Saturday, November 18, 2006

Mary for Evangelicals?

Ben Myers has a review of the Tim Perry's new book Mary for Evangelicals: Toward an Understanding of the Mother of the Lord published by InterVarsity Press. Myers credits the book for doing "a careful exegetical analysis of the diverse portrayals of Mary in the New Testament." Of course, all I hear parenthetically is "evangelical exegesis." Exhibit A:
Perry therefore concludes that there are two main ways of depicting Mary in the New Testament: there is “Mary the person” and “Mary the symbol.” And in his finely drawn survey of the historical development of Mariology in the West (pp. 119-263), Perry highlights the ways in which the symbolic Mary “has come almost completely to suffocate” the individuality of Mary the person. If we are to develop a biblically responsible Mariology, then, we must give far greater emphasis to “Mary the person,” to the one “who hovers on the margins of her society and on the fringes of the biblical text” (p. 263).
If evangelical exegesis were more theologically rigorous, Perry might want to hesitate on drawing too strong a distinction between the personhood and symbolism of Mary, for it puts him on a path that leads right back into the camp of the now-discredited "Jesus Seminar," which was all about playing the "Jesus of history" against the "Christ of faith," a dialectic totally foreign to and absent from the New Testament, the early Church, and the apostolic churches before the Reformation. Perry and Myers may object on the grounds that they explicit reject that a "historical Mary" can be constructed out of Scriptural texts. But to my eyes the dialectic is the same -- artificially inferring split identities from the diverse portrayals of particular figures in Scripture as a means of resolving philosophical anxieties that have little to do with Scripture itself. Even his use of the term "biblically-responsible Mariology" presumes the central Protestant tenet that the Catholic Church is not biblically responsible. Quaint but intellectually dishonest.

In other words, if Perry insists on suggesting that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have "suffocated" Mary the person in favor of Mary the symbol, then what principle prevents me from claiming that the evangelicals have "suffocated" Jesus the person in favor of Jesus the symbol? Isolating passages that on their face pit the "two Jesuses" against each other is easy enough (my years as an evangelical proof-texter have to be good for something). So once again, we see how sola Scriptura forces the evangelical mind into these strange corners.

Perry is correct that the Lucan narratives on Mary are "theological history," but most of the New Testament is theological history, especially the Gospel narratives. Catholic and Orthodox exegetes nonetheless see a unity in Christ's (and thus Mary's) identity because of their grasp of the fundamental harmony between theology and history and the assistance of apostolic Liturgy and Tradition to unify the ostensibly dissonant portrayals of Christ (and Mary) in Scripture. But because evangelicals tend to accept the modernist doctrine that history has a scientific ground strictly independent of ideological or religious perspectives, they will often sit ill at ease with the idea of "theological history." The problem there is evangelicalism's uncritical acceptance of certain modernist epistemological theories, not the Catholic Church's sense of unity between Mary the person and Mary the symbol, falsely interpreted as suppressing one aspect of Mary against another.

Perry should take more seriously his own observation (which the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have made consistently for 2000 years and he's only getting around to now) that Mariology is directly tied into Christology. He should then ask himself what his theology of the "two Marys" implies about his Christology and ecclesiology.

Perry also seems to adopt the tiresome "complementarity" model of ecumenism in which evangelicals imagine themselves to be fillers of certain critical gaps in the Gospel that the Apostolic Churches have missed or failed to uphold. This supposedly gives them ecclesiological parity or equivalence with Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Hence when he speaks of Catholicism suffocating Mary the person, he's implying that evangelicalism can 1) contribute substantively to the Mariological tradition and still 2) retain its adversarial stance over and against Catholicism. That's all very cute to me (the way an adolescent would try to advise, without any sense of irony, a parent about a matter she's only giving serious thought to for the first time) but also demonstrative of the theological immaturity of mainstream evangelicalism.