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Mary 4 – Ever Virgin

Posted: January 11th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The next point, the perpetual virginity of Mary, tends to be controversial among my fellow modern Protestants. I will note that the modern objection is not inherently Protestant in nature. Indeed all the initial reformers, Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, held firmly to the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. As late as the 18th century, John Wesley affirmed the doctrine. No, the objections to this particular doctrine seem more related to our modern sexualized culture than anything historical. There seems to be a sense that living without sex makes you less than a ‘complete’ person. I understand that modern perspective probably better than I do the ancient one. After all, I am also a product of our culture. Nevertheless, I try to avoid imposing my cultural lens onto ancient texts and traditions in an anachronistic manner. It’s clear from the NT texts that living a celibate life was hardly unknown in an ancient Jewish context. John the Baptist lived such a life. Paul also did. (And it appears that he had started down that path in his zeal even before his dramatic conversion.) Notably, Jesus lived a celibate, unmarried life. So there’s nothing inherently odd or out of place in ascribing such devotion to Mary in her context.

Moreover, in the context of their honor-shame culture, it’s a perfectly reasonable response by both Mary and Joseph. We know from the texts and from the tradition of the Church of which those texts are one part that they were both faithful to God. They both sacrificed their own personal honor in order to uphold God’s honor and be obedient to him. And God produced a child with Mary. In both their minds, that would have certainly marked Mary as belonging to God. For Mary to then have sex with Joseph would have been perceived as adulterous and dishonoring God. Joseph would have seen himself as a protector and provider chosen by God for Mary and for God’s son. It’s not that I think they consciously thought through everything and decided to live together celibately. Rather, I find it hard to imagine them, within their context and with their cultural shaping, responding any other way. It’s strange to us, but it fits perfectly in their context.

And as I mentioned, it’s also the universal tradition of the Church until very recently. That’s not to say that you can’t find individuals here and there in the past who thought otherwise. But that means virtually nothing. You can find individuals over the course of history, including priests, bishops, and even patriarchs, who believe almost anything. You don’t find answers by looking at the beliefs of one (or several scattered) individuals, especially when their beliefs left no lasting impression on the Church. No, you look at what’s believed everywhere and in all places. And up until the last few hundred years, this is as much the universal perspective of the Church as almost anything we believe. I’m skeptical that we somehow know better now.

I know there are a handful of Scriptures modern Protestants like to trot out in their objections. I plan to deal with those in a later post. However, I will point out that I tend to find the attitude of Protestants toward Scripture somewhat strange. They tend to point to verses in these discussions as if they had just discovered those verses and the centuries of Christians who preceded them had never read or heard them. And there’s something a little crazy about that attitude. After all, it’s the ancient Church that preserved and eventually canonized what we call the New Testament. They read it, preached on it, and incorporated it the liturgy for century upon century. There’s no verse we can point to that would have been unknown to them. No, Protestants aren’t pointing out anything new in the verses they use in this or other discussions. Rather they are asserting they understand those verses better than the ancient Church did. They are asserting their interpretation over and against that of Christians who preceded them.

Maybe it’s because I practiced Hinduism, studied Lao Tzu, read the life of Prince Siddhartha, and have studied other ancient authors, but I’m a little more humble in my approach. I don’t automatically assume I’ll understand a text better than those who came before me. I don’t believe I’m smarter than those who lived in the ancient past (which does seem to be a modern conceit). I tend to give some deference to those who practiced this faith and lived this life long before my time.

Was Mary perpetually virgin? That’s the teaching of the Church and as I researched and tried to understand her culture, I also found it a reasonable contextual conclusion. I’m familiar with the modern arguments to the contrary and I’m unconvinced by them. Does it matter? Well, I tend to believe it’s better to have an accurate rather than an inaccurate view of reality. Beyond that I can’t really say. I will note that it seems to have had a measurable impact on the honor given to Mary. Among those Protestants who do not believe Mary remained a virgin, she’s almost become an after-thought or a biblical footnote. And that attitude is certainly contrary to Scripture. So if the resulting practice is any indication of the significance of belief, then I find that telling.

2 Comments on “Mary 4 – Ever Virgin”

  1. 1 Suzin Boulet said at 11:19 pm on January 26th, 2012:

    Just curious as to which protestant denominations still believe in the perpetual virginity and/or immaculate conception of Mary?

  2. 2 Scott said at 9:25 am on January 27th, 2012:

    As far as I can tell, the immaculate conception is an uniquely Roman Catholic dogma that developed over the course of the medieval period. I probably should discuss at least the distinctions between that dogma and what I understand of the Orthodox view at some point.

    As far as modern versions of Protestant denominations go when it comes to the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity, I’m hardly an expert. In these days, with tens of thousands, I doubt anyone could be. Obviously, none of the churches that might be labeled “low church” believe it. (At least, I’ve never heard of any that do.)

    If you define Anglicanism as a Protestant denomination (which I do, but others define it as a separate tradition in its own right), then it’s essentially split. Anglo-Catholic or “high church” Anglicans would generally hold to the perpetual virginity of Mary. It’s certainly in their prayers. “Low church” Anglicans, on the other hand, probably would be less likely to hold the belief. (Anglicanism is funny that way.) The Episcopal Church is, of course, the American Anglican Communion, though lately others are springing up as well.

    Lutheranism holds it as a matter of pious opinion, not doctrine. Today, most Lutherans disagree with the “pious opinion” of their founder and early Lutheran “fathers” on the matter of Mary’s perpetual virginity. Some few still adhere to the belief.

    The Wesleys saw themselves as Anglicans participating in an Anglican renewal and its not altogether clear that John Wesley ever intended to establish a separate denomination, much less the numerous denominations that claim their root from him. While he held to the perpetual virginity of Mary, the denominations that grew from his teachings (Methodist, Weleyan, etc.) largely do not.

    Although Zwingli ended up strongly influencing the later radical reformation, especially with his views on the “symbolic” nature of the eucharist and baptism, I think there are only a few small denominations today that are more or less direct off-shoots from him. I honestly don’t know much about them.

    I don’t think any of the denominations that sprang from Calvin still believe in Mary’s perpetual virginity, but honestly, I stay as far away from Calvinism as I can get. Once I understood the God Calvin’s theology describes, I knew all about that theology I wanted to know. If Calvin was right, I’m not only not a Christian, I have absolutely no desire to be one. That’s not a God I have, do, or ever will worship. With that said, I’ve known some wonderful people who are members of denominations in that stream, but I’m not any sort of authority on them.

    I think that’s about it.