Wednesday, November 22, 2006

John Calvin on the Greatness of Mary

John Calvin said: 

"It cannot be denied that God in choosing and destining Mary to be the Mother of his Son, granted her the highest honor." (John Calvin, Calvini Opera [Braunshweig-Berlin, 1863-1900], Volume 45, 348).

Examples of Roman Catholic webpages using this quote to point out Calvin's belief in the "greatness of Mary" can be found here and here. Well, thanks, my Roman Catholic friends, for translating this quote from the original Latin text. Wouldn't it have been much easier to simply look up the quote in the English renderings of Calvin’s commentaries, which have been available for decades? This quote is yet another example of cyber-propaganda: it's a cut-and-paste one of Rome's defenders found in a book somewhere and put out in cyberspace to prove Rome's version of Christianity. At this point, identifying the culprit isn't an easy task. The genesis web-page may have been The Protestant Reformers on Mary.  

The source given is : "John Calvin, Calvini Opera [Braunshweig-Berlin, 1863-1900], Volume 45, 348." Page 348 can be found here. The text in question states,

I doubt the person who compiled these Calvin quotes actually translated this text into English. The quote is found easily enough in Calvin’s Commentary on the Harmony of the Gospels. The context is as follows.

Luke 11:27. Blessed is the womb. By this eulogium the woman intended to magnify the excellence of Christ; for she had no reference to Mary, whom, perhaps, she had never seen. And yet it tends in a high degree to illustrate the glory of Christ, that she pronounces the womb that bore him to be noble and blessed. Nor was the blessing inappropriate, but in strict accordance with the manner of Scripture; for we know that offspring, and particularly when endued with distinguished virtues, is declared to be a remarkable gift of God, preferable to all others. It cannot even be denied that God conferred the highest honor on Mary, by choosing and appointing her to be the mother of his Son. And yet Christ’s reply is so far from assenting to this female voice, that it contains an indirect reproof.
What Calvin says, I know no Protestant would deny. I, as a member of a Reformed church know that in God’s providence, Mary was chosen to be the mother of Jesus Christ. Indeed, that is a great honor. Calvin goes on though to the real point of this text. He says,
Nay, rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God. We see that Christ treats almost as a matter of indifference that point on which the woman had set a high value. And undoubtedly what she supposed to be Mary’s highest honor was far inferior to the other favors which she had received; for it was of vastly greater importance to be regenerated by the Spirit of God than to conceive Christ, according to the flesh, in her womb; to have Christ living spiritually within her than to suckle him with her breasts. In a word, the highest happiness and glory of the holy Virgin consisted in her being a member of his Son, so that the heavenly Father reckoned her in the number of new creatures. In my opinion, however, it was for another reason, and with a view to another object, that Christ now corrected the saying of the woman. It was because men are commonly chargeable with neglecting even those gifts of God, on which they gaze with astonishment, and bestow the highest praise. This woman, in applauding Christ, had left out what was of the very highest consequence, that in him salvation is exhibited to all; and, therefore, it was a feeble commendation, that made no mention of his grace and power, which is extended to all. Christ justly claims for himself another kind of praise, not that his mother alone is reckoned blessed, but that he brings to us all perfect and eternal happiness. We never form a just estimate of the excellence of Christ, till we consider for what purpose he was given to us by the Father, and perceive the benefits which he has brought to us, so that we who are wretched in ourselves may becomehappy in him. But why does he say nothing about himself, and mention only the word of God? It is because in this way he opens to us all his treasures; for without the word he has no intercourse with us, nor we with him. Communicating himself to us by the word, he rightly and properly calls us to hear and keep it, that by faith he may become ours.
In Calvin’s estimate, though it was an “honor” for Mary to bear Christ Jesus, much more important was that she was given spiritual life by our Lord. In fact all of us are blessed if we are given spiritual life by Jesus. To yank one sentence out of Calvin’s commentary about Mary and think it represents Calvin as a firm supporter of Roman Catholic Mariology is just not an accurate way to handle texts. Note how Calvin treats the Hail Mary, and what it means to call Mary blessed:
Next comes the third clause, that she (Mary) is blessed among women. Blessing is here putdown as the result and proof of the Divine kindness. The word Blessed does not, in my opinion, mean, Worthy of praise; but rather means,Happy. Thus, Paul often supplicates for believers, first “grace” and then “peace,” (Romans 1:7; Ephesians 1:2,) that is, every kind of blessings; implying that we shall then be truly happy and rich, when we are beloved by God, from whom all blessings proceed. But if Mary’s happiness, righteousness, and life, flow from the undeserved love of God, if her virtues and all her excellence are nothing more than the Divine kindness, it is the height of absurdity to tell us that we should seek from her what she derives from another quarter in the same manner as ourselves.

With extraordinary ignorance have the Papists, by an enchanter’s trick, changed this salutation into a prayer, and have carried their folly so far, that their preachers are not permitted, in the pulpit, to implore the grace of the Spirit, except through their Hail, Mary. But not only are these words a simple congratulation. They unwarrantably assume an office which does not belong to them, and which God committed to none but an angel. Their silly ambition leads them into a second blunder, for they salute a person who is absent.
Addendum 2017
This blog entry is a revision of an entry I posted back in 2006. The original can be found here. Because so many sources are now available online, I'm revising older entries by adding additional materials and commentary, and also fixing or deleting dead hyperlinks. Nothing of any significant substance has changed in this entry from that presented in the former.


Alexander Wrinkle said...

Everything said here involving Mary is not completely against with the Catholic Church's teachings. Mary's body parts are not merely blessed due to the Holy Spirit as Christ explains to the one in the crowd. The womb is not blessed, her breasts are not blessed. The Hail Mary prayer says "blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus."

Christ said "those who hear the word of God and keep it" (some variation with translations). This obviously means that Mary's hearing of the commands of God and her actions in accordance with it are what has made her God's most loyal servant.

As St. Jerome said, I believe, that Eve's disobedience tied the knot of sin, but Mary's obedience to God untied the knot.

James Swan said...

Everything said here involving Mary is not completely against with the Catholic Church's teachings

Hi Alexander,

This old blog entry was directed to the defenders of Rome who say that Calvin Mariology was "Roman Catholic" and Protestants should follow Calvin on Mary. As I stated, what Calvin says, I know no Protestant would deny.

Robert J Sledz said...

James is in denial. All protest ant reformers accepted Mary's perpetual virginity, immaculate conception, Title as Mother of God and Veneration (praying) to her. I know the truth hurts, Jimmy.

James Swan said...

Robert J Sledz said...
James is in denial. All protest ant reformers accepted Mary's perpetual virginity, immaculate conception, Title as Mother of God and Veneration (praying) to her. I know the truth hurts, Jimmy.

Hi Robert: Thanks for visiting this decade old blog entry. It provided me an opportunity to do a quick revision (dead links, formatting, rearranging).

I did click on your name and note it says, "Catholic Apologist -- Helping Catholics and Protestants understand The Catholic Church, Autograph Collector." If your comment here represents the way you do apologetics it appears to be an example of the "I'm right you're wrong" shout method, and then you've added a brief bit of mocking by saying, "I know the truth hurts, Jimmy." We have people using this method in Protestantism as well. Usually, I simply ignore those who use the shout method. There are a number of discussion forums online where your version of apologetics would fit right in, like discussion forums. Those folks love to use the shout method and mock each other. Visiting here will probably be a waste of your apologetic enterprise, because I typically delete the comments of those using the shout method, especially those who add mocking.