Monday, November 17, 2014

Tim Staples' Book About Mary

Tim Staples, the Director of Apologetics and Evangelization at Catholic Answers, recently published a book about Mary, titled Behold Your Mother (El Cajon, California: Catholic Answers Press, 2014). He's called his book "an exhaustive defense of the Marian doctrines". Al Kresta calls it a "Great, truly great, piece of apologetics." (back cover) Mitch Pacwa claims that the book "clearly answers every conceivable Protestant objection to Mary" (back cover). Actually, there's much the book doesn't discuss, and it's often wrong about what it does address.

I don't have a lot of familiarity with some of the Evangelical material he responds to, such as the work of Jimmy Swaggart and Ron Rhodes, but I'm more familiar with what Eric Svendsen and James White have said about Mary and Catholicism. Staples only interacts with two books written by Svendsen and White, Svendsen's Evangelical Answers (Lindenhurst, New York: Reformation Press, 1999) and White's Mary - Another Redeemer? (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1998). Both men have made a far better case against the Catholic view of Mary than Staples' book suggests, including in sources he doesn't respond to. I worked with Svendsen at New Testament Research Ministries for a few years, and he often addressed controversies surrounding his work on Mary during that time. Maybe Staples wasn't following Svendsen's material at that point, and maybe he hasn't looked for it at Authors often don't interact much, if at all, with online sources. But why didn't Staples interact with Svendsen's book on Mary, Who Is My Mother? (Amityville, New York: Calvary Press, 2001)? A lot of what Staples argues was answered by Svendsen several years ago. Staples also doesn't respond to much of the material against his position published by scholars within his own denomination, such as Mary In The New Testament (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1978) by Raymond Brown, et al. There's a lot of significant information Staples ignores or misrepresents in the sources he does cite, such as Michael O'Carroll's Theotokos (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1982).

Staples doesn't address arguments for Mary's sinfulness in Matthew 12:46-50, Mark 3:21-35, 6:1-6, and Luke 2:48-50. He ignores many of the arguments against Mary's perpetual virginity. He makes much of Mary's alleged identity as the woman of Revelation 12, yet doesn't interact with many of the Biblical and patristic arguments against his position. He appeals to supposed evidence for a Catholic view of Mary in Old Testament passages about the ark of the covenant and Psalm 45, for example, without interacting with Biblical and patristic counterarguments that have been circulating for a long time. And so on.

A large percentage of the book consists of specious appeals to alleged Marian typology in the Old Testament and other arguments of a highly unverifiable nature. He sees Mary everywhere from 2 Samuel 6 to Psalm 132 to Ezekiel 44. She can be seen as a king's wife in one passage, a king's mother in another passage, or both in Psalm 45 (280-2, n. 366 on 282). She's an ark, a temple, or whatever else she needs to be to find dubious Biblical support for later Roman Catholic teaching. Eric Svendsen's 2001 book cited above, Timothy Kauffman's article here, and many other sources have addressed arguments like Staples' over the years, and he doesn't interact much with those counterarguments.

If a patristic author refers to Mary as a New Eve in one context, Staples will try to support a Catholic view of Mary by portraying her as a New Eve in another context. But two Biblical figures can be paralleled in one context without the intention of paralleling them elsewhere. If I say that Jesus is similar to Joseph in that both were betrayed unjustly (Genesis 37:18-36), it doesn't follow that Joseph's multi-colored tunic, his imprisonment in Egypt, and every other detail of his life must be paralleled in Jesus' life. It doesn't even follow that every detail of Joseph's unjust betrayal must be paralleled in the unjust betrayal of Jesus. Staples will cite church fathers supporting the New Eve concept in some manner without explaining that the same fathers denied Staples' expansion of the concept. For example, he cites Tertullian's support for seeing Mary as a New Eve in section 17 of his work On The Flesh Of Christ (111) without explaining that Tertullian refers to Mary as a sinner in section 7 of the same document. See my articles here and here for many examples of patristic sources who referred to Mary as a New Eve, yet denied Mary's sinlessness. But Staples tells us that none of the early Christian writers denied a connection between Mary's status as a New Eve and her being sinless, and he claims that Mary's sinlessness "necessarily follows" from her being a New Eve (114).

