One of the interesting things about Hyper-Protestantism, which is distinguished from the Protestantism of the Magisterial Reformation by its opposition to and rejection of what is Catholic, that is to say, belonging to the faith, religion, tradition, and practice held since the earliest centuries by all the ancient Churches descended organically from the Church of Jerusalem, rather than merely the errors distinctive to the Roman Church that sparked the Reformation, is its obsession with Marian doctrine. Hyper-Protestants often act as if they thought Rome's teaching with regards to Mary is her most serious error rather than the soteriological issues at the heart of the Reformation. At some point in the future I plan, if the Lord so wills, to show how the English and Lutheran Reformers and even John Calvin held certain Marian doctrines that would be considered "popish" by Hyper-Protestants. For today, however, I wish to explore how this obsession with contradicting everything Rome - and in many cases all the ancient Churches - says about Mary often leads them into serious Christological heresy.
One person who commented on my earlier essay "Be a Protestant - BUT NOT A NUT!" insisted that the ancient Church was wrong in condemning Nestorianism as a heresy. Nestorianism was condemned in the Third Ecumenical Council, the Council of Ephesus, which took place in 431 AD. Nestorius was the Archbishop of Constantinople at the time. While this See had not yet been made a Patriarchate - that would come twenty years later when St. Anatolius held the office - it had been given the second place of honour after Rome by canon of the Second Ecumenical Council held in Constantinople in 381 AD and was en route to becoming the fifth See of the ancient Pentarchy. Nestorius, in other words, was in a very influential position, making error on his part all the more serious.
The controversy began with the use of the term Θεοτόκος (Theotokos) as an honourific title for the Virgin Mary. Theotokos is Greek for "God-bearer". In English it is generally rendered as "Mother of God". The controversy over the title was older than Nestorius and Nestorius entered the controversy with the intention of being a peacemaker. He proposed that the Virgin Mary be called the Christokos ("Christ-bearer"). Unfortunately for him, this was one of those cases where the compromise fell on ground belonging to one of the two sides (think of the Sunday School/Bible camp skit in which various people walk along a fence, with God and Satan each calling them to come over to their side, some choosing God, some Satan, until the last person, indecisively sits on the fence, only to be claimed by Satan, the owner of the fence). By proposing the alternative title, Nestorius sided with those who rejected Theotokos, and as a consequence became forever associated with their ideas. Those ideas included a serious Christological error.
Consider the following syllogism:
Premise A: Jesus is God.
Premise B: Mary is the Mother of Jesus.
Conclusion (C): Mary is the Mother of God.
This is a valid syllogism, meaning that if he premises are true the conclusion must be true as well, and so the conclusion cannot be rejected on the grounds of logical invalidity. Those who reject the conclusion, therefore, must argue against the truth of either the Major or the Minor Premise. They generally do not want to argue against the Major Premise by denying the deity of Jesus Christ. Therefore they try to argue against the Minor Premise, that Mary is the Mother of Jesus.
Now, obviously they try to do so in a more subtle way than by an outright denial that would make them sound completely stupid. What they try to do is to separate Jesus' human nature from His Person. "Mary is the mother only of Jesus' human nature" they say.
Do you see what they have done there?
In saying that Mary is the mother only of Jesus human nature they want you to think of His human nature in opposition to His divine nature. That way they can come across as standing up for the truth against some unnamed heresy that says that Jesus got His divine nature from His human mother. There is a reason, however, that this heresy is unnamed. Nobody has ever taught it. Nobody who calls Mary the Theotokos or the Mother of God thinks these terms mean that Mary was prior to God, that Jesus derives His deity from her, that she is the Mother of the Father or the Holy Ghost or any other such stupid things that opponents of these terms read into them. Unnecessarily guarding against an error that nobody teaches is an easy way of falling into error yourself. This is exactly what has happened here.
In actuality, when they say that Mary is the mother only of Jesus' human nature, this is not as opposed to her being the mother of His divine nature, but as opposed to her being the Mother of Jesus the Person. Mother is a relational term. It denotes how one person relates to another. This is its primary use and meaning, and any implications it may have about the "nature" of either mother or child are entirely secondary.
By the reasoning the opponents of Theotokos use they should also be claiming that God the Father is not the Father of Jesus but only of His divine nature. They do not usually say this, however, because the huge flaw in the argument is a bit more obvious when worded this way.
With other human beings a mother and father each contribute half of the genes their child inherits. Each could, therefore, be said to contribute half of the child's nature, at least in its physical aspects - I don't wish to get into the ancient theological debate between Tertullian's traducianism and St. Jerome's creationism (of each individual's soul not of the world), now, maybe some other time. We would never say, however, that someone's father is not that person's father but only the father of half of his genes, nor would we say such a thing, mutatis mutandis, about his mother. A father is the father of his son as a whole person, not just the part of his son he contributed. A mother is the mother of her daughter as a whole person, not just the part she contributed.
