Protestantism’s “mariological turn” in Schleiermacher


In Douglas Farrow’s account, the developed doctrine of Mary (mariology) is an expression of the church’s displacement of Christ with its own self. That which belonged to Christ was gradually co-opted by the church, with Mary as the more truly human mediator. In medieval and baroque Catholic piety (and still today), Mary often acquires the mediatorial role as the human means to God/Christ. For Farrow, this is a consequence of a defective theology of the ascended humanity of Jesus Christ, which safeguards the church from deifying itself in response to the absence of Christ.

Farrow spends considerable energy tracing how Irenaeus’ theology, wherein Jesus’ time is not collapsed into creaturely time, was betrayed by mystical, Platonist, Gnostic influences, especially beginning with Origen. With Schleiermacher, he discerns a similar faulty understanding of Christ and especially the events of resurrection, ascension, and parousia. This results in a faulty ecclesiology, where the church is the continuation of the incarnation of the Son. Here is part of Farrow’s account:

On Schleiermacher’s view doctrines such as the resurrection, ascension, and parousia do not speak of things that happened to Jesus, but of things that happen in us; that is, they articulate in various ways our recognition of his ‘peculiar dignity’ and our longing to be united with him in his perfect God-consciousness. Internalizing these doctrines was not a new thing, of course, but for the first time we encounter from within systematic theology the really quite astonishing contention that the Easter events and the parousia ‘cannot be laid down as properly constituent parts of the doctrine of his person.’ That is, they have no organic connection with belief in the redeemer qua redeemer. So far from being ‘one of the chief points of our faith,’ then, as Calvin thought, the ascension ‘is not directly a doctrine of faith’ at all! From one perspective it is merely ‘an accidental form’ for effecting Christ’s heavenly session. [footnote: See CF § 99, cf. 29.3, 158.1]

The immediate impact on the Where? question was to collapse the spatial distance on which Calvin had insisted into something radically Lutheran, that is, to render it in strictly existential terms. [footnote: By describing our relationship with Jesus as a ‘mystical’ one, Schleiermacher (§ 100) moves the whole issue of distance and nearness back into Lutheran territory, so to speak. In effect, it becomes an hamartiological question, related to the waxing and waning of the God-consciousness.] But at the same time it opened up the temporal dimension to Christ’s absence which the reformers had largely ignored. Jesus’ contemporaneity could no longer be taken for granted. For the new christology to work, a bridge between past and present was required, rather than a bridge between heaven and earth. Schleiermacher set out to build it, spanning Lessing’s ‘great ugly ditch’ with an attractive Romanesque structure: In the society of his followers Jesus’ unique God-consciousness (which is also his true self-consciousness) has survived and indeed widened with the advance of history; his personality and spiritual activity have been prolonged in the common life of the church. Here was Protestantism’s own mariological turn, modestly performed yet even more decisively. The church itself was now the τόπος [“place”] of Jesus, the only possible answer to the Where? question.

[footnote: Schleiermacher’s construct allows us to speak of an ongoing incarnation that passes from Jesus to the church: ‘And so, since the Divine Essence was bound up with the human person of Christ, but is now (his directly personal influence having ceased) no longer personally involved in any individual, but henceforward manifests itself actively in the fellowship of believers as their common spirit, this is just the way in which the work of redemption is continued and extended in the Church’ (§ 124.2; cf. 122.3).]

[Ascension and Ecclesia, Eerdmans 1999, pp. 181-182]

When Farrow gets to Kierkegaard and Barth, he is obviously happy that they broke with a speculative logos asarkos, and related matters. In his treatment of Irenaeus and Origen, earlier in the book, Farrow had identified Origen’s logos asarkos as a big part of the problem, in contrast to Irenaeus’ consistent identification of the Word with Jesus. Yet, Farrow is not happy with Barth’s identification of eternity with time, reconciliation with revelation, act with being, Christ with creation, just to name a few! This is an enormously complicated part of the book, spanning twenty-five very dense pages (pp. 229-254) in an already very dense book. I won’t even attempt to summarize. He ends with T. F. Torrance, who emerges as (finally!) the one who comes closest to getting back to Irenaeus (and the Bible). Farrow interprets Torrance as, for the most part, correcting Barth’s speculative pitfalls while maintaining all that is good and proper in Barth, which Farrow recognizes is enormous.

