Dissertation: Protestant Devotion to the Virgin Mary

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Protestant Devotion to the Virgin Mary

One of the most controversial topics in religion today is how one should answer the question: does Mary play a significant role in modern Protestant religion? The answer to this question begets several ancillary questions, the most important one being: if Mary does not play a significant role in modern Protestant religion, is this an error? In short, is there a need for a more significant place for Mary in present Protestant liturgical traditions? Some experts believe that giving Mary a more prominent role in the practice of Protestantism would endanger the very nature of Protestantism by introducing an intermediary between God and worshippers. Others disagree vehemently with such statements and suggest that embracing Marian devotion may be the very thing necessary in order to save Protestantism from implosion. Therefore, it is clear that these questions simply cannot be answered by simple resort to the experts. On the contrary, in order to answer this question, the author will investigate contemporary Mariology.

The purpose of the investigation will be to answer two key questions: (1) is there currently an identifiable Protestant liturgical theology of Mary; and (2) what are the most significant contemporary developments in Protestant Mariology? To determine the answers to these questions, this investigation will look into modern Mariology and its impact on modern Protestantism. However, unlike more traditional religious studies, because this investigation seeks to uncover how everyday Protestants view Mary's role in their religions, the study will not be limited to investigating scholarly approaches to Mariology. On the contrary, while scholarly resources will be used, the most important source of information may be mass media resources like magazines, and less traditional media sources, such as websites. These untraditional sources should provide insight into how modern lay Protestants view Mary, if they honor her, if they believe she should be honored, how they view the church's official approach to Mary, and if they desire pro-Marian changes in Protestantism. Hopefully, information from a broad variety of practitioners will yield a suggestion about the modern state of Mary in the Protestant church and whether her role should change. Whatever the answer, it is certain that some will find it controversial, because, for a religion that has traditionally downplayed the importance of Mary in the religion, it is clear that whatever a Protestant believes about Mary's purported role is an essential and basic element of their faith.

Introduction

Traditionally, at least in recent history, the Virgin Mary has not played a very large role in the various Protestant faiths. In fact, many modern Protestants only recall celebrating Mary during Christmas, and those celebrations were strictly limited to Mary's role in the birth of Christ rather than celebrating Mary's prophecies prior to Jesus' birth or the role that she played as Jesus' day-to-day parent. The Protestant attitude towards Mary contrasts starkly with Catholic and Orthodox attitudes, which celebrate Mary in several different ways. To Catholics, Mary was chosen to be the mother of God's son because she was an example of a devout and loving Jew, so that her spiritual greatness actually preceded the events that are traditionally associated with her. However, to Protestants, prior to the visit from the angel Gabriel, Mary led an unremarkable life, and her sole claim to significance in Christianity is the fact that she was chosen, more or less arbitrarily, by God to be the mother of his son. Furthermore, many Protestants not only refused to share in the Catholic and Orthodox reverence for the Virgin, but have actually reacted vehemently against it, associating respect and reverence for Mary with the some type of idolatry. In fact, some prominent Protestant scholars, such as Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School feel that the Protestant backlash against Mary is due to Protestant "concern about the level of reverence that many Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians give to her." (Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, 2004). This backlash against Marian devotion has led some Christians to the conclusion that Protestants cannot embrace both Mary and a Protestant faith. This is an unfortunate attitude, which does not embrace the reverence that the Reformers had for Mary, but actually seems to reflect Protestant bias against Catholicism, rather than any innate Protestant bias against Mary or Marian devotion. It is possible that the anti-Marian trends in Protestantism have not been motivated by anti-Catholic sentiment, but actually demonstrate that the literal interpretation of the Bible that is demanded by practicing Protestants leaves little room for devotion to Mary. Whatever the motivation for the backlash against Marian devotion, it has resulted in Mary playing a less significant role in Protestant liturgy than she currently plays in Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and, more importantly, a less significant role than she played in minds of the Reformers and in the original Protestant religions that were formed at the time of the Reformation.

As one might imagine, the modern practice of Protestantism, with its de-emphasis of Mary's role in the founding of Christianity, does not reflect the attitudes held by the original Reformers. On the contrary, any viewpoint that somehow seeks to pit any type of reverence for Mary against Protestantism boldly ignores the historical view of Mary in the various Protestant faiths. For example, Martin Luther, the founder of Lutheranism and a critical leader of the reform movement in Christianity, "had a very high view of Mary and a loving devotion to Mary, in a way. He refers to her as the place where God did his handiwork on earth." (Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, 2004). While this attitude towards Mary does not demonstrate the same level of reverence and worship that one might find in modern Catholic or Orthodox churches, it was similar to the attitude that Catholics had towards Mary at the time of the Reformation. More importantly, such an attitude also reveals a much greater level of respect than is formally or officially shown to Mary by most modern Protestant denominations and individual churches. Such a dichotomy suggests that there is a divide between how individuals view Mary and the official positions that their churches take on the issue. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that many individual Protestants may be more pro-Marian than the official liturgy would suggest. It also suggests that there is nothing anti-Protestant about holding Mary in high esteem, and that many modern Protestants may do exactly that. Therefore, one can be led to the conclusion that the Reformation was not, in whole or in part, caused by any type of discontent with the reverence then being shown for Mary in the Catholic Church. In fact, the Reformers seemed to assume that Protestants would continue to show at least limited reverence for Mary. Once one has that knowledge, one can easily come to the conclusion that even if such reverence is not formally recognized by their churches, many modern Protestants continue to demonstrate reverence for Mary and to feel heightened levels of Marian devotion, without elevating Mary to the level of a deity.

Hypothesis

Although many believe that Mary plays a limited role in contemporary Protestant liturgical traditions, Protestant traditions are far too varied to wholly support such a blanket statement. While Mary's role in Protestant liturgy certainly and profoundly decreased in the centuries following the Reformation, that trend appears to be reversing itself. The result of this reversal is that the role of Mary in the liturgy and tradition of modern Protestantism has been expanding for approximately the last 40 years. While not considered an intermediary between God and the individual, Mary is viewed as a very important figure in Christianity, with some individual churches and Protestants professing the belief that Mary was an essential figure in the establishment of the church. The pro-Marian influence has not been strictly religious. For example, as feminism has expanded and grown in society at large, Mary has continued to gain more respect in the church, which suggests that there is indeed a significant a correlation between secular views of women and official church views of Mary. In addition, one cannot ignore the impact that the recent influx of Hispanics into American Protestantism has had on Protestant attitudes towards Mary. Because the majority of Hispanics enter Christianity through Catholicism, they generally hold more pro-Marian attitudes than traditional Protestants, even upon conversion. Furthermore, like the Reformers, the modern-day Hispanics who abandon Catholicism site many reasons for their changes in religious affiliation, but do not seem to feel as if Catholicism's emphasis on Mary has contributed to their desire to change religions. On the contrary, they appear to embrace Catholicism's position on Mary, with many of them expressing a desire to import pro-Marian attitudes into their personal experiences with Catholicism, even while wanting to escape other trappings of traditional Catholicism, such as an emphasis on sainthood and the lack of a personal relationship with God.

Despite these pro-Marian changes, it is very difficult to label any specific theologies arising from Mary's role in contemporary Protestant liturgy. This difficulty is due partly to… [END OF PREVIEW]

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