Luther's Last Wittenberg Sermon According to Rome's Defenders
Here's a case in point, Some of Rome's defenders think Luther praised Mary and said that she should be honored in his very last sermon at Wittenberg. Here are some examples:
Even Martin Luther, despite criticizing the Catholic doctrines of Mary's intercession and mediation, insisted on venerating Mary... In his last sermon at Wittenberg, in January 1546, Luther preached: "Is Christ only to be adored? Or is the Holy Mother of God rather not to be honored? This is the woman who crushed the serpents head. Hear us, [Mary]. For your Son denies you nothing [Luther, Works, LI:128-29]. (link) (link)
But even Martin Luther had nice things to say about Mary: Is Christ only to be adored? Or is the holy Mother of God rather not to be honored? This is the woman who crushed the Serpent's head. Hear us. For your Son denies you nothing. (Luther's Works, Weimar Edition, Volume 51) (link)
"Is Christ only to be adored? Or is the holy Mother of God rather not to be honoured? This is the woman who crushed the Serpent's head. Hear us. For your Son denies you nothing." Luther made this statement in his last sermon at Wittenberg in January 1546. (link)
Martin Luther, tragically, was devoted to Mary, shown by some splendid work in her honor. But during his break with Rome, his fundamental idea of Deus solus, more of an angry reaction to Rome rather than a theological stand, relegated Mary’s help not only to a minimum but to almost nil. Instead of going to Mary and vowing perpetual chastity, he went to Scriptures and married. Yet in his last sermon on 17 January 1546, as death was approaching, he spoke, revealing what was ingrained in his soul: “Is Christ only to be adored? Or is the Holy Mother of God rather not to be honored. This is the woman who crushed the serpent’s head. Hear us. For your Son denies you nothing;” then his talk gradually reverted to his Deus solus. It was a sad picture of a man who had to deny what he deeply believes in simply out of spite for the papacy that he learned to detest. (link)
The reluctance by some to acknowledge Mary’s unique role seems to be more about distancing ones self from the Catholic Church than a search for truth. All too often evidence takes a back seat to personal preference. Martin Luther was the father of the Protestant Reformation and I think it is safe to say that he was not the least bit shy when it came to distancing himself from the Catholic Church. And yet he wrote in a prologue to the Magnificat: "May the tender mother of God herself procure for me the Spirit of wisdom profitably and thoroughly to expound this song of hers." Also, in his last sermon at Wittenberg he said: "Is Christ only to be adored? Or is the holy Mother of God rather not to be honored? This is the woman who crushed the Serpent's head. Hear us. For your Son denies you nothing." (link)These are only a few examples. Many more could be given. The picture being put forth is that in his last Wittenberg sermon Luther "venerated Mary," "had nice things to say about Mary," "was devoted to Mary," and had Mary "ingrained in his soul." Let's take a closer look to see if the actual context supports these interpretations.
A curious feature of all the differing uses of Luther's last Wittenberg sermon is that the same form of Luther's quote is put forth. Where did it come from? Did these defenders of Rome actually read WA 51 and translate this quote into English? No, I don't think so. I thought for sure that the culprit would be either William Cole, Thomas O'Meara, Hilda Greyf, or Max Thurian. While Cole does mention this quote, it's not in the same form. The oldest form of the quote (matching the translation offered abve) I could locate was from Michael O'Carroll, Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1982), page 228. Notice in this rendering, "as death was approaching, he could thus recall the [Marian] piety of his early years":
And in this last sermon, on 17 January, 1546, as death was approaching, he could thus recall the piety of his early years: "Is Christ only to be adored? Or is the Holy Mother of God rather not to be honored? This is the woman who crushed the serpents head. Hear us. For your Son denies you nothing. Bernard said too much on the gospel 'an angel was sent'... For of Christ alone, it was said 'Hear him.' Likewise, 'Behold the Lamb of God' etc. Not of Mary, or angels, or Gabriel" [WA 51, 128-129]. (link)I don't have certainty that this was the source used, but I would not be surprised. The other English citation of it I have is from William Cole's article “Was Luther a Devotee of Mary?” (Marian Studies Volume XXI, 1970), p. 98. Cole presents it as:
Is Christ alone to be venerated?
Rather is not the Mother of God, too, to be honored?
She is the woman who crushed the serpents head.
Listen to us, Mary.
Your son honors you.
He refuses you nothing.
This poetic rendering is not the work of William Cole, but rather from Bishop Daly of Ardagh as presented in The Irish Catholic, May 1969 in an article entitled, "Luther Loved Mary." Cole indicates that Daly’s study was an example of a “simplistic, uncritical, one-sided evaluation[s] of Luther’s Marian stance…” (p 98-99). Such could similarly be applied to Rome's cyber-defenders who mis-read Luther's last Wittenberg sermon. Cole actually goes on to cite more of Luther's comments from this very sermon and agrees with those who conclude Luther forbids praying to Mary, he denied the intercession of Mary, and he "dissuaded or excluded her invocation" (Cole, p. 158).
