The other day I stopped in a big chain bookstore and browsed the religious books section. I came across a Protestant/Catholic ‘debate’ book about Mary- two writers from differing perspectives fighting it out on Mary (sorry, but I don’t recall the title). I flipped to the back index to see if Martin Luther was mentioned. Sure enough, he was there. It was of course, the Roman Catholic side that repeatedly brought him up- as if, Luther is somehow relevant to what the Bible says about Mary!
The Roman Catholic writer brought up the alleged “fact” that Luther believed in Mary’s Immaculate Conception. His proof? Catholic historian Hartman Grisar’s book, Luther Vol. IV.[St Louis: B. Herder, 1913]. Did he actually read this old out-of-print book? Probably not, since he pointed out that he got the Grisar / Luther information from another book by a Catholic apologist who simply cited the quote. I’m simply amazed with this. Now, writers are going to print with what I believe is a Luther internet-generated myth. Alleged facts floating around cyber space are treated as truths to be printed and sold.
The Luther quote used was the following:
"It is a sweet and pious belief that the infusion of Mary's soul was effected without original sin; so that in the very infusion of her soul she was also purified from original sin and adorned with God's gifts, receiving a pure soul infused by God; thus from the first moment she began to live she was free from all sin" (Sermon: "On the Day of the Conception of the Mother of God," 1527")
This quote is frequently cited on Roman Catholic web pages attempting to prove Luther’s lifelong belief in Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Unfortunately, the quote is almost impossible to track down. The sermon is not included in the English edition of Luther’s Works, and to my knowledge, the complete sermon has not been translated into English.
But even more interesting is Hartmann Grisar’s information about the quote. Had the Catholic author in the Mary debate actually checked Grisar's book, I doubt he would’ve used the quote. Grisar cites the source as “Werke,” Erl. Ed., 15 Page 58. Of the quote he says,
“The sermon was taken down in notes and published with Luther’s approval. The same statements concerning the Immaculate Conception still remain in a printed edition published in 1529, but in later editions which appeared during Luther’s lifetime they disappear.”
The reason for their disappearance is that as Luther’s Christo-centric theology developed, aspects of Luther’s Mariology were abandoned. Grisar also recognizes the development in Luther's theology. In regards to the Luther quote in question, Grisar says (from a Catholic perspective),
“As Luther’s intellectual and ethical development progressed we cannot naturally expect the sublime picture of the pure Mother of God, the type of virginity, of the spirit of sacrifice and of sanctity to furnish any great attraction for him, and as a matter of fact such statements as the above are no longer met with in his later works.”
I doubt any of the modern-day Catholic apologists have ever read this entire sermon from Luther. I doubt they've ever even held the German version in their hand (by the way, I do have a German copy of this sermon). The origin of this quote in cyber-space stems from probably one Catholic apologist with a copy of Grisar's book, and that book wasn't read very carefully.
Irony upon irony, the other day I was tooling around Catholic apologetic sites, and I came across this recent posting by a Catholic apologist:
“The second thing to tell a Protestant wary about Mariology is the little-known fact that Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, believed in the Immaculate Conception (almost exactly the Catholic dogma before it was even required of Catholics). He had a very "high" Mariology. Some claim that he changed his mind later in life, but in my exhaustive research on the topic (in debate with a Reformed seminarian), I found at least 16 Lutheran scholars who contended that he never ceased believing the doctrine.
In 1544 (just two years before his death), he wrote: "God has formed the soul and body of the Virgin Mary full of the Holy Spirit, so that she is without all sins." And in 1545 he stated that the Virgin Mary "has not sinned and cannot sin for ever more." If even Martin Luther can accept the actual sinlessness of Mary and freedom from original sin, then any Protestant can do so, because nothing in this doctrine is contrary to Scripture at all, and indeed, "full of grace" (kecharitomene) in Luke 1:28 (rightly understood and deeply examined) is an explicit biblical proof of Mary's freedom from actual sin.”
Let’s work through this batch of mis-information slowly, point by point.
“The second thing to tell a Protestant wary about Mariology is the little-known fact that Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, believed in the Immaculate Conception (almost exactly the Catholic dogma before it was even required of Catholics).”
Why is Luther’s opinion on Mary’s Immaculate Conception relevant to the truth or falsity of this Roman Catholic dogma? It shouldn’t factor into the discussion at all. The battle should be fought in the Bible- the place where the very words of almighty God reside. If ever a Roman Catholic apologist tries to tell you this “second thing”, stop him immediately and state, “Who cares what Luther believed about the Immaculate Conception!”
But, if the Catholic apologist insists on discussing Luther’s opinion on Mary, you can point out that Luther’s opinion was not “almost exactly the Catholic dogma before it was even required of Catholics”. A careful reading of Luther will not support the 1854 Roman Catholic version of the Immaculate Conception. Perhaps Luther believed something similar to the 1854 view early in his life, but the later position Luther held was that Mary was purified at Christ’s birth, not at her birth. Believing that Mary was purified at Christ's birth is not close to believing Mary lived a sinless life.
“[Luther] had a very "high" Mariology. Some claim that he changed his mind later in life, but in my exhaustive research on the topic (in debate with a Reformed seminarian), I found at least 16 Lutheran scholars who contended that he never ceased believing the doctrine.”
First, Luther indeed had a Mariology (and it was not a "high Mariology"). It reflected his commitment to Christ, and stood in antithesis to popular Catholic belief in the sixteenth century. As Luther’s theology grew, elements of his Mariology were rejected, minimized, or reinterpreted as he clung to and developed his commitment to solus Christus. It would be incorrect to think that Luther spent a tremendous amount of time on writing about Mary. True, he wrote about her, but when this topic is compared to his vast literary output, one gets a good idea of how minimally he actually discussed Mary. For example, when one actually reads Luther’s Marian sermons, one finds that Mary is usually not the main subject, Christ is. Hence, Luther generally emphasized Mary far less than Roman Catholics do (both then and now). So, don't fall for this line about Luther having a "high Mariology". It simply isn't an accurate way to describe Luther on this subject.
