Interview with Tim Perry
Recently I was able to talk with author Tim Perry regarding his new book, Mary for Evangelicals. Dr. Perry is an associate professor of theology at Providence College, Otterburne, Manitoba, Canada, and a columnist for Faith Today magazine.
1. NSR - What brought on your interest in Mary?
There are several factors. One is personal—a large segment of my dad’s family is Roman Catholic. The others are theological. Deep reflection on the doctrine of the Incarnation inevitably leads to thinking about Mary and especially about the reality of her motherhood. From there, it’s a short jump to thinking through the term theotokos (Mother of God), and that, as I argue in my book, is the historical and theological starting point of Mariology.
2. NSR - Why do you think that Mary has been so downplayed by Protestants over the ages?
First, I think that “generations” is a better term than ages, not least because Protestantism is only 5 centuries old—a rather short time in Church history. Interestingly, it was not downplayed in the first generation of the Reformation, sometimes for political (it was expedient not to challenge Marian piety too much) and other times for theological (she is the Mother of God) reasons.
By the second generation, however, Mary came to personify every major debate between the Reformers and the Catholic Church. Where the Reformers wanted Scripture alone to be the basis for theological reflection, Mary appeared to advocate for Scripture and tradition. Where the Reformers insisted that salvation was by grace alone through faith alone, Mary appeared to advocate for a combination of grace and works. Where the Reformers insisted that salvation was accomplished by Christ alone, Mary appeared to advocate for a system that made use of many mediators, of which she was the most important. She could, in the minds of some, even bend God’s will to her own. In the second generation, Mary was not downplayed as much as she became a lightning rod for Reformation and Counter-Reformation polemics.
Marian reflection amongst Protestants really only dwindles with the advent of liberal Protestantism. Beginning with Schleiermacher, folks who were embarrassed by Christianity’s (and/or the Bible’s) miraculous stories reconstructed a Christian faith in which miracles were not necessary. There is no need to talk about a non-miraculous Mary within a non-miraculous doctrine of incarnation. So, within the last 200 years, liberal Protestants stopped talking about her while conservative Protestants only ever thought about her as part of the ongoing protest against Roman Catholic Marian piety and doctrine.
3. NSR - If you could get one concept across to the reader of Mary for Evangelicals, what would that be?
If you want to think seriously, deeply, passionately, carefully, and in spiritually enriching ways about Jesus, you will inevitably think about Mary.
4. NSR - What authors have influenced your writing &/or your spiritual life?
In terms of theology, I have been largely influenced by theologians of the Reformed tradition, including John Calvin, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Karl Barth, Thomas F. Torrance, Robert W. Jenson [Lutheran], John Webster and Oliver O’Donovan.
Spiritual writers to whom I turn most often tend to be the Inklings—C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien—and the Puritans—John Owen, Richard Baxter and Jonathan Edwards.
5. NSR - Do you see Mary for Evangelicals tying into the upcoming film The Nativity Story? If so, how?
I don’t simply because I had no idea the film was in production while I was writing my book. As a result, I did not write the book with the movie in mind. You are, however, the third person to ask about a connection. So, at least in the minds of the public, there must be one.
I guess they both fit in with the larger culture’s fascination with the roots of Christianity—as seen cinematically in productions as diverse as The Passion and The Da Vinci Code. From what I understand, the film is faithful to the biblical text. I am glad about that. I also look forward to seeing how the director and actors “fill in the gaps” left by Matthew and Luke and trying to figure out what sources they used to construct their own narrative.
6. NSR - You say that a study of Mary always directs you to Jesus. What was one thing you learned about Jesus in your study of Mary?
Perhaps “re-learned” is a better word. That one thing I re-learned about Jesus is just how pastorally significant the doctrines of Incarnation (that God assumed human nature in Mary’s womb) and Trinity (that the Father has fully revealed himself in the person of his Incarnate Son through the Spirit without remainder) really are. These are not puzzles to be figured out. Nor are they dry doctrines to which we must give assent if we wish to be good orthodox Christians. They are the lifeblood of Christian faith and practice and as such ought to inspire, guide, and be the goal of all our efforts at proclamation and faithful living.
7. NSR - How do you envision this book be used within the church?
I don’t know that there is a direct connection to church life—by which I mean, I don’t think it’s going to become the basis for many small group studies. I pray that pastors will read my book and through it, find their preaching and leadership rejuvenated as significant chunks of the New Testament are liberated from the artificial Christmas confines we’ve placed around them. I hope that pastors and students will come to appreciate just how important Mary is to the development of an intellectually robust and spiritually satisfaying dogmatics (which is the basis of all preaching). And I hope that it will demonstrate to Protestants and Catholics that Mary doesn’t have to be a symbol of division, but can become the basis for further conversations.
8. NSR - Dr. Scot McKnight has also recently written a book about Mary entitled The Real Mary. In what way do you find your book & his complementary &/or at odds?
Scot has a distinct advantage over me at this point. He has had the opportunity to read my book and, as I understand it, incorporated interaction with my book into his. Maybe he’ll read this interview and send me a complementary copy so that we can talk about it. ;)
Still, I will try to venture an answer on the following evidence. I have read an interview in which he talks about my book. He was also very gracious to send me a review of my book that will soon be published. Those items, coupled with the title of his book (The Real Mary), suggest to me that we probably disagree not so much about Mary, but rather the role theology and history play in accessing the meaning(s) of the biblical text. This would be a disagreement in theological method that would work itself out in specific examples. Our respective books on Mary may just comprise one. Again, I look forward to talking further with Scot and reading his book so that I can find out whether this is so. Perhaps a way into the conversation is to ask Scot which “Marys” are “unreal” and go from there.
As I say, though, this is no more than an educated guess. I have not read Scot’s book and certainly don’t want to prejudice anyone against reading it. In fact, I would not be at all surprised if, in spite of this fundamental disagreement, we have many points of convergence in our exegesis of the New Testament passages.