By Roland Worth, Jr.
The “reverence” that the Roman Catholic Church bestows on the mother of Jesus is well known. That such enthusiasm for Mary was not found in the first century church is admitted by at least some Roman Catholic scholars. For instance, the French historian H. Daniel-Rops writes, “At first she occupied a very modest place in men’s minds. We find her mentioned hardly at all; properly speaking, there is no Marian liturgy” (Church of Apostles and Martyrs, E. P. Dutton & Company, New York, 1960; reprinted, 1963; footnote page 217).
Daniel-Rops attempts to gloss over this, from the Catholic view, incongruous situation by verbal semantics. He hedges the above concession with the remark, “However, the dogmatic importance of the Virgin Mother had been asserted from earliest times” (page 217). That Mary possesses a certain doctrinal importance we would readily admit and, indeed, insist upon: For instance, if she were not a virgin at the time of Christ’s birth the reliability of the New Testament as a historically accurate document would collapse into ruins.
However, it is not in this sense that Mary is of “doctrinal importance” to the Catholic Church! To them her “doctrinal importance” includes her immaculate conception, her bodily assumption into heaven, and an intercessory -role that non-Catholics would dare apply only to Jesus Himself. So when people refer to the “dogmatic importance” of Mary they may be referring to quite different things. The question is not whether there were doctrinally important things concerning her life; rather, the question is what matters of doctrinal importance should be attributed to her. This question must be answered on the basis of evidence rather than preference. The New Testament is completely silent concerning the special doctrines the Roman Church teaches concerning Mary. Furthermore, the evidence that Daniel-Rops introduces from the first post-apostolic centuries also omit the now distinctive Catholic positions!
He writes, “The dogmatic importance of the Virgin Mother had been asserted from earliest times. The oldest creeds follow the example of the Gospels in confessing that Jesus was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. Against the Docetists who denied the reality of the Incarnation, the motherhood of Mary proves the truth of Christ’s humanity. Against the heresies which sought to refuse Jesus His divinity, the dogma of the Virgin birth called attention to the transcendency of Him who was made man in a fashion different from that in which other men were conceived. About 100 St. Ignatius of Antioch was already saying, `Turn a deaf ear to anyone who does not confess that Jesus, the descendant of David, was born of the Virgin Mary,’ and his Epistle to the Ephesians contains the following profound sentence: `The ruler of this world is ignorant of the virginity of Mary, and of her travail in childbirth, and of the Lord’s death: these are three resounding mysteries performed in silence’ ” (page 217).
Is there anything in this that even the most staunch Fundamentalist will find repulsive or heretical? I think not. However is there anything in this that justifies the Roman Catholic beliefs that Mary is a special intercessor with Jesus, that she was immaculately conceived, and that she was bodily taken into heaven? The answer to this must also be no. Clearly, when early post-apostolic writers spoke of the importance of Mary they had different doctrines in mind than does the contemporary Catholic.
As the years went by, Mary became romanticized and her importance elevated. When applied to her, theology was gradually transformed into mythology. Perhaps someone will find that latter word offensive. But what else can we call the grand claims made concerning her that lacked any foundation in Divine revelation?
Daniel-Rops tells us, “This dogmatic role, which the earliest Fathers of the Church had appreciated so clearly, gradually became blended with tenderness and veneration. The finest poems in the Song of Songs were to be interpreted in terms of the graces of Mary; the mysterious Chapter XIII of the Apocalypse was to be understood as a definition of her role as mediatrix. Gradually her figure appeared among the paintings on the walls of the catacombs: as the virgin to whom Isaiah foretold the miraculous birth, as the young girl whom the angel visited, and as the mother holding in her arms the Infant God. One ill-carved third-century inscription calls her ‘Digenitrix.’ So, closely linked with Christ, and subordinate to Him, the Catholic Church’s cult of the `Blessed Virgin’ (the ‘Panagia’ of the Greeks), as it was developed at the end of the fourth century and in the course of the fifth, has its roots far back in early Christian history” (page 217).
How in the world can any reasonable man believe that there is a father-son relationship between such early beliefs as the virgin birth and the much later belief in Mary as immaculately conceived and mediatrix? How does the belief that Christ’s birth of Mary proves that He had a fleshly body lead to the belief that Mary is interceding for the true believer? There is absolutely nothing in the earlier beliefs that require the latter deductions. The first beliefs were based upon Divine revelation; the latter beliefs on the mythologization of an increasingly popular figure. Again, no offense is intended but grandiose claims not confirmed by scripture can only be branded as mythical! When we have revelation endorsing a claim we can rest assured that we are dealing with hard, historical reality; but when we face claims that are unconfirmed we can not help but feel that our doubts are confirmed by the lack of scriptural endorsement.
Let us use a modern parallel: If I were to argue from the fact that my mother gave birth to me that that proves I have a body of flesh and bone there would be no controversy at all. But could my great-greatgrandchildren 200 years hence take that statement and feel, justified in saying that my mother was immaculately conceived? Of course not! One idea does not logically or of necessity lead to the other. Yet, just such a relationship Daniel-Rops would have us believe existed between first century facts and fourth century myths!
Before closing we should point out the weaknesses of some of the arguments Daniel-Rops used. He wrote, as we quoted above, that “one ill-carved third-century inscription calls her ‘Digenitrix.’ ” Notice those words “ill-carved.” They suggest incompetency or inability. Since when do the carvings of an incompetent artisan determine or confirm the propriety of a religious belief?
We also read, “Gradually her figure appeared among the paintings on the walls of the catacombs: as the virgin to whom Isaiah foretold the miraculous birth, as’ the young girl whom the angel visited, and as the mother holding in her arms the Infant God.” If the same painted pictured all three side by side (as Daniel-Rops seems to imply) then the painter must have believed in reincarnation for that is the only way Mary could have appeared in the days of Isaiah and in the first century. Yet that doctrine is heretical to the Catholic Church. Since when can the teachings of heretics be introduced to prove what should be orthodoxy in the Catholic Church?
Truth Magazine XXII: 33, pp. 537-538
August 24, 1978