• Keith Mathison

The Misplaced Marian Emphasis of Roman Catholicism

One of the most noticeable features of Roman Catholicism is its doctrinal and practical emphasis on Mary, the mother of Jesus. Every significant Roman Catholic dogmatic theology text includes a lengthy section, if not an entire volume, devoted to Mariology. Dozens upon dozens of lengthy books on Mary are published every year, and this doesn’t include all of the candles, statues, pendants, portraits, nightlights, lampshades, rosary stands, throw blankets, jigsaw puzzles, and more with Mary's image.

Over the centuries, Mary's role in Roman Catholic doctrine and practice has only increased. In the nineteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church declared as dogma the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (not to be confused with the doctrine of the miraculous conception of Christ), and in the twentieth century, the Roman Church added the dogma of the Assumption of Mary. Vatican II used the title “Mediatrix” to refer to Mary. As Mediatrix, Mary is seen as the one who mediates the redemptive work of her Son Jesus Christ. Roman Catholic practice includes prayers to Mary, hymns to Mary, and exaltation of Mary as queen of the universe. These are essentially acts of worship, effectively making of Mary a quasi-divine goddess of sorts.

Obviously, Mary had a unique role in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. The incarnation began in her womb. As the Definition of Chalcedon expresses it, the Lord Jesus Christ was “begotten before the ages from the Father as regards his divinity, and in the last days the same for us and for our salvation from Mary, the virgin God-bearer as regards his humanity.” She truly was blessed to be chosen for this unique task. And her humble and faithful response to God’s call upon her is a model example of faith.

That said, does the dramatic emphasis on Mary in Roman Catholic doctrine and practice correspond in any way to the emphasis we find in the doctrine and practice of Christ’s apostles?

No, it doesn’t.

Anyone familiar with Roman Catholic doctrine and practice might suspect that the New Testament is filled with teaching about Mary and filled with examples of devotion to Mary. However, as is often the case with Rome, the correspondence between its teaching and practice and the teaching and practice of the Apostles is non-existent. The emphasis among the Apostles is upon Jesus Christ. As Paul says, “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23). And a bit later: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). No one is surprised at the apostolic emphasis upon Jesus Christ. But do they also emphasize Mary in the way that the Roman church does?

Let’s look at one way we might consider emphasis – the number of times a person is explicitly mentioned by name (I know this has only limited use, but this is a blog post, not a journal article, and this does shed some light on the question).

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is mentioned explicitly by name a total of 19 times in the entire New Testament. The majority of those references are naturally found in the birth narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke because birth narratives are where mention of a mother would be expected. In Matthew, she is mentioned by name 5 times. In Luke, she is mentioned by name 12 times. That’s 17 out of the total of 19. In Mark, she is mentioned by name once. Outside of the Gospels, Mary is mentioned by name only once in Acts 1:14.

Mary isn’t mentioned by name a single time in the epistles of Paul, Peter, John, James, and Jude. She is referred to as “woman” once by Paul in Gal. 4:4 when he writes, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law.” Even this one reference, however, is saying something about Jesus rather than about Mary. It’s indicating His true humanity. Scholars are continually publishing books on the Pauline theology of this doctrine or that doctrine. It’s not even possible to write an article on the Pauline doctrine of Mary, however, much less a book, because Paul doesn’t say anything about her.

Outside of the early chapters of Matthew and Luke, Mary is mentioned by name only twice in the entire New Testament and not even once in the epistles where the various newly planted churches are being given foundational apostolic teaching regarding doctrine and practice.

For the sake of comparison consider the number of times some other biblical figures are mentioned explicitly by name in the New Testament and in the Epistles:

Moses – 79 times in the NT (23 of those in the Epistles)

Abraham – 71 times in the NT (33 of those in the Epistles)

David – 54 times in the NT (6 of those in the Epistles)

Isaac – 18 times in the NT (8 of those in the Epistles)

Noah – 8 times in the NT (3 of those in the Epistles)

Adam – 7 times in the NT (6 of those in the epistles)

Eve – 2 times in the epistles

Eve is mentioned by name only twice in the epistles, and that is still more than the number of times Mary is mentioned by name (zero times). [As a side note, it is fascinating that around the third century or so, as Christians started looking for people and events in the Old Testament that prefigured people and events in the New Testament, they focused on Christ as the second Adam. Somehow, they concluded that if Jesus is the second Adam then Mary must be the second Eve. An entire Mariology then began to develop from this curious parallel they drew. The analogy is faulty, however. Eve was Adam’s wife, not his mother. If anything in the New Testament is an analogy to Eve, it is the bride of Christ, not the mother of Christ.]

In any case, Mary is never mentioned by name in any of the epistles. Does this mean that Mary is unimportant? No, but her level of importance is where the apostles placed it when they wrote the birth narratives in the Gospels. She had the awe-inspiring and unique blessing of being the mother of God-incarnate, the Lord Jesus Christ. But once the apostles move beyond the birth narratives, she fades into the background. The focus is now on the one she bore in her womb. The focus is now on the Lord Jesus Christ. The Apostles are Christ-centered in their doctrine and practice, and there isn’t even a hint of the kind of Mary-centered doctrine and devotion that is now found in the Roman Catholic Church. Paul doesn’t talk about her in his writings. Peter doesn’t talk about her in his writings. James doesn’t talk about her in his writings. They continually talk about Jesus. They preach Christ and Him crucified.

Roman Catholic Marian doctrine and practice is to the teaching of the Bible what the romantic subplot between Tauriel and Kili in Peter Jackson's Hobbit films is to the book written by Tolkien.

The extreme misplaced emphasis on Mary in Roman Catholic doctrine and practice is simply one more of the many ways that the Roman Catholic Church publicly displays how radically different it is from the Church that Jesus Christ founded.

The photograph of a statue of Mary sitting on top of the Ark of the Covenant is from the sanctuary of a Roman Catholic Church in Chicago.

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