The Witness of the Church Fathers With Regard to Catholic Distinctive’s : Part 9 Mariology

[This portion of the blog post The Witness of the Church Fathers With Regard to Catholic Distinctives is re-posted with permission of Dave Armstrong.  This material is also found in his book: The Church Fathers Were Catholic: Patristic Evidences for Catholicism]

IX. History of Mariology

In the second century, St. Justin Martyr is already expounding the “New Eve” teaching, which Cardinal Newman regards as a starting-point for much later Marian dogmatic development:

Christ became man by the Virgin so that the disobedience which proceeded from the serpent might be destroyed in the same way it originated. For Eve, being a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word from the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. The Virgin Mary, however, having received faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced to her the good tidings . . . answered: Be it done to me according to thy word. (189)

St. Irenaeus, a little later, takes up the same theme: “What the virgin Eve had tied up by unbelief, this the virgin Mary loosened by faith.” (190) He also views her as the preeminent intercessor for mankind. (191)

In the third century, Origen taught the perpetual virginity (192), Mary as the second-Eve (193), and was the first Father to use the term Theotokos. (194) He expressly affirms the spiritual motherhood of Mary: “No one may understand the meaning of the Gospel [of John], if he has not rested on the breast of Jesus and received Mary from Jesus, to be his mother also.” (195)

By the fourth century, the designation “Mother of God” was in general use, since the Roman emperor Julian (the Apostate) taunted Christians,saying: “You never stop calling Mary Theotokos.” (196) Eusebius, the first Church historian, calls her panagia, or “all-holy.” (197) St. Athanasius calls Mary “ever-virgin,” (198) arguing from the fact that Jesus gave His mother to St. John’s care. (199) St. Hilary of Poitiers also affirmed the perpetual virginity. (200) St. Ephraem is thought to be the first Father to hold to the Immaculate Conception: “You alone and your Mother are good in every way; for there is no blemish in thee, my Lord, and no stain in thy Mother.” (201) He invokes the Blessed Virgin in very “Catholic” fashion:

O virgin lady, immaculate Mother of God, my lady most glorious, most gracious, higher than heaven, much purer than the sun’s splendor, rays or light . . . you bore God and the Word according to the flesh, preserving your virginity before childbirth, a virgin after childbirth. (202)

St. Gregory Nazianzen, still in the same century, frequently refers to Mary as “undefiled.” (203) He warns that “if anyone does not accept the holy Mary as Theotokos, he is without the Godhead.” (204) This is an instance of Mariological doctrine representing a test of orthodoxy. St. Gregory cites an invocation of Mary by a woman tempted by the devil, to “the Virgin Mary, imploring her to help a virgin in danger.” (205) St. Gregory of Nyssa often refers to Mary’s perpetual virginity, calls her “undefiled,” (206) and develops the Mary-Eve theme. (207) He infers a vow of virginity on Mary’s part, based on Luke 1:34. (208)

St. Epiphanius regards Mary as aeiparthenos, ever-virgin (209), using the argument of John’s care of Mary after the Crucifixion. (210). Like all the Fathers, he places Mariology under the category of Christology: “He who honours the Lord honours also the holy vessel; he who dishonours the holy vessel, also dishonours his Lord.” (211) St. Epiphanius also teaches the parallelism of Eve and Mary (which was the common belief of Eastern, Greek Christianity, and concludes that Mary is “the mother of the living.” (212) He identifies the Woman of Revelation 12 with Mary and suggests that she may have been assumed bodily into heaven (213), and makes a clear distinction between veneration and worship:

Honour Mary, but let the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit be worshipped. Let no one worship Mary . . . even though Mary is most beautiful and holy and venerable, yet she is not to be worshipped. (214)

