A friend, exploring the Faith, particularly in relation to the Theotokos, presented some concerns about her role and work as viewed, expressed, and experienced by the Church. Here is a summary of his concerns:
- There is one Mary in Scripture who was a humble woman that was chosen by God to bear Jesus and she accepted God’s will to be the mother of His Son. Then I see a second Mary in the modern church, and there are Bible verses that I see as contradictory to the statement that Mary is more glorious than the Seraphim and more honorable than the Cherubim (e.g. Ps. 8). Humans are “lower than the angels.”
- Prophets and Church councils say things, and those are valid if they can agree with the data of Scripture.
- There are also practical questions like, how can Mary (or the Saints) hear two people during Paraklesis that are simultaneously praying to her if the two persons are on two opposite sides of the Earth? How can they hear millions of people all over the world at once? God is omniscient and omnipresent, but are Mary and the Saints also omniscient and omnipresent? Maybe there is a way they can hear, but I am not aware of that “valid data”.
Here’s some preliminary responses:
First, I think some good reading in Church history would be helpful. So I will give you a list at the end towards that purpose. The reason is that, in this particular topic, you say that there is a disconnect between the Theotokos in Scripture (and presumably the first few centuries) and the Theotokos of the “modern” church. Nothing can be further from the truth.
The earliest Church Fathers – beginning most clearly with Irenaeus – had a very rich theology of Mary as the Second Eve.
In redemption, the Father sends the second Adam in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring about union again. The divine Logos comes and takes residence in a womb that becomes “more spacious than the heavens.” The Father sends the Son in the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies the new Temple and the new Ark of the covenant in the Theotokos. The Ark now contains the true Manna – the very Flesh and Blood of God, the Bread from Heaven – the true eternal Word, and the true Aaron’s staff that budded.
As the first Eve had received the words of death from the angel of death, turning from the Spirit in disobedience, so now the second Eve receives the words of life from the angel of life (Gabriel) and becomes the dwelling place of the very Word of God, as she submits herself in love and wonder by her fiat to the Holy Spirit who comes upon her.
The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, in the center of the garden (paradiso) became the tree of death, its fruit the fruit of disobedience, disunion and death; and in redemption, the cross, the tree of death in the garden of death (Golgotha) becomes the tree of life, as death is trampled upon and destroyed, because the Fruit of the tree is the Son who offers himself to the Father and to creatures. Paradise is regained.
The Resurrection consummates the deification, the Ascension consummates the objective union in heaven, and at the same time starts the impartation of this work, in the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost. Eve was the mother of all living who became the mother of all who are dead while living. The Second Eve, who bore the Second Adam (1 Cor 15:45, Rom. 5:14) becomes the mother of all truly living because she is the mother of the Living One, the One Who Is.
As the platyteras of Orthodox temples depict, usually behind the altar, Christ is born in the center of the Theotokos, the God Bearer – which then becomes true for all who are united to him in faith; Christ is “formed in us” objectively through baptism, subjectively through faith, and this is rooted in his objective birth in creation and restoration of union effected in the Holy Spirit. We become God bearers in the Holy Spirit, icons being restored to the image of the Son.
Platytera at St Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church in Irvine, CA
The Theotokos is not the main subject of the Gospels. The Incarnation, life, work, death, burial and resurrection of the Son of God is. Therefore, it is expected that one would read of the “maidservant of the Lord” and not about the one who is more glorious than the highest order of angels. Just like it is expected that we don’t read fundamental Christian belief in theologically developed forms (such as the Trinity properly defined, or the hypostatic union) in the Gospels or the epistles.
We begin to learn about definitions of fundamental Christian belief and theology when the Church (1) had the ability to discuss such things, after the cessation of persecution in the 4th century (no earlier) and (2) was challenged to do so because of significant heretical movements.
Not surprisingly, we learn about those things which such movements questioned, but not so much about other fundamental beliefs which were not challenged. For example, which council defined infant baptism? Prayer to the saints? Justification by grace through a living faith which includes the working of love? The Eucharist as the literal Body and Blood of Christ? Etc.
None, of course. Because all those things have always been proclaimed (in the Liturgy, the prayers, the common life of the Church) and practiced, taken from granted from apostolic times; and it crossed the mind of no one to challenge those things until 1,500 years later and only in the West. Similarly, we learn of the controversy related to the “Theotokos” only because the Patriarch of Constantinople (Nestorius) was striking at the heart of Christology, and thus of salvation. Not because honoring her was a new thing.
