Mary in the Early Church and Today

We had a great conversation about Jesus and the faith with another Christian. Then we mentioned Mary. A cold chill came over the conversation and he said, "I don't pray to dead people."

We believe he was referring to Deuteronomy 18:10-12 (discussed on the Saints page). Martin Luther said "There is no doubt Mary is in Heaven." (Sermon, Feast of the Visitation, 1537)  Catholics believe heaven is a lively place (not dead) with lots of praise and praying. Catholics think that Mary is also praying in heaven to our Lord and Saviour.

We got an email from an Evangelical that said:

I find it odd that they [Early Fathers] wrote little about Mary to begin with and when they did, they only mentioned the following:

  • She existed
  • She was a woman, New Eve
  • She was righteous
  • She bore God
  • She was a virgin
  • She was a faithful obedient woman to God

That's pretty much what the Bible already claims.

It's good to see this reader recognizes Mary as the New Eve, who "bore God" but The Bible goes well beyond these claims, discussed here. Also, we don't limit the Early Fathers to what is listed here. They have quite a bit to say about Mary, from the documents we have and we know there are many more that have been lost to antiquity when Jerusalem was sacked and the early Christians were getting burnt, eaten, beaten and scattered.

Irenaeus said:

"By obeying, she became a cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race." (III, 22, 4)

Irenaeus was a student of Polycarp, who was a student of John the Apostle. That's about as early as you can get. We would say this statement is well beyond the limitations that our Evangelical friend has placed on the Fathers. We'd also clarify, when they said she was a virgin, the Early Fathers believed her to be "ever-virgin" all her life. Also our friend said they believed "she bore God. " It would be more accurate to say they believed her to be the "Mother of God." She was not some kind of surrogate mother that God used like an incubator for his Son. It was the "Mother of God" dogma that defeated the heresy of Nestorias, who tried to separate Jesus - who is God, from Jesus - who is human. Nestorias' concept of Jesus' humanity could be compared to a milk bottle that the spirit of God was poured into, as if God didn't really become fully human, but rather wore his humanity like a suit. Whereas Jesus' body is more like the paint on the Mona Lisa.

Did the Catholics make up this stuff about Mary in the 1800's?

There are those who say the Catholics made up this Mary thing out of thin air in the last century or so - that she was no part of early Christianity. Paradoxically there is another crowd who dismiss Mary as the ancient pagan goddess Gaia (mother earth) long predating Christ. Some Evangelicals seem to reach far for an explanation for the Catholic relationship to Mary. Catholics think the best place to look is the Bible and the early Church.

It has only been in the last couple of hundred years that there has been any question about Mary's validity. A simple look at medieval paintings will verify that she was always a happening part of the Christian scene.

The book, "The Blessed Virgin in the Fathers of the First Six Centuries" (by Thomas Livius, Published by Burns & Oates) contains a powerful witness to the devotion early Christians had toward Mary. In the year 130 Irenaeus wrote about her. He was familiar with those who had been close both to Peter and to Paul and who "had still the preaching of the blessed Apostles ringing in their ears".  He said:

"As Eve was seduced by the speech of an angel, so as to flee God in transgressing his word, so also Mary received the good tidings by means of the angel's speech, so as to be God within her, being obedient to this word. And though the one had disobeyed God, yet the other was drawn to obey him; that of the virgin Eve, the virgin Mary might become the advocate and as by a virgin the human race had been bound to death, by a virgin it is saved, the balance being preserved- a virgin's disobedience  by a virgin' obedience." (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3, 19) (175-185 A.D.)

St. Justin Martyr ( 110-165 A.D.) writes:

For whereas Eve, yet a virgin and undefiled, through conceiving the word that came from the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death; the Virgin Mary, taking faith and joy, when the Angel told her the good tidings that the Spirit of the Lord should come upon  her, and the power of the Most High overshadow her, and therefore the Holy One to be born of her should be the Son of God, answered, Be it doneaccording to thy word. And so by means of her was he born, concerning whom we have shown so many Scriptures were  spoken; through whom God overthrows the serpent, and those angels and men who have become like to it, and on the other hand, works deliverance from death for such as repent of their evil doings and believe in him (St. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, c. 160 A.D.)

St. Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 310-403) writes:

Eve was called the mother of the living ...after the fall this title was given to her. True it is...the whole race of man upon earth was born from Eve; but in reality it is from Mary the Life was truly born to the world. So that by giving birth to the Living One, Mary became the mother of all living (St. Epiphanius, Against Eighty Heresies, 78,9, written c. 374)

One of the oldest catacombs contains a drawing of the Madonna and Child dating back to the second century, and the oldest known request to Mary, the "Sub Tuum Praesidium", dates back to at least 300 AD!

