The Biblical Roots of the Marian Doctrines
Scripture contains strong evidence of each belief the Catholic Church holds regarding the Blessed Virgin
Most Protestant Christians believe that God chose Mary to fulfill his purpose but that Mary was a sinner. She is a vessel, as we are, but not any more worthy of honor than any other Christian. After all, the apostle Paul said, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
In Protestant theology, “all” does not mean ninety percent: “all” means the whole of, or the full number of something. Since Paul was speaking of people, this seemingly nails the case closed against the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary.
Protestants reject the idea of Mary as a mediator or intercessor. That is the work of Jesus Christ alone, they maintain. “There is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). Here Paul apparently rebukes any idea of Mary as an intercessor.
In addition, Protestants generally reject Mary’s title “Mother of God” as being unbiblical. In the Gospels, we find Mary, Jesus, and some disciples attending a wedding. Mary tells Jesus that they had run out of wine. Jesus’ response to Mary seems as if he is frustrated with her: “Woman, what does this have to do with me?” (John 2:4).
By responding “woman,” Jesus doesn’t give the impression that we are to honor or otherwise understand Mary to be anyone particularly special. Furthermore, Protestants believe Catholics worship Mary, an act of idolatry that should be shunned and fought with unbridled severity.
As Ven. Fulton J. Sheen once said, “There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church.” Indeed, this is often the case, given the enormous amounts of professional anti-Catholic literature continually produced to attack the Church Jesus established.
But the biblical and historical evidence for Marian doctrines is vast. Here are some highlights.
Catholics do not worship Mary
Perhaps the most common objection and misunderstanding when considering the Catholic faith is the charge that Catholics worship Mary. The Catholic Church condemns worship of anyone but God and God alone: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is a foundational truth and has always been the teaching of the Catholic Church since Jesus established it.
Conversely, veneration or showing great respect to Mary is part of the Catholic tradition. St. Maximilian Kolbe said, “Never be afraid of loving the Blessed Virgin Mary too much. You can never love her more than Jesus did, and if anyone does not wish to have Mary Immaculate for his mother, he will not have Christ for his brother.” Loving Mary and imitating her life will lead us closer to her son, Jesus Christ.
Mary, worthy of honor
The angel Gabriel had no hesitation in greeting Mary with honor. But wait—doesn’t Gabriel offer honor to Mary when that honor should have been given to God alone?
The angel sent from God did not have any reservations about honoring Mary. We honor special people every day. We honor soldiers, great presidents, and legendary sports figures. We honor our mother and father, as this is a commandment from God. One would never claim that this honor takes away from honor that belongs to God alone.
Surely, Jesus honored his mother and father. How fitting it is to honor the Mother of God as Christ did. We give honor to saints in the family of God without worshiping them. God alone is to be worshiped. This is the teaching of the Catholic Church and has been for 2,000 years. Catholic and Orthodox Christians honor Mary because Jesus honored her, and we are simply disciples who follow Jesus and do as he did.
Mary, the model disciple
In Luke 1:38, Mary humbly proclaims, “May it be done to me according to your word.” A few verses later, in what is referred to as the Magnificat, Mary’s heart for God is laid bare when she announces, “My soul proclaims the greatness of almighty God. My spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness. Behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:46-55).
Shouldn’t every Christian desire to be just like Mary and “proclaim the greatness of almighty God” while shouting from the rooftops how our “spirit rejoices in God [our] savior?” Shouldn’t all authentic disciples of Jesus respond in complete obedience to God as Mary did? Mary is the perfect disciple for every Christian to imitate.
Mary in salvation history
Evidence for Marian doctrines is found (ironically) in the very place where Protestantism contends it is absent: the Bible. Mary is prefigured in the book of Genesis, she participates with Jesus in the Gospels, and she is observed fighting Satan in the book of Revelation. From the very first pages of the Bible to its last book, Mary’s role in salvation history is astonishing.
In Genesis, there is a stunning prophecy. God said, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise him on the heel” (Gen. 3:15).
This passage is called the Protoevangelium, meaning “first gospel.” It is here we find the first announcement of the Messiah. There is a battle between the serpent and the woman, and we find prophesied the final victory of a descendant of the woman over Satan.
Who eventually crushed the head of the serpent? This can only be Jesus, who crushed the head of Satan at the cross of Calvary. Fittingly, the site of Calvary where Jesus defeated Satan means “skull place,” reminiscent of crushing Satan’s head. Because Jesus is the seed or offspring of the woman, who must the woman be? The Blessed Virgin Mary. She is prefigured right here in the beginning of Genesis.
In John’s account of the crucifixion, Mary stood near the cross as Jesus said to her, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother” (John 19:26-27). Mary was not John’s biological mother, yet John is called Mary’s son, and Mary John’s mother!
