Maria Mater Ecclesiae

Answering the Scotist

The Scotist posted a reply to our ongoing discussion of Mary in a comment which I missed—I’ll now respond and move things forward.

1. The Scotist contends that my reference to his theory of “anonymous Marians” as condescending does not prove it false. He is right. However, while Rahner uses the notion of the “anonymous Christian” address the vexing issue of reconciling the Church’s proclamation of Christ as the only way to the Father with a tolerant pluralism, the Scotist’s use of his wrestles not with pluralism but with intra-Christian theological matter.

I would explain the difference thus: If Rahner asked one of his “anonymous Christians” who happened to be, say, Hindu, if he confessed Christ as his sole Lord and Savior, the only path to the Father, his anonymous Christian would deny it—that being part of the definition of an “anonymous Christian”.

If, in the second century—pre-dating the fourth century Council of Nicaea—you had asked a theologically orthodox Christian—call her an “anonymous Nicaean”—if she believed that Jesus was of the same substance as the Father and was not the first of God’s creations, she would most likely either agree or plead ignorance. I can’t imagine that she would deny it. And yet I and millions of Christians throughout history would deny that Mary is co-redemptrix. God alone redeems. Yes, Mary played a very special and very important part within the unfolding of that redemption, but she does not redeem me. God does.

Of course, this still doesn’t prove it false—because the “anonymous” notion makes it non-falsifiable. But the notion of anonymity is what I find problematic in the Scotist’s instance on defining it as dogma.

2. Then the Scotist makes this puzzling remark:

Moreover, you have not clarified the argumentative role of the distinction between dogma and doctrine. It keeps popping up, but does no apparent work. Maybe a substantive point is buried in these references; it would be nice if you could bring it to the surface. Hide not your light under a bushel, if light there be!

I say puzzling because I already addressed this here:

Moving along, the Scotist addresses my distinction between doctrine and dogma. This, as far as I’m concerned, is why this is worth fighting over. Doctrine is what may be held; dogma is what must be held. To put it another way, it’s possible to have a doctrinally minimalist Christianity and to still have it recognizable as orthodox Christianity. For example, it’s possible to lop off many of the doctrines and practices relating to the saints and the sacraments and still be “Christian” as described by the Scriptures and the Creeds.
I think it’s a lot more fulfilling and a lot more fun to have these, but I’ll recognize Reformed and Baptist folk as fellow members of the mystical Body even if they don’t sing the right antiphons on the Benedictus for the feast of St Ethelreda. But “dogma” means that it must be held in order for it to be a valid Christianity. A “dogma” is the kind of thing that if you went, in the Spirit, to an orthodox mother and father who died before its establishment and asked, “Hey, do you believe X”, they’d respond, “Well, of course—but that’s so obvious we’ve never had to say it…”

Would the great Baptist, would the great Reformed, forebearers respond this way in regard to the BVM as “co-redemptrix”—and are you prepared to cut them off from the Body of Christ if they answer in the negative on that account?

While the Scotist says: “There is no reason, as an Anglican and an Episcopalian, I have to convert him and others to belief in the fifth dogma as dogmatic, however desirable conversion would be” he is, in fact, mistaken: that’s exactly what dogma means. If he wants to talk about “co-redemptrix” as a doctrine, then he’d be absolutely correct and I’d have no problem with his decision.

Dogma is the fighting word here.

Perhaps the Scotist is having trouble understanding this. When a doctrine is defined as dogma, Christians are obligated to believe it. It is not optional. Hence the problem of allowing it to be “anonymous”. Those who deny the divinity of Christ are denying dogma; this puts them outside of the faith. Those denying the resurrection of the dead are denying dogma; this puts them outside of the faith as well. The Scotist would like us to believe the same for those who don’t consider Mary co-redemptrix.

I’m going to problematize this notion of dogma a bit further down, but the Scotist is the one who started playing with the “D” word and who won’t let it go and seems to be insisting that it means something other than what the Western Church has always understood it to mean. If you’re going to use a technical term in a technical discussion then use it properly or choose another word!