At some points, he suggests that the Catholic view of Mary was always understood by the church. He refers to how "Christians have, from the most ancient times, seen in this type [of the ark of the covenant] the sinless Mother of God." (91) He claims that seeing Mary's perpetual virginity in her title "Virgin" is something "Christians" have understood "from the very beginning" (n. 218 on 154). He approvingly cites the recent Catechism Of The Catholic Church referring to how Christians "always" viewed Jesus' brothers and sisters in a way that's consistent with Mary's perpetual virginity (173). Staples claims that the assumption of Mary "has been believed in the Church for 2,000 years" and "was always believed by the Catholic faithful" (217). But in response to some of James White's arguments that various church fathers and Popes considered Mary a sinner, Staples comments:

"The Catholic Church acknowledges that there was development in the understanding of Mary's sinlessness, just as there is development in the understanding of all dogma. Belief in Mary's sinlessness was there from the beginning of the Christian era, but its full implications would take time to unpack. The failure of early Fathers to mention the fully developed doctrine by name, then, does not equal disbelief in it." (344)

But White wasn't expecting the sources in question to "mention the fully developed doctrine by name". Rather, he was noting that the concept of Mary's sinlessness was contradicted by church fathers and Popes. And how much time would be needed for people to understand concepts as simple as sinlessness, perpetual virginity, and a bodily assumption, for example? Such concepts are asserted explicitly, early, and often with regard to other individuals (Jesus' sinlessness, Elijah's assumption, etc.). Why would it supposedly take longer to develop an understanding of such things in Mary's life? Though Catholics often bring up comparisons to a development in people's understanding of concepts like Trinitarianism and the canon of scripture, it's absurd to compare such complex issues to far simpler Marian concepts. And it seems that Staples, like so many other Catholics, wants to have it both ways. Out of one side of his mouth, he appeals to what the church allegedly has always understood. Out of the other side of his mouth, while addressing the same issue, he appeals to an understanding that gradually developed over time.

Staples faults White for citing the historian Philip Schaff concerning Popes who denied Mary's sinlessness, since Schaff and his source don't provide documentation from original sources (339-42). But what White has done is commonly accepted practice. It's commonplace to cite a credible scholar, like Schaff, on such a matter, even if the scholar doesn't provide references to original sources. It's good for Staples to want original sources on the issue, but there isn't much here that he can fault White for. And it's ridiculous for Staples to be trying to track down sources from White's citations while ignoring so much of what his own sources have provided. He repeatedly cites Michael O'Carroll's work that I mentioned above, and that book provides examples of Popes denying the sinlessness of Mary. See the examples in my post here.

Staples also faults White for citing Ludwig Ott concerning some church fathers' belief that Mary sinned, since Ott only refers to "personal faults" these fathers saw in Mary, not "sins" (343). But Staples' response is problematic on multiple levels. For one thing, Ott goes on, after what Staples cites, to name some faults Mary was accused of by the fathers: "ambition", "vanity", "doubt about the message of the Angel", "lack of faith under the Cross" (Fundamentals Of Catholic Dogma [Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1974], 203). Are those sins? Yes, they are. To make matters worse, not only does Staples not address the sins Ott names, but he even misrepresents what he does address. On page 343, Staples misleadingly begins his quote of Ott in the middle of a sentence, yet he capitalizes the first word, which makes it look like he's quoting the full sentence. If you read the full sentence, Ott is contrasting the Latin fathers to the Greek ones, meaning that he's thereby acknowledging that the Greek fathers held a different position, namely that Mary sinned in her behavior. (By the way, though Ott says that "the Latin Patristic fathers unanimously" exempted Mary from sinful behavior, some of them did think Mary sinned. See the examples in my posts here and here.) Another problem with Staples' response to White is that Staples doesn't seem to have followed his professed desire to consult original sources. If he'd read much from Origen, John Chrysostom, and the other Greek fathers in question, he would have seen example after example of their affirming that Mary sinned. Furthermore, once again, why didn't Staples consult his own source, O'Carroll, on the matter? In O'Carroll's book cited above, he provides many examples of church fathers saying that Mary committed various sins (e.g., 173, 198-9, 275, 338 in Theotokos [Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1988]).

