Thursday, December 07, 2006

On John Calvin's Mariology

A defender of Rome named "Tiber Jumper" asks:

“Did Calvin also later on eschew his Marian devotion? I heard the same argument that he was a Marian devote but perhaps that isn't true as well?”

There is not a lot of detailed material on Calvin’s Mariology. One of the few is by Roman Catholic historian Thomas O’Meara in his book, Mary in Protestant and Catholic Thought [New York: Sheed and Ward, 1963]. Note what O’Meara states about Calvin's Mariology:
Martin Luther can hardly be said to have written a Marian theology, and yet he did compose works which center on Mary, a commentary on the Magnificat, sermons for her feast days. This is not the case with Calvin. Except for his commentaries on the early chapters of Luke and his sermons on this same area of the New Testament, Calvin treats Mary only in passing. [O’Meara, p. 125]
The Protestant Reformers on Mary
But this lack of information doesn’t stop people from making claims about John Calvin’s Mariology. A few years back, the following was posted on a discussion board by a Roman Catholic. It appears to have been cut-and pasted from the popular article, The Protestant Reformers on Mary.

Protestant Father’s view of Mary

John Calvin: "Helvidius has shown himself too ignorant, in saying that Mary had several sons, because mention is made in some passages of the brothers of Christ."(Calvin translated "brothers" in this context to mean cousins or relatives.) [Bernard Leeming, "Protestants and Our Lady", Marian Library Studies, January 1967, p.9].

"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 , Volume 45, 348.]

"To this day we cannot enjoy the blessing brought to us in Christ without thinking at the same time of that which God gave as adornment and honour to Mary, in willing her to be the mother of his only-begotten Son." [John Calvin, A Harmony of Matthew, Mark and Luke (St. Andrew's Press, Edinburgh, 1972), p.32.].

These quotes are supposed to demonstrate Calvin's robust and profound Mariology. Let's take a closer look at these quotes. In regard to the first Calvin quote:
"Helvidius has shown himself too ignorant, in saying that Mary had several sons, because mention is made in some passages of the brothers of Christ." (Calvin translated "brothers" in this context to mean cousins or relatives.) [Bernard Leeming, "Protestants and Our Lady", Marian Library Studies, January 1967, p.9].
The source provided is not John Calvin, but rather, "Bernard Leeming, "Protestants and Our Lady", Marian Library Studies, January 1967, p.9." Leeming's article can be found here. He states,
Max Thurian says: "Calvin himself will have it that Mary had no other children, and attacks Helvidius---not, it seems, in order to defend the perpetual virginity of Mary so much as to affirm the plenitude of the gift of God in Jesus Christ. "Helvidius has shown himself too ignorant, in saying that Mary had several sons, because mention is made in some passages of the brothers of Christ". Calvin translates adelphoi by ’cousins’ or ’relatives’. We have already said in another place that according to the custom of the Hebrews all relatives are called ’brothers’"
Leeming is quoting Thurian who is quoting Calvin! Here's what Thurian stated:

You can see how Thurian's words were cited by Leeming and how Leeming was subsequently cited by The Protestant Reformers on Mary. For the Calvin quote in question, Thurian cites "Comm. in Matt. 13:55." Here is the quote from Calvin’s commentary on Mathew 13:55:
55. Is not this the carpenter’s son? It was, we are aware, by the wonderful purpose of God, that Christ remained in private life till he was thirty years of age. Most improperly and unjustly, therefore, were the inhabitants of Nazareth offended on this account; for they ought rather to have received him with reverence, as one who had suddenly come down from heaven. They see God working in Christ, and intentionally turn away their eyes from this sight, to behold Joseph, and Mary, and all his relatives; thus interposing a veil to shut out the clearest light. The word brothers, we have formerly mentioned, is employed, agreeably to the Hebrew idiom, to denote any relatives whatever; and, accordingly, Helvidius displayed excessive ignorance in concluding that Mary must have had many sons, because Christ’s brothers are sometimes mentioned.
On this same topic, Calvin says in his commentary on Matthew 1:25,
25. And knew her not. This passage afforded the pretext for great disturbances, which were introduced into the Church, at a former period, by Helvidius. The inference he drew from it was, that Mary remained a virgin no longer than till her first birth, and that afterwards she had other children by her husband. Jerome, on the other hand, earnestly and copiously defended Mary’s perpetual virginity. Let us rest satisfied with this, that no just and well-grounded inference can be drawn from these words of the Evangelist, as to what took place after the birth of Christ. He is called first-born; but it is for the sole purpose of informing us that he was born of a virgin. It is said that Joseph knew her not till she had brought forth her first-born son: but this is limited to that very time. What took place afterwards, the historian does not inform us. Such is well known to have been the practice of the inspired writers. Certainly, no man will ever raise a question on this subject, except from curiosity; and no man will obstinately keep up the argument, except from an extreme fondness for disputation.
Calvin’s point is to say that a necessary inference that Mary had other children cannot be made from the Biblical texts of Matthew 13:55 and 1:25. Calvin’s main point is that the gospel writer did not wish to record what happened afterwards to Mary. Calvin calls it “folly” at one point, when describing those who wish to make a text say more than it does. Those who would make a necessary inference where the Gospel writer has only made a possible inference engage in folly (according to Calvin). So it cannot really be concluded that Calvin is teaching here Mary’s perpetual virginity. It sounds more like Calvin is simply being careful. While I myself would make the inference from these passages that Mary had other children, It cannot be concluded from these comments that Calvin believed in Mary’s perpetual virginity, or her sinlessness, only that Calvin held the gospel writer does not explicitly say, one way or the other. This conclusion was reached similarly by William Bouwsma in his book, John Calvin: A 16th Century Portrait. He says in a footnote on p.275, "Among matters on which (Calvin) discouraged speculation were the order of angels and the perpetual virginity of Mary."

