Monday, April 02, 2007

Luther's Theology of Mary

Martin Luther’s Theology of Mary

By James Swan

I. Introduction:
Is the Roman Catholic claim that Luther was a devotee of Mary true?

II. Young Luther, Saints, and the Virgin:
An overview of sixteenth century Mariolatry and its impact on Luther.

III. The Mother of God:
Did Luther refer to Mary as “Mother of God”?

IV. The Immaculate Conception:
Did Luther believe in Mary’s immaculate conception?

V. Perpetual Virginity:
Did Luther believe in Mary’s perpetual virginity?

VI. Praying To Mary:
Did Luther pray to Mary?

VII. Conclusion:
A summary of Luther’s Mariology.

VIII. Appendix  (Revised July, 2003):
Did Luther really preach about the immaculate conception in the sermon, “On The Day of the Conception of the Mother of God” in 1527?

IX. Bibliography

X. Endnotes

I. Introduction

Roman Catholic theologian Joseph Lortz once remarked, “It is a difficult undertaking to attempt a valid and comprehensive interpretation of even the most basic elements of Luther's thought within the scope of one article. With Luther as with no one else, it is easy to sketch distortedly, a fact that found formulation in Heinrich Boehmer's well-known statement, "There are as many Luthers as there are books about Luther."[1] Indeed, the theological landscape is overgrown with Luthers.  A quick search for information about Martin Luther on the World Wide Web reveals that polemics against Luther remain frequent and high-pitched, as different groups create the villain they find in his writings. The basic elements of Luther’s thought are generally missing, distorting the man, his theology, and his impact upon post-Reformation society.
Sketches of Luther from Roman Catholic perspectives bring forth numerous images. Some cling to presenting Luther as Cochlaeus did five hundred years ago, as a “a child of the devil… a liar and a hypocrite, cowardly and quarrelsome.”[2]  Others present a more “Catholic” Luther, one of whom contemporary Protestants allegedly suppress to maintain doctrinal hostility to Rome.  Such is the case with Luther’s theology of Mary. One Roman Catholic paints the Reformer as being a devotee to the Blessed Virgin:

Luther indeed was quite devoted to Our Lady, and retained most of the traditional Marian doctrines which were held then and now by the Catholic Church.  This is often not well documented in Protestant biographies of Luther and histories of the 16th century, yet it is undeniably true.  It seems to be a natural human tendency for latter-day followers to project back onto the founder of a movement their own prevailing viewpoints. Since Lutheranism today does not possess a very robust Mariology, it is usually assumed that Luther himself had similar opinions.  We shall see, upon consulting the primary sources (i.e., Luther's own writings), that the historical facts are very different.[3]  

The author draws a picture of Luther espousing a doctrine of Mary that reflects Roman Catholic theology, with little or no conflict with his Reformation ideals.  It is pointed out that Luther used the venerating term, “Mother of God.” He also believed in her perpetual virginity, Immaculate Conception, and her “spiritual motherhood” of all Christians.  He believed that prayers to her with “heartfelt faith” were allowed. Has the great reformer been done an injustice by his theological offspring? Have they neglected to follow his lead in venerating Mary as part of historic Protestantism?  This approach to Luther is not new.  In 1962  Walter Tappolet compiled an astonishing compilation of texts from Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Bullinger called, The Reformers in Praise of Mary.  By going through sermons, devotional material and theological treatises, he documented an enduring orthodoxy of the Mariology of the Reformers.[4]  By reading selected quotes Luther, it does indeed appear that Protestantism has deviated from his veneration of Mary.

If Luther represents the doctrinal hero of sola scriptura and sola fide, how is it possible that he was devoted to the Virgin Mary?  This paper will briefly examine Luther’s theology of Mary. It will be shown that Luther did indeed have a Mariology, but as his theology grew, elements of it were either rejected, minimized, or reinterpreted as he clung to and developed his commitment to solus Christus.  Any picture created to prove Luther’s devotion to Mary as similar to Roman Catholicism is an image sketched distortedly.

