Timothy George offers the following reflections on why Evangelicals ought to pay more attention to Mary. It’s a wonderful article; I especially like his ending–but I won’t post it here, you’ll have to go and read it for yourselves.
Timothy George is an ordained minister in the Southern Baptist Convention and dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University in Birmingham Alabama.
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.
The second common title of Mary is Virgin Mother. The doctrine of the virgin birth emerged in America as one of the badges of evangelical orthodoxy during the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. J. Gresham Machen, professor at Princeton and later founding president of Westminster Theological Seminary, published in 1930 a major treatise on the virgin birth of Christ. Machen was concerned to support the ancient Christian conception against the anti-supernaturalistic views set forth at a popular level by Harry Emerson Fosdick and supported in academic circles by scholars at the University of Chicago and elsewhere.
Though he was a straitlaced Presbyterian and could never be accused of “cozying up to Rome,” Machen rightly recognized that evangelicals had much more in common with Catholicism on this than they did with what he disdainfully called that “totally foreign religion-liberalism.” “Let it never be forgotten,” he wrote, “that the virgin birth is an integral part of the New Testament witness about Christ, and that that witness is strongest when it is taken as it stands. . . . The blessed story of the miracle in the virgin’s womb is intrinsic to the good news of the Gospel. Only one Jesus is presented in the Word of God; and that Jesus did not come into the world by ordinary generation, but was conceived in the womb of the virgin by the Holy Ghost.” Machen did not go so far as some in claiming that no one could be a Christian without believing in the virgin birth. He recognized that the biblical accounts may not have been known in some circles of earliest Christianity. But while one might conceivably be a Christian without affirming the virgin birth, there could be no true Christianity among those who denied it.
The virgin birth continued to be a celebrated point of difference between mainline Protestants and their more conservative counterparts during the neo-evangelical renaissance after World War II. In 1958, Christian Century published an editorial denying the historicity of the virgin birth: The virgin birth, the editorial said, presents Jesus as some kind of tertium quid, half God and half man. In reply, the Lutheran theologian Arthur Carl Piepkorn snapped: “To account so materially, so biologically, so cellularly for the uniqueness of Jesus is to land dead center on what is precisely not the point.” Such disdain for Jesus’ “miracle of entrance,” as Karl Barth called it, obviously belonged to the trajectory of theological liberalism, from Schleiermacher through D.F. Strauss to Paul Tillich, who wrote in the first volume of his Systematic Theology: “Apollo has no revelatory significance for Christians; the virgin mother Mary reveals nothing to Protestantism.”
For all their fervent advocacy of this doctrine, evangelicals may have missed two important aspects of this teaching. Modern evangelical preoccupation with the virgin birth arose in the context of post-Enlightenment skepticism and reductionism: Evangelicals were concerned to defend the miraculous character of the virgin birth because they saw it undergirding the deity of Jesus Christ. The prominence of the virgin birth teaching among the Apostolic Fathers, however, arose from a different Christological concern: as an affirmation of the true humanity and genuine historicity of the Son of God. “Away with that lowly manger, those dirty swaddling clothes,” Marcion had cried. Against all docetism and anti-materialism, Ignatius of Antioch declared in one of the early creedal expressions of the Christian faith that Jesus was “truly born, truly lived, truly died.” The adverb resounds like a gong through the writings of the second century.