St. John Chrysostom upholds Mary’s perpetual virginity (215) and calls her the New Eve. (216) St. Ambrose contended that Mary’s virginity before, during, and after the birth of Christ was the authoritative doctrine of the Church from the beginning (217), and that she was sinless. (218) He speaks of her role as Mediatrix (219) and “type of the Church.” (220) But he is also careful to distinguish between veneration and adoration: “Mary was the temple of God, not the God of the temple. And therefore he alone is to be adored, who worked in the temple.” (221)

St. Jerome, in the late fourth and early fifth century, continued the Second Eve motif, and vigorously defended Mary’s perpetual virginity:

The Virgin Mary . . . remained a virgin before as well as after the birth . . . after he was born, she remained ever-virgin. (222)We . . . take the brethren of the Lord to have been, not the sons of Joseph, but cousins of the Saviour, the children of Mary, the maternal aunt of the Lord . . . For all Scripture shows that cousins are called brethren. (223)

St. Augustine, like other Latin Fathers, avoids the title “Mother of God,” on grounds that it might give rise to misunderstandings, but he clearly holds the doctrine, which was defined as dogma at the Council of Ephesus a year after his death. He often stresses Mary’s perpetual virginity and assumes that Mary had made a vow of celibacy. (224) Like St. Ambrose, he expounds the teaching of Mary’s role as Mediatrix and Spiritual Mother:

How do you not also belong to the childbirth of the Virgin, when you are members of Christ? (225)Just as death comes to us through a woman, Life is born to us through a woman; that the devil, defeated, would be tormented by each nature, feminine and masculine, since he had taken delight in the defection of both. (226)

St. Augustine affirms the sinlessness of the Blessed Virgin Mary:

The holy Virgin Mary, about whom, for the honour of the Lord, I want there to be no question where sin is mentioned, for concerning her we know that more grace for conquering sin in every way was given to her who merited to conceive and give birth to him, who certainly had no sin whatsoever – this virgin excepted, if we could . . . ask all saints, whether they were without sin, what, do we think, would they answer? (227)

The feast day for Mary’s Conception was celebrated in the east from the seventh century onwards, and in the west from the ninth century. The Byzantine feast of the Assumption appears to have been introduced in the late seventh century, and by the end of the next century it was observed everywhere in the west on August 15th. (228)

In the Middle Ages, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception underwent much development, as Ludwig Ott and Cardinal Newman recount:

Under the influence of St. Bernard, the leading theologians of the 12th and 13th centuries (Peter Lombard, St. Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventure, St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas), rejected the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Their difficulty was that they had not yet found the way to bring Mary’s freedom from original sin into consonance with the universality of original sin, and with the necessity of all men for redemption.The correct approach to the final solution of the problem was first achieved by the Franciscan theologian, William of Ware, and this was perfected by his great pupil John Duns Scotus (d. 1308). The latter taught that the animation need not precede the sanctification in order of time but only in order of concept. Through the introduction of the concept of preredemption, he succeeded in reconciling Mary’s freedom from original sin with her necessity for redemption. The preservation from original sin, is, according to Scotus, the most perfect kind of redemption. Thus, it was fitting that Christ should redeem His mother in this manner . . .

The Council of Trent, in its Decree on original sin, makes the significant declaration “that it was not its intention to involve Mary, the Blessed and Immaculate Virgin and Mother of God in this Decree.” (229)

As to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, it was implied in early times, and never denied. In the Middle Ages it was denied by St. Thomas and by St. Bernard, but they took the phrase in a different sense from that in which the Church now takes it. They understood it with reference to our Lady’s mother, and thought it contradicted the text, In sin hath my mother conceived me – whereas we do not speak of the Immaculate Conception except as relating to Mary; and the other doctrine (which St. Thomas and St. Bernard did oppose) is really heretical. (230)

Eastern OrthodoxyThe Mariology of Eastern Orthodoxy is in many respects identical to that of the Catholic Church. The Orthodox greatly venerate the Blessed Virgin in the same sense as in Catholicism, call her TheotokosAeiparthenos, (Ever-Virgin), and Panagia (All-Holy), regard her as the New Eve, and hold firmly to her bodily Assumption. Although they maintain that Mary was free from actual sin, the great majority of Orthodox reject the Immaculate Conception. Some Catholic theologians, such as Louis Bouyer (231), have argued that Orthodox theologians (like St. Thomas Aquinas himself) often misunderstand the precise meaning of this dogma, as clarified by Duns Scotus and others, and finally defined in 1854. (232) Nevertheless, the feast of the Immaculate Conception first originated in the east, and individual Orthodox Christians are free to believe in this doctrine without being deemed heretical..

