Below is a paper that I wrote for my Writing & Research class taught by Professor Dave Trouten in October 2014. The purpose of this paper was to explore the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. I was in my first semester at Kingswood and decided to learn something new through this open ended research paper. This is an interesting paper for sure.
Martin Luther, father of the Protestant Reformation said in his Christmas sermon in 1531 that, “[Mary is the] highest woman and the noblest gem in Christianity after Christ… She is nobility, wisdom, and holiness personified. We can never honour her enough.” The Virgin Mary is one of the most famous women who ever lived. By giving birth to Jesus of Nazareth, she became world renown not only within her own cultural context, but also to the rest of the world as the Gospel message spread following the Great Commission. As her title suggests, Mary gave birth to Jesus as a virgin, immaculately conceived, without the help of any human male to make the pregnancy possible. While it is widely agreed that Mary was a virgin at the time of the conception of Jesus, there is strong supporting evidence for her perpetual virginity, though this position is in the minority within the Protestant movement.
The theological concept of Mary being “virginitas in partu” and “virginitas post partum”, virgin at Jesus birth and virgin until her death, is not a new concept (Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religions, s.v. “Mary”), and has been a topic of debate since the time of the Church Fathers. Church Fathers such as Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Ambrose, and Saint Augustine all held the view that Mary was perpetually virgin, and this position was ratified not only once, but twice, at different Ecumenical Councils in 553CE and 680CE at the Second and Third Council of Constantinople (Buckley, Bauerschindt and Pomplun 2011, 315). Augustine often stressed that the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity was one of second importance, but still important, and was a common topic among Christians in the second and third centuries (Kausten and Arand 1978, 126).
This doctrine continued to be well contested even into the early Middle Ages. Early Christian philosopher, and official philosopher of the Church, Thomas Aquinas, hypothesized four reasons as to why Mary remained a virgin for her whole life. The first was that it would be derogatory for Jesus to be God’s only begotten son, but not Mary’s as well. Secondly, the womb of Mary was the “Shrine of the Holy Spirit”, where the flesh of Christ was created; having Mary not remain a virgin would suggest that it would have been desecrated by a man. Thirdly, it would imply that Mary was ungrateful for the gift that God had bestowed upon her through providing her a son without the loss of virginity. Finally, presuming that Joseph would allow himself to “violate her” even when he knew by the revelation that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, preserving her virginity. It is important to note that Aquinas did not find the refutations of the doctrine of perpetual virginity through scripture to be compelling enough to warrant a change in his opinion (Wawrykow 2005, 91-92).
As history progressed into the time to the Reformation, the view of Mary’s perpetual virginity was also widely held among the leading theologians of the time, however the doctrine started to take on a less traditional view, with more protestant ideas. As previously noted, Martin Luther preached about her virginity before, in, and after the conception of Jesus. John Calvin favored the doctrine, and scriptural footnotes within the Geneva Bible defend this doctrine, even though it was still viewed as a mainly Catholic doctrine (McKim 1992, 237).
As the Protestant Reformation spread across Europe, the doctrine of Mary being “ever-virgin” started to spread into the different sects within the Protestant Church, finally making it’s way to the Church of England and an open-air preacher named John Wesley. In Wesley’s “Letter to a Roman Catholic”, he says that Jesus was, “Born of the blessed Virgin Mary, who as well after as before she brought him forth, continued a pure and unspotted Virgin.” (Wesley and Benson 1812, 112). This view was formed on the basis of the Wesley quadrilateral, which held the importance not only of scripture, experience, and reason, but also to tradition, for forming theological standpoints.
As the Protestant Church started to grow more distant from the Catholic Church because of the doctrine of “Sola Scriptura” or “by Scripture alone”, support for Mary’s perpetual virginity started to wane. Since there are no immediate references to Mary being a virgin until the end of her life within the scriptures, and the bible speaks of Jesus’ brothers and sisters within the scripture, the doctrine was quickly dropped by Protestants; but within the “Catechism of the Catholic Church”, the Protestant view is refuted, stating “The Church has always understood these passages as not referring to other children of the Virgin Mary. In fact James and Joseph, “brothers of Jesus”, are the sons of another Mary, a disciple of Christ, whom St. Matthew significantly calls “the other Mary.”(Catholic Church 1993, 500).
Although the doctrine is based on traditional thought and not fully on scripture, the doctrine does have value, and the implications, as laid out by Thomas Aquinas, are quite important as we view Mary not only as a woman, but also as an instrument that God chose to unfold his plan through. The evidence provided the Catholic Church, the world’s oldest organization, with the foundation of the Christian faith through their catechism, in addition to the variety of theologians from different backgrounds who all agree that the doctrine is true is overwhelming. As we follow the doctrine though history, starting with the Church Fathers, and medieval philosophers, to the reformation, and finally the modern era, we can see how the doctrine has been consistent and ever present, much like Mary’s virginity.
Buckley, James, Frederick Christian Bauerschindt, and Trent Pomplun. The Blackwell Companion to Catholicism. West Sussex: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2011.
Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Citta del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993.
Kausten, J., and Louis A. Arand. St. Augustine: Faith, Hope and Charity. Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1978.
McKim, Donald K. Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992.
Pelikan, Jacob. Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religions. Edited by Wendy Doniger. Merriam-Webster Inc., 1999.
Wawrykow, Joseph Peter. The Westminster Handbook to Thomas Aquinas. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.
Wesley, John, and Joseph Benson. The works of the Rev. John Wesley. London: Thomas Cordeux, 1812.