The quotes above do reference WA 51:128-129. These pages can be found here. WA 51 includes two versions: a Latin version with some German words mixed in and a full German version (both on the same pages). Technically, Luther did not write this text. These printed words are from the notes of Georg Rörer who heard and took notes on Luther's sermon. The sermon was published not long after Luther's death in 1549 (See LW 51:371).
I began above by explaining that some of the quotes used by Rome's defenders do not require English speaking people to consult out-of-print German and Latin sources. This sermon is a case in point. It was published fully in Luther's Works, English edition. All Rome's apologists would have had to do was go down to a good library and pull it off the shelf. Ironically, while the Latin German is in WA 51, the English rendering is in LW 51: 375-376.
Therefore, when we preach faith, that we should worship nothing but God alone, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, as we say in the Creed: “I believe in God the Father almighty and in Jesus Christ,” then we are remaining in the temple at Jerusalem. Again, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him” “You will find him in a manger”. He alone does it. But reason says the opposite: What, us? Are we to worship only Christ? Indeed, shouldn’t we also honor the holy mother of Christ? She is the woman who bruised the head of the serpent. Hear us, Mary, for thy Son so honors thee that he can refuse thee nothing. Here Bernard went too far in his “Homilies on the Gospel ‘ Missus est Angelus .’ ” God has commanded that we should honor the parents; therefore I will call upon Mary. She will intercede for me with the Son, and the Son with the Father, who will listen to the Son. So you have the picture of God as angry and Christ as judge; Mary shows to Christ her breast and Christ shows his wounds to the wrathful Father. That’s the kind of thing this comely bride, the wisdom of reason cooks up: Mary is the mother of Christ, surely Christ will listen to her; Christ is a stern judge, therefore I will call upon St. George and St. Christopher. No, we have been by God’s command baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, just as the Jews were circumcised. Therefore, just as the Jews set up all over the land their own self-chosen shrines, as if Jerusalem were too narrow, so we also have done. As a young man must resist lust and an old man avarice, so reason is by nature a harmful whore. But she shall not harm me, if only I resist her. Ah, but she is so comely and glittering. That’s why there must be preachers who will point people to the catechism: I believe in Jesus Christ, not in St. George or St. Christopher, for only of Christ is it said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”; not of Mary or the angels. The Father did not speak of Gabriel or any others when he cried from heaven, “Listen to him [LW 51:375-376].Conclusion
In this sermon, Luther did not say or imply that “Mary should be honored.” His main point is that Christ alone should be worshiped. Luther mocks those who would call upon Mary or venerate her. Luther insists that those who seek Christ through Mary do so by the use of “reason,” and “reason is by nature a harmful whore. It is foolish reason that states:
shouldn’t we also honor the holy mother of Christ? She is the woman who bruised the head of the serpent. Hear us, Mary, for thy Son so honors thee that he can refuse thee nothing.
Foolish reason also states:
God has commanded that we should honor the parents; therefore I will call upon Mary. She will intercede for me with the Son, and the Son with the Father, who will listen to the Son. So you have the picture of God as angry and Christ as judge; Mary shows to Christ her breast and Christ shows his wounds to the wrathful Father. That’s the kind of thing this comely bride, the wisdom of reason cooks up: Mary is the mother of Christ, surely Christ will listen to her; Christ is a stern judge, therefore I will call upon St. George and St. Christopher.This again shows the importance of checking facts. In context, Luther isn't speaking about venerating Mary, honoring Mary, being devoted to Mary, showing that Mary was "ingrained in his soul," or recalling the Marian piety of his younger days before he died. Nor is he explaining the difference between the veneration and worship of Mary. Lest one think I am attacking only Roman Catholics with this sort of contextual tedium, I would similarly say the great scholar Heiko Oberman nodded. Oberman alludes to this text and says,
The warm praise which Luther has for the Mother of God throughout his life, his last sermon on 17 January 1546 included, is not based upon the great qualities of Mary herself but upon the grace granted to her. As a person, Luther can say, the Virgin Mary is not greater than Mary Magdalene, the sinner, since through faith all Christians are equal[Heiko A. Oberman, The Impact of the Reformation, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,1994), 242].
I don't see any sort of "warm praise" in "his last sermon on 17 January 1546." Luther’s tone is quite sarcastic and mocking. One of Rome's defenders thinks the actual negativity expressed by Luther is simply addressed to Bernard: "... in context, this sermon is actually critical of 'Bernard's' use of honor - Bernard, in Luther’s opinion went too far. Luther still supports honoring Mary, just not so far as Bernard went." There are no comments from Luther in this context supporting the "honor" of Mary... whatever that means... saying nice things about Mary is not quite what Rome means by honoring Mary. I could just as easily describe Mary as the "mother of God" without any inkling of veneration. In context, by the way, Luther accuses reason, and then goes on to give the example of Bernard's reasoning specifically. He then returns to criticizing reason generally. When Luther asks, "shouldn’t we also honor the holy mother of Christ?" the implied answer is: NO.
This blog entry is a revision of an entry I posted back in 2007. 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.