The Founders of Protestantism

The Founders of Protestantism, or Reformers, as they are known, who believed in Scripture Alone as the highest Christian authority, nevertheless continued in the sixteenth century to retain a surprising number of Marian dogmas (particularly the perpetual virginity and the use of Theotokos). In many respects they were closer in belief to their Catholic opponents than they are to present-day Protestants. Martin Luther himself was startlingly “Catholic” in this regard. The views of these men are of considerable historical interest and deserve to be detailed at some length.

Martin Luther taught the traditional understanding of the title “Mother of God” in the following passage:

God did not derive his divinity from Mary; but it does not follow that it is therefore wrong to say that God was born of Mary, that God is Mary’s Son, and that Mary is God’s mother . . . She is the true mother of God and bearer of God . . . Mary suckled God, rocked God to sleep, prepared broth and soup for God, etc. For God and man are one person, one Christ, one Son, one Jesus, not two Christs . . . just as your son is not two sons . . . even though he has two natures, body and soul, the body from you, the soul from God alone. (233)

Luther also thought it altogether proper to venerate Mary:

The veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart. (234)She is nobility, wisdom, and holiness personified. We can never honor her enough. Still honor and praise must be given to her in such a way as to injure neither Christ nor the Scriptures. (235)

The perpetual virginity of Mary is expressly upheld:

Christ, our Savior, was the real and natural fruit of Mary’s virginal womb . . . This was without the cooperation of a man, and she remained a virgin after that. (236)Christ . . . was the only Son of Mary, and the Virgin Mary bore no children besides Him . . . I am inclined to agree with those who declare that “brothers” really mean “cousins” here, for Holy Writ and the Jews always call cousins brothers. (237)

Most remarkably, Luther even accepted the Immaculate Conception:

It is a sweet and pious belief that the infusion of Mary’s soul was effected without original sin; so that in the very infusion of her soul she was also purified from original sin and adorned with God’s gifts, receiving a pure soul infused by God; thus from the first moment she began to live she was free from all sin. (238)She is full of grace; so that she may be recognized as without any sin. That is a high and great thing, for God’s grace fills her with all gifts and frees her from all evil. (239)

The Lutheran scholar Arthur Carl Piepkorn (1907-73), of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, after intense study, confirmed Luther’s lifelong (barring two “lapses”) acceptance of the Immaculate Conception. (240) Though he made no unequivocal statements concerning it, Luther never denied the Assumption. (241) Additionally, he upheld the spiritual motherhood of Mary, the usefulness of the Rosary, and the propriety of the phrase “Queen of Heaven.”:

Mary is the Mother of Jesus and the Mother of all of us . . . If he is ours, we ought to be in his situation; there where he is, we ought also to be and all that he has ought to be ours, and his mother is also our mother. (242)Our prayer should include the Mother of God . . . What the Hail Mary says is that all glory should be given to God, using these words: Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus Christ. Amen! (243) You see that these words are not concerned with prayer but purely with giving praise and honor . . . We can use the Hail Mary as a meditation in which we recite what grace God has given her. Second, we should add a wish that everyone may know and respect her . . . He who has no faith is advised to refrain from saying the Hail Mary . . . (244)

Though she was without sin, yet that grace was far too great for her to deserve it in any way. How should a creature deserve to become the Mother of God? . . . It is necessary also to keep within bounds and not to make too much of calling her “Queen of Heaven,” which is a true-enough name . . . (245)

