Reformed Christians are understandably ambivalent about the Virgin Mary. On the one hand she was truly blessed. God graciously ordained that she should bear in her womb God the Son, that she would be what the Definition of Chalcedon (451) called the God bearer (θεοτόκος). The New Testament treats Mary with respect and reserve. She is mentioned, of course, in conjunction with Joseph (Matt 1:18), the conception narrative (Luke 1:27–32), the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55), the nativity (Luke 2:15–20), and presentation (Luke 2:22–33). Thereafter she does not appear often in the gospels and only once outside the gospels (Acts 1:14) and never as an object of prayer or adoration. When she was mentioned in the second century it was with respect but not as an object of reverence or prayer. The veneration of the blessed Virgin was a high medieval development and not without controversy. By the time of the Reformation, to a significant degree, the Virgin had supplanted Christ as the mediator between God and man. Where Paul had written that “there is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5) the late medieval church had substituted the Virgin and exchanged a mediatrix for the mediator, which has become Roman dogma in the modern period.
Nevertheless, the sixteenth-century Reformed did not react to the elevation of the Virgin in the way that we have done since. It was widely held by the sixteenth-century Reformed that Mary remained “ever virgin.” Zwingli taught this as did Heinrich Bullinger,1 in the Second Helvetic Confession (published in 1566):
We also believe and teach that the eternal Son of the eternal God was made the Son of man, from the seed of Abraham and David, not from the coitus of a man, as the Ebionites said, but was most chastely conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the ever virgin Mary, as the evangelical history carefully explains to us (Matt., ch. 1). And Paul says: “he took not on him the nature of angels, but of the seed of Abraham.” Also the apostle John says that whoever does not believe that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is not of God. Therefore, the flesh of Christ was neither imaginary not brought from heaven, as Valentinus and Marcion wrongly imagined [italics added].
Calvin seems to have been agnostic but he remonstrates with Helvidius, who, against Jerome, had argued that Mary must have had children with Joseph:
25. And knew her not. This passage afforded the pretext for great disturbances, which were introduced into the Church, at a former period, by Helvidius. The inference he drew from it was, that Mary remained a virgin no longer than till her first birth, and that afterwards she had other children by her husband. Jerome, on the other hand, earnestly and copiously defended Mary’s perpetual virginity. Let us rest satisfied with this, that no just and well-grounded inference can be drawn from these words of the Evangelist, as to what took place after the birth of Christ. He is called first-born; but it is for the sole purpose of informing us that he was born of a virgin. It is said that Joseph knew her not till she had brought forth her first-born son: but this is limited to that very time. What took place afterwards, the historian does not inform us. Such is well known to have been the practice of the inspired writers. Certainly, no man will ever raise a question on this subject, except from curiosity; and no man will obstinately keep up the argument, except from an extreme fondness for disputation.2
The Belgic Confession refers to Mary as “the blessed Virgin Mary” (Art. 18). We’ll come to the Heidelberg Catechism in a moment. The Westminster Confession refers only once to the Virgin Mary (ch. 8) and says nothing regarding her perpetual virginity. To the best of my knowledge most Reformed folk today have abandoned the earlier view.
One of the reasons the Reformed have historically had a high, if reserved, view of Mary is because of our understanding of Scripture and the teaching of the catholic creeds that our Lord Jesus, by the mysterious operation of Holy Spirit, took his humanity from her. The Definition of Chalcedon captures this teaching when uses phrase, “of Mary the Virgin, the Godbearer, according to the humanity” (ἐκ Μαρίας τῆς παρθένου τῆς θεοτόκου κατὰ τὴν ἀνθρωπότητα). A half century earlier, at Constantinople (381), Christians confessed that the Son took on humanity “from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary” (ἐκ Πνεύματος Ἁγίου καὶ Μαρίας τῆς παρθένου). The purpose of this language was never to exalt Mary but to exalt Christ and to recognize the glorious truth that he is true man and true God. His humanity was not an illusion. As my friend Steve Baugh often says, the Greeks had trouble with the humanity and Jews with the deity. That’s why the incarnation and the cross was a stumbling block and a scandal. Under the influence of a general spirit-flesh dualism, which saw real reality as that which is ethereal (spiritual) and which made them suspicious of the material, physical world, some early Christians struggled mightily with the truth that Jesus has a true human nature. The Apostle John was already facing that error when he wrote to the churches in Asia Minor (1 John 4:2; 2 John 7). That struggle would intensify in the 2nd century as a Gnostic heresy attacked Christ’s humanity as an illusion and offered “salvation” from bodily existence through secret knowledge and a magical, hierarchical world. Challenges to Jesus humanity came from other quarters. The Eutychians had it that his deity transformed his humanity into something else. Doubts about Christ’s true humanity would persist through the medieval church in the Albigensians (and related) movements and even among the Anabaptists, who taught that Jesus was incarnate with a “celestial flesh.” Based on conversations over the years one suspects that this doctrine is fairly widespread among evangelicals today.
