Wednesday, November 22, 2006

John Calvin on the Greatness of Mary

John Calvin: "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).

This quote comes via a few Roman Catholic webpages (here or here), pointing out Calvin's belief in the "greatness of Mary". Well, thanks, my Roman Catholic friends, for translating this quote from the Latin. Imagine, 45 volumes of Calvin in Latin! (I highly doubt a Roman apologist is reading Calvin in Latin and translating him). But it probably would have been much easier to simply look up the quote in Calvin’s commentaries, which have been in English for many years. 

This quote comes from Calvin’s commentary on the Harmony of the Gospels (vol. 2). The exact reference is Luke 11:27 (page 64 in my version). 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. In God’s providence, Mary was chosen to be the mother of Jesus Christ. Indeed, that is a great honor. But note what Calvin went on to say, "And yet Christ’s reply is so far from assenting to this female voice, that it contains an indirect reproof." Calvin goes on to the real point of this text. I have placed in bold text some of the key statements Calvin makes. 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 become happy 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."

So, 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.


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.