3. Then the Scotist accuses me of holding a heretical understanding of the will relying as I do on John Cassian. However in his comment and in his subsequent post he displays an utter ignorance of what Cassian holds and what I hold following him. The Scotist writes:

Semipelagianism (hence “SP”)–developed by John Cassian in response to Augustine’s polemic against Pelagius–implies that one makes a free first step toward salvation, a first step that is in the power of the individual apart from grace. That first step in itself is incomplete, and can be completed only with God’s assistance by means of grace.

It seems that SP implies

(A) there can be human actions apart from God’s grace,

and that is a proposition I wish to deny. No aspect of human action is possible apart from grace. Insofar as there is an aspect of human action–moral or otherwise–it owes its reality to God’s act of creation. But God’s act of creation is one of grace–it is a sheer gift. However, since SP implies (A), and (A) is–so far as I can tell–false, it follows SP is false.

Of course premise A is false and neither Cassian nor I would disagree. In fact, Cassian says the opposite quite explicitly. Go read Conferences 3. Here’s some of the pertinent material you’ll find…:

“Germanus [the student interlocutor who summarizes the previous discussion and moves it forward with a question]: In what does free will consist, then, and how may our efforts be considered praiseworthy if God begins and ends in us everything that pertains to our perfection?

Abba Paphnutius: It would be odd indeed if in every work and practice of discipline there were only a beginning and an end, and not also something in the middle. Accordingly, just as we know that God offers opportunities for salvation in different ways, so also it is up to us to be either more or less attentive to the opportunities that have been granted to us by God.”
(Conf. 3.11-3.12.1)

“Abba Paphnutius: By these words [of Jeremiah and Ezekiel] we are very clearly taught that the beginning of a good will is bestowed upon us at the Lord’s inspiration, when either by himself or by the encouragement of some human being or through need he draws us to the path of salvation, and also that the perfection of virtues is granted by him in the same way, but that it is up to us to pursue God’s encouragement in either a haphazard or a serious manner.”
(Conf 3.19.1)

“We ought to believe with a firm faith that nothing at all can be done in this world without God. … Let no one try to take what we have put forward in showing that nothing is accomplished without the Lord and twist it by a wicked interpretation in defense of free will in such a way that he attempts to remove from man the grace of God and his daily assistance… By what we have brought forward we do not want to remove the free will of the human being but to prove that God’s help and grace is necessary for him at every day and moment.”
(Conf. 3.20.1; 3.22.1; 3.22.3)

It’s patently obvious here that Cassian insists that God’s grace is essential throughout the process. The Scotist’s notion that Cassian holds his premise A is completely refuted here and elsewhere in Cassian’s writings. Yes, human cooperation is required, but God’s grace is always present and active.

Theologies: Scholastic vs. Ascetical

To this point I’ve been playing on the Scotist’s turf and he’s right, it doesn’t seem to have furthered the discussion much. Personally, I blame the turf. So let’s play on mine for a while…

The Scotist likes to play in the realm of Systematic Theology. As its name implies, this body of knowledge deals with seeing Christian thought as a system, as an inter-related whole that can be intellectually apprehended, questioned, and explored. As the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines it: “Its purpose is to investigate the contents of belief by means of reason enlightened by faith and to promote its deeper understanding”. When taken to an extreme, systematic theology leads to a hyper-intellectualization of the faith and faith becomes a set of ideas or propositions that can be expressed as logical syllogisms that are then affirmed or denied. I see this discussion currently on that edge—and that’s not where it belongs.

While I appreciate and sometimes rely on the insights of Systematic Theology, that’s not my turf. Rather, I prefer to play in the realm of Ascetical Theology. As we’ve discussed before, ascetical theology is:

The theological discipline which deals with the so-called ‘ordinary’ ways of Christian perfection, as distinct from Mystical Theology, whose subject is the ‘extraordinary ‘ or passive ways of the spiritual life. It is thus the science of Christian perfection in so far as this is accessible to human effort aided by grace. It also treats of the means to be employed and the dangers to be avoided if the end of the Christian life is to be attained.

