Jennifer Powell McNutt and Amy Beverage Peeler on the Virgin Mary as the First Christian

Virgin Mary

Jennifer Powell McNutt is the Franklin S. Dyrness Chair in Biblical and Theological Studies at Wheaton College, parish associate at First Presbyterian Church of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and co-founder of McNuttshell Ministries, Inc.
Amy Beverage Peeler is associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton and associate rector of St. Mark’s Church in Geneva, Illinois.


Once upon a time, the Virgin Mary pervaded the life and thought of the Western world. Her presence was so expansive, in fact, that even European fairy tales acknowledged her status. Take Cinderella. An abusive stepmother was still the cause of Cinderella’s impoverished conditions, but in one of the earliest tellings of the tale, she knew the one to call upon was the Virgin Mary. In no time at all, Cinderella’s hunger was resolved, and a prince was proposing. By replacing the Virgin Mary with a Fairy Godmother, the story of Cinderella was successfully secularized for today without disenchanting it. But it’s not just fairy tales that have stripped Mary from a well-loved story. She’s missing from The Story, too.

It’s not that Protestants have entirely forgotten Mary. At this time of year, the mother of Jesus gets some attention. But Mary is not a Christmas figure to be stored away like the manger and the Star of Bethlehem until next year. She played an extraordinary role throughout the life and ministry of Jesus, from the Annunciation to the day of Pentecost. By overlooking the roles she played throughout Jesus’ ministry, we may think that we are protecting Protestantism from falling into old “Catholic” habits of elevating her beyond what Scripture declares about her. But there’s nothing “Protestant” about neglecting what Scripture does say about her—and about the other women named by the New Testament writers.

Before Easter this year, I (Jennifer) stepped out of my comfort zone and preached a sermon at a church on the women named in Luke 8, who traveled with Jesus and financially supported his ministry. In one sense, it was an obvious choice for a sermon. I wanted the congregation to know who the women of Luke 8 were before they met them again at the tomb on Easter. After all, every single Gospel account mentions that women were the first witnesses to the risen Christ. And there is no better evidence of the truth of the Christian claim that Christ truly, bodily resurrected than the fact that the Gospel writers absurdly and consistently base it on the testimony of women during a time when a woman’s testimony was legally worthless. Still, I was uncertain about how a sermon with this kind of focus would be received. Afterward, I had just a swarm of people saying to me that they had never even heard of these women before. They told me that while they had heard sermons focusing on a number of biblical characters other than Jesus, they had never heard a single Sunday morning sermon focused on a woman. And this was in a congregation that’s part of the Presbyterian Church (USA), a denomination that takes pride in its inclusion of women into all areas of ministry! As I officiated communion afterward, a line of women softly whispered to me “thank you,” some with tears in their eyes. Women have a hunger to know that women were faithful and active participants in Jesus’ ministry. They were not just recipients of his miracles. Not just people shown love and respect, but people transformed by Jesus for new life as participants and witnesses in his ministry.

Numerous women are named in Scripture as supporters and participants in Jesus’ ministry. Many more are named as co-workers with Paul. These women are not entirely forgotten by Protestant churches today, but when we tell the stories of Priscilla, Phoebe, Susanna, Chloe, Junia, or the many other women of Scripture, we almost always reserve that focus for the women’s retreat. The whole testimony of Scripture is for the whole church—both men and women. What would it mean for men in the pews to think about the examples of women not as particular “women’s stories” but as universal Christian exemplars? Women in our churches have long had to learn special listening and application skills as they considered the many examples of men following Jesus. It is the normative filter for women in the pew. What if the tables were turned to better reflect the practice of the Bible? What if the New Testament writers didn’t just name female disciples to show women that they too can participate in Jesus’ work? What if the New Testament writers also intended men to learn from women how to follow Jesus? What if Mary, the Mother of God, is for men too?

Reforming Mary

It is easy to assume that sidelining Mary has always been the case from the start of the Protestant tradition. When the Reformers turned their backs on “Papa” (or the Pope), did they not also turn their backs on “Mama”?

