A Short History of Marian Devotion

Christianity Today has an interesting article entitled “Hail Mary” which traces the history of Marian devotion. It is quite short and makes for an interesting read. Here are the first few paragraphs:

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Mary responded in obedience. She called herself the Lord’s “handmaiden” (Luke 1:38, 48)—a humble title that set the tone for the rest of the New Testament accounts and became the foundation for centuries of Marian devotion.

Mary recognized that she had become, like Enoch (Gen. 5:22) and Noah (who “found grace in the eyes of the LORD” [Gen. 6:8]), one “highly favored” by God (Luke 1:28, 30). She saw that she would forever after be recognized as one “blessed … among women” (28, 42). This blessing was not for her alone, as she sang in her Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), but for all God’s children. She was the one woman, out of all women, through whom God would fulfill his covenant love and promise.

How improbable! This obscure Jewish girl became, through the work of the Holy Spirit and her willing obedience, the instrument of divine grace. Through her, the majesty and unapproachable holiness of God joined the frail impermanence of fallen humanity. She was the chosen vessel of the Incarnation, at the pivot point of God’s saving plan. How could Mary not loom in the imagination of the church?

The author of the article, David Jeffery, is a professor of Literature and the Humanities at Baylor University, a Baptist college. While he does a good job of tracing the rise of Marian devotion, I was disappointed to see that nowhere did he refute it. As a matter of fact, one could almost surmise that he was quite in favor of the homage paid to Mary. The article ends quite abruptly with the words “Perhaps if England had been more influenced by Wyclif and Luther than by Calvin and Cromwell, even Reformation poets might have shied away less sharply from Mary as a subject for poetry. Calvin’s central contention that Mary’s ‘virtues and all her excellences are nothing other than the generosity of God’ (New Testament Commentaries 1.22) leads him to say that ‘to this day we cannot enjoy the blessing brought to us in Christ without thinking at the same time of that which God gave as adornment and honor to Mary, in willing her to be the mother of his only-begotten Son.'” It seems a rather strange way to end an article.

The author maintains that devotion to Mary flowed naturally from the Bible’s description of her. Having described how the Bible speaks of her and what her role was, he says “How could Mary not loom in the imagination of the church?” I am not so sure this is an accurate assumption. The Bible leaves no room for doubt that Mary should be paid no more homage or devotion than that extended to any other of God’s chosen vessels. While Mary had the distinguished honor of bearing our Lord, nowhere does the Bible give any of us license to revere her as the Catholic Church does.

Protestant historians have long affirmed the belief that the worship or devotion paid to Mary arose primarily from the pagan religions of the ancient times, the majority of which honored a goddess. Notably absent from Christianity was a divine female figure, so Mary was soon elevated to that status. The reverence paid to Mary, then, would owe more to Diana and Athena then to the Bible.

When we hold to the view that Marian devotion flows naturally from the Word we are faced with three options: either the Bible is deliberately ambiguous on the matter; or the Bible is flawed and poorly represents Mary; or the Bible accurately depicts Mary as being worthy of devotion. None of these can be true if we are to hold true to our belief in the infallibility of the Scriptures. To ascribe the devotion paid to Mary to the Bible is blasphemous. Nowhere does the Bible permit, endorse or even hint at such a practice. Had God’s people remained true to the Word of God rather than so quickly losing the innocence and purity of the early church, there is no reason to believe that Mary would have loomed large in the imagination of the church. She would have rightly been viewed as one of a long line of servants chosen by the Lord, each of whom was privileged to serve the purpose He had marked out for them. The devotion of Mary originated from the same sinful hearts that have introduced to humanity a host of false deities. I thank God that Mary is basking in heaven, worshipping her son, and has no idea of the blasphemy done in her name.