Ascetical theology isn’t about investigating the contents of belief and their relation to one another; rather, it’s about how we live in light of those beliefs. It’s less about thoughts and more about habits. As Aquinas or Barth are the chief exemplars of Systematic Theology, the chief exemplars of Ascetical Theology would include Gregory of Nyssa and John Cassian. Evagrius of Pointus holds an important place there too and in mentioning him it’s worth noting that all three of these have been viewed with a certain amount of suspicion by the sysematicians, sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly. For instance, I think they’re wrong about Cassian. The Scotist is clearly wrong about Cassian. At issue here is perspective. The systematician works with ideas; the ascetical theology works with far more squishy stuff—life and how we live it. Ideas can be expressed in syllogisms that can be proven true or false; there’s a clarity to them that real life lacks. As a result, the systematicians with their clear-cut syllogisms that must fit together just so often find themselves at odds with those whose theological convictions come from the laboratory of human sin and stumblings towards sanctification.

For me, faith is not a body of beliefs to be held. Holding the Christian faith does not consist of checking the correct boxes on a list of dogmas. (I’m not accusing the Scotist of holding this view—but the way he argues can certainly tend in this direction.) Being a Christian is about consciously living out the relationship that Christ facilitated (through incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and his continued presence with us) and proclaimed (in both his words and works) concerning God. It’s embodying the life hid with Christ in God. Holding right beliefs is important because we make choices about how we live based on what we believe. An intellectualist view may say that ticking the right dogma box is what matters. I’d heartily disagree—that’s a beginning, not an ending. We don’t hold doctrines because they assure us of our salvation, we hold them because they ground fundamentals about the relationship that we’re living within. To hold incorrect views is to mistake the nature of the relationship and thus to err when we try to live that relationship out. This, in my view, is what’s problematic about deny Christ’s divinity or the resurrection of the dead. They’re not wrong because they’re lacking the check mark, but because the relationship will be skewed in ways that it should not be.

A Proposed Statement on The Blessed Virgin Mary

Ok—so what about Mary? What is her proper place?

For the moment I’m going to toss aside the Scotist and his “five dogmas” (whatever those actually are) and will discuss Mary as I see her. Perhaps the Scotist will find his dogmas here—perhaps not. In any case, this is a first attempt towards what I think about Mary and her place in the Christian life…

The Blessed Virgin is indeed most properly dignified with the twin titles of Theotokos (God-bearer) and Mater Ecclesiae (Mother of the Church) and it is in relation to these that I consider her.

Christ is our great Exemplar. He is God-made-flesh, the true man (yet very God) who shows us what it is to will and to do what the Father commands. Perfect obedience, perfect holiness. Growing into the Mind of Christ is our great duty and delight as members of the Body of Christ.

Mary is our secondary exemplar. She attained most perfectly those deeds after which we strive as described in the gospels and Acts: to acquiesce to God’s invitation (Annunciation); to recognize the eschatological action of God in society and the world (the Magnificat); to grow Christ within her and give birth to him in the world (Birth narratives); to ponder all things—the Scriptures, the Tradition, our lives—in relation to Christ (Luke’s birth narrative); to intercede for Christ’s eschatological remediation of our human condition—making the eschatological reality present in our lives (wedding at Cana); to invite others to attend to and enact his words (same); to stand unflinching at the foot of his cross (all crucifixion narratives, esp. John’s); to be a witness of his resurrection (Resurrection narratives).

In light of these historical realities, the Church understood the songs of wisdom particularly in the Apocrypal books as referring to Mary—as mentioned here.

If Christ is the exemplar of our consummation (which he certainly is), then Mary is the exemplar of our method. In order to achieve the goal of being like Christ, we must follow in the footsteps of Mary.

As Theotokos, Mary is the literal God-bearer as the one who carried the embryonic Christ and gave birth to him as a child. Given the description of Mary in Scripture, the Church has understood her as God-bearer in the mystical sense as well, the mother cleaves closest to the child and most closely embodies the Mind of her Son.

If we believe the confession of the Church as the Body of Christ, our incorporation into Christ through Baptism and Eucharist, as more than a metaphor but a mystical reality, then as God-bearer, the literal mother of Christ then becomes Mater Ecclesiae as well. As the literal mother of Jesus when we are grafted into him she becomes our mystical mother. But she is the literal mother of the Church, the organization, as one of the first witness of the Resurrection and a participant at Pentecost. She is mystical mother, too, of the faithful as she serves as the exemplar for our ways of being in the world.