Staples frequently misrepresents the sources he discusses. He cites Ephraim the Syrian in support of Mary's sinlessness (84-5 and n. 110 on 85), but it's doubtful that Ephraim held that view. See my discussion of the subject in the comments section of the thread here.

He cites Hippolytus as though he supports the idea that Mary is the "incorruptible wood" from which Jesus was formed (91-2), supposedly implying Mary's sinlessness. But compare Staples' version of the Hippolytus passage, which he got from Michael O'Carroll, to the version here (under the heading "On Psalm 22 or 23"). Another rendering of the Hippolytus passage, found here, is also too ambiguous to support Staples' interpretation. If he wants us to consider the version cited by O'Carroll preferable, he needs to explain why.

He cites a work allegedly written by Athanasius, titled Homily Of The Papyrus Of Turin (92 and n. 118 on 92). But its authenticity is doubtful, and Staples provides no argument for its genuineness. See here.

He claims that Hegesippus referred to Symeon as a "brother of the Lord" (182). Actually, Hegesippus says that Symeon was a "cousin of the Lord" (in Eusebius, Church History, 4:22:4), whereas he refers to James as a "brother of the Lord" (ibid., 2:23:4) and Jude as "the Lord's brother according to the flesh" (ibid., 3:20:1). As Eric Svendsen explains in his 2001 book mentioned earlier (99), Hegesippus' comments suggest that he didn't believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary. Staples cites his mistaken view of Hegesippus as something that "adds enormous weight to the contention that the brothers of the Lord were relatives or cousins" (182). Since Hegesippus actually supports the argument against perpetual virginity instead, will Staples assign that evidence "enormous weight" against his position?

He cites a passage in Epiphanius that supposedly "offers a point-blank endorsement" of the assumption of Mary (224). In the passage (found on page 641 here), Mary is said to be like Elijah, who remained a virgin and was taken up alive into heaven. But the passage in question goes on, after what Staples quotes, to also compare Mary to the apostle John. Epiphanius then comments that Elijah didn't die, whereas John did, yet neither is to be worshiped. His point seems to be that Mary isn't to be worshiped either, whether she died or not. Elsewhere (pages 609 and 619-20 here), Epiphanius denies that anybody knows what happened at the end of Mary's life, which is a contradiction of Staples' reading of the first passage he cites and is inconsistent with Catholic claims about the history of the assumption doctrine. For further discussion of these other passages in Epiphanius and their significance, see here.

Staples attempts to explain the absence of any early reference to an assumption of Mary by appealing to a lack of need to address a matter that so many people agreed about. He writes, "there would have been no need to defend it" (223). But the early Christians and their opponents frequently discussed matters that were widely or universally accepted by Christians. Men like Irenaeus (Against Heresies, 1:10:1-2) and Tertullian (The Prescription Against Heretics, 13) often listed doctrines accepted across the Christian world, such as monotheism, the virgin birth, and Jesus' resurrection, but an assumption of Mary was never part of the list. In two articles on the assumption, here and here, I give examples of contexts in which mentioning an assumption would have been highly relevant, contexts in which the assumptions of other individuals are mentioned, yet no assumption of Mary is cited.

