Jame SCHAEFER, ed. Advancing Mariology: The Theotokos Lectures 2008–2017. Marquette Studies in Theology, no. 89. Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2017. pp. 320. $20.00 hc. ISBN 978-1-6260-0716-1. Reviewed by Ryan MARR, National Institute for Newman Studies, Pittsburgh, PA 15213.

 

            The Mother of God occupies a unique place in Christian theology. On the one hand, no other creature—whether human or angelic—is worthy of greater honor than Mary. In the language of the Divine Liturgy, she is “more honorable than the cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim.” Or, to borrow from Woodsworth, this Most Pure Virgin stands as “our tainted nature’s solitary boast.” On the other hand, Mary’s presence in the New Testament is relatively slight in comparison to what we know about other figures in the early Christian movement—say, Paul or Peter. While Mary is present at significant events (e.g., Cana, Calvary, and Pentecost), we know very little about her lived existence beyond what can be gleaned from the infancy narratives recounting the details of Christ’s birth and early childhood. 

This pattern carried over into post-apostolic reflection on the mystery of the faith. Perhaps no other person, excepting Jesus, has inspired more artistic creations—both visual and musical. Nevertheless, one can find whole volumes of systematic theology with hardly a mention of Mary. And, within some Protestant traditions she has been effectively sidelined, maybe meriting a mention, if at all, during the Christmas season. This collection of essays, therefore, should be welcomed by theologians who are keen to recognize the importance of Mary’s role in the plan of salvation while doing so in a way that is scholarly responsible. It brings the Blessed Virgin Mary to the fore, but does so in a thoughtful, biblically conversant, historically careful, and ecumenically sensitive manner.  

Alongside these characteristics, the book is also to be commended for the consistency across the board in the quality of its essays. So often, collections of this kind have to settle for chapters of uneven merit, perhaps because not enough high-level scholars could be recruited to contribute. In this case, Marquette University, where the Theotokos Lectures have been held, did a remarkable job of drawing several notable scholars from different theological subdisciplines to give the initial lectures in the series. The end result is an impressive contribution to Mariological studies, one that will almost certainly serve as a rich source of theological conversation for years to come.

The essays by Edward Oakes (“Predestination, Sola Gratia, and Mary’s Immaculate Conception”) and Francesca Aran Murphy (“Mary as ‘Omnipotent by Grace’”), in particular, stand out for the depth of their theological reflection. Oakes and Murphy each tackle a thorny, potentially divisive, theological question with grace and precision. Even if the reader comes to these chapters with doctrinal commitments different from that of the authors, she should still walk away impressed by their facility with the tradition and subtlety of thought.

It’s unclear whether it was intentional or not, but the chapters in the back part of the book appear to be organized around a question that has been of particular interest in recent decades—namely, whether certain facets of traditional Marian devotion constitute a hindrance or a help to constructing a vision of Mary that is both liberative and scripturally sound. Elizabeth Johnson, who gave the 2015 lecture, exhibits some concern here about older approaches to Mary that, in Johnson’s view, risk obscuring the “real historical woman” who lived “in solidarity with the coming of God’s reign of compassionate justice” (pp. 237, 240). In place of “a more customary approach” that places Mary on a pedestal as the quintessential mother who lovingly cares for her spiritual children, Johnson invites us to consider a paradigm in which Mary is “truly our sister” (borrowing language from Pope Paul VI).

In contrast, other contributors, such as Maria Clara Lucchetti Bingemer and Dorian Llywelyn, remain hopeful that approaches that have nurtured Catholic devotion in the past can continue to inform serious Mariological reflection in life-giving ways. Bingemer observes that the dogmatic truths related to Mary are important to the poor and have been utilized by them for liberative purposes. Llywelyn, meanwhile, warns that “a theology that deploys a mainly ‘Mary of history’ approach does not easily integrate [the] richly textured heritage” that has given the Catholic tradition much of its vibrancy (p. 294).

Ultimately, the perspective of Johnson stands in tension with, but is not diametrically opposed to the viewpoints of Bingemer and Llywelyn. In a certain sense, their different methodologies represent Mariology in separate keys, together providing a richer texture to our appreciation for the woman who bore God’s only begotten Son and then lovingly cared for him during his formative years. At the cross, Jesus told the beloved disciple, “Behold your mother,” thus making her the mother of all disciples throughout history who would be baptized into the family of God. For those Christians who are looking to strengthen their devotion to the Blessed Mother, this inspiring collection of scholarly essays would be a great place to start.