Perhaps once again the key to the confluence of realities represented and embodied in Mary is best represented in the Scriptures, in the Church’s interpretation of the Song of Songs. As we pass through the ages there are three enduring—and intertwining—strategies that the church has used to understand the Song as Sacred Scripture. It is a love-song between the Godhead and 1) the Church, 2) Mary, 3) the soul of the believer. It is only when we grasp the nexus of the three that we fully grasp the role of Mary in relation to both the Church and the soul.

So—in my view (subject to correction, growth, and revision, of course)—I see Mary as the second great exemplar within the Christian faith who exemplifies the means to reach the end (the End) who is the chief and greatest exemplar, Christ himself. Our imitation of the means of Mary is to attain the end that is Christ.

In light of this can Mary be considered co-redemptrix? Not in any way that accords with the fullness of redemption. That is to say, if we held a merely Abelardian view that sees Christ solely as Redeemer through serving as Moral Exemplar (no doubt a caricature of Abelard’s thought itself) then there might be grounds for that—but it’d be an uphill argument. However, the Western Church has never held that the fullness of Christ’s redemptive action is entirely subsumed in his role as exemplar. Mystical Conqueror and Spotless Victim are also facets of Christ’s redeeming work.

So if you can find co-redemptrix here, Scotist, you’re welcome to it—but I don’t see it, nor find here a warrant to make it dogma rather than doctrine.

15 thoughts on “Maria Mater Ecclesiae

  1. The Postulant

    By the beard of Eusebius, there’s that Moral Exemplar business popping up again! And here I thought I’d scotched that for good, what with having pointed out Abelard’s clear and explicit endorsement of Penal Substitution.

  2. Huw Richardson

    Derek, I enjoyed this piece – especially the distinction between Doctrine and Dogma which seems a parallel to a conversation in the Eastern and RC worlds about “Tradition” and “tradition”.

    Your statement on Mary is one that echos a sermon I delivered on 15 August a long time ago where I said, nearly verbatim, that Mary was our method. Wow, that’s a great line! And, that only holds in the Ascetic side, I’m sure. Scholastics bring is the need for the the Immaculate Conception and having found a need for it, it must have been so. Ascetics see no need for it, but it is a nice idea.

    One thing popped in – the Eastern idea that, essentially, anyone’s actions in Christ are slavific, not just for him but for all – and anyone’s sin weakens all of us. I’ve seen this drawn from the writing of St Gregory of Nyssa as well as from St John of the Ladder, etc.

    When I became Orthodox I was amazed at the number of times, liturgically, Mary is asked to “save us”. But then so are all the other saints. And so are other Christians. (Save, meaning, “make us whole” which can’t be done individually, only to all of us.) In that light Mary is, not in a special way, but in a normal way you and I share with her, co-redemptrix.

    Might not be the same thing – and, perhaps, the issue in the title is “special” rather than “normal”.

    Also that group-save might be doctrine, rather than dogma – although if you’re going to appeal to the anonymous members of the early church, I think it is the latter.

    By the way, I’m not 100% comfortable with that image of asking the average Joe the Potter what he believes. There are blogs out there filled with examples of folk Christianity that are perfectly scary and we’ve no reason to imagine it was any less so at any point in history after 90CE. Mostly St Vincent’s “Believed Always & Everywhere” is hyperbolic: I don’t think most people in most places would have made it to “100% Nicene”. Most of us are simply “Nicene Compliant”. We need to stick to official statements.

  3. Derek the Ænglican

    Thanks, all. I can take no credit for the definition of ascetical theology–it’s directly out of the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. I do think it’s a very apt one, though.

    Postulant, I place the blame square on you for failing to be my History of Christian Thought professor. Shame on you for your negligence!

    Huw, very interesting! I’ve never heard it stated negatively before–that the sin of one weakens the salvation of all. I’m more familiar with the positive statement in Cassian that as we cultivate the virtues as members of the Body of Christ we participate in the eschatological consummation of Christ being all in all. Don’t have the citation to hand but I can find it if you want it…

    There’s no question that in the early church salvation was a matter of identity. You were saved because you were a member of the Body of Christ–period.

