Refuting the Protestant Charge of “Mariolatry”

On the Orthodox Veneration of the Mother of God

Photo: Photo:     

The veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart.

—Martin Luther

The following prayer, from the Supplicatory Canon to the Most Holy Theotokos (which is included in the Jordanville prayer book), has been making the rounds in Protestant social media circles:

0 my most blessed Queen, 0 Theotokos my hope, guardian of orphans, intercessor for strangers, joy of the sorrowful, protectress of the wronged: thou seest my misfortune, thou seest mine affliction; help me, for I am weak; feed me, for I am a stranger. Thou knowest mine offence: absolve it as thou wilt, for I have no other help beside thee, no other intercessor, nor good consoler, except thee, 0 Mother of God. Do thou preserve and protect me unto the ages of ages. Amen.

One particular Protestant, who initially confused Orthodox Christians with “Romanists,” cited this as evidence that both are guilty of idolizing Mary. Unfortunately, many Protestants, so accustomed to reading texts literally, are unfamiliar with the effusive language that the early Church (and even early Protestant reformers) used in reference to the Mother of God. I asked him if it was his view that we Orthodox Christians literally believe that Mary is our only helper, intercessor or consoler. Of course, I am not surprised that he refused to directly answer this question. After all, Protestants also frequently chastise us for seeking the intercessions of other saints. Indeed, guided by that very prayer book, the Orthodox Christian refers to his patron saint as “the speedy helper and intercessor” for his soul (p. 27). He also calls on God, not just Mary, to be his “soul’s helper” (p. 58). Likewise, he quotes the Psalmist in saying, “Thou, O God, are my helper” (p. 72). How on earth did the “Mary worshipers” who put together this prayer book miss these “inconsistencies”?

Or what about the fact that, in one of our canons, we “flee only to” our guardian angel, but elsewhere say that we flee to Jesus (p. 224), Mary (p. 236), and all the “Angels, Archangels, and…heavenly hosts” (p. 328)? Oh, the contradictions! Let us pray that that the Mariolatrous and angelolatrous compilers of the Jordanville prayer book correct these “errors” in a future edition.

Sarcasm aside, if Protestants are willing to admit that these prayers are not to be interpreted literally—if they acknowledge that our sacred texts should not be read as legal codes—then they will have a more difficult time accusing us of idolatry, especially since the prayer book they condemn leaves no room for doubt as to who our true God is (consider, for instance, the daily-recited Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which affirms our belief in the Triune God: p. 14). If they reflected upon both our desperate spiritual condition and Mary’s “highly favored” status (Luke 1:28), then they might begin to understand how such reverential language could flow naturally from one’s hearts during prayer. Let us recall that the ground on which Moses stood was so holy that he was told to remove his sandals (Exodus 3:5). Should we not also display special reverence for the holy vessel through which God became man?

I put another question to the Protestant: At what point did Early Christians cross the line into Mariolatry? This, too, he failed to answer. Perhaps he knew that Mary—the “holy Virgin” (Aristides of Athens, 125 AD), the new Eve (St. Justin Martyr, 155 AD), the “fair ewe” (St. Melito, 170 AD), the “cause of salvation” for “the whole human race” (St. Irenaeus, 185 AD)—was revered very early on in Church history. It is worth mentioning that the last of these cited saints was a disciple of St. Polycarp of Smyrna, who in turn was a disciple of St. John the Apostle. It seems laughable that the Church could have fallen into idolatry in just three generations! That issue aside, there is little to no documented controversy over Marian veneration in early Christian history. I find no records of early Christians objecting to the reverence expressed in the oldest liturgy still in use (i.e., the Liturgy of St. James, which is believed to have been composed as early as 370 AD) in which we commemorate “the holy and just, our all-holy, pure, most glorious Lady, the God-mother, and ever-virgin Mary.” I see no one protesting the Church’s earliest known hymn to Mary (“Beneath Thy Compassion”, C.A. 250 AD) where we sing the following. “Under your mercy we take refuge, O Mother of God. Do not reject our supplications in necessity, but deliver us from danger, O only pure and only blessed one.” At what point, then, did the Church, “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15) get it wrong?

In closing, I will mention my interaction with another Protestant—one who put a little more thought into the matter. He noted that those Fathers whom we often cite as proof that the early Church honored Mary were fallible and we were not always in agreement; hence why, per the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, we must turn to the Bible as our sole authority.

To be sure, the Fathers, just like the Apostles before them (e.g., Gal 2:11-13), did occasionally disagree among themselves; no Orthodox Christian knowledgeable about his faith would suggest otherwise. However, with respect to the primary means by which the Church has resolved such disagreements—i.e., the decisions of ecumenical councils embraced or “ratified” by the faithful—it was settled that Mary is no less than the Mother of God. We must remember, moreover, that a true authority can only be a personal being. Although the Scriptures are the Church’s authoritative text, only God and His theanthropic body could be considered authorities. That is, the Church—which is otherwise composed of fallible individuals—is the authority because it is the Body of the infallible God (1 Cor 12:27). Just as the Holy Spirit guided the fallible Apostles in writing infallible Scriptures, we believe that the Holy Spirit inspired those who provided the elevated language with which we venerate the Mother of God—the “cause of our salvation.”

Editor7/11/2024 12:27 pm
Anna: The author is Prof. Amir (John) Azarvan from Georgia State University, I believe. His name did not initially appear on the page, but it is there now.
Anna7/11/2024 10:06 am
Many thanks for this article! No author is given, but it would be nice to know, if only just to be able to read more from the same wise and knowledgeable source. The final paragraph is very helpful in taking down the foolishness of sola scriptura. Excellent point. I’d like to add a thing I’ve been thinking about regarding the ever-virginity of the Mother of God When the archangel Gabriel announced the advent of the Savior in the Virgin’s womb, Mary was surprised, confused. Had she entered into an ordinary betrothal already, awss as young consummation of marriage, then this expression of surprise would be nonsensical. She would have assumed that once married, she would conceive and beat a son in the usual manner. But what the scripture does not record, and the Church preserved in other places, is that Mary was a singularly consecrated young woman, who decided not to marry but to preserve her virginity. This was extremely unusual, probably completely unique in that historical moment, so it’s not even considered by those who try to limit the faith to what is explicitly stated in the Bible. But how else can we explain this detail? To add to the strength of this argument we can compare this interaction between Gabriel and the Holy Virgin to the very similar announcement of fatherhood to the high priest Zechariah. He asked a similar question of Gabriel, and was soundly punished for his lack of faith. Perhaps this incident was to demonstrate to us now that the objection raised by the Theotokos-to-be was completely reasonable and did not represent a lack of faith. That understanding in turn demonstrates to us that the basis of her question was indeed an indicator of her special status.
Here you can leave your comment on the present article, not exceeding 4000 characters. All comments will be read by the editors of OrthoChristian.Com.
Enter through FaceBook
Your name:
Your e-mail:
Enter the digits, seen on picture:

Characters remaining: 4000

to our mailing list

* indicates required