January 27, 2021

Interview: Scot Mcknight on Evangelicals and Marian Dogmas

scotmcknight.jpgUPDATE: I have gotten more mail on this than any recent piece. I just can’t individually answer these letters. So sorry. I need an assistant.

The reason Scot Mcknight is such an amazing gift to the church is that he is humble enough to make his formidable skills as a New Testament scholar available to bloggers like me.

I’ve been doing some study on the subject of Roman Catholic Marian dogmas, and Scot was kind enough to answer some questions for me on very short notice. Since I have many new Roman Catholic friends on this blog, I wanted to share a few of our genuine differences so we can respect and appreciate what we have in common.

Scot, best known for The Jesus Creed book and blog, is a professor of New Testament at North Park University near Chicago. He has written The Real Mary, a book that seeks to recover a thoroughly Biblical view of the real first century mother of Jesus. Mcknight’s work was part of a big year for books on Mary, including Tim Perry’s Mary for Evangelicals. I asked Scot some questions that were on my mind about the inevitable differences between those of us who confess the Apostle’s Creed, but disagree deeply over the continuing role of Mary.

1. You’ve done great scholarly and popular work helping Protestants to recover a Biblical view of Mary. Assuming that all Christians can ride the “Mary Bus” together for some distance, where do you believe evangelical Protestants have to get off?

Different evangelicals will get off at different stops. I encounter some evangelicals who won’t get on a bus with the name “Mary” on it or near it. My own experience with these sorts is that they have reacted, justifiably, to Marian extravagances in their past or in the their family. Others are quite happy to appreciate a Mary who learned, as did Peter, that the vision of Messiah Jesus was revealing was one that required they surrender their political vision for a cross vision. Some high church evangelicals, on the other hand, are quite happy to embrace the historic center of the Church on Mary — including perpetual virginity and immaculate conception. Recently an editor of a magazine said he embraced those things because the Church has always embraced those traditions. Tim Perry’s new book is a potent examination of Mary from an evangelical perspective that both looks these doctrines straight in the face and modifies them in such a way that many evangelicals will embrace the Marian doctrines he employs. I can’t go as far as Perry.

2. What would a “Marian Spirituality” look like for evangelicals?

Well, I’m not one into using anything like “Marian spirituality” too often, but I would embrace a spirituality, a vision of the spiritual life, that took Mary — like Peter and Paul and others — as powerful models. In particular, her spirituality is one that is deeply immersed in the Old Testament and its vision of redemption, obedience to the Lord, and declaration of redemption in her Son.

3. How far can evangelicals go Biblically in emphasizing Mary’s place in redemption?

In my judgment, we can do nothing that diminishes the significance of the work of the Trinitarian God and, in particular, anything that diminishes the saving life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is to be avoided. Mary witnesses to that salvation; she is not part of that redemption. The fact is, God chose Mary; so Mary is part of the redemptive plan of God as the Mother of Jesus, the God-Bearer. But, Mary did nothing for redemption and does nothing now for redemption.

4. In what ways is Mary and intercessor and an advocate? How is she not?

An important question for us evangelicals: Does Mary have an intercessory role in our redemption or spirituality? If she does, I would be the first to say that Mary’s “intercessory” role is the same as your and my intercessory role. She intercedes as you and I intercede for others who ask us to intercede. At least this is what is traditionally thought in Catholicism. But, this dimension of Catholicism has been developed so highly — that is, she becomes the focal point of intercessory prayer — that it is easy to think Catholics believe Mary is THE intercessor. This extravagance in practice is not taught in official dogma by Catholicism, where it is emphasized that Mary’s intercession is exclusively based on the redemptive and intercessory powers of her Son. We must admit this if we are good theologians. I’m the first, however, to say that this element of Marian dogma has been distorted among Catholics.

5. When I read the 4th and 5th Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary, it really discourages me regarding my hard-won place as an evangelical friend of Roman Catholics. What would you say to a Protestant who reacts really negatively to these descriptions of the Assumption and Coronation of Mary?

