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Mary Coredemptrix and Disputes Over Justification and Grace: An Anglican View

There have been times in the history of Christianity when Christ himself has become such a divine, exalted, numinous figure that the worshippers found him so distant that they needed a new mediator or mediatrix closer to their own humanity to fill the space that had opened between themselves and the original mediator. No doubt this is something that should never have happened, and the New Testament itself teaches clearly, “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). Not only should it not have happened, I think we can say that in fact it is not happening at the present time, because for several generations theologians have been stressing the humanity of Christ. The Christ of post-Enlightenment theology is not a distant and exalted Christ in glory but more commonly a Christ reduced to all-too-human proportions. So the need for a mediatrix is not likely to be felt today with the intensity that was sometimes known in the past.

However, the matter cannot be settled by pointing to the dangers of exaggeration and abuse, or by appealing to isolated texts of scripture such as the verse quoted above from 1 Timothy, or by the changing fashions in theology and spirituality, or by the desire not to say anything that might offend one’s partners in ecumenical dialogue. Unthinking enthusiasts may have elevated Mary to a position of virtual equality with Christ, but this aberration is not a necessary consequence of recognizing that there may be a truth striving for expression in words like Mediatrix and Coredemptrix. All responsible theologians would agree that Mary’s co-redemptive role is subordinate and auxiliary to the central role of Christ. But if she does have such a role, the more clearly we understand it, the better. It is a matter for theological investigation. And, like other doctrines concerning Mary, it is not only saying something about her, but something more general concerning the Church as a whole or even humanity as a whole. At this point as at others, mariology impinges on anthropology.

The general question which, as it seems to me, is raised by the specifically mariological question about the co-redemptive role of the Virgin, is that of the human role in any adequate theology of salvation. Is this human role purely a passive one, or is it, as Vatican II asserted about Mary, a role that is also active? This is where mariology threatens to revive old controversies. With Martin Luther, the principle sola gratia, “by grace alone,” was fundamental. Although Pelagianism, the view that the human being has in himself the resources to find the path of salvation and to progress along it, has made great inroads into all the churches in the past two hundred years, the principle “by grace alone” has remained a shibboleth of orthodox Protestant theology. It is prominent, for instance, in the work of Karl Barth. On this view, fallen man is so disabled by sin that he is totally unable to help himself. Grace alone can redeem him, and he can contribute nothing.

In some forms of this teaching, it is even believed that human beings can be saved without even knowing that salvation is taking place. It has all taken place already through the once-for-all redeeming work of Christ. It is a fact, whether anyone recognizes it or not. Karl Barth speaks in this way, though admittedly there are some ambiguities in what he says. But it is his belief that from all eternity the whole human race has been elected or predestined to salvation in Jesus Christ. This event has taken place outside of humanity, without it and even against it. (1) He says also, “If the good shepherd (Jn. 10:11ff.) gives his life for the sheep, he does so to save the life of the sheep, but without any co-operation on their part.” (2) We may agree that the sheep do not need to cooperate or to be aware that there is any danger—the threat is an external one (perhaps a pack of wolves in the neighborhood) and they need never know that these wolves had been around. But though this may be true of sheep and an adequate account of how sheep may be saved from physical dangers, it is not true of human beings and is a woefully inadequate view of what is required for human salvation. The salvation or redemption offered by Christianity is not from some enemy “out there,” but from the enemy within, namely, sin. It is not a physical rescue that is required—that might not demand any co-operation and the person rescued might not even be conscious of what was going on—but salvation, in the Christian sense, is very different. In this case, salvation has to be appropriated inwardly by an act of penitence (turning) and faith on the part of the person saved.

The whole question was argued thoroughly a generation ago between Barth and Bultmann, but people have short memories. Bultmann had laid stress in his writings on the “decision of faith.” This decision is also expressed by Bultmann as “making Christ’s cross one’s own,” that is to say, by taking up the cross through an act of inward acceptance and appropriation. Barth strongly denied this. For him, the redemption is a purely objective act, already finished “outside of us, without us, even against us,” to recall his words already quoted and used by him in his polemic against Bultmann. Redemption is not, in his view, to be considered as an ongoing process in which we have some part, but as the once-for-all act of God long before we were born—though it is hard to know whether this act in the past is the death of Christ on Calvary or the eternal predestinating decree of God in the very beginning. But it is all complete already without us.

