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Beyond Compare More Glorious Than the Seraphim

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Written by Basil on 12/8/2004 8:02 AM. Filed under:

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If your temperament is like mine, you would rather read one bold, challenging bit of prose than all of the manufactured sentiment so characteristic of this season. I found an article on Mary which I believe to be that one challenging bit of prose. If you do not already honor Mary in your heart, this is the one thing that you must not escape contemplating this year as you prepare for Christmas.

“Something is very wrong with Protestantism,” writes the Rev. Al Kimel. “Our ecclesial communities do not generate a devotion to Mary.” He offers some strong support for that statement. The crucial point comes when he applies to Protestant communities the consensus of the full Church, expressed in AD 431 at the Council of Ephesus. The Rev. Kimel writes:

I am beginning to suspect that no matter how “orthodox� we Protestants think we are in our doctrine of the Incarnation, we in fact are not. We have not faithfully appropriated the orthodox doctrine, because we have deleted Mary from the Church’s life of worship and prayer. This deletion of Mary is both evidence of our deficiency in our understanding of the Incarnation and a cause of this deficiency. Something is very wrong when our teaching and love of Christ does not generate the kind of hymnody, veneration, and devotion that is common in Orthodoxy and Catholicism.

Allow me some space to amplify his well-crafted article: It was the undivided Church gathered at Ephesus that blessed the practice of calling Mary Theotokos, a title which literally means “she who gives birth to God”: essentially it means, “Mother of God.” This dismayed some Churchmen, so the bishops of the Church gathered a scant twenty years later in a city called Chalcedon and reaffirmed what they said earlier at Ephesus. This time they focused on the union of God and man in Jesus Christ.

The Chalcedonian council stated that the Son and Word of God is “confessed in two natures without confusion, without change, indivisibly, and inseparably.” To restate that a little differently: The divine cannot be divided from or separated from the human in Christ. They are indivisible and inseparable. At the same time, both God and man retain what is proper to their nature: Christ is neither a mingling of the two nor a changing of one into the other. He is “fully God and fully man.”

This emphasis on the full union of God with humanity elaborates and underscores what was preached earlier at Ephesus: If you do not recognize the God who lay in the arms of a teenage mother in Bethlehem and called her “Amma,” then you do not recognize the one God preached by the Scriptures and the Apostolic teaching. If you are uncomfortable with this young girl giving to God milk from her full breast, then you are not really with us. If you doubt that God gave his mother the honor that he instructed you in the Decalogue to give your own mother, then you cast doubt on the very fact of your salvation. If it troubles you to join with your savior in praising his mother for her unique and irreplaceable role in your salvation, then you strike an axe at the root of his Incarnation.

“This is the faith of Peter; this is the faith of Paul. This is the faith of the Apostles; thus spoke the Fathers and thus we affirm….”

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9 Responses to “Beyond Compare More Glorious Than the Seraphim”

  1. Jim N. Says:

    Spot on, Basil!

  2. pete Says:

    let me state up front that i don’t have a problem with the premise of any of this. i think, though, that the issue that is probably more problematic for protestants is not necessarily the idea of giving devotion to Mary as it is the matter of degree.

  3. basil Says:

    Pete, I think that if it were only a matter of degree, we would not see the nearly complete omission of Mary that we do in nearly all Protestant communities. Who has heard the annual Marian sermon that always rolls around at Christmastide? Why only then? And is it not always prefaced with some disclaimer about not being Catholic or something similar?

    My response to this and a host of other issues was to seek a more catholic community altogether, but I find it interesting that a few Protestants — like the Rev. Kimel — see the same problem.

  4. pete Says:

    first: exactly. of course there is a “nearly complete omission” of Mary in most protestant communities. if you start from the paradigm that Scripture is the primary (some, though not all, protestants would argue the only) source of theology, well, there’s just not a whole lot about Mary other than the passages relevant to Christmas and to Easter. again, i’m not saying there shouldn’t be more reference made to her. i’m saying it shouldn’t be surprising to you.

    second: given that much of the basis of protestantism is at core its non-catholicness, disclaimers shouldn’t be surprising to you, either.

    third: you perhaps also refer to the protestant desire to not practice “mariolatry” as a form of idolatry. face it: you’re not going to see eye to eye with many protestants on this issue, because many, perhaps most, protestants see veneration of any sort as idolatry.

    what always strikes me in your postings that refer back to protestantism is what seems like myopia on your part. of course you’ve gone through a big paradigm shift through your journey to Orthodoxy, but why do you always seem so “surprised” that protestants still “don’t get it”? your post about Sixpence’s “There She Goes” cover struck me this way as well. perhaps this would come off better if rather than sharing your “surprise” when Christians who are clearly not in the same theological camp as yourself “don’t get it” you kept in mind that you (probably) weren’t always where you are today.

  5. basil Says:

    Pete, I think the main point of this article is that Protestants themselves are recognizing the tragedy of losing Mary. This article by a priest in a conservative Episcopal diocese could be augmented by dozens of articles or sermons that state the same thing. I’ve read them in Christianity Today, Good News, and many other traditonally Protestant media outlets. Many times this is masked by (or inspired by) the season of Christmas, but the constant cry is that something important has been lost that should be regained.

