Friday, July 21, 2006

Young Luther, Saints, And The Virgin Mary

Young Luther was enveloped in a religious climate consisting of a host of saints and superstitions. All worked together in a grand scheme of relief from the ravages of medieval life, as well as appeasing the always-watching wrathful God. Perhaps a few thought they were fortunate enough to one day attain ultimate salvation. Most expected the dismal grind of medieval life to continue beyond into the bowels of Purgatory, or worse. It was a religious “survival of the fittest,” with saints beseeched for aid in enduring the grueling journey. Participating in the cults of sainthood with all the fervent zeal of the time, young Martin called on three saints at every Mass. He recalled selecting twenty-one saints, “Thus I came the round in a week.”[i]

In popular Luther biographies attention is drawn to his youthful devotion to Saint Anne, patron saint of miners. It was she to whom young Luther would cry when terror stricken by a severe thunderstorm, the experience propelling him to join the local Augustinian monastery. Luther recalls, “Saint Anne was my idol.”[ii] She invoked a fanatical devotion. The world of young Luther was filled with a rapid expansion of brotherhoods of laymen devoted to the cult of a specific saint, and Anne had gained in popularity. Toward the end of the Fifteenth Century, Anne as “saint” rose in great prominence due to an order of Franciscans, who had become champions of the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary. Luther recalls that the honor paid St. Anne rivaled, if it did not exceed, that shown to he Virgin herself.[iii]

But regardless of St. Anne’s increased followers in medieval Europe, the Blessed Virgin did indeed reign above her as a preeminent spiritual power. To her was bestowed the highest veneration. Historian Joseph Lortz explains,

"Everything was dedicated to her and bore her name – places, churches, alters, girls. The widespread custom of singing the Salve Regina on Saturday evenings arose as a means of extolling her fame. The devout soul of the people was as much expressed in fervent hymns to Mary and legends about her, as in the countless number of paintings and sculptures of the Madonna, some of them very beautiful. Many confraternities were formed in her honor, and many endowments made. In all of this period her praise was never silent." [iv]

While emphasis on Anne is usually explicit in Luther’s story, Mary’s impact on the young Luther is often overlooked. Historian Robert Fife attempted to paint a graspable image of Luther the child in the realm of saint and Mary veneration:

"The Virgin Mother and the saints greeted the eyes of a boy from alter and windows, and their glory became familiar in prayers and hymns. Here love and pity, protection and help came to him clothed in warm humanity. The Virgin, whose song, the Magnificat… was usually sung at vesper services. Her figure sank into his memory as she appears at the last judgement, showing to her Son the breasts that suckled Him and pleading for mercy on mankind. Singing the Litany and the Rogations in the choir he learned to know the saints, and these brief figures gave him protection against the severity of the Judge and the wiles of the demons. The shining form of the saints stamped themselves enduringly on the boy’s imagination." [v]

A recollection from Luther’s Table Talk verifies the impact medieval Mariolatry had on the young Martin Luther. Sometime in 1503, he unintentionally stabbed his shin on a short sword and cut an artery in his leg. Thinking himself near death from the wound, he cried out, “Mary, help!” Help indeed arrived, but in the form of a surgeon who dressed the wound. Later that evening, the wound broke open again. The same fear of death gripped him, and Mary was called upon once more to save his life. Had Mary saved Luther? The mature Luther looking back on this experience realized how far from the spiritual help of Christ he actually was: “I would have died with my trust in Mary.”[vi]

The thunderstorm of 1505 that had chased him to the cloister also accompanied him inside in the guise of fear and trepidation. This prevailing dread was none other than Christ as the severe judge. As Robert Fife explains,

"[Christ] became a great source of unhappiness in the cloister…he refers frequently to his conviction that Christ was indifferent to human woes and must be won over through the intercession of his mother, the Virgin. The picture of Christ sitting in judgement on the last day dwelt vividly in his mind, so that he could not shake off fears connected with it. [Luther said,] 'When I looked on Christ, I saw the Devil: so [I said], ‘Dear Mary, pray to your Son for me and still His anger.’"[vii]