II. Young Luther, Saints, and the Virgin

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.”[5] 

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.”[6] 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.[7]

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. [8]

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. [9]

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.”[10]  

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.’[11]

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.’”[12]

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. [13]

 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”![14]   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.” [15]   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.

III. The Mother of God

Contemporary Protestants distance themselves from the title, “Mother of God,” and perhaps for good reason.  The term has evolved in its usage.  What was once a rich theological term expressing a doctrinal truth about Christ developed quickly into a venerating praise to Mary.  The term Theotokos can be translated with a strong Christocentric nuance as, “the one who gave birth to the one who is God.”[16]  In the fifth century, the term was brought to the theological forefront by conflict with Nestorius.  He argued that only the human nature of Jesus Christ had been born of Mary, thus provoking debate on the validity of the term.  His concern was to protect the divine nature from similarities with the mother deities of paganism. [17]

Unlike modern Protestants, Luther did not shy away from using the term, “Mother of God,” and he was fully cognizant of its correct usage.  He succinctly analyzes the Nestorian heresy, and concludes that Nestorius:

Insisted on the literal meaning of the words, “God born of Mary,” and interpreted “born” according to grammar or philosophy, as though it meant to obtain divine nature from the one who bore him, … We too know very well that God did not derive his divinity from Mary; but it does not follow that it is therefore wrong to say that God was born of Mary, that God is Mary’s Son, and that Mary is God’s mother. [18]

Throughout his career, one finds Luther expressing not only the rich Christ- centered usage of Theotokos when discussing the incarnation or Christ’s Deity, but he also uses the term simply as a synonym for Mary, which was common in sixteenth century Western Christendom.[19]  In a Table Talk entry from 1542, one finds Luther using the title as a mode of exclamation, “O Mary, mother of God!”[20]   This is not to suggest that Luther did not think of Mary as particularly special.  To the contrary, Luther was to call her “Mother of God, exalted above all mortals[21] when he considered she was given the great gift of being mother to the Messiah.

Luther though shifts the emphasis back to God: “She does not desire herself to be esteemed; she magnifies God alone and gives all glory to Him.  She leaves herself out and ascribes everything to God alone, from whom she received it.”[22]   For Mary to be exalted, was actually for her to “magnify God alone, to count only Him great and lay claim to nothing.”[23]  As Heiko Oberman points out, when Luther uses the term “Theotokos,” “There is indeed little chance that Mary can become the thing signified rather than the sign.”[24]  Mary, serving as the sign pointing to Christ, was to say: “I am but the workshop in which He performs His work; I had nothing to do with the work itself. No one should praise me or give me the glory for becoming the Mother of God, but God alone and His work are to be honored and praised in me.”[25]

He also compounds the term with “blessed”: “most blessed Mother of God,”[26] or “Blessed Virgin, Mother of God.”[27]   Even in the usage of “blessed” though, Luther shifts the emphasis away from Mary and back to God.  He explains that Mary thought herself “blessed” because God “regarded” her; that is, God turned His face toward her and gave grace and salvation, as he likewise did when He chose to give grace to Abel, rather than Cain. He explains, “But for this one thing alone, that God regarded her, men will call her blessed.  That is to give all the glory to God as completely as it can be done… Not she is praised thereby, but God’s grace toward her.”[28]  Luther sees this “regarding” as God’s bestowal of grace in choosing His children unto salvation and sanctification: “For where it comes to pass that God turns His face toward one to regard him, there is nothing but grace and salvation, and all gifts and works must follow.” [29]


IV. The Immaculate Conception

Without sufficient control, Marian devotion developed unregulated in the church.  With an increasing interest in the holiness of Mary, the Western Church became absorbed into the question of her immaculate conception.  Though Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, and even the great venerator of Mary, Saint Bernard, held that Mary had been infected by original sin, the later Middle Ages saw the rise of theologians supporting her sinlessness.  Supported strongly by the Franciscan order, Duns Scotus and William of Occam promoted the view that Mary was freed from the stain of original sin, as did Luther’s theological grandfather, Gabriel Biel.[30]

