added, that the pre-eminence of John consisted in his being the herald and forerunner of Christ; for although the ancient Prophets spoke of his kingdom, they were not, like John, placed before his face, to point him out as present. As to the other parts of the passage, the reader may consult what has been said on the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel.

Had Jesus forgotten his mother?

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What Did Joseph Know?

A sermon series on Matthew has prompted all sorts of thoughts about the holy family, among them what kind of man Joseph was who would not have sexual relations with his wife (if she really was perpetually a virgin). If Mary was holy, wasn’t Joseph at least remarkable for living celibate even while a married man? (And if sex is not sinful in marriage, and Mary was already sinless, would sex with Joseph have really compromised her righteous standing?)

Here’s the kicker, though. Matthew writes at the end of chapter 1:

24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

These verses require modesty. On the one hand, according to John Calvin:

Let us rest satisfied with this, that no just and well-grounded inference can be drawn from these words of the Evangelist, as to what took place after the birth of Christ. He is called first-born; but it is for the sole purpose of informing us that he was born of a virgin. It is said that Joseph knew her not till she had brought forth her first-born son: but this is limited to that very time. What took place afterwards, the historian does not inform us. Such is well known to have been the practice of the inspired writers. Certainly, no man will ever raise a question on this subject, except from curiosity; and no man will obstinately keep up the argument, except from an extreme fondness for disputation.

(Perhaps this post errs on the side of “fondness for disputation.”)

On the other hand, just because the text doesn’t say Joseph did “know” Mary after Jesus’ birth, it doesn’t give grounds for Mary’s perpetual virginity. On Luke 1:34 Calvin writes:

The conjecture which some have drawn from these words [“How shall this be, since I know not a man?”], that she had formed a vow of perpetual virginity, is unfounded and altogether absurd. She would, in that case, have committed treachery by allowing herself to be united to a husband, and would have poured contempt on the holy covenant of marriage; which could not have been done without mockery of God. Although the Papists have exercised barbarous tyranny on this subject, yet they have never proceeded so far as to allow the wife to form a vow of continence at her own pleasure. Besides, it is an idle and unfounded supposition that a monastic life existed among the Jews.

So you take from this immaculate conception and perpetual virginity of Mary? That’s a stretch.

But if you can whack Donald Trump by referring to Joseph as Jesus’ father — even though Matthew goes to great lengths in the genealogy to connect Jesus to the Davidic line through Joseph — then it’s fine for impartial journalists to embrace “orthodoxy.”

Mercy, Mercy

Pope Francis has launched the Year of Mercy and so the comments about being merciful are frequent these days. But the pope may have gotten ahead of himself when he said that Jesus needed to ask forgiveness of Joseph and Mary (and only the Remnant seems to have objected):

. . . to give credit where credit is due, the Holy Father said some very fine things in his homily for the Mass of the Holy Family. Indeed, his pronouncements nearly always contain much that is good, true and spiritually helpful. He could surely never have been elected to the highest office on earth if his track record revealed that most of what he said was foolish, mistaken, superficial or heterodox. Nevertheless, it will only take a small drop of venom to make a rich and delicious Christmas cake highly dangerous for your health. Likewise, just one shocking affirmation in a papal homily can make its overall effect deeply unsettling and dangerous for our spiritual health.

In this case, the Pope has said something which makes many of us shudder; for it is something which it is not easy to exculpate, at least at the objective level, from the charge of blasphemy. Intentionally or otherwise, he has spoken words which, taken in their natural, unforced sense, imply that the Son of God himself has committed sin.

Consider these words by which His Holiness, preaching in Italian, commented on the Gospel incident: “We know what Jesus did on that occasion. Instead of returning home with his family, he stayed in Jerusalem, in the Temple, provoking great suffering (provocando una grande pena) to Mary and Joseph, who were unable to find him. For this little ‘escapade’ (questa ‘scappatella’), Jesus probably had to ask forgiveness (dovette chiedere scusa) of his parents. The Gospel doesn’t say this, but I believe that we can presume it.”

That may raise problems for the theologically picky, but Pope Francis has also said that Mary has lots of forgiveness to give since she is the “mother of forgiveness”:

For us, Mary is an icon of how the Church must offer forgiveness to those who seek it. The Mother of forgiveness teaches the Church that the forgiveness granted on Golgotha knows no limits. Neither the law with its quibbles, nor the wisdom of this world with its distinctions, can hold it back. The Church’s forgiveness must be every bit as broad as that offered by Jesus on the Cross and by Mary at his feet. There is no other way. It is for this purpose that the Holy Spirit made the Apostles the effective ministers of forgiveness, so what was obtained by the death of Jesus may reach all men and women in every age (cf. Jn 20:19-23).