Thus, the preposition “from” is more important than it might seem. Jesus’ humanity was and remains a true, genuine, real humanity consubstantial with ours. His humanity is not like our nor does it merely overlap with ours. It is ours. That is why the Apostle Paul was at pains to say that he is our mediator and that he is a man. He is the God-Man but he a true man. This is a major burden of the epistle to the Hebrews. Jesus did not come for angels, nor was he an angel. He came for the sons of Abraham. He writes:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted (Hebrews 2:14–18).
Our assurance is grounded here in the truth that our representative, our substitute, our federal head, Jesus is like us in every respect (sin excepted; 4:15) and it is as if when he made propitiation, we too made propitiation (turned away God’s wrath). This is why there are no more sacrifices, not even memorial sacrifices. His was the once-for-all sacrifice to turn away God’s wrath. He is the lamb, the Mediator, the sacrifice, the priest, and the temple. It’s all done. It is finished.
It’s against this background that we need to understand our catechism when we confess:
35. What is the meaning of “conceived by the Holy Spirit , born of the Virgin Mary”?
That the eternal Son of God, who is and continues true and eternal God, took upon Himself the very nature of man, of the flesh and blood of the Virgin Mary, by the operation of the Holy Spirit ; so that He might also be the true seed of David, like His brothers in all things, sin excepted.
Only God could save us and only we sinned. Thus, having willed to save us he could do so only by becoming incarnate and he did so “of the Virgin Mary.” His humanity was and remains as real as yours and mine. He really was in Mary’s womb. He had an umbilical cord. The conception was miraculous but his birth was ordinary. He’s a true human being. His humanity, like yours, was frail. He wept. He ate. He suffered. When they beat him, it hurt. When they nailed him to the cross, it hurt. When he struggled for breath on the cross, it hurt. He died a true, human death. It was a real, cold, lifeless body that they buried in the tomb and it was that very, true body that was raised on the morning of the third day.
This strong emphasis in the Scriptures, in the catholic creeds, and the Reformed confessions should make us cautious about speculating about the nature of his post-resurrection humanity. Why should we suppose that he dematerialized in order to enter a room (John 20:9)? That comes perilously close to the very Anabaptist error denounced by our confessions.
On this question Calvin wrote:
“And while the doors were shut.” This circumstance was expressly added, because it contains a manifest proof of the Divine power of Christ; but this is utterly at variance with the meaning of the Evangelist. We ought, therefore, to believe that Christ did not enter without a miracle, in order to give a demonstration of his Divinity, by which he might stimulate the attention of his disciples; and yet I am far from admitting the truth of what the Papists assert, that the body of Christ passed through the shut doors. Their reason for maintaining this is, for the purpose of proving not only that the glorious body of Christ resembled a spirit, but that it was infinite, and could not be confined to any one place. But the words convey no such meaning; for the Evangelist does not say that he entered through the shut doors, but that he suddenly stood in the midst of his disciples, though the doors had been shut, and had not been opened to him by the hand of man. We know that Peter (Acts 10:10) went out of a prison which was locked; and must we, therefore, say that he passed through the midst of the iron and of the planks? Away, then, with that childish trifling, which contains nothing solid, and brings along with it many absurdities! Let us be satisfied with knowing that Christ intended, by a remarkable miracle, to confirm his disciples in their belief of his resurrection.3
He was and continues true God and true man. His humanity has been raised and glorified and it is true that we do not know all that entails but we do know that whatever it entails that does not include any disruption of his shared humanity with his redeemed people, on which so much rests.
1. Fidei Ratio (1531), art. 5:
V. And I believe that this humanity was conceived of the virgin, made pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and was brought forth by preserving her perpetual virginity,* that He, who from eternity was born Lord and God from a father without mother, might be born into the world as deliverer and healer of souls from a virgin mother, in order that a holy and spotless offering might be made to Him unto whom all altars, loaded with animals, smoked to no purpose, and men might repent of sacrificing beasts and turn to the offering of their hearts, when they would see that God had prepared and offered to Himself a victim in the form of His own Son.
Huldreich Zwingli, The Latin Works of Huldreich Zwingli, ed. William John Hinke, (Philadelphia: Heidelberg Press, 1922), 2.244–45.
2. John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, trans. William Pringle, (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 1.107.
3. John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, trans. William Pringle (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 2.264.