My wife and I went to the Cleveland Museum of Art a few weeks ago. As a theology nerd, I went straight to the Christian art section hoping to have a little bit of a mini-retreat there in the gallery. Unfortunately for me, a MASSIVE portion of the art focused on Mary:
And this one that really took the cake…
It was hard to have a spiritual response when everything was so Mary-centric! When I looked up, Mary’s gaze was the first thing I encountered. Jesus wasn’t even looking at me most of the time! If he wasn’t looking off in the distance, he was looking up at Mary, drawing even more attention to her. Naturally, that led to the question, “when did Christians start venerating Mary and why did Protestants stop doing it?” Some Protestants might agree that Mary is uniquely worthy of admiration, but even the most intense Protestant admiration is a far cry from the veneration that she enjoys in Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. So what happened? Did we ditch something that was passed down from the beginning, or did we actually manage to strip away a medieval innovation that had little to do with the Christianity of the apostles?
The uncomfortable truth about Mary veneration is that the historical evidence is a lot less black or white than most parties would like it to be. The veneration of Mary started waaaaay earlier than your average Protestant would hope, but it also happened waaaay later than your average Catholic assumes. First and second century Christians would have found any prayers to Mary a totally alien practice, but in the midst of the raging battles against heresy in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries, it started to develop as a way of preserving the same orthodoxy that Protestants and Catholics share today. In the centuries that followed, it continued to grow and intensify, leading to eventual skepticism from Protestants that wanted to go back to the basics. Even though our tradition ceased the practice of Marian veneration (and had a reasonable claim on recovering early orthodoxy in doing so), a study of how the practice came to be can help us appreciate how that veneration helped our theological ancestors cling to orthodoxy at a time when the nature of Jesus was under fire.
Let’s start our journey with the first century. Easy enough, since there’s no evidence for Marian veneration in this era at all. If we take the Scriptures as the clearest evidence of first-century Christian thought and practice, there’s just not much there. The gospels bring up Mary sparingly, usually during the birth narrative, and the epistles only reference her a handful of times, usually indirectly (for example, Galatians 4:4 reads “God sent forth his Son born of a woman“). If you’re going Sola Scriptura, Mary is a relatively minor Bible character that exists within the narrative as Jesus’s mom. You can definitely find some commentaries out there that try to push the mystical importance of certain passages. For example, some Catholic commentators make much about John 19:26-27: “When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, ‘Woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ You can read that to mean that Jesus is mystically speaking to every disciple today, encouraging them to accept Jesus as their own mother… or you can conclude that Jesus was worried about his mom and sent her off with John. The latter seems a great deal more likely than the former. Emphasizing the small passages that Mary does appear in doesn’t solve the big problem: nobody in the Scriptures is venerating Mary or explicitly telling others to do it.
There aren’t a ton of indisputably first-Century Christian documents readily available outside of the Scriptures. We could look at documents like the Didiche (also known as The Teachings of the Apostles) and the Epistle of Barnabas (both of which tend to be considered first-century) and note that neither of them mention Mary at all. First-century Christians just don’t seem particularly concerned with the place of Mary within the order of Christianity. She was Jesus’ mom and that’s about it.
So, onwards to the second century… in which evidence is still pretty scant, all things considered. The Catacomb of Priscilla has the first recorded painting of Mary and Jesus:
There’s a few other paintings from the second century as well, all of which depict Mary as the mother of Jesus. Nothing really new here, but they do speak to the broader concern regarding Mary in this era: was Mary actually Jesus’ mom? The big heresy in the second century was docetism; the belief that Jesus wasn’t really human, so much as he was a spiritual being that looked human. Was he born? Not really. Spiritual beings can’t be born. There wasn’t a consensus among the docetists as to where Jesus did come from. Some claimed that Jesus only appeared to live among us while others suggested that Jesus was just an average man that was born by Mary and the spirit of the Christ descended upon him at his baptism. One famous heretic by the name of Marcion went so far as to totally remove all birth stories from the Scriptures, solving the problem of Jesus’ birth by just having him show up on the scene as a fully-grown man. Regardless of the specifics, the basic message of docetism was the same: Jesus Christ wasn’t really a man, but he was really God. Mary starts to garner more interest from orthodox Christians because she establishes both the human-ness and the divinity of Jesus.
