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from issue no. 09 - 2009

Archive of 30Giorni

The Virginity of Mary: a theologumenon?

by Ignace de la Potterie

<I>The Annunciation</I>, Beato Angelico, Prado Museum, Madrid (on the left the banishing of Adam and Eve from the earthly Paradise is represented)

The Annunciation, Beato Angelico, Prado Museum, Madrid (on the left the banishing of Adam and Eve from the earthly Paradise is represented)

Capua was the venue in the year 392 for a Council in which St Ambrose participated. It had been called to issue a solemn condemnation of a bishop who denied the perpetual virginity of Mary. Today, 1,600 years later, that same doubt is sneaking into the ecclesiastical sphere although the Catholic people and in many cases even their theologians do not realize it is happening.
A new voice was already being given to this heretical concept 150 years ago. It was a consequence of the famed counter-positioning of the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. But to date, it remained confined to the Protestant environment. The theologians of the well-known Tübingen school of thought were the first to formulate it. And the Tübingen archive contains a document which illustrates their aim and which had also been openly declared during official proceedings. In it we read that if we can unhinge all connection between the experience of Jesus’ first disciples and the later accounts which reached us, the way would be clear for reducing the Gospel to a “mythologumenon”.
This concept of the Gospel as a myth was resumed this century, again in Protestant circles by the so-called Formgeschichte School, whose two founders were Rudolf Bultmann and Martin Dibelius. And it was Dibelius who, in a 1932 text, used the term “theologumenon” for the first time. He was writing an article on the virginal conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb and in it he explained that theologumenon was a theological theory that had nothing to do with historical events. The Gospels, according to the Formgeschichte, are not works of history but relate events which were rendered myths under the influence of the history of religions.
Unfortunately this theory is still extraordinarily current. Only one aspect has changed since the Tübingen and Formgeschichte Schools. It is the surprising fact that those who debate the virginal conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb and the Resurrection as ‘theologumenon’ are often Catholic authors!
The phenomenon emerged immediately after the close of the Second Vatican Council with the famed Dutch Catechism of 1966. While it is true that the word theologumenon is not used, it states that the Gospel story of the virginal conception means merely that Christ is God’s gift to humanity: he was “entirely ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit’”. So it is no longer true that he was “born of the Virgin Mary”? Edward Schillebeeckx picked up this theory from Raymond Brown and many others, up to the present day. Many sustain that the birth of Jesus, which happened within a normal marriage, was later rendered myth. Theologically, Jesus is the Son of God but physically, he is Joseph’s son. In Catholic circles the currently fashionable theologian Eugen Drewermann is not alone in sustaining that the stories told in Luke and Matthew on the Conception of Mary reflect oriental myths and the Egyptian variety in particular. The Spanish theologian, Xabier Pikaza says: “The theologumenon is a primordial fact which is exclusively theological. Natural laws followed their course. Joseph had marital relations with Mary but through this interhuman [!] contact God’s power was at work to the extent that the appearance of the child was, in the final analysis, the definitive work of the divine spirit, the primordial genesis of the Son of God”. What does such ambiguous language mean?
<I>The nativity</I>, Beato Angelico, Museum of San Marco, Florence

The nativity, Beato Angelico, Museum of San Marco, Florence

Many Catholic theologians agree with Drewermann and Pikaza. They do not want to accept the historical value of the Gospels. And yet none of them has any real capacity to push their critical reflection further and ask where the myth originated or what this theologumenon might have been in historical terms. Because it is worthwhile to note that there is no example among the pagan myths of a woman who conceived and remained virgin. And how could a poor Jewish girl, the only one in the whole history of man, who was a normal wife, have had the presumption to say she conceived the Son of God. This only makes sense if it was a real event.
The virginal conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb is not the only tenet to fall under the axe of the theologians whose intention is to reduce the Gospel to theologumenon. Jesus’ bodily resurrection is also reduced to the level of mere myth. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the beginning and end of Jesus’ life are the subjects of debate, for they are the two poles on which the Incarnation rests. They are fundamental dogma of the Catholic Church but these modern exegetes do not want to take the Tradition into consideration. They have wrought a clean, decisive break between history and faith. What are the consequences? The German theologian, Karl Hermann Schelkle, explains: “If Catholic theology were to interpret the virginal conception as theologumenon, we would have to change many things in the Church. We would have to reformulate both the whole idea that the Bible cannot be wrong, and the theme of the Church’s infallibility. We would have to change the conscience of the faithful and the Mariological doctrine itself”1.
Only a negative judgment can be made of this theologumenon theory. But it cannot be denied that the Evangelists themselves believed the virginal conception to be an historical fact (cf. Lk 3, 23). They would have been shocked to witness the attempts by some “Catholic” theologians today to naturalize the Incarnation.

1 K. H. Schelkle, Theologie des Neuen Testaments, II, Patmos Verlag, Düsseldorf 1973, p. 182.

This text was corrected on 14 January 2010 due to some mistakes in the translation from Italian to English.

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