Answers to objections about why some Fathers and Gospel passages spoke unsatisfactorily about Mary

May 28, 2023 • 8 min

From A Defense of the Teachings of Mary, page 144
By St. John Henry Newman

Before concluding, I shall briefly take notice of two questions which may be asked me.

1. How are we to account for the absence, at Antioch or Cæsarea, of a tradition of our Lady’s sinlessness? I consider that it was obliterated or confused by the Arian troubles in the countries in which those Sees are included.

It is not surely wonderful, if, in Syria and Asia Minor, the seat in the fourth century of Arianism and Semi-arianism, the prerogatives of the mother were obscured together with the essential glory of the Son, or if they who denied the tradition of His divinity, forgot the tradition of her sinlessness. Christians in those countries and times, however religious themselves, however orthodox their teachers, were necessarily under peculiar disadvantages.

Now let it be observed that Basil grew up in the very midst of Semi-arianism, and had direct relations with that portion of its professors who had been reconciled to the Church and accepted the Homoüsion. It is not wonderful then, if he had no firm habitual hold upon a doctrine which (though Apostolical) was in his day so much in the background as yet all over Christendom, as our Lady’s sinlessness.

As to Chrysostom, not only was he in close relations with the once Semi-arian Cathedra of Antioch, to the disavowal of the rival succession there, recognized by Rome and Alexandria, but, as his writings otherwise show, he came under the teaching of the celebrated Antiochene School, celebrated, that is, at once for its Scripture criticism, and (orthodox as it was itself) for the successive outbreaks of heresy among its members. These outbreaks began in Paul of Samosata, were continued in the Semi-arian pupils of Lucian, and ended in Nestorius. The famous Theodore, and Diodorus, of the same school, who, though not hereties themselves, have a bad name in the Church, were, Diodorus the master, and Theodore the fellow-pupil, of St. Chrysostom. (Vid. Arians of the Fourth Cent., p. 8, and Doctr. Devel. p. 252.) Here then is a natural explanation, why St. Chrysostom, even more than St. Basil, should be wanting in a clear perception of the place of the Blessed Virgin in the Evangelical Dispensation.

2. How are we to account for the passages in the Gospels, which are the occasion of the Fathers’ remarks to her disparagement? They seem to me intended to discriminate between our Lord’s work who is our Teacher and Redeemer, and the ministrative office of His Mother.

As to the words of Simeon, as interpreted by St. Basil and St. Cyril, there is nothing in the sacred text which obliges us to consider the “sword” to mean doubt, rather than anguish; but Matth. xii. 46—50, with its parallels Mark iii. 31—35, and Luke viii. 19—21; Luke xi. 27, 28, and John ii. 4, require some explanation.

I observe then, that, when our Lord commenced His ministry, and during it, as one of His chief self-sacrifices, He separated Himself from all ties of earth, in order to fulfil the typical idea of a teacher and priest; and to give an example to His priests after Him; and especially to manifest by this action the cardinal truth, as expressed by the Prophet, “I am, I am the Lord, and there is no Saviour besides Me.”

As to His Priests, they, after Him, were to be of the order of that Melchizedech, who was “without father and without mother;” for “no man, being a soldier to God, entangleth himself with secular business:” and “no man putting his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”

As to the Levites, who were His types in the Old Law, there was that honourable history of their zeal for God, when they even slew their own brethren and companions who had committed idolatry; “who said to his father and to his mother, I do not know you, and to his brethren, I know you not, and their own children they have not known.” To this separation even from His Mother He refers by anticipation at twelve years old in His words, “How is it that you sought Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?”

This separation from her, with whom He had lived thirty years and more, was not to last beyond the time of His ministry. She seems to have been surprised when she first heard of it, for St. Luke says, on occasion of His staying in the Temple, “they understood not the word, that He spoke to them.” Nay, she seems hardly to have understood it at the marriage-feast; but He, in dwelling on it more distinctly then, implied also that it was not to last long. He said, “Woman, what have I to do with thee? My hour is not yet come,”—the hour of His triumph, when His Mother was to take her predestined place in His kingdom. In saying the hour was not yet come, He implied that the hour would come, when He would have to do with her, and she might ask and obtain from Him miracles.

Accordingly, St. Augustine thinks that that hour had come, when on the Cross He said, “Consummatum est,” and, after this ceremonial estrangement of some years, He recognized His mother and committed her to the beloved disciple. Thus by marking out the beginning and the end of the period of exception, when she could not exert her influence upon Him, He signifies more clearly, by the contrast, that her presence with Him, and her power, was to be the rule. In a higher sense than He spoke to the Apostles, He seems to address her in the words, “Because I have spoken these things, sorrow hath filled your heart. But I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man shall take from you.” (Vid. Sermon iii. in Sermons on Subjects of the Day, on “Our Lord’s Last Supper and His First.”)

P.S. Third Edition: On the comment of St. Irenæus, &c., upon our Lord’s words to the Blessed Virgin at the marriage-feast, vid. my note on Athanas. Orat. iii. 41.

Also, I might have added to the present Note the passage in Tertullian, Carn. Christ. § 7, as illustrating, by its contrast with § 17 (quoted above, p. 36), the distinction between doctrinal tradition and personal opinion, could I have considered it clear that he included the Blessed Virgin in the unbelief which he imputes to our Lord’s brethren; for he expressly separates her off from them. The passage runs thus on the text, “Who is My Mother? and who are My Brethren?”

“The Lord’s brothers had not believed in Him, as is contained in the Gospel published before Marcion. His Mother, equally, is not described (non demonstratur) to have adhered to Him, whereas Martha and Mary were frequent in His intercourse. In this place at length their (eorum) incredulity is evident; while He was teaching the way of life, was preaching the kingdom of God, was working for the cure of ailments and diseases, though strangers were riveted to Him, these, so much the nearest to Him (tam proximi), were away. At length they come upon Him, and stand without, nor enter, not reckoning forsooth on what was going on within. Nor even do they wait; as if they were bringing thither something necessary, which He then was especially employed on; but they go on to interrupt, and wish Him recalled from so great a work.”

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