Yes, I agree: the 4th and 5th mysteries of the Rosary concern me in that they begin to diminish the work of Christ by seemingly permitting Mary to take on a centrality and importance that cannot be supported by the New Testament.

4. As she had nourished the infant Jesus, so she nourishes spiritually the infant Church.
5. Mary dies, not of bodily infirmity, but is wholly ravished in a rapture of divine love.

Mary is seen here as Queen Mother, as the Mother of the Church, and some find support for this in Revelation 12. The evidence, in my judgment, does not support this role for Mary. To be sure, Mary asked her Son to make wine; even though he pushed back at her suggestion, he clearly did what she had hoped would happen. And in John 19 Mary is the “mother” of John, who is a disciple — but I can’t find textual support for thinking this text establishes Mary as Mother of the Church. The record of history — that is from the first two centuries — shows no evidence of this kind of Mary-as-Mother-of-the Church.

The 5th mystery owes to the papal decree of the glorious assumption –that Mary, who had not sinned (since she had herself been immaculately conceived), could not have died a normal death since it is sin that leads to death. Hence, the theory that Mary was “taken” or “assumed.” That is, she seemingly died but really it was her love that ravished her body into the very presence of God. How does one defeat such a doctrine except to contend that we believe in the Bible and until this can be shown in the Bible, we do not need to affirm it as part of our theology.


  1. This is one of the hardest areas for me as a Protesting Christian to find common ground with Roman Catholics. So tied up is the vision of Mary I am accustomed too with ideas that diminish the Cross, that I find I am sometimes incapable of giving her the honor that Scripture demands. It is sad that Mary has become a casualty in our theological wars.

  2. Thanks, Michael, for this critical yet fair look at an issue that divides Christians.

    The central prayer for Catholics is the Mass (not a devotion like the Rosary), so the text of the Mass would be the best place to begin investigating Marian practice. The Confiteor is one example.

    For the 4th and 5th mysteries (especially the Assumption), I’d recommend taking a look at the documents of dialogue between Catholics and Anglicans. I pray using the relative clauses that make the Christocentric dimension of the Rosary more explicit.

    I post these notes as things that I’ve discovered along the way – as answers to questions that my friends have asked me.

  3. Michael,

    Thanks for highlighting Scot. One small correction – he teaches at North Park University in Chicago, not Northern Seminary.

  4. Real quick encouragement, I stumbled upon your blog about two weeks ago and I appreciate your work. The interview with Scot was great, but as a side note I go to Northern Seminary and Scot doesn’t teach here, that would be cool if he did. Last I knew he was at North Park.

  5. I’m not terribly bothered by meditations on the assumption and coronation of the Virgin. If it hasn’t happened yet, it probably will. And anyway, very early fathers said Mary is a type of the Church. And those things are easy to think of the Church.

  6. Thanks Michael for posting these excellent questions, and to Scot for helpfully answering them.

  7. Thanks, Michael, for this post. When it comes to the distortion of the official teaching on Mary’s (and the other saints’) intercession, here is how it strikes me (living in a Catholic country):

    Many Catholics pray to Mary and the saints in a way that views them not as interceding for us, but as actually intervening in the circumstances of our lives. This almost makes the saints not fellow believers who have gone before, but rather additional gods in a Catholic pantheon. In this way it skirts very close to idolatry. Because the Church does very little to correct these distortions, and because of the principle of “lex orandi, lex credendi” it is entirely fair for concerned Evangelicals to hold the Roman Catholic Church accountable for this distortion.

  8. I think Wolf is right that many Catholics (at least that I know) do pray to Mary, but I’m not so sure the RCC should be accountable. The RCC is not as monolithic as it may seem… but one sure fact is that the pedestal of Mary is held way too high in RCC circles. This is one big reason why I do not worship at RCC anymore.


  9. The Assumption of Mary is one “extra” dogma that I find easiest to accept, as a still Protesting Christian. Look at all the holy places dedicated to the tombs or relics of the saints. No church has her relics or her tomb! If the tradition was inconsistent, surely someone might claim to have her artifacts?