Now, if one conceded Barth’s point, then I think one would have to say that he is indeed treating human beings like sheep or cattle or even marionettes, not as the unique beings that they are, spiritual beings made in the image of God and entrusted with a measure of freedom and responsibility. This fundamental human constitution remains, even though ravaged by sin. Human beings are still human, not mere things or animals. If Barth were correct in what he says on these matters, it would make nonsense of the struggles of history, of the training and preparation of Israel, of the very incarnation of the Word, of the redemptive mission of the Church, of the preaching of the gospel and the ministration of the sacraments. These events in time could have no real significance, for everything has been settle in advance. Human beings, on such a view, have no freedom and no responsibility. They are not beings made in the image of God with some small share in the divine creativity and rationality, they are things to be passively manipulated and pushed around.

Fortunately for us—or so we are assured—we are manipulated by grace rather than by a malignant fate or blind chance, nevertheless, we are manipulated. This seems to me a degradation of the concept of humanity implicit in the biblical accounts of creation. Feuerbach’s words about Luther remain, alas, true of much of the theology that stems from him and from other leading Reformers: “The doctrine is divine but inhuman, a hymn to God but a lampoon of man.” (3) It is understandable that Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche and a whole galaxy of modern thinkers came to believe that Christianity alienates them from a genuine humanity.

I was careful to say that there are ambiguities in what Barth says about salvation and the human beings’s part (or lack of part) in it. Though salvation is, in his view, an objective act accomplished by God, he does believe that it is important for human beings to become aware of God’s redemptive work and to appropriate it in their lives—he can even at one point introduce the controversial word “synergism” or “co-working,” though he envisages this as something which does not belong to redemption itself but is subsequent to it. I do not think, however, that his occasional modifications are sufficiently clear or that they are fully integrated into his main argument. Certainly, he never concedes what is for me a vital point—that from the very first moment when the divine grace impinges on a human life, it needs for its fruition a response, however feeble, of penitence and faith. Not for a moment is it being suggested that the human being initiates the work—the initiative belongs to God. But if it is merely outside of us, without us and even against us, then nothing worthy to be called “salvation” can take place. There has got to be something corresponding to Mary’s reported words to Gabriel: “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38).

The questions to which we have come are highly controversial, and yet they are so central to the place and significance of Mary that we must pursue them further. Although we are trying to see Mary as a reconciling influence for different Christian traditions, it would be wrong to ignore the fact that she also raises issues that have been divisive, for these must be faced if any true reconciliation is ever to be achieved. In particular, we must examine more carefully the conflict that arises from the teaching about the moral and spiritual helplessness of human beings and the doctrine of justification by grace alone to which that teaching has given rise. There have been strenuous efforts in recent years to bridge the gulf that opened at the Reformation on these matters—one thinks, for instance, of Hans Küng’s excellent early book, Justification, in which he tried to show that the teaching of the Council of Trent and that of Karl Barth on this question are not so totally opposed to each other as had been assumed: or to the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission’s document on justification, which was another praiseworthy attempt to narrow the gap between the opposing points of view. There have also been important New Testament researches into the topics of faith, justification, grace and works.

Luther himself believed that the doctrine of sola gratia can be clearly derived from the New Testament, especially from the writings of Paul which had become for him a kind of canon within the canon. He was especially impressed by Paul’s account in Romans of his unavailing struggles to fulfill the law, and likewise with Paul’s strong opposition, expressed in Galatians, to those Judaizing elements who wished to impose some residual elements of the law of Moses on Gentile converts to Christianity. Luther saw these oppositions in extreme terms: on the one side, a harshly legalistic Judaism in which salvation was to be gained through good works performed in obedience to the law, and on the other side, Christianity as a religion of grace in which redemption has been gained for us by the cross and salvation is offered to us as a free gift, without regard to our merit or lack of merit. The recent work of such New Testament scholars as W. D. Davies and E. P. Sanders has called into question this simplistic but highly influential exegesis inherited from Luther. Davies puts the point quite mildly when he warns us that “it is possible to make too much of the contrast between Pauline Christianity as a religion of liberty and Judaism as a religion of obedience,” and he expresses the opinion that “justification by faith” is not the dominant factor in Paul’s thought. (4) These remarks have been greatly strengthened by the important studies of Sanders, who shows that in the Palestinian Judaism of Paul’s time there was a stress on grace as well as works, and that Paul’s own position was not so very different from that of his Jewish teachers. Sanders claims that “the Rabbis kept the indicative and the imperative (i.e., grace and works) well balanced and in the right order.” (5)