We fly to your patronage, O holy Theotokos2;
despise not our petition in our necessities,
but deliver us always from all dangers,
O ever-glorious and blessed Virgin.

2Means "Godbearer" or Mother of God. This title came into Christian use very early. It simply says that she gave birth to Jesus (who any Christian will agree is God).

There were also feasts in memory of the Assumption of Mary in Antioch dating back to 380 A.D.

The Catholic church is explicit that Mary's role is as helper. Around 350-450 A.D. there was a heresy called Collyridianism where there was a group of women who did worship Mary as a deity. They were not Catholic. A Catholic representative, Saint Epiphanius defeated this heresy with his apologetic Panarion.

For those who think this Catholic "Mary thing" is a holdover from early pagan practices, I suggest this article.

Many people wish that this thing about Mary would go away and that the Church would be in greater unity with other Christians if it would.

It appears that most of the closed feelings against Mary have crept into the reform movement in the last 100 years. Many great Protestants have had strong feelings for Mary including C.S. Lewis. Most early reformers had strong positive feelings for Mary including Calvin, Heinrich Bullinger, and John Wesley. Even Martin Luther spoke to her in the first person saying:

No woman is like you. You are more than Eve or Sarah, blessed above all nobility, wisdom, and sanctity.
(Martin Luther Sermon - Feast of the Visitation, 1537)

We are not apologists. Apart from all this doctrine and stuff, the reason we believe that Mary is in heaven helping us is because each of us had an experience with Mary that we cannot refute (Hugh's testimony here, Diane's testimony here). No one can tell us she is dead. We don't worship her. She is a friend who prays for us and has shown us very cool things about her Son, Jesus. We believe we are better Christians today because of Mary.

If you are afraid to talk to Mary, we invite you to:

Pray to Jesus about Mary.

Any Evangelical would say it is perfectly safe to pray to Jesus about anything. Ask Jesus what's up with Mary. Give him time to respond. We pray you have the same experience that has led to our powerful convictions about the validity of Mary as a helper for the helpless, and a great prayer warrior.

Bible passages Catholics feel are related to Mary:

  • Genesis 3:15, 24:43-46 - Rebecca, 28:12 Jacob's Ladder, 30:13?,
  • Exodus 3:11-12, 13:2, 13:14 (Magnificat), 15:20, 21, 26 (Magnificat), 25:8 Ark, 34:19-20
  • Leviticus 12:2, 8 Purification
  • Numbers 18:15 Presentation
  • Judges 6:12, 15 Annunciation
  • 1 Samuel 2:1-10 (Magnificat)
  • Isaiah 7:14 Virgin Birth
  • Ezekiel 44:2 (Mary's perpetual Virginity)
  • Mat, 1:16, 18-25 (Mary to be found with Child 2:11, 13-14, 20-23 Maji flight to Egypt 12:46-50 Who is my mother? 13:55 is his mother not Mary?
  • Mark 3:31-35 Your mother is outside 6:3 is he not son of Mary?
  • Luke 1:26-56 Annunciation, visitation magnificat 2:5-7, 16-19, 22, 33-35, 39, 41-51 Nativity, shepherds, presentation, finding in the temple 8:19-21 Your mother outside 11:27-28 Blessed is the womb that bore you
  • Jn 1:14 incarnation 2:1-5 Cana 6:42 Do we not know his mother 19:25-27
  • Acts 1:14 Gathered in prayer with Mary Gal 4:4 God sent son born of woman
  • Col 1:15, 18 first born, Head of body 
  • Rev 11:19 Ark in Heaven 12:1-17 Woman clothed with the sun

Related articles

  1. 10 Reasons Mother Mary is not just for Catholics
  2. Mary in Scripture
  3. Martin Luther's quotes about Mary
  4. Hugh's experience with Mary
  5. Is Mary a pagan goddess?
  6. Do Catholics pray to Mary?
  7. Repetitious prayers?
  8. The rosary
  9. Is the rosary more about Mary than Jesus?
  10. Learn the Rosary
  11. Download audio version of the rosary on MP3
  12. Mary in the early Church and today
  13. Did Mary have a bunch of kids?
  14. What's this co-redemptrix nonsense?
  15. Immaculate conception
  16. Apparitions - what's all that about?