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.