The Logic of Mariology

Basílica de Santa Maria del Mar, lighting candels
Basílica de Santa Maria del Mar, Barcelona

I have finished reading an excellent article, “John Henry Newman: Mariology and the Scope of Reason in the Modern Age” (Nova et Vetera 11:4 [2013], 993-1016), by Paige E. Hochschild of Mount St. Mary’s University.

The purpose of the article is to apply the argument from “fittingness” (ex convenientia) as found in St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica III, Q1, A1 — and, I would add, in St. Anselm as well — to the doctrine of Mary in the theology of John Henry Newman. It is brilliantly executed. I am obviously a nerd.

In order to explicate the thesis of the article, I would need to replicate the article in full. That is not possible, legally and otherwise. I will, therefore, simply tempt you with excerpts:

The natural world can lead us to a sense of divine handiwork, but this is not the same thing as faith. It is not the role of reason to give rise, by a kind of necessity, to religious conviction; faith is not an effect of sound reasoning. [p. 999]

In more modern terminology, fittingness arguments would consist of inductive arguments that support, but do not compel, a certain conclusion, or, demonstrative arguments in which at least one premise is an agreed upon truth of faith. …Fittingness arguments cannot stand alone; they presuppose a framework that has a claim upon the intellect precisely because it has a compelling character with respect to the imagination, or the illative sense of the whole. [1002]

Faith seeks to understand, not as providing faith with a whole new foundation, but as grounding faith more deeply in the soil of the rational character of the believer. [1003]

…fittingness must show more effectively the internal coherence of the argument of salvation, and the nature of the Church. [1003]

And now in regard to the doctrine of Mary (“mariology”):

If the purpose of the Incarnation is to communicate God’s goodness to the creature, the obstacles to that end must be removed (sin, disobedience, and death), by divine power working through the agency of the creature. …A theological unity comes to light in the parallelism between Christ and Adam, through which Mary can stand in a similar relation to Eve because she is not only mother (of Jesus), but also spiritual spouse, as the creature, reconciled to God, through the trust in God that overturns fear. [1011]

[Mary] is not the mother of his body, or the mother of his humanity merely, but the mother of the person of the Word Incarnate. If we are to take seriously both his divinity and the unity of his person, her relationship to Christ becomes significant in a new light. She truly guarantees and safeguards Christ’s divinity: if she is the theotokos, Christ is “God-with-us” through an effective mediation. [1012]

Christ doesn’t pass through Mary’s womb like a station on his way to Calvary: “the child is like the parent…and this likeness is manifested by her relationship to Him.” [1012]

In Scripture, she is a quiet model of patient and suffering obedience: like John, she is quietly present in faithful devotion…like John, she decreases, very quickly. Likewise in the history of the Church, she is quietly present in the faithful devotion, waiting patiently for the whole Church to affirm her in her right relation to Christ. Newman’s point is that the very way in which Marian doctrine develops over time is itself an illustration of her character: no trumpets and glory, but a quiet witness in the hearts of believers. [1013]

These excerpts do not do justice to the article, but I trust that they are sufficiently stimulating for blogging purposes. The great value of this article is not to convince Protestants of the Catholic doctrine of Mary; rather, it is to convince Protestants that the Catholic doctrine of Mary is not crazy and is perhaps even logical. That is no small accomplishment.

Given that the “argument from fittingness” requires imagination, devotion, and aesthetic perception, I do not expect that most Protestants will even begin to understand.


Image: Basílica de Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona. August 2015. Photograph is mine.



  1. Two thoughts:

    1) Ivan Illich talks about fittingness, and notions of ‘good’, and how that has been supplant by the language of value. I think he’s right on and so your article. When we talk of fittingness, we compare by cohesiveness and cooperation. When we talk by value we compare by competition and hindrance. Mary, and mariology, has a similar issue.

    Protestants tend to think Mary in terms of value. Now, I don’t disclaim a certain caution (i.e. I think Nestorius is not an evil heretic for wanting to consider the aptness of ‘christotokos’ over ‘theotokos, even if the latter is the better). As if any honor paid to Mary means honor taken from Christ, and thus God. We only understand ultimate values. In reality, it doesn’t make sense to have corporate prayer, asking someone else to pray, or praying even at all (isn’t Christ always interceding?). Yet, God is gracious by reason of lex orandi.

    Instead of seeing glory as a zero-sum game and instead a fittingness that God places thusly. Thomas is a healthy riposte to a world obsessed with quantification and qualification. Our republican values intrude upon God’s good creation.

    2) What I’ve noticed with Roman catholics is, on account of the unorthodox drift of the sons of the Reformation, any robust Mariology implies all the rest. What I mean is that the East has a high view of Mary and yet needs not affirm an immaculate conception. The East can offer reverence to her without turning her into Redemptrix.

    Recovering Mary is not just rightfully hailing the Mother of our Lord, but is a step towards a more appreciative look at Creation. The fact that Christ was born of a woman should speak more to us. For one, it is not violent and vicious as some German Apocalyptics make revelation into, yet it is surprising and disturbing in ways that quasi-Deists and certain Natural-Theologians might gloss. In other words, it’s like real-birth.

