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Written by Paul A. Tambrino, Ed.D., Ph.D.   

Mary and the Angel GabrielOn Sunday, March 24 Roman Catholics and Protestants celebrated Palm Sunday. But on Monday, March 25 most evangelical Protestants will sit out as Roman Catholics will celebrate one of the most significant events in the New Testament: the angel Gabriel's announcement to Mary that she would give birth to Jesus. Why?

That is a very good question. One might expect evangelical Protestants to be among the most enthusiastic celebrants of what is known as the Annunciation. For starters, it focuses on two issues that theologically conservative Protestants have long defended against theological liberals: the historicity of the Virgin Birth, and Christ's unique divinity.

Unfortunately, Mary has had a much greater role in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theology than in Protestant theology. For the average Protestant, Mary shows up once a year as a shadowy figure on Christmas cards; but for the Roman Catholic, Mary's importance has been significant, both theologically and practically. The Catholic may jocosely ask Protestants, "Isn't it strange that Christ was such a good Protestant, when His mother was a Roman Catholic?"

Protestants in turn will often falsely accuse Roman Catholics of worshiping Mary. I say falsely because Roman Catholic theology guards the worship of God with the words used to describe religious worship. In Roman Catholic theology the worship due to God alone is called latria. That worship is never given to Mary or the saints. Instead there is another kind of religious attitude of veneration or honor which is described by the word dulia. This according to Roman Catholic theology is not worship, which is due to God alone, but is a much lesser form of honor, given to Mary and the saints; with Mary receiving hyper-dulia, the highest form of such veneration and honor, but which falls far short of latria.

In my "Reformed Protestant opinion" Mary has been the victim of a Protestant conspiracy of silence – theologically and liturgically. Having said that I am NOT urging Protestants to embrace all of Rome's doctrines about Mary, but I would like to see an eroding of the long-standing wall between Roman Catholics and Protestants regarding Mary.

Mary appears in the New Testament far more times than most Protestants realize. Although her appearances are often brief and devoid of anecdote, there isn't a person comparable to her. She is present at Jesus' birth, at His dedication in the Temple, at His first miracle, at the cross, and in the upper room after His resurrection.

Yet Mary is seldom in the spotlight for Protestants except in Nativity pageants. There is a joke in theological circles about Jesus receiving a Protestant minister at the pearly gates and saying, "Pastor, I know you have met my Father, but I don't believe you know my mother."

Mary was not always a lightening rod. The Council of Ephesus in 431 affirmed her to be the "Mother of God," an affirmation which all the Protestant reformers held. This is because the affirmation was more about Christ than about Mary as it reputed a specific heresy that Mary's Son Jesus and the Messiah were two different beings.

Both Martin Luther and John Calvin referred to Mary as the "Mother of God" and taught that she was to be highly respected; that appropriate honor was accorded to her merely by emulating her simple obedience and praise of God's grace. Luther and Calvin were fond of Mary as the perfect example of God visiting His grace (which is always unearned) upon the most humble.

The Council of Constantinople in 553 affirmed her perpetual virginity, again to reinforce the uniqueness of Christ. Although Calvin did not think it was necessary to hold to the perpetual virginity of Mary, Luther and Zwingli insisted that Mary remained a virgin even after the birth of Jesus. This view is also endorsed and inscribed in the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566, a Calvinistic confession that is still accepted by many denominations.

But Catholics definitely elevated Mary to greater heights by promulgating two additional later affirmations about Mary. In 1854 Pope Pius IX declared Mary's Immaculate Conception; that Mary, "in the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of omnipotent God and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of mankind, has been preserved immune from every taint of original sin." Then as late as December 8, 1950, Pope Pius XII declared Mary's "Glorious Bodily Assumption" into heaven. Whereas the first two Marian dogmas were intended to clarify who Christ was, that is they were Christological, these last two Marian dogmas clarified the inherent dignity and position of Mary, which is they were Mariological.

Nevertheless, the day of Annunciation (March 25), which celebrates Mary learning from the angel Gabriel that she will give birth to the Messiah, provides Protestants, especially Reformed Protestants an excellent opportunity to emphasize the Doctrine of Election. Strictly speaking, the story of the Annunciation is told not in praise of Mary but in praise of the unmerited, electing grace of God.

Mary is favored and chosen by God. Had Mary not believed, she would not have conceived. Mary elects God's election of her. So Mary's election is the means by which the eternal election of the Son of God is historically realized. Mary is the daughter of the elect people of Israel, and is herself elected and called to a special vocation.

Mary made a response caused by the initiative of God. It was the announcement that confronted her in the first place and contained the promise, which was the presupposition of her response. The content and realization of her role in salvation history was not unlike that of the Church of which Christ was the sole head and only Mediator, and was effected by the work of the Holy Spirit.

Yes fellow Protestants let us remember and honor the words of Mary as recorded in Luke 1:38, "Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word."


 

Dr. Tambrino is a retired college president. In addition to his two earned doctorates, he holds diplomas from a number of academic institutions including Harvard and Oxford. He is also a retired US Army officer and was awarded the rank of honorary three-star general in 1997 by the US Air Force.

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