Now with Jesus we do not have a case of His Father contributing half of His genetic material and His Mother contributing the other half. Jesus is One Person, with Two Natures, Fully God and Fully Man. His divine nature comes entirely from His Father. His human nature comes from His Mother. This, however, does not mean that what we have just said about a father being the father of his child as a whole person, and a mother being the mother of her child as a whole person, rather than each being merely the father and mother of what they have contributed to their child does not apply with regards to Jesus. Those who claim otherwise, seem to think it is sufficient to point to Jesus’ uniqueness as the Only Person born of a Virgin, or the Only Person with two natures, divine and human, and say see, Mary is mother only of His human nature not of Him as a Person, as if such a conclusion somehow inevitably followed from these observations. This is not, however, a conclusion that logically, inevitably, or naturally follows from Jesus’ being unique in these ways.
One objection that was raised that requires an answer is the following from someone posting under the name “Jason Anderson”. He writes:
How can a mother of a pre-existent being be the mother of the personality that always existed? She can't.
Jesus was, of course, pre-existent. Indeed, He is eternal. He had no beginning. There never was a moment before He existed. The problem with drawing Mr. Anderson’s conclusion from this is that if his reasoning were sound it would also work against God being the Father of Jesus. If Someone Who is pre-existent, Someone Who is eternal, Someone to Whom there is no “before”, cannot have a Mother, neither can He have a Father. God the Father, however, is the Father of Jesus. Furthermore, He is the Father of Jesus not merely by adoption, as the Adoptionist heresy would have, much less the Father of Jesus by creation, since Jesus is uncreated. Jesus is the “Only-Begotten” Son of the Father, that is to say, the natural Son of the Father, the Son Who has the same nature as His Father which He gets from His Father. Since both Father and Son are co-eternal, this does not mean the Father is temporally prior to the Son. Theologically we refer to the way Jesus is begotten of the Father as “Eternal Generation”. Unlike with a human father and a human son, the begetting or generation is not a moment in time to which there was a before when only the father and not the son existed, but is the eternal relationship between Father and Son.
Now, before you raise the objection that Jesus’ relationship with Mary is not like this, that it had a beginning in time, that Jesus is eternal and Mary a created being, allow me to say that my argument is not that Jesus’ relationship to His Mother is identical to His relationship with His Father, obviously it is not, but rather my argument is that if a pre-existent, indeed, eternal Person can have a Father in this one way, eternal generation, then it is possible for the same pre-existent, eternal Person to have a Mother in another way. That way, of course, is by Incarnation. Jesus, the eternal Son of God, became Man by taking human nature and permanently uniting it to His Own eternal divine nature. He did so, not by entering someone and taking possession of their body, but through the miraculous conception wrought by the Holy Ghost. As St. Ambrose - and later John Francis Wade - put it, He “abhorred not the Virgin’s womb”. He entered this world as Man, in other words, by being born into it. By doing so, He Who was and is eternal, gained a Mother. The Mother-Son relationship here is unique in that the Son existed before the Mother, not in that the Mother is Mother only of one of her Son’s natures rather than of her Son Himself. The first uniqueness, the one that is actually true of Jesus’ relationship with the Virgin Mary, is a mystery. The second is an absolute absurdity.
In addition to the thought-provoking question just addressed, Mr. Anderson provides us with a further illustration of the extremes to which the fanatical, anti-Catholicism of the Hyper-Protestant can take one. He claims that Jesus “disowned” Mary three times. Now, before looking at the passages he points to in order to back up this claim and seeing how he twists these Scriptures I am going to point out the gross Christological and Soteriological heresy he has committed by making this claim. Jesus is both God and Man. As Man, He is Perfect Man. He is the Second Adam, Who succeeded where the first Adam failed. He “was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). His sinlessness is essential to His being our Saviour. “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Cor. 5:21) “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit” (1 Pet. 3:18). If Jesus disowned Mary, however, He broke the Fifth Commandment. That would mean that He was not without sin, and could not be our Saviour. Mr. Anderson, by taking his anti-Catholic fanaticism so far as to try to throw dirt on Mary because Rome gives her too much honour ended up throwing dirt on Jesus and committing soul-damning heresy in the process.
His attempt to back up this claim from Scripture demonstrates his “exegesis” – it is really eisegesis, the reading into a text of ideas that are not there – to be as bad as his theology. The three occasions are the Wedding at Cana in the second chapter of St. John’s Gospel, the account of Jesus’ identification of those who do the will of God as His mother and brethren at the end of the third chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel, and when He passed Mary into St. John’s care on the Cross in the nineteenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel. In his interpretation of the second of these, the one from St. Mark’s Gospel, Mr. Anderson attempts to guard against the obvious conclusion of his claim by providing a “justification” of Jesus’ “disowning” His Mother. Even if, however, we accepted his interpretation of these events, it would not work as such a justification. One of the examples of these supposed disownings took place prior to the events of Mark 3. The Wedding at Cana took place before Jesus began His public ministry after the arrest of John the Baptist. The events at the end of Mark 3 take place after the ordination and first commissioning of the Twelve Apostles earlier in that chapter which took place after His public ministry was underway.