Luther’s exegesis of Romans was developed by him into a polemic against the Roman Catholic church, which he equated with legalistic Judaism and contrasted with the Reformation religion of grace. But now that the New Testament basis of his contrast between first-century Judaism and early Christianity has been placed in doubt, his application of this model to the relation between Roman Catholic and Protestant versions of Christianity must also be doubtful. It is interesting to note that Barth, in spite of his championship of grace versus good works, is careful to distance himself from Luther’s misuse of Galatians, still uncritically accepted by many Protestant writers. Barth says:

Certainly in Galatians there were and are many more things to be discovered than what Luther discovered then. Certainly there was and is much more to be said of the Roman church and Roman theology both then and since, than what the Reformers said then within the schema of Galatians. We do not need to consider ourselves bound either in the one respect or in the other by their attitude. (6)

In theology and probably in many other subjects as well, highly one-sided solutions to problems are rarely satisfactory. As far as our present problem is concerned, I believe that in any adequate theology there must be a place both for divine grace and for human effort, for divine initiative and for the human acceptance and active response. When Sanders speaks of getting these things in the right order and well balanced, I take him to mean that God’s grace comes first, and presumably it is grace that evokes and enables the human response, but the priority of grace does not for a moment render the human response superfluous, or suggest that the person who is the recipient of grace is in any way delivered from the imperative to bring forth “fruits worthy of repentance” (Lk. 3:8). It is the combination of divine grace and human response that is so admirably exemplified in Mary. She is “highly favoured” of God (or “full of grace” in the familiar Vulgate rendering), but she is also, in words which I quoted from W. P. DuBose, the one who “represents the highest reach, the focusing upwards, as it were, of the world’s susceptibility for God.” (7) If we accept that the human being has been created by God, endowed with freedom, and made responsible for his or her own life, and even if we accept in addition that there are limits to freedom and responsibility, and especially that through the weakness of sin no human being can attain wholeness of life through effort that is unaided by divine grace—even Kant in spite of his insistence on autonomy conceded as much—yet we are still bound to say that there must be some human contribution to the work of redemption, even if it is no more than responsive and never of equal weight with the grace of God.

While the champions of sola gratia have concentrated their attention on some passages of scripture and have probably interpreted even these in a one-sided way, there are other passages, even in the writings of Paul, where the element of co-operation in the work of salvation seems to be clearly recognized. It is Paul who, after the magnificent hymn in praise of Christ’s redeeming work, in his letter to the Philippians, goes on immediately to say to the Christian believers: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you” (Phil. 2:12). The thought here seems clearly to be that God’s work and man’s work go on side by side in the realization of salvation. In another epistle, he writes: “Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain” (2 Cor. 6:1). A straightforward interpretation of these words seems quite incompatible with any rigorous doctrine of sola gratia. For what does it mean “to accept the grace of God in vain” but to fail to make any response to this grace, to refrain from any answering work? The expression “working together with him,” which has also been translated “as co-workers with him,” is in Greek synergountes, from which we derive the English word “synergism,” cited at an earlier stage in the discussion. This word “synergism” is the usual theological term for the point of view I have been commending, namely, that human salvation is accomplished neither by man’s own unaided efforts nor by an act of God entirely outside of man, but by a synergism or co-working, in which, of course, the initiative and weight lie on the side of God, but the human contribution is also necessary and cannot he left out of account.

Before we leave the New Testament on these questions, let us call to mind in addition to the Pauline material the letter of James. Luther was so unhappy with this letter that he questioned whether it should ever have been included in the canon of the New Testament. It seems inconsistent with Paul’s insistence that we are justified by faith, not by works, or perhaps we should say, with Paul’s view of these matters as interpreted by Luther. But one could say that the apparent tension between James and Paul should not be taken to mean that James should have been excluded from the canon, but rather that the inclusion of his letter is a much needed corrective to some of the more one-sided Pauline pronouncements as they have been commonly understood. “What does it profit, my brethren,” asks James, “if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you say to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (Jas. 2:14-17). Or perhaps one should say that faith, as decision, is itself the beginning of the work.