Being weaned on the theology of Occam and Biel, Luther was able to say of Mary early in his career, “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.”[31]  Catholic historian Hartman Grisar states, “As late as 1527 [Luther] even acknowledged the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary, in conformity with theological traditions of the Augustinian Order.”[32]   Early on though, Luther held this doctrine with the qualification that it was not essential to salvation.  He said in 1518, “the Roman church along with the general council at Basel and almost with the whole church feels that the Holy Virgin was conceived without sin.  Yet those who hold the opposite opinion should not be considered heretics, since their opinion has not been disproved.”[33]  Likewise in 1521 Luther said, “In regard to the conception of our Lady [the papacy has] admitted that, since this article is not necessary to salvation, it is neither heresy nor error when some hold that she was conceived in sin, although in this case council, pope, and the majority hold a different view.”[34]  

By the end of his career, his position had changed.  In 1544, Luther rejected the idea that "through the centuries a pure strain (massa imperdita) had been preserved from which Christ ultimately came.  In his lectures on Gen. 38:1-5 he calls attention to the immorality and incest to be found among our Lord’s ancestors according to the flesh.”[35]
Rather than long treatises on the subject, Luther again shifts the emphasis from the mother to the Messiah.  Rather than discussing Mary’s sinlessness, he insisted 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. [36]

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.”[37]  Mary functioned in Luther’s theology as “the guarantee of the reality of the incarnation and of the human nature of Christ.”[38]  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. 

V. Perpetual Virginity
Perhaps the most startling aspect of Luther’s theology of Mary is his lifelong belief in her perpetual virginity.  He was aware though, that it was within the realm of Christian orthodoxy to disagree with this doctrine: “The church leaves this [to us] and has not decided.”[39]  Though Luther would often speak negatively of Jerome, he accepted his argument set down in the fourth century defending the perpetual virginity of Mary. Jerome argued that, “first born son” does not necessarily mean there were other sons after Jesus, and those passages that refer to “brothers of the Lord” were actually cousins.[40] Commenting on John 2:12 Luther said, “I am inclined to agree with those who declare that “brothers” really means “cousins” here, for Holy Writ and the Jews always call cousins brothers.”[41]  Luther was aware of different suggestions as to understanding the biblical phrase, “brothers of Jesus.” He rejected, but allowed, both the idea that Joseph had children from a previous marriage, or that Joseph had two wives simultaneously.[42]  He said, “Whether or not the Lord had half brothers “neither adds to nor detracts from faith.  It is immaterial whether these men were Christ’s cousins or His brothers begotten by Joseph.”[43]  Luther though, will not even consider the possibility that Mary might have had other children besides Jesus.  Luther was to hold his entire career, “in childbirth and after childbirth, as she was a virgin before childbirth, so she remained.”[44]

Early in the 1520’s, rumors circulated around Germany that Luther taught “Jesus was conceived of the seed of Joseph, and that Mary was not a virgin, but had many sons after Christ.”[45]  With veneration of Mary imbedded deeply in the medieval culture, these were serious charges.  It became particularly pressing for Luther to respond when he became aware that Archduke Ferdinand similarly accused him.  To these allegations he wrote, That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew in 1523.  Luther treats at length the miracle of the virgin birth, and on the basis of lack of biblical evidence to the contrary, Mary must have remained perpetually virgin:

 Scripture does not quibble or speak about the virginity of Mary after the birth of Christ, a matter about which the hypocrites are greatly concerned, as if it were something of the utmost importance on which our whole salvation depended.  Actually, we should be satisfied simply to hold that she remained a virgin after the birth of Christ because Scripture does not state or indicate that she later lost her virginity... But the Scripture stops with this, that she was a virgin before and at the birth of Christ; for up to this point God had need of her virginity in order to give us the promised blessed seed without sin. [46]

