Did Martin Luther believe in the Immaculate Conception of Mary? According to Patrick Madrid and Taylor Marshall, he did. Madrid says this question will "likely raise a few eyebrows, pique a few sensitivities, and elicit a few comments around Christian blogdom, from both sides of the Tiber." It appears Madrid thinks Taylor Marshall posted some new controversial tidbit of historical research finally making its way to the Internet. Actually, Marshall's alleged information has been surfing around for over ten years, cut, pasted, and rehashed- taken from one specific Romanist layman with a blog.
Contrary to Marshall's blog entry, it is not a clear cut case as to what Luther's view was. Romanists typically ignore anything about Mary that doesn't support Romanist Mariology. The same goes for Luther's Mariology: when Romanists find a Luther tidbit about Mary that seems to support Mariolatry, they run with it, even if other evidence contradicts the evidence they're using. So, here's a closer look at Taylor Marshall's facts about Luther and the immaculate conception.
1.The eminent Lutheran scholar Arthur Carl Piepkorn
The first tidbit used by Marshall is that "The eminent Lutheran scholar Arthur Carl Piepkorn (1907-73) has also confirmed that Luther believed in the Immaculate Conception even as a Protestant." No quote, research finding, or documentation from Piepkorn are presented by either Marshall or Madrid. That doesn't surprise me, because the only material from Piepkorn on this subject that I know of comes from The Church: Selected Writings of Arthur Carl Piepkorn, (New York: ALPB Books, 1993). This is typically the source Romanists use.
Piepkorn makes a comment in passing on page 275, leaving the discussion at Luther “seems” to have had a lifelong belief in the Immaculate Conception. He neither discusses the content of Luther’s opinion, nor does he offer any indication if the 1854 dogma is in question. Then on page 289 Piepkorn states:
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").
Footnote #12 is actually an error. The sermon Piepkorn's referenced was preached in 1527, and begins on page 280 in WA 17.2. This sermon will be discussed below in point #2, because later printed copies of the sermon (from Luther's lifetime) delete the sole passing comment to Mary's immaculate conception. The error makes Piepkorn's "twenty five year" comment inaccurate. That is, the sermon he based his comment on was actually preached ten years later.
Footnote #13 refers to one of Luther's later anti-Jewish writings, not a treatise on Mariology. 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. I've documented a number of times in which Luther says the cleansing of Mary by the Holy Spirit happened at the conception of Christ, not at Mary's conception.
Piepkorn presents no argumentation or analysis. Why would Piepkorn takes vague statements and put forth strong conclusions? I can only speculate, but 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. Piepkorn's romance with Rome seems to have molded his interpretation of Luther's Mariology.
2. On the Day of the Conception of the Mother of God, 1527
The next tidbit offered by Marshall is the following Luther quote:
"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" - Martin Luther's Sermon "On the Day of the Conception of the Mother of God," 1527.
The sermon this quote was taken from is not included in the English edition of Luther’s Works, and to my knowledge, the complete sermon has not been translated into English. This quote made its way into a cyber space when a Romanist about 10 years ago began posting it after he took it from Roman Catholic historian Hartmann Grisar's book, Luther Vol. IV (St Louis: B. Herder, 1913). Grisar uses this quote, but what my Romanist friends typically leave out is his analysis:
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 Christocentric 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 Roman 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.
The most one can conclude from this Luther quote is that Luther held to some form of Mary's sinlessness in 1527. According to Grisar, the comment was stricken from the sermon, and Luther abandoned his earlier view.
3. Martin Luther's Little Prayer Book, 1522
Marshall then uses another Luther quote to prove his case:
She is full of grace, proclaimed to be entirely without sin—something exceedingly great. For God’s grace fills her with everything good and makes her devoid of all evil. - Martin Luther's Little Prayer Book, 1522
"Martin Luther's Little Prayer Book" refers to the Personal Prayer Book of 1522. Here Luther does treat the subject of Mary. He states, "In the first place, she is full of grace, proclaimed to be entirely without sin—something exceedingly great. For God’s grace fills her with everything good and makes her devoid of all evil" (LW 43:39).
This quote indeed appears to treat Mary as entirely sinless. This statement was made in 1522. If Grisar is correct, Luther's later view does not reflect such sentiment. Even in this early Reformation writing, Luther began changing the emphasis on Mary, and de-emphasizing the importance of her attributes:
“Take note of this: no one should put his trust or confidence in the Mother of God or in her merits, for such trust is worthy of God alone and is the lofty service due only to him. Rather praise and thank God through Mary and the grace given her. Laud and love her simply as the one who, without merit, obtained such blessings from God, sheerly out of his mercy, as she herself testifies in the Magnificat.”
“Therefore we should make the Hail Mary neither a prayer nor an invocation because it is improper to interpret the words beyond what they mean in themselves and beyond the meaning given them by the Holy Spirit.”
