In the papal encyclical Redemptoris Mater – on the Blessed Virgin Mary in the life of the pilgrim Church, issued in March 1987, Pope John Paul II reflected on the role of Mary in the church.
Redemptoris Mater is a wide-ranging and authoritative statement on Mary from the Roman Catholic perspective. It reiterates Rome’s traditional dogmas and, crucially, the thinking behind them.
Marian dogmas are important. They spring from (and reinforce), features of Roman Catholicism that delineate its departure from evangelical truth.
Mary in the Bible
But first, what does the Bible teach about Mary? Mary is referred to (though not by name) at least three times in the Old Testament. She is the woman whose seed would destroy Satan (Genesis 3:15), the virgin who would give birth to Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14), and the one who would give birth to the coming Messiah in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2-3).
As would be expected, she figures prominently in the New Testament. She is referred to in the birth and infancy narratives of Christ (Matthew 1-2; Luke 1:26-2:40), in connection with Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem as a boy (Luke 2:41-51), and in the account of the marriage at Cana (John 2:1-12).
She is with Jesus’ brothers at Capernaum (Matthew 12:46-50; Mark 3:20-35; Luke 8:19-21), at Jesus’ crucifixion (John 19:25-27) and, with the other disciples, at Pentecost (Acts 1:14).
Mary is mentioned in the unknown woman’s salutation of Luke 11:27-28, and in questions concerning Jesus’ origin (Matthew 13: 55-56; Mark 6:3-4; John 6:42).
Paul refers to her, indirectly, in Romans 1:3 and Galatians 4:4.
Jesus asserts his awareness of his divine mission and his unique filial relationship with God the Father, saying ‘I must be about my Father’s business’.
This divine relationship is distinct from, and has priority over, his love for Mary and Joseph and even over his duty towards them. Mary was no different from the other disciples in failing to understand the full implications of Jesus’ person and work (see Luke 2:48; John 2:4).
Just as she needed the Lord as her Saviour (Luke 1:47), she also needed the Holy Spirit’s future ministry to clarify her clouded understanding (John 14:26).
Her only recorded comment during Christ’s public ministry is brief and highly significant: ‘Whatever he says to you, do it’ (John 2:5). So speaks the Mary of Scripture.
Relationship to Jesus
Does Mary’s earthly relationship to Jesus have implications for us today? Rome’s answer is a resounding ‘yes’. But Scripture speaks in different, muted tones.
When Mary (and Jesus’ brothers) approached Jesus seeking immediate attention, Jesus accorded her no special role, in spite of her earthly relationship to him.
Instead,‘he stretched out his hand toward his disciples and said, here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’ (Matthew 12:46-50).
Luke’s account adds a crucial statement: ‘My mother and my brothers are these who hear the word of God and do it’ (Luke 8:21).
Far from taking the opportunity to exalt his mother, Jesus focused on his disciples. Spiritually speaking, they were his family. His earthly family, with the exception of Mary, were not even believers at this time (John 7:5).
Consider how Pope John Paul II explains these verses.
‘Without any doubt, Mary is worthy of blessing by the very fact that she became the mother of Jesus according to the flesh (“Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked”), but also and especially because already at the Annunciation she accepted the word of God, because she believed it, because she was obedient to God, and because she “kept” the word and “pondered it in her heart” (cf. Luke 1:38, 45; 2:19, 51) and by means of her whole life accomplished it.
‘Thus we can say that the blessing proclaimed by Jesus is not in opposition, despite appearances, to the blessing uttered by the unknown woman… ’(Pt. I:3:20).
It is upon such ‘exegesis’ that the Roman Catholic Church builds its doctrine of Mary.
Listen to John Paul II again: ‘what is actually manifested is a new kind of motherhood according to the spirit and not just according to the flesh, that is to say, Mary’s solicitude for human beings, her coming to them in the wide variety of their wants and needs bringing those needs within the radius of Christ’s messianic mission and salvific power.