 Interestingly, Luther implies a disbelief in Mary’s bodily assumption through the use of a similar argument: “we have no knowledge of the death of Mary, the mother of Christ.  Sarah alone has this glory, that the definite number of her years, the time of her death, and the place of her burial are described.  Therefore this is great praise and very sure proof that she was precious in the eyes of God.”[47]

While holding this belief, Luther will not have Mary’s perpetually virginity extolled.  He condemns those who venerate this attribute, and notes that it exists only to bring forth the Messiah:

Now just take a look at the perverse lauders of the mother of God.  If you ask them why they hold so strongly to the virginity of Mary, they truly could not say.  These stupid idolators do nothing more than to glorify only the mother of God; they extol her for her virginity and practically make a false deity of her. But Scripture does not praise this virginity at all for the sake of the mother; neither was she saved on account of her virginity.  Indeed, cursed be this and every other virginity if it exists for its own sake, and accomplishes nothing better than its own profit and praise.

The Spirit extols this virginity, however, because it was needful for the conceiving and bearing of this blessed fruit.  Because of the corruption of our flesh, such blessed fruit could not come, except through a virgin.  Thus this tender virginity existed in the service of others to the glory of God, not to its own glory.[48]

Even in Luther’s acceptance of perpetual virginity, it was not to be worshipped as the attribute of a goddess.  Luther points out that Mary fades from the biblical account after the birth, because the emphasis of the Scriptures are on her child: “For the prophet and the evangelist, and St. Paul as well, do not treat of this virgin beyond the point where they have from her that fruit for whose sake she is a virgin and everything else.  After the child is born they dismiss the mother and speak not about her, what became of her, but only about her offspring.”[49]   That Luther did not spend entire treatises defending perpetual virginity serves to show that what was important to him was not Mary’s lack of children, but rather the child she did give birth to.  Throughout his career, he would minimize the emphasis on this Marian doctrine.

VI. Praying To Mary

In a sermon of August 15, 1516, Luther was to say, “O blessed mother! O most worthy virgin!  Remember us, and grant that the Lord do such great things to us too.”[50]   In 1519, Luther still could exhort his congregation to “call upon the holy angels, particularly his own angel, the Mother of God, and all the apostles and saints[51] as a comfort in the hour when each was to face their own death.  By 1522 things had changed. Erfurt Evangelists questioning Luther on the intercession of saints received this response,

I beseech in Christ that your preachers forbear entering upon questions concerning the saints in heaven and the deceased, and I ask you to turn the attention of people away from these matters in view of the fact…that they are neither profitable nor necessary for salvation.  This is also reason why God decided not to let us know anything about His dealings with the deceased.  Surely he is not committing a sin who does not call upon any saint but only clings firmly to the one mediator, Jesus Christ.[52]   

In the same year, Luther put together his Personal Prayer Book, including the traditional Hail Mary, which all Catholic prayer books contained.  Luther though was to place the Hail Mary in an evangelical context, and this to the consternation of his critics. An early pamphlet criticized his prayer book as a “subtle mixture of poison with much that was good.”  The “poison” was Luther’s evangelical interpretation of the Hail Mary, “which was bound to offend many who were accustomed to, the cult of the Virgin.”[53]

Luther said,

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.[54]

But what does Luther mean by “through Mary”?  Luther does not mean, “by praying to her,” but rather by thanking God for creating such a noble, blessed, person.  The words of the Hail Mary are “neither a prayer nor an invocation” and “are not concerned with prayer but purely with giving praise and honor” to God.[55]  The man who only a few years earlier called upon her, concluded that “those who bless her with many rosaries and constantly mouth the Hail Mary… speak evil against Christ’s word and faith in the worst way.”[56]  Their prayers to her are an evil deed against both her and her son.  With this popular prayer, Luther reinterpreted it for his readers, again shifting the emphasis of praise to Mary to veneration of God alone.