In support of the notion that Revelation 12 is referring to a bodily assumption of Mary rather than just her spiritual presence in heaven, Staples contrasts the bodily references in Revelation 12 (e.g., "feet" and "head" in verse 1) to the reference to "souls" in 6:9 (199-200). But other verses in Revelation refer to figures in heaven in bodily terms (e.g., "heads" in 4:4; "loud voice" in 6:10; "a white robe", presumably to be worn by them, in 6:11; "hands" in 7:9; "faces" in 7:11). Even if we assume that all of the Biblical passages Staples cites as references to Mary in heaven actually are referring to her, which is a dubious assumption to make, he hasn't provided any reason for us to conclude that Mary's presence in heaven is a bodily presence.

He claims that "there was no disagreement when it came to Mary ever-virgin" in the first 250 years of church history (301). He goes on, "Tertullian was the only Christian writer we know of in these early centuries even to posit the possibility that Mary had other children. And he did so only after he had been infected with the rebellion of the Montanists…as far as we know, he died a heretic. The true Fathers were unanimous on the Perpetual Virginity of Mary….As a matter of history, these few who denied the doctrine were fighting against the whole Christian world! orthodox Christian thought that [rejection of Mary's perpetual virginity] to be an option…That option [rejection of Mary's perpetual virginity] was not considered viable in the early Church." (301, 304, 307) There are a lot of problems with the picture Staples is presenting. I've already cited Eric Svendsen's 2001 book, in which he argues for opposition to the perpetual virginity of Mary in ante-Nicene sources other than Tertullian. And Tertullian didn't just argue for the "possibility" that Mary wasn't a perpetual virgin. See Svendsen's discussion on pages 99-101 of the book just mentioned. Furthermore, Tertullian's relevant comments come from multiple documents, and Staples hasn't provided any reason to think that all of them are from Tertullian's Montanist phase. And did Tertullian "die as a heretic"? Staples cites Jerome's negative assessment of Tertullian about two centuries after Tertullian's day, but other patristic sources offer a more positive assessment of him. Regarding how close Tertullian was to the Christian mainstream and how influential he's been in church history, see here. When Tertullian was criticized for his Montanism and for other reasons in the earliest centuries, he usually wasn't being criticized for opposition to the perpetual virginity of Mary. Jerome's comments on the subject are exceptional, not normative. There's no reason to think that opposing Mary's perpetual virginity made Tertullian a heretic in the eyes of his contemporaries or the generations just before or just after his day.

I could discuss dozens of other problems with Staples' argumentation. The book is far from exhaustive and far from convincing.


  1. Thanks Jason. I appreciate the time that you invested in reading through Staple's book and putting together the review above. I have both Dr. White's Mary Another Redeemer and Dr. Svendsen's Who Is My Mother?. Frankly, I think Svendsen's Who Is My Mother? is the best book examining the evidence for the Marian Dogmas and I've been waiting for a thorough response from Catholics on the subject. From the sounds of it, the wait will continue.

  2. Good review Jason, thanks for the helpful information and analysis.

  3. James,

    Maybe I will have my wife pick me up a copy when she goes to America in January. Thanks for whetting my appetite.
    Does TS go into all the miracles performed by Mary's intercession? I mean, besides all the stuff to gleaned from study, nothing beats asking her into our lives at times when all seems lost.
    You see James, I KNOW Mary answers prayers.

    1. Who's James? Jason Engwer authored this post.

    2. guy fawkes,

      Since you accept so many other anti-Biblical and unhistorical beliefs and practices about Mary, it's not surprising that you've added praying to Mary to the list. See here for links to some of our posts documenting the anti-Biblical and unhistorical nature of praying to the deceased.

      And I don't deny that miracles occur among Catholics. I've addressed Catholic miracles and other miracles among non-Evangelicals many times, such as in my review of Craig Keener's recent work on miracles. I don't deny that prayers to Mary are sometimes answered. Answered prayers, like other paranormal phenomena, could come from God, Satan, or human psi. (I'm including beings like angels and demons within the "God" and "Satan" categories.) Some answers to Marian prayers may be Divine. God could have reasons for answering sinful prayers (e.g., the person saying the prayer will later become a believer or a more mature believer; answering the prayer will benefit some other person who's a believer or bring about some other good, despite the sinful nature of the prayer), just as he's gracious and sometimes works through sinful means in other contexts.

