Sunday, April 15, 2012

Luther on the Assumption of Mary: "There can be no doubt that the Virgin Mary is in heaven. How it happened we do not know"

...From the Catholic Answers Forum:
Perhaps [Luther] believed in the Assumption of Mary too. In his sermon of August 15, 1522, the last time he preached on the Feast of the Assumption, he stated: "There can be no doubt that the Virgin Mary is in heaven. How it happened we do not know. And since the Holy Spirit has told us nothing about it, we can make of it no article of faith... It is enough to know that she lives in Christ."-Martin Luther (Sermon, Feast of the Assumption of Mary, 1522)

Or perhaps the context doesn't say what this quote implies. Here's an English translation of the context this quote comes from. The above snippet is a very condensed version of this context:
Today the festival of our dear lady, the mother of God, is observed to celebrate her death and departure above. But how little this Gospel corresponds with this is plain. For this Gospel tells us nothing about Mary being in heaven. And even if one could draw from this text every detail about what it is like for a saint to be in heaven, it would be of little use. It is enough that we know that departed saints live in God, as Christ concludes in Matthew [Matthew 22] based on the passage in Exodus [Exodus 4] where God says to Moses, "I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob," that God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living.

These passages sufficiently prove that they live. But we should not try to figure out what their life is like up there for it is not necessary for us to know. It is also not necessary to discover it. Reason is incapable of it. Some great masters have understanding about some things and yet not about this. For there are three states of life. First, as a child lays in his crib he lives in God but hardly perceives it Second, when we sleep we also are alive and are scarcely aware of it. Thirdly, when we definitely are aware and experience that we are living, even then we don't know how.

Now since here on earth God deals with us in this meager prison (that is barely half a life), in such a way that we barely perceive how we live here, how much more can He give life in heaven where it is spacious and where is true life. So we cannot set up any definite limits or establish a rule as to how the saints live there since even here dreaming and crazy people live, but we can't imagine how. It is enough to know that they live. But it is not necessary for us to know what that life is like. That is why I have always said that our faith always must rest upon what is known. We do not make articles of faith out of what doesn't rest squarely on Scriptures, else we would daily make up new articles of faith. For this reason, those things that are necessary to believe which you must always preserve, which Scripture clearly reveals, are to be markedly distinguished from everything else. For faith must not build itself upon what Scripture does not clearly prove. So since the Scripture clearly says here that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and all believers live, then it is necessary for you to believe that the mother of God lives. You can leave it in our gracious God's hands what that life is like. Enough said about this festival. [Festival Sermons of Martin Luther (Michigan: Mark V Publications, 2005) pp. 145-146].
The quote cited by the person in the Catholic Answers forum has some history.

Roman Catholic apologist Peter Stravinskas states, "As far as the assumption goes, [Luther] did not pronounce clearly on this subject, but was content simply to affirm it.' "

First, note Stravinskas provides no references to any primary material from Luther writings. Rather, Stravinskas is citing the opinion of someone else, William J. Cole ["Was Luther a Devotee of Mary?" (Marian Studies), (1970), 123]. The odd thing about the Cole citation, is that Cole is also actually citing someone else's opinion. See for yourself:
"For Luther the Assumption seems not to be so much a matter of doubt as of little importance and this is perhaps the reason, as Max Thurian affirms, that Luther did not pronounce clearly on the subject, but was content simply to affirm it."
So I went and took at look at what Max Thurian said. Thurian's comment is as follows:
"On the issue of the Assumption Luther does not speak precisely but is content to assert on August 15th, 1522: 'From this gospel one cannot draw any conclusion about the fashion in which Mary is in heaven- it is not necessary any more to know the fate of the saints in heaven. It is enough to know that they dwell in Christ as God says in Matt. 22: 32: "God is not a God of the dead but of the living' making reference to the text of Exodus 3. 6: "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob"' (ibid., 55)." (Thurian, Mary Mother of the Lord, Figure of the Church, p.197)
First, note Thurian never says Luther "simply affirmed" the Assumption. He says Luther made an assertion in 1522. So, shame on Stravinskas for not looking up the basis of Cole's opinion. Then, shame on William Cole, for reading into the Thurian quote the idea that Luther simply affirmed the Assumption. The basis for  this idea of Luther simply affirming the Assumption is based on a mis-reading of Thurian. Thurian states Luther did not speak precisely. But as the context above shows, it's true Luther "did not speak precisely" about the Assumption, but he didn't even hint at affirming it according to the plain reading of this context. So anyone would say something like Luther "never denied" the Assumption is simply reading into the context, or perhaps never had read or checked the context to begin with.

