[She is the] highest woman and the noblest gem in Christianity after Christ . . . She is nobility, wisdom, and holiness personified. We can never honor her enough. Still honor and praise must be given to her in such a way as to injure neither Christ nor the Scriptures. (Sermon, Christmas, 1531).
This quote probably came into cyber space via an earlier form of this article by a defender of Rome. This article says, “Luther held to the idea and devotional practice of the veneration of Mary and expressed this on innumerable occasions with the most effusive language.” The quote cited above (along with some others) is offered as proof. Roman Catholic apologist Patrick Madrid uses this quote in the exact form in his book, Answer Me This! (p.142) as proof that “modern-day Protestantism has drifted from its 16th century moorings” and how far “modern Protestantism has drifted from the fifteen centuries of the historic Catholic faith that preceded the Protestant Reformation.”. Madrid’s documentation of the quote equals that as found in various cyber-articles, “Christmas Sermon, 1531.” In terms of documentation, this is far from helpful. What it points to is that these defenders of Rome took this quote from a secondary source. I've yet to see a complete English translation of the context for this quote. I would posit neither have the Roman Catholic apologists cited above.
If you come across a quote like this, it’s not up you to provide the context. It’s the responsibility of those using it to provide a context. It’s up to them to prove they have used the citation correctly. Your first reaction should be, “please provide a context.” If they can’t provide a context, you should let them know they are not doing responsible research, particularly if they are publishing books with such material. If they want to be taken seriously, they should do serious work!
I think I know the secondary source this quote comes from. It is from William Cole’s article “Was Luther a Devotee of Mary?” (Marian Studies Volume XXI, 1970, p.131). If I were to take the time to go through the Internet archive service, I would probably find that the earliest occurrences of this quote in cyber space were the direct result of a particular Roman Catholic website.Cole states:
In a Christmas sermon of 1531, Luther speaks of Mary as the "highest woman and the noblest gem in Christianity after Christ." He goes on to claim that "she is nobility, wisdom and holiness personified. We can never honor her enough. Still honor and praise must be given to her in such a way as to injure neither Christ nor the Scriptures” (WA 34, 2, 497 and 499).Note, the quote as cited by Cole is actually two quotes from two different pages, separated by an entire page! Here is one of the reasons why context is so important, and for some reason, Roman apologists don’t seem to care. What was on that page that separated these two quotes? The Roman apologists can’t tell you.
The question that needs to be asked is what exactly is Marian devotion? In other words, what does it mean for a Roman Catholic to be devoted to Mary, and what does it mean for Luther to be devoted to Mary? Roman Catholic apologists don’t tell you. They leave you thinking both are the same.
“Well,” They say, “Luther’s devotion was that he preached on her feast days.” Yes, but if you go search out these sermons, more often than not, the sermon has nothing to do with Mary. “Well,” they say, “Luther wrote hymns about Mary.” Yes, but if if you go search out these hymns, you will note the absence of distinctly Catholic Marian praise and find a strong emphasis on Christ. “Well,” they say, “Luther venerated Mary.” Luther though abandoned the distinction between latria and dulia because biblically it refers to the same thing. If you search out all the times Luther used the word “veneration”, you will find an entirely negative meaning applied to the term (see my post here).
So, challenge the Roman apologists to define their terms. They need to be able to tell you what Marian devotion is. They cannot be allowed to equivocate: Luther saying nice things about Mary does not equal Rome's version of devotion. Force them to provide an official statement from the Magisterium. Don’t let them make up whatever they want to. Then, apply that official statement to Luther’s writings. I do not deny that Luther spoke favorably about Mary, but when Catholics say "honor" or “devotion”, they mean something quite different than Protestants.
It's been quite a few years since I put this entry together. Since then, the primary sources cited by William Cole (WA 34, 2, 497 and 499) are now available online:
WA 34, 2, 497
WA 34, 2, 499
The sermon notes are written in a mixture of German and Latin.