Mary as Mediatrix: An Incarnational View


Many Christians find the notion that Mary played a role in our salvation extremely blasphemous. They particularly find the ascription of the title Mediatrix to Mary, found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, offensive.  In their eyes this ascription stands in direct opposition to Jesus’s role as the sole mediator between God and man. After all, Sacred Scripture is crystal clear on this matter:

“For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time” (1 Timothy 2:5-6 NKJV).

While I completely embrace these words from St. Paul, I deny that they constitute a defeater for Catholic Marian dogma. I contend that the aversion to Mary’s role in our salvation, endemic in so many Christians, is a form of Neo-Docetism. I further maintain that shedding this Neo-Docetist attitude, and embracing an incarnational approach to theology, will help us to understand Mary’s soteriological importance.

The Neo-Docetist Attitude

To be sure, Jesus is the One Mediator between God and men. For it is only through the Word who, “became flesh and dwelt among us,” (John 1:14) that we can be united to God. Mediation is the very point of the incarnation. God, in His love, united Himself to His creation so that His creation might be united to Him: this is the ultimate act of reconciliation. It is, also, the cosmic destiny–or telos–of the universe. As St. Paul states:

“For he [the Father] has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10).

But many Christians fail to see any of this.  They fail to see the fundamental importance of the incarnation; and fail to see the work of Christ as including the redemption and renewal of the body and the physical/material world in general.  In consequence, the work of Christ is often narrowly construed. The matter of greatest importance, for many Christians, is that Jesus came to satiate the wrath of the Father so as to take away the punishment necessitated by sin (i.e., Penal Substitutionary Atonement).

Mediation, on this view, only happens through the cross; everything hinges upon the death of Christ. As such, the incarnation plays little to no role in the process and is almost a peripheral issue. This implicit denial of the incarnation lies at the heart of the Neo-Docetist attitude. Unlike Classical Docetism, which explicitly denied the incarnation, Neo-Docetism minimizes the importance of the incarnation to the point where its relevance to soteriology is indiscernible.

As I have argued before, this attitude also leads to the rejection of a sacramental worldview; one in which God works in and through the corporeal world to bring about its renewal. Everything in the Christian faith, given the Neo-Docetist perspective, becomes over spiritualized. Baptism looses its efficacy and becomes just a symbol. The Eucharist is no longer the real presence of Christ, but a sentimental ritual that we perpetuate out of obedience. Works of love play no role in our salvation, which is wrought through faith alone (i.e., a mental assent or acknowledgment of Penal Substitutionary Atonement).

Penal Substitution and Mary

Obviously, if one adopts a Neo-Docetist attitude, Mary can play no role in the mediation between God and man. For if (1) mediation is narrowly construed as Penal Substitutionary Atonement and (2) salvation is merely a sort of mental assent to this doctrine, then it is utter lunacy to ascribe to Mary the role of Mediatrix. Clearly, Mary didn’t take the sins of the world upon herself and die on the cross, thereby satiating the wrath of the Father towards mankind. It must be admitted, therefore, that if we adopt this limited conception of mediation, it makes sense to oppose Catholic Marian dogma. On this view, the very notion of Mary being a Mediatrix is nonsense.

Incarnational Theology and the Role of Mary

If, however, mediation is understood in a broader incarnational sense, the role of Mary becomes crystal clear. For it is through Mary that the Word became flesh; it was in her womb that the Creator and sustainer of the universe took on human nature.

God did not force Himself upon Mary against her will either. As Peter Kreeft is fond of saying, “God is not a rapist.” Mary didn’t have to accept the message from Gabriel; she didn’t have to submit herself to what the Lord was intending to do in her life.  Mary, like you and I, had a real choice to make when she heard the message: she could either choose to reject God, as Eve had done in the garden, or choose to fully submit to His will and trust in Him.  To all of creations great relief, Mary chose the latter saying, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Like us, Mary’s faith in the Lord was made possible by the grace of God; and it was through the grace and love of God that Mary was emboldened to open herself to receiving the Lord. Likewise, it was the power of the Holy Spirit, working in and through the Virgin, that made it possible for the Word to take on flesh; and it was through the incarnation of the Word that God united Himself to man.

It is in this context, the context of the incarnation, that Mary is said to be Mediatrix. For it is through her openness to God that the Lord was able to make his abode among men. As Hans Urs von Balthasar so eloquently explains:

“[in Mary] we see readiness, a receptivity that is totally unreserved: body, soul, and spirit are utterly open, “openings” to God. Here the essential thing is that the body is involved; that the handmaid’s consent echoes right through her, down to the lowliest and most unconscious fibers of her being; her whole self, in its materiality, from its lowest level upward, makes itself a womb for the Wholly Other, for God’s self utterance (and hence his “substance”). Never before had this substance taken up its abode within the straitened dimensions of a mortal body.”

Through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of our Lord, human nature has been restored to its former dignity and purity, and it is once again possible for the creation to be fully united with its Creator.

In all of this, there is but One true Mediator, and that is God. For it is God who creates and sustains the world, and it is God who saves. Mary, on her own, has no power to mediate. This is why the Catechism says:

“Mary’s function as mother of men in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power. But the Blessed Virgin’s salutary influence on men . . . flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on his mediation, depends entirely on it, and draws all its power from it. No creature could ever be counted along with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer; but just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by his ministers and the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is radiated in different ways among his creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source” (CCC article 970).

Considered in this light, it is clear that Mary plays a substantial role in salvation history and that her role in no way threatens Christ’s position as the One mediator between God and man.


Something About Mary . . .

