15 July 2010

PMR 2010

Each year Villanova University hosts a Patristics, Medieval, and Renaissance conference, where "Renaissance" also (happily) includes Reformation.

Over the past several years I've given presentations and chaired sessions. Most recently (two years ago, I believe), I presentied on the topic of prophecy and revelation in Augustine, Aquinas, and Bonaventure, leading to some reflections upon our doctrine of scripture and inspiration. The conference always features some good provocative presentations, as well as being a great time to catch up with friends and acquaintances, and to share some rounds of drinks (which is really what conferences are all about, eh?).

Each year the conference is centered on a particular theme, such as "The Angel and The Muse: Inspiration, Revelation, Prophecy" (which inspired my presentation on prophecy and revelation) or, last year, "Ora et Labora: Pray and Work". This year's theme is "Mother of Mercy: The Figure of Mary in Theology and Culture," which provides a bit of a challenge for a Protestant presenter. Nonetheless, I proposed exploring a Marian theme in the theology of early Protestantism.

In patristic and medieval understanding, when Mary was referred to as the "the Virgin," the notion of her virginity was quite a robust one. It included not only the virginal conception of Jesus in her womb and of her substance by the power of the Holy Spirit, apart from a human father (a position that Protestants have, by and large, retained). Nor did it only include her virginity ante partum, which is to say that her husband Joseph refrained from marital relations with Mary prior to Jesus' birth (a position, again, that Protestants retained).

Rather, the patristic and medieval understanding of Mary's virginity maintained that she was perpetually a virgin, that is to say, Joseph continued to refrain from marital relations with Mary even after Jesus' birth (so that Jesus' "brothers" must be understood as close relatives, either cousins or children of Joseph from a previous marriage). This is her virginity post partum.

Moreover, so far as evidence indicates, Mary was held, nearly universally in the patristic and medieval church, to have remained a virgin even in partu, which is to say that Jesus was born of Mary in a manner than maintained her virginal integrity - without passing through the birth canal - a position that both upholds the divinely assumed character of Jesus' humanity and the liberation of Mary from the consequences of the Fall: pain in childbirth.

I say that all by way of background, since many Protestants seem unaware of the contours of what the creedal phrase "Virgin Mary" classically entailed. Obviously, Protestantism, by and large, has let go of this broader (and perhaps more odd) notion of Mary's virginity. The question is when, how, and why?

My proposed presentation (which was accepted by the conference) doesn't attempt to fully answer that question, which would require moving out of mostly 16th century theology into the the middle of the 17th century. Rather, I chose to focus more narrowly (and in keeping with the conference's "Renaissance" parameter) on the early strata of Protestant (and particularly Reformed) thinking on the topic.

In any event, here's what I proposed:

Mary’s Virginity & Protestant Christologies

In the centuries leading up to the Protestant Reformation, various beliefs concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary remained in flux: whether she was free from original sin from the moment of her conception, the nature of her bodily assumption, her role as heavenly intercessor. Other beliefs, however, had remained relatively fixed and universal – in particular, not only that Mary was a virgin in Jesus’ conception and ante partum, but also that she was a virgin post partum and even in partu. (Dissenters, of course, could be found, in both the patristic era and later: e.g., Tertullian, Helvidius, Ratramnus of Corbie.)

Among Protestant theologians of the Reformation era, belief in Mary’s lifelong virginity (post partum, though not necessarily in partu) was, by and large sustained, even while her immaculate conception, intercession, and assumption were increasingly rejected. Moreover, Protestants sustained these beliefs about Mary’s virginity despite a general rejection of the cult of the saints and saintly intercession, and while they maintained a growing skepticism toward extra-biblical traditions, an increasing elevation of conjugal love, and a scathing critique of clerical and monastic celibacy.

What factors, then, sustained Protestant belief in Mary’s lifelong virginity? And what circumstances account for differences among their theologians, particularly the more decisive rejection of virginitas in partu among the Reformed? In my presentation I will argue that these states of affairs are best accounted for by the fundamentally catholic shape of Protestant Christology, over against certain strands of Anabaptist Christology. Moreover, different emphases between Lutheran and Reformed views of Mary’s virginity reflect differences between Lutheran and Reformed Christologies.