"Elizabeth called Mary Mother of the Lord, because the unity of the person in the two natures of Christ was such that she could have said that the mortal man engendered in the womb of Mary was at the same time the eternal God."
John Calvin, Calvini Opera [Braunshweig-Berlin, 1863-1900], Volume 45, 35.Why would Rome's defenders be citing such a seemingly innocuous comment from Calvin? What's so controversial about Calvin saying "Elizabeth called Mary Mother of the Lord" (Luke 1:43) or that the child in the womb of Mary was God incarnate? Calvin, to my knowledge, has never been charged with denying the divinity of Jesus. Nor have I ever found any charges that Calvin believed the child in Mary's womb was merely a man that became divine at some later date (Calvin explicitly argues against that). What's going on with the defenders of Rome?
This version of the Calvin quote above comes from an early pop-apologetic Roman Catholic web-page entitled, The Protestant Reformers on Mary I've never been able to determine who originally put this web-page together (see my review here). The page goes back at least as early as 2000. Whoever did put it together, I doubt they realized how often the content would be cut-and-pasted for years, now, decades. This old web-page was dedicated to showing "fundamentalists" "that the 'Reformers' accepted almost every major Marian doctrine and considered these doctrines to be both scriptural and fundamental to the historic Christian Faith." Without overtly saying it, what it appears the web-page is attempting to do is demonstrate that Calvin believed Mary was "the Mother of God," that controversial title oft-used by Roman Catholics dripping with the devotion to and the intercession of, Mary; or, as the encyclical of Pope Pius XII from 1954 states,
From the earliest ages of the Catholic Church a Christian people, whether in time of triumph or more especially in time of crisis, has addressed prayers of petition and hymns of praise and veneration to the Queen of Heaven. And never has that hope wavered which they placed in the Mother of the Divine King, Jesus Christ; nor has that faith ever failed by which we are taught that Mary, the Virgin Mother of God, reigns with a mother's solicitude over the entire world, just as she is crowned in heavenly blessedness with the glory of a Queen.Other Roman Catholic websites are more overt that their "Mother of God" meaning is intended to be extrapolated from Calvin's words. Using this quote, John Pasquini states in his books Catholic Answers to Protestant Questions and True Christianity the Catholic Way, "Even John Calvin recognized the reality of Mary as the Mother of God!" EWTN hosts a web-page that states, "The French reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) also held that Mary was the Mother of God." Raymond De Souza uses the quote as proof that "Luther, Calvin and Zwingli preserved it intact in their systems of distorted doctrines" and that "Protestantism, unhesitatingly called the Holy Virgin 'Mother of God (theotokos).'" The Seekers Guide to Mary says, "Calvin also held that Mary was the Mother of God" and use the quote "In Calvin's own words." These are but a few examples from a seemingly endless pool of Google hits.
As their argument typically goes, the original Reformers had a rich, almost Roman Catholic Marian piety, but, as The Protestant Reformers on Mary web-page says, "Unfortunately the Marian teachings and preachings of the Reformers have been "covered up" by their most zealous followers - with damaging theological and practical consequences." Why did this happen? Because the descendants of the Reformation had "iconoclastic passion" towards Marian piety. Now, it's up to Rome's defenders to do deep historical research into the Reformation and demonstrate to modern-day Protestants how far they've strayed from likes of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli. One Roman Catholic web-page utilizing the Calvin quote argues, "The longer and the further Protestant strayed from the Catholic Church, the more watered down all the Catholic Truths became including their love and devotion to Mary. But originally, the three main fathers of Protestantism loved their heavenly mother." Now, "Mother of God" is a phrase rarely used by Protestantism, mostly ignored, sometimes derided and abhorred.
Let's take a closer look at this quote, check the documentation, put it back in its context, and then explore John Calvin's use of the phrase and concept, "Mother of God." Let's see what happens when we dare to uncover what Calvin thought about the phrase and concept, "Mother of God." We'll find there actually is a "cover-up" going on, but it's not a hiding of of Calvin saying "Mother of God" in his extant treatises.