I’ll never forget the reaction of one of my co-workers at the homeless shelter the day I wore a bracelet with an icon of the Virgin Mary.  You see, we were Protestants working at a Protestant mission, and, as a rule, any depiction of the Mother of God (outside of a nativity scene at Christmas) causes a Protestant to break out in a cold sweat.  I was curious to see how my friend would react . . . okay, I knew how he’d react . . . I just wanted to watch his reaction for my own amusement.  As I anticipated, the moment he noticed my bracelet his face contorted into a look of disgust and he exclaimed in a loud voice, “what are you wearing?”

Trying hard not to laugh I acted as if I didn’t know what he was talking about.  “What do you mean?” I asked innocently.

“I mean, why do you have a picture of Mary on your bracelet?” he asked in bewilderment.

I responded to his question with another question (a little trick I learned from Jesus): “Why wouldn’t I have a picture of Mary on my bracelet?  She is, after all, the mother of Jesus.”

His response:  “You do realize that Mary isn’t important; I mean, God could have used any old tramp for his purposes?”

There is something about Mary that really freaks Protestants out.  Perhaps we are not all as irreverent and demeaning as my friend, but most of us start getting a little nervous when her name is mentioned.  We are especially uncomfortable at the thought that she played a significant roll in our salvation.  We are so suspicious of Catholicism or afraid of slipping into Marian idolatry that we choose to avoid theologizing about Mary altogether.

To my fearful Protestant brothers and sisters I have this to say:  (1) fear is never a sound basis for determining matters of faith and practice, and (2) the Bible has a high view of Mary and if we have a high view of the Bible then we should too.

With regard to the first point I will say this.  Fear nearly always results in poor decision making–it clouds our judgement and often causes us to avoid things which are actually good.  Consider the child who is terrified of going to the dentist.  Her parents know that getting her teeth checked, while sometimes uncomfortable, is ultimately a great good.  Why?  Because the dentist will ensure the health of her teeth and gums.  The child, however, is not thinking about the ultimate purpose of her upcoming visit; she’s simply afraid of being uncomfortable.  She’s afraid that the cleaning might hurt or that the doctor might find a cavity and have to use his drill, and if it was up to her she would make the decision, based upon these fears, not to visit the dentist.  We all know, however, that such a decision, if made, would most certainly be detrimental to her long term health and wellbeing.

The same rule applies to Protestants as they consider Mary.  Fear of Catholicism and fear of Marian idolatry are extremely poor reasons to avoid Marian theology.  In point of fact, most of the fears that Protestants have are based upon distorted conceptions of Catholic teaching and practice anyways.  Is it truly worth missing out on the beauty and richness of the Biblical teaching on Mary–and, in turn, the incredible blessings of Marian theology–on the off chance that someone might decide to start worshiping her?  We don’t stop teaching about angels or other great men and women of faith out of fear that someone might distort our words–so why is it that we suddenly become silent when it comes to our Lord’s mother?

The truth of the matter is our silence, and sometimes even destain, for anything to do with Mary is a serious problem.  For turning our back on her, like turning our back on the dentist, will result in spiritual rot and decay (for a concrete example of this see Joel’s previous post).

This brings me to my second point, which is that the Bible has a very high view of Mary.  Contrary to my friend at the shelter, the scriptures teach us that Mary was not just “any old tramp,” but like Noah, Abraham, Moses, and King David, especially chosen and highly favored of the Lord.  Consider the angel Gabriel’s incredible greeting to Mary in Luke 1:28: “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” and his consolatory affirmation in verse 30, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”  Mary was someone special indeed, for she had been chosen to conceive and bear the very Son of God–our Lord and savior Jesus Christ!

Further on in Luke’s narrative, we find Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” exclaiming: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42-43).  Here we see Elizabeth, moved by the divine Holy Spirit of God, exulting Mary’s name and referring to her as the, “mother of my Lord.”  Early Christians, inspired by Elizabeth’s words in this passage, began to refer to Mary as the Theotokos or “Mother of God.”  This honorary title reminds us that Jesus was fully divine and thus testifies to the incredible role that Mary played in our salvation.

To understand this more fully, we must read and meditate upon Elizabeth’s words in verse 45: “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”  You see, Mary didn’t have to believe in the words of the angel Gabriel; she didn’t have to submit herself to what the Lord was intending to do in her life.  Mary, like you and I, had a real choice to make when she heard the message: she could either choose to reject God, as Eve had done in the garden, or choose to fully submit herself to the will of God.  To all of creations great relief, Mary chose the latter saying, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Against all odds, Mary conceived and gave birth to our savior.  It was from her very flesh that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  It was in her tender arms that our Lord was nurtured and loved as he matured to adulthood.  Truly, Mary’s complete faithfulness and cooperation with the Lord, her total submission to the working of the Holy Spirit, brought about the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy in Genesis 3:15, “I will put enmity between you [Satan] and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”  For, through Mary’s womb, the very conqueror of Satan and death was brought into the world!  This is why turning our back on Mary will result in spiritual death and decay; because turning our back on her is in some way turning our back on her son.

As we (fearful Protestants) contemplate these incredible truths we must ask ourselves this question:  do we esteem Mary in the same way that the Bible does?  Mary prophesied, saying, “henceforth, all generations will call me blessed; for he who is might has done great things for me” (Luke 1:48-49).  Do we, joining hands with the Holy Spirit, call her blessed and revere her name?  Do we truly rejoice and find an abundance of encouragement in what the Lord accomplished through her?  Or, out of ignorance and fear, are we unwittingly turning our backs on the very mother of the One who redeemed us?