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Mary, Model Theologian: Learning to Question Well

Questioning is hazardous. Though recent generations of Christians have often sought to reclaim questions and questioning from their overly-anxious forbearers, we have struggled to discover what it feels and looks like to question well.

The questions we ask aren’t neutral: questioning is not a game in which we play in the fields of the world while blowing bubbles. Questioning is the fundamental mode of the intellectual life and, to that extent, shapes the orientation of the whole person toward the world and God. The questions we ask dispose our hearts, wills, minds, and even bodies toward or away from bearing witness to God’s triune life and love.

We can see both the perils and the promise of inquiry in Luke 1, where the announcement of two miraculous births is met with two different questions: the skeptical inquiry of the priest Zechariah, who is serving in the temple, and the devout, faithful query of the mother of our Lord.

Zechariah’s Skepticism

When an angel of the Lord appears to Zechariah, Luke tells us the priest “was troubled” and “fear fell upon him” (Luke 1:12). The angel’s announcement is good news—some of the best news, really—to the grieving, childless man: Zechariah and Elizabeth “will have joy and gladness” when John the Baptist is born (v. 14).

Zechariah’s question, though, sounds a note of skepticism: “How shall I know this,” he asks, “for I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years?” (v. 18). He is chastised for it: after reminding Zechariah of his credentials, the angel, Gabriel, tells him he will “be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time” (v. 20).

On the surface, Zechariah’s question seems eminently reasonable. Yet the details and form of his inquiry shed some light on why he is rebuked. The grammar Luke uses for Zechariah’s question is an exact quotation of the Septuagint’s rendering of Abraham’s question in Genesis 15:8, which the King James Bible delightfully renders “Whereby shall I know that I shall inherit [the land]?” In verse 5, Abraham is told he’ll have a child—a message he believes and that’s counted to him as righteousness (v. 6). His question in verse 8 is about how he will know God’s promise he will possess the land.

In this light, the unbelief at the heart of Zechariah’s question becomes apparent. Zechariah is alluding to his potential position as a recapitulation of Abraham’s role—only he has collapsed together what Abraham keeps distinct, namely, the sure promise of God’s creative power in giving him and Sarah birth and the more nebulous path toward “possessing” the land. Abraham hears he will have a child and is credited for his righteous faith; Zechariah hears he will have a child and wonders how he will know.

In Romans 4:17, Paul is explicit that Abraham’s response to God’s promise in Genesis 15 is an affirmation of God’s power to give life to mortal bodies and call being out of non-being—the same power at work in Jesus’s resurrection (Rom. 4:17; 8:11). Zechariah essentially calls into question God’s creative and re-creative power.

Questioning Revelation

But he also calls into question the reliability of God’s revelation. Zechariah is disciplined for his question: he is silenced until John is born. As with all God’s ways, the punishment fits the offense: Gabriel observes Zechariah “did not believe [his] words,” even though the angel “stand[s] in the presence of God” and “was sent to speak to [Zechariah] and bring [him] this good news” (Luke 1:19–20).

Zechariah wants to confirm the truth of God’s Word according to some standard beyond it—he does not accept its self-authenticating power. While his question seems humble, it has notes of an unwarranted disbelief. Zechariah is the high priest serving in the temple when the angel comes to him. He surely knows old age is not a barrier to procreation in God’s divine plan. But if left unchecked, his suspicion about the reliability of God’s plans and purposes would bring both questioning and speech to an end.

Zechariah’s question is a stark reminder that not all questions are the right ones. There’s a manner and mode of questioning that breeds cynicism and suspicion.

Zechariah’s question is a stark reminder that not all questions are the right ones. There’s a manner and mode of questioning that breeds cynicism and suspicion.

In this case, Zechariah’s great learning and training did not prepare him to appropriately encounter the reality of the revelation of God’s Word. We might say he was seeking understanding in order to believe. I’m inclined to think it wasn’t outright disbelief that caused Zechariah to want the additional security of hearing what form God’s promise would take—it was his fear.

Mary, Model Theologian

Zechariah’s skepticism is not the only way Luke depicts questioning at the incarnation, though. Mary greets a similar angelic announcement with a question of her own.