I suspect that the English version of this quote may have originally been taken from Michael O'Carroll, Theotokos, a Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary, p. 94. Note the similarities of its popular Internet use to the English rendering from O'Carroll:
O'Carroll's book documents two Calvin quotes here, "CR, 45, 348 and 35." Notice how this old EWTN page seemingly lifted the Calvin quotes from O'Carroll. The author of the EWTN article, Dr. Robert J. Schihl, mentions the information was an excerpt from his own book, A Biblical Apologetic of the Catholic Faith. I suspect that the popular online presentation of the documentation (John Calvin, Calvini Opera [Braunshweig-Berlin, 1863-1900], Volume 45, 35) was placed in this form by Dr. Schihl (see page 131 of his book). It appears to me that Dr. Schihl lifted O'Carroll's Calvin quotes and presented the research as his own and filled out the references. Interestingly, Dr. Schihl actually quotes O'Carroll on the same page, but never mentions him as his Calvin source. Or, it may be Dr. Schihl just cut-and-pasted someone else's use of O'Carroll. Someone, at some time, translated these Calvin quotes into English and my guess is it was O'Carroll, not Schihl or any of the online Roman Catholic polemicists.
The "CR" reference provided by O'Carroll refers to the Corpus Reformatorum, which is an old collection of Latin Reformation writings. The series contains a number of volumes of Calvin's writings. Here is a link to where Joannis Calvini opera quae supersunt omnia vol. 45 can be found, and here is the text of the quote in question being referred to on page 35:
The text being cited is Calvin's comment on Luke 1:43. This text has been translated into English, most popularly by William Pringle in the 19th century, as part of Calvin's Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists. A modern English translation is also available in print. The translation below is from Rev. Pringle (link). The quote under scrutiny is in bold type.
43. And whence is this to me? The happy medium observed by Elisabeth is worthy of notice. She thinks very highly of the favors bestowed by God on Mary, and gives them just commendation, but yet does not praise them more highly than was proper, which would have been a dishonor to God. For such is the native depravity of the world, that there are few persons who are not chargeable with one of these two faults. Some, delighted beyond measure with themselves, and desirous to shine alone, enviously despise the gifts of God in their brethren; while others praise them in so superstitious a manner as to convert them into idols. The consequence has been, that the first rank is assigned to Mary, and Christ is lowered as it were to the footstool. Elisabeth, again, while she praises her, is so far from hiding the Divine glory, that she ascribes everything to God. And yet, though she acknowledges the superiority of Mary to herself and to others, she does not envy her the higher distinction, but modestly declares that she had obtained more than she deserved.
She calls Mary the mother of her Lord. This denotes a unity of person in the two natures of Christ; as if she had said, that he who was begotten a mortal man in the womb of Mary is, at the same time, the eternal God. For we must bear in mind, that she does not speak like an ordinary woman at her own suggestion, but merely utters what was dictated by the Holy Spirit. This name Lord strictly belongs to the Son of God “manifested in the flesh,” (1 Timothy 3:16) who has received from the Father all power, and has been appointed the highest ruler of heaven and earth, that by his agency God may govern all things. Still, he is in a peculiar manner the Lord of believers, who yield willingly and cheerfully to his authority; for it is only of “his body” that he is “the head,” (Ephesians 1:22, 23.) And so Paul says, “though there be lords many, yet to us,” that is, to the servants of faith, “there is one Lord,” (1 Corinthians 8:5, 6.) By mentioning the sudden movement of the babe which she carried in her womb, (ver. 44,) as heightening that divine favor of which she is speaking, she unquestionably intended to affirm that she felt something supernatural and divine.Conclusion
First, the tedious part of this Calvin quote, the documentation, demonstrates how deep many of Rome's defenders actually go in their studies of church history. I suspect Michael O'Carroll, actually did pull out Calvin's writings in Latin and translate particular quotes into English. As for the bulk of usages I've seen of this Calvin quote on-line, this English rendering has simply been cut-and-pasted endlessly, along with documentation to the Latin text, as if Rome's cyber-polemicists actually utilized "Calvini Opera" or the Corpus Reformatorum! This sort of endless cut-and-pasting strongly suggests Rome's apologists never checked the actual context, nor did they know or care that a useful English version of the entire context has been widely available since the 19th century.