The big theologians in this era reference Mary while they’re making arguments against the docetists. For example, take this passage from Tertullian’s On the Flesh of Christ:
Why is Christ man and the Son of man, if he has nothing of man, and nothing from man? Unless it be either that man is anything else than flesh, or man’s flesh comes from any other source than man, or Mary is anything else than a human being?Ch. 5
One popular technique used to emphasize the crucial role of Mary is recapitulation (retelling the story of humanity but with all of the bad things from the fall being fixed by similar events during salvation). For example, here’s Tertullian again: “As Eve had believed the serpent, so Mary believed the angel,” (On the Flesh of Christ, Ch.17). And here’s a longer example from the famous second-century apologist, Justin Martyr::
[Jesus] became man by the Virgin, in order that the disobedience which proceeded from the serpent might receive its destruction in the same manner in which it derived its origin. For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her, and the power of the Highest would overshadow her: wherefore also the Holy Thing begotten of her is the Son of God; and she replied, ‘Be it unto me according to your word,’ (Luke 1:38).Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Ch 100
Recapitulation holds to that same anti-docetist thought pattern: if Eve sinned and humanity was doomed through the error a woman, how can humanity saved without the faithfulness of a woman? We need a Mary that genuinely participated in the story of salvation to reverse the damage that was done during the fall. Similar ideas float around in the works of other theologians in this era (Irenaeus, for example) and even start to pop up in some of the apocryphal writings. The Gospel of James, for example, is a retelling of the story of Christ’s birth which explicitly includes a (really uncomfortable) section in which a midwife inspects Mary’s hymen after the birth to make sure that she was genuinely a virgin. Jesus isn’t just a regular baby; he’s a miracle baby! He’s a man that’s also God! She’s genuinely his mother, but the birth is miraculous and mysterious.
Onward to the third century! Mary continues to increase in stature. The teacher of teachers, Origen of Alexandria is supposedly the very first person to write the word “theotokos” (mother of God) down as a title for Mary. Not only would this be remarkable because of the level of authority a title like that naturally bestows upon the listener (it’s a fair bit more impressive sounding than “disciple” or “deacon”), but because this is the exact title that will start to normalize Mary veneration in the 5th century. Tying this title to such an ancient and dignified teacher would lend an incredible amount of legitimacy to the practice! But in all of his recorded writings, Origen never used the word “theotokos.” Not even once. A 5th century author, Socrates of Constantinople, made that claim while he was attempting to dismiss the objections of someone named “Nestorius”:
Origen also, in the third volume of his Commentaries on the Apostolic Epistle to the Romans, gives an ample exposition of the sense in which the term Theotokos is used. It is therefore obvious that Nestorius had very little acquaintance with the old theologians[.]Ecclesiastical History 7.32.17
Unfortunately for Socrates of Constantinople, we have a copy of Origen’s commentary on Romans and can clearly see that no such passage exists. Not only does it not exist, but Origen never uses the same language of high veneration that later authors will use. Despite some poor claims that continue forward into modernity, Origen’s writings don’t have any real jumping off point that naturally leads to the veneration of Mary.
I bring up this false claim because it indicates that things are really starting to get moving. The water is starting to get muddied. Even though the claims don’t have much legitimacy, the fact that someone made such a claim specifically targeting this era reflects that Mary’s status within the faith is growing. Origen may not use that particular power-phrase, but he does focus on Mary even more than most previous theologians. We start to see Mary stuff start to pop up more and more in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. Somewhere in this timeframe (depending on which person is doing the dating), we even see see the Sub tuum praesidium hymn pop up for the first time:
Beneath your compassion,We take refuge, O Theotokos [God-bearer]:do not despise our petitions in time of trouble:but rescue us from dangers, only pure, only blessed one.Sub tuum praes., earliest manuscript of which is from a Coptic fragment known as John Rylands papyrus 470
We still regularly see theologians say that Mary was sinful and there are very few clear recommendations of praying to her from leading Christian figures, but language about perpetual virginity that started popping up in the second century is carrying forward. She is not only a mother, but she is a mother that remained ever-virgin. And again, we have the odd scraps of evidence (like the Sub tuum papyrus) that seem to suggest that some communities are starting to pray to Mary and hold her in particularly high esteem. As we get more thoroughly into the fourth century, big-name theologians like Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus start using the phrase “theotokos.” The mother of God has officially arrived.
We could spend ages looking at the slow evolution of the practice of Marian veneration, but I think I’ve already established the trend— Marian veneration slowly developed as a way of battling heresies that claimed that Jesus was not both all-man and all-God. She established both realities; her miraculous birth established Christ’s divinity, while her humanity established Christ’s humanity. But the fifth century offers one more large leap in the history of Mary veneration: the Council of Ephesus and their official endorsement of the title “theotokos.”
A fifth-century archbishop by the name of Nestorius didn’t approve of the title “theotokos” that some Christians had started using (yes, this is the same Nestorius that Socrates of Constantinople made up a fake quote to argue against). Mary couldn’t have given birth to God. God is eternal! God has neither beginning nor end! So he recommended the title “Christotokos” (mother of Christ) as a more accurate title for Mary. She gave birth to the human aspect of Jesus, but was not truly the mother of the divine trinity. The ancestors of orthodox Christianity noted that this effectively split Jesus into two parts: the human and the divine. The human part was born, but the divine part wasn’t. Mary was the mother of half of Jesus, but the other half descended after the fact. If Jesus’ divinity and humanity could be isolated and held responsible for different events, did Jesus work miracles, or was that just his divine half? Did Jesus die on the cross, or was that just his human half? A split Christ was no Christ at all. They insisted that Jesus had to be both God and man, not two separate aspects that could be split for the sake of certain events. Cyril of Alexandria, acting in accordance with both the Pope and a synod of Egyptian bishops, wrote the famous Twelve Anathemas Against Nestorius, the first of which openly affirmed the language of the theotokos:
If anyone will not confess that the Emmanuel is very God, and that therefore the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God, inasmuch as in the flesh she bore the Word of God made flesh [as it is written, The Word was made flesh] let him be anathema.The First of Cyril’s Twelve Anathemas Against Nestorius
When Nestorius didn’t relent, the Council of Ephesus officially followed through on Cyril’s anathemas. There’s a lot of politics and lofty theological argumentation behind all of that, but note the true focus of the argument: the nature of Christ. While Mary’s title is the most obvious sticking point, in all of the official documentation surrounding this controversy, almost all of it is primarily concerned with the nature of Christ. Only the first of the twelve anathemas mentions Mary, and none of the canon judgements of the Council of Ephesus mention her at all. What we’re seeing here is that same tendency to use Mary to establish Christ’s divine and human nature, but elevated to the highest point thus far. Now Mary has been given an obligatory title, and one that carries a fair amount of prestige at that.
