Mary as Mediatrix: An Incarnational View


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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.

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Penal Substitution, Sola Fide and the New Docetism


Isaac Gutiérrez Pascual ©2010

Earlier this month I spoke about the cosmic importance of the Incarnation.  Today I’d like to build upon this reflection.  As I noted before, many Christians fail to see the Incarnation as the cosmic destiny or telos of creation and, likewise, fail to see the work of Christ as including the sanctification, redemption, and renewal of the body and the physical/material world in general.  For many, the work of Christ is narrowly construed.  It was merely to satiate the wrath of God the Father so as to take away the punishment necessitated by sin (i.e., Penal Substitutionary Atonement).  This popular view of the atonement is accompanied by another important doctrine classically referred to as Sola Fide or “salvation by faith alone.”  It is this doctrine which teaches that belief—often understood as a sort of mental assent—in Jesus’ work on the cross is the sole means of our salvation.

I submit that both Penal Substitutionary Atonement (henceforth, PSA) and Sola Fide represent a form of “Neo-Docetism.”  Unlike classical Docetism, which explicitly denied the Incarnation (that the Word actually became flesh), Neo-Docetism places such little significance on the Incarnation, and such heavy emphasis on Sola Fide (i.e., a mental assent to the propositional truth of PSA) it implicitly denies the Incarnation as being absolutely necessary for our salvation.  Unfortunately, when we fail to view theology, and especially soteriology, through the lens of the Incarnation we run into major problems.  Before we elaborate on this point, however, let us first take a closer look at Docetism as it was originally espoused.

Classical Docetism

Classical Docetism rejected the Incarnation outright and, in consequence, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (which was overwhelmingly accepted by all orthodox Christians for over a thousand years).  Evidently, the original Docetist’s also rejected works of mercy as being crucial or necessary aspects of true faith in Christ.  We learn this from the letters of St. Ignatius—who, consequentially, knew St. Peter and was installed as the Bishop of Antioch after St. Peter traveled to Rome .  In his letter to the Smyrnaeans these three common threads of Docetism–the rejection of the Incarnation, the Eucharist, and works of mercy—are made very clear.  St. Ignatius writes:

“But look at the men [i.e., the Docetist’s who deny the Incarnation] who have those perverted notions about the grace of Jesus Christ which has come down to us, and see how contrary to the mind of God they are.  They have no care for love, no thought for the widow and orphan, none at all for the afflicted, the captive, the hungry or the thirsty.  They even absent themselves from the Eucharist and the public prayers, because they will not admit that the Eucharist is the self-same body of our Savior Jesus Christ which suffered for our sins, and which the Father in His goodness afterwards raised up again.  Consequently, since they reject God’s good gifts, they are doomed in their disputatiousness.  They would have done better to learn charity, if they were ever to know any resurrection.”

Neo-Docetism

By minimizing the soteriological importance of the Incarnation, and, in fact, failing to make it the measure of their theologizing, the Neo-Docetist’s appear to follow the same pattern as their ancient predecessors.  They reject the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist—and, thus, renounce the sacramental worldview held by the earliest Christians.  In so doing, they fail to see how the love of neighbor (in tangible ways) is of soteriological importance.  In point of fact, Sola Fide flatly rejects the idea that works of love and mercy are necessary for authentic faith and, thus, for salvation.  For some the Neo-Docetist attitude has morphed into a full blown Gnosticism which views the human body as superfluous (e.g., we’re just “spirit-beings” waiting to escape the body), considers matters of social justice of secondary importance, and almost completely ignores the environment.  Interestingly, these Neo-Docetist/Gnostic tendencies play a major roll in why Millennials seem to be drifting away from evangelicalism.

Incarnational Theology 

In contrast, theology viewed through the lens of the incarnation recognizes the broader implications and importance of, “the Word [who] became flesh and dwelt among us . . . full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).  It recognizes creation as being essentially good (Genesis 1:31) and as originally intended to be in full communion with God.  It knows that nature is ultimately designed to direct us to its Creator.  It thus maintains a sacramental worldview which acknowledges the Holy Spirit works in and through the created world to sustain and renew it.

It further understands that sin has subjected all of creation to futility because sin estranged the creation from its Creator.  Affirming with St. Paul that:

“The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:20-22).

Incarnational theology understands that, by taking on a real body, the Word of God, through whom and for whom all things where made (Colossians 1:16), sanctified the flesh and ushered in the renewal of creation.  As a real man Christ lived a life of perfect faith—obeying the will of the Father, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, feeding the hungry, turning men away from their sin— admonishing us to do the same.  Saying, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).  Thus, showing us that to have a living faith is to be like Christ; to love the world as He loved it; to obey the will of the Father; to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  This is why St. James says:

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?  Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?  So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:14-17).”

Thus, salvation understood in light of the Incarnation is holistic–encompassing the whole of man.  Jesus requires we give God everything we are.  It is the first and greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:36).  Mental assent given to a set of propositions about Jesus (i.e. Sola Fide) is not enough; for, “even the demons believe–and shudder” (James 2:19).  Faith certainly has a knowledge component but is not merely knowledge.  Faith is tangible–it is played out through us as we live our lives in the corporeal world.

The Eucharist 

In accordance with everything that has been said, incarnational theology also recognizes the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  It embraces the most controversial of Jesus’ teachings because it knows that He desires to draw us—in our entirety, body and soul–into full communion with Him; for this is the very point of the Incarnation.  Thus, it understands what Jesus means when He emphatically states:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.  For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.  Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:53-56).

The Word became flesh to give his flesh for us; to transform us; to redeem us; to restore us to what we truly are: men and woman made in the image and likeness of God.  What amazing grace this is–that the God who formed the universe would unite Himself to it in order to preserve and keep it.  This is the Gospel message–the kingdom of God is at hand!  The Almighty God who created the heavens and the earth draws near!  Intimately and, some might say, uncomfortably near.  It is the most provocative message ever proclaimed by any teacher in all of history.