‘Thus there is a mediation: Mary places herself between her Son and mankind in the reality of their wants, needs and sufferings. She puts herself “in the middle”, that is to say she acts as a Mediatrix not as an outsider, but in her position as mother’ (Pt. I:3:21).
An evangelical reply
The truth is, of course, that the Lord Jesus corrected the view of the woman who said: ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked’ (Luke 11:27-28).
He pointed her away from Mary and his natural family, with their supposed privileges, saying: ‘Instead of that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!’
He thus opened up the wonderful truth that, through hearing and obeying the Word of God, any sinner can experience a family relationship with Jesus, spiritually and eternally.
In Rome’s dogmas, however, biblical truth is reversed to represent Mary as one who will do for the believer what, in fact, only Christ can do.
Note the language used by the pope regarding Mary. It is the same language Evangelicals rightly use of the tender, effective ministry of Christ as our Mediator. And, surely, what Rome is asserting for Mary is only possible for an Infinite Being, that is, Christ himself.
The New Testament is specific about the uniqueness of Jesus’ role as Mediator: ‘for this reason he is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death…’ (Hebrews 9:15) and: ‘there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus’ (1 Timothy 2:5).
Rome further asserts that Jesus depends on Mary’s mediation to exercise his own: ‘she can point out to her Son the needs of mankind, and in fact, she “has the right” to do so. Her mediation is thus in the nature of intercession’ (Pt. 1:3:21).
But Jesus, as God the Son, is omniscient! Far from needing Mary to ‘point out the needs of mankind’, we read that ‘he knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man’ (John 2:24-25).
Not content with making the Lord Jesus dependent upon Mary, the papal encyclical makes us dependent upon her to know Jesus’ will!
It states: ‘Another essential element of Mary’s maternal task is found in her words to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you”. The mother of Christ presents herself as the spokeswoman of her Son’s will, pointing out those things which must be done so that the salvific power of the Messiah may be manifested.
‘At Cana, thanks to the intercession of Mary and the obedience of the servants, Jesus begins “his hour”’ (Pt. 1:3:21).
But Luke 2:48-49 shows that Mary was not always aware of Jesus’ will (which is identical with the Father’s, see John 5:30). It is the unique role of the Holy Spirit, through the ministry of the Word, to unfold to men and women what the will of Jesus is.
Here Rome’s doctrine of Mary resonates with its errant view of Scripture. To Rome Scripture is just one authority. Tradition is the other, and both authorities are subject to the church’s Magisterium for definitive interpretation.
Rome concludes: ‘Mary became “a mother to us in the order of grace”. This motherhood in the order of grace flows from her divine motherhood.
‘Because she was, by the design of divine Providence, the mother who nourished the divine Redeemer, Mary became “an associate of unique nobility, and the Lord’s humble handmaid”, who “co-operated by her obedience, faith, hope and burning charity in the Saviour’s work of restoring supernatural life to souls” …
‘This maternity of Mary in the order of grace … will last without interruption until the eternal fulfilment of all the elect’ (Pt. 1:3:22).
This cannot be viewed as just an academic or theological position. It is full of pastoral and eternal significance, because it denies the biblical doctrine of Christ.
Who is Jesus? Is it not manifest in Scripture that Jesus is the only Mediator?
The issues at stake are the integrity of God’s Word, the glory of the Saviour and the eternal wellbeing of lost sinners. False teaching that diverts attention from the person and work of Christ can only lead people away from saving faith.
True teaching regarding Christ closes the door to all pretended ‘Mediators’. Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) brings to us the message of Sola Christus (Christ alone) which, in turn, is the unique focus of Sola Fide (faith alone).
If people are to be saved, it is by Christ alone. Anything that detracts from this truth is a mirage that leads to the destruction of the soul.
How do we invite sinners to respond to Jesus? Is it personally, or at one remove?
Did he not say:‘Come to me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28)? Is Jesus Christ not the all-sufficient, all-encompassing Alpha and Omega in the salvation of his people (Revelation 1:8,11; 21:6; 22:13)?
There is no other Saviour.