We continue our look deep into history, examining how much the early Church resembled contemporary Orthodoxy (and Catholicism), and how little it resembled Protestantism.
Today we look first at the early Church’s interest and devotion to Mary the Mother of Jesus.
Interest in Mary began early as the Church reflected that she was the one who gave birth to God almighty in the flesh, the Creator of the world. What must it have been like for her as she came to reflect that the baby once within her and later lying in her arms and whom she was called to nurture was the eternal Word? The honour normally given in a Middle Eastern culture to the mothers of important people would have been all the more intense as the Church reflected that Mary was not only the mother of the Messiah, but the Mother of God. That was why the title “Theotokos” (loosely rendered “Mother of God”) began to be used so early.
This widespread Marian reflection and devotion were expressed in the trope of Mary being the New Eve, the virgin whose obedience to God loosed the knot of sin tied by the first Eve, the virgin through whom Adam and all the world after him fell. This reflection appeared independently in the writings of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian.
Justin, in his Dialogue with Trypho (chapter 100), speaks of Mary like this: Christ “became man by the Virgin, in order that the disobedience which proceeded from the serpent might receive its destruction in the same manner in which it derived its origin. For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her…”
Irenaeus repeated the parallel: his Against Heresies (3.22.4) he wrote, “Mary, having a man betrothed [to her] and being nevertheless a virgin, by yielding obedience, became the cause of salvation, both to herself and the whole human race…Thus also it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the Virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this the Virgin Mary set free through faith”.
Later in the same work (5.19.1) he returns to this theme: “Just as [Eve] was led astray by the word of an angel so that she fled from God when she had transgressed His word, so did [Mary] by an angelic communication receive the glad tidings that she should sustain God, being obedient to His word. And if the former [Eve] disobeyed God, yet the latter [Mary] was persuaded to be obedient to God, in order that the Virgin Mary might become the advocate [Latin advocata] of the Virgin Eve. Thus, as the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so it is rescued by a virgin, virginal disobedience having been balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience”.
Tertullian also (usually not cited as enthusiast for Marian devotion), nonetheless wrote in his On the Flesh of Christ (chapter 17), “As Eve believed the serpent; so Mary believed Gabriel. The delinquency which one caused by believing, the other, by believing, effaced”.
I suggest that the widespread use of this topos by a number of Fathers independently of one another reveals a correspondingly widespread devotion to Mary. The ultimate root of this topos was a Christian reading in Genesis 3:20 of Eve as “the mother of all the living”. If a Christian reading this text included an ingrained view of Mary as the true “mother of all the living” (i.e. as the mother of those who had found new life in Christ), then the parallel would immediate suggest itself. The widespread use of this parallel in the Fathers is evidence that many Christians did read Genesis in this way because they did have such a view of Mary as their Mother.
Also, in about the middle of the second century we find a work known as the Protoevangelium, purporting to contain historical details about the early life of Mary. Given the clearly legendary nature of the work (and its many historical ‘howlers’) I do not regard the book as containing much useful biographical information about Mary. But—and here’s the point—it does witness to the early interest in Mary in the Church of the second century. There was so much interest, in fact, that since history could not supply biographical details, this mid-second century writer wrote to produce them! The Protoevangelium thus witnesses to a strong devotion to Mary almost from the start, for if the work was produced in the mid-second century, the hunger for details about her must have preceded the writing of the book by at least a generation.
Finally we look at the prayer known as the “sub tuum”, dated from about the end of the third century. The prayer reads, “Beneath your protection we flee for refuge, O Theotokos. Do not disregard our prayers in our adversities, but rescue us from danger, O only pure and blessed one”. The prayer is significant for a number of reasons.
First, it refers to Mary as “Theotokos”, which indicates a high degree of veneration for her. The title, as said above, means “Mother of God” and it represents an advance over the Biblical terminology which does not use the title “God” when referring to Jesus in the birth narratives. Such an elevated title reveals the tremendous honour in which Mary was held, especially compared to other saints and Biblical characters who were not awarded such special titles. Both the honour inherent in the title itself and the fact of its uniqueness reveals the special place which Mary held in the church of that time.
