Marian Doctrine and Christianity

Marian Doctrine and Christianity

In the history of Christianity, the periods in which Marian doctrine and devotion have flourished are also the periods when the worship and adoration of her Son were most prominent. There were moments in the history when Mary was exalted and at the same time many heretics tried to bring devotion towards her down.

The first major period of Mariological developments ranges from the second to the seventh centuries when the Christian community reflected on Mary’s role as the New Eve and acclaimed her divine maternity and perpetual virginity in various councils. This was also the period when the great Christological dogmas were debated and defined. This period saw the Councils of Nicea (325 A.D.), Constantinople I (381 A.D.), Ephesus (431 A.D.), Chalcedon (451 A.D.), Constantinople II (553 A.D.), and Constantinople III (681 A.D.).

The second period covers the eighth and ninth centuries when the Second Council of Nicea (787 A.D.) defined the veneration of images. Christians then pondered more closely Mary’s relationship to her Son, her sharing in His resurrection, her freedom from sin and the importance of her intercession.

Third and Forth period on which we try to make a deeper study can be summarized as follows:

The third period was the age of the Scholastics, notably Ambrose, Aquinas and Bonaventure, who provided a systematic framework for Christology and a clearer understanding of Mary’s role in the mystery of salvation. In 1215 A.D., the Fourth Council of the Lateran, and in 1274 A.D., the Second Council of Lyons, made significant pronouncements on the doctrine of the Trinity.

The fourth period stretches from 1300 A.D. to 1800 A.D., from the Renaissance through the Reformation through the Enlightenment. This was a period when many of the great truths of Christianity increasingly came under attack. The lowest point was reached with the so-called Enlightenment Era when atheism was on the ascendant and Christian doctrine was emptied of substance even within various Christian communities. Although the Protestant Reformers had initially tried to hold to some Christological and Mariological truths, many of their heirs gradually came under the influence of the Enlightenment. A famous Lutheran theologian Friedrich Heiler has written that the Marian doctrines were lost by later Protestants because of “the spirit of the enlightenment with its lack of understanding of mystery, and especially of the mystery of the Incarnation, which in the 18th century began the work of destruction.”[1] Another Lutheran scholar, Basilea Schlink, holds that “the majority of us [Protestants] have drifted away from the proper attitude towards her [Mary], which Martin Luther had indicated to us on the basis of Holy Scripture … [partially due to the rise of Rationalism which] has lost the sense of the sacred. In Rationalism man sought to comprehend everything, and that which he could not comprehend he rejected. Because Rationalism accepted only that which could be explained rationally, Church festivals in honor of Mary and everything else reminiscent of her were done away with in the Protestant Church. All biblical relationship to the Mother Mary was lost, and we are still suffering from this heritage.”[2] Despite the clouds of darkness hanging over Christendom, this period nevertheless saw the production of a number of devotional Marian masterpieces.

Major Breakthroughs
In 12th Century Feast of the Conception of Mary in France, Germany, Italy and Spain, Normandy are celebrated in many churches. The Feast of the Assumption was celebrated in the city of Rome, and in France.

Between 13th -15th century, called the Late Middle ages, devotion to Mary grew dramatically. Mary was increasingly venerated in popular piety as mediator of the mercy of Christ. Among the popular devotions that came into being at this time were the Rosary.

In 1477 Pope Sixtus IV, a Franciscan, established the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1477 with a feast of with a proper mass and office to be celebrated on December 8. This is a big feast celebrated today by Catholics all over the world.

The fifth and final period ranges from 1800 A.D. to the present day, which will not be the subject of this article. In this period it may be said that God launched a Marian counter-attack on the Enlightenment in its nerve-center through a series of Marian apparitions in France. These were the great nineteenth century apparitions of the Miraculous Medal, La Salette and Lourdes, which continue to exert a tremendous influence as tangible manifestations of the supernatural world denied by the Enlightenment theories of the middle ages. Such influential apparitions have continued into the twentieth century, the most notable example being Fatima, Portugal. Accompanying these reminders of the Marian heritage, there has been a revival of interest in Marian doctrine and devotion that continues even today. But many of the Christian communities who have rejected Marian doctrine and devotion have gradually departed from Christological doctrine as well.

Focus on the Middle Ages

During the late Middle Ages (13th century to 15th century), devotion to Mary grew dramatically. One of the principal reasons was the image of Christ that developed in the missionary efforts of the early Middle Ages. To the extent that the Goths and other tribes of central and northern Europe were Christian, they remained strongly influenced by Arianism, a teaching that denied the divinity of Christ. In response, preaching and the arts of this period particularly stressed Christ’s divinity, as in the Byzantine depictions of Christ as Pantokrator (universal and all-powerful ruler) and in the western images of Christ as the supreme and universal judge. As Christ became an awe-inspiring, judgmental figure, Mary came to be depicted as the one who interceded for sinners. As the fear of death and the Last Judgment intensified following the Black Plague in the 14th century, Mary was increasingly venerated in popular piety as mediator of the mercy of Christ. Her prayers and pleas were seen as the agency that tempered the stern justice of Christ. Among the popular devotions that came into being at this time were the rosary (a chaplet originally consisting of 150 Hail Marys in imitation of the 150 Psalms in the psalter, later augmented by 15 interspersed “Our Father” as penance for daily sins); the angelus recited at sunrise, noon, and sunset; and litanies (invocations of Mary using such biblical titles as Mystical Rose, Tower of David, and Refuge of Sinners). Hymns, psalms, and prayers were incorporated into the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, in imitation of the longer divine office recited or chanted by monks and priests.