Luther knew that prayers to, and faith in the saints violated the First Commandment. In his understanding, the role of faith or trust in the First Commandment determines whether one worships the true God, or an idol.  To have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe in Him with the whole heart.  This trust and the faith of the heart alone make either God or an idol. If faith and trust are “right,” then your god is the true God.  If it is wrong, then you do not have the true God.  That to which the heart clings is really your God.  If your heart clings and entrusts itself to something God has made, then your faith is wrong, and you are caught in your sin, and you stand under the crushing condemnation of God’s law.[57]  Luther said,

No one can deny that by such saint worship we have now come to the point where we have actually made utter idols of the Mother of God and the saints, and that because of the service we have rendered and the works we have performed in their honor we have sought comfort more with them than with Christ Himself. Thereby faith in Christ has been destroyed. [58]

As Luther’s thinking was transformed by a Christ centered hermeneutic, it was inevitable that the harsh judge and the silent idols would be replaced by the true God of the gospel.  Christ the cruel judge who had to be appeased by “penance, confession, and works of satisfaction, [and] with the intercession of his mother and of all the saints,” [59] was now Christ the “comfort us poor sinners in the most loving and effective manner.”[60] One was no longer saved by “works, monkery, Masses, and saint worship but exclusively through this Christ.” [61]  For Luther, Mary was not a goddess or intercessor. She granted no gifts, and rendered no aid.[62]  The only one to cry out to was Christ. 

VII. Conclusion
The final ten years of his life were spent lecturing on Genesis.  When he looked at the Latin translation Genesis 3:15, he said, “How amazing, how damnable, that through the agency of foolish exegetes Satan has managed to apply this passage, which in fullest measure abounds in the comfort of the Son of God, to the Virgin Mary! For in all the Latin Bibles the pronoun appears in the feminine gender: “And she will crush.”[63] Surveying the landscape of understanding of this passage, Luther found “all the recent interpreters have followed along and misused this most sacred statement for the purpose of idolatry, without anyone objecting to it or preventing it.”[64]  He makes it clear though, “We do not want to take away from Mary any honor which is her due; but we want to remove the idolatry contained in the statement that by giving birth to Christ, Mary has destroyed all the power of Satan.” [65]

Here was the centrality of the issue for Luther.  Mary had taken the role of intercessor, co-redeemer, and had been elevated to the status of a “goddess” who would defeat Satan.  She had become an idol. In the worship of idols, there is no salvation. Only “those who accept the teaching of the Gospel lose …their sins and eternal death, [and] gain freedom from all idolatry and from the rule of Satan.”[66]  Luther would understand the most formidable expression of the Devil’s hatred of God and His people found around the doctrine of Christ.  The Devil will even let us hold to an especially orthodox biblical understanding of the person of Christ, but without truly trusting in Jesus.  The modern Roman Catholic who venerates Mary finds himself in the same situation as his medieval ancestor: Mary takes on the attributes of Christ and thus becomes an idol, even while one may be holding to a particularly orthodox view of Christ. 

While Luther could call Mary the “Mother of God,” he was far more concerned to say something about the work of God in Christ than about her, thus, he un-deified her by definition.  His usage was not intended to be a quasi-divine statement of veneration similar to medieval or current Roman Catholic trends.  When Luther abandoned aspects of Mariology like the Immaculate Conception, it served to further un-deify the goddess. Christ was the only one conceived sinless ruling the throne of the heart, the only Savior in whom one could place their complete trust.  While retaining such beliefs like perpetual virginity, Luther did so in un-dogmatic terms, making sure that Mary was not to be deified for such an attribute.  He implied in the Table Talk that it was Mary’s choice to remain a virgin after the birth of Christ, rather than her continued virginity being a miraculous gift from God.[67]

While destroying the idol of the Virgin Mary, Luther was conscious not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.”  Mary held a positive role in Luther’s theology, serving as a strong example of sola fide, “by faith alone.” Jarislov Pelikan observes, “Mary became the obvious case study of this for Luther, as the opening words of Mary’s Magnificat showed him that ‘holiness of spirit…consists in nothing else than faith pure and simple.’”[68]  Pelikan continued,

