Thursday, October 02, 2008

Luther's Magnificat: A Representation of Luther's Lifelong Mariology?

One of Rome's defenders states,

  "Therefore, it can be stated without fear of contradiction that Luther’s Mariology is very close to that of the Catholic Church today, far more than it is to the theology of modern-day Lutheranism. To the extent that this fact is dealt with at all by Protestants, it is often explained (a cynic might say, rather, “rationalized away”) as a “holdover” from the early Luther’s late medieval Augustinian Catholic views (“everyone has their blind spots,” etc.). But this will not do for those who are serious about consulting Luther in order to arrive at the true “Reformation heritage” and the roots of an authentic Protestantism."

Over the years I've commented on similar versions of the above statement. I was though recently reminded of it while reading The Works of Martin Luther Vol. III (from the old Philadelphia set). I was re-reading particularly, Luther's exposition of The Magnificat (1521). In this early writing, Luther gives a detailed presentation of his understanding of Mary (generally speaking, Luther treats Mary only sparsely throughout his writings). In the introductory essay, Albert Steinhaeuser states:
The Magnificat belongs to the class of devotional writings, of which we have already presented a specimen in Volume I, “The Fourteen of Consolation.” Like that treatise, it is dedicated to a prince, and reached its noble patron in parts. Like it, too, it contains relics of older views. Nevertheless, the Magnificat is a classical discussion of the place which the Virgin Mary occupies in the Protestant system. Although Luther regards her in one place as sinless, and invokes her aid and intercession at the beginning and close of his work, these are isolated instances; the whole tenor of the exposition is evangelical, and as far removed from the Mariolatry of Rome as from an ultra-protestant depreciation of the Mother of our Lord. “She does not want you to come to her, but through her to God.” There is something very human, and altogether unlike the radiant Queen of Heaven, in the Mary who “goes about her wonted household tasks, milking the cows, cooking the meals, washing pots and kettles, sweeping out the rooms.” It is Luther’s contribution to the German Madonna, and the Weimar editors well compare this and similar passages of the Magnificat with Albrecht Durer’s Marienleben, a series of quaint woodcuts portraying the life of the Virgin (1503-10).
So is Steinhaeuser "rationalizing away" Luther's Mariology in the Magnificat, or presenting it as a “holdover from the early Luther’s late medieval Augustinian Catholic views"? I think Steinhaeuser was aware that Luther's Mariology underwent change as Luther's career progressed, and his comments are accurate. Indeed, "Luther regards her in one place as sinless, and invokes her aid and intercession at the beginning and close of his work, these are isolated instances..." Steinhaeuser was most likely aware that Luther went on to deny the sinlessness of Mary, as well as reject the intercession of the saints. Even in this detailed treatise, one sees that particular aspects of popular Catholic Mariolatry (both then and now) were downplayed by Luther, even when he shared some similarities with modern day Roman Catholics.

Steinhaeuser though does treat the document as a "devotional writing." When one reads through it, Luther can go on for many paragraphs not even discussing Mary. There's a lot more going on in this treatise than a discussion about Mary. The "devotional" aspect of the treatise has little to do with "devotion" to Mary, that's for sure. In fact, Mary could be removed from a large portions of the writing. The document was dedicated to a young prince. One sees suspiciously that particular aspects of the treatise were directed toward social interaction between the rich and poor, and those in power and those in poverty. At certain points, one wonders while reading it if Luther's even going to return to the subject of "Mary."

How different this is to current trends in popular Catholic apologetics. They write entire books focused on Mary (immaculate conception, perpetual virginity, etc.). Luther though, when he takes the opportunity to focus on Mary, more often than not takes the focus off Mary.

This notion of "devotion" is interesting because of a footnote on the same page. Steinhaeuser states,
"At least a footnote should be devoted to the treatment of the Magnificat in the recent Roman Catholic life of Luther by Hartmann Grisar, S.J. (Freiburg, 1911-2, 3 vols.; an English translation in six volumes, by E.M. Lamond, is underway, four volumes having appeared thus far). Grisar calls the Magnificat a polemical not a devotional writing, and one that misrepresents the Catholic position (ii 798; iii, 406). He refers in support of his contention to the following passages: pp. 134 f., 143, 151 f., 155 f., 170, 191, 195 f. (?) 200. We ask the reader carefully to persue these pages, and then to judge whether it is a fair criticism to say that 'there pulsates through the Magnificat an unbridled spirit of attack and of hate' (iii, 73).
Hartmann Grisar was one of the leading Roman Catholic writers on Luther, and I find it interesting how he read the document. Steinhaeuser appears to be using Grisar's work in German when he quotes Grisar stating, "...there pulsates through the Magnificat an unbridled spirit of attack and of hate." In Grisar's Luther Vol. IV (English), I think the sentence is rendered, "Though such praise of Mary from which at a later date Luther desisted may be placed to his credit, yet it must be pointed out, that even the above discourse is disfigured by bitter and unwarrantable attacks on Catholic doctrine and practice" (p. 237).

I'd like to take a rare moment and actually admit Grisar is onto something when he saw the treatise as polemical, rather than devotional. While there are elements of it that are devotional, in the sense of devotion to God and practical advice for living the Christian life, there are other aspects of it that do appear polemical. Luther was writing this document for a young prince. It really does appear at times in the document he was very concerned about the relationship between ruler and subject.

