Reviewed by Marcus Gibson
In the 500 years since the start of the Protestant Reformation, few issues continue to divide Protestants from Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians as the doctrine of Mary, mother of Christ. Where the latter two groups see Mary as the one who is “full of grace,” “higher than the Cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim,” even the “Mother of God,” Protestants tend only to see idolatry. And while much progress has been made to bridge theological divides in other areas, with respect to Mary, both sides continue to caricature the other.
Into this void of understanding steps Jaroslav Pelikan’s Mary Through the Centuries (Yale University Press, 1998) a readable overview of the development of thought and doctrine about Mary in the East and the West, Catholicism and Protestantism, Old World and New World. One of my favorite features about this book is that it is not a catechesis meant for dogmatic instruction. Rather Pelikan, considered the greatest Church historian of the 20th century, simply presents the historical facts: what doctrines mean, where they came from, how widely they are acknowledged, and how they influenced the life of the Church. For example, Pelikan notes how the Virgin Birth has historically been a matter of crucial importance for Christian doctrine: Mary’s virginal conception by the Holy Spirit is the assurance of Jesus’s divinity; that Jesus takes on Mary’s flesh is the assurance of His humanity.
In addition to offering theological analysis, each chapter looks at how ideas about Mary have been incorporated into art and culture at various times and places. He also looks at how Marian doctrine has played an important role in the lives and faith of the poor across the centuries, and how Mary has been, since her “Magnificat” in Luke 1, the earliest Christian proponent of social justice.
Whether you believe Mary is the “Great Example” or the “Great Exception,” there is much to be learned about how Christians over time have understood and honored her. There are opportunities to grow in our own faith, especially as we move into the Advent season, waiting alongside the expectant mother of the coming Emmanuel.
Learn more about the book:
“Jesus on Safari: The Legacy of Jaroslav Pelikan” (First Things)
“The Mary We Never Knew” (Christianity Today)