This post originally appeared December 5, 2019 on joshuamcnall.com.
Written by Dr. Josh McNall, Assistant Professor of Pastoral Theology
For some Protestants, Christmas may be about the only time we think of Mary—kneeling as she often is beside a plastic manger in our church Nativities.
Yet a chorus of evangelical scholars has argued recently (here and here) that a complete downgrading of Christ’s mother comes at the expense of Scripture, basic church tradition, and a proper view of women in the story of redemption.
After all, in the words of Lucy Peppiatt, “Jesus is made of her, not just in her.”
“A chorus of evangelical scholars has argued recently that a complete downgrading of Christ’s mother comes at the expense of Scripture, basic church tradition, and a proper view of women in the story of redemption.”
MORE THAN MERE RECEPTACLE
We might be conditioned to think of Mary more as a “receptacle” for carrying and birthing Christ, but not as one who actually supplied his humanity from her own body.
The early theologians who hammered out the doctrine of Christ, however, would have nothing of this viewpoint.
Tertullian (c. 155–c. 240) says it this way:
“Pray, tell me, why the Spirit of God descended into a woman’s womb at all, if He did not do so for the purpose of partaking of flesh from the womb. […] He had no reason for enclosing Himself [there] if He was to bear forth nothing from it.”
To say that Christ’s humanity did NOT come from Mary might seem like a minor quibble, but to go down this road is to sever Jesus from the line of Israel and of Adam—and thus to cut the saving cord that ties him to us all.
Peppiatt goes on:
“Mary is not only a receptacle of the Divine, she contributes from her own body. It is her blood that forms him, her food that nourishes him, her breasts that feed him.
When God chose to come to earth, he chose the hiddenness of a woman’s womb. When God chose to take on flesh, he chose to unite himself to a woman’s flesh.
When God chose to appear, he chose to come as a baby, entrusting himself to a woman’s body to be born.”
In the latest cover story for Christianity Today, Jennifer Powell McNutt and Amy Beverage Peeler speak of Mary as “the first Christian”—a prophet, proclaimer, and prototype of every Jesus-worshiper.
“The entire Christian life is, in a way, mirrored by the experience of Mary. Each one of us—both male and female—are called to live in Christ and he in us. We are all expected to carry Christ at the core of our being—like Mary carried Christ in her womb—and to labor with him and for him.
The Gospel writers want us to understand how important Mary was, serving from the Annunciation to Pentecost as both God-bearer in her physical body and as gospel-bearer, a faithful witness and proclaimer to the work that God was accomplishing in our Lord Jesus Christ. Both her identities matter […].”
“To say that Christ’s humanity did NOT come from Mary might seem like a minor quibble, but to go down this road is to sever Jesus from the line of Israel and of Adam—and thus to cut the saving cord that ties him to us all.”
LESS THAN CO-REDEMPTRIX
None of this means Mary should be viewed as a sinless “co-redemptrix” who functions as the heavenly “good cop” to God’s judgmental “mean one.” (This has been claimed.)
Nor does it imply that she was free from original sin and “full of grace” to dispense because of her excess merit. (This view is based on a mistranslation of “favored one” [κεχαριτωμενη] in Luke 1:28.)
What the prior argument does mean is that in avoiding potential excesses surrounding Mary, Protestants should be wary of throwing the “baby” (or rather, the baby’s mother!) out with the bathwater.
Christ was made “of her” not just “in her.”
So while Jesus is the focus of the Christmas season, Mary’s brave “Yes” to God’s call provides a model for all believers.
For more great content from Dr. McNall, subscribe to his blog here.