I would not agree with all of the following, but Grisar recognized there was something just not quite Roman Catholic about Luther's Magnificat. He states,
His 'Exposition of the Magnificat' has frequently been taken as a proof of Luther s great piety. It indeed contains many good thoughts, even apart from those relating to Mary, but in numerous passages the author uses his pen for a highly prejudiced vindication of his new teachings on the state of grace. It should also be borne in mind that the printers started on the book just before the Diet of Worms, and that it was intended to attract and secure the support of the future rulers of the Saxon Electorate. Luther was also engaged at that time on his exceedingly violent screed against Catharinus, in which he attempts to reveal the Pope in his true character as Antichrist. When, after the Diet of Worms, he continued his work on the Magnificat he was certainly in no mood to compose a book of piety on Mary. The result was that the book became to all intents and purposes a controversial tract, which cannot be quoted as a proof of his piety or serenity of mind during those struggles. Luther's Magnificat is as little a serious work of edification and piety as his exposition of certain of the Psalms, which appeared almost simultaneously and was also directed " against the Pope and the doctrine of men.
The same question should be asked of Grisar that was asked of Steinhaeuser. Is Grisar "rationalizing away" Luther's Mariology in the Magnificat, or presenting it as a “holdover from the early Luther’s late medieval Augustinian Catholic views"? Grisar also states the following overview of Luther's Mariology. Ask yourself, would Grisar state "therefore, it can be stated without fear of contradiction that Luther’s Mariology is very close to that of the Catholic Church today"?

As long as he admitted the invocation of Saints, Luther assigned a prominent place to that of the Blessed Virgin. " She is to be invoked," he writes in 1521, " that God may give and do according to her will what we ask." After he had changed his mind concerning the saints, he was unwilling to allow this any longer.
Owing, however, to the after effects of his Catholic education, here particularly noticeable in him, we meet with many beautiful sayings of his in support of the worship of Mary, although as time went on he grew ever more hostile to it.


In the same year, on the Feast of our Lady s Conception, he speaks of her name, which he says is derived from " stilla maris," and extols her as the one pure drop in the ocean of the " massa perditionis." To his admission here that her conception was immaculate he was still true in 1527, as has already been shown; after 1529, however, the passage containing this admission was expunged when the sermon in question was reprinted. In his home-postils he says of her conception : " Mary the Mother was surely born of sinful parents, and in sin, as we were "; any explanation of the universal belief to the contrary and of his own previous statements he does not attempt.

In the "Prayer-book " which Luther prepared for the press he retained the " Hail Mary " together with the " Our Father " and the " I believe," but he cut it down to the angel s greeting, as contained in the Bible, and taught that thereby honour was merely to be given God for the grace announced to Mary. He frequently preached, e.g. in 1523, on the wrong use of this prayer.

Luther did not merely reproach the Catholics for making a goddess of Mary ; he even ventured some remarks scarcely to the credit of the Mother of God ; for a while, so he says, she had possessed only a small measure of faith and God had sometimes allowed her to waver ; such statements were due to his idea that all Christians, in order to preserve a firm faith in their hearts, must ever be waging battle. On these statements, Eck, in his Homilies, was very severe.

An attitude hostile to all the Catholic veneration for Mary is expressed by Luther in a sermon in 1522 on the Feast of our Lady s Nativity, included in his church-postils. It is true that we "owe honour to Mary," he says, rather frigidly, at the very beginning, " but we must take care that we honour her aright." He proceeds to explain that " we have gone too far in honouring her and esteem her more highly than we should." For in the first place we have thereby "disparaged " Christ, the Redeemer, and " by the profound honour paid to the Mother of God derogated from the honour and knowledge of Christ "; secondly, the honour due to our fellow-men and the love of the poor has thereby been forgotten. If it is a question of honouring anyone on account of his holiness, " then we are just as holy as Mary and the other Saints, however great, provided we believe in Christ."
That she " has a greater grace," viz. a higher dignity as the Mother of God, " is not due to any merit of hers, but simply because we cannot all be Mothers of God ; otherwise she is on the same level with us."
Of the anthem " Salve Regina," which is " sung throughout the world to the ringing of great bells," he says, that it was a " great blasphemy against God," for it terms Mary, the mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope. " The Regina Caeli is not much better, since it calls her Queen of Heaven." Why should her prayers have so much value, he asks, as though unaware of the explanations given by so many ecclesiastical writers, particularly by St. Bernard. " Your prayers, O Christian, are as dear to me as hers. And why ? Because if you believe that Christ lives in you as much as in her then you can help me as much as she."
In this discourse again he ventures on the calumny on the Catholic veneration of Mary, of which he was to make such frequent use later; it is equivalent to adoration ; "To seek to make of Mary an idol, that we cannot and may not do. We will not have her as a mediator, but as an advocate [to this Luther always clung] we will gladly accept her, like the other Saints. But people have put her above all the choirs of angels." Neither here nor elsewhere does he attempt to prove her alleged adoration or the idolatry of the Catholics ; when, a little further on, he launches forth against the pilgrimages made by common folk to churches and chapels of our Lady, he is straying from the subject and dealing with a practice of the faithful, quite harm less and wholesome in itself, whatever abuses it may then have involved.

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