When the angel first greets Mary as “favored one,” she’s fascinated. Luke uses two important terms to depict Mary’s response (Luke 1:28). First, he describes Mary as perplexed (ESV, “greatly troubled”), like a philosopher would be. The term appears only here in the New Testament but is used in both Xenophon and Plato to describe a state of confusion. Then Luke tells us Mary does what any confused, uncertain person might do: she tries to discern what the angel’s proclamation means (v. 29).

Though the angel tells her to not be afraid (v. 30), the other times an angel appears in his Gospel Luke tells us people are afraid (v. 12; 2:9; 24:5), with the only other exception being Christ in the garden (22:43). Mary might be perplexed, but she is not afraid.

Instead, Mary asks a question. She seeks to overcome her confusion by working her way through it. “How will this be,” she asks the angel, “since I am a virgin?” (1:34). Her question is often translated the same way as Zechariah’s, but Luke’s Greek is precise: Zechariah wants the angel to tell him how he will know the angel’s word will come true, whereas Mary wants to know how the angel’s promise will happen.

She uses the future tense verb “will this be” because she knows that what the angel says will come about—she has no uncertainty that the word given is true and needs no independent verification of its accuracy. Where Zechariah’s question signals his suspicion, Mary’s question reveals her faith.

Moreover, Mary wants to understand what is to come so she can conform her will to God, not because she is afraid. Her search for understanding is not disobedience but preparation for glad conformity to God. She consummates her inquiry in the surrender of her will: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (v. 38). Where Eve’s reluctance to question the Serpent’s deception in Genesis embroiled humanity in death, Mary’s question to the angel opens humanity to redemption.

Mary’s question is paradigmatic for the Christian believer: in that moment, Mary is the New Testament’s model for theologians (and we are all theologians). Mary has been prepared to hear the angel’s word by her loving study of Scripture. She believes in order to understand, and understands in order to obey. She is fearless in her ignorance and so she is free with her questions, because she knows the revelation of God will bring about her good and the good of the world.

Evaluating Questions

We can learn much from these questions. In Genesis 4, there are two modes of worship: Abel’s is acceptable to the Lord, while Cain’s is not. In Luke 1, there are two modes of inquiry: one is welcome to the Lord and the other is not.

Mary has been prepared to hear the angel’s word by her loving study of Scripture. She believes in order to understand, and understands in order to obey.

As Jacob of Sarug, a fifth-century Syriac theologian, writes, “See, O prudent one, there is a (sort of) inquiry that is advantageous, and there is questioning that generates harm by its doubt.” There is one “who inquires, yet he is not belittled because he is on the side of truth,” and there is “another one who disputes, and his discourse ends up in loss.”

How we discern fidelity in questioning is a hard question. Paradoxically, Zechariah’s sophisticated display of his vast learning gets him into trouble: his fearful anxiety moves him to reach deep into Scripture for what he thinks will be the right response, even though it is not. By contrast, Mary tries to find her way through a strange moment: she speaks her question in her own voice and words, and in doing so reveals the burning fire of her love for God. Questions aimed at understanding are rarely, if ever, the wrong kinds of questions to ask.

Zechariah is rebuked—but it is a healing rebuke, not an alienating one. Zechariah’s unbelieving question is not Luke’s first or last word about him. Luke tells us Zechariah and Elizabeth “were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statues of the Lord” (v. 6). And when John is born, he conforms his will to God by naming him in accordance with the angel’s instructions. Then his tongue is loosed and he speaks, “blessing God” (v. 64).

Zechariah’s unhappy question is an irruption in an otherwise faithful life, which Luke records so we might learn to question like Mary and be gracious to those who do not.

Learning the art of questioning well is difficult because the human heart is a deep and impenetrable abyss, full of darkness and deception and self-deceit. When God’s Word pierces our hearts as Mary’s was pierced on that day, we will often encounter it with confusion, uncertainty, and hesitation.

It is our glorious opportunity to meet the promises of God as Mary did, by putting a question to the Word in sincerity and faith: “How will this be?” Only then will we be prepared to say with her, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord, may it be to me according to your word” (v. 38).


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