Addendum #1: Mary's Death No Different than Other Women in the Bible
In Luther's later writings on Genesis towards the end of his career though, he discusses how the Scriptures do not record the death of many Biblical women, including Mary. Luther is discussing how the Bible details the death and burial of Sarah:
“Then one should much rather consider how Abraham delivered a beautiful funeral address about Sarah. For in the Holy Scriptures no other matron is so distinguished. Her years, lives, conduct, and burial place are described. In the eyes of God, therefore, Sarah was an extraordinary jewel on whom extraordinary love was bestowed, and she is mentioned deservedly by Peter as an exemplar for all saintly wives. He says (1 Peter 3:6) that she called Abraham lord and that “you are her daughters.” To all Christian matrons Peter holds her up as a mother.

Scripture has no comments even on the death of other matriarchs, just as it makes no mention of how many years Eve lived and of where she died. Of Rachel it is recorded that she died in childbirth (Gen. 35:16–19). All the other women it passes over and covers with silence, with the result that 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." (LW 4:189-190)
Addendum #2: Luther and the "Feast" of the Assumption
Interestingly, Cole goes on to point out that Luther "used strong language....for the elimination of the Assumption as an aspect of the 'hypocritical church',” particularly in celebrating a feast for it. Cole cites Luther as saying in 1544:
“The feast of the Assumption is totally papist, full of idolatry and without foundation in the Scriptures. But we, even though Mary has gone to heaven, should not bother how she went there. We will not invoke her as our special advocate as the Pope teaches. The pope takes away the honor due to the Ascension of our Lord, Christ, with the result that he has made the mother like her Son in all things.”
Eric Gritsch similarly points out Luther went on to abandon the festival of Mary’s Immaculate Conception and her Assumption:
“He rejected the festivals of Mary's Immaculate Conception, December 8, and her Assumption, August 15.” [Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII, 240].
“According to Luther Mary should be honored in festivals that focus on Christ, which is why he eventually rejected the celebrations of her Immaculate Conception (December 8), her birth (September 8), and her Assumption (August 15). He did honor her in the festivals of the Annunciation (March 25), the Visitation (July 2), and Purification (February 2), since these are connected with the birth of Christ. "We dare not put our faith in the mother but only in the fact that the child was born."[Ibid. 241]
“Luther continued to preach on these festivals, but stopped preaching on the other three festivals after 1523.”[Ibid. 382]

Addendum #3: Luther's Burial Vault Does Not Prove Belief in the Assumption of Mary
Roman Catholic apologist Mark Shea once said: ""For Luther the Assumption was a settled fact...indeed Luther's burial vault in the Wittenburg church on whose door he had posted his ninety five theses was adorned with the 1521 Peter Vischer's sculpture of the Coronation of the Virgin." Peter Stravinskas likewise states,
"Most interesting of all, perhaps, is the realization that his burial chamber in the Wittenberg church, on whose door he had posted his 95 Theses, was adorned with the 1521 Peter Vischer sculpture of the Coronation of the Virgin, with the inscription containing these lines: Ad summum Regina thronum defertur in altum: Angelicis praelatia choris, cui festus et ipse Filius occurrens Matrem super aethera ponit. This "archaeological" fact would seem to speak volumes about Luther's final thoughts on the place of Mary in the life of a Christian."
Sorry Gentleman. This sculpture is not on Luther's tomb, but rather: "the plate is the tombstone for Henning Goden, Jurist and last Catholic Provost of the Castle Church." See my previous entry here.

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