In a characteristic summary of the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith and not by works, he insisted on the basis of Mary’s faith “that works breed nothing but discrimination, sin, and discord, while faith alone makes men pious, united, and peaceable.”  Therefore “faith and the Gospel… are the highest goods…which no one should let go.”  For when Mary said to the angel Gabriel (in Luther’s German), ‘Let it happen to me as you have said [Mir gesche, wie du gesagt hast],’ this was above all an expression of her faith.  And ‘through such faith alone she was saved and freed from sin.”[69]

There is not a covert Protestant effort to keep the world from Luther’s Mariology. Luther’s Mariology consisted of shattering the idol of the Virgin Mary with his doctrine of justification by faith.  To the medieval ear these words must have been revolutionary: “Even the holy mother of God did not become good, was not saved, by her virginity or her motherhood, but rather by the will of faith and the works of God, and not by her purity, or her own works.  Therefore, mark me well: this is the reason why salvation does not lie in our own works, no matter what they are; it cannot and will not be effected without faith.”[70]

The colors of the Roman Catholic picture of Luther’s devotion to Mary become blurry and unfocused when examined in the light of his writings and theology.  Once the intercessory role of Mary was abandoned, Luther saw the idol medieval theology had created.  The medieval veneration had its sole purpose of appealing to her for daily and ultimate help.  Her attributes were worshipped in order to gain her favor.  To suggest that Luther held a virtually Roman Mariology is to imply his veneration of Mary and her tradition-created attributes.  It is to say that Luther sought her as a means to her Son.  For Luther though, quite the opposite is the case:

Christ is not so much a judge and an angry God but one who bears and carries our sins, a mediator.  Away with the papists, who have set Christ before us as a terrible judge and have turned the saints into intercessors! There they have added fuel to the fire.  By nature we are already afraid of God. Blessed therefore are those who as uncorrupted young people arrived at this understanding, that they can say: “I only knew Jesus Christ as the bearer of my sins.[71]

VIII. Appendix  (Revised July, 2003)

"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" (Sermon: "On the Day of the Conception of the Mother of God," 1527")

This quote is frequently cited on Roman Catholic web pages attempting to prove Luther’s lifelong belief in Mary’s immaculate conception. Unfortunately, the quote is almost impossible to track down. The sermon is not included in the English edition of Luther’s Works, and rarely will Roman Catholic web sites give any documentation other than, “Sermon: ‘On the Day of the Conception of the Mother of God.’” The exception has been Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong. Up until the posting of this paper, Mr. Armstrong cited the above quote from the work of Hartmann Grisar’s book, Luther Vol. IV. Grisar cites the source as “Werke,” Erl. Ed., 15 Page 58. Of the quote he says,

“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 Christo-centric theology developed, aspects of Luther’s Mariology were abandoned. Grisar recognizes this. In regards to the Luther quote in question, Grisar says,

“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.”

For a much fuller treatment of Luther’s view of the Immaculate Conception, please see my “Luther’s Theology of Mary: A Response To Dave Armstrong” found on this website.


Fife, Robert Herndon. The Revolt of Martin Luther. New York: Columbia University
      Press, 1957.

Grisar, Hartman. Martin Luther His Life and Work. Baltimore: Newman Press, 1959.

____________. Luther volume IV. St. Louis: B. Herder. 1915.

Lortz, Joseph. The Reformation in Germany, London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1968.

Luther, Martin. Luther's works Vol. 1-55. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999.

___________. Sermons of Martin Luther. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996.

___________. What Luther Says. St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959.

Oberman, Heiko A. The Impact of the Reformation. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans
         Publishing Co., 1994.

___________. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. New York: Doubleday, 1989.

Pelikan, Jarislov. Mary Through The Ages. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

Wicks, Jared, ed. Catholic Scholars Dialogue with Luther. Chicago: Loyola   University         
          Press, 1970.