In regard to the second 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, Volume 45, 348].
The source given is "John Calvin, Calvini Opera, 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 Calvinist 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.
So much for Calvin, the great supporter of Roman Catholic Mariology! In regard to the third Calvin quote you provided:

"To this day we cannot enjoy the blessing brought to us in Christ without thinking at the same time of that which God gave as adornment and honour to Mary, in willing her to be the mother of his only-begotten Son."[John Calvin, A Harmony of Matthew, Mark and Luke (St. Andrew's Press, Edinburgh, 1972), p.32].

As opposed to the previous Calvin quote in Latin they opted for the English translation. Here is page 32. Let’s see the quote in context:
42. Blessed art thou. She seems to put Mary and Christ on an equal footing, which would have been highly improper. But I cheerfully agree with those who think that the second clause assigns the reason; for and often signifies because. Accordingly, Elisabeth affirms, that her cousin was blessed on account of the blessedness of her child. To carry Christ in her womb was not Mary’s first blessedness, but was greatly inferior to the distinction of being born again by the Spirit of God to a new life. Yet she is justly called blessed, on whom God bestowed the remarkable honor of bringing into the world his own Son, through whom she had been spiritually renewed. And at this day, the blessedness brought to us by Christ cannot be the subject of our praise, without reminding us, at the same time, of the distinguished honor which God was pleased to bestow on Mary, in making her the mother of his Only Begotten Son.
This quote is similar to the second quote. Calvin again notes degrees of  blessedness. There really isn’t anything shocking or non-Protestant at what Calvin says here about Mary. It was a great honor for Mary to be the Mother of Jesus. But is Calvin saying to honor Mary? Hardly. Is he saying to Venerate Mary? No. Is he saying to pray to Mary? No. He’s simply reminding his readers to remember what an honor it was for Mary to be the mother of Jesus.

Conclusion
Here's a pertinent closing comment to our study thus far from Calvin:
We all know the epithets which (the Papacy) applied to Mary — styling her the gate of heaven, hope, life, and salvation; and to such a degree of infatuation and madness had they proceeded, that they even gave her a right to order Christ! For still in many churches is heard the execrable and impious stanza, “Ask the Father; command the Son.” In terms in no respect more modest do they celebrate certain of the saints, and these, too, saints of their own making, i.e., individuals whom they, on their own judgment,have admitted into the catalogue of saints. For, among the multitude of praises which they sing to Claud, they call him “the light of the blind,” “the guide of the erring,” “the life and resurrection of the dead.” The forms of prayer in daily use are stuffed with similar blasphemies. The Lord denounces the severest threatenings against those who, either in oaths or in prayers, confounded his name with Baalim. What vengeance, then, impends over our heads when we not only confound him with saints as minor gods, but with signal insult rob Christ of the proper and peculiar titles with which he is distinguished, in order that we may bestow them on creatures? Were we to be silent here, also, and by perfidious silence call down on ourselves his heavy judgments?

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.

1 comment:

FM483 said...

James, reading this section brought some Law/Gospel distinctions to mind. This section mentioned Luke 11:27-28:

Luke 11:27-28
As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, "Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!" [28] But he said, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!"


As your blog points out, from God’s perspective Mary by herself is not of prime importance, but rather obedience to the Word of God makes her special. In fact, the above Scripture elevates anyone based upon their obedience. But this is a superficial understanding based upon the rest of Scripture. Mere obedience doesn’t make anyone special, but rather perfect obedience. Merely reading Matthew chapter 5, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, provides greater insight as to what is demanded in the Law of God: perfect obedience in thought, word, and deed. Thus, the Lukan passages above are true by stating that whoever hears the Word of God and keeps it is blessed. The question is, can anyone ”keep” it? Can unbelievers “keep” it? The answer from Scripture is that only believers can “keep” the Law and will of God. Ephesians 2:8-10 and Hebrews 11:6 tell us that the very faith by which a person can actually heed the Word and will of God is totally a gift, that without this faith in Christ nothing anyone does is pleasing to God. Even our outward “good works” in the world become mortal sin – because they are always self-motivated and sinful and omit the cross of Christ as the sole reason for our adoption and acceptance by God. The mere outward obedience to the will of God as expressed in the commandments are thus good for society’s peace and order, but have absolutely nothing to do with salvation and our acceptance in God’s kingdom. Thus, only those people with faith in Christ can actually please God and are “blessed” as in Luke 11:28. Such people automatically and spontaneously produce fruits of the Holy Spirit, the only “good works” from God’s perspective. As Jesus said, the work of God in a person results in faith in His Son(John 6:29),a critical point to ponder in our hearts this Advent and Christmas season.

Frank Marron