Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Motherhood, Holiness, and the Ever-Virginity of Mary

Peter Leithart posted an analysis of Joseph's abstention from Mary during her pregnancy with Jesus and how this fits into the theology of Mary's life-long virginity here.

For most of my time as a Christian, I have tended towards a perhaps typical neglect of Mary that is due many Protestants. I didn't really care one way or another. But I think this is, fundamentally, contrary to the Scriptures. So, I had to reassess. When it comes to Mary, Rome is blasphemous, but I am rethinking the claim of "ever-virginity". But I'm not assessing particular claims here. Instead, I want to look at a strange confluence in Leithart's post. In it, he gives reasons why it might be biblical to think so. But the real kicker, which is disturbing, is in this quote:
Temples are holy only when the Holy One inhabits them. Once Yahweh abandoned the temple, it was an empty shell for demolition and burning. If Mary was holy because the Holy One lived in her, then His birth exodus from her body would have ended her temporary holiness. She would have reverted to normal “common” status. And Joseph would have known her as his wife.
Prior to this, he qualifies his assessment of Joseph abstaining because Mary, bearing Jesus in the womb, was holy, and like holy things in the Old Testament, there was a purity to her that made sexual intercourse disastrous, a profanation of the Temple. After Christ, and the sanctification of all of those in Him through His ever-effective atoning sacrifice, sex is not a profanation of holy things, namely the bodies of Christians. I'm not sure about that reasoning, but let's proceed.

What's disturbing about this is how instrumentalized the person of Mary. It is as if the moment Jesus left the womb, Mary became common. His comparison to the temple that was destroyed is shocking (which is completely erroneous: God's presence left the temple on account of the sins of the people). This kind of logic demotes status and place to physical and spatial properties. It's this kind of logic one sees in Conservative opponents of abortion who don't care once the baby is out of the womb. Rather, Mary is always Jesus' mother, and that relationship would maintain the holiness implicit in her being the ark of God's presence. Motherhood is not rolled up once someone pumps the baby out. Mary's body is not a machine.

If there's a moment of translation, it is at the cross, where Jesus commends Mary to be a mother to John. This moment functions as one of the last words because it represents Christ's atoning victory, a holiness that would spill out of His side, the birth of His Mate, the New Eve, the Church. At this point, Mary would be translated into the consolation of Israel, the rising and falling of many souls, the Messianic Israel, dead, resurrected, and ascended.

Leithart's theology, ironically, rests upon the same modernized notions of anthropology that he claims to fight against.


  1. Yeah, that quote is super creepy. There's two levels of creepy. That Mary was holy for so long as she was carrying Christ is the first part and the second part is that implication in becoming "common" after giving birth to Jesus, which is that she became available for the common USE of a wife to have sex with her husband.

    What if the defilement of sexual intercourse had to do with emissions from the body applicable to other forms of bodily uncleanness or imperfection (i.e. blind people can't participate in certain aspects of worship) rather than the sexual bond itself? Why would sexual intercourse in marriage become sacred after Christ in a way it wasn't prior to the coming of Christ? This could be construed as claiming, if a bit implicitly, that Christian marriage is more sacred than Jewish marriage, couldn't it? It seemed like Leithart was writing for a cheap zinger rather than engaging all the levels of theology that would be involved in discussing the birth of Christ and Mary.

    The second level of instrumentalization is what puzzles me. It's weird enough she stops being holy once Jesus is born. That second part, she becomes common after birthing Christ after which she may be "had" as a wife, which "may" presuppose that Joseph could/would have intercourse with her as was expected.

    BUT ... don't we have some Christian traditions that affirm Mary remained a virgin for quite some time after the birth of Jesus in both Eastern and Western traditions? Sure, Protestants don't affirm that but shouldn't we at least try to take those traditions seriously?

    The implicit assumption in contemporary North American thought is that Joseph and Mary had to be the same age, as though there were never any traditions that held that Joseph was a notably older widower and that he had already had children with a previously living wife and that his marriage to Mary might have had a substantial age gap. Orthodox relations have conveyed this to me over the years, that in the Orthodox tradition there's a strand of tradition that proposes that Jesus had siblings but not necessarily siblings birthed by Mary. It would seem like this wouldn't have been a difficult subject of historical strands of Christian thought on Marry as mother of Jesus in FIRST THINGS for crying out loud.

    When the Puritan Richard Baxter fielded the question of whether marriage was permitted to the impotent or frigid he remarked that there was much in the way of community and fellowship to marriage that made it beneficial even to those who by dint of physical infirmities might not be able to reproduce, and that the beauties of marriage ought not to be barred from those who would otherwise embrace Christian marriage. It seems contemporary North American thought on Mary and Joseph is so powerfully refracted through contemporary mores and aesthetics regarding marriage and sex that there's no room in the thought life of even theologians to consider that the reasons for marriage in the ancient world could be wildly different from our own.

    1. Yeah, this is all right on the money. Leithart's instrumentalization of the body in marriage is illuminated by his connections with Jim Jordan, Doug Wilson, and other Federal Calvinists. While they many times have a good grasp of biblical hermeneutics, and a stronger sense of the integrity of both New and Old Testament, they import some strange stuff. It's like a combination of ancient Israelite custom, 19th century romanticism, anti-modernist Roman Catholic birth-control theology, and agrarian-utopian fantasy. It gets real messy when this is retrojected back into the text, because sometimes they are wrong for the right reasons, which makes it all the more confusing.

      The general Protestant emphasis in the US is, I think, determined more by 19th/20th century biblical criticism than anything. It just seems "ridiculous" that Joseph and Mary didn't have sex after Jesus was born. Yet that is not a default Protestant position. Luther, and Lutheranism more generally, maintained the ever-virginity of Mary (and Luther was a prime advocate for marriage against celibacy) and I know even later Reformed (Turretin is an example) who held to the belief. The most circumspect Protestants didn't eject tradition lightly, and struggled not to do so. Contrary to Harnack, the life-long virginity of Mary was a pretty early belief, and not one that came about to replace pagan mother goddesses.