In the Augustinian monastery, meditation on the blessed mother was also a unique channel to make the heart fertile for divine grace. Mary was crowned with a special degree of glory that surpassed others in the divine realm. Bernard of Clairvaux had popularized her through his sermons. He had expounded the degrees of salvation, with Mary at the highest point. Jarislov Pelikan points out, “She was at the same time the personal embodiment of the supreme virtues of which humanity was made capable through the gift of grace: in her, as Bernard said,is every goodness found in any creature.’”[viii]

Luther’s frequent mentioning of Saint Bernard speaks of his fondness and familiarity with his writings. Later recollecting Bernard’s influence on his own Mariolatry, Luther looked back on the years before his break with Rome and said,

"St. Bernard, who was a pious man otherwise, also said: ‘Behold how Christ chides, censures, and condemns the Pharisees so harshly throughout the Gospel, whereas the Virgin Mary is always kind and gentle and never utters an unfriendly word.’ From this he inferred: ‘Christ is given to scolding and punishing, but Mary has nothing but sweetness and love.’ Therefore Christ was generally feared; we fled from Him and took refuge with the saints, calling upon Mary and others to deliver us from our distress. We regarded them all as holier than Christ. Christ was only the executioner, while the saints were our mediators." [ix]

He also recollected, “Christ in His mercy was hidden from my eyes. I wanted to become justified before God through the merits of the saints. This gave rise to the petition for the intercession of the saints. On a portrait St. Bernard, too, is portrayed adoring the Virgin Mary as she directs her Son, Christ, to the breasts that suckled Oh, how many kisses we bestowed on Mary”![x] Luther concluded though, that even in St Bernard’s incessant praise of Mary as she directs the sinner toward Christ, Bernard left out Christ completely: “Bernard filled a whole sermon with praise of the Virgin Mary and in so doing forgot to mention what happened [the incarnation of Christ]; so highly did he… esteem Mary.” [xi] Thus, young Luther partook in Mariolatry, but the mature Luther looking back saw only the excesses of medieval devotion and teaching on Mary. He saw that she had been adorned with attributes that only belonged to Christ.

[i] Martin Luther, D. Martin Luthers Tischreden 1531 – 1546, IV No.4422, quoted in Robert Herndon Fife. The Revolt of Martin Luther (New York: Columbia University Press, 1957), 122.

[ii] Martin Luther, “Sermon of December 22, 1532,” WA XXXVI, 388, quoted in Robert Herndon Fife. The Revolt of Martin Luther, 122.

[iii] Martin Luther, D.Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, Abteilung Werke, I, 415, quoted in Robert Herndon Fife. The Revolt of Martin Luther, 13-14.

[iv] Joseph Lortz, The Reformation in Germany, trans. Ronald Walls (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1968), 1:112.

[v] Robert Herndon Fife. The Revolt of Martin Luther (New York: Columbia University Press, 1957), 13-14.

[vi] Martin Luther, Luther's works, vol. 54, ed. J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 14.

[vii] Robert Herndon Fife, The Revolt of Martin Luther (New York: Columbia University Press, 1957), 123. Luther’s quote is from, Martin Luther, “Sermon of May 21, 1537,” WA XLV, 86 quoted in Robert Herndon Fife, The Revolt of Martin Luther, 123.

[viii] Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary Through The Ages (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 144.

[ix] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, 22: 377.

[x]Ibid., 22: 145.

[xi] Ibid., 54: 84.


FM483 said...

Reading this post calls to mind my personal journey out of Roman Catholicism to Evangelical catholicism(Lutheranism). Looking back, through reading the Holy Scriptures I was gradually deprogrammed. Instead of the RCC as central in my faith, Christ eventually resumed all the honor and glory. But it took years. Adoration of the virgin Mary was the last to go. I understand how human beings have a natural inclination towards Mary and other human beings. There is a natural tendency to identify with fellow travelers and to veer away from the God Who created them. Only through the Word of God does a person come to realize and comprehemd that Jesus was both human and Divine simultaneously. He thirsted, was fearful, became angry, and felt compassion - all human traits. He is the link with the Divine. He experienced all the temptations common to men. As the Scriptures say, Jesus Christ is the sole mediator between God and man. This perspective became increasingly clear through the Holy Scriptures. Medieval church leaders should have preached more on the Scriptures and less on traditions of men that were becoming increasingly prominent. The advent of the printing press and translations of the bible into German and other languages, facilitated the orthodox Christ-centered faith. Luther’s education of the laity through his Small Catechism also aided greatly in orthodoxy. As Martin Luther so eloquently stated in his explanation to the third article of the Apostles' Creed(Sanctificaation): "I believe that cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith."

