Sweet Mother of God

Theotokos, Hagia Sophia, Constantinople

A week ago it was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM). Two days later, I gave a lecture about Sts Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, so St Mary the Virgin, Theotokos, Genetrix Dei was inevitably on my mind, St Cyril having been instrumental in enshrining Theotokos as a title for the Mother of Our Lord.

One of the people I follow on Facebook is Roman Catholic musician John Michael Talbot. He unsurprisingly posted some images from his residence at Little Portion Hermitage commemorating the feast. Because he has a fan base from both Roman Catholics and Protestants, he had to post a request for people to stop anti-Catholic trolling his post. One person went so far as to say that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception “grieves the Father’s heart” in response to John Michael’s request for people to stop slamming the Church of Rome on a page maintained by Roman Catholics (frankly, a polite request easily abided by).

Now, I am not Roman Catholic, so I do not believe in the Immaculate Conception of the BVM. Don’t worry. My current approach to differences between myself and the Church of Rome has moved from, “And this is why I’m not a Papist!” to, “Hm. Why do Roman Catholics believe this?” I am far from, “I’m agnostic on points where the 39 Articles disagree with Rome.”

So — the Immaculata. Why?

When Marian dogmas are being done right, they all have one goal: To glorify Jesus the Christ, the God Word, God the Son incarnate. It seems to many of us that they detract from His dignity, and maybe sometimes in practice they can, but that is not the formal, official intention of the Roman Church (an important point to keep in mind).

The easiest place to begin, if you ask me, is Theotokos, Genetrix Dei, Mother of God. The Greek is literally “God-bearer”. This is a title that was in common use by the year 428, and the Bishop of Constantinople, an unsympathetic fellow called Nestorius, decided that Christians shouldn’t use this title anymore, urging them instead to say Christotokos, Mother of Christ, instead.

St Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria (in terms of politicking, likewise unsympathetic, but a better theologian — and abler politician) took umbrage with this and argued that the fullness of the union between divine and human that is Jesus the Christ means that we cannot separate Christ from God like that. Thus, the child born in Bethlehem and carried in the virgin’s womb was completely and utterly God. The son of Mary was also God the Son.

The title Christotokos diminishes the reality and fullness of the Incarnation.

To get back to the Immaculate Conception of the BVM, then. How does this teaching exalt Christ? Well, first it would help to know what it actually is, right? The dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the BVM is the teaching that at the point of conception, Christ cleansed her of original sin. It is not not not not NOT a virginal conception. She was conceived in the usual manner by Joachim and Anna.

I may be wrong, but I believe that part of the issue is the question of Original Sin. If Jesus Christ was like us in everything except without sin, and if original sin is transmitted from parent to child, then would Christ not also have original sin? Except usually the argument is that original sin is transmitted through the father’s seed — hence the virginal conception of Jesus.

I actually don’t know where to go from here. I don’t think it grieves the Father’s heart, but I have never grasped the logic of why it was thought necessary to have this dogma. I see Eadmer’s perspective: Potuit, decuit, fecit — it could have been, it was fitting, it happened. But here I find myself inclining towards St Bernard (as so often — and himself one with his own devotion to the BVM) that this tends towards making Christ’s redemption on the Cross unnecessary.

That said, any exaltation of Mary is done by showing the greatness of the grace of God, highlighting the greatness of Jesus her Son. So maybe that is enough?

This coming Sunday, the Revised Common Lectionary will have the Annunciation to the BVM as the Gospel reading. Think upon the BVM, what it means to call her Theotokos, God-bearer, and then bow down and worship her Son. It’s what she’d want you to do.

Why “sound Bible teaching” is slippery, starting with Grosseteste

I have just been enjoying some truly great times with friends in London, including a day trip to Canterbury. In the middle of this holiday, I took a jaunt to Oxford to give a paper about canon law in the era of Robert Grosseteste’s early career, in 1190s England. In explaining to my friends why Grosseteste is an interesting and even important figure, I am quick, quick, quick to point out that he is not a proto-reformer, or even a precursor to Wycliffe, although he levels some very serious words and criticisms at the papal court of Innocent IV (pope, 1243-1254).

The main reason is that, as Southern points out in his biography, Robert Grosseteste, Grosseteste is a thirtheenth-century man. He cannot imagine a church without a pope. As far as he is concerned, if the pope or curia is Antichrist, then the end of the world is nigh. Moreover, Grosseteste was the sort of mind that sought a unifying principle for each field of study. For church order, that principle is the pope.

This is the sort of idea I live with all the time, so it doesn’t sound strange to me anymore.

Now, saying this to Protestant friends who are fans of ‘sound’ Bible teaching (as they call it) and expository preaching and biblical principles, I suddenly realised that this sounds bizarre to this modern context. Indeed, the idea of the pope and papacy is considered by most Protestants as ‘unbiblical’.

But is it?

Specifically, is it ‘unbiblical’ to thirteenth-century man?

It is not as though the rationale behind the plenitude of power and authority resident in the Bishop of Rome has no biblical foundation. (Blasphemy! cry the Reformed.)

We need, when considering people like Grosseteste and Francis and Bernard and Anselm and Aquinas, to keep in mind their understanding of Matthew 16:18, part of an exegetical tradition of the exposition of Sacred Scripture that was 900 years old by Grosseteste’s day, a tradition that saw Christ entrusting the keys to St Peter and making St Peter the foundation of the church. Couple that with a tradition that was 1100 or 1200 years old that traced the authority of Rome’s bishop through a succession of bishops beginning with St Peter, it only makes sense that someone like Grosseteste would consider the Bishop of Rome the visible, ruling head of the church.

Also, don’t forget that the New Testament episcopipresbyteri, and diaconi are uncontroversially still bishops, priests, and deacons.

So, when we think about the medieval reader, it seems pretty straightforward to their perspective that the office of pope is perfectly biblical. And if you read St Bernard’s De Consideratione from 1153, it seems pretty straightforward that the Bishop of Rome has a range of important pastoral duties, drawn from Scripture. De Consideratione is soaked in Bible teaching.

So what on earth, then, is ‘sound Bible teaching’? Can we be sure that we have it and they don’t?

I wonder.

Blogging Benedict: More on abbots

Last time, I broached the subject of choosing the abbot towards the end of my discussion of rank in the monastery. The abbot should be chosen unanimously. I know a clergyman who has only even accepted a parish when the selection committee has been unanimous in its choice of him. Wisdom there, I think.

And what sort of man should be chosen?

The one to be appointed should be chosen for his virtuous way of life and the wisdom of his teaching, even if he is the lowest in rank in the community. (ch.64; p. 101 trans. White)

The only way for someone to cultivate the character of Benedict’s abbot is lots of prayer and Scripture. These are the two things the Benedictine life is most devoted to. Hopefully, then, a potential abbot has been well-shaped! In terms of modern application, we must free up our clergy who sometimes seem to me like administrators and undertrained psychologists who preach once a week rather than priests of God and shepherds of holiness.

Once appointed:

He [the abbot] should strive to be loved rather than feared. (ch. 64, 103 English)

Indeed, if you read the lives of the early Cistercians, Stephen Harding, Aelred of Rievaulx, Bernard of Clairvaux, you will see men well-beloved by their communities.

Finally, we circle back to the universal monastic virtue of discretion (discussed by Cassian):

Taking these and other examples of discretion, the mother of all virtues, let him be moderate in all things. (ch. 64, 103 English)