Second, if there really is some sort of cover-up going on, isn't the context interesting as to how Calvin comments about praising Mary? If Calvin had some sort of deep devotion to the "Mother of God" where's the proof? Calvin says that many people are guilty of praising in a "superstitious manner" and making idols: "The consequence has been, that the first rank is assigned to Mary, and Christ is lowered as it were to the footstool." Then in regard to Elizabeth, Calvin admits that Mary has a higher distinction than other people, but through the testimony of Elizabeth he says it's because Mary "obtained more than she deserved." When Calvin then goes on to comment on the phrase "the mother of her Lord" and says the child in Mary's womb was "eternal God," there is an obvious lack of praise and devotion directed toward Mary for anything she had done or deserved. David F. Wright observed,
It is Calvin's complaint against 'the papists' that their praises of Mary have obscured her greatest honour of all, and have robbed the Son of God of his own in order to dress her up in the sinful spoils of robbery. 'The praises of Mary, where the might and sheer goodness of God are not entirely set forth, are perverse and counterfeit.' So Calvin betrays some concern at the parallelism of the salutation of Elizabeth. 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!' (Luke 1:42). The connecting particle must be taken in a casual sense, for the blessedness of Mary is due to that of Christ [David Wright, Chosen By God: Mary in Evangelical Perspective, (London: Marshall Morgan and Scott, 1989) 178].Earlier in his commentary, Calvin commenting on Luke 1:28 said that "Mary is blessed" "does not, in my opinion, mean, Worthy of praise; but rather means, Happy." Commenting on Luke 1:42 Mary is said to "blessed" because "God bestowed the remarkable honour of bringing into the world his own Son." Probably shocking to Calvin's original audience, he says, "To carry Christ in her womb was not Mary’s first blessedness, but was greatly inferior to the distinction of being born again by the Spirit of God to a new life." Yes, Calvin refers to Mary as "holy virgin" a few times in his commentary, but he never expounds on it in such a way as to lead his readers into any sort of devotion or praise of Mary. He goes as far as saying that while praising the day the Son was brought into the world, it should simply remind us of "the distinguished honor which God was pleased to bestow on Mary, in making her the mother of his Only Begotten Son." Being reminded of Mary's motherhood is a far cry from devotion to Mary as the "Mother of God." Commenting on Luke 1:48, Calvin says:
Hence we see how widely the Papists differ from her, who idly adorn her with their empty devices, and reckon almost as nothing the benefits which she received from God. They heap up an abundance of magnificent and very presumptuous titles, such as, “Queen of Heaven, Star of Salvation, Gate of Life, Sweetness, Hope, and Salvation.” Nay more, to such a pitch of insolence and fury have they been hurried by Satan, that they give her authority over Christ; for this is their pretty song, “Beseech the Father, Order the Son.”' None of these modes of expression, it is evident, proceeded from the Lord. All are disclaimed by the holy virgin in a single word, when she makes her whole glory to consist in acts of the divine kindness. If it was her duty to praise the name of God alone, who had done to her wonderful things, no room is left for the pretended titles, which come from another quarter. Besides, nothing could be more disrespectful to her, than to rob the Son of God of what is his own, to clothe her with the sacrilegious plunder.
Let Papists now go, and hold us out as doing injury to the mother of Christ, because we reject the falsehoods of men, and extol in her nothing more than the kindness of God. Nay, what is most of all honourable to her we grant, and those absurd worshippers refuse. We cheerfully acknowledge her as our teacher, and obey her instruction and commands. There certainly is no obscurity in what she says here; but the Papists throw it aside, trample it as it were under foot, and do all they can to destroy the credit of her statements. Let us remember that, in praising both men and angels, there is a general rule laid down, to extol in them the grace of God; as nothing is at all worthy of praise which did not proceed from Him.Third, isn't it peculiar that Calvin never actually uses the phrase, "Mother of God" in the quote we've been examining? Certainly it can be deduced from the context that "Mary is mother of the Lord" and the "mortal man in the womb of Mary is, at the same time, the eternal God." Why didn't Calvin just use the phrase "Mother of God"? Here's where it gets interesting: as I've gone through Calvin's writings, the phrase "Mother of God" or "Theotokos" is oddly missing. Could it be that the phrase is missing because future generations of Protestants expunged it from Calvin's writings as part of the nefarious Reformation Marian piety cover-up?