Today I view all the saints as fellow believers who have gone before me. Their lives constitute that "great cloud of witnesses" described in Hebrews chapters 11 and 12, whose lives of faith(even unto death itself) continually encourage me in my daily walk in faith. I do not pray to them, but rather thank God for all the gifts He has bestowed upon me. These men and women of faith are my ancestors in the true faith in Messiah and all the promises of God, which are Yes! and Amen! in Christ(2Cor 1:20). I do not even have any problems with statues of past saints. To me they are like photographs of beloved family members. One of the unfortunate reactions from the 16th century Reformation is that there are no churches named "St Mary". There are many Lutheran churches named for St James and others, but none for Mary. This is an over-reaction to the Roman Catholic adoration and veneration of this wonderful obedient and repentant woman of God. The bible is full of paradoxes and things opposite to human commonsense and reason. The worship and adoration of Mary is a natural tendency for people to assume that since Christ was perfect and sinless, then his earthly mother must have been so as well. Human commonsense and reason would dictate so. But if one’s viewpoints are taken from the Holy Scriptures, one sees that since God was the father of Jesus, this alone determined His sinlessness, not any quality of Mary. This is still a difficult obstacle for people to deal with since it is based upon faith, not reason.

This post also brought up another interesting point. Since Jesus was often critical and harsh in His dealing with the Pharisees, and we have nothing said about Mary in this regard, it is assumed that the apparently quiet and reserved Mary was the better example! But this viewpoint is incorrect. Jesus was very critical of anyone who would steer another person away from truth. In his book “No More Christian Nice Guy”, author Paul Coughlin makes the case that Jesus was not “nice” but rather “good”. Coughlin points out that a Christian man is called to emulate Jesus as a masculine believer should: he is to be tender and yet very judgmental when it comes to matters of faith and morals. Coughlin makes the case that serious problems have crept into Christianity from false assumptions which have led to effeminate males failing to take proper leadership roles in the Christian Church. There is a big difference between being “nice” and “good”. I have heard it said that the definition of humility as shown in the life of Jesus of Nazareth is one of “velvet covered steel”.

Frank Marron

Gavin said...

In the interest of fairness (you know, since Catholic apologists are always so fair with us) it should be mentioned that the famous "St. Anne, if you help me, I will become a monk" is usually attributed to the idea of St. Anne as the patron saint of thunderstorms. If you're unaware of the idea of patron saints, it's a saint who is considered "especially effective" at helping a particular prayer. This often leads to strange superstitions, and I really doubt that much of it is actually commanded by the RCC's canons.

As far as Mary goes, unlike Luther and Frank, I was never big on the Mary stuff. Being in Catholic grade schools and high schools, it was pushed on us a lot, but I always figured "why isn't God enough?" As I think I've said before, I think the attitude springs from a distrust of the masculine. Liberal protestants tend to make God a woman, Catholics just change their focus from God to a woman!

FM483 said...


You have some good insights. The book I pointed out by Paul Coughlin, "No More Christian Nice Guy", refutes the heresy you point out concerning the tendency to emasculate men in Christian churches. Regarding Mary and the concentration on the feminine in Roman Catholicism,although God refers to Himself as our Father, the Church is refreed to as the Bride of Christ.

Frank Marron

Chaz said...

It's worth mentioning that Luther's devotion to Mary didn't disappear, it just became Evangelical.

Luther went from trusting the Blessed Virgin for salvation and to thanking Christ for the great things He worked in and through His mother, including His own incarnation.

Luther had an extremely high view of Mary to the very day of his death. Mariolatry became honoring Mary in the sense of "all generations will call me blessed."

James Swan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
beepbeepitsme said...

If I had been the Virgin Mary, I would have said "No."
Margaret Smith