For anyone wondering if the pope’s statements might qualify as heretical and so complicate the doctrine of papal infallibility, keep in mind the fine print. In order to define infallibility in a way that made room for the seventh-century pope, Honorius, the Vatican Council had to finesse papal authority (with papal approval, of course):

In order to save infallibility it is better to admit the historical possibility of a heretic Pope, rather than shatter the dogmatic definitions and the anathemas of a Council ratified by a Roman Pontiff. It is common doctrine that the condemnation of the writings of an author is infallible, when the error is anathematized with the note of heresy, whereas, the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church is not always necessarily infallible.

During the First Vatican Council, the Deputation of the Faith confronted the problem by setting out a series of rules of a general character, which are applied not only in the case of Honorius, but in all problems, past or future that may be presented. It is not enough for the Pope to pronounce on a question of faith or customs regarding the universal Church, it is necessary that the decree by the Roman Pontiff is conceived in such a manner as to appear as a solemn and definitive judgment, with the intention of obliging all the faithful to believe (Mansi, LII, coll. 1204-1232). There are, therefore, non-infallible acts of the Ordinary Papal Magisterium, since they are devoid of the necessary defining character: quod ad formam seu modum attinet.

Pope Honorius’ letters are devoid of these characteristics. They are undoubtedly Magisterial acts, but in the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium there may be errors and even, in exceptional cases, heretical formulations. The Pope can fall into heresy, but cannot ever pronounce a heresy ex- cathedra.

Bottom line, Pope Francis should be okay. Back to your regularly scheduled shrugging.

The Gospel According to Mark

No Mary immaculately conceived, no gospel:

In light of the Incarnation, it is profoundly mistaken to think that humanity is necessarily or naturally sinful. It isn’t. Sin is normal, but never natural. Nature is not corrupt; corruption is corrupt. Sin is precisely what is contrary to our human nature. It is damage to nature, not nature itself, which constitutes sin. Thus, sin (which we all inherit in Adam) is always a warping and a deformation of our nature. In Christian understanding, nature is essentially good since it and grace (not sin) have the same author: God. Grace does not build on sin. It heals sin, eradicates sin, repairs the effects of sin, forgives sin. When that process is complete (as it shall be for the saints in heaven) those saints shall no longer be afflicted by sin in any way. That would be impossible if sin and humanness were identical.

Very well then, if there is nothing intrinsically impossible with the idea of sinless humanness in heaven for people who don’t happen to be Jesus, there is also nothing intrinsically impossible with Mary is being preserved from sin right here on earth by the same God who gets people to heaven. It is true that, apart from the authority of the church, there is no way we could know this about Mary. But then again, apart from the authority of the church, there is no way we would know that the Holy Spirit is God either. All that means is that Scripture is intended to be read in light of the full teaching of the church. When we do, we find that to deny the sinlessness of Mary on the mere ground that she’s human and therefore must be sinful has the surprising effect of messing up our understanding of the Incarnation.

And there is an understandable reason for that. Mary is the source of the Incarnation. Christianity is not merely a religion of the word. It is a relationship with the Word made flesh. But the Word gets his flesh from somewhere. All Christians believe in the blood of Christ shed on the cross. But God the Son, in his divine nature, had no blood to shed till the received it in purity from his mother. No Mary, no Incarnation; no Incarnation, no death on the cross; no death on the cross, no resurrection; no resurrection, no salvation for the world. Get rid of Mary and you don’t get a purified faith: you get nothing. That is the consequence of overlooking this often neglected truth.

Well, isn’t it profoundly correct to think of humanity as necessarily sinful in the light of THE FALL? Why would the Son of God become incarnate if not to redeem sinners. Plus, I was under the impression that sin a violation of God’s law. Eating a piece of fruit is natural, after all.

Post-fall, sinless humans occupying heaven is impossible without grace and forgiveness. Using the possibility of sinless humans going to heaven as the grounds for Mary’s sinfulness seems like a real groin-tearing stretch.

And if Mary needs to be sinless to bear Christ, then what about Mary’s mother needing to be sinless to bear Mary? And what about Mary’s grandmother to bear Mary’s mother? You see where this is going — thanks to the fall, which you don’t apparently see.

But if you insist that we would not have Christianity without Mary, then why did Anselm (a saint by both your and my standards) instead of writing Cur Deus Homo not write Why Mary Conceived without Sin? (Sorry my Latin is rusty.)

One last question: how much theology do you possibly need to be ignorant of to find your apologetics compelling? (So many Marks, so little time.)