This creates uneasy implications and a dilemma for Protestants who insist we should never call Mary our mother. Nevertheless, the Bible says Mary became the mother of John. The beloved disciple is a model that must be true of all disciples of Jesus, including us.
The disciple whom Jesus loved took Mary into his home and became a spiritual son to her. Equally, Mary became the spiritual mother of the beloved disciple. Christians following the model discipleship of the “disciple whom Jesus loved” must ask: am I like the beloved disciple by taking Mary into my home? When we consider how this disciple was faithful in obeying the command of Jesus to receive Mary as his mother, it becomes natural for all Christians to do likewise.
In Revelation, there is another exciting connection verifying Mary as the woman and spiritual mother of Christians. “Then the dragon became angry with the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring, those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus” (Rev. 12:17). The woman in Revelation has other children who keep the commandments of God and “bear testimony to Jesus” who are Christians.
Recalling that Jesus calls Mary the mother of John and John now calls Mary the mother of all Christians, we can easily see the scriptural basis for the acknowledgment of Mary as our spiritual mother and mother of the Church.
The woman clothed with the sun
John wrote about a woman and a child in Revelation:
Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant could be seen in the temple. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, and peals of thunder, an earthquake, and a violent hailstorm. A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth. Then another sign appeared in the sky; it was a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven diadems. Its tail swept away a third of the stars in the sky and hurled them down to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child when she gave birth. She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and his throne” (Rev. 11:19-12:5).
Who is this woman? Who is the woman clothed with the sun? Is she the Church, Mary, or Israel? The woman has a male child who is destined to rule all the nations, an obvious reference to Jesus and his kingship. Jesus was caught up to heaven, which is what apostolic Christianity calls the Ascension. Thus, the identification of the woman clothed with the sun is undoubtedly Mary. For completeness, the woman can also refer to the Church and Israel. In Catholic theology, all of these are valid.
In light of these theological truths, it is clear that the biblical reference to woman, who is Mary, is not derogatory but rather a powerful word packed with beautiful meaning that harkens all the way back to the very beginning of God’s salvation plan.
Typology in Sacred Scripture
Typology is crucial in understanding relationships that exist between the Old and New Testaments. A type is a person or event in the Old Testament that prefigures or foreshadows a reality in the New Testament. The early Christian theologian St. Augustine recognized this relationship by his observation that “the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.” Many Catholic doctrines are best understood in the framework of typological relationships.
Doctrines related to Mary and her place in salvation history are highlighted through the careful study of typology. Irenaeus in the second century explains, “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary.” Irenaeus further articulates, “For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.”
Mary, the New Eve
St. Jerome, in the fourth century, understood the connection between Eve and Mary. He wrote, “Death came through Eve, but life has come through Mary” (Letter to Eustochium 21).
Like Jesus, the New Adam, we can see that Mary is the New Eve through a similar contrast:
- Eve gave birth to death; the New Eve (Mary) gave birth to Life.
- Eve gave birth to sin; the New Eve gave birth to grace.
- Eve listened to the serpent; the New Eve listened to the angel.
The biblical comparison is clear: Jesus is the New Adam, and Mary is the New Eve. Just as Eve is the mother of all physically alive, Mary the New Eve is the mother of all spiritually alive: Christians.
Mary, the Mother of God
Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother, exclaimed, “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43). Elizabeth recognizes that Mary is the mother of God. Is Jesus God? Was Mary carrying Jesus in her womb? Did Mary give birth to Jesus?
The earliest Christians referred to Mary as Theotokos, a Greek term meaning “God-bearer.” Jesus has two natures, fully human and fully divine. These natures are entirely united, without any division. Since Mary is the mother of Jesus, Mary is appropriately called the “Mother of God.”
Church Fathers such as St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Gregory Nazianzen, and St. Cyril of Alexandria believed and declared Mary the Mother of God. St. Irenaeus said, “The Virgin Mary . . . being obedient to His word, received from an angel the glad tidings that she would bear God” (Against Heresies 5:19:1).
Mary, Ark of the New Covenant
In the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant is described in Exodus as being covered with gold: “Have them make a chest of acacia wood . . . overlay it with pure gold, both inside and out . . . cast four gold rings for it . . . then make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold” (Exod. 25:10-13).
Likewise, the New Testament describes the Ark of the Covenant as gold-covered: “Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold covered Ark of the Covenant” (Heb. 9:3-4).
Notice how the Ark of the Covenant is covered with pure gold, both inside and out. Gold is associated with holiness, purity, and consecration to God. This foreshadows the purity, holiness, and consecration to God of the Ark of the New Covenant.
