Monday, December 18, 2006

Martin Luther and Mary's Assumption

Here’s another one of those “Martin Luther was devoted to Mary” quotes. This time, Luther is said to believe in Mary’s assumption. Here’s the setup:

The Protestant Reformers on Mary
“When Fundamentalists study the writings of the "Reformers" (or founders of their particular sect) on Mary, the Mother of Jesus, they will find that the "Reformers" accepted almost every major Marian doctrine and considered these doctrines to be both scriptural and fundamental to the historic Christian Faith.

After going through perpetual Virginity, and the Immaculate conception, etc, we come to:

Although he did not make it an article of faith, Luther said of the doctrine of the Assumption: "There can be no doubt that the Virgin Mary is in heaven. How it happened we do not know."[Martin Luther, Weimar edition of Martin Luther's Works (Translation by William J. Cole) 10, p. 268].

Source: The Protestant Reformers on Mary (see also the widespread Internet use of this quote).

First, begin with the documentation: William J. Cole did not have anything to do with the Weimar edition of Luther's Works. He was a Roman Catholic scholar who wrote an article on Luther's Mariology many years ago. So, whoever put this webpage together never actually read this quote in an authentic context. The quote is originally from WA 10(3), 268,13 to 269. The translation utilized is from Cole's old article from 1970, "Was Luther a Devotee of Mary?" [Marian Studies XXI].

The quote is from Luther's sermon of August 15, 1522. Cole mentions it was the last time Luther preached on the Feast of the Assumption, which should tip us all off on where Luther was heading with his "Mariology" (recall, Luther lived till 1546, thus this comment comes very early in his "Reformation."). Cole quotes Luther as saying,

"There can be no doubt that the Virgin Mary is in heaven. How it happened we do not know. And since the Holy Spirit has told us nothing about it, we can make of it no article of faith."

Now, one could say here that Luther leaves the door open for Mary's assumption. Perhaps he did in 1522. Cole doesn't give us enough of a context to know what Luther was talking about. Interesting though is the sentence, “And since the Holy Spirit has told us nothing about it, we can make of it no article of faith”. Here we find Luther living up to “Sola Scriptura.” One is not believe in the Assumption. It is not to be an article of faith.

In Luther's later writings on Genesis towards the end of his career though, he discusses how the Scriptures do not record the death of many Biblical women, including Mary. Luther is discussing how the Bible details the death and burial of Sarah:

Then one should much rather consider how Abraham delivered a beautiful funeral address about Sarah. For in the Holy Scriptures no other matron is so distinguished. Her years, lives, conduct, and burial place are described. In the eyes of God, therefore, Sarah was an extraordinary jewel on whom extraordinary love was bestowed, and she is mentioned deservedly by Peter as an exemplar for all saintly wives. He says (1 Peter 3:6) that she called Abraham lord and that “you are her daughters.” To all Christian matrons Peter holds her up as a mother.

Scripture has no comments even on the death of other matriarchs, just as it makes no mention of how many years Eve lived and of where she died. Of Rachel it is recorded that she died in childbirth (Gen. 35:16–19). All the other women it passes over and covers with silence, with the result that we have no knowledge of the death of Mary, the mother of Christ. Sarah alone has this glory, that the definite number of her years, the time of her death, and the place of her burial are described. Therefore this is great praise and very sure proof that she was precious in the eyes of God."

Interestingly, Cole goes on to point out that Luther "used strong language....for the elimination of the Assumption as an aspect of the 'hypocritical church',” particularly in celebrating a feast for it. Cole cites Luther as saying in 1544:

The feast of the Assumption is totally papist, full of idolatry and without foundation in the Scriptures. But we, even though Mary has gone to heaven, should not bother how she went there. We will not invoke her as our special advocate as the Pope teaches. The pope takes away the honor due to the Ascension of our Lord, Christ, with the result that he has made the mother like her Son in all things.”

In fairness to the work of William Cole, Cole doesn’t take a stance one way or the other if Luther ever held to the doctrine of Mary’s Assumption. He simply says that for Luther the Assumption was of “little importance…” and Luther never explicitly “denied” it either. I disagree with Cole based on the quote from Luther’s later commentary on Genesis. It is simply the case that people in the Bible died. Scripture doesn't tell us how many of them died. On Roman Catholic logic, one might as well suggest all the biblical characters that did not have their deaths mentioned were assumed into Heaven...or, one can simply cease and desist from sophistry.

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