He concludes:

The answer we have been advocating is a disturbing one. It is not disturbing because, in maintaining that Jesus has gone in the flesh to the Father, it refuses to admit that ‘we do not know what has happened to him.’ On the contrary, it is disturbing because it states quite categorically that we do not know; that we cannot place him, spatially or temporally or materially or spiritually, with respect to ourselves; that he is not above us or ahead of us or alongside us or within us, even if each of these metaphors has something helpful to say about his actual relation to us. It is disturbing because it challenges the assumption that to talk about a human being who cannot be so placed is meaningless, and because it implies that every attempt to define him as something other than a human being is really an act of violence designed to force him to yield his meaning on our terms. It is disturbing because it challenges our entire frame of reference, physical and metaphysical, by allowing one particular man to stand over against us as a question mark against our very existence.

[pp. 267-268]

Ascension and Ecclesia was published in 1999. More recently, he published a follow-up volume, Ascension Theology, in 2011. From the reviews that I’ve read, it is partly a concise presentation of the larger, prior book, but it is also a reframing in terms of his newfound Catholicism. He converted to Roman Catholicism halfway between writing the two volumes. I am curious how he understands mariology now.


Image: Friedrich Schleiermacher (source)



  1. I do think that, regardless if it is a kind of Mariology, if Christ’s continuing reign and priestly session is not properly understood, then Christ becomes an alienating figure.

    I did research on an Eastern “heretic” group called the Paulicians. Sloppily, most of the Orthodox authorities lumped multiple groups together. However one section, primarily Armenian, had a catchetical text called the ‘Key of Truth’. Now I don’t speak ancient Armenian, but the English text would constantly make footnotes about their Arian tendency. But the footnotes show these are insertions. What is clear is that the Paulicians were adamant in their insistence that Christ was their Human representative, and were vicious against the cult of the Saints, including Mary, which was so strong.

    I’m convinced we all need something (or Someone) to mediate the unknown God. The Greeks had heroes, Plato had Forms, Plotinus had emanations. Even Islam requires the intercession of Gabriel and the semi-divine Koran. Unless Christ, in all of His glorified Humanity, is at the throne, then we’re bound to pledge our hearts to earthly political authorities.

    It is quite possible the lack of a true doctrine of Ascension is responsible for much evil, whether cults of the saints, the erastian impulse etc. . But this is probably an exaggeration and an over-intellectualized assessment.

    However, I am wondering for the way forward. Yes, making the Church the “Incarnation” will end up with all sorts of insanities. The Church becomes a self-referential inflected organism that talks to itself. No where is this a biblical concept, and a kind of idolatry.

    However, the Church is not just something you do, or just a collection of people. It’s the ‘Body’ of Christ, which is somehow mystically incorporated by the ruling Head. But the implications, and differences, I’m not sure.


    • That’s fascinating to learn about the Paulicians. I quickly checked ATLA and found an article on The Key of Truth, where the author claims that they were indeed adoptionists but not Gnostic/Manichaean. Your point about their insistence upon Christ’s humanity, for vicarious/mediatorial reasons, is especially interesting.

      Yes, though I didn’t mention it, Farrow does discuss the erastian impulse a lot. You would enjoy those sections especially. But, indeed, it does appear to be a whole lot hanging upon seemingly little, as John Webster noted in his review of the book.

      I think the greatest weakness in the book is that he does not develop his Eucharistic theology in any great detail, even though he appeals to it throughout. Somehow, everything hinges upon not just getting the Ascension right but also getting the Eucharist right, but I am unclear about the latter. Likewise, even with “Ecclesia” in the book’s title, I am also unclear about his ecclesiology. I understand what he doesn’t like (incarnational ecclesiologies), but I do not understand his constructive alternative. Surprisingly, there is very little discussion, exegetical or dogmatic, about the church as the “body of Christ,” unless I somehow missed it. These weaknesses in the book are probably very close to why he converted to Rome, so I need to read the follow-up volume.