    Aside from the lack of physical evidence, the Assumption (or Dormition, OC version), is still within the plausibility framework of God’s acting in the world. He had assumed two holy men before, why not the most blessed woman of the new covenant?

  10. As a Catholic (of three years), I don’t see anything here attempting to cross the divide to make us understand each other better. There is no evidence backing up this man’s opinions, they are just opinions. There is nothing new in these opinions, just the same old protestant reactions to supposed Marian practices of the Church (to a greater or lesser degree). It can be comforting to have an “intellectual” affirm preconceived beliefs, sure. But I’m completely at a loss as to how this promotes dialog…most especially that confusing part about Mary being part of God’s redemptive plan, but not a part of the redemption. HUH?

    Understanding Mariology requires a complete paradigm shift from the evangelical protestant viewpoint. It’s really a difficult adjustment to make. Ironically, by protestants’ attempts to understand the focus on Mary, they place too much emphasis on her. Isolating her relationship from the Gospel leads exactly to the kind of accusations of “Mary worship” that Catholics are always defending against. Mary cannot be separated from the Gospel. Her role cannot be understood outside of relationship with the Gospel. This is why we cannot worship her, because without the Gospel, she is nothing. Within the Gospel, she speaks to who Christ really is. She helps us understand the entirety, the breadth, the depth, the nature of, and the fulfillment of the Gospel. Without her relationship in/with the Gospel, it is paler, less “person”al, more authoritarian, less human.

    It does me no good to try to defend specific aspects of Mariology to you. You are already familiar with the defense. What I can encourage you to do is to seek Mary through the light of the Gospel. Ask the Holy Spirit to show her to you. Who better to discover the truth about Mary from, than the one who overshadowed her causing her to conceive? Look at the whole, rather than try to pick apart the parts.

  11. >Understanding Mariology requires a complete paradigm shift from the evangelical protestant viewpoint.

    Understatement, to say the least.

    As a friend of Catholics, I appreciate much about the RCC, but I don’t appreciate those Catholics who act as if “we all believe the same things.” We don’t, and you’ve done a good job articulating that.

    There are many kinds of dialog. Hearing those who disagree and allowing that difference is an important one.

  12. Thanks for posting this. It’s very interesting and helpful.

    Something that struck me about your introduction of Scot (and then with Bekah’s comment) was the fact that Scot is seeking to “recover a thoroughly Biblical view of the real first century mother of Jesus.” I think he’s doing a great job in that regard. Then he is accused of spouting unsupported opinion. I don’t see that to be the case. It amazes me that so much of the Catholic view of Mary is just traditional assumption and entirely outside the reach of scripture.

    I appreciate scholars like Scot that are addressing this topic so thoroughly. I’ve never understood how plain and simple passages such as Matthew 1:24-25 could be glossed over in the formation of views such as perpetual virginity.

    “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.”

    Am I missing something or does that passage indicate that Joseph and Mary consummated their marriage following the birth of Jesus?

  13. bookdragon says

    I’ve seen the sort of problems Wolf Paul refers to, and the opposite error among Protestants of disgarding the communion of saints entirely (I think it was CS Lewis who observed that sins always seem to come into the world in opposing pairs?).

    As an Anglican, I have fewer problems with accepting tradition along with scripture, and look for the Via Media between a magisterium and sola scriptura. I think there is one here, at least for me. Particularly after studying traditional Judaism, I have far less problem with the idea of interacting oral and written sacred traditions. And since Christianity was founded by and grew out of Judaism, it wouldn’t surprise me if the early church had a similar approach of both written and oral sacred story, so I am hestitant to discard concepts that have very old roots in the church merely because they were not explicitly written down in the canon.

    On this basis, it’s easy for me to make peace with the 5th Glorious Mystery, for instance. That Mary did not die but was assumed into heaven is a very, very old tradition in the church. And given that we have biblical precedent for the very holy, like Enoch and Elijah, being assumed, why not Mary who surely ‘walked with God’ more closely than nearly any other mortal?

