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Question and Answer

The Place of Mary in Reformed Theology

Question:

In other strains of the Reformation (Lutheranism for example), the Virgin Mary retained a status that the Reformed don’t necessarily hold for her. What were the theological/historical issues that brought a break between the different channels of the Reformation? Were there different early Reformed views on different continents? If so, why? What is the proper consensus “Mariology” of Reformed theology, and what role—if any—does her witness play in the role of Christian piety/liturgy? Thanks for everything and God bless!

Answer:

You ask a series of questions on church history and what is orthodox/biblical doctrine. I am not a seminary professor but a simple pastor. There are multiple books that cover the questions you pose and whole seminary courses on the divergent streams of the Reformation, but if you’ll bear with me, I’ll give it my best shot.

The two major streams, Lutheranism and Reformed, flow together on most key issues: the solas of the Reformation (sola fide, sola scriptura, sola gratia, solus christus, soli deo gloria). The Trinity, the incarnation of the Son of God, and justification are acknowledged by both streams. The differences emerge in areas like church government, but most especially in the understanding of the sacraments. Lutheranism makes room for baptismal regeneration, whereas the Reformed view of baptism is grounded in the covenant of grace which spans the Old and New Testaments. There are many books written on this subject. The greatest point of conflict, however, surrounds the Lord’s Supper. Luther famously refused to understand Luke 22:19 (“This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me”) in any way other than what he believed to be the plain meaning of Jesus’ words. Perhaps he was seeking to span the gap between the Roman Catholic view of transubstantiation (the elements actually become the body and blood of the Lord Jesus) and the Protestant focus on justification. Perhaps Luther was a man of the medieval church and held on his unique view of consubstantiation (the elements are not transformed but rather Christ is present in, with, and under them) because of his lifelong pursuit of assurance. In any case, the other Reformers, notably Calvin, were more focused on the work of the Holy Spirit. Calvin believed that Christ is present in the Supper, but present spiritually as the Spirit of Christ lifts us up to heaven where Christ is seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high. I would encourage you to read Chapter 29 of the Westminster Confession of Faith on the Supper, and also read Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, as helpful resources.

If you study the Reformed confessions and catechisms (the Westminster Standards, the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, for instance) you will see a commonality among them. Lutheranism had fewer confessions and catechisms. The two streams are ‘cousins’ but not always ‘kissing cousins’!

Now as to the second focus of your questions, the place of Mary mother of Jesus in orthodox Christianity. Looking at Mary from a biblical and theological stance, that is, examining what the Bible actually says about Mary, we have to say that the exaltation of Mary in the Roman Catholic Church (I cannot speak to the Lutheran position) is without biblical foundation, that no doctrine or promise is tied to Mary. She understood herself to be the handmaiden of the Lord (Luke 1:46–55). Her blessedness comes not from herself but from the gracious choosing of God for her to be the instrument in his fulfilling Genesis 3:15, sending a conqueror through a woman, since a woman had sinned in eating the forbidden fruit. Many generations of women must have wondered and hoped that they would bear the promised Messiah, but Mary was the one God chose. Mary, like all of humanity descending from Adam and Eve, was in need of a Savior, for she could not save herself or atone for her own sins.

The Reformed faith honors Mary as a woman who trusted God in a very hard thing, laying hold of God’s promise that her child would be the Son of God (Luke 1:35). The Reformed faith honors but does not exalt or look to Mary for blessings beyond what her Son, Jesus Christ, brings to repentant sinners. The early church held this position in the phrase “born of the virgin Mary,” which Christians have confessed for so many centuries. The Apostles Creed, you might say, is the way in which Mary is part of the liturgy in Reformed churches.

As I said earlier, there is a lot written covering your questions. I encourage you to start with your Bible and then study something like the Westminster Confession of Faith, and then branch out into classic Reformed theologies. Thanks for asking.


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"Questions and Answers" is a weekly feature of the OPC website. The answers come from individual ministers in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church expressing their own convictions and do not necessarily represent an "official" position of the Church, especially in areas where the Standards of the Church (the Scriptures and the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms) are silent.

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