Essentiality of "traditional" beliefs about Mary, Mother of Jesus

Many ancient Christian denominations - such as the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Communion, and Oriental Churches - have similar beliefs on Mary, the mother of Jesus, that are not so prominent (or may not even exist) in Protestant and modern denominations.* Examples of such beliefs are the eternal virginity of Mary (meaning that she gave birth solely to Jesus, and that she remained a virgin ever after), the immaculate conception (that Mary was conceived without original sin), her assumption into heaven (she did not die but was carried bodily to heaven), and Mary’s coronation as “Queen of Heaven.” I was going to add “her ability to intercede for us with God,” but intercession is a special belief that many Protestant and modern denominations do not believe in; in these ancient Christian denominations, Mary is not the only one who can intercede: she is simply the most virtuous, greatest, etc., saint to be able to intercede for us.

From the perspective of these traditional Christian denominations, from the perspective of Protestant and modern denominations, and from the perspective of Christian theology through the ages, how essential are the above “traditional” beliefs about Mary to either salvation or an understanding of God (and/or Christ)? Is there any scholarship or research as to how these beliefs came about?

*I refer to “Protestant and modern denominations” because:
1). not all Protestant denominations are so new, relatively speaking. Protestantism is a very new movement from the perpsective of the ancient Christian denominations, but old from our perpsective. It’s not like the Reformation occured yesterday.

2). there are a number of movements that do not fall within the category of “protestant” that, nevertheless, have an impact of Christianity and Christian theology - or at the very least should be considered and kept in mind (example are Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-Day Adventists). In addition, some traditional or influential Reformationist movements have changed considerably, such as Prebyterianism (which has currently lost much of its Calvinist beliefs).


There’s a nice “shopping list” decretal by Pope John Paul II referring to the various characteristics which Catholic Marian piety recognizes, but unfortunately I don’t have a copy or reference to it; all I recall is seeing it quoted on a Catholic forum I visited and posted at.

Let’s see if we can run through some of the Catholic Church’s beliefs about her, with how common those beliefs are in the other branches of Christianity:

1. Virgin Mother of Jesus

Distinguish this from “perpetual virginity” later in the list; what this one is saying is simply that she had not “done the dirty” with any guy when she conceived and gave birth to Jesus (that “when” covers a time period of nine months, obviously). This is specified in Scripture and in the historic Creeds. While many liberal Christians don’t see this as physiologically likely (or even possible) and prefer to read the accounts as records of legendary and symbolic events, not factual history, the longstanding tradition of virtually every branch of Christianity is to officially accept the Virgin Birth as received doctrine.

2. Theotokos

This term was applied to Mary at the 4th Ecumenical Council, in Chalcedon, as a part of Acta V. In origin, counterintuitively, it’s not focused on Mary but on Jesus – it’s a way of saying that He was God the Son as well as a human being from the moment of conception on. It translates, roughly, as “God-Bearer” in the sense that a pregnant woman is bearing a child (as opposed to “bear” in the “give birth to” meaning); Catholics and Orthodox often render it as “Mother of God,” an accurate phrasing that nonetheless gives the willies to Protestants.

Anyone who claims to hold to the traditional definitions of the early undivided church’s Ecumenical Councils, which includes Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists among others, buys into this language, though you can live as a devout Methodist worshipping every week for 70 years without ever running into the fact that they subscribe to the Theotokos doctrine. Only the Nestorian “Church of the Assyrians” in Iraq officially declares against the Theotokos doctrine.

3. Mother of God

See #2. It’s in common use among Catholics and Orthodox; a few High Church Anglicans will use it. Most Protestants and related groups find it distasteful because of the Mater Deorum Magna cult against which early Christianity struggled, and most especially because it appears (incorrectly from the C/O perspective) to be setting Mary equal to or higher than God.

4. Doctrine of the Assumption/Dormition

Clearly, the B.V.M. is not still keeping house in Ephesus. That means she passed from this Earth at some point. According to the Catholics, she was assumed bodily into Heaven when her earthly time was over, à la Enoch and Elijah (we carefully don’t mention the Mohammed story ;)). According to Orthodox and Anglicans, she died peacefully (probably in the arms of her adoptive son the Apostle John) and, like all good Christians, her spirit was taken up to Heaven. The Assumption is a mandatory article of faith for Catholics; the rest of us simply think that she died and went to heaven, without requiring any special beliefs about it.