    I agree that there’s a lot of strange belief out there–or as my 10th century monk friend puts it, “I have read in many English books heresy that the unlearned take as wisdom…” I can think of some examples…

  4. John-Julian, OJN

    Let me fool around with a small Marian matter:

    It is common (and present in your beautiful presentation, Derek) to see the Annunciation as an “invitation” to Mary — which invitation she graciously (and grace-fully) accepted.

    But I have been through the Lukan text a dozen times (in its Greek as well as English) and I see no invitation at all — I see it as a revelation to Mary of what God’s will is. And Gabriel never asks if she likes the idea or would embrace it happily or would disapprove of it and reject it.

    And Mary’s first reply (“How…?”) is a wonderful, pragmatic, real-world question which each of us faces when we have encountered some manifestation of God’s will. (Note: clearly, if we see Mary as a type of ourselves, questioning God’s will is a perfectly acceptable response.) And her second reply “Lo, me….” is that act of will (that ascetic, as it were) which enfolds one’s life into that Divine Will.

    This is a particular balancing act which I think defines Christian Ascetical Theology: God’s will is manifested — simply manifested (i.e., neither demanded, nor offered as only one possibility). In the face of that manifestation it seems to me that Mary had the options of (a) embracing the Divine Will and cooperating with it, or (b) rejecting it and refusing to cooperate, or (c) ignoring it and getting on with life as though she didn’t know God’s will.

    And is that not a type of our own Ascetical Theology? It involves (a) discernment, discovery, or revelation to us of God’s will, and (b) a free choice about incorporation of that will into our own lives, refusal to cooperate, or overlooking it altogether. In both of these options, grace is working – in some cases the old standard of prevenient grace – and I fall back on Dame Julian’s code word: “longen” — to long for, to yearn, to want. (notably, to her, all prayer is movement towards that one-ing with God’s will).

    Morally, it is of primary importance for me to yearn for God and God’s will — and that is even more important than DOING God’s will. In fact, in Julian’s wondrous parable of the lord and servant, she suggests that falling and failing to do God’s will (i.e., sin) is of little importance as long as one is intending and wanting — as long as one’s will is to be one-ed with God.

    Finally, there IS one thing a human must do to be “saved” — that is, simply, to want God, to prefer God, to choose God, to long for God, to cooperate with God. Presumably, that act on our part is activated by the grace of God, but not forced by it. Without that, God is, as it were, powerless against our own will, and cannot/will not force our acceptance.

    In an over-simplification, God simply says, “This is my will. Now, what are you going to do about it?”

    Oh well, only a small thoughy…..

  5. Derek the Ænglican

    Father John-Julian,

    That’s a key insight; I’m going to have to ponder that one…

    It’s easy to see why the language of accepting the invitation is so often used with the Annunciation—it’s to get us off the hook of approving a divine rape.

    But you’re quite right, it’s an acknowledgment of the eschatological realities making themselves present in her midst.

  6. Huw Richardson

    I don’t think of it ass Divine Rape. God would not have done so if the answer had been “No, thanks.” But it’s like the Tao: water flows, naturally, to the lowest point and then fills up the valley. Humans – unlike the water – have a choice to make: Do they do what is naturally theirs by right (conforming to the Divine will) or do they run away?

    Oh, maybe a clearer image is that of George Herbert’s “The Collar”. We can run away all we want: but it’s hard to kick against the goads. Mary show us the way…

  7. Marshall Scott

    Ah, Fr. John-Julian: you’re moving toward my annual conversations about the Blessed Virgin Sophie – she whom we would be talking about had Mary said, “No, not me.” My points in those conversations are to point out that God wants our participation but is not limited to or by it; and that it is Mary’s “Yes, I will,” and not any inherent superhuman distinction, that allows her participation in the plan of salvation.

  8. John-Julian, OJN

    Yes, Marshall — very much so!

    I used to joke about the fact that if we refuse God the chance to walk down the street, God will find a way through the back alleys! The Divine Will WILL be done!

  9. Christopher

    As a theology prof. of mine has put it, “but why would we want to”, refuse God’s will?

    I think the East gets it right that God’s Holy Spirit was preparing Mary all along, she being the culmination of the prophets and preparation for God’s Great Gift.

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