Now, you might say, “Wait, that just establishes that it’s legitimate to call Mary the mother of God. What about the veneration? That’s what we’re here for!” It continues to ramp up over time after this decision. We’re still a long way off from our Salve Reginas, Hail Marys, and the title “the Queen of Heaven,” all of which start popping up between the 11th and 13th century, but the Council of Ephesus really does kick off a period of renewed emphasis on Mary and the first really decisive evidence of large-scale veneration. After this event, churches started being named in honor of Mary and influential theologians like Augustine of Hippo started focusing even more time and attention on doctrines elevating the position of Mary. What was born out of a conflict regarding establishing Christ’s nature resulted in new titles, new theological lines in the sand, and new heresies defined around Mary. In the following centuries, the veneration of Mary would continue to increase. Devotional practices would be oriented towards Mary. Theologians would continue to make even bolder claims about Mary’s importance. Monasteries especially would introduce worship practices to appeal to Mary. What we’ve observed here in the fifth century is the first bud that would eventually bloom into full high Marian veneration during the Middle Ages.
Now onto the big question: why did Protestants reject Mary veneration? If it was built up over centuries specifically to avoid certain heresies, why get rid of it? Perhaps the simplest reason is that they were trying to reform the faith in the pattern of early Christianity. They thought the medieval church had strayed too far from the pattern set out by early Christianity, and so they turned to the Scriptures and tried to get back to the basics, but now they weren’t asking the same questions they were 500 years before. There was no doubt that Jesus was both God and man. Nobody wondered if he was some kind of purely spiritual being or a really nice guy who was acting in cooperation with a divine spirit. Conversations about Mary were no longer necessary to battle active heresies about Christ’s nature, and with the new radical emphasis on Scripture, a suspicion of tradition, and an emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, many of the core tenants of Mariology were completely removed. Why should anyone pray to Mary? It’s not modeled in the Scriptures or in the writings of the early church fathers. Besides that, what would make her more important than anyone else? In Luther’s words:
Your prayers, O Christian, are as dear to me as hers. And why? Because if you believe that Christ lives in you as much as in her, then you can help me as much as she.Luther’s 1522 sermon on the Feast of our Lady’s Nativity;
Unfortunately, there’s no good English translation readily available, but excellent details are available through Grisar’s work on Luther: “Werke,” Weim. ed., 10, 3, p. 321 f. 499. as Cited in Hartmann Grisar, Luther, trans. E. M. Lamond (Project Gutenberg, 2015) p. 503.
There was a radical equality being emphasized in Protestantism, and the elevation of Mary did not fit. The hundreds of years of debate that crafted this practice seemed more like years of embedded pagan influence and error than compelling doctrinal formulation.
As I poured over articles to gather all of this info, I found more than a few cries from within Protestantism that Mary needs to be returned to a prominent role (if not her rightful historic role) within our theology. Perhaps… and perhaps not. There can be little doubt that there’s no harm in emphasizing the role of Jesus’ mom within the Scriptures. It is doubtless that she was a person of outstanding faith and moral character on top of being a person intimately involved in God’s work of salvation. At the same time, I don’t know that I’m eager to return to praying special prayers to the “high queen of heaven.” The major Protestant creeds all keep Christ enshrined as both 100% God and 100% man. While I readily concede that there are plenty of self-proclaimed Christians today that disagree with that basic point of orthodoxy, they’re certainly not uniquely Protestant. The early Protestants set out to turn away from medieval innovations and return to the basics Christianity while preserving Christian orthodoxy, and I think they did a reasonably good job of it in the case of Mary veneration. I think it’s lovely that the first few centuries of Christians share our view of Mary and could pray alongside us without any qualms. At the same time, I like to think we can appreciate where some of the emphasis on Mary came from in the case of our Catholic and Eastern Orthodox siblings. Their practices were born out of a defense of the same orthodoxy that we hold dear. Even if we don’t agree with their specific expression of piety, I think we can at least appreciate where those practices came from and how they’re trying to preserve orthodox Christianity in their own way.
Mind you, I’m still probably not about to have a spiritual experience at the Cleveland Art Museum.