According to Roman Catholic writer Thomas O'Meara, "Calvin nowhere calls Mary Theotokos or the Mother of God." O'Meara states, "...the reason for his hesitancy on the use of the term 'Mother of God' seems to be based upon a fear of falling into what he saw as the excesses of the past." O'Meara then refers to a letter Calvin wrote "to a French Calvinist community in London in 1552." Calvin wrote September 27, 1552 to the French Church in London. They had written to him and asked, "Is it lawful to call Mary the Mother of God?" Calvin responds,
Concerning the other debatable points, I doubt not but there may have been somewhat of ignorance in their reproving the way of speaking of the Virgin Mary as the mother of God, and together with ignorance, it is possible that there may have been rashness and too much forwardness, for, as the old proverb says, The most ignorant are ever the boldest. However, to deal with you with brotherly frankness, I cannot conceal that that title being commonly attributed to the Virgin in sermons is disapproved, and, for my own part I cannot think such language either right, or becoming, or suitable. Neither will any sober-minded people do so, for which reason I cannot persuade myself that there is any such usage in your church, for it is just as if you were to speak of the blood, of the head, and of the death of God. You know that the Scriptures accustom us to a different style; but there is something still worse about this particular instance, for to call the Virgin Mary the mother of God, can only serve to confirm the ignorant in their superstitions. And he that would take a pleasure in that, shews clearly that he knows not what it is to edify the Church.O'Meara concludes,
It is not an explicit rejection of Ephesus—for which Calvin has great respect—but rather the effect which this title had on devotional life in the past that explains why Calvin preferred other titles for Mary.And this is exactly why Calvin avoided it and why many within Protestantism do today. James White once described this title as "the single most misused theological term around." Contemporary Protestants distance themselves from the title, "Mother of God," for good reason. The term has evolved in its usage. What was once a rich theological term expressing a doctrinal truth about Christ developed into a venerating praise to Mary. The gist of the term became heavily Mariological in popular piety, abandoning its Christological heritage (see my old comments here on this). Calvin rightly says, "...for to call the Virgin Mary the mother of God, can only serve to confirm the ignorant in their superstitions." Elsewhere Calvin stated:
For the Sorbonnists, who so often make mention of their herd, (gregis,) have here proved, that they are a herd of swine. That invocation of the Virgin which they have hitherto used in seeking the grace of the Spirit, who sees not to be execrable blasphemy? to say nothing of those titles full of anathema, by which, while they would honor the Virgin, they most grievously insult her, calling her “the Queen of Heaven, and Treasury of Grace.” We hear how Christ tells us, that he will send the Spirit of truth from the Father, and bids us ask in his own name, (John 14:26; 15:26.) This, therefore, is the right rule of asking, and the sure method of obtaining. But to flee to the Virgin, passing by Christ, and in prayer to address her instead of God, who sees not to be a profane practice? It is assuredly altogether alien from the Word of God. Nay, there is extant a Canon of the fourth Council of Carthage, forbidding the invocation of saints at the altar. Here, also they (the Sorbonne) give a still clearer manifestation of their absurdity, when they say that this salutation is prescribed to us by the gospel. It is true, Gabriel was sent, as Luke relates, to salute the Virgin in these terms; but are we Gabriel? When was this ever commanded to us? What access have we to the Virgin, for the purpose of holding conference with her? Besides, why use the salutation at the time when they implore the influence of the Spirit, unless to pervert it into a form of prayer?Yes, there's a cover-up going on, but it's not on the Protestant side. It's with Rome's defenders attempting to reinterpret John Calvin as a supporter of their particular brand of Mariology. It's only by equivocating and playing fast and loose with terms does John Calvin become a supporter of Rome's Mary, the blessed and holy "Mother of God." Rome's defenders pour much more into the term "Mother of God" and Calvin realized this. There was a blatant attempt by Calvin and the Genevan government to suppress Romanism. That Calvin conscientiously avoided using "Theotokos" is just one instance of what was going on at the time. For example, there was a Genevan law in place which forbade parents to name their children after popular saints. One man spent a few days in jail for naming his child after a saint that had a shrine in the area!