    In fact, I think that one helps explain a lot of the later-developing Mariology, particularly if you consider the role Elijah plays in Judaism where most of the traditions of most importance about him are not found in written scripture. One can see a lot of parallels between the role of Elijah in Judaism and Mary in RC and OE Christianity. In both cases, the person has a relatively small amount of textual reference in scripture, but a huge presence in the tradition and imagination of the faithful. And both therefore accumulated a lot of ‘midrash’. Take a look at the entry for Elijah in http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=245&letter=E&search=Elijah Some of the legends surrounding him make Catholic Mariology look pretty tame. And yet, despite the very strong monotheism of Judaism, none of this has ever been viewed as diminishing God’s presence/work (and in fact these legends are most embraced by the most Orthodox), so I don’t really see why we quasi-polytheistic Christians should have a problem with the traditions surrounding Mary.

    This is not to say that such traditions should be ignored as mere imaginative innovations. (Where in the OT does it say Elijah will herald the coming of the Messiah? The only reference to his return is a single verse in Malachi that has him heralding the Day of Judgement. Of course this is tied to the Messiah coming in Judaism, but the specific idea that Elijah will announce the Messiah and anoint him are not in the OT. Yet these are accepted truths in the NT.) However, the literal truth of most ‘haggadic’ midrashim is immaterial to the symbolic meaning seen in them. On this basis they can be appreciated, even cherished, for what they offer. (I find this a useful way of thinking about the 4th Mystery, for instance.) One only runs aground with these if they taken too literally – in fact, in Judaism some midrash are believed to have been told in ways where they could only be understood symbolically in order to confuse enemies of the faith.

    It is sadly ironic that ‘legalistic’ Judaism can so easily accomodate such sacred story, while Protestantism finds it so difficult to ‘gracefully’ appreciate it.

  14. bookdragon says

    Oops – tried to leave a symbol next to the ‘quasi-polytheistic’ remark to show I meant it as a joke, but the symbol didn’t come thru.

  15. IMO Roman Catholicism is more about tradition and Mary and the Pope, than about God and Jesus. About a year ago I visited a well known RC blogger’s site and was a bit disappointed that the Pope was so highly reverenced and prominent.

    I was brought up Roman Catholic. At the young age of 14 or 15 I remember having an aversion towards a Protestant girl joing our religion class. In later years I did wonder where that aversion came from and could only put it down to indoctrination. Funny thing is that I do not recall being indoctrinated but it must have happened somehow.

    When I was 24 years old I was saved and left the Roman Catholic Church. While a RC I never heard the gospel. I knew of Jesus and the Trinity. I knew the Apostle’s Creed by heart. And now, even 25 years later, when I return to a RCC for a family member’s wedding or funeral, the motions of standing and sitting and the prayer responses are still with me.

    Recently a RC relative and myself were discussing the high divorce rate even among evangelical Christians, when out of the blue my relative said that she would always believe in the transubstantiation of the eucharist and the wine. And that she would always believe that Mary was a virgin and never had any other children. I did not comment, because I figured it would be pointless to do so. But is it possible that indoctrination still happens in the RCC? Confession is now called reconciliation.

    However, there are a lot more RC believers than there ever were. They have a true love for God, but express their faith under the umbrella of the RCC. Mother Teresa was one such example; a true lover of God and a woman of faith. Most of the RCs I personally know are RC by upbringing and tradition and do not have a real relationship with God.

    the other Marcia

  16. I’m with Bekah on this one. As a Catholic (non-Roman), I have a heavy respect for Mary and I agree with most of the Roman dogmas…except for the Immaculate Conception (I believe Mary was sinless after the Anunciation) and her coronation (I’m still wrestling with that one).

    As a former Protestant, I see exactly where Bekah is coming from. There’s almost nothing that we can agree on and no point of dialog to come to. It almost feels like every Prot tries to say, “Well, we respect Mary, but we just don’t agree with any Catholic teaching on her,” which, to me at least, leaves no room for respect. How is that respect shown? I certainly have never seen it.