In truth, as the Reformers dismantled the cult of the saints, they were wary to let go of Mary. In certain regions of Germany, when nearly every feast day associated with the saints was abolished, Mary’s survived. As images and statues of the saints were destroyed due to the spread of iconoclasm, Mary’s statue was memorialized. Instead of leaving her behind, Protestants repositioned her as one of the most important examples in the Bible of justification by faith through grace alone.

Reforming the theology and practices surrounding Mary were complex, as it turned out. The first Protestant reformers, Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, maintained a robust view of Mary for their generation. They did not scoff at Mary’s Immaculate Conception (the idea that Mary was born free of sin at conception) since it continued to be the best way of distancing Christ from original sin. Luther believed that by the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary continued to be sinless throughout her life, and this affirmation went hand-in-hand with the idea of her “perpetual virginity.” Zwingli and John Calvin taught this as well. For Protestants, these affirmations had less to do with Mary and everything to do with protecting Christ and the salvific nature of the Incarnation.

In this way, Mariology and Christology were significantly intertwined; untangling the two was a highly sensitive matter. By continuing to affirm Mary as the Mother of God (or theotokos), the Reformers appealed to orthodox affirmations of Christian theology rooted in the earliest ecumenical councils of the church. To Luther, the “first sermon on earth” was the proclamation that Mary was the mother of the Lord, and this was preached by no less than by a woman (Elizabeth). “No one should be afraid, if he had tough times growing up or is miserable and despised,” Luther said. “It is not a bad omen. Look at Mary’s example. And look what God made out of her! … Her renown and her honor will remain among many until the end of the world: for no one can preach Christ without speaking of his mother.”

Image: Giovanni B. Barchi / Semak / iStock / Getty

Nevertheless, there were two fundamental ways in which Protestant Reformers pushed back against the church’s teaching on Mary. Because the heart of the Protestant Reformation was determined to elevate Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as uniquely sufficient for human salvation, the reformers rejected the popular idea of Mary as a co-redeemer with Christ and her mediation of salvation within the life of the believer. Mary, who was purported to stand beside Christ on the Day of Judgment as the “Queen of Heaven” whispering words of mercy to counter his harsh judgments, was removed from the scene. The Protestant Reformers were on a mission to make Jesus more approachable, more merciful, and more gracious, which meant that Mary needed to take a motherly backseat to her son. Righting the ship meant directing the church toward grace offered through Christ on the cross alone. God did not need Mary to be merciful on his behalf.

The demotion of Mary’s role from co-mediator meant reinterpreting her significance within the salvation story. Mary shifted from medieval intercessor to a paradigmatic example of faith for Protestants. In order to do this, the Reformers had to reinterpret the medieval view of the nativity story, and the meaning of Mary as “full of grace” was the crux of the dispute. For the Roman Catholic Church this meant that Mary was deserving of God’s choosing. She was full of the virtue of humility, literally holier than thou.

In contrast, the Reformers argued that Mary was “full of grace” because God gifted her with grace. She was only worthy of God’s choosing because God’s choosing made her worthy. As Luther protested, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55) was not a song about how great Mary is but about how great God is. In a word, Mariology was caught in the crossfire over the true meaning of justification.

Consider the second line of the Regina Cæli, an ancient Latin Marian Hymn of the Christian Church and one of the four seasonal Marian antiphons of the Blessed Virgin Mary: “The Son you merited to bear, alleluia.” For Catholicism, Mary had merited her role as the Mother of God. For Protestantism, God chose Mary despite her lowliness and honored her beyond what she deserved. Surely there is no womb worthy of carrying the Son of God? The true message of the nativity story was that Mary heard the Good News that a child was coming and accepted God’s grace toward her with extraordinary faith. For Luther, Mary’s greatness lay in the greatness of her faith: “This virgin had a faith of which there is no equal in the entire Bible.” Mary’s example was a model of the Christian life.

Most Protestants today would not be comfortable with Medieval Luther teaching his congregants the importance of reciting the Ave Maria or his affirmation of Mary’s bodily assumption at her death (widely affirmed in Luther’s time but rendered official Roman Catholic dogma in the mid-twentieth century). But today’s Protestant church is in no danger of overemphasizing the role of Mary in the story of salvation. Rather, we underestimate her role throughout the Gospels.

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Source: Christianity Today