Doctrine of Immaculate Conception

The principal theological development concerning Mary in the Middle Ages was the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. This doctrine, defended and preached by the Franciscan friars under the inspiration of the 13th-century Scottish theologian John Duns Scotus; maintains that Mary was conceived without original sin. Dominican teachers and preachers vigorously opposed the doctrine, maintaining that it detracted from Christ’s role as universal saviour. Pope Sixtus IV, a Franciscan, defended it, establishing in 1477 a feast of the Immaculate Conception with a proper mass and office to be celebrated on December 8.[3]


Marian shrines and places of pilgrimage were found throughout the world. At Montserrat in Spain the Black Virgin has been venerated since the 12th century. The icon of Our Lady of Czêstochowa has been venerated in Poland since the early 14th century. The picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe commemorates an alleged apparition of Mary to Native American Juan Diego in Mexico in 1531. In the 19th century a number of apparitions of Mary were reported that inspired the development of shrines, devotions, and pilgrimages – for instance, in Paris (1830, Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal); Lourdes (1858, Our Lady of Lourdes); Knock, in Ireland (1879, Our Lady of Knock); and Fatima, in Portugal (1917, Our Lady of Fatima).

Lutheran Attacks and Counter Attacks

The Anglican scholar A. Lancashire shows in Born of the Virgin Mary that a Christianity without Mariology cannot have an orthodox Christology: “A rejection of Mariology must inevitably lead to a rejection of orthodox Christology. … Devotion to Mary, far from leading men away from Christ, draws the Church into a deeper recognition of the mystery of God’s loving activity directed towards man in Christ.”[4]

Cults like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Oneness Pentecostals that accept the divine inspiration of the Bible but reject the doctrine of the Trinity have simply taken Fundamentalism to its logical conclusion. When you reject the binding interpretations of the historic Faith there is no doctrine that is safe. Moreover, the history of doctrine shows that the rejection of Marian doctrine leads sooner or later to the rejection of the Christological and Trinitarian affirmations. It is Marian doctrine and devotion that preserved the truth of the Trinity. When the Christian believer sees the biblical portrait of Mary as Daughter of the Father, Mother of the Son and Spouse of the Holy Spirit, he grasps forcefully the distinctions between the Three Persons. The doctrine of the Trinity becomes a reality for him. On the flip side, the idea of “Jesus alone” with no reference to Mary leads to a focus on God only as Father (Jehovah’s Witnesses and some Fundamentalists) or a focus on Jesus that excludes the Father and the Holy Spirit (most Fundamentalists) or an exclusive focus on the Holy Spirit (Fanatic Charismatics/ Pentecostals). With a healthy Marian devotion comes an authentic understanding and a conscious grasp of the doctrine of the Trinity. Marian doctrine is equally important for Christology. For instance, the declaration that Mary is the Mother of God said two clear things about Christ: He is one Person, a divine Person; He is a human being because His mother is human. Once the declaration of Mary’s Divine Maternity was rejected the next step was to reject the affirmation that Christ is a divine Person.

Finally, each one of the Marian doctrines is in reality both a Christological doctrine and an application of Christology to the human condition. The Marian doctrines not only tell us the central truths of Christology but show their application in the life of humanity as a whole. To say that Mary is the Mother of God is to say that Jesus is God and Man. To teach Mary’s Perpetual Virginity is to teach the Virgin Birth and the supernatural nature of the birth of Jesus. To proclaim the Immaculate Conception is to proclaim the reality of the redemption wrought by the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world – to realize moreover that the redemptive effects of His death transcend time. To acclaim the Assumption of Mary is to celebrate the fact that the Resurrection of Christ not only took place but that it opens the door to our own resurrection from the dead. To affirm the mediation of Mary is to affirm both the supreme mediation of Christ and the possibility and the obligation of our participating in this mediation.