There is no disowning in any of these passages. Jesus’ words at the end of Mark 3 are for the sake of the multitude He was addressing. He doesn’t say anything, positive or negative, about His biological relatives. He asks who His mother and brethren are, then answers by pointing to His disciples, and saying that these are His mother and brethren, and that whoever does the will of God is His brother, sister, and mother. This is an ecclesiological statement. The Church is the family of God is what He is saying here. Mr. Anderson bases his interpretation of this on the fact that the occasion of Jesus’ saying this was His Mother and brethren having come and sent for Him. Earlier in the chapter, in verse 21, we read that “when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself” and while this might be referring to the people of Nazareth in general it is not unreasonable to see the visit of Mary and His brethren as the unfolding of this. If that is the case, however, most reasonable people would look at this and in the parlance of our day call it a misguided intervention. No such action was needed, but it was done out of love. Mr. Anderson, however, calls it a “kidnapping plot” and a “gubpowder (sic) plot”, “treachery” and an “attempt to be Judas before the time of Judas”, basically a violent criminal conspiracy against Jesus, that would justify His disowning them. This, however, comes from his own twisted mind. It is not there in the text.
Nor is there a disowning of Mary in the second chapter of St. John’s Gospel. The words that Mr. Anderson takes as a disowning, the English of which can unfortunately come across as rude even though it is not so in the original, are in the original Greek: Τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί, γύναι. A word for word literal rendition of this is “What to me and to you, woman?” John Calvin took this to be a rebuke, but does not go so far as to read a disowning into it like Mr. Anderson does. He said that it has the same force as the Latin Quid tibi mecum, which, while not entirely wrong, is not the whole story. It is in fact a common idiom in Greek and Hebrew – it occurs several times in the Old Testament - as well as Latin. Calvin likely had in mind the version of it that appears a couple of times in Plautus’ Menaechmi. This is the play that inspired Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors. It is about twins and mistaken identities. The idiom, with the additional words est rei (Latin is not quite as economical with its words as Greek) has the meaning of “what business have I got with you?” In the second scene of the third act it is spoken by the one Menaechmus to Peniculus who had addressed him thinking he was speaking to the Menaechmus he knew, the twin of the other. This illustrates the sort of situation, or at least a farcical version of the sort of situation, in which this idiom is used as a rebuke. As a rebuke, it is generally addressed to someone who you don’t know or don’t know very well who has been unduly intrusive. This doesn’t fit the context of John 2 at all, making it really strange that John Calvin seemed to think this was the use in play here. The meaning that does fit here is “what does that have to do with me?” and in fact in this case it means “What does that have to do with us?” Spoken in response to Mary’s having told Him that the wedding party had run out of wine, it means “why is that our concern?” They were not, in other words, the hosts of the event, and were not responsible for the wine supply. Note that neither this point, nor His hour not yet having come – a reference to His public ministry not having started yet – prevent Him from actually rectifying the situation, nor do they prevent Mary from understanding that He would do so as evinced by her instructions to the servants in the following verse. Both her and His actions would be inexplicably odd if His words had the meaning Mr. Anderson reads into them.
As for the final reference from the nineteenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, Mr. Anderson’s interpretation of the passage is literally the opposite of how it has been universally understood, that is to say, as the loving expression of a dying Son concerned that His Mother be provided for and asking a trusted and beloved friend to take care of her for Him. The universal understanding is the correct one. The language used is the language of adoption, not the language of disowning. Here is Mr. Anderson: “and at the cross in John "man behold THY mother, woman behold THY son" (i.e. you can have her if you want her, I disown her for a 3rd time)”. Here by contrast is John Calvin: “The Evangelist here mentions incidentally, that while Christ obeyed God the Father, he did not fail to perform the duty which he owed, as a son, towards his mother… Yet, if we attend to the time and place when these things happened, Christ's affection for his mother was worthy of admiration.” Calvin’s is a far less tortured and much more natural reading of this text. An even more natural reading is to emphasize the affection over the duty.
It is one thing to say that we should not give to the Blessed Virgin Mary the honour and worship due only to her Son Jesus Christ Who, with the Father and Holy Ghost, is God. All orthodox Christians should be able to agree on this. Even the Romanists are not likely to disagree with it as worded, even if we Protestants suspect their practice to sometimes be in violation of it. It is another thing to hate Rome so much as to take the furthest possible position from hers, even if it means disagreeing not just with Rome but with all the ancient Churches, rejecting the right judgement of the universal Church that Nestorius had committed heresy, and twisting and torturing the Scriptures beyond recognition, in support of a claim, that Jesus disowned His Mother, that contains within itself a blasphemous imputation of sin, specifically the violation of the Fifth Commandment, to the sinless Saviour of the world and is thus a worse heresy than that of Nestorius, who not wanting to ascribe too much honour to the Blessed Virgin ended up dividing the Person of her Son, Who in His One Person is both fully God and fully Man.
It is okay to be a Protestant. When Rome says or does something that goes against what the Scriptures teach, as faithful and orthodox Churches everywhere have understood them to teach since the days of the Church Fathers, then you can and should follow Scripture first, and the universal tradition second, rather than Rome. The path of Hyper-Protestantism, however, is one which if followed, leads into pits of error worse than the errors of Rome. It is best to avoid it at all costs.