BOOK REVIEW: Mary: A Catholic – Evangelical Debate


Mary consists of a conversational debate between two friends from Bob Jones University – Dwight Longnecker, a writer who converted to Roman Catholicism, and David Gustafson, an Anglican lawyer. The subjects of the debate consist of various aspects of marian doctrine taught by the Roman Catholic church. These include Mary’s perpetual virginity, the immaculate conception, the glorious assumption, apparitions, veneration, the rosary, and the co-redeemer / mediatrix controversy. The arguments are presented more as a friendly, though serious, conversation between colleagues than a series of polemical attacks and defenses. Most of the discourse consists of e-mail style single paragraph repartee, and rarely does one writer get more than a single page before a response is given. A surprising amount of information still manages to be presented although this format would not seem to allow it. It would be well beyond the scope of this review to discuss the multitude of arguments and counter-arguments throughout the book, but in general both sides present their cases as clearly as they would like and neither gives the impression that their case has not been heard.

One of the biggest strengths of the book is that neither author is willing to back down from what they consider the truth in the name of ecumenism. This concern is stated succinctly by Longnecker when he writes, “if I doubt the value of theological polemics, I’m also suspicious of that kind of sentimental ecumenical dialogue that doesn’t believe there is really a problem” (209). Although the authors are friends, neither is willing to back down from the real differences between the two traditions, nor are they afraid to deal with whatever ramifications follow. If marian dogma will keep the Church split down Roman Catholic and Protestant lines, then so be it. Another strength is the knowledge of both sides of each other’s positions. This is not a straw man bashing conversation between two radicals. Rather, each admits the strengths and weaknesses of the other’s points, and even draws from the other’s tradition to reinforce his own position. Thus, the dialogue comes across in an intelligent and respectful manner. It does not seem that either side is taking unfair shots at the other.

Although Gustafson is far from timid, most of the concessions in the debate come from his side. This is not surprising, for his is really the only side that is allowed to do so regardless of how the argument pans out or the debater might actually think. While it would have been appreciated much earlier in the book, Gustafson states the issue clearly when he writes that, “When the matter is not Catholic dogma, Catholic individuals have the liberty of expressing their own doubts more freely, or even making personal concessions. But when the questions are about defined Catholic dogma, there isn’t really much to discuss, is there?” (215). That authority is the real issue is admitted by Longnecker on page 132 when he writes, “This question [the question of authority] has really been lurking behind our whole discussion. I once had a meal with a friendly Franciscan who was fond of fried chicken. Over the meal I was (as an Anglican) arguing with him about the Immaculate Conception. He ended the conversation by saying cheerfully, ‘We believe in the Immaculate Conception because the pope tells us to. Pass the fried chicken.’” Candor aside, this is a good summary of the entire debate methodology.

As I read the book I was reminded of another “ecumenical dialogue” that came out some time ago between a Latter Day Saint (Mormon) and an evangelical. Both being scholars, I expected a rigorous debate to unfold. Instead, the LDS wiggled his way through troublesome LDS history, dogmas, prophecies, etc. and the evangelical caved in at nearly every turn. By the end of the book an uninformed reader might have thought that the LDS were simply another Christian denomination. I appreciated the fact that Mary was not like that at all. The issues are real, well stated, well argued, and neither side rolls over for the other despite their friendship and desire for healing the Catholic – Protestant rift. In fact, in the summary neither author claims to have been moved very far from their original position. Further still, it is stated that the Mary issue will likely not be useful in bringing either side any closer than it has the authors. Both seem to conclude that the book may merely serve as a good introduction to the topic, and may help to clarify the positions of both sides.


9 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: Mary: A Catholic – Evangelical Debate

  1. Nice review. I have a question though. Is it true that “reason and Scripture are not the Catholic’s final authority”? I would think that they would hold that these are, in fact, the final authority, but not the only authority. I think that it is in matters that Scripture alledgedly does not address directly where the doctrines on Mary are supposedly clarified by the hierarchy.

  2. Yes. 🙂

    What I meant is that for a Roman Catholic the Scripture as taught by the Magisterium is necessary for orthodoxy. The laity are not (supposed to be) allowed to do their own reasoning from Scripture and disagree with official dogma.

  3. Hi Doug, this is Peter a cousin of your friend Ben Dresser. He’s taking a class on church history and and deciding what his beliefs are. And regarding interpretation of scripture he asks me “who has the interperative authority” when I stated that I believed that someone can interpret the scripture his or herself. How would you answer something like that? The thing is, I accept the authority of the church because….. (it has the authority to interpret?) it seems to me that’s circular reasoning, what reason would I have to accept it. I understand that an authority sturcture is nice, but the question is, is it true? Are they interpreting it correctly? Of course unity doesn’t make something true.

  4. I mean who says that it has authority, does the church’s interpretation also fall into that, if so then it’s circular reasoning, if not why is it the correct interpretation? I”m not really a stone cold protestant(someone that would even reject philosophy like thomism) but i’m not anti-catholic either.

  5. Peter,

    It’s not circular if one is not simply allowing the Church to say that it is right because it is the Church. It’s more the case that the identifiable Church just is the Church by definition, and if that Church is its own authority over what it believes (which seems obvious) then by default it is the interpretive authority for itself. Someone cannot, therefore, just come along with his own interpretation and say the Church is wrong about what it teaches. Even if the Church were factually incorrect, it is still its own authority.

    As to whether or not the Church’s teachings are factually true, consider what would be the case if there was no assurance here: we would not be sure about orthodoxy or even the Bible itself (which the Church determined centuries after it was created). On virtually any view of God’s providence, wide-scale errors of the universal Church would be very difficult to account for.

  6. ok, I was just wondering, I’m trying to figure things out.

    “As to whether or not the Church’s teachings are factually true, consider what would be the case if there was no assurance here: we would not be sure about orthodoxy or even the Bible itself (which the Church determined centuries after it was created). On virtually any view of God’s providence, wide-scale errors of the universal Church would be very difficult to account for.”

    Yeah I agree this wouldn’t be good. I’m just wondering what are your beliefs, what would you propose as an answer? If its is protestant views, and this is the case, then what about unity then? I think I would agree if you do that most reformed protestants have some sort of unity. I find this very difficult, or perhaps quite difficult.


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