Second, I know a little bit about reformed seminarians. These are the type that spend months researching this topic in multiple libraries for a very long time before writing on this subject. Some Catholic apologists seem to take about a week or so to throw up a webpage on Luther’s Mariology, but not the reformed seminarians I know (they actually try to locate contexts in which Luther said x or y before they write about it). I, being a reformed seminarian, actually wrote a paper one time on Luther's Mariology for a graduate level class, and had it graded by a Reformation expert: a published author with many books written about the Reformation. In other words, my paper was scrutinized by an expert. It appears to me, those Catholic apologists that have written on this subject just write whatever they want. Perhaps they should bring their materials to an expert before posting them on the world wide web.
Third, one can ask a Catholic apologist how truth is determined in historical studies. Is the study of history simply doing a head count of who says what? In my world, historical points are made by providing evidence, and making a point based on that evidence. While head-counts are interesting, they are not conclusive.
“In 1544 (just two years before his death), he wrote: "God has formed the soul and body of the Virgin Mary full of the Holy Spirit, so that she is without all sins." And in 1545 he stated that the Virgin Mary "has not sinned and cannot sin for ever more."”
Of course, the first thing one should ask about these quotes is a simple one word question, “where?” Toward the end of his life in 1544 Luther denied any notion that Mary was purified at her conception. Rather she was purified at the conception of Christ:
“…Christ was truly born from true and natural flesh and human blood which was corrupted by original sin in Adam, but in such a way that it could be healed. Thus we, who are encompassed by sinful flesh, believe and hope that on the day of our redemption the flesh will be purged of and separated from all infirmities, from death, and from disgrace; for sin and death are separable evils. Accordingly, when it came to the Virgin and that drop of virginal blood, what the angel said was fulfilled: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and overshadow you”. To be sure, the Messiah was not born by the power of flesh and blood, as is stated in John 1:13: “Not of blood nor of the will of a man, etc.” Nevertheless, He wanted to be born from the mass of the flesh and from that corrupted blood. But in the moment of the Virgin’s conception the Holy Spirit purged and sanctified the sinful mass and wiped out the poison of the devil and death, which is sin. Although death remained in that flesh on our account, the leaven of sin was nevertheless purged out, and it became the purest flesh, purified by the Holy Spirit and united with the divine nature in one Person. Therefore it is truly human nature no different from what it is in us. And Christ is the Son of Adam and of his seed and flesh, but, as has been stated, with the Holy Spirit overshadowing it, active in it, and purging it, in order that it might be fit for this most innocent conception and the pure and holy birth by which we were to be purged and freed from sin. Therefore these things are written for Christ’s sake. The Holy Spirit wanted Him to sink into sin as deeply as possible. Consequently, He had to be besmirched with incest and born from incestuous blood.”
Further, one should ask the Catholic apologist saying things like Luther said “that the Virgin Mary "has not sinned and cannot sin for ever more"” if they know how to read materials in context. It is obvious from the context that Luther’s statement on Mary is highly rhetorical and sarcastic. In context, Luther is actually calling the Pope “the pure Virgin Mary who has not sinned and cannot sin for ever more.” Using this reference to substantiate Luther’s lifelong commitment to the Roman Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception is quite a stretch. Not only is Luther insulting the pope, he isn’t even in the mode of presenting an explanation of doctrine. He’s using the phrase, “the pure Virgin Mary who has not sinned” as an insult.
“If even Martin Luther can accept the actual sinlessness of Mary and freedom from original sin, then any Protestant can do so, because nothing in this doctrine is contrary to Scripture at all, and indeed, "full of grace" (kecharitomene) in Luke 1:28 (rightly understood and deeply examined) is an explicit biblical proof of Mary's freedom from actual sin.”
But it doesn’t matter what Martin Luther held about Mary. Luther is not the standard by which truth is determined for Protestants. He is not the litmus test for Biblical truth. For instance, Luther believed his generation would see the end of the world. His later writings have an intensity about the impending judgment day. Was Luther right? No.
Secondly, a particular theological point or perspective does not qualify as truth simply because it does not contradict Scripture. This is a mantra-like Catholic argument: “We believe it, it may not be in the Bible, but it doesn’t contradict the Bible, therefore it is true.” One must argue against these sophists that the Bible teaches us assertions. It gives us content. It is human sinfulness that seeks to add to that content, and will use whatever logic necessary to justify what one wants to believe.
Now, I don't mean to be unkind, but the more I study Roman Catholic issues, and the more I interact with their work, the more I'm convinced their materials are the "cunning and craftiness of men..." These are strong words, but those who attempt to supplement the Bible with materials that are tue because they aren't "contrary to Scripture" need to be avoided. Does that mean I hate Roman Catholics, or even those who write Catholic Apologetics? not at all. I have nothing personal against them. I do though think their materials need to scrutinized and shown to be in error.
I read a very apt quote from Albert Barnes recently:
"The truth is "to be spoken" - the simple, unvarnished truth. This is the way to avoid error, and this is the way to preserve others from error. In opposition to all trick, and art, and cunning, and fraud, and deception, Christians are to speak the simple truth, and nothing but the truth. Every statement which they make should be unvarnished truth; every promise which they make should be true; every representation which they make of the sentiments of others should he simple truth. "Truth is the representation of things as they are;" and there is no virtue that is more valuable in a Christian than the love of simple truth."