“…her giving birth is blessed in that it was spared the curse upon all children of Eve who are conceived in sin and born to deserve death and damnation. Only the fruit of her body is blessed, and through this birth we are all blessed.”
“…in the present no one speaks evil of this Mother and her Fruit as much as those who bless her with many rosaries and constantly mouth the Hail Mary. These, more than any others, speak evil against Christ’s word and faith in the worst way.
“Therefore, notice that this Mother and her Fruit are blessed in a twofold way—bodily and spiritually. Bodily with lips and the words of the Hail Mary; such persons blaspheme and speak evil of her most dangerously. And spiritually [one blesses her] in one’s heart by praise and benediction for her child, Christ—for all his words, deeds, and sufferings. And no one does this except he who has the true Christian faith because without such faith no heart is good but is by nature stuffed full of evil speech and blasphemy against God and all his saints.”
It makes a lot of sense that by 1530 or so, Luther's views on Mary would shift even more away from Romanism.
Luther's later view appears to be that at Christ's conception the Holy Spirit sanctified Mary so that the child would be born with non-sinful flesh and blood. For an example of Luther's argumentation, see: Luther and the Immaculate Conception? The 1540 Disputation On the Divinity and Humanity of Christ.
There are many other statements about Mary from Luther Romanists ignore. Most of these are post-1527.
In this sermon Luther states, " although she had been sanctified by the Holy Spirit; yet he permitted her at times to err, even in the important matters of faith." He says also:
Be they called holy, learned, fathers, councils, or any other name, even though they were Mary, Joseph and all the saints it does not follow that they could not have erred and made mistakes. For here you learn that the mother of Christ though she possessed great intelligence and enlightenment, showed great ignorance in that she did not know where to find Christ, and in consequence was censured by him because she did not know what she should have known. If she failed and through her ignorance was brought to such anxiety and sorrow that she thought she had lost Christ, is it a wonder that other saints should often have erred and stumbled, when they followed their own notions, without the guidance of Scripture, or put their own notions into Scripture.
See also selections from this blog entry, documenting the same position from Luther.
Rather than discussing Mary’s sinlessness, Luther's later writings insist Christ’s sinlessness was due entirely to the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit during conception. In 1532 he preached:
Mother Mary, like us, was born in sin of sinful parents, but the Holy Spirit covered her, sanctified and purified her so that this child was born of flesh and blood, but not with sinful flesh and blood. The Holy Spirit permitted the Virgin Mary to remain a true, natural human being of flesh and blood, just as we. However, he warded off sin from her flesh and blood so that she became the mother of a pure child, not poisoned by sin as we are…For in that moment when she conceived, she was a holy mother filled with the Holy Spirit and her fruit is a holy pure fruit, at once God and truly man, in one person [Martin Luther, Sermons of Martin Luther, Vol. 3, ed. John Nicholas Lenker. ( Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 291].
In 1534 Luther explained that Christ was “born of a young maiden, as you and I are born of our mothers. The only difference is that the Holy Spirit engineered this conception and birth, while in contrast we mortals are conceived and born in sin.”[Ibid., 294.]. As Jaroslov Pelikan has noted, Mary functioned in Luther’s theology as “the guarantee of the reality of the incarnation and of the human nature of Christ.” With the doctrine of the immaculate conception, one sees a clear change in Luther’s thought. The theologian, who had at one time praised both mother and child for their purity, now praised only the Son.
This is only a brief look at a subject I've spent considerable time on over the years. I would never be dogmatic (for lack of a better word), but I've never found any conclusive quotes from Luther (with a context!) after 1527 that reflect his earlier position.
There's one Romanist who thinks simply doing a scholarly head count (which scholars think Luther believed in the immaculate conception, and which do not) is the means of determining Luther's view. This isn't my way of determining truth. I like to look at quotes and look up contexts, especially on an issue that has some uncertainty about it. Simply consider the errors I located in Piepkorn's view detailed here, and also in this previous entry. Those who think simply counting heads determines truth are typically those who really don't care about the truth.
I'm sure Patrick Madrid could care less. I don't know anything about Taylor Marshall- perhaps he's a guy interested in history and truth and will revise his blog entry. Marshall concludes his article stating,
Far be it from me to approve of Luther. I only list these quotes to show how far Protestantism has come from it's quasi-Catholic origin. If only Lutherans would return to this single doctrine of their founder; how quickly our Lady would turn them into true Catholics! Queen conceived without original sin, pray for us!
Even if Martin Luther believed in Mary's immaculate conception, the Reformation does not suffer loss. Neither myself nor the Lutheran church considers Luther to be an infallible source of either interpretation or revelation. However, my Romanist friends need to do a little better at proving Luther believed in the immaculate conception of Mary.