Rome's defenders could counter all this and simply say John Calvin believed in the title "Mother of God" because he believed in the concept that Mary was the mother of Jesus who is God. But what would be the point? The same argument could be made of me and countless others. No, we reject the deep devotional and intercessory role that their use of the phrase "Mother of God" implies within a Roman Catholic worldview.
Addendum #1, Trent Horn
I first wrote about Calvin's use of the phrase "Mother of God" back in 2013. While revisiting this subject I came across Rome's defender Trent Horn commenting on Calvin's rejection of using the term "Mother of God." Mr. Horn says,
Some Protestants object to Mary’s divine maternity not on biblical, logical, or historical grounds, but on practical ones. According to them, even if Mary is the Mother of God, Christians should not say she is because that can mislead less educated people. For example, Calvin said, “To call the Virgin Mary the mother of God can only serve to confirm the ignorant in their superstitions.”26 Matt Slick says, “The term, ‘mother of God,’ runs the risk of suggesting that Mary is somehow divine and part of the Godhead.” Gustafson likewise claims it is “creepy” to call Mary the Mother of God because this conjures up images of Mary being God’s wife.
This objection is as weak as saying that we should not refer to Jesus as God’s Son because that runs the risk of suggesting that God has a wife or that God engaged in sexual relations with Mary. This is not a hypothetical concern as early Mormons like Brigham Young understood Jesus’ identity as “Son of God” to mean Jesus was “begotten of his Father, as we were of our fathers”. Many Muslims reject the Incarnation precisely because they think it entails that God physically begot Jesus through Mary. This shows that a doctrine should not be rejected just because it can be misunderstood. If that were the case, our faith would have few or possibly no doctrines at all!
26. John Calvin, Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters , vol. 5, ed. Jules Bonnett (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1983), 362. Michael O’Carroll, however, documents Calvin saying, “The mortal man engendered in the womb of Mary was at the same time the eternal God.” O’Carroll, Theotokos , 94I've included Horn's footnote because he included the same Calvin quote this entry is focused on. Did he include it to demonstrate some sort of inconsistency in Calvin's thought? Regardless, Horn makes a logical point, that simply because a phrase can be misunderstood or abused does not mean the term should be avoided. I've similarly tried to remind people that the word "Catholic" does not necessarily mean, "Roman Catholic." Some of the people I've used the word on are obviously confused, until I explain it to them. Think also of how our current society pours an entirely different meaning into the word "gay." What was once intended to mean "lighthearted and carefree" now means "homosexual." When Calvin avoided the term "Theotokos," it was consciously done as part of the ongoing societal Reformation efforts which sought to expel as much Romanism as possible from Geneva. It makes perfect sense he would pass along this advice to other Reformation efforts throughout Europe.
Should Protestant today avoid the term? I would never argue as Horn's examples of Slick and Gustafson do. Those are wacky examples, for sure. I personally don't have a problem with the phrase if it's understood in a Christological sense rather than a Marian sense. I see this debate more like debating with a Mormon or a Jehovah's Witness as to who Jesus is. Rome's apologists presents a different "Mother of God" than than which is found in sacred Scripture. When one reads a Mormon writing mentioning Jesus, a careful reader pours in the meaning of who Jesus is according to the Mormons. The same goes for Roman Catholic writings about the Mother of God. I'm all for reclaiming misused words for proper service in the "Catholic" church!
Thomas O'Meara includes an alternate English translation of Calvin's comments about Mary in his letter from September 27, 1552 to the French Church in London:
I have no doubt that there has been some ignorance in that they have reproved this fashion of speaking of the Virgin Mary as the mother of God, and because of their ignorance it is likely that they have assumed a temerity and brashness which is too great. . . . However, to continue in fraternal friendship with you I am not able to disguise the fact that I find it wrong to have this title ordinarily attributed in sermons about the Virgin, and for my own part I would not think that such language was good or proper or convenient. . . . You know that scripture accustoms us to a rather different manner of speaking, but there is something worse here—for it could give scandal. To speak of the Mother of God instead of the Virgin Mary can only serve to harden the ignorant in their superstition. And he who is content with that shows quite clearly that he is not aware of what is edifying in the Church [Calvin, Lettres anglaises (Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1959), pp. 180-181].