  2. Well, even the charge of Adoptionism is based singly on the translation by Coynbeare (sp?). Repeatedly through the text ‘created’ is emended into the text with no explanation in the footnote as to why they did so. If they were adoptionists, how could they be trinitarians? Their baptismal formulae were trinitarian. They taught the personal agency of the Holy Spirit. They prayed to the Father and to the Son.

    Paulician sects were accused of Gnosticism, and Iconoclasm in the Constantinopolitan orbit, but in Armenia, the Council of Dvin accused them of Nestorianism. This is interesting, especially due to the Paulician origin coming from Syria, home of Antiochean interpretation and Nestorianism.

    If anything I believe the Paulicians were hard Nestorians, credo (but sacramental) baptists, Antiochean interpreters, and strong proponents of Christ’s priestly office and intercession. I believe Eastern Orthodox, and the use of Ikons and Saints as mediators, represent what happens when Jesus’ humanity is washed away. We look for new mediators. The Paulicians really believed that only Jesus could intercede on their behalf.


    • There’s also a part where it gets chronologically funny. The ‘Key of Truth’ mentions Christ’s baptism where he entered into the mystery of Godship and was the Lamb who took away the sins of the world. But within the same passage, Jesus is referred to as such. Which, with scattered references to His pre-existence, makes understanding what the Paulicians were getting at more complex.

      This all could seem like an arcane historical issue, but if I’m right, it’s a concrete example of the need for a Mediator, if not Jesus, then something (Ikons) or someone else (saints). The Paulicians warred against this (perhaps falling off the other side!).

      • Clarification: Jesus was referred to as ‘Lamb of God’ in the same passage subject/catechetical lesson prior to His baptism. So they seem to be saying He was the Lamb of God before His baptism, which runs across the grain of adoptionism. They were never accused of being Arians either.

      • It does seem like there is a connection between Nestorianism (or Nestorian tendencies) and a high view of Christ’s priestly office — that they go hand in hand, because of each’s concern for the integrity of Christ’s human nature. Of course, I am thinking of Reformed theology, and I am not opposed to a modest Nestorianism.

        I am curious, what do you think about the Eastern (and Roman) apologetic in regard to icons and saints, namely that they guarantee or secure the Incarnation in its full human dimension? This is especially found in Eastern Orthodox defenses of the use of icons.

  3. I find Nestorianism to be too speculative in ways the Bible leaves unresolved (Was it Human for Jesus to cry or Divine?) I think Greek Substance metaphysics, when strictly maintained, cause a lot of the confusion. I’ve been more and more convinced by Horton’s “estangement” vs. “meeting a stranger” essay.

    However, Lutheran weirdness in the communicatio idiomatum can’t be sustained. Jesus’ human, though glorified, body is not omnipresent. I’m good with a non-philosophically grounded extra calvinisticum. Those are some thoughts.

    I find the Eastern apologetic terrible. It could be easily put in Jeroboam’s mouth. We find God’s instruction inadequate, so we add on to it. Christ can’t really be listening to all our prayers, interceding as the True Priest. So we create new channels. We turns presbyters into priests who have exclusive access. We make Ikons that mediate to us the Incarnation. It’s all a way to put the untameable Spirit in a box. It doesn’t seem “real” enough, so we make suitable additions.

    But the Eastern apologetic makes sense if you adhere to chain-of-being metaphysics. We need to add a couple steps (mediating Ikons and Priests) on the ladder if we want to reach the top (Christ).

    I’m not quite ‘adiaphora’ on pictoral representations either. I can appreciate the argument that pictures (as ikons are in the profane!) are word-less books. But there’s still a difference. Pictures assert stasis and control, where a spoken word comes and goes. I think we need to be terribly wary. How many horrible pictures of Jesus are there? How many lies have they produced and sustained in the imaginations of millions?