The problem with applying the model you describe, where the statements of a “prophet” or a “council” are then compared to the “data” (of Scripture) in order to be validated, is that first, of course, there are no singular or independent “prophets” in the Church defining dogma. Second, and most importantly, you seem to be confusing the hierarchy of revelation here. Remember that:
- When you use “Scripture” as something against which to compare anything, you are already assuming the ultimate authority of the Church. Simply because there is no “Scripture” apart from what the Church has said is Scripture. In other words, the fact that writings (technically, anonymous) about the life of Jesus were attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and canonized as the Gospels of Scripture, makes evident that this was done by the authority of the Church in whom indwells the Holy Spirit. The same goes to the fact that the epistle of James, or the Apocalypse, etc. are “Scripture;” and say, the Didache or Clement’s letters, or the Shepherd of Hermas (or other early writings) are not. Councils defined the Bible, not the other way around.
- This same authority that writes and canonizes Scripture is the authority that interprets it. Given my years of work in biblical and systematic theology, as well as being proficient in Greek and Hebrew, I can personally attest to the fact that Scripture, in its totality and in each of its parts, can be interpreted in many different (and even contradictory) ways in a plausible, scholarly fashion. For every given passage, 4 scholars can give you 5 plausible interpretations, following the strictest rules of hermeneutics and exegesis. At the end of the day, however, it is the Church (whom Jesus instituted and builds, she who never falls because the gates of hell will never prevail against her) the one who determines what the Scriptures mean, in conjunction with the fuller orbit of the life of the Church – which precede Scripture (the prayers, the liturgies, etc.) and of which Scripture is a part.
Arius, Nestorius, and many others, who knew Scripture by heart, were rebuked and condemned by the Church when they came up with their own interpretations – they could and did use many “verses” to support them, and yet they were in conflict with the whole mind of the Church.
The Councils’ definitions of the Trinity, of the hypostatic union, etc., are not found in verses of Scripture. There is nothing said in Scripture about three co-equal and eternal Persons sharing one Essence. Nothing there about one divine Person uniting two natures “unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably.” To keep to those two examples, Arius and Nestorius came up with all kinds of verses and passages that plausibly supported the ideas of a lesser god or two separate natures. Their interpretations did not conflict necessarily with the “data,” (as you say).
There are many other examples. It might seem trivial to us that statements like “the Father is greater than I” or the fact that there were things Jesus did not know, only the Father, etc., do not affect in the least Christian definitions of the Trinity or the hypostatic union. But that’s just because we have 1,500 years of explicit conciliar Church doctrine behind us.
And yet the Church, out of all the “data,” affirmed her doctrine based on a scriptural hermeneutic that incorporated the unbroken life and practice of the Church. The Church neither builds her doctrine and proclamation on Scripture alone (but rather, as I said, in the liturgies, prayers and Tradition of which Scripture is a part), nor does she use isolated passages exegeted in purely grammatico-historical methods when she uses Scripture. All comes together in an organic whole.
So, thankfully, it is not up to individual Christians to judge the Church’s doctrines against a Scripture that is already given by the Church; it is not up to individual Christians to judge using an independent, sovereign hermeneutic that puts oneself as the final authority on what the Bible means (and thereby what God says). I have written a short blurb on that a while ago on my blog:
Once again, to address your example (that angels are higher than human beings), it is precisely the point of Hebrews 2, citing Ps. 8, that Jesus Christ became incarnate and a “little lower than the angels” (in a limited sense) so that he could, through his death, burial and resurrection, bring humanity to the very presence of God, deified, with all enemies under His feet, and thereby under the Church’s feet. It is a human nature united to a divine Person which is enthroned at the right hand of the Father, not a seraph. It is a human being who is chosen to bear God in herself, not a cherub.
It was to no angel (as again, the author of Hebrews states) that God has ever said “you are my Son, today I have begotten you.” And yet this God deified human nature. In the same way, to no angel, cherub or seraph, has God ever said, my Spirit will come upon you because you are the Chosen One to bear the infinite God in your womb and become God’s Mother. To no other creature God has given the full measure of the Holy Spirit so that her own soul, flesh and blood are united forever with the eternal, incomprehensible, infinite God. No seraph ever burned brighter than the true Burning Bush that contains the living God and is never consumed. Not all the angels of creation, together, could become more spacious than the heavens to contain God himself as she did.
Further, from the totality of Scripture (see, e.g., Rev. 12) and Tradition, no creature has ever been blessed and honored as the Theotokos. She is not called blessed by all generations merely in the sense of one more blessed person out of myriads. She is the blessed one because she is the chosen one. And she chooses back. She submits and reverses the curse, unties the knot.
She is described as the “woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” She is indeed Mother and Bride, because she is the Mother of God and the embodiment of the Church.
