Recently I had a brief pleasant e-mail exchange with a Lutheran minister on Luther and the Immaculate Conception. I came across his comment:
"Luther, though, did hold to a sort of immaculate conception. Just sort of. He affirmed that she was bodily conceived with original sin, but held that at the infusion of the soul superabundant grace was poured upon her so that she was "ohne alle Sünde" - without all sin (meaning actual sin). He thought that this was indicated by the angel greeting her as "gratia plena." He never seems to have changed his mind on this. So, it's not the current Roman position, but rather the medieval position that Thomas taught that Luther seemed to have run with."
I wrote him to get some clarification as to what materials informed his view. He directed me to The Church: Selected Writings of Arthur Carl Piepkorn. We had some crossed wires, which was my fault, as I was not aware that there is now a second edition of the book with extra content. Our page numbers didn't seem to coincide, as I have the older edition. What made our interaction worthwhile was that he directed me to some information contained in both editions that I appear to have missed when I composed this paper.
The relevant material comes from p. 329 in the second edition, and p. 289 in the first edition. Piepkorn notes:
Yet three years before his death [Luther] was still affirming in print the opinion that he had worked out in detail with considerable theological ingenuity twenty five years earlier [#12], namely that through the merits of her Son -to-be the Blessed Virgin was marvelously preserved from the taint of sin from the first moment of her existence as a human being [#13].
footnote #12. Sermon on the Gospel for the Feast of the Conception of the B.V.M. (1517), Weimar edition 17/2, 288.
footnote #13. Vom Schem Hamphoras und vom Geschlect Christi, 1543, Weimar edition, 53,640. compare for the year 1553, 37, 231, where he describes the B.V.M. as an sund (i.e. ohne Sünde, "without sin").
As to the reference in footnote #12, I've written about that extensively. Briefly, Catholic historian Hartmann Grisar has noted, "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 the later editions which appeared during Luther's lifetime they disappear. (Cp. N. Paulus, " Lit. Beil. der Koln. Volksztng.," 1904, No. 41.)." It has been my contention that Luther's views on the Immaculate Conception changed sometime after this sermon was preached. Keep in mind also, Luther was no fan of Thomas. Luther's comments on Thomas and scholastic theology are typically negative.
As to the second reference, it's either a typo in my edition, or a genuine error on Piepkorn's behalf (or I don't understand the reference) when he refers to the year 1553 (Luther died in 1546). Note above the Lutheran minister stated "ohne alle Sünde - without all sin (meaning actual sin)." Piepkorn states "ohne Sünde, (without sin)," and the "Blessed Virgin was marvelously preserved from the taint of sin from the first moment of her existence as a human being." Granted, both are stating a similar thing, the question of course, is did Luther state ohne Sünde or ohne alle Sünde in the 1543 treatise?
I was actually able to track down a translation of "Vom Schem Hamphoras und vom Geschlect Christi, 1543." The interesting thing about this treatise is it's one of Luther's anti-Jewish writings, not a treatise on Mariology. In terms of content, it isn't nearly as vicious as Luther's earlier "On the Jews and Their Lies," but does contain a longer than usual section on Mary.
Luther does have a discussion of the term alma, and the reasons why Mary must be a perpetual virgin, but Luther does not launch into any full discussion of Mary's Immaculate Conception. Luther does state, only in passing that it was necessary for Mary to be a young holy virgin freed of original sin and cleansed by the Holy Ghost to be the mother of Jesus Christ. This statement comes after argumentation for Mary's perpetual virginity. What the statement from Luther doesn't say, one way or the other, is if Mary lived a completely sinless life. In other instances I've documented that for Luther, the cleansing of Mary by the Holy Spirit happened at the conception of Christ, not Mary's conception. I didn't only document Luther stating this once, but multiple times.
But why would Arthur Carl Piepkorn takes this vague statement and put forth such a strong conclusion? I can only speculate, and I mean no offense to fans of Piepkorn's writings. Piepkorn had interest in ecumenical dialog with Rome. He was involved for multiple years with Lutheran-Catholic dialogue. Catholic scholar Raymond Brown praised Piepkorn and commented that it would be preposterous to doubt the validity of his priestly orders. My answer would be that Piepkorn's romance with Rome seems to have molded his interpretation of Luther's Mariology. I've seen this a few times with particular scholars- a willingness to give as much as possible in order to heal the schism that cut Rome off from the universal Church. Piepkorn makes other statements about Luther's Mariology that would so warm the hearts of Roman Catholics- perhaps at some point I'll post those to prove my point further.
Not that this has any bearing on Piepkorn's Mariological statements, but interestingly, Piepkorn was charged, convicted, and removed due to teaching false doctrine [correction: he was accused of teaching false doctrine, the Semiary attempted to force him to retire, he then on his own accord resigned, and shortly thereafter passed away]:
“During the mid-seventies amidst the storm of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod controversy, Piepkorn was among those of the faculty majority at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, cited as teaching false doctrine by the 1973 New Orleans Convention resolution 3-09. Piepkorn was a signatory of the Seminary majority's protest against this resolution and resolution 3-01, which declared that all of the synod's theological and biblical interpretation and teachings must be interpreted in accord with a presumed synodical tradition as articulated in the document entitled, "A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles," by Dr. Jacob A. 0. Preus, President of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.” (Plekon and Wiecher, The Church: Selected Writings of Arthur Carl Piepkorn, New York: ALPB Books, 1993, 300.)