There’s a phenomenon that I refer to as “aiming for Mary and hitting Jesus.” It refers to a whole class of Protestant anti-Marian arguments that, if true, would also deny the Divinity or sinlessness of Christ. A good question to ask is, “would this argument against Mary also be an argument against Jesus?” It turns out, some of the most popular arguments against Mary fail this test.
Example 1: “All Have Sinned”
For example, Romans 3:23-24 says that “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which in Christ Jesus.” In context, Paul is referring to the need of both the Jews and Gentiles for justification through faith. But taking his words out of context, and applying them to every individual human, this is a “proof” that Mary must have sinned. After all, “all” means “all.”
Let’s take this argument seriously. Christ is also fully human, so this is just as good a “proof” that He must have sinned, fell short of the glory of God, and had to be redeemed… by Himself. After all, “all” means “all.” That’s heretical claptrap, of course. We’ve aimed at Mary but hit Jesus.
Example 2: “No One Greater than John the Baptist”
Another example is Matthew 11:11. Like Romans 3:23, it’s a single line of Scripture stripped of context. This time, it’s Jesus’ words that “among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist.” This is treated as a one-verse smoking gun. John the Baptist is a sinner – there’s no debate on that point – and if Mary’s born of women, she cannot be greater than John the Baptist, and therefore, must be a sinner.
Again, take the argument seriously. If Jesus is literally saying that no one born of woman is greater than John the Baptist, that would mean that Jesus Himself isn’t greater than John the Baptist. This, in turn, would mean that Jesus must be a sinner, just as much as it would prove that Mary must be. After all, Christ is one of those “born of women” (or more precisely, born of Woman), as Galatians 4:4-5 say: “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”
Of course, that’s more heretical claptrap, and John the Baptist will be the first to say so: “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me’” (John 1:15); “I baptize with water; but among you stands one whom you do not know, even he who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:26-27); “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30), etc. And Jesus also says as much in John 5:33-36. So once more, what begins as an anti-Marian argument ends up being a denial of orthodox Christology. Aim at Mary, hit Jesus.
Example 3: God-Bearer? or Christ-Bearer?
These “aim at Mary, hit Jesus” arguments are nothing new. Indeed, they date back more than fifteen hundred years. The fifth century heretic Nestorius refused to call Mary “Mother of God” (Theotokos, “God-bearer”) referring to her instead as “Mother of Christ” (Christokos, “Christ-bearer”). His argument was that Mary was the origin of Christ’s sacred Humanity, but not His Divinity, and that God-bearer would seem to elevate her to Divine status.
This argument runs counter to the Scriptural evidence. Elizabeth refers to Mary as “the mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:43), using a divine title for Mary’s Son. But this distinction between Christ-bearer and God-bearer also promotes a bad Christology. After all, if Mary is the Mother of Christ, but not Mother of God, then Christ is not God. So what appears as an argument against Mary results of the truth that there is one Person who dwelt within the womb of Mary, the God-Man Jesus Christ. The Church responded to this by holding an Ecumenical Council in Ephesus, where Mary spent her last days with the Apostle John. There, at the First Council of Ephesus in 431, Nestorious’ heresies were definitively condemned. The early Church saw what so many of us miss today: that these fights about Mary aren’t really about Mary at all, but about Christ.
Three Take-Away Points
Why does this keep happening? Why do these arguments against Mary so frequently turn out to be arguments against Christ? I would suggest three points: one exegetical, and two theological.
- Exegetically, we need to read Scripture in context. A lot of Protestant apologetics is built upon proof-texting: taking a phrase or partial sentence (“all have sinned,” “none greater than John the Baptist,” “one Mediator between God and Man,” “call no man Father,” “the sheep hear My voice,” etc.), and stripping it of its Scriptural context. Watch out for instances in which a verse is applied to a topic that the passage doesn’t even address, because that’s a good sign that the passage is being abused.
In the case of Romans 3:28, context would have told us that Paul is speaking about how the Jews and Gentiles responded to the revelation given to each, and the our common need for justification by faith. Paul wasn’t trying to make a point about the sinfulness or sinlessness of Mary (or Jesus) at all. In Matthew 11:11, the quotation is stripped of the second half of the verse. What Christ actually says is that “among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Again, we see that Christ is saying something different from what Protestants are trying to make Him say. In context, He is speaking about the Old and New Covenant, not about Mary’s inferiority to John.
This also means reading Scripture in its cultural context. For example, in Matthew 11:11, Jesus is using classically-Semitic hyperbole in speaking about John the Baptist. These hyperbolic expressions are frequently used in Hebrew, but modern literalists tend to think that such figures of speech (including exaggerations) are equivalent to lying. We need to learn to approach Scripture on Scripture’s terms, and let the inspired text speak for itself.
- Mary’s life is referential. 100% of the reason that we Catholics care about Mary is that we care about Jesus. Protestants tend to be skeptical of this claim, but these attacks on Mary bear it out. When you tug on the Marian threads, you start to unravel the whole Christian sweater.
- Satan hates Mary. The curse on the serpent put “enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed” (Genesis 3:15). The “woman” at war with Satan is Mary, the woman that both Jesus Christ and St. Paul refer to exclusively as “Woman” (John 2:4; 19:26; Galatians 4:4). And in Revelation 12, we see the Mother of God enthroned in Heaven (Revelation 12:1-3), miraculously protected from the wiles of the devil. The chapter concludes by saying that “the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus” (Rev. 12:17).
So both positively or negatively, Mary matters because of her significance to Christ. Catholics love Mary because we love Jesus, and Satan hates Mary because he hates Jesus. By extension, he hates all faithful Christians for this same reason: we’re depicted in Scripture as her children (Rev. 12:17; John 19:27) . It’s hardly a surprise, then, that he should seek to separate us from our Mother, or to separate Mary from her Divine Son. That’s the deepest reason, spiritually, why attacks on Mary end up hitting Jesus.