Roman Catholic historian Thomas O’Meara has done one of the better overviews of Luther's Mariology. He presented his perspective in the book, Mary in Protestant and Catholic Theology (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1966). Since I've read this book and used his research, I see he now has his own homepage and contact information. I wonder if in the last 40 years he has anything else to say on this? I would like to publicly thank him for his work on this subject. The material presented below was compiled for one of my papers hosted on the NTRmin website.
Similar to my main thesis that 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, O’Meara notes that Luther’s theology of Mary grew and developed:
“Luther's attitude toward the theology of Mary and toward the devotion which a Christian should have to the Mother of God is a small-scale representation of his entire religious accomplishment. During any discussion of Luther and the Blessed Virgin we must keep uppermost in our minds that there was a development in his ideas, a change more or less drastic in each aspect of Marian theology. This development has its beginning in Catholicism; it passes through contradictions, struggles, and uncertainties, and terminates in a new Marian viewpoint, one which Luther decided was christocentric, biblical, unexaggerated, and edifying” [p.113].
O’Meara notes two factors which recast medieval Mariology for Luther. The first was the abuses in popular devotion. The second was Luther’s theological concept of faith alone:
"Faith alone, a grace which was Christ's pardon from sin, liberation from the concepts of merit and good works, freedom from dependence on the intercession and the accomplishments of creatures —these ideas could not but lead to a new frame of reference for Mary, the exemplar of the Catholic Christian and the first among the Saints.
In works on Luther's Mariology a false picture has occasionally been given because the principle of Luther's mariological evolution has not been kept in the foreground. We are told that Luther accepted the Assumption and yet forbade the singing of the Salve Regna; that he preached of Mary as immaculately conceived and also as a sinner. The time element, the dating of Luther's remarks, is all-important. Luther's Marian theological evolution in the years 1513-1527 has its own coherence, but the reformer's thought is definitely changing, and not always in the same direction" [pp. 113-114].
Catholic Scholar William Cole cites this same paragraph from O’Meara, but goes on to offer an interesting insight: “What Luther said in regard to the possibility of a reader being led into error regarding his attitude toward the Pope because of his earlier writing (very favorable up until 1519) can be applied to his attitude toward his veneration of Mary. In his Latin writing of 1545 he asked his readers to read his earlier writings "with judgment and even with much compassion." He then goes on to say, "Good readers you will attribute this error to my ineptitude. I was alone at first and surely inept and unlearned for treating such things" (Marian Studies XXI, 109.
Note that O’Meara is suggesting Luther had a unique Mariology that developed. It was not simply a rehashing of Catholic orthodoxy. O’Meara does present the criticism that Luther’s thought is changing, “and not always in the same direction.” I have never denied this in certain minor points, but for the most part I would argue the direction was primarily forward.
The bulk of O’Meara’s material is an historical overview of Luther’s comments in regard to Mariology. I have arranged O’Meara’s research in chronological order [pp. 114-119].
1513: “Before the year 1513, we have no indications of antipathy 'towards Catholicism's acceptance of Mary. We have sermons on the Assumption where he asks Mary to make us good servants of God. We have a eulogy of Mary as God's finest creation. Reflecting upon this time in his life, Luther says that his mentality was Catholic, embracing the commonly accepted though not yet defined teachings on the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. He writes that it seemed to him he put Mary in the place of Christ, He had "hung his heart upon her."
1513-1516: “…Luther first expressed doubts with regard to any emphasis of Mary. Elsewhere, in a sermon for a Marian feast in 1516, he gave voice to these thoughts which had been in his mind for several years: The Blessed Virgin sees God in all things. . . . Although Elizabeth with great perception sees Mary to be the Mother of God, even more perceptively the Virgin sees God in all things; he alone is great. Therefore the most pure venerator of God is the Blessed Virgin, who magnifies God above all things; she has no idols. She boasts of nothing her self, nothing of merit, no work; she is, by her own admission, purely passive and a receiver, not a doer of good works.”
“In other Marian sermons during this year he protested against the figures of Mary and the saints obscuring the power of God and of the saving blood of Christ. His polemic had not yet become strong. This same year he preached on the Assumption and said, "0 Happy Mother, 0 Excellent Virgin, think on us; make us to serve God very well."
1517: “In 1517 Luther spoke of Mary's sinlessness…”
1518: “In 1518, as an incidental remark in a treatise on the problem of indulgences, Luther says that almost all of Christendom believes in the Immaculate Conception but that to hold the opposite is not heresy because it has not yet been defined. On the eighth of December, 1520, he bypasses the problem as less important than our own contact with sin.”
1519: “While preaching on the preparation for a happy death, he advised calling on Mary at the hour of death.”
1520: “[T]he negative current was swelling. Luther's principle for Marian theology appears in a final sermon on the Feast of the Assumption. If Mary detracts from Christ and God (and Luther is becoming more convinced that she has done so in the past), then we must practice christocentric moderation. Mary must be honored, but Christ must be the matrix of this veneration. Mary exists for Christ alone, and this is the view of the Bible.”