  17. Bekah writes: “Ask the Holy Spirit to show her to you.”

    He has, in the Scriptures, which show us Mary as the willing servant of the Lord in bearing His Son, being faithful in unprecedented and stressful circumstances; as a mother and wife who went on to have normal relations with her husband and to bear other children; as sometimes a help and sometimes a hindrance to her Son’s ministry. She was called to an extraordinary role for a season of her life, but like many great men and women of God, she spent the remainder of her time here living an ordinary life faithfully but imperfectly before God.

  18. Prof. McKnight is wrong when he says the Catholic Church teaches that “Mary, who had not sinned (since she had herself been immaculately conceived), could not have died a normal death”. The Church says nothing about whether Mary died or didn’t die. It says only that “when the course of her earthly life was finished, [she] was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory” (CCC 966). Catholics disagree about whether Mary died a bodily death or not. Some think she did, some think she didn’t. The Church very carefully doesn’t take sides on this issue by saying merely “when the course of her earthly life was finished”. Catholics are free to believe as they wish on the matter of her physical death.

    I am surprised Prof. McKnight made this error. Is it possible that you misunderstood him?

  19. Greg wrote:
    [i]As a former Protestant, I see exactly where Bekah is coming from. There’s almost nothing that we can agree on and no point of dialog to come to. It almost feels like every Prot tries to say, “Well, we respect Mary, but we just don’t agree with any Catholic teaching on her,” which, to me at least, leaves no room for respect. How is that respect shown? I certainly have never seen it.[/i]

    And as a Protesting Christian I would counter that the Roman view of Mary goes far beyond respect, and in fact the mythologizing of Mary into some sort of co-redeemer, co-mediator, and co-advocate is inherently disrespectful of the Mary taught to us in the Gospels.

  20. JohnB5200 says

    Greg said “How is that respect shown? I certainly have never seen it.”

    What suggestions would you have as to how Protestants should show proper respect to Mary?
    What would such respect look like if you were looking for it?

    How do we respect the pantheon of faithful? Abraham, Jacob, Elijah, Moses, Peter, John, Paul? (And let’s not forget Rahab.)

    I respect these saints by trying to emulate their faith. I respect Mary by striving to emulate her faith.

  21. 2m, a.k.a. “the other Marcia,” writes:

    While a RC I never heard the gospel. […] I knew the Apostle’s Creed by heart.

    Interesting. I definitely heard the Gospel message as an RCC kid. Mind you, we also used the Nicene Creed instead of the Apostle’s, but I thought the Nicene was standard in American RC churches these days.

    My relative said that she would always believe in the transubstantiation of the eucharist and the wine. And that she would always believe that Mary was a virgin and never had any other children. […] is it possible that indoctrination still happens in the RCC?

    Depends — if by “indoctrination” you mean “the teaching and instilling of doctrine,” then I would certainly hope so. 😉

  22. Discerner says

    “Understanding Mariology requires a complete paradigm shift from the evangelical protestant viewpoint.” Pray tell, where in the WORD do we find anything even approaching the Catholic emphasis/teaching of Mary? Perhaps in Luke 11:27-28?

  23. Ahhhhhhhhhhhh

    I see….you sent the note through comments and I sent it on.

    My fault. Sorry. I’ll remove it.

  24. Discerner says

    Whew, I’m sure glad we got that sorted out! I thought maybe you figured I was one of those pesky “TR’s” (I’m not; they shun me, bec. I’m not a fellow-ideologue). I was just fixin’ to send you a private email to get things squared away, LOL!

    Sorry about the confusion. In the future, I will refrain from using too many abbreviations (it’s called “lazy fingers” :)).



  25. Mark Nole in a interview with Ignatius Insight (google those names together and u will be blessed) “Ecclesiology represents the crucial difference between evangelicals and catholics-If Christ and his church are one, then a great deal of Catholic doctrine simply follows naturally.”
    He says “this understanding took place after teaching a whole lot of catholic history for thiry years”. This points to one needing to be humble to keep growing.

