Of all the practices and principles in the Roman Catholic Church that are objected to by modern Protestants, the centrality of Marian devotion will almost always top the list. Not even the doctrine of papal infallibility can compete for that dubious honor. In the centuries following the Protestant Reformation, cries of "popery" and "Romanism" among anti-Catholic groups were often accompanied by accusations of "Mariolatry," and the charge is repeated to this day.
At the very least, a Christian organization that is distinguished primarily in public perception by devotion to a human woman cannot be as effective a witness for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Moreover, if the members of that Christian community mark their own faith principally by such devotions, I consider it a near-certainty that their faith would suffer as a result.
And yet... none of the above says anything against the truth of Catholic teachings on Mary nor against the moral quality of actual Catholic practice. Growing up in a Protestant community, I have often been concerned by the appearance of idolatry in certain Catholic dogma. But I had no way of knowing whether such teachings are informed by a genuinely Christ-centered attitude.
For the Ten Commandments direct to us to place no other god before the One God, and to not fashion idols for ourselves. If idolatry is elevating a created thing above the Creator, then that definition would not apply to an offering of respect or devotion to a created thing as such, when offered to the extent it reflects the glory of its Creator. Indeed, such respect may indeed be quite wholesome as spiritual practice: witness the Protestant devotion to the written Word of God.
The question thus remains: is this indeed the case with Catholic devotions to Mary?
One of the earliest title applied to the virgin girl from Nazareth was officially recognized by the Church at the First Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. Nestorius, the Archbishop of Constantinople, was on record supporting a recognition of Mary as Christotokos -- that is, as the "bearer" or "birth-giver of Christ." This was part of his broader theological platform, in which he argued that the human person of Jesus Christ was distinct from (but unified with) the divine person of the Son of God.
Nestorius' teachings were declared heresy and anathema by the Council at Ephesus, because it tried to separate the twin natures of Jesus Christ into two distinct persons, almost as a inversion of the Docetist heresy. Rather, the Council asserted, Christ is identified with the Son of God, the human and divine natures being unified in a single person.
Therefore, Mary's role cannot be limited to that of birth-mother of merely the human component, but must be treated in light of the entirety of her Son's being. In sum, Mary could not be merely Christotokos, but must be treated and recognized as Theotokos, the "bearer" or "birth-giver of God."
This conciliar decision defined a Marian dogma which was already in common circulation: the earliest known usage is in Origen's commentary on Romans in the third century, and the term appears throughout the works of the early Christian Fathers, including St. Athanasius and St. Augustine . It is an apostolic tradition in the sense most recognizable to a Protestant audience: it originated out of the common understanding of the early church, was defended by the highest bishops of the Church, and was declared to be dogma by conciliar degree.
This particular dogma should point those of us from the Protestant traditions to two particular realizations. First, the doctrine that Mary was indeed the Mother of God should go a long way in elevating her in our eyes. She was a young peasant girl from Nazareth who by God's grace was permitted to bear the immortal, inscrutable, transcendental Word Made Flesh. Her distinction is unique in Scripture, her role utterly unique in all of Creation, yet most Protestants don't seem to pay her that much attention.
Second, this dogma of Theotokos should help Protestants understand that every Catholic teaching on Mary arose out of a similar process, from consideration of her relationship to her Son, Jesus Christ.
Over the next several posts, I hope to considering Roman Catholic devotion to Mary from several perspectives. Each post will explore a particular Marian dogma defined or set forth in the Catholic Church. Each post will consider this dogma in light of a particular title accorded to Mary. Each post will cover Mary's actual role in various New Testament passages, especially those considered important to the early Church. Finally, and crucially, each post will look at her typological role foreshadowed throughout the Old Testament. Most of these exegetical readings were unknown to me until recently, but they are the furthest thing from original, for they flow from the traditions of the early Church. I only hope I may do justice to them.