The Secret Inner Life of the Church

The following is slightly modified from my book “Why Mary Matters”.


Icon of Christ Pantocrator St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai

Icon of Christ Pantocrator
St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai

A proper and catholic[i] Mariology is inextricably bound to Christology, and is therefore a necessary component of the true faith. St. Ignatius of Antioch, disciple of the apostle John, calls the virginity of Mary a mystery hidden from the prince of this world, a mystery wrought in silence by God: “Now the virginity of Mary was hidden from the prince of this world, as was also her offspring, and the death of the Lord; three mysteries of renown, which were wrought in silence by God.” (P. Schaff, ANF01. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus 1884, 87, 95-96) Now as we know, the term mystery is also the source of the term sacrament; sacrament and mystery have the same scriptural meaning. Protestants, including Lutherans, jettisoned much of the spiritual heritage bequeathed them from the church catholic — specifically that church whose bishop resides in Rome.[ii] Of course they would not consider this as an abandonment, but rather a recovery of a primitive Christianity uncorrupted by nearly fifteen centuries of hierarchal and heretical development within the Roman Catholic church. However, the loss of one of the Ignatius’ “three mysteries of renown” raises the question of whether Protestantism has recovered primitive Christianity, or rather whether in jettisoning Roman Catholicism they also jettisoned something essential to Christianity.

Peter Gillquist writes:

The highly charged emotional atmosphere which surrounds this subject serves to blunt our objectivity in facing up to Mary. Many of us were brought up to question or reject honor paid to Mary in Christian worship and art. Therefore, we often have our minds made up in advance. We have allowed our preconceptions to color our understanding even of the Scripture passages concerning her. We have not let the facts speak for themselves. (Gillquist 2009, 97)

To be fair, whether one sees the veneration of the Virgin Mary in Sacred Scripture depends in part upon one’s theological background and interpretive framework. Scot McKnight, the Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University and author of the book “The Real Mary”, states: “[T]he story about the real Mary has never been told. The Mary of the Bible has been hijacked by theological controversies whereby she has become a Rorschach inkblot in which theologians find whatever they wish to find.” (McKnight 2007, 3) So far, so good. However, McKnight then attempts to find a version of Mary palatable to Evangelicals, ignoring the witness of history and the church, and creates version of Mary befitting his thesis. McKnight’s great mistake is his hubris — his dismissal of what historic Christianity believed, taught, proclaimed, and even died regarding the theology surrounding Christ and the Virgin Mary.

To be fair to those from a “Scripture Alone” background, we must admit that the overt scriptural evidence for the veneration of Mary seems rather sparse. Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky notes: “If we desired to consider biblical evidence apart from the Church’s devotion to the Mother of God, we should be obliged to limit ourselves to the few New Testament passages relating to Mary and the one Old Testament passage cited in the New Testament with reference to her (the prophecy of the Virgin-Birth of the Messiah in Isaiah).” (Lossky, Panagia 1949, 25) Therefore, the starting place for an understanding of the veneration of Mary must begin with a proper understanding of Christology, and of its dogmatic development as a defense against Christological heresy. Vladimir Lossky notes that even here, the evidence for a Mariological connection is sparse.

If we were to limit ourselves to the dogmatic data, in the strict sense of the word, and were dealing only with dogmas affirmed by the Councils, we should find nothing except the name Theotokos, whereby the Church has solemnly confirmed the divine maternity of the Holy Virgin. The dogmatic subject of the Theotokos, as the name was affirmed against the Nestorians, is Christological before it is anything else; that which is thereby defended against the gainsayers of the divine maternity is the hypostatic unity of the Son of God, when he had become the Son of Man. It is Christology which is directly envisaged here; it is indirectly that at the same time there is a dogmatic confirmation of the Church’s devotion to her who bore God according to the flesh. It is said that all those who rise up against the appellation Theotokos, all who refuse to admit that Mary has this quality given to her, are not truly Christians, for they oppose the true doctrine of the Incarnation of the word. This should demonstrate the close connection between dogma and devotion, which are inseparable in the Church. (Lossky, Panagia 1949, 24)

John Breck notes: “The mystery of the Holy Virgin Mary belongs, as much as any other in Christian experience, to the disciplina arcani: the secret, inner life of the Church.”[iii] Thus we cannot truly understand the place of the Holy Virgin Mary in the economy of salvation apart from the church — for, as Breck notes: “[T]he person of Mary and her place within God’s work of salvation is in the broadest sense ecclesial, and not merely scriptural.” (Breck, Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and Its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church 2001, 143) While the biblical evidence for Mariology exists, the interpretation of the evidence is informed by the church’s dogma and devotion (which, as we have shown, is Christological in its orientation).

Still, the question deserves an answer: If the veneration of Mary is truly part of Christianity, why is it not more widely and clearly proclaimed in Sacred Scripture? Hilda Graef provides the following information.

The paganism of the Byzantine world round the shores of the Mediterranean was no longer the comparatively sober affair of the Greco-Roman Olympus, of Jupiter and Juno, of Minerva and Mars. It had become a syncretistic religion with very disturbing elements of ecstatic frenzy and sexual promiscuity, and one of its most prominent figures was the Mother Goddess, worshipped under many names, as the Magna Mater, the Phrygian Kybele, the Palestinian Ash-taroth, the Egyptian Isis and the Diana of the Ephesians whose devotees so violently opposed St. Paul (Acts 19). …When Christianity began to spread, not only among the Jewish communities of the Roman Empire but, under the leadership of St. Paul, also among the pagan population, its teachers had to make it clear that there was only one God, incarnate in Jesus Christ, who could tolerate no rivals, whether male or female, and who was both the creator and the redeemer of the world. A strong [public] emphasis on his virgin mother would have led to unfortunate comparisons and, possibly, identifications. (Graef 2009, 25-26)

And so we see why the veneration of the Virgin Mary might be part of the “disciplina arcani: the secret, inner life of the Church”. Whereas Alexander Hislop presumes that the veneration of Mary is evidence of the early apostasy of the church, I propose an alternate point of view: the early church knew that the open veneration of the Blessed Virgin would invite ill-informed comparisons to the mystery religions of the Mediterranean region, and so kept her veiled from view, hidden in plain sight.

[i] The word “catholic” with a little “c” is a reference to that which has been believed everywhere, in every place, and by all, or what is sometimes called the church catholic. With a capital “C”, Catholic is a shorthand reference to the Roman Catholic church.

[ii] Lutherans retained a semblance of sacramental theology, but redefine them and limit them in a manner unacceptable to non-Protestant Christians. With the Catholics, they number the sacraments; unlike the Catholics, they only accept two sacraments—baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

[iii] St. Basil the Great writes: “Of the dogmas and proclamations [kerygma] that are guarded in the Church, we hold some from the teaching of the Scriptures, and others we have received in mystery as the teachings of the tradition of the apostles.” (St Basil the Great 2011, Kindle Location 1657) Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev notes that St. Basil the Great is speaking “chiefly of traditions of a liturgical or ceremonial character, passed down by word of mouth and thereby entering into church practice.” (Alfeyev, Orthodox Christianity: Doctrine and Teaching of the Orthodox Church 2012, 16)

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