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How to Explain Mary to a Sola Scriptura Protestant

What do you do when a Protestant Christian challenges Catholic devotion to Mary as being excessive and distorted? My favorite correspondent came up with some Catholic quotes that were real showstoppers. Among others he quoted Pope Pius IX from his 1849 encyclical Ubi Primum.

My Protestant friend made the point that if Pius IX’s references to Mary were replaced by references to Jesus Christ, the quote would be uncontroversially Christian. As it is, he protested, it says things of Mary that should be said only of God. Was it true that nothing was closer to Pius IX’s heart than devotion to Mary? Could it be true that the foundation of all [his] confidence” is Mary? Is it really through her that we obtain “every hope, every grace, and all salvation”?

On the face of it, this is difficult to answer. Pius IX’s words do seem excessive. But let’s put them in context. First of all, the quotation is part of Pius IX’s letter to the world’s bishops consulting them on the wisdom of defining the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. In other words, he is speaking within a Marian document. Second, Pius IX is using the papal “we” in expressing his own opinion and love for Mary. He is not making a formal doctrinal pronouncement. Third, this statement has to be placed within the context of the whole worship and life of the Church.

Taken on its own, this quote sounds as if Pius IX worships Mary. Taken in its context, it is clear that he doesn’t. Read the words closely—clearly the Pope’s ultimate reference is to Jesus Christ. He is the foundation who is found “in Mary.” Jesus Christ is the one who is the source for “every hope, every grace, and all salvation,” and he comes to us through Mary.

Pius IX’s words can be explained, but there are two underlying points to remember when discussing Marian devotion with non-Catholics. First of all, if we are confronted with florid language about the Blessed Virgin we must not apologize. Devotion to Mary has been part of the worship of the Church from the earliest days. There are many examples of what might seem like excessive language about Mary from the first centuries of the Church, including some doozies from Athanasius.

Protestant Christians look to Athanasius as a hero of the faith. He is the one who defended orthodoxy against the heretics. He is the one who stood up against the whole world in defense of the Christology that Protestant Christians embrace today. If some Christians object to Catholic veneration of Mary, then they are disagreeing not only with Pope Pius IX in 1849 but also with Athanasius in the fourth century.

Furthermore, the early Church considered devotion to the Blessed Virgin a sign of a proper understanding of the Incarnation and a full devotional life for Jesus Christ. It may not be those who honor Mary but those who neglect her who are distorting the historic faith. Those who dishonor Mary should pay attention to Epiphanius who writes also from the fourth century that “who dishonors the holy vessel [Mary] also dishonors his Master” (quoted by L.Gambero in Mary and the Fathers of the Church [Ignatius Press, 1999], p. 127).

The main problem with criticism of Catholic devotion to Mary is the basic Protestant mindset. Because Catholics venerate Mary, non-Catholics assume that this devotion must take the place of proper devotion to the Lord Jesus. They see the whole question in terms of either/or when it is really both/and.

A powerful analogy can be used to show non-Catholics how strange this seems to Catholics. If an Evangelical believes that devotion to Mary replaces proper devotion to Jesus, ask him to imagine what it would be like if he discovered that another Christian group thought Evangelicals were in grave error because of their emphasis on the Bible. Ask him to imagine that these fictional Christians accuse Evangelicals of neglecting Jesus because of their devotion to the Bible.

These hypothetical Christians might say, “You Evangelicals stress the Bible to the neglect of Jesus. You call your churches ‘Bible’ churches and have ‘Bible’ colleges instead of ‘Christian’ churches and colleges. Inside your church you don’t have pictures of Jesus, you don’t have crucifixes; and you don’t have the Stations of the Cross. Instead, all you have is a big central pulpit to preach the Bible.”

The accusers could point out, “The New Testament says the early Christians ‘devoted themselves . . . to the breaking of the bread’ (Acts 2:42) and that the way to remember Jesus and proclaim his death is through the Eucharist (1 Cor. 11:24-26). Yet you Evangelicals celebrate the Lord’s Supper once a month, or even less often, and the main feature of your church service is a long Bible sermon.

“You even have a formal doctrine named sola scriptura. This manmade dogma is a later distortion and addition to the Christian faith—something that was unheard of both in the early Church and in Scripture itself. This dogma—which you treat as infallible—states that the Bible and not Jesus is the only source of truth. You teach your children to memorize Bible verses instead of receiving Jesus in communion. You teach them to sing, ‘The B-I-B-L-E, / Yes, that’s the book for me. / I stand alone on the word of God.’

“Notice that they are not to ‘stand alone’ on the sure foundation of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:11) but instead on the Bible. Evangelical preachers say that there is no way anyone can come to God without believing the Bible. They declare their undying love for the Bible instead of for Jesus. They say how their lives are dedicated to preaching the Bible instead of the cross of Christ.”

If someone were to make these charges, a good Evangelical might well snort with derision. How could anyone so misunderstand the Evangelical position? Surely they are doing it on purpose. The good Evangelical would patiently explain to his critic, “You have misunderstood completely. Sola scriptura doesn’t set the Bible in opposition to Jesus. It does exactly the opposite: It helps us to glorify Jesus. Don’t you see that we love the Bible because it gives us access to our Savior? It’s true that we believe people need to know the Bible, but that’s because the written word and the incarnate Word are inextricably intertwined. You can’t have one without the other. It is really Jesus we worship and proclaim through the Bible. If you look at our practice and teaching with an open mind you would see how misguided and mistaken you are.”

But the critic of the Evangelical won’t have it. He replies, “No, no. That all sounds very plausible, but you will never convince me. I just know that you worship the Bible instead of Jesus, and all your clever wordplay just goes to show how blind you really are.”

To prove his point, this critic says, “I know you Evangelicals worship the Bible instead of Jesus. Just look at this quotation I found that proves it. This comes from an Evangelical one of your classic theological text books:

“The Bible . . . has produced the highest results in all walks of life. It has led to the highest type of creations in the fields of art, architecture, literature, and music. . . . You will find everywhere the higher influence of the Bible. . . . William E. Gladstone said, ‘If I am asked to name the one comfort in sorrow, the sole rule of conduct, the true guide of life, I must point to what in the words of a popular hymn is called “the old, old story,” told in an old, old Book, which is God’s best and richest gift to mankind” (Henry Thiessen, Introductory Lectures in Systematic Theology [Eerdmans, 1949], p. 86; emphasis added).

“You see,” the critic finishes with a flourish, “your famous Evangelical leader says that it is not Jesus but the Bible that is his ‘one comfort,’ his ‘true guide,’ and ‘God’s best and richest gift to mankind.’ It just goes to show that Evangelicals worship the Bible and not the Lord.”

Of course, this is a ridiculous distortion of the Evangelical view, but the extended analogy may help Protestants understand how Catholics feel when Protestants make similarly inaccurate charges about the Catholic devotion to Mary.

In the face of such charges Catholics reply, “Are you serious? How can you possibly make such a fundamental mistake about what we believe? We admit that some Catholics may overemphasize Mary, just like some Evangelicals may take extreme views on the Bible. We don’t venerate Mary for herself but because by her free consent she gave us our Savior and because she constantly leads us to him. If you took time to study our whole teaching and practice, you’ll see it’s unreasonable to make such a towering mistake.”

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