The Ark of the Covenant held three items: “the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant” (Heb. 9:4). Observe the three items contained in the Ark of the Covenant: stone tablets containing the commandments given to Moses, the rod belonging to Aaron, and the bread of heaven (manna) that fed the Israelites. It is easy to see that the Ark of the Covenant can be described as a pure or spotless enclosure holding bread, the word of God, and a priestly staff.
Now, what was contained inside Mary? The Word of God, our great High Priest and the Bread of Heaven, which are all analogous to the contents inside the Ark of the Covenant. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit “overshadowed” the Ark of the Covenant, bringing God’s presence to the people.
In the New Testament, we discover that the Ark of the New Covenant, Mary, was likewise “overshadowed” with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35). As with the Ark of the Covenant, which perpetuated special graces to the people, the Ark of the New Covenant (Mary) also then perpetuates graces to the followers of her Son, Jesus.
Since the Ark of the Covenant was created pure inside and out and set aside for divine purpose, Mary, the Ark of the New Covenant, was likewise created pure and holy, set aside for divine purpose. Here we discover the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, where Mary is kept pure for a special purpose in God’s redemption plan.
For a thousand years, Christians have used this nontheological analogy to visualize how Mary was saved: suppose a man falls into a deep pit, and someone reaches down to pull him out. The man has been “saved” from the pit.
Now, imagine a woman walking along, and she too is about to fall into the pit, but at that very moment someone holds her back and prevents her. She too has been “saved” from the pit but in a more profound way. She was not taken out of the pit; she was prevented from getting stained by the mud in the first place. This illustrates how the preservative redemption of Mary and human redemption are, in fact, compatible truths.
The Ark of the Covenant was never to be touched by sinful man (2 Samuel 6). Likewise, Mary, the Ark of the New Covenant, was never to be touched by sinful man. From this, the Catholic doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary takes shape with great clarity.
Mary, queen mother and intercessor
What about Mary’s title as queen? The answer is found in understanding the queen mother’s role in the context of the Old Testament. In ancient Israel, it was not the king’s wife who reigned as queen—it was the king’s mother. She wore a crown and advocated for the people. The king’s mother would present requests of the people to the king. In other words, they would seek her intercession on their behalf.
As we have seen, Mary appears in Revelation 12 reigning in heaven as the mother of the king. She is wearing a crown on her head. She is clothed with the sun and radiates with the splendor and power of a queen. Therefore, Mary is appropriately given the title of queen, who is able to pray with us and for us.
Mary, our help in spiritual battles
How do we bridge the gap between the doctrines of Mary and our everyday life? Why are these truths vital to Catholic and Orthodox Christians? The Ark of the Covenant went before the people in battle. In this way, the Ark of the Covenant assisted in overcoming the enemies of Israel and helped to secure victory (e.g., the battle of Jericho). The Ark of the Covenant and God’s presence was a powerful weapon and protection.
Turning to Mary, the Ark of the New Covenant, she is likewise a weapon in our spiritual battles. We can and should ask for her intercession to God on our behalf as we fight our spiritual battles here on Earth.
Sidebar 1: Do You Believe Your Pastor or Martin Luther?
It often comes as a surprise to Protestant fundamentalists that Martin Luther (1483-1546), the founder of the Protestant Reformation, maintained Mary was the “Mother of God” and believed in Mary’s perpetual virginity and immaculate conception. Luther was a Catholic priest and monk before he decided to break from the apostolic Church. One might expect he would have rejected the Church’s teachings about the Virgin Mary, but the opposite is true.
Thus, Protestants are left to wiggle on the horns of a sharp dilemma. If you are a Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, or nondenominational Christian, chances are you reject the perpetual virginity and immaculate conception of Mary. However, the very founder of Protestantism believed both of these doctrines. Should a Protestant believe his individual pastor or Martin Luther?
Sadly, Protestantism has departed not only from 2,000 years of apostolic teaching but even its own founder’s teachings.
Sidebar 2: The Church Fathers’ Devotion to Mary
One cannot read the early Church Fathers without noticing their deep honor for the Virgin Mary. Athanasius of Alexandria (A.D. 295-373), St. Ambrose of Milan (338-397), St. Jerome (347-419), St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) (depicted at right), and Pope Leo the Great all believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary.
Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386) believed Mary was the Mother of God and called her that. He explains, “The Father bears witness from heaven to his Son. The Holy Spirit bears witness, coming down in the form of a dove. The archangel Gabriel bears witness, bringing the good tidings to Mary. The Virgin Mother of God bears witness” (Catechetical Lectures, 10:19). For Cyril, Mary is without question the Mother of God. Similarly, Justin Martyr (105-165), Irenaeus (140-202), and Origen (185-253) believed in the Immaculate Conception of Mary.
The Fathers of the Church leave us with certainty that the Blessed Virgin Mary is central in God’s redemptive plan.