    The early churches understanding of Mary as the ark is a real eye opener. Remember that Jesus incarnation is the biggest event in all of history and beyond. You think we can give room to let God prepair the way for his Son in a most holy way and that is biblical? There is nothing unbiblical about Orthodox/Catholic tradition here. Remember all believed it for 1500 years and so did Luther. The protestant tradition has tied our minds and our hearts in a sad way. We have become nothing less than a product of post reformation polemics.

  26. Let me make a clarification, if I could. The question in the interview was about the 4th and 5th Glorious Mysteries meditated upon in the Rosary. These are not the “4th and 5th Mysteries” of the Rosary. There are altogether 20 Mysteries we meditate on while praying of the Rosary. There are five Mysteries in each of the following four meditations: Joyous, Luminous, Sorrowful, and Glorious. The two Mysteries in question are about Mary, but certainly also, about the work of Christ in her. The meditations in the Rosary are unquestionably Christocentric.

    As a convert to Catholicism from Evangelicalism last year, I find Bekah’s statements exactly right.

    “Mary did nothing for redemption and does nothing now for redemption.”

    And I would agree that Scot can’t have Mary saying Yes to the incarnation of God within her, being the Mother of God, and then not “doing anything” for redemption. That’s ridiculous (he says in Christian love). Without Mary’s Yes would God have simply chosen the virgin next door? Of course not. So I’d like to see Scot flesh out what he’s saying here.

    To those of you who don’t see where the Scriptures teach anything resembling the Catholic view of Mary – that is the point where we begin to talk past each other. The issue is of authority. We Catholics certainly believe that the Scriptures are the Word of God written, but we also believe that Christ and the apostles taught more than (not different from) what was put to page and passed that teaching on orally – this view is supported by the Holy Tradition written, the Scriptures (Lk 10.16; 1 Cor 11.2; 1 Thess 2.13, 15, among others). It is part of the Deposit of Faith and it does not change (though it can develop). The disagreement is largely assumed by some Protestants because they believe that oral Holy Tradition is contrary to the Scriptures. It is not. It might not, however, be found in the Scriptures explicitly. (Hence the “oral” part of it.)

    This is also why we Catholics find the early Fathers so compelling. Some of these men were witnesses and disciples of the apostles themselves. So when they speak about baptism or the Eucharist or Holy Tradition, we listen. When we hear a Marian prayer (the Sub Tuum Praesidium) that is already part of a liturgy by A.D. 250, we listen.

    But I’m digressing – because the doctrines are not found explicitly in the Scriptures, some Protestants such as Scot McKnight (whom I respect and consider a blog-friend) will not accept them. But as I’ve told Scot, I’m still praying for him. : )

    I appreciate the work that Scot is doing. He is helping some Protestants open their eyes to this holy woman who we call the Mother of God. Opening some eyes who before, as he said, simply wouldn’t get on a bus with “Mary” written on it.

  27. Michael, thank you for posting this. I’ve thought for some time that Mary shouldn’t be one of the things that divide Christians. Soteriology, ecclesiology, those are valid occasions of division. We don’t agree on those things (as you pointed out) and probably won’t this side of heaven. So be it; God will correct us as needed then.

    Mary herself is fairly neutral. She’s not really a matter of theology;. she simply is who she is. I honestly think that the main reason that Protestants tend to be nervous about her is that she’s too bound up with their idea of Catholicism.

    But she’s not Catholic, at least not exclusively. She’s the (adoptive) mother of the whole Church, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and all the others. Anybody who loves Jesus ought to love her, and I doubt she makes a lot of distinction either.

  28. I tend to agree with Joel’s last comment here, that it seems that Protestants are “nervous about [Mary]” because interest in her is a very Catholic thing.

    But… when was the last time a Protestant called Mary blessed among women? All generations will call her blessed, y’know (cf. Luke 1:42,48). Catholics and Orthodox in every generation have been fulfilling that prophecy, but Scripture extends an open invitation to all who profess faith in Jesus Christ.

    If Paul can be an example for us (as he offered himself in Phil 3:17 and 2 Thess 3:9), why not Mary?

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