You objected that to be Mother and Bride at the same time would be a weird confusion of categories; but in fact, this is basic Christian theology. Jesus Christ is our Brother and our Bridegroom. We are his brothers and his Bride. She is his Mother and our Mother – “behold your Mother!” She is the Mother of the King, and thereby the Queen, the lowly maidservant elevated to the highest heavens, just like lowly fallen human nature has been deified. She is the one lower than the angels who is turned into the very dwelling place of the Most High. She was there at Pentecost, but she did not even have to be.
You also state that, in practice, worship and veneration often become the same thing. I think that is a very bad misunderstanding, if it ever happens; one that has been clearly and exhaustively addressed many centuries ago in the Church. This strikes at the heart of Christian life and worship. If one either mixes the two, or thinks the veneration of the Saints is idolatry, one is not really Orthodox, because then one would reject the life of the Church in the communion of Saints.
Christ has destroyed death, and those who have died in Him are alive. As universally attested by all Christians since the first century, beginning with the martyrs, those who are recognized by the Church as being Saints with a capital “S” are those who have united themselves to the Trinity in the fullest way in this life (a life of holiness and self-giving love) and now live to intercede and assist the rest of the Body just as they did in their earthly lives (except that now they are glorified and have no hindrances, fully transfigured and linked to the rest of the Church in the Holy Spirit). We venerate them as holy, as models, as inspiration, as helpers, as intercessors, as loved ones.
They are our Fathers and Mothers. They are not our buddies and fellow beggars. They are not beset by sin anymore, and they are no longer limited by human frailty. They don’t eat, don’t sleep, don’t forget. We don’t just “like” them and hang out with them. We venerate them. We bow before them, much like the Old Testament people (and modern people in many parts of the world) bow before their fathers, their prophets, their kings. Except that the Saints are much more than those people. We bow and venerate them. That is by no means polytheistic worship. It is Christian love and unity in the Holy Spirit. And only one of them is the one who has given soul, flesh and blood to God as his Mother – the one before whom the demons tremble and flee.
You said Mary did her work already. Nothing is further from the truth. First, she is not simply “Mary” – she is the Theotokos. The Mother of God. That’s how Christians address her. She is not merely one more of us, for all the reasons I stated above (and these are not merely my own personal views, but an attempt at a summary of what the Church affirms). Her work is not done, in the same way that the work of the Saints is not done. We join them and they join us on “Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
The work of the Church is never done – even in the eschaton it won’t ever be done. The work of help and intercession continues now uninterruptedly, along with the unceasing worship and the continuing process of deification and conformity of finite creatures to the infinite energies of God, which will never end. And yes, they can hear a virtually infinite number of people at any time, anywhere. Why? Because they do not hear with the physical ear, nor do they process physical sounds in the brain. They are connected to us in the Holy Spirit.
Saints on this earth already can know and hear others who are physically separated from them; they can see their souls, know their hearts. Why? For the same reason. They know in the Holy Spirit in whom they live because of their close communion with Him. There is no temporal or physical barrier. This is the universal experience of the life of the Church on earth from the the beginning to this day; one needs only to read the life of saints past or present, even living ones. Better yet, have the privilege to meet one of them.
So much more, beyond compare, are the Saints in heaven. They know us and hear us in the Holy Spirit. They live entirely in the Holy Spirit now, to begin with. They intercede for us, speak to us, and help us. My own patron saint has appeared to more than one person that I personally know. And he is alive and continues to work on my behalf and on behalf of those who ask for his help. This is the universal doctrine and practice of the Church, East and West, since the first century.
In this way, the supplicatory prayer of the Small Compline says,
“O undefiled, untainted, uncorrupted, most pure, chaste Virgin, Thou Bride of God and Sovereign Lady, who didst unite the Word of God to mankind through thy most glorious birth giving, and hast linked the apostate nature of our race with the heavenly; who art the only hope of the hopeless, and the helper of the struggling, the ever-ready protection of them that hasten unto thee, and the refuge of all Christians . . . as the Mother of God Who loveth mankind, show thy love for mankind and mercifully have compassion upon me a sinner and prodigal, and accept my supplication . . . at the time of my departure taking care of my miserable soul, and driving far away from it the dark countenances of the evil demons . . . O my Sovereign Lady, most holy Theotokos, in virtue of thine intercession and protection, through the grace and love to mankind of thine only begotten Son, our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ, to Whom is due all glory, honor and worship, together with His unoriginate Father, and His Most Holy and good and life creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.”
This is why we affirm, in every single Divine Liturgy (of St John Chrysostom) celebrated since at least the fourth century (hardly a modern concept!):
It is truly meet to bless you, Theotokos, ever blessed and most pure, the Mother of our God. More honorable than the Cherubim, more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim, without corruption you gave birth to God the Word. True Theotokos, we magnify you!
Hope this helps. Here’s a short list of books on Church history, and a few others with overviews on the Church’s history and theology, from which you can read the relevant sections: