...are the ones that make the biggest difference


Mary: The Untrodden Portal - Intro & Ch 1

I have been working on this post for a few days now and I never seem to find the time or clarity to get it all out. So I'm just going to post what I've got on the book so far, and then a couple of paragraphs on some insights I've gained over the last week as I've read this book and thought about the Theotokos.

Since the veneration of the Theotokos and the saints is one of the biggest hurdles for me and my wife on our current exploration of Orthodoxy, I decided to undertake a more complete study of the matter. In a previous post, Perry Robinson suggested George Gabriel's Mary: The Untrodden Portal of God, which I was fortunate enough to find in my church's library. I'm doing my best to work through it in the midst of a new job and a significant class load, so my blogging on it may be a bit intermittent.

In his introduction, Gabriel says "the single theme underlying this study is the indivisible oneness of the doctrine and veneration of the Mother of God with the single theology and biblical methodology of the Ancient Church and the holy fathers." He denies certain Catholic claims about Mary, stating "apart from [purification of the heart, enlightenment and theosis] Mary could not have become the Mother of God. Apart from this process there is no revelation, no theology." So Mary is human, just like you and me. In some respects, there is nothing special about her - the path of her theosis is the same one that we may pursue, though one could say she was the first to truly walk it. She is not saved apart from the salvific act of Christ and she is not honored apart from her connection to Christ. The respect and honor given to her have everything to do with the nature of God and the person of Christ and is not some misguided Mariolatry, or so the Orthodox position states.

One of the most oft-repeated arguments against the veneration Mary is that the Bible seems to relegate her to a rather minor role. Once her part in the conceiving, birthing and raising of Christ is complete (not a small part anyway you slice it), she is infrequently mentioned and not given a prominent place when she does pop up. Basically, after the first few chapters of the Gospels are over, she essentially fades into the background and is certainly not addressed with any of the honor of modern devotions. So how can the Orhtodox Church justify her veneration? How can it legitimately call her "Queen Mother", "Mother of Life" or "All-Holy One"? Gabriel responds with this quotation from St Basil the Great:

There are a great many things that are not written in the Scriptures with the same words but are proclaimed in the fathers and are of equal weight as the Scriptures. Indeed, the Son's being of the same essence with the Father, for example, is not found in the divinely inspired Scriptures; it was made clear later by the fathers, and likewise that the Holy Spirit is God, and that the Kyriotokos is Theotokos. There are other things also, and it takes a long time to enumerate them. If they were not professed, however, our true worship would be disavowed.

Thus, the true promincence of Mary may have been a hidden reality of the worship & praxis of the earliest Christians, which is a legitimate possibility. We don't really have a lot of detailed information about this area of the early church, particularly in the first century. Really, we don't start to see expositions of theology until the 2nd century; most earlier writings are far more pastoral or exhortational in nature. Detailed accounts of the how & why of worship don't come until later, for 2 primary reasons. The first was not to dishonor the gifts of worship given to us by the Lord by exposing them to outsiders. And the second was more protective; taking the writings of Celsus as an example, it is clear that the pagan public misunderstood the language of the Eucharist for some cannibalistic feast. This kind of misunderstanding only led to even more persecution. Given the secretiveness and exclusiveness of the early church (a 3 year catechumenate before joining, catechumens getting kicked out of the church prior to the celebration of the Eucharist during the Liturgy), it is a definite possibility that descriptions of Mary's role in the faith & praxis of the church may not have been clearly enumerated.

I am sure that there are those who find this argument unconvincing, that somehow the veneration of Mary is buried in a secret tradition that only later found full or public expression. I think Basil's argument is a powerful one, though. If we accept the Nicene formulation of the Trinity as a legitimate Apostolic teaching, by what right do we deny the Church's understanding of Mary, which has a similar pedigree? Regardless of whether or not the Apostles ever used the word homoousion, we accept that it accurately expresses their understanding of the Godhead. How do we know that the Church's understanding of and devotion to the Virgin is not similarly guided by the Apostolic example & teaching? Gabriel only touches on this briefly in the first chapter, but I'm hoping he'll explore it in greater depth later on.


Many Protestant understandings of the Bible hold that Mary had children after Jesus. She and Joseph went about the natural activity of married life and she produced an unknown number of little brothers and sisters for Jesus. From a certain point of view, then, Mary did little more than get pimped by God. I realize the vast, vast majority of Protestants would never use language anywhere near this, but if she isn't anything special and there were a bevy of other young girls with the right pedigree waiting as back-ups, then her interaction with God is purely transactional. He promises some spiritual rewards and some notoriety among future generations, she leases out space in her womb and agrees to provide some other care-taker duties as needed. It cheapens the whole thing.

