After giving some thought as to how to approach the devotional this afternoon, I decided to talk for a few minutes about an issue that I am currently reflecting upon—that is the debate over the perpetual virginity of Mary. All Christians believe that Jesus was miraculously conceived by the power of God’s Spirit in the womb of a young Jewish virgin named Mary. But Christians remain divided concerning whether Mary remained a virgin from that time on, or whether she later entered into normal marital relations with her husband Joseph and conceived other children. In our modern Evangelical subculture it is commonly assumed that Mary remained a virgin only until giving birth to Jesus. However I have been surprised to learn that this was not the view of our Protestant forefathers. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and even John Wesley all sided with Roman Catholic tradition in affirming that Mary expressed her singular piety and devotion to her special calling of God by forsaking her normal marital rights and obligations and remaining abstinent all her days. Like Jesus her son, she forsook the order of the old creation, and anticipated the coming of the new creation. She was a vanguard of the Jewish virgin army described in Revelation 14, who “follow the Lamb wherever he goes.”
The biblical evidence for and against Mary’s perpetual virginity is ambiguous. Matthew 1:25 says that Joseph did not know Mary sexually until she gave birth to a Son. Does that imply that Joseph did enter into normal marital intimacy with Mary after Jesus was born? Or is Matthew simply noting that Joseph and Mary did not have intercourse during the relevant period of time before Jesus was born, making it impossible for Joseph to be the father of Jesus? In which case, we should agree with Calvin that: “What took place afterwards the historian does not inform us.” We are then left to ask why Joseph and Mary maintained abstinence even after they were formally married. It was not to avoid the public impression that Joseph was Jesus’ father, since that is precisely what Jesus’ parents encouraged people to believe (Lk. 2:48; Mt. 13:55). Was there something unique about their marital relationship that corresponded to the unique manner of the conception of Jesus?
But does Matthew 13:55 not mention Jesus’ brothers: James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? Yet not only was it common in Jewish culture to refer to one’s relatives (including cousins) as brothers, but Matthew 27:56 seems to imply that James and Joseph at least were the sons of another Mary, not the mother of Jesus. So these brothers of Jesus may have been cousins after all. Furthermore, why does Jesus entrust Mary into the care of the apostle John at the scene of his crucifixion, saying “Woman, behold your son,” if Mary had other sons to take care of her?
At the end of the day, we have to admit that the biblical record fails to speak with the degree of clarity we might wish for in considering this question. But my own reflections on this debate have heightened my awareness of several things. First, we live in a culture that exalts the sexual dimension of human experience far out of biblical proportion. I suspect that American evangelicals continue to subconsciously view virginity as a phase of human experience that all normal people must eventually grow out of in order to be socially healthy members of society. How far we have come from the perspective of Jesus, who not only remained celibate, but praised those who chose to be “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 19:12). How far we have come from St. Paul who remained celibate, and though he exalted the path of marriage as good, he hyper-exalted the life of abstinence as “better” (1 Cor. 7:38)? Is there a danger here of adopting a world-negating asceticism which denigrates the goodness of the created order? Surely there is. What I am saying is that unbalanced ascetic lifestyles are hardly the danger facing the church in the current cultural and moral climate.
Second, I am reminded of the arrogant mindset we often fall into, of assuming that modern advances in knowledge negate the insights of previous generations. Most Protestants blithely reject the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity without angst, despite the fact that the consensus of our Protestant fathers is against us. Something is wrong with that.
Finally, I am reminded of the richness of the Christian tradition. Although I remain a staunch Presbyterian Calvinist, I am thankful that there is a righteous remnant of Roman Catholics in our midst here at Montreat College. The Roman Catholic tradition has much to teach us Reformed folks about the beauty of liturgy, the richness of Patristic tradition and the dangers of individualistic readings of scripture. Roman Catholic dogmas which might appear strange to our Protestant ears have a way of driving us back to the voice of God in Holy Scripture, with an openness to fresh readings of the biblical text that may even at times call into question our most cherished assumptions.
By Paul L. Owen, Ph.D. (University of Edinburgh)