      If a Hindu told you that his prayers to Hindu gods have sometimes been answered, I doubt you'd consider his testimony much of an argument for Hinduism. We take other evidence into account as well, not just answered prayer. As I explain in my series on Keener's book linked above, Christianity's network of miracles is centered around the Bible. The evidence for answered Marian prayers is outweighed by the evidence for Biblical teaching against praying to the deceased (along with the evidence against the practice from patristic Christianity, modern Christians who oppose the practice, etc.). A large percentage of professing Christians have practiced prayer to the dead, and those prayers are sometimes answered in some manner. Those are significant lines of evidence in support of praying to the dead. But the evidence on the other side has to be considered as well, and it's weightier.

    3. "The evidence for answered Marian prayers is outweighed by the evidence for Biblical teaching against praying to the deceased (along with the evidence against the practice from patristic Christianity, modern Christians who oppose the practice, etc.)."

      The patristic evidence against the NEW EVE?!?! Get real!

    4. guw fawkes:

      "The patristic evidence against the NEW EVE?!?! Get real!"

      Indeed it is. What will it take for you people to see the early church is a mixed bag? You throw in with one completely and you'll believe all sorts of unbiblical things. But we have to admit the Catholic teaching is hard to refute. According to the "OTC" Mary is the New Eve, Bathsheba, the Ark of the Covenant, Noah's Ark, Aaron's staff, Jeremiah's beard, and the rock that followed Israel through the wilderness that would ultimately cause Peter Enns to lose all credibility.

    5. guy fawkes wrote:

      "The patristic evidence against the NEW EVE?!?! Get real!"

      What does the New Eve concept have to do with what I said? For one thing, I was addressing prayers to the dead, not whether Mary is a New Eve. And I accept the concept that Mary is a New Eve. It makes sense to parallel the two women in some contexts, though not in any way that would lead to Roman Catholic conclusions, such as Mary's alleged sinlessness. Since I wasn't addressing the New Eve concept, and I accept a form of that concept rather than rejecting it, what's the relevance of your response?

    6. I'd simply point out that a patristic presupposition of believing that Mary was the new Eve was patristic belief in the historicity of the first Eve. Given, however, that most modern-day Catholics, including popes and bishops, subscribe to theistic evolution, there's no reason for them to continue believing in the historicity of the first Eve. They can make an ac hoc exception to human evolution, but they didn't get that from either the church fathers or from the science they espouse.

  4. "(Staples) claims that "there was no disagreement when it came to Mary ever-virgin" in the first 250 years of church history (301).

    After having listened to him for literally hundreds of hours between Catholic Answers Live and in his debates with James White, I'm not surprised by this tactic by Staples, this is textbook argument from silence.

    "He goes on, 'Tertullian was the only Christian writer we know of in these early centuries even to posit the possibility that Mary had other children. And he did so only after he had been infected with the rebellion of the Montanists…as far as we know, he died a heretic.'"

    A classic well poisoning. Regardless of Tertullians' position on the "other children of Mary", Montanism held no distinctive belief that I know of regarding the perpetual virginity of Mary. Staples seemingly wants us to consider the PV of Mary as a dogma in Tertullian's day even when there was no consensus on the matter. Keep in mind, this is the Director of Apologetics at CA and the fact that he has to resort to these kinds of logical fallacies to bolster his position is revealing on a number of fronts.

  5. excellent, as always, Jason!
    I linked to your post at Beggars All.

    I appreciate the care and substance and links to your other articles on these issues - very helpful.
    Ken Temple

  6. Speaking of Tim Staples, I just found out that my pastor debated him on the Eucharist!

  7. In page 191 of Staples' book, he refers, among others, 2nd Samuel 6:23 of the LXX as having heos hou. But when you check the LXX, it's just heos alone.