The Mary of History and the Theotokos of Faith

Courtesy of the journal “Ecumenical Trends” an article by Dr Richard L. Jeske has just come into my hands. The article is a “review from a Lutheran perspective” of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) agreed statement “Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ”. The document (not online–request a copy in the comments box if you like and if I have your email address I will send it to you) was actually produced for the Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogue of New York. Dr Jeske is the Director of Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations at the American Bible Society. So we are in the same business.

But Dr Jeske is (unlike your correspondent) a New Testament scholar, with a PhD from Heidelberg. This could be a reason why a) he is working for the Bible Society, and b) he is very keen on historical criticism and form criticism.

The latter is what concerns us here.

His chief concern with the ARCIC document is that it employs an eschatological, ecclesial, ecumenical hermeneutic of the scriptures in reference to Mary:

By now, at the beginning of the 21st century, we should be ready to acknowledge the value, precisely for ecumenical conversations, of historical-critical methodology and that we’ve been able to apply its best resources for the ecumenical task. There is no excuse for a document that wishes to begin with biblical material to ignore the results of critical biblical scholarship… While solidarity with the ancient church (with some reservations even there) may be claimed, can the clock really be turned back again to a pre-critical, a-historical employment of Scriptural texts?

Deary me. Thus his “point one” in

this “Lutheran perspective” on the ARCIC document is that of a renewed application of the question of continuity: does ecumenical discussion of the role of Mary in the life of the church, in order to achieve convergence between church traditions, ultimately commit us to the veneration of a mythological figure?

This, he says, is where we end up if we give primacy to the “realm of worship”, doxology, and the “eschatological perspective”.

Add to this the ambiguous warning (par. 7) that Reformation emphases (eg. calling for “a return to the Gospel message”) can become “reductionist” and that historical-critical methods can become “overly historicist”, and this Lutheran New Testament historican becomes somewhat edgy indeed.

Of course the whole matter boils down to a Marian version of the quest for the Historical Jesus. Jeske himself puts the question in exactly those terms:

To what degree is the continuity between the historical Mary and the Mary of faith maintained?

There are other aspects of this review that could be treated, but this one will do for now. Several points:

1) The Church traditionally recognises two legitimate ways of interpreting scripture: the literal and the spiritual. The former is the exegetical mode (which also may legitimately use various critical methods), the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses (for more detail, see the Catechism par. 115 and following)

2) Among critical methods, historical and form criticism are just a little dated, and very dated if used in isolation. Other significant methods include sociological and narrative criticism. I find especially the latter very useful in that it forms a bridge between the literal and the spiritual interpretations of scripture.

3) Employing hermeneutics that are ecclesial, doxalogical and eschatological may have fallen out of favour in the 20th Century, but are well represented in the history of the Church. Rediscovering these hermeneutics may well have an healing effect upon the oikumene.

4) I value immensely the work of folk like Tom Wright and Joseph Ratzinger who, without rejecting the great fruits of 20th Century critical methods, have nevertheless been able to demonstrate the continuity between the “Jesus of History” and the “Christ of Faith” (to use these rather inaccurate and perjorative labels). I am convinced that with Mary we are facing the same truth: The simple Nazarene girl who became the mother of the Galilean is indeed the one and the same Mother of God, the Body and Blood of whose Son I expect to receive in Holy Communion tomorrow morning.

Now that, I realize, is a staggering claim. But there it is. That’s the Christian faith. The opinions of New Testament historical critics notwithstanding.

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