Creeds: What’s There And What’s Not

When you read the Definition of Chalcedon, you will find a reference to Mary as the mother of God.  As I mentioned last week, that was not just pious boilerplate language; it was at the heart of the controversy, and a key part of the fathers’ success against the heresies of their day.

Now, “mother of God” could be taken to imply all the cult of Mary business — adoration of Mary, prayers to Mary, kissing statues or pictures of Mary, the whole nine yards.  Certainly parts of the present-day cult of Mary are later innovations, but even in 451, the cult of Mary was a going concern.  We can’t say that the fathers at Chalcedon simply didn’t have a clue that anyone would go that route.  They did, and at least some of them approved of it.

So I find myself facing objections on opposite fronts: many of my evangelical brethren object to my use of the Definition because they feel I am giving aid and comfort to the cult of Mary.  On the other hand, there are folks, say from the Eastern Church, who will object that I don’t really agree with the Definition of Chalcedon.  “You don’t pray to Mary,” they will say, “you don’t venerate her as the Mother of God; how can you say that you agree with Chalcedon?”

What these two objections have in common is an assumption that “mother of God” implies all the ‘cult of Mary’ baggage, that the two come as a set and can’t be separated.  But this is just silly.  What the Definition does say can certainly be separated from what it does not say.

I do, in fact, believe what the Definition says: that she is the mother of God.  I believe this because the Word was God, and the Word became flesh, and did so in the usual human way, by growing in the womb of a specific woman and passing through her birth canal.  Now, we have a perfectly good designation for the woman who takes that role in a person’s life, and the word is “mother.”  We don’t blink at saying that Jesus is God come in the flesh, born to the virgin Mary; why would we blink at saying, in the same breath, that God had a mother?  Didn’t he?  (Of course, this is God-the-second-person-of-the-Trinity.  The Father doesn’t have a mother, nor does the Spirit — but who is claiming that they do?  The Chalcedonian fathers would have been first to deny it.)

On the other hand, I note that “mother of God” is all the Definition says on this subject.  It does not affirm Mary as a fit recipient for prayer, for example, nor does it say anything about a Christian duty to venerate her.  It may well be that at least some of the Chalcedonian fathers did, in fact, pray to and venerate Mary.  They might even have found it baffling, unthinkable, that someone could affirm Mary as the mother of God and not pray to her.  Perhaps they would have thought the two ideas were inseparable.  But with the advantage of additional centuries to reflect, we can see that actually, they are separable, and in God’s Providence the Definition only speaks to one of them — the one that the Scriptures clearly support.

Since the Scriptures clearly support it, so should we.

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