1521: “At this period of change, 1521, Luther wrote his Commentary on the Magnificat. This work brings together several strange elements. First of all, it is intended as a book of instruction in religion and administration for a prince. There are anti-Roman passages in it. The previous year he had written solemn and final words of separation: "Farewell, unhappy, hopeless, blasphemous Rome!" We can detect germinal expressions of Luther's personal theology, but these views, especially his views on Mary, have not reached their full originality. Dozens of very Marian passages could be quoted—Mary is Queen, free of sin—but this commentary is a work of transition. In the introduction Luther prays, "May the tender Mother of God herself procure for me the spirit of wisdom profitably and thoroughly to expound this song of hers." At the end he invokes Mary.”
“In between these prayers he bemoans the incorrect Mariology which emphasizes Mary so much. Never has so much idolatry existed in the world, and Marienverehrung is a cause. Luther minimizes merit and the actions of man striving for salvation. "I say Mary does not desire to be an idol; she does nothing; God does all. We ought to call upon her that for her sake God may grant and do what we request. Thus also, all other saints are to be invoked, so that their work may be every way God's alone." Luther will soon resolve this problem in his distinction between Mary as a vocal intercessor and as an advocate who truly accomplishes something for her clients, an advocate who has special access to the King. The first (a Furbitterin) Luther accepts; the second (a Filrsprecherm) he rejects. Mary and the saints, like ourselves, are poor and weak; they have no special claim on God. No other creature's work can help man. Luther's spiritual struggle had led him to depend upon God alone. He would not abandon this confidence to make Mary an intercessor or mediator.”
1522: “In 1522 he still speaks of Mary's complete sinlessness, and he will retain this belief for five more years before doubts enter.”
“In 1522 Luther preaches on the feast of the Assumption, apparently taking this belief for granted, although he notes that it is not an article of faith. He observes that the gospel says nothing of this, and the burden of his message is that it is more important to know that the saints are in heaven, and that we will join them, than to know how they got there. In 1530 he decrees that the Assumption is an aspect of the "hypocritical Church" which should be eliminated.”
“The year 1522 finds him in the pulpit on the feast of the Assumption with words which make Mary no different from the blessed souls in heaven.”
1523: “In 1523 he counsels that it is not harmful to invoke Peter or Mary. He wishes to eliminate this devotion to Mary only because of the abuse.”
1522-1527: “Between the years 1522 and 1527 we have a changing but vacillating opinion on the Immaculate Conception.” “In 1522, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, he had uttered a phrase: "With regard to birth I must say that only Christ was born in purity.”
1527: “In 1527 Luther preached a long sermon on the conception of Mary. First he discusses the nature of original sin, then the suitability of the Virgin Birth as a means of excluding original sin in the humanity of her Son. He then discusses Mary's own conception. Her body had the effects of original sin and was conceived in the ordinary way; therefore, in this sense, we can say that she had original sin. "But the other conception, namely the infusion of the soul ... it is believed that it took place without contracting original sin. Therefore the Virgin Mary is in the middle between Christ and all other men ... for her first conception was without grace, but the second was full of grace. . . . Just as men are conceived in sin both with regard to body and soul, and Christ is free of sin—body and soul—so Mary the Virgin is conceived according to the body without grace, but according to the soul she is full of grace."
1528: “In 1528 he abandons for a time his position of 1522 on Mary's complete freedom from sin. He speaks of a purification of Mary at the time of Christ's birth which keeps her, who was not conceived immaculate, free from sin.”
1530: “In 1530 he decrees that the Assumption is an aspect of the "hypocritical Church" which should be eliminated.”
“By the 1530's Luther was stern in his condemnations. "The Salve Regina says too much." "The Papists have made Mary an idol." "We will keep celebrating the feast [of the Visitation] to remind us that they taught us apostasy."”
1531: “…in Luther's Christmas sermon of 1531, Mary is nobility, wisdom, and holiness personified. We can never honor her enough. Honor and prayer must be given to her in such a way as to injure neither Christ nor the Scriptures.”
1532: “In 1532 he denied any notion of a special conception of Mary. "Mary is conceived in sin just like us. . . ." Finally, about this time in an undated letter, Luther agrees with Staupitz' comment that the Immaculate Conception is a "fraud." The subsequent years offer quotations which advocate the doctrine of Mary's sanctification in conception along with passages which could be interpreted as denying it. It is likely, but not certain, that he eventually denied the Immaculate Conception.”
1540: “By 1540 theories on Mary's "impeccability are vanishing. Another idea runs parallel to these two of sinlessness and purity; it is Luther's interpretation of the name Mary. His "Catholic" or early etymology follows St. Jerome. Mary becomes, in Latin, Stella Marts, and this is rendered in German as Tropfen im Meere. Mary is a pure drop in the sea of fallen humanity. But later Mary is only Meerestropfen—a drop out of the sea, no different from the rest of men. His preaching follows the new etymology. "We cannot all be the mother of God; otherwise she is on the same level with us." "Your prayers, 0 Christian, are as dear to me as hers. And why? Because if you believe that Christ lives in you as much as in her, then you can help me as much as she."
1544: “In 1544 the Assumption is abandoned as a feast; the Ascension of Christ alone is recognized: “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 about how she went there. We will not invoke her as our special advocate as the Pope teaches. (The Pope takes away veneration due to the Ascension of our Lord, Christ, with the result that he has made the mother like in all things to the Son.)”
This is the main historical argument put forth by O’Meara to substantiate “Luther’s Mariological evolution” which should be “kept in the foreground.” I have argued similarly.