    How one views Mary can function as a gauge of how one theologizes about creation. I for one have turned back towards a more robust mariology. She is to be given a surpassing honor as the mother of God.


    • There is a lot here, Cal, that I heartily applaud. Your point about good vs. value, cohesiveness vs. competition, et al., is well-stated. Thankfully, it is increasingly common for Protestants to talk about the divine agency and human agency as “non-competitive” and, thereby, not “zero-sum”: John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, John Barclay, and many others. But I am skeptical that they truly grasp the significance of this, as in a Thomist presentation that is not scandalized by creaturely integrity and even “merit.” I would pose the same question to a scholastic like Herman Bavinck, who tilts toward Thomas on grace and nature in his ontology but not in his epistemology. Ditto for Barth.

      The proof is in the pudding, and your example of intercessory prayer is illustrative in this regard. We are participating in a “body of Christ” ecclesiology that underwrites the Catholic cosmology of a permeable relation between the “militant” and the “glorified” church. Once this is granted, several of the Protestant “protestations” are rendered mute.

      The fact that Christ was born of a woman should speak more to us. For one, it is not violent and vicious as some German Apocalyptics make revelation into, yet it is surprising and disturbing in ways that quasi-Deists and certain Natural-Theologians might gloss. In other words, it’s like real-birth.

      I love this, especially because I have been battling “Apocalypticism” among erstwhile Barthians who should know better, even if Barth is partly to blame.

      I am not entirely sure about the difference between the East and West on this. I know the technical differences on Mary’s conception, but both are agreed that Mary did not sin. And, while it is true that the East is far more reluctant to give Mary the title of “Co-Redemptrix,” the upshot is the same: Mary’s earthly sojourn and perpetual motherhood are constitutive of the Son’s mediatorial work, which is extended in God’s eternal abode through her exalted status at the consummation of her life. In this way, the creaturely realm of Mary’s motherhood is not separated from the eternal realm of God’s filial existence in Jesus Christ. So, yes, “How one views Mary can function as a gauge of how one theologizes about creation.” That is precisely what the conciliar fathers concluded in the fourth and fifth centuries, even if Nestorius was probably justified.

      • I think the East’s polity, generally speaking, helps diffuse the problems of Roman mariology. The East is not dogmatic about the sinlessness of Mary (none denying she lacks ancestral sin, and some luminaries even pointing out little sins), and neither is she awarded a celestial queen-ship in the sameway Rome does.

        But you’re right, by comparison with Protestantism writ large, the East is much closer to Rome. But this is saying an apple is closer to a banana than a stale piece of bread. I think those outside of Rome or Constantinople (or even outside of Alexandria, Moscow, Syria, and Addis Ababa) ought to be convicted by a greater catholicity. Mary is a queen by right of the incarnation. She is a higher light among the saints, all of which beam God’s good light.

        We ought to reject the dogmatic claims on a certain high mariology, while preserving a deeper stream to situate oneself in. Besides the ecclesial and liturgical good, a focus on Mary is helpful for discussing gender and sexuality. I’m pondering this and am curious to imagine the possibilities.


        PS. Value-language is so embedded in our vernacular that I’m finding it hard to rid myself of, whilst still being understood and not adopting some bizarro language. I speak slang, I just want to speak slang that heals the world (you know what I mean..)

      • Kevin, a few months ago you were posting on Doug Farrow’s critique of Mariology and the extended comments ventured into mediatorial paths in liturgy and devotion that compromised orthodox Christology. You also noted that Farrow has switched sides since Ascension and Ecclesia and wondered what his thoughts on the distance between the one mediator and his body looked like now. Drawing all of that together, do you have any thoughts on how a robust Mariology in a Protestant (can I go farther and say evangelical?) setting might take shape or what the consequences for worship and devotion may be?

      • Cal,

        I am curious now to explore Eastern mariology more thoroughly. As with other doctrinal matters, perhaps the East can serve as a mediating point between Protestants and Catholics. I have been pondering this in regard to the doctrine of justification, for example.

        Besides the ecclesial and liturgical good, a focus on Mary is helpful for discussing gender and sexuality. I’m pondering this and am curious to imagine the possibilities.

        Francesca Murphy at Aberdeen (now at Notre Dame) told me that Catholics have been able to avoid the most problematic aspects of feminism in a way that has been impossible for Protestants to avoid — because Catholics honor the feminine in their doctrine of Mary and piety toward Mary. Protestantism is a masculine religion, which is why the mainline has reacted by tossing gender categories altogether (e.g. “Godself”) in their liturgies and theology. I know that Francesca has been influenced by Balthasar’s Theo-Drama vol. 3.

      • Ian,

        I assume that Douglas Farrow, upon becoming Catholic, changed his mind on whether the Church is (in some sense) a continuation of the Incarnation, as Catholics hold. As a Protestant, he believed that this compromised the Incarnation itself, especially as it continues in Christ’s ascended body — that and only that is the Incarnation, according to the Protestant Farrow. John Webster makes this same criticism of Catholicism.