Secondly, the prayer was not a part of the usual Eucharistic Liturgy of the Church or the Divine Office, but represented a devotional appeal to Mary made apart from the usual liturgical services. By the third century at least, Mary was invoked on her own and in her own right.
The existence of this prayer shows that devotion to Mary had taken firm root among the Christian rank and file. It was considered normal by the end of the third century to invoke her intercession and help as the pure and blessed Theotokos. The fact that the prayer is in the first-person plural (i.e. “we flee for refuge”) indicates that it may have been used by a number of people when gathered together in a congregational setting.
Obviously the sub tuum did not arise out of theological thin air. It is unlikely that Christians went from offering her no prayer at all to suddenly invoking her congregationally as the unique, pure, and blessed Theotokos. The full significance of the prayer lies in the fact that it had a devotional pre-history—one going back, I suggest, right to the beginning. The early Church had a strong devotion to Christ’s Mother—one which was liturgically expressed.
Finally, we look at the Church’s devotion to and reliance upon the intercessions of the martyrs. This began (in documentable form anyway) almost as soon as there were martyrs. Here we cite only a single example—that of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, martyred in 155 A.D. The Christians were keen to collect the relics of the newly-martyred bishop Polycarp so that they might venerate them.
In the story of his martyrdom we read, “Later on [after the cremation of Polycarp’s body by the Romans] we took up his bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and deposited them in a suitable place. There, when we gather together as we are able with joy ad gladness, the Lord will permit us to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom in commemoration of those who have already fought in the contest and also for the training and preparation of those who will do so in the future” (from the Martyrdom of Polycarp, chapter 18).
From this we see that already in the mid-second century the Church had a firm tradition of venerating the relics of its saints. As the author of the Martyrdom of Polycarp wrote, this love for the martyrs offered no rival to their love for Christ, “for we worship this One who is the Son of God, but the martyrs we love as disciples and imitators of the Lord, as they deserve, on account of their matchless devotion to their own King and Teacher” (in chapter 17).
The martyrs were considered by the Church as their heavenly patrons and protectors, as men and women now so close to God that they could exercise a powerful ministry of intercession. When the Church kept the annual commemoration of its local martyr (such as Polycarp) they would meet at his (or her) grave, read the story of the martyrdom, serve the Liturgy over their grave, and ask for their heavenly intercession. Relics—i.e. remains of the martyrs or objects used by them and that had come into contact with them—were treasured as sources of spiritual power. Note that this cult of the martyrs was flourishing in the mid-second century—well before the canon of the New Testament writings was fixed. The reliance upon the martyrs’ prayers and devotion to them and their relics thus belongs to the earliest stratum of the Church’s life.
In our examination going deep into the Church’s history, we have found elements of its life that have been alien to Protestantism and rejected by Protestants since the beginning of the Reformation. These elements are not peripheral to the Church’s faith and life, but are part of its very foundation and essence. The early Church believed that the Eucharist was sacrificial and the true Body and Blood of Christ, that baptism regenerated and bestowed the remission of sins, that Marian devotion was an important part of the Christian life, and that the prayers and relics of the martyrs were to be valued and sought. Reformation Protestantism emphatically rejected all these things, and even now consideration of integrating them into the life of Protestant congregations would be regarded as problematic by almost all Protestants.
The choice is therefore as clear as it is stark: either one’s basic and defining allegiance is given to Protestantism emerging from the Reformation or it is given to the early Church and the Fathers that followed them. Newman, whatever his virtues or defects, was at least right about this: to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.
There seems to be nothing for it. If the Church was wrong about such basics as baptism, the Eucharist, Mary, and the martyrs, it was very wrong indeed, and practically apostate—as the earliest Reformers insisted that it was. Some groups (such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses) face this square on, and say quite plainly that the Church lost its way after the death of the last apostle. But then what of Christ’s promise that the gates of hell would never prevail against His Church and that the Holy Spirit would continue to guide it? For those who believe these promises, writing off the early Church is not an option.