From DGH on Christ's Temptation Submitted on 2014/10/27 at 4:45 am

Mark, Mark, Mark,

Yet another post about Jesus as the “best believer who ever lived.” Why? You write:

The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness furnishes us with clear evidence that the life he lived he lived by faith in God. He trusted in the God who was able to help him in his time of need (Heb. 2:13). Jesus had to live the life of faith in order to bestow upon us the gift of faith. As the second Adam, Jesus rectified Adam’s first sin. And what was Adam’s first sin? Unbelief, not pride.

Are you suggesting again that Jesus is like us and a model for how we live a life of faith?

What seems odd is that when you describe Jesus in ways that we might describe a regular believer you sound like Roman Catholics in the way that they describe (and revere) Mary as “the Greatest of Saints”:

Catholic belief is that all of us, Mary included, need a Redeemer because of our fallen nature and that no one can attain Heaven without His Blood. We are saved from our fallen nature by His grace alone through faith that worketh in charity. Mary, though, because God knew how she would use the free will He gave to her, was saved, by His grace, from having a fallen nature at the moment of her conception. She was redeemed from her mother’s womb, an act planned from Genesis 3 so that she could act as the New Eve and so that Christ could be born of vessel even more pure than the Ark of the Covenant. Christ would not have been born from that which is impure! God knew of Mary’s will to serve even before she was conceived. He knew she would say yes to Him, and He saved her at her first moment.

I sure hope you don’t go overboard on Jesus as the model for our faith. If you keep our sinfulness in mind, you should be A-okay.

Isn't It Really Justification by Baptism?

The substitute caller for Jason of the Callers has tried to reverse the table and claim Roman Catholicism as the real home of justification by faith:

In the Protestant view, for man to enter Heaven he needs to have kept God’s Law perfectly. This means Salvation for the Protestant is purely based upon human “works,” the catch is that since sin has tainted all we do, it’s impossible for man to keep God’s Law perfectly. This is why Protestants say we need Jesus to keep God’s Law perfectly for us, and impute this “work” to us as if we did all this “work” ourselves. Hence why Protestants say our only hope to stand before God and be seen as “righteous” (i.e. a perfect keeper of the Law) is to trust in “Christ’s finished work” alone. So what does any of this have to do with faith alone? Protestants say the way we ‘receive’ this “work” that Christ did is through ‘the empty hand of faith,’ which reaches out and lays hold of and applies that work to our account.

In the Catholic view, for man to enter Heaven requires that he be in communion with God before he passes from this life. For Catholics, Salvation is not so much about ‘doing’ as it is about ‘being’. Communion with God is principally characterized by being “in a state of grace,” that means us possessing the divine gifts of faith, hope, and charity, as well as the Indwelling of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in our souls. In this view, faith implies the possession of all these other divine gifts for the Catholic. And the means by which a person first acquires all these is through “the washing of regeneration,” also known as Baptism.

Could be, but that would not explain the partial and plenary indulgences which are still very much available. Just imagine how many users of McCheyne’s schedule for reading Scripture entirely in a year could benefit from this one:

50. Reading of Sacred Scripture (Sacrae Scripturae lectio)

A partial indulgence is granted to the faithful, who with the veneration due the divine word make a spiritual reading from Sacred Scripture.
A plenary indulgence is granted, if this reading is continued for at least one half an hour.

But then again, it could be that faith is really a form of obedience (as Norman Shepherd tried to argue):

Just as Abraham is the model of “the obedience of faith” offered to us by Sacred Scripture, the Virgin Mary is its most perfect embodiment (cf. CCC, n. 144). “By faith Mary welcomes the tidings and promise brought by the angel Gabriel, believing that ‘with God nothing will be impossible’ and so giving her assent: ‘Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be [done] to me according to your word’ (Luke 1:37-38)” (CCC, n. 148). Mary’s response perfectly expressed the disposition of complete and unconditional obedience — she is the model for what our response should be to God’s will in our daily lives. Her faith never wavered, and for this reason “the Church venerates in Mary the purest realization of faith” (CCC, n. 149).

To close this installment, I invite you to reflect on an inspiring excerpt from Fr. Michael Gaitley’s recently published book 33 Days to Morning Glory: “She [Mary] is perfectly united to the Holy Spirit, because she was conceived without sin, never sinned, and always does the will of God perfectly. She allows the Holy Spirit to overshadow her, take possession of her soul, and bear fruit through her. The Holy Spirit delights in always working in and through Mary to save all other creatures made in God’s image” (p. 110).

Is it just (all about) me I or do these guys seem to view Roman Catholicism through a Protestant paradigm?