        Since I have not read Farrow’s second book on the Ascension, I can only guess, but surely he must now believe that this either/or is not necessary. It is possible to believe in the unique and unrepeatable Incarnation in Jesus Christ and to believe that the mediatorial office of this Incarnation is continued in the life of the Church, which is after-all “the body of Christ.” The latter need not negate or undermine the former, which is the Protestant fear.

        So, it seems to me that the first step for Protestants, especially evangelicals, is to overcome this fear. Christ does give himself through other channels that are not himself, i.e., creation. The Church is creature, but because it is also the body of Christ it participates in the “Creator side” of the Creator/creature distinction. Therefore, Protestant theologies that emphasize this distinction — Karl Barth, for example — are the theologies that tend to be the most reluctant to embrace even a modest mariology or sacramentology. It is not too surprising that Barth, by the end of his career, rejected a sacramental view of the sacraments because, in Barth’s view, only Jesus is the sacrament of God. Likewise, it is not surprising that Barth believed Rome’s mariology to be the purest expression of, in Barth’s view, Rome’s basic heresy.

        Barth’s theology is not monolithically overdetermined by his rejection of analogy between the Creator and the creature, as Balthasar rightly perceived, but it does express itself in his ecclesiology, as Balthasar also perceived and rightly criticizes. We have to overcome Barth by way of Barth. Once Barth centered his theology in the Incarnation (not in the eternal/finite dialectic) and in “the humanity of God,” he opened a way for Protestants to press forward toward a healthier theology that does not negate or undermine the creature. I now believe that this also includes a fairly high doctrine of Mary, though I am unclear on some of the specifics.

      • The Mainline’s rejection of older Protestant maculine-domination (i.e. destruction of the binary of gender into a dualism of gender) towards a de-sexing is really just the same trajectory.

        In other words, I’d argue that an analogous situation is how the Enlightenment took an educated, bourgeois perspective and aggressively altered the discourse to make it the ‘Universal’. Now the de-sexed, even “Feminization”, Main-Line approach, abolishing sexual differentiation, is a back-door for a new kind of masculinity. One might speculate about how Feminists bash “stay-at-home” moms.

        I’d check out Ivan Illich (who I mentioned above) as an interesting, earthy, catholic rejection of many notions of the Enlightenment project. He’s a weird entrance into the possibility of another way to see and speak about the creation.

        And don’t forget Stringfellow!! Take a break from dogmatics and read a prophet or two 🙂


      • Yes, I could spend all day on the gender revolution, but I will resist for now.

        I know nothing about Ivan Illich, but I did look at his books on Amazon. I will further check into him, and I haven’t forgotten about Stringfellow. However, given that my early training in theology was dominated by Simone Weil, Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Barth’s Romans commentary, I have enough prophetic experience to last for the rest of my life! 😉

    • Thanks, Wyatt. I wouldn’t make quite so strong of a claim as that, but we surely have to go beyond affirming Christ’s virginal conception merely because “it’s in the Bible.” Important as that is, it is more vital (for the church’s faith) that the internal logic or “theo-logic” is pressed further and meditated upon, as the early fathers did in their christology and ecclesiology. For the Protestant, this doesn’t mean that we have to affirm the entirety of Rome’s mariology, but it wouldn’t hurt us to move closer in that direction — and perhaps the East can be a good model for us, even if materially I do not think there is much of a difference with Rome, at least not in the liturgical life of both.

  2. “Given that the ‘argument from fittingness’ requires imagination, devotion, and aesthetic perception, I do not expect that most Protestants will even begin to understand.”

    Do you think most Catholics understand? The Cathedral of Notre Dame is one thing; but if you grew up, as I did, among garish, run-of-the-mill statuary in Catholic churches, and equally garish plastic dashboard saints, you might question the quality of imagination, the aesthetic perception, and sense of fittingness, if not the devotion, of many Catholics.

    • For me, the relatively bare walls and space of the typical Protestant church came as a revelation of the presence of God through the simplest, barest physical mediation.

    • Having said that, I think it’s a good thing for Protestants to grasp that Mariology is not necessarily idolatry, but that, as you say, “the doctrine of Mary is not crazy and is perhaps even logical.” This would help Protestants to understand Catholics as fellow Christians, and Christians in the fullest sense. I think that’s would be a good thing.

    • That’s worth pondering, Robert. But even at its most garish or over-the-top Baroque, the lay piety is still being manifested through physical media. The imagination is still being active and not stifled, even if it is a cheap plastic statue of a saint.

      I do believe that there is a certain beauty in the simplicity of, say, a typical New England white steeple church. My concern is that the congregants, especially the children, are not having their imaginations fed. This is particularly problematic in so many of the large evangelical churches now, which are basically a warehouse with theater-style seats. The children are growing-up in those churches with a stifled imagination, which only serves the technocratic society that will challenge their faith when they emerge into adulthood. Of course, given the high rates of unbelief in Catholic societies, like France, this is not the only solution to the problem of unbelief. Yet, image-less Protestantism has surely lent itself to a secular, materialist view of reality. It’s hard to believe in a coming new creation, afterlife with God and others, etc., without having a healthy imagination.

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