Mariology as a Defense Against Heresy

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


Definition of Chalcedon, opposed by Nestorianism, Docetism, Arianism, and Monophysitism

Definition of Chalcedon

The earliest Gnostic heresy was Docetism, which taught that Jesus had only appeared to be a man, but did not take on a real human body. The first mention of Mary by a father of the Church appears in the works of Ignatius of Antioch, and is a defense of the full humanity of Christ by means of His birth of the Virgin Mary. In Chapter VII or his Epistle to the Ephesians, titled “Beware of False Teachers”, Ignatius provides the following formulation of the Christ, being both true God and true man.

For some are in the habit of carrying about the name [of Jesus Christ] in wicked guile, while yet they practise things unworthy of God, whom ye must flee as ye would wild beasts. For they are ravening dogs, who bite secretly, against whom ye must be on your guard, inasmuch as they are men who can scarcely be cured. There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first passible and then impassible, even Jesus Christ our Lord. (P. Schaff, ANF01. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus 1884, 86)

From there we begin to see references to the Virgin Mary pop up in early Gnostic writings. These writings provide us with evidence of what the Church was trying to avoid — the syncretic identification of the Mother Goddess with the Virgin Mary. Hilda Graef mentions two works — the Ascension of Isaiah and Odes to Solomon — both of which describe the birth of Jesus as something other than a true birth. In fact, these are the earliest literary sources (if perhaps not the theological sources) for the doctrine that Mary maintained her virginity in partu, in the birth, and that this was something other than an ordinary vaginal delivery. (Graef 2009, 27-28)

I note in passing the relative impossibility of keeping secrets. The “disciplina arcani: the secret, inner life of the Church” was bound to slip out. Witness for example the description of Christianity by Pliny the Younger in his letter to the Emperor Trajan where he seeks council on how to deal with Christians (Epistulae X.96). This letter, written early in the second century, provides the earliest literary description of the Eucharist, something that was hidden from the catechumenate, and which the Church forbade discussion of to those outside the Church. Even today we pray (in the pre-Communion prayer of St. John Chrysostom): “Of thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant; for I will not speak of thy Mystery to thine enemies, neither like Judas will I give thee a kiss; but like the thief will I confess thee: Remember me, O Lord, in thy Kingdom.”

Having discussed the existence of the Virgin Mary as part of the secret, inner life of the Church, we must also state that the veneration of the Blessed Virgin is indeed to be found in Sacred Scripture.  We will follow the example of Archimandrite[i] Lev Gillett in using only the Gospels and the book of Acts for this; the more symbolic witness of the Old Testament and the book of Revelation cannot be understood without a proper evaluation of the more straightforward evidence. (Gillett 1949, 76) Lev Gillett writes:

The Gospel itself ascribes to Mary a privileged place among the creatures. The angel Gabriel said to her: ‘Hail, thou that are highly favoured, the Lord is with thee’ (Luke i:28). The place occupied by Mary in the divine scheme of our salvation is not only privileged, but unique. Therefore, Elisabeth said to Mary: ‘Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb’ (Luke i. 42). The Gospel observes that Elisabeth, when she saluted Mary in this manner, was ‘filled with the Holy Ghost’ (Luke i. 41). Every ‘evangelical’ (in the Protestant sense) Christian will acknowledge as true and inspired these words of the angel Gabriel and Elisabeth. The same words form the greatest part of the text of the Latin Ave Maria, which many ‘evangelical’ Christians mistrust, and the whole text of the corresponding Byzantine prayer. Could ‘evangelicals’ object to our addressing the glorified Virgin Mary in the same words with which she, on earth, was greeted by an angel and by a woman filled with the Holy Ghost? Could they object to our repeating such words, as recorded in the Gospel? If they did, would they still be ‘evangelical’? (Gillett 1949, 76)

A standard evangelical argument against the veneration of Mary is that Jesus himself did not honor her. The argument is that when a woman tried to honor Mary for having given birth, Jesus instead rejected her. This argument is faulty, as Lev Gillet explains.

Jesus himself explained in what is the blessing of God which rests on Mary. When a certain woman out of the multitude lifted up her voice and said to our Lord: ‘Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked’, he answered: ‘Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it’ (Luke xi. 27-38). These words are part of the lesson from the Gospel which the Orthodox Church reads at the liturgy on every feast of the Virgin; this shows that the Orthodox Church considers them as the most perfect expression of her own mind concerning Mary’s holiness. The words of Jesus must certainly not be interpreted as a disavowal of the praising of his mother by the woman or as an underestimation of Mary’s excellence; but they emphasize the real point and show where lies the merit of Mary. (Gillett 1949, 77)

St. Nikolai Velimirovich, in his Prayer number XXII, explores this idea. “O my Majestic Lord! You dance on Your Mother’s lap, quickened by the All-Holy Spirit … You fill the whole soul of Your Mother, all Her virgin breast; and there is nothing in Your Mother’s soul except You. You are Her radiance and Her voice, truly Her eye and Her song.” (Velimirovich 2010, 40) Herein we see the connection between the witness of the Sacred Scriptures and that of the inner life of the Church. The meaning of Jesus’ words regarding His mother are unclear, and could be interpreted any number of ways. Historically, Christianity has interpreted these words of Christ as expressing the true measure of Mary’s greatness, and the reason why she is to be specially honored today. This is in line with the Lukan account of how “Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19; see also 2:51).

[i] The term “Archimandrite” can refer to a superior abbot who is given authority over several ordinary abbots and monasteries. However, it is more commonly used as an honorific, bestowed upon certain clergy out of respect, often out of gratitude for a special service to the church. This term is applied only to celibate clergy; married clergy receive the honorific of “archpriest”.