Anyone setting foot on Mt Zion was to be stoned because it was God's holy mountain. The Holy of Holies was off limits all but one day out of the year and then only to a single person who was surely on the verge of soiling himself as he entered it. And yet we're to believe that Mary, the mother of our Lord and Savior, whose womb is the holy place where the Incarnation occurred and who, in fact, was home to the Lord in a way far deeper than the Holy of Holies, was available for another? Once God was done with her, she was somehow cast aside and rendered common, profane? Every other example we have in OT shows God's exclusive demands for his holy places, but this somehow stops with her? What?!

Of any of Jesus' followers, Mary was present at more of the significant events in His life and ministry than anyone, including the Apostles. She was, in fact, chosen well before the Apostles. She was indwelt by God before the Apostles. She stayed with Christ at the cross. She was among the women who found the empty tomb. And yet we elevate the Apostles far, far above her? We show them great amounts of respect and relegate her to the dustbin? How can that be? And does it make sense to assume that the Apostles would have casually cast her aside, that they wouldn't have shown her tremendous respect and devotion for the role she played in their, and the world's, salvation?


Anonymous said...


I appreciate your undertaking of this study. I'm still very bothered by this, enough that I have not been back to the local parish. My latest "issue" was the feast of the Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos.This, for me, is very difficult to accept. Do you know yet where the idea of Mary as our protector comes from?

Sigh ... SAM

Nathan said...

Sam -

I don't know where (or when) it comes from, but I'm hoping Gabriel touches on it his book. I will be exploring it over the next several weeks, so check back now and again. And I'll definitely keep an eye out for that particular subject and blog on it if he discusses it.

Ephrem Christopher Walborn said...

Good post, Nathan. I have to admit that the Theotokos was a spot of discomfort for a time for me, as well. Once I was convinced that the Orthodox Church was in fact fully participating in the fullness of the Truth I consciously put the issue aside, trusting that the Church was in a better position to indicate correct veneration than am I.

From there my own veneration of the Theotokos grew out of my personal devotions -- she is, after all, "The Joy of All Who Sorrow." Who better to understand our personal tribulations than the woman who gave birth to our Savior and then watched him tortured and crucified?

"O Theotokos, save us." This one caused the most trouble for me. But when I realized that the Orthodox Church talks about the friends of the paralytic having saved him by lowering him through the roof -- well, how different is that?

The thing we post-Enlightenment Westerners struggle with is the fact that language is used rather liberally, poetically, and not with great precision except in the dogmatic writings.

Protestantism, is itself, very much a product of the Enlightenment. It is very much rationalist, though the starting point is the Bible instead of observation of the natural world.

Jeff Wright said...


I'm sure you are familiar with my point of view, but I wanted to chime in just in case (;D)

I have no problems with Mary being respected. I would agree with you that the Apostles themselves probably held her in high regard.

However, paying devotion to Mary goes far beyond what scripture warrants. When Mary is viewed as another paraclete or another mediator, she has been placed into a position not given her by the Word of God and, in fact, the sole domain of Christ and His Spirit.

The reason the Apostles are elevated in authority (and that elevation alone) is because they were the foundation of the church (you know the verses in Ephesians 2), not Mary or any of the supposed apostolic successors.

Like I said, I'm sure you are aware of this. I just wanted to give the Protestants out there a voice in the discussion so we aren't portrayed as caring nothing for Mary.

Nathan said...

Jeff -

Thanks for your comment. Naturally, having been raised in the Protestant church, I am well aware of its views of Mary - they can be pretty diverse, but aside from getting trotted out around Christmas-time, Mary isn't paid much respect at all for the most part.

"However, paying devotion to Mary goes far beyond what scripture warrants. When Mary is viewed as another paraclete or another mediator, she has been placed into a position not given her by the Word of God and, in fact, the sole domain of Christ and His Spirit."

Orthodoxy, as I mentioned in my post, does not posit a role for Mary as a second paraclete or a mediator that in any way competes or detracts from Christ's mediation. Gabriel points out the differences between Orthodoxy's understanding of Mary, which is entirely linked to her being the mother of God and her submission to him, and Catholicism's understanding, which certainly exalts her in a way that is separate from those issues.

"The reason the Apostles are elevated in authority (and that elevation alone) is because they were the foundation of the church (you know the verses in Ephesians 2), not Mary or any of the supposed apostolic successors."

I understand your point, but I think it fails to fully consider the unique role that Mary played in salvation history. Obviously the role of the Apostles, as teachers and preachers, is different but that does not mean that Mary's role is in any way diminished. And, of course, nowhere does it say all generations will call the Apostles blessed. :)