    • Yes, I agree, the whole Cyril/Nestorius controversy struck me (when I first studied the original sources about three years ago) as horribly skewed by a commitment to “the divine,” with all of the Greek restrictions entailed in that, into which humanity could scarcely come into union with (Nestorius) or not without becoming divine itself (Cyril), to oversimplify things.

      I like your thoughts on additional “channels” to God. I still harbor, however, some sympathies with the desire for other media toward God. This is where my “high church” side emerges, which is constantly in conflict with my more radical solus Christus side! (Or, more precisely, my unum solum incarnatio side.) But I can hardly dispute that “pictures assert stasis and control, where a spoken word comes and goes,” but I am inclined to just advocate for better pictures. In the process of reading Scripture, we will invariably imagine the scenes as we read. Art can direct us into better and more responsible imagining, as with Grunewald, to use an obvious example (and, admittedly, all too rare). I like Fra Angelico too, if we can forgive the Italian settings.

      • I do think Grunewald’s Crucifixion is very good to portraying the monstrosity of the scene. My favorite film portrayal of Jesus is in Ben Hur, due to the fact that He is the main character, but never says a word and is never seen.

        An acquaintance of mine made the argument that portraying Jesus is pictures is a form of Nestorianism. We can’t draw God, but we can draw the Humanity of Jesus, which is somehow abstracted from His divinity. Interesting argument, what do you think?

        Funny enough, it’s the strong insistence on hierarchy and priesthood (seemingly ‘high-church’ emphases) that would direct one to a lone reliance on Christ’s mediation. The Jeroboam instinct is very “natural” (ala. Romans 1). Though I guess I would say that while God is Incarnated solely in His Messiah, the mysterious presence of this sole mediator is made through The Supper and the gathering of Christians.

        As for the Nestorius/Cyril debate, I’ve read that Cyril was rather unscrupulous in his accusations. Nestorius was really just concerned with the verbiage of theotokos, not that it conceptually wasn’t true. My sympathy goes to a migraine-ridden, sighing Nestorius over the haranguing of Cyril.


        Whose disciples went East into Persia and China? Nestorius left a legacy of missions, and God can make good out of insanity.

      • Yeah, I think almost every scholar today, who has looked closely at the Cyril/Nestorius controversy, is very sympathetic toward Nestorius because of Cyril’s heavy-handedness and unscrupulous actions.

        I’ll have to think about images of Jesus as Nestorian. I’m currently interested in Eastern arguments against Western realism in religious art.

    • Very interesting article, thanks for sharing that.

      Regardless (this is for Kevin and whoever else), what is the Icon taking us to? Pictures as ‘wordless books’, I’m thinking, is an inadequate description as a) Words are still needed to describe what’s occurring (pace Schliermacher) and b) this fixates on a rather school-like articulation.

      Why do we need portraits? It’s a fair question. Seeing them takes us not to a person in abstract, the person at the bottom of the person, or a meditation of their substance. We are reminded of memories, if not direct, indirect, of who they are, which really only comes through actions (including words).

      We need to be cautious because pictures are not ‘necessary’ to the Gospel. It is a message we bear. But we are creatures of imagination and vision, even if it is a vision rooted in Word (this might sound odd).

      But if there are pictures, what good is a portrait of Christ? Let’s use Grunewald’s (as I think it is good) piece. This shows not a portrait but a scene. It tells us something about the King we obey and worship. It is a visual representation of the Story, aka. the Word.

      Perhaps there’s a way forward using images without defaulting to a substance ontology. Knowing the Person of Christ is knowing who He is, which is manifest in what He did (including what He said). I have a rosary, I look at it and it takes me to Jesus’ atonement. But this is an invitation to what the Word has provided. It’s not necessary, but an additional articulation of what is necessary, namely that Jesus has died and risen on the 3rd day for the forgiveness of sins.

      Food for thought,

      • Thanks, Cal, I have never thought about the distinction between a portrait and a scene and how the latter communicates the Word. That is fascinating.

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