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Early Mariology

03 May 2013

John Binns on tracing modern RC dogmas back to the Fathers


Reconstruction: an RC peasant bedroom in the Knock Museum, Co. Mayo, suggests how those who saw the Marian apparition in Knock (1879) lived. From Religious Objects in Museums: Private lives and public duties by Crispin Paine, an anthropological study analysing the various meanings of sacred objects in museum contexts (Bloomsbury, £17.99 (£16.20); 978-1-84788-773-3)

Reconstruction: an RC peasant bedroom in the Knock Museum, Co. Mayo, suggests how those who saw the Marian apparition in Knock (1879) lived. From Re...

Gateway to Heaven: Marian doctrine and devotion, image and typology in the patristic and medieval periods. Volume 1: Doctrine and Devotion
Brian K. Reynolds
New City Press £27.50
Church Times Bookshop £24.75 (Use code CT347 )

IN 1950, it became a dogma, Pope Pius XII declared, that it was "divinely revealed that the Immaculate Mother of God was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory". The doctrine of the Assumption, it might seem, arrived late on the scene and with no apparent biblical authority to support it. It is the purpose of this book to show that this and other doctrines concerning Mary arise directly out of the teaching of the Bible, and were fully formulated as part of the theological reflection of the Fathers of the Church - a process complete by the time that St Thomas Aquinas wrote his Summa Theologica.

Mary, the author shows, had several roles in the great drama of salvation. We discover her as the Mother of God; Virgin before, during, and after the birth of Jesus; co-redemptrix with Christ; and intercessor for all who turn to her; also immaculately conceived and assumed into heaven. The author traces the development of each of these ideas in the writing of the Fathers of the Eastern Church up until the eighth century, and the Fathers of the Western Church until the 13th century.

He begins each section with a clear summary of what the doctrine actually states, and then shows how it is derived from reflection on scripture. His method is extensive quotation from the Fathers, tracing the gradual development of these ideas. There are passages from familiar names such as Athanasius, Augustine, and Albert the Great - as well as passages from Dante and devotional hymns such as the Stabat Mater - set out in generously expansive form. The reader is also introduced to other authors who may be less familiar. For example, Spanish writers such as Ildephonsus of Toledo were new to me.

This choice of method has its disadvantages. We lose the broad sweep of Mary's life and with it some theological balance. Following Western tradition, Mary is the pure virgin who gives birth to the Son of God, and the weeping mother suffering along with her Son as he dies. But we miss the continuation of the story found in authors such as Maximus the Confessor who, in his Life of the Virgin, discovers Mary's place at Pentecost along with the apostles, and her sharing in the preaching of the Early Church - thus being a "co-minister of the apostles", to use Maximus's phrase.

The result of this omission is to diminish the part played by the Spirit, as is seen in the writings of several medieval Latin Fathers, such as Hugh of St Victor and Godescalcus of Limburg, who speak passionately of the work of the Father, the Son, and Mary - with no mention of the Spirit.

This book works best when used as an anthology. The reader will discover many passages of great poetic beauty and devotional intensity, and find that their meditation on Mary leads to deepening faith in her Son. This was, after all, the intention of each of the teachers whose writings make up this collection.

The Revd Dr John Binns is Vicar of Great St Mary's, Cambridge, and an Hon. Canon of Ely Cathedral.

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