5. Perpetual Virginity

For reasons I don’t totally get, the idea that Mary never had sexual relations with Joseph, and remained a virgin all her life, is a hot-button issue with Catholics and, to a lesser extent, with the Orthodox. On religious boards, you’ll see some profound arguments about this, with Biblical exegeses and quotations from Early Church Fathers thrown back and forth with abandon. By and large, Anglicans and Protestants generally don’t hold this doctrine, though there are individuals who do.

6. Immaculate Conception

Which has nothing to do with the Virgin Birth, except in a very tenuous connection. This is the theory that, since Adam’s fall, all men and women are tainted by original sin, but it would be inappropriate to have God the Son take on human form in a sinful woman, so by a special act of grace, Mary was conceived by Anne and born free of that taint of sin, original or actual. Exclusively Roman Catholic, where it’s an article of faith.

7. Queen of Heaven

Something proclaimed by a Pope, for which I don’t have details, and AFAIK believed only by Catholics and not binding even on them.

8. Co-Redemptrix

This one is calculated to piss off any Protestant hearing it, though in fact it’s not a horrible doctrine. It sounds like they’re associating Mary in Christ’s act as Redeemer, making her equal partner with Him in that. And you can imagine what that does to those whose theology and piety is focused on the Crucifixion and Atonement.

In point of fact, what they are saying is that Mary was an essential actor in the entire Incarnation-Atonement-Resurrection scenario, in that it was her “Fiat mihi segundam verbum tuum” that permitted the whole ball of wax to begin, and she willingly gave fully of herself, sacrificing a “normal” life, to ensure that Jesus was born and raised to do the work God sent Him to do.

Why should this be physiologically unlikely? According to Scripture Mary would likely have been a teenager, and at the time she began to bear Christ she was engaged to marry Joseph. When she tells Joseph, he wants to ditch her because he knows this is not his child. Thus Joseph must not have had sex with her; otherwise the pregnancy wouldn’t surprise him. Angels then visit him and convince Joseph somehow (perhaps they work miracles proving they are angels) that Mary speaks true. There is nothing particularly unlikely that an unmarried young woman 2,000 years ago would still be a virgin.

Well, rfgdxm, it’s like this: when two people really like each other… :wink:

Seriously, the presumption underlying the statement you question is that (a) in the natural order of things, the conception of a child is always or nearly always the result of sexual intercourse, or something reasonably close to it (including artificial insemination, “we didn’t actually do it!,” and all the other potential arguments); (b) in some animals, conception by a female without insemination results in a female offspring genetically identical to the mother (parthenogenesis), and it’s hotly debatable whether that has ever been proven to happen in humans (there are arguments pro and con on older threads here if you care to follow up on it; (c) God (presuming His existence and action in this regard) shows a propensity for operating through the natural world which He created, rather than “ra’ring back and passing a miracle”; and (d) there are numerous legends of virgin births preceding that of Jesus, which some serious Biblical scholars think was “read back into the Jesus story” as a sort of “Secret Origins of Son-o’-God” gimmick.

I’m not arguing for or against the doctrine – God’s quite capable of causing a virgin to conceive and bear a male child, if He puts His Mind to it, and the principal account is traditionally ascribed to a physician who was (again traditionally) a close friend of Mary’s, and would have been quite capable of distinguishing between wheat and chaff as regards such stories. But honesty in reportage requires looking at why some people regard it as legend, not “Gospel truth.” (Pun intended.)

If I can chime in, I am willing to believe that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus. However, she was also a practical, sensible woman, at least based on what I’ve seen of her in the Gospels. Based on that and references to Jesus’ “brothers”, I don’t believe she was a virgin for all her life. However, I learned to my surprise, the gentleman I’ve been seeing does believe in her remaining a virgin throughout her life. He was raised as an Armenian Christian which, he tells me, predates Catholicism. Then again, the Armenians supposedly invented everything, at least according to the Armenians! :wink:


Don’t go there!

We’re already having a discussion on Mary. Let’s not get into a discussion of whether “brother” translate as full-brother, half-brother, step-brother, cousin in an extended family, or closely bound friend a la “fraternity brother.”

Besides, Cecil already settled that.

