It is time for evangelicals to recover a fully biblical appreciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her role in the history of salvation--and to do so precisely as evangelicals. The question, of course, is how to do that. Can the evangelical reengagement with the wider Christian tradition include a place for Mary? Can we, without forsaking any of the evangelical essentials, including the great solas of the Reformation, echo Elizabeth's acclamation, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!" (Luke 1:42), or resonate with the Spirit-filled maid of the Magnificat: "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on, all generations will call me blessed" (Luke 1:46-48)?
Certainly, there is growing evidence of fascination with Mary among evangelical Protestants. Many evangelicals, including a number of Southern Baptists, have begun to observe the liturgical season of Advent, which has led them to ponder more deeply the role of Mary in the history of salvation. In December 2004, I wrote for Christianity Today on "The Blessed Evangelical Mary," which drew a strong, mostly positive response. Evangelical scholars have begun to write books about Mary, with two volumes, Tim Perry's Mary for Evangelicals and Scot McKnight's The Real Mary, appearing just this past year.
At a popular level, The Nativity Story, a movie that premiered at the Vatican, was strongly promoted among evangelicals. Over the holidays, many Christian radio stations played the beautiful "Breath of Heaven," in which Mary sings, "I have traveled many moonless nights, cold and weary with a babe inside, and I wonder what I've done. Holy Father you have come, and chosen me now to carry your Son." At the theological level, the study group known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together, having produced an earlier document on the communion of saints, has now taken up the theme of the Virgin Mary, with special attention to how she is portrayed in the Bible.
For all this positive interest in Mary among evangelicals, however, both Marian dogma and Marian devotion remain contentious, church-dividing issues. In a recent dialogue with a Catholic friend, one evangelical remarked, "If you were to ask me to give my three best reasons why I'm not a Catholic, I'd simply say 'Mary, Mary, and Mary.'" It seems to many evangelicals that Catholic preoccupation with Mary obscures the preeminence and sole salvific sufficiency of Jesus Christ and thus leads many people away from rather than to the Savior himself. Good Catholics know, of course, that Mary is not the object of worship or the kind of adoration given only to God (latria), but rather of veneration (doulia), albeit of a special kind (hyperdoulia). But this distinction often seems to get lost at the local level.
Such concerns are not alleviated by the campaign of some Catholics a few years ago to have Mary officially recognized, perhaps even with another infallible dogma, as mediatrix of grace and co-redemptrix with Christ himself. Orthodox Catholics interpret such Marian titles in a way that they believe leaves intact the unique role of Jesus Christ as the mediator between God and man. No Protestant theologian could make this point more clearly than Vatican II: "No creature could ever be counted along with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer ... the Church does not hesitate to profess the subordinate role of Mary." Still, the very fact of the campaign points to the difference between the ways Catholics and Protestants feel about the Blessed Virgin.
So why should evangelicals participate in and celebrate the Marian moment that seems to be upon us? The answer is: Precisely because they are evangelicals, that is, gospel people and Bible people. Mary has a pivotal and irreducible place in the Bible, and evangelicals must reclaim this aspect of biblical teaching if we are to be faithful to the whole counsel of God. When it comes to the gospel, Mary cannot be shunted aside or relegated to the affectionate obscurity of the annual Christmas pageant. In the New Testament, she is not only the mother of the redeemer but also the first one to whom the gospel was proclaimed and, in turn, the first one to proclaim it to others. Mary is named a "herald" of God's good news. We cannot ignore the messenger, because the message she tells is about the salvation of the world.
Evangelical retrieval of a proper biblical theology of Mary will give attention to five explicit aspects of her calling and ministry: Mary as the daughter of Israel, as the virgin mother of Jesus, as Theotokos, as the handmaiden of the Word, and as the mother of the Church.
Consider Mary's first title, Daughter of Israel. Mary stands, along with John the Baptist, at a unique point of intersection in the biblical narrative between the Old and the New Covenants. When Mary cradles the baby Jesus in the Temple in the presence of Anna and Simeon, we see brought together the advent of the Lord's messiah, and the long-promised and long-prepared-for "consolation of Israel." The holy family is portrayed as part of a wider community, namely "all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem" (Luke 2:38).
Mary appears in the infancy narratives as the culmination of a prophetic lineage of pious mothers: Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah--together with Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth, who appear in the Matthean genealogy. There is a sense in which any of them could have been the mother of the messiah. According to one interpretation of Genesis 4:1, when Eve exclaims at the birth of Cain, "I have gotten a man from the Lord," she supposes that her first-born son was already the fulfillment of the prophecy of Genesis 3:15, the seed of the woman who would bruise the head of the serpent.
But Mary as the...