Starting with their opposition to abortion access, Catholics and evangelical Christians have a lot in common politically. But they still differ dramatically in their theology and everyday worship practices, and that is nowhere more apparent than in their reverence for Mary, the mother of Jesus. Among Catholics, the role of the Virgin has traditionally been central, among evangelicals, almost nonexistent. Now evangelicals are rediscovering Mary, writes Tim Perry, who teaches theology at Providence College and Seminary in Manitoba, for reasons both devotional and theological.
The near-universal veneration of Mary became a casualty of the Reformation. As Protestant leaders rebelled against the sacramental and clerical system of the established Catholic church, Mary was almost written out of their version of Christianity, to be mentioned only at Christmas, if at all. Even the Dutch reform-minded humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536), no pushover for theological orthodoxy, thought that under the Reformation “not only have the abuses stopped, so has appropriate devotion.”
Evangelical preachers have long been wary of upholding Mary as exemplary or symbolic for fear that they would be seen as too sympathetic to Catholicism, Perry writes. Now that is beginning to change among writers and theologians. Some are responding to genuine Catholic ecumenical overtures, and others have developed renewed interest in studying early church writings to understand the Bible without drawing too heavily on the “zeitgeist of contemporary Western culture,” Perry says.
Some of the emerging dialogue between Catholics and evangelicals over Mary became possible because of a new receptivity resulting from what has been called the “ecumenism of the trenches,” Perry writes. Shared concerns over Roe v. Wade and “further ethical challenges posed by developments in biotechnology, embryology, and gerontology” have fostered alliances that previously did not exist. Moreover, he contends, evangelicals’ commitment to ecumenism regarding Mary is not optional, but rather “a gospel imperative.” Evangelicals must acknowledge a certain special status for Mary because, quite simply, the Bible does.
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THE SOURCE: “Evangelicals and Mary” by Tim Perry, in Theology Today, July 2008.
Photo by Michael Rocha