As a non-Christian looking in from the outside, I’ve always wondered why Mary is such a big deal in such denominations. I mean, in the Bible, she bears Jesus; she raises him and, presumably, puts a mother’s stamp on his personality (a debatable point, admittedly; one might argue that Jesus’ divine nature would dispose him to have exactly the same personality regardless of his home environment); she is on the scene at various moments in his ministry, including his crucifixion; and she sticks with the apostles and is a visible figure in the early Christian movement. But apart from all that, she doesn’t really do much, does she? She does not preach, does not evangelize, does not heal or exorcise, does not perform any miracles, does not appear to have any influence on church doctrine or policy. What is there in her story to suggest that she is “the most virtuous, greatest, etc., saint to be able to intercede for us”?

What good Jewish boy isn’t going to listen to his mother?

Well, The Master didn’t settle it, but he did a good job of explaining the controversy. Basically, that these can’t be real brothers and sisters is a Roman Catholic thing. While the Scriptures are clear that Mary was a virgin at the time she carried Jesus as her child, there’s absolutely nothing in them that says she was a virgin after his birth. In fact, you’d wonder if she never had sex with her husband after the birth of Jesus why this fact would be omitted from scripture? You’d think that Joseph would have normal sexual urges. The thing that puzzles me is why the RCC added on their own Mary was ever virgin? There is nothing in RCC dogma that a married woman refusing her husband sex is somehow a Good Thing.

Depends on the denomination. For most Protestant ones, Mary isn’t a big deal. She’s just a Very Good Woman who bore Jesus. However for the RCC…

Thank you! That was hilarious.

BrainGlutton, Mary is considered important by Catholics, Orthodox, and Orientals because of how she is viewed in the grand scheme of things. According to them, God issued a special dispensation, as it were, in order for her to be born without sin. Her humility is also inspiring. Finally, these denominations believe the ability of saints - those who have become sanctified and close to God - to be able to sucdessfully intercede on our behalf. This is why in the Catholic Church there must be at least two miracles attributable to a candidate for canonization before the candidate is canonized. Mary is considered to be the greatest of the saints because of her purity (her immaculate conception and eternal virginity also plays a part in this concept), her obedience and submission to God, and her closeness to God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This is, of course, not evident from the New Testament but comes from pious accretions (from the view of non-Marians) or holy tradition (from the view of Marians).


She’s a big deal in the Orthodox Communion also. If I remember correctly, every iconostasis must have an icon of Mary with the infant Christ on one side of the Royal Doors.

Explanation: in front of the sanctuary, every Orthodox church has an iconostasis. This is where a number of icons are placed. In the center of the iconostasis are the Royal Doors. These are the main doors to the sanctuary. (There are two side doors used by deacons and others assisting.)

The Theotokos (“God-bearer,” “Mother of God” in Orthodox jargon) is constantly referred to and appealed to in the Liturgy.

Just trying to make the point that Marianism is not solely a Catholic phenomenon.


OK. We agree. I did mention “Protestant ones”.

If I were naively cynical about the RCC, I might almost think that the semi-Mary worship might have something to do with their long tradition of making pagan things (in this case, despite Brown, goddess worship) Christian. But I don’t have any evidence or research for that so… :wink:

Looking at the epistles available to me in the later New Testement, it’s hard to say that the Mary beliefs are essential. Hebrews lists five or six basic tenets of Christianity, and she’s not mentioned. In fact, I can’t think off the top of my head of a single mention of her outside the Gospels.

That’s not to say she’s not important. The title “Most Blessed Among Women” really looks good on a resume.

Specifically, as I recall, there are “Isis and Osiris” plaques that look remarkably like Madonna and Child". I may be wrong, though.

I would say that the tradition of “virgin births” would argue for the possibility of an actual virgin birth, not against it. Ater all, in the span of 10,000 years of recorded history, there have been plenty of weirder things happen than a sperm managing to find its way into a hymenated vagina. It certainly is a more likely possibility that the espoused were physically closer than traditional than the chance of divine intervention impregnating Mary (and who says they have to be mutually exclusive?) It wouldn’t even have to require a “we didn’t really do it” excuse, as there is probably a minute chance of it happening even with nocturnal emissions given physical closeness.

A couple of indirect references-

Galatians 4:4. But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law…

and maaaaybeeeee

Revelation 12: 1. And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:
2. And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.

Mary is the only relative of jesus who still visits the earth from time to time. there have been at least 4 such visitations in the past 200 years, even if you don’t include the scorched grilled-cheese sandwich 9on EBAY.
So, we have mother Mary still coming for visits, which is more than can be said fore the Apostles or jesus himself!

Catholic hang ups about sex, maybe?

I guess you could say that what Mary went through-watching her own son being tortured and killed, and having the strength to be there through it all, would qualify her as a role model.