    Your perspective is one that is dedicated to Protestantism, and I’m trying to respect that. Personally, I think the Protestant project is proving itself everyday to be a dismal failure, but on many subjects I could point to early Reformers as support for my points. The subject of Mary particularly reveals a deep rift between contemporary Protestantism and its founders.

    This perspective is not myopic; it is catholic. It is precisely because of its abandonment of catholicity that Protestantism is becoming an increasingly divided federation of theological myopias that would not be recognized by Luther, Calvin, Wesley, or Wycliffe.

  6. pete Says:

    I think you’ve misunderstood me here, but I may have not been clear. The myopia I refer to here is not with respect to the subject of Mary, but rather with your own Protestant background. What I’m arguing is that you always seem “surprised” by Protestant thought that runs counter to your relatively newly-adopted Orthodox worldview, while that worldview is one you’ve not held for an extremely long time–chronologically speaking, I’m guessing you were a Protestant (or at very least, non-Orthodox) for at least a few years longer than you’ve been Orthodox, and while you may not have been examining matters of faith with as much depth or clarity during those years as you do now, your tone of surprise or shock when you address Protestant thought is, I think, fairly unwarranted. If you had always been an Orthodox person and had stumbled across Protestant theology completely anew, without any exposure to it previously, this attitude of surprise might make sense, but I find it difficult to fathom at times, circumstances being what they are. Do you expect Protestants to think like Orthodox Christians? Most aren’t going to. It’s not because they can’t or even that they’d be unwilling to–many times, I think, it’s because they have not really been given enough reason to. (Making statements that are tantamount to “oh, you just don’t get it” aren’t going to convince them, either, as should be clear from the discussions that have gone back and forth here and elsewhere with Mr. HibGib.) Think about what drew you to Orthodoxy. Maybe the arguments for it were convincing. Maybe the theology was more holistic, more catholic, more historic. But would you have been as receptive to all of its tenets if you hadn’t gone through a period of Anglicanism and Catholicism first? I can only theorize–only you can look into your heart and see the path that led you where you are now.

    I do not disagree with you that there are immense differences between modern Protestantism and its founders. I think you are quite right on this point. My Church History professor at seminary often argued that Lutherans and Wesleyans (though this would certainly apply to most reformers) are generally doing a disservice to the founders of their respective denominations, since their founders never intended to create or further sects, but rather to make a positive contribution to the Church as it already was. Luther would have been content to be a Catholic monk indefinitely, and would have envisioned the people who became “Lutherans” as remaining Catholic (albeit without indulgences). Wesley never renounced his membership in the Anglican Church (thus raising the issue that Wesley was not necessarily a reformer in the same vein as Luther, but that is most certainly another topic for another time). It might also be helpful to point out that there are immense differences between American Protestantism and European (or African, or Asian) Protestantism. As for the question of degree of veneration for Mary: While American Protestantism may go overboard in non-veneration, I think the case could easily be made that Latin American Catholicism goes too far in the other direction. A North American example: While official church theology does not posit any miracle in the “

  7. Virgin Mary Toasted Cheese Sandwich
  8. ,” I think a case could be made that church doctrine contributes to an environment wherein such would be (pardon the awful pun) gobbled up by laypersons.

    I am dedicated to Protestantism, but more significantly, I am dedicated to fostering interfaith dialogue that is mutually beneficial to everyone involved. I realize that you and I aren’t going to agree on every issue of faith–I’ve never assumed that we would–but is it possible for us to talk about these issues in a spirit of humility, cooperation and kindness? Can we learn from each other, or do we both start from the perspective that we have nothing to learn from the “other”? I know that I can be extremely argumentative from time to time, and for that, I ask for your forgiveness. I do not believe I have discovered all the “answers” to the questions that a person of faith struggles with–one issue I have come to appreciate in your tradition is the embracing of mystery, rather than the attempt to explain and rationalize it all away–and I hope you don’t think that I am quite as dogmatic as I may come across. For my part, I am as much on a journey as I ever was–my wife and I (and our 2 month old son, Eliot Coltrane Sherry) are taking the first steps to joining a Lutheran church (ELCA), and whether my journey only takes me as far as Wittenberg or farther, I cannot say. Know this, though–I sincerely do appreciate reading your thoughts on theological issues, disparate though they may be from my own at times, and I still think that you ought to head yourself toward seminary once your military commitments are completed, if for no other reason than to study under people who can further guide you.

  • basil Says:

    Again with the “shock” and “surprise.” I am confused at how you find this tone in my writing about Protestantism. I see it in the Sixpence article. You’re probably right; I probably wouldn’t have been surprised if I were still a Protestant. But in my current context, it struck me as if Petra had done a commercial for Trojan.

    But I really do not see the tone of surprise in this one. If anything, it always surprises me when Protestants come to catholic conclusions. Prejudicial, I know. But it comes from my own background.

    Congratulations on joining a Lutheran parish. I pray for you and your family regularly.

  • pete Says:

    i guess it probably is mainly a matter of understanding your current context, which i realize you have been in for a while now. but since you were a protestant for quite some time as well, i guess it usually seems that you’ve forgotten what protestants are like–in both our best and worst ways…

    by the way: my pastor is encouraging me to consider finishing my MDiv in the ELCA–which i should be able to do with advance standing because of my MATS from bethel. it will be interesting to see what happens in the next few months in the ELCA due to the recent sexuality study and upcoming vote.