Called to Call the Mother of God

No news for anyone on line who is using more than Comcast’s news updates (all about cleavages at the Grammy’s, I’m afraid) that Benedict XVI has resigned the office of pope, effective February 28, 2013. What may be news, however, is the last paragraph of his resignation:

Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.

It is an odd phenomenon for Protestants to think of praying (i.e., “implore) to Mary. For a recent convert like Christian Smith, Protestant discomfort is simply a symptom of evangelicals’ “allergy” to Mary. He goes on to write (How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic):

Evangelicals trust in the Bible, on which they say they base their beliefs. But, when it comes to things even only remotely and by association “too Catholic,” like Mary, the verses are read over and past and ignored. It is like Mary hardly matters, as if the verses were not in the Bible, as if Mary deserves no theological reflection. (48)

Never mind that Smith never cites any verses associated with Mary, or shows the theological reflection of the apostles (like Peter and Paul’s epistles) on the mother of Jesus. (He does get a lot of mileage in his case for Mary — wow! — out of the discovery that “Faith of Our Fathers” was a Roman Catholic hymn.) Never mind as well that even the Catholic Encyclopedia says of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, “No direct or categorical and stringent proof of the dogma can be brought forward from Scripture.”

Still, the allergy, if that’s what we want to call it, is the idea of praying to Mary. Praying to Mary is not something that should be surprising to Protestant observers. For instance, this is how Pius IX concluded Nullis Certe Verbis:

And so that God may incline His ear to Our prayers and yours and those of all the faithful, We ask first the recommendation of the Virgin Mary, who is our most beloved mother and most trustworthy hope and ever present guardian of the Church. Nothing is more powerful with God than her patronage. We also implore the support of Peter, then of his co-apostle Paul, and of all the heavenly citizens who reign with Christ in heaven. We do not doubt that in the light of your outstanding religion and priestly zeal, you will obey these Our prayers and petitions. Meanwhile as a pledge of Our burning charity toward you, from Our deepest heart and with a wish for all every true happiness, We lovingly impart Our Apostolic Blessing to you yourselves and all the clergy, and faithful laity committed to each of your vigilance.

And when Pius XI wrote an encyclical (Ad Caeli Reginam) which asserted the queenship of Mary over all other creatures, he closed with this:

Earnestly desiring that the Queen and Mother of Christendom may hear these Our prayers, and by her peace make happy a world shaken by hate, and may, after this exile show unto us all Jesus, Who will be our eternal peace and joy, to you, Venerable Brothers, and to your flocks, as a promise of God’s divine help and a pledge of Our love, from Our heart We impart the Apostolic Benediction.

But since Jesus taught his disciples to pray to God the Father (as in the Lord’s Prayer), the idea of praying to Mary is odd. I know apologists like Smith try to distinguish veneration from worship of saints. I also know that the CTCers have made their peace with Mary as Co-Redemptrix. But I am still wondering how praying to someone doesn’t give the impression that the entity to whom the prayer is being directed is anything less than divine. I also don’t understand why you wouldn’t simply pray directly to Christ, whose work as priest now is to intercede at God’s right hand. Is he too busy to hear?

Honor or Venerate?

Several years ago I read a piece by Timothy George, part of the working group’s reflections on Catholics and Evangelicals Together, on Protestants needing to get over some of their hangups about the virgin Mary. It was the same day where I heard a sermon, in Berkeley, California, as I recall, from Philippians where Paul recommends Epaphroditus to the new church:

I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me. (Philippians 2:25-30 ESV)

I was recently reminded of Epaphroditus during a fine sermon in Belfast on the concluding verses of Philippians. I was struck before and more recently by this command to “honor” Paul’s co-worker. Whatever the Greek may mean, I thought it interesting that Paul commends Epaphroditus and does not even mention Mary in any of his epistles (unless the Mary referred to at the end of Romans was the mother of Christ). In fact, after the narrative sections of the New Testament, Mary is absent.

I understand this may reflect a certain biblicism on my part but I do wonder how the veneration of Mary squares with practically no instruction about her status, even by Peter, the rock and all that. I also find hard to fathom how Peter and Paul would react to the idea of Mary as the “mediatrix of all graces.” Perhaps a failure to venerate Mary or regard her as a player in the divine economy of redemption, combined with a reminder to honor Epaphroditus is in keeping with Mary’s own piety:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name. (Luke 1:46-49 ESV)

Mary apparently knew that it was God doing great things, not herself, just as Paul recognized the beyond-the-call-of-duty efforts of Epaphroditus were worthy not of veneration but honor.