We have already noted how Luther contrasted Jewish legalism with Christian freedom, and how he sought to find a parallel contrast in the opposition between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Calvin in the meantime developed a doctrine of double predestination no less rigorous than that of Augustine. But we do find a dissenting voice among the Reformers. Luther’s friend and associate, Philip Melanchthon, was the principal theologian of the Lutheran Reformation. It is often claimed that he taught a doctrine of synergism, though some Lutherans have tried to play down this side of his teaching. But others have accused him of betraying the Lutheran cause and of subverting even the key doctrine of justification by grace alone. The truth is that Melanchthon retained a strong humanistic bias through the passionate controversial years following the Reformation, and therefore he could never feel at ease with doctrines which seemed to him to threaten such essential human characteristics as rationality, freedom and responsibility. So he was obviously unhappy with such notions as predestination and irresistible grace. He could not accept that, as he put it, “God snatches you by some violent rapture, so that you must believe, whether you will or not.” (8) Again, he protested that the Holy Spirit does not work on a human being as on a statue, a piece of wood or a stone. The human will has its part to play in redemption, as well as the Word of God and the Spirit of God. Such teaching might seem to us to be just common sense, but in the highly charged atmosphere of Melanchthon’s time, it needed courage to say such things, and it brought angry rejoinders from other Lutherans. But Melanchthon shows that even at the heart of Lutheran theology an effort was being made to find an acceptable place for synergism or co-working between God and man in the work of salvation.

Let us now come back to the consideration of Mary as Coredemptrix. Perhaps we do have to acknowledge that Barth and others have been correct in believing that the place given to Mary in Catholic theology is a threat to the doctrine of sola gratia, but I think this is the case only when the doctrine of sola gratia is interpreted in an extreme form, when this doctrine itself becomes a threat to a genuinely personal and biblical view of the human being as made in the image of God and destined for God, a being still capable of responding to God and of serving God in the work of building up the creation. This hopeful view of the human race is personified and enshrined in Mary.

First, we have to consider Mary in the context of the Church in which she is judged to be its preeminent and paradigmatic member. Because Mary personifies and sums up in herself the being of the Church, she also exhibits in an exemplary way the redemptive role that belongs to the whole Church. In the glimpses of Mary that we have in the gospels, her standing at the cross beside her Son, and her prayers and intercessions with the apostles, are particularly striking ways in which Mary shared and supported the work of Christ—and even these are ways in which the Church as a whole can have a share in co-redemption. But it is Mary who has come to symbolize that perfect harmony between the divine will and the human response, so that it is she who gives meaning to the expression Coredemptrix.

But secondly, there is the further context in which Mary has to be considered, the context of the incarnation of the Word. In this context, the language of co-redemption is also appropriate, but in a different way, for in this regard her contribution was unique and by its very nature could not be literally shared with anyone else. We are thinking of her now not just as representative or pre-eminent member of the Church, but as Theotokos or Mother of God. Mary’s willing acceptance of her indispensable role in that chain of events which constituted the incarnation and the redemption which it brought about, was necessary for the nurture of the Lord and for the creation of the Church itself. So Mary is not only in the Church and of the Church, she is also prior to the Church, as is implied in her title, Mother of the Church.

Professor John Macquarrie, Anglican Philosopher and Theologian, has served as Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity and Canon of Christ Church, Oxford. He is a distinguished author of numerous important works on Philosophy, Theology and Mariology, and a contributor to the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This article was originally published in Mary Coredemptrix, Mediatrix, Advocate, Theological Foundations II: Papal, Pneumatological, Ecumenical, Queenship, 1996.


(1) Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann—ein Versuch ihn zu verstehen (Zurich, 1952), p.19.

(2) Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1, p.231.

(3) L. Feuerbach, The Essence of Faith according to Luther (Harper & Row, 1967), p.41.

(4) W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism: (SPCK. 1960), pp 145, 222.

(5) E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (SCM Press. 1977), p. 97.

(6) Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/I, p. 623.

(7) W. P. DuBose, The Soteriology of the New Testament, p. 176.

(8) P. Melanchthon, Loci Communes (OUP, 1965), p xiii.

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