X. Endnotes

[1] Joseph Lortz, “The Basic Elements of Luther’s Intellectual Style,” in Catholic Scholars Dialogue with Luther, ed. Jared Wicks  (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1970), 3.

[2] Joseph Lortz, The Reformation in Germany, trans. Ronald Walls (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1968), 1:296. Lortz does not give the reference to his quote of Cochlaeus. 

[3] Dave Armstrong, The Protestant Reformers on Mary, available from:; Internet; accessed 20 November 2002. This document is included in Appendix 1.

[4] Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary Through The Ages (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 158, referencing Walter Tappolet, ed., Das Marienlob der Reformatoren (Tubingen: Katzman Verlag, 1962).

[5] 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.

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

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

[8]  Lortz, The Reformation in Germany, 1:112.

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

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

[11] 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. 

[12] Pelikan, 144.

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

[14] Ibid., 22: 145.

[15] Ibid., 54: 84.

[16] Pelikan, 55.

[17] Ibid., 56.

[18] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, 41:97.

[19] For example, Luther’s Works 17:404; LW 35:55; LW 38: 289; LW 51:58; LW 52: 85.

[20] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, 54:425.

[21] Ibid., 21:308.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 21:307.

[24] Heiko A. Oberman, The Impact of the Reformation, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,1994), 242.

[25] Martin Luther, Luther's works, 21:329.

[26] Ibid., 21:298.
[27] Ibid.,,  21:321.

[28] Ibid. Emphasis mine.

[29] Ibid., 21:320.

[30] George Yule, Luther Theologian for Catholics and Protestants (Scotland: T & T Clark LTD, 1985), 109-110.

[31] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works,  43:40.

[32] Hartman Grisar, Martin Luther His Life and Work (Baltimore: Newman Press, 1959), 211.

[33] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works,  31:173.

[34] Ibid., 32: 79-80.

[35] Martin Luther, What Luther Says, Vol. 1, ed. Ewald Martin Plass  (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959) 151. This is the editors comment.

[36] Martin Luther, Sermons of Martin Luther, Vol. 7, ed. John Nicholas Lenker. ( Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 291.

[37] Ibid., 294.

[38] Pelikan, 157.

[39] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, 54:340.

[40] Pelikan, 118.

[41] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, 22: 215.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Martin Luther, “Sermon on the Presentation of Christ in the Temple,” Luthers Werke 52:688- 99,quoted in Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary Through The Ages, 158.

[45] Walther Brandt  and Jarislov Pelikan, Introduction to “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew” in  Martin Luther, Luther's works, vol. 45 : The Christian in Society II , 197.

[46] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, 45: 205-206.

[47] Ibid., 4:189.

[48] Ibid., 45:204.

[49] Ibid., 45:211.

[50] Martin Luther, “Sermon of August 15, 1516,” What Luther Says Vol. III, 1257.

[51] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works,  42:113.

[52] Martin Luther, “Letter to Erfurt evangelists July 10, 1522,” What Luther Says, Vol. 3, 1253.

[53] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works,  43:10.

[54] Ibid., 43:38.

[55] Ibid., 43:39.

[56] Ibid., 43:40.

[57] Robert Kolb, The Theology of Martin Luther, audiotapes of lectures by Robert Kolb, (Grand Rapids: Institute of Theological Studies), lecture 7.

[58] Martin Luther, D.Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, Abteilung Werke  11:415 quoted in MartinLuther, What Luther Says, Vol. III, ed. Ewald Martin Plass  (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), 1254.

[59] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, 40: 376.

[60] Ibid., 40: 375.

[61] Ibid., 24: 119.

[62] Ibid., 21: 327.

[63] Ibid., 1:191.

[64] Ibid., 1:191.

[65] Ibid., 1: 192.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid., 54:341.

[68] Pelikan, 160.

[69] Ibid.

[70] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, 51:62

[71] Ibid., 17:224.

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