Even John Calvin, much less traditional than Luther in many ways, makes several “Catholic-sounding” comments about Mary:

We cannot give praise for the blessing which Christ has given to us without remembering at the same time the glorious privilege which God bestowed on Mary by choosing her to be the mother of his only Son . . . Now she is called Blessed because, receiving by faith the blessing which is offered to her, she opened the way for God to accomplish his work. (246)Let us learn to praise the holy Virgin. When we confess with her that we are nothing . . . and that we owe all to the pure goodness of God, see how we will be disciples of the Virgin Mary? (247)

There has been some ignorance in that they have reproved this fashion of speaking of the Virgin Mary as the mother of God. (248)

Helvidius displayed excessive ignorance in concluding that Mary must have had many sons, because Christ’s “brothers” are sometimes mentioned. (249)

[On Matthew 1:25:] The inference he [Helvidius] drew from it was, that Mary remained a virgin no longer than till her first birth, and that afterwards she had other children by her husband . . . No just and well-grounded inference can be drawn from these words . . . as to what took place after the birth of Christ. He is called “first-born”; but it is for the sole purpose of informing us that he was born of a virgin . . . What took place afterwards the historian does not inform us . . . No man will obstinately keep up the argument, except from an extreme fondness for disputation. (250)

Heinrich Bullinger, another historically significant Protestant Reformer, made an extraordinary proclamation which appears to uphold virtually all of the Catholic Marian dogmas:

Elijah was transported body and soul in a chariot of fire; he was not buried in any Church bearing his name, but mounted up to heaven, so that . . . we might know what immortality and recompense God prepares for his faithful prophets and for his most outstanding and incomparable creatures . . . It is for this reason, we believe, that the pure and immaculate embodiment of the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, that is to say her saintly body, was carried up to heaven by the angels. (251)

Within Anglicanism, many of the “high-church” or “Anglo-Catholic” faction believe in a Mariology not unlike that of the Catholic Church, both doctrinally and devotionally. (252)


