Did You Know Some Early Protestant Leaders Believed in the Perpetual Virginity of Mary?

I’m reading a book called Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate by Dwight Longenecker and David Gustafson. It is regrettably out of print but it is one of the finest treatments on the topic of Mary I’ve found. The book is in the format of a dialogue between Dwight (a Catholic) and David (a Protestant) concerning the issues surrounding Mary and her role in both traditions. The tone is civil but the dialogue is at times very pointed.  Here’s one example where the two discuss the perpetual virginity of Mary.  This is only a portion of the larger dialogue.

Dwight: We Catholics defend this belief in solidarity not only with the whole of the early church, but also with virtually the whole of orthodox Christendom down through the ages. The perpetual virginity of Mary is a beautiful and fitting belief upheld by the Eastern Orthodox as well as many Anglicans and Lutherans. Furthermore, it was defended not only by the ancient church fathers, but by Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and the classic Anglican theologians. John Wesley also believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary, writing, ‘I believe he [Jesus Christ] was born of the blessed Virgin, who, as well after as she brought him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin.’

“Catholics believe therefore find it odd when Protestants deny a belief that the founders of Protestantism held firmly. Furthermore, we don’t understand the point of denying the perpetual virginity of Mary, a belief that in no way contradicts Scripture or orthodox doctrine. The continued virginity and holiness of Mary up to her death does not distract from the saving work of Christ in any way. Denial of the perpetual virginity of Mary only denigrates Mary. Is there any virtue in this denial? In what way is it a positive thing? All we can conclude is that some Evangelicals dispute this point simply because they think it is ‘Catholic’ and they have to knock it over for that reason alone. Is that it? Surely not.”

David: No, I wouldn’t say that arguing for Mary’s perpetual virginity necessarily distracts from Christ’s work. As I’ll explain in due course, our principle objections are that the doctrine denigrates sex and marriage, and impugns Christ’s humanity. But to take the last things first, you ask how Evangelicals explain their failure to follow Protestant luminaries like Luther and Calvin in affirming Mary’s perpetual virginity. This is a question that an Evangelical might not even think to ask. By and large, most Evangelicals knowingly disagree with both these theologians on a wide range of important issues—baptism, eschatology, ecclesiology, predestination, free will, etc. Luther and Calvin were no less fallible than any other theologian, and we submit their opinions to the same biblical scrutiny to which we submit Catholic dogma.”

Dwight: Wow! The ease with which you dismiss fifteen hundred years of virtually unanimous church teaching is breathtaking. So the modern Evangelical waves his hand and says with a straight face, ‘You see, everybody (including our own founding fathers) had it wrong for the first fifteen hundred years . . .’ And this from the folks who accuse Catholics of altering the historic faith with later distortions!”

David: Catch your breath! You overstate things a bit to attribute belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity to ‘everybody’ in the early Christian centuries. No less formidable a Christian than Tertullian (d. 220) taught that Mary bore other children (by Joseph) after Jesus’ birth.”

Dwight: Tertullian’s is the only voice from the early church that suggests such a thing.”

David: I admit that by the close of the fourth century the consensus is clearly in favor of the perpetual virginity. However, as instructive as it is to know what Luther, Calvin, Origen and Tertullian thought about this subject, the critical question is whether we have any apostolic teaching on the point. A postapostolic novelty is a distortion, whether it originated in the sixteenth century or the second. So, no, to learn that Mary’s alleged perpetual virginity is another issue on which we disagree with Luther and Calvin is not a great shock.” (64-66)

Both Protestants and Catholics can learn much from this dialogue. I know I am. The book was published by Brazos Press in 2003. If you can find a copy and the topic interests you I would encourage you to pick it up.

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
This entry was posted in Catholic, Church History, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

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