Saturday, April 26, 2014

Mary for Evangelicals: A Musing on the Canonizations of John Paul II and John XXIII

On April 27 the Roman Catholic church will elevate John Paul II and John XXIII to sainthood. All the attention on their canonizations reminded me of a column I wrote in 2007 about how Protestants really don't understand the idea of saints, and we might want to take something like the veneration of Mary, Jesus's mother, more seriously.

The past couple of decades have seen some remarkable changes in the relationship between evangelicals and Cath­olics.

Where the two groups once viewed each other with suspicion, today they have found common ground on things like abortion, end-of-life issues, the definition of marriage and the role of religion in society.

Where the two groups once viewed each other with suspicion, today they have found common ground on things like abortion, end-of-life issues, the definition of marriage and the role of religion in society.

But one area of disagreement continues to be over Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Catholics venerate her, believing she was born without sin and raised into heaven at the end of her life. Evangelicals, however, mostly tend to see her as a bit player in the larger Christian story, when they think of her at all.

Tim Perry, Scholar in Residence at St. Margaret's Anglican Church in Winnipeg, and a Professor at Providence Theological Seminary in Otterburne, Man., thinks that’s wrong.

He’s set out to change the way evangelicals think about Jesus’ mother in his book, Mary for Evangelicals: Toward an Understanding of the Mother of Our Lord. 

“Most evangelicals think of Mary as someone who belongs to the Catholic church, but Scripture says a lot about her,” he says. “If we take Scripture seriously, we can’t pass over her.”

In the book, Perry provides a biblical and historical argument for giving Mary a higher place in evangelical churches. “Thinking about what God has done in the incarnation will inevitably lead us to think about the person in whom God chose to become flesh,” he says.

He adds that the early church held the mother of Jesus in high regard. 

 “By reminding people that Jesus had a mother, she was a corrective against views that Christ was not really a human being,” he says. “She functions in Scripture as a sign of Christ’s humanity. The early church fathers return to this time and again.”

Perry is especially drawn to how Mary is portrayed in the Gospel of Luke. “She’s an example to us not because she is semi-divine but because she persists with Christ, even when she doesn’t understand what is going on,” he says.

What about praying to Mary? Perry himself doesn’t do it. “It’s foreign to my tradition,” he says. 

But he understands why it is meaningful to those who see her like a sympathetic earthly mother, asking her son to show mercy and compassion. He thinks that it makes sense theologically to believe that Mary, like other departed saints, may be able to intercede on behalf of Christians today.

“We believe that the church is one body that transcends everything,” he says, citing how people in North America pray for people in Africa and believe that their prayers have an effect. Likewise, he says, the church is “not bound by time and space,” making it possible for those who have died to intercede before God on behalf of the living.

As for the doctrine of Immaculate Conception—the idea that Mary was born sinless—Perry says it “goes farther than I am willing to go.” 
But he notes that the idea did not originate in 1854 with Pope Pius IX, as some believe. 

“That belief existed as early as the second century,” he says, adding that Pius merely “limited what could be said about it.”

Perry also isn’t willing to speculate about what happened to Mary at the end of her life. “I am content to follow the silence of Scripture on that point,” he says.

As for his own beliefs, he says, “I’ve come to the conclusion that there is room in evangelical piety for Mary. She leads me to Jesus in terms of devotion. As I have come to bless Mary—as Scripture says I should—I have come to find my love for Jesus strengthened, even reawakened. She steps aside in order that I might not dwell on her, whether in my head or in my heart, but on her son.”

No comments:

Post a Comment