189. Dialogue with Trypho, 100:5, in Graef, Hilda, Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion, combined ed. of vols. 1 & 2, London: Sheed & Ward, 1965 – as are all patristic quotes following unless otherwise noted.
190. Against Heresies, 3,21,10.
191. Ibid., 4,33,11.
192. Homily 7 on Luke.
193. Homily 1 on Matthew 5.
194. Two Fragments on Luke, nos. 41 and 80 in the Berlin ed.
195. In John, 1,6.
196. Quoted by Cyril in his work against Julian.
197. Ecclesiastica Theologia.
198. Discourse Against the Arians, 2,70.
199. Letter to the Virgins.
200. Commentary on Matthew, 1,4 / 1,20.
201. Nisibene Hymns, 27,8.
202. “Prayer to the Most Holy Mother of God”.
203. Carmina, 1,2,1.
204. To Cledonius the Priest, Against Apollinaris, 101.
205. Oratio, 24,11.
206. E.g., Against Appolinaris, 6.
207. Homily 13 on the Canticle / On the Birth of Christ.
208. Ibid.
209. Panarion, 78,1 / 78,5.
210. Ibid., 78,10.
211. Ibid., 78,21.
212. Ibid., 78,18.
213. Ibid., 78,11.
214. Ibid., 79,7.
215. Homilies on Matthew.
216. Commentary 7 in Psalms 44.
217. Epistle 42, 4-6.
218. Commentary on Luke, 2,17 / Commentary on Psalms 118, 22,30.
219. Epistle 63,33 / Epistle 49,2.
220. Commentary on Luke, 2,7.
221. The Holy Spirit, 3,79 ff.
222. Commentary on Ezekiel, 13,44,1 ff.
223. Comm. on Matt., 12.50.
224. See Graef, ibid., 95-100 / Heresies, 56.
225. Sermon 188,4.
226. Christian Combat, 22,24. From Jurgens, William A., ed. and tr., The Faith of the Early Fathers, 3 volumes, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1970, vol. 3, 50.
227. Nature and Grace, 36,42
228. Cross, F.L. & E.A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1983, 692,99.
229. Ott, Ludwig, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, tr. Patrick Lynch, Rockford, IL: TAN Books & Publishers, 1974 (orig. 1952 in German), 201-202.
230. Newman, Meditations and Devotions, Harrison, NY: Roman Catholic Books, n.d. (orig. 1893), 153.
231. Bouyer, Louis, The Seat of Wisdom, tr. A.V. Littledale, Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1965 (orig. 1960), 104.
232. Ware, Timothy (Archbishop Kallistos), The Orthodox Church, NY: Penguin Books, Rev. ed., 1980, 261-4.
233. On the Councils and the Church (1539). From Pelikan, Jaroslav & Helmut T. Lehmann, eds., Luther’s Works, St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House (vols. 1-30), Philadelphia: Fortress Press (vols. 31-55): 1955, vol. 41, 99-100.
234. From Cole, William J., “Was Luther a Devotee of Mary?”, Marian Studies, vol. 21, 1970, 94-202; quote from 131 / Sermon, Sep. 1, 1522.
235. Ibid., 131 / Christmas sermon, 1531.
236. “Sermons on John, chaps. 1-4” (1537-39). In Pelikan, ibid., vol. 22, 23.
237. Luther, ibid. In Pelikan, ibid., Luther’s Works, vol. 22, 214-215. Pelikan asserts that this was Luther’s lifelong belief (vol. 22, 214-215).
238. Sermon: “On the Day of the Conception of Mary the Mother of God” (Dec. 8?, 1527). From Grisar, Hartmann, Luther, tr. E.M. Lamond, ed. Luigi Cappadelta, 6 volumes, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1917, vol. 4, 238 (emphasis added). See also e.g., House sermon for Christmas, 1533; About the Jews and Their Lies, 1543; The Papacy; an Institution of the Devil, 1545.
239. Cole, ibid., 185 / Little Prayer Book (1522).
240. “Mary’s Place Within the People of God According to Non-Roman Catholics,” Marian Studies, vol. 18, 1967, 46-83 (see p. 76).
241. Cole, ibid., 123-124.
242. Ibid., 128 / Sermon, Christmas, 1529. Emphasis added.
243. I.e., the first part of the “Hail Mary”, as it is said today, particularly in the Rosary. The last part continues: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen”.
244. Little Prayer Book (1522). In Pelikan, ibid., vol. 43, 39-41.
245. “Magnificat” (1521). In Pelikan, ibid., vol. 21, 327. Emphasis added.
246. Commentary on Luke 1:42,45. In Thurian, Max, Mary: Mother of all Christians, tr. Neville B. Cryer, NY: Herder & Herder, 1963 (orig. 1962), 186.
247. MacKenzie, Ross, “Mariology as an Ecumenical Problem”, Marian Studies, vol.26, 1975, 204-20; quote from pp. 206-207 / Harmony of Matthew, Mark & Luke, sec. 39 (Geneva, 1562).
248. Letter to French community in London, Sep. 27, 1552 / In Thurian, ibid., 77.
249. Calvin, Harmony, vol.2 / From Calvin’s Commentaries, tr. William Pringle, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949, 215; on Matthew 13:55.
250. Ibid., (Pringle), vol. I, 107. Calvin, in his commentary on Luke 1:34 in his Harmony, affirms the perpetual virginity of Mary, while at the same time denying that Mary had made a vow of celibacy.
251. From Thurian, ibid., 197-8 / written in 1568, De Origine Erroris, 16.
252. Cross, ibid., 883, 99.



About Rob Brock

A Catholic convert with a fire for discipleship, catechesis, and formation that leads to transformed lives in Christ. View all posts by Rob Brock

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