Bible, Lead, Main, Teaching
Comment 1

Why did Mary become so prominent in the Roman Catholic Church?


Festival of the Assumption of Mary being held at a Roman Catholic church in Sicily. Credit: effems/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

Festival of the Assumption of Mary being held at a Roman Catholic Church in Sicily. Credit: effems/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

Several years ago, my wife and I adopted our daughter from a Roman Catholic orphanage in Peru. Part of the process included being in the country for several weeks as we worked through the adoption. We ended up staying at the orphanage where our daughter was living.

It was a well-run orphanage and clearly the men and women working there were dedicated to helping these children.

My wife and I became friends with a young Peruvian couple working at the orphanage who could speak English.

Though committed Catholics, they were also actively involved in the Roman Catholic charismatic movement that held services every Saturday night at the local cathedral, where they emphasized the filling of the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts.

I remember one evening, my wife and I went to their home for supper and we began talking about doctrine which invariably led to a discussion of Mary. The husband who helped lead the Charismatic group defended the Catholic church’s theological position on Mary .

But things took a bit of change when I asked if Mary was equally venerated during their Saturday night Charismatic services, as she was in the Roman Catholic service the next morning.

There was a moment of silence as he thought about the question and then answered “No.” There was basically no mention of Mary in their Saturday evening services.

I asked him if he thought that was odd and if it was possible as they emphasized the Holy Spirit in the Saturday service, God was also de-emphasizing Mary?

He never responded.

One of the questions that has always puzzled me is what led to the Roman Catholic’s veneration of Mary where the church considers her the highest of all saints. They also pray to Mary asking her to intercede with her Son Jesus on their behalf.

She is called the Mother of God and because Jesus is the King of Kings, Catholics refer to Mary as the Queen of Heaven.

The Bible states she was a virgin at Christ’s conception, but Catholics believe she was also a perpetual virgin throughout her life, meaning she never had sexual relations with her husband Joseph, despite the Bible stating in several verses that Jesus had brothers (Matthew 12:46).

The belief in “Immaculate Conception” reflects the Catholic position that Mary never sinned, even though at one point Mary along with the rest of the family thought Jesus was crazy (Mark 3:20-30).

Finally, the Roman Catholic church believes that Mary was assumed into heaven, including her body and soul, with some suggesting this happened before she actually died.

Again there is no Biblical basis for any of these positions, but they arose from traditions developed over the centuries that were eventually added to Catholic theology.

So what led to this emphasis on Mary?

It was due primarily to the rapid rise of the Gnostic heresy in the early church. Gnosticism, which was prominent during the first three centuries, was a real threat to the church that was in its infancy stage.

The Gnostics mixed a Christian view of the world with Greek philosophy and came up with the belief that all matter was evil and that only the spirit was good.  It got to the point that they separated the acts of the flesh from the spirit. So it didn’t matter what you did with your body, meaning you could sin all you want, because only the spirit mattered.

And in his letter to the Romans, Paul seems to be addressing this problem that was already rearing its ugly head when he wrote:

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? (Romans 6:1 NASV)

But what led to the rise of Mary?

Since the Gnostics believed all matter was evil, if Jesus was without sin, then they did not believe Jesus existed in the flesh. They stated that Jesus only looked human to His disciples, but was actually a spirit.

We see references to this in the New Testament, as the Apostle John countered this growing heresy writing:

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. (1 John 4:2-3 NASV)

Notice how John emphasizes the physical nature of Jesus, stating He was born in the flesh and anyone who denied this was “not from God.” John also hints that there were demonic spirits behind the Gnostic heresy.

Christ coming in the flesh was critical because Jesus’ physical death on the cross was necessary for our atonement as Christ received the punishment for our sin.

A big part of countering Gnosticism was emphasizing Mary and the physical birth of Christ. As the church battled the Gnostic heresy for three centuries, this eventually led to an over-emphasis on Mary and a theology that went beyond Biblical teaching.

There is no doubt Mary was a woman of God, but I think due to the Roman Catholic’s position on Mary, evangelicals have downplayed her significant role as God’s chosen handmaid helping bring salvation to the world.

Sources:

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