Martin Luther and Marian Doctrine

Contrary to popular belief, Martin Luther basically did not reject major Marian doctrines although some of his immediate followers and present day heirs have done so. This point is well argued by the Lutheran Charles Dickson: “After five centuries of Church history since the period of the Reformation, Catholics and Protestants alike assume the reformers downplayed the role of the Virgin Mary in God’s plan of salvation. Actually the facts are otherwise. While it is true that many of the radical leaders who followed the original reformers sought to eliminate the Mother of our Lord from their theology, and in many cases were successful in all but doing so, this does not represent the position of the early leaders. … Perhaps in no other place is the discrepancy more evident than in the example of the viewpoints of Martin Luther contrasted with the practices and beliefs of modern Protestants. What did Luther really believe about Mary? For an answer to that question, we must search through his original writings. Some interesting points emerge as a result of that investigation. First, Luther referred to Mary as “the workshop of God” and decried Protestant antagonism toward her as an offshoot of Church conflict. Luther believed in the help of the Virgin Mary for all worthwhile endeavors. In his letter to Prince John Frederick, duke of Saxony, in 1521 as a prologue to his commentary on the Magnificat of the first chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel, he wrote, “May the tender Mother of God herself procure for me the spirit of wisdom profitably and thoroughly to expound this song of hers.” Not only did Luther believe Mary helped Christians who call on her for assistance, he also supported prayers to her. Again, in his commentary on the Magnificat, he wrote, “O Blessed Virgin, Mother of God, what great comfort God has shown us in you by so graciously regarding your unworthiness and low estate.” For those who would follow in the faith, he desired a continued honor of Mary by stating, “The Virgin Mary means to say simply that her praise will be sung from one generation to another so that there will never be a time when she will not be praised.” While he was concerned about any beliefs or practices that might tend to make her equal with Christ in our redemption, in accord with Catholic theology throughout history, he referred to Mary as “Queen of Heaven” and called this a “true enough name”. Luther’s belief in the position of Mary in salvation history is summed up in his conclusion to the commentary on the Magnificat where he states, “We pray God to give us a right understanding of this Magnificat, an understanding that consists not merely in brilliant words, but in glowing life in body and soul. May Christ grant us this through the intercession and for the sake of His dear Mother Mary.”[5]


It is a hard fact of history that Marian doctrine and devotion have been an indivisible part of Christian belief – both in the East and the West – for 20 centuries. The primary sources of Marian doctrine and devotion are the following: Sacred Scripture, the divinely inspired inerrant Word of God; the earliest Teaching of the Apostolic Community which in the first four centuries served as the main framework of instruction for believers prior to the fixing of the canon of Scripture; the inner dynamic of Christianity as this emerged through the authoritative interpretation of Scripture by the Councils and Creeds; the liturgy which reflected the Apostolic Faith; the reflections of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church; the testimony of the Holy Ones and Martyrs; the consensus of the faithful. United with all of this also was the living experience of Mary enjoyed by millions.

By establishing its basis in Scripture and the apostolic community’s interpretation of Scripture, Mariology seeks to show that Marian doctrine and devotion are (a) fundamental to historic Christianity and (b) acceptable to all Christians regardless of denominational background. Differences on other issues such as the Papacy and the Sacraments, important as these may be, are not the subject of these volumes since the objective is simply to introduce Bible-believing Christians to their common Mother. Fortunately, there is today a cross-denominational rediscovery of Mary and a renaissance of Marian thought among Protestant Christians. The Ecumenical Society for the Blessed Virgin Mary, founded in 1966, has played an influential role in the contemporary rediscovery. Among the most important recent books on Mary by Protestant Christians are Mary for all Christians by John Macquarrie (Anglican); Down to Earth: The New Protestant Vision of the Virgin Mary by John de Satge (Evangelical); A Protestant Pastor Looks at Mary by Charles Dickson (Lutheran) and Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy by Neville Ward (Methodist).

We Catholics know that the importance of Mary will be truly rediscovered only if the doctrine is based on the unity of their faith. They must resolve considerable discrepancies of doctrine concerning the mystery and ministry of the Church, and sometimes also concerning the role of Mary in the work of salvation. The dialogues begun by the Catholic Church with the Churches and Ecclesial Communities of the West are steadily converging upon these two inseparable aspects of the same mystery of salvation. If the mystery of the Word made flesh enables us to glimpse the mystery of the divine motherhood and if, in turn, contemplation of the Mother of God brings us to a more profound understanding of the mystery of the Incarnation, then the same must be said for the mystery of the Church and Mary’s role in the work of salvation. By a more profound study of both Mary and the Church, clarifying each by the light of the other, Christians who are eager to do what Jesus tells them as their Mother recommends (cf. Jn. 2:5) will be able to go forward together on this “pilgrimage of faith.” Mary, who is still the model of this pilgrimage, is to lead them to the unity which is willed by their one Lord and so much desired by those who are attentively listening to what “the Spirit is saying to the Churches” today (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17).

Foot Notes

[1] Friedrich Heiler, “Die Gottesmutter im Glauben  und Beten der Jahrhunderte,” Hochkirche 13 (1931), p. 200.

[2] Basilea Schlink, Mary, the Mother of Jesus (London: Marshall Pickering, 1986), 114-115.

[3] This feast was extended to the whole Western church by Pope Clement XI in 1708. In 1854 Pope Pius IX issued a solemn decree defining the Immaculate Conception for all Roman Catholics, but the doctrine has not been accepted by Protestants or by the Orthodox churches. In 1950 Pope Pius XII solemnly defined as an article of faith for all Roman Catholics the doctrine of the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven.

[4] A. Lancashire, Born of the Virgin Mary, London: The Faith Press, 1962, pp. 142-3.

[5] Charles Dickson, A Protestant Pastor Looks at  Mary, 40-2