Monday, April 18, 2016

Luther: The veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart

Some years back I wrote on this Martin Luther quote: "The veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart" (Sermon, September 1, 1522)."  If you search this quote, you'll find it has traveled far, even making its way to a handful of (mostly Roman Catholic) books, mis-documented (the date is wrong).  One of Rome's defenders uses this quote to prove "Luther held to the idea and devotional practice of the veneration of Mary and expressed this on innumerable occasions with the most effusive language." Another using this quote says, "Even Martin Luther, despite criticizing the Catholic doctrines of Mary's intercession and mediation, insisted on venerating Mary." Yet another using this quote says, "Not only was devotion to Mary a spiritually helpful practice, but it was an almost intrinsic aspect of healthy spirituality."

We'll see that this quote in context doesn't substantiate any of these things. Rather, the quote serves as an excellent example of why context matters. While Rome's defenders use the quote as positive proof that Luther was devoted to Mary, in context the quote is actually saying something negative about the veneration of Mary being inscribed in the very depths of the human heart.

The quote is typically documented as  "Sermon, September 1, 1522." This sort of sparse documentation is a good indicator that the person using the quote took it from a secondary source and never bothered to read it in its context. The quote may have originally come from two secondary Roman Catholic sources, one of which may have come close to plagiarizing the other. One of Rome's defenders may have taken it from Thomas O'Meara's Mary in Protestant and Catholic Theology (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1966). On page 123, O'Meara states,
To the end of his life Mary was to be honored and to be imitated. Luther never stopped preaching on her feast days. After all, he had written on September 1, 1522: "The veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart."(46)
46. WA 10, III, 313.
Sometimes the quote is documented as "Martin Luther, Weimar edition of Martin Luther's Works (Translation by William J. Cole) 10, III, p.313." This is how some of the versions of the now anonymous The Protestant Reformers on Mary webpage reads. While this documentation does include accurate information, it does include some information that's ambiguous and incomplete at best: William Cole was not a translator of the Weimar edition of Luther's Works. This documentation most likely refers to William Cole’s article “Was Luther a Devotee of Mary?” (Marian Studies Volume XXI, 1970), p.131. Cole states:
In spite of the most strenuous criticism of the actual practice of Marian devotion, Luther never deviated from this opinion to the end of his life: Mary was always to be honored, as a matter of record Luther himself never stopped preaching on her feast days and remained true to his own statement of September 1, 1522: "The veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart." (139)
139. WA 10, III, 313.
There is a strong possibility that Cole took this quote from O'Meara. Cole cites Mary in Protestant and Catholic Theology in his article on page 108. He concludes a point by referring to a summary statement from O'Meara, "Thus, as Father Thomas O'Meara has pointed out so well...". It's interesting also there's a similarity in pointing out Luther's preaching on Marian feast days previous to the quote in question. The most striking similarity though is that both of Rome's defenders refer to the wrong date of the sermon, September 1, 1522. The correct date is September 8, 1522.  

Both authors correctly refer to  WA 10, III, 313. There the text reads:

In my earlier entry on this quote, I was able to track down larger English excerpts of this context from WA 10 III. Since then, the entirety of the sermon has been translated. This sermon is sometimes referred to as "Sermon on the Day of Mary's Birth, 8 Sept. 1522." It was part of Luther's Kirchenpostille (festival sermons).

I am extremely grateful to the translation work of Joel Baseley. He put together a fresh English translation of these sermons, many of which had not been translated into English previously. I'm not sure if Baseley realized the modern Roman Catholic polemical use of many of these sermons. His work inadvertently gave me the contexts for a number of Roman Catholic Luther quotes (including one of the most popular, Luther's alleged belief in the immaculate conception).

Basely translated  the title of this sermon, "The Day of the Nativity of Mary (Matthew 1)."

Baseley explains in his introduction to these sermons,
Luther's goal in issuing the festival sermons was to wean his people away from the adoration and veneration of the saints which had crept into the church in order to lead them back to venerate Christ alone and to serve not the dead but the living saints in need, according to Christ's command (Baseley, introduction).
In other words, this Luther quote that says "The veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart" is actually part of a collection of sermons intended to wean people away from venerating the saints! Amazing. Here's Baseley's translation of the paragraph this quote comes from in the sermon:
"Today's feast of the blessed Virgin celebrates her birth. We also read today in the beginning of Matthew the accounting of part of the family tree including the great ancestors of Jesus Christ.  But you know, my friends in Christ, that the honor given to the mother of God has been rooted so deeply into the hearts of men that no one wants to hear any opposition to this celebration. There is rather a desire to further elevate it and make it even greater. We also grant that she should be honored, since we, according to Saint Paul's words [Romans 12] are indebted to show honor one to another for the sake of the One who dwells in us, Jesus Christ. Therefore we have an obligation to honor Mary. But be careful to give her honor that is fitting. Unfortunately, I worry that we give her all too high an honor for she is accorded much more esteem than she should be given or than she accounted to herself.

So from this comes two abuses. First Christ is diminished by those who place their hearts more upon Mary than upon Christ himself. In doing so Christ is forced into the background and completely forgotten. The other abuse is that the poor saints here on earth are forgotten.

I would allow a high regard for Mary and her praise, just so long as you do not get carried away and consider making a law out of it so that she must be honored as a condition for your salvation. For the Scriptures have recorded nothing about her birth or life. So your hearts must not be placed upon her and she must not be exalted above her proper status. The monks invented all this abuse. They wanted to praise the woman. They have used Mary as an excuse to invent all kinds of lies by which she could be used to establish their twaddle. They have used Scriptures to drag Mary by the hair and force her to go where she never intended. For the Gospel that is read today reveals Christ's nativity, not Mary's. See how many lies have come out of this which we can in no way tolerate. I can surely allow her to be honored but not in a way that belies the Scriptures." [Baseley, pp. 157-158]

Luther's point is that whatever respect Mary was due to her, the church of his day had collectively had gone far beyond it."The veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart" is not a positive statement, but a negative statement. This sentence placed back in its context is in regard to excessive Marian devotion, a devotion so rooted in the human heart that "no one wants to hear any opposition to this celebration" of the feast of Mary's birth. Luther goes on to wish this festival day in regard to Mary should be forgotten,  "For there is nothing in the Scriptures about it [Mary's birth]" (p. 158). Luther also says,
 "We are just as holy as Mary and the other saints, no matter how great the are, when we only believe in Christ" (p. 158).
"Her being given great grace is not done so that we should venerate her, but out of God's mercy for her. For we could not all be God's mother, but apart from that she is just like us and must also come to grace through the blood of Christ as we do" (p. 158).

And so on. Luther's view of the saints was still in transition during 1522, and reading through this short sermon certainly demonstrates this. The "veneration" rooted so deeply in the hearts of Luther's hearers was not a positive thing, but rather the result of excessive Marian piety.

Luther's Mariology is a subject that fascinates me, not so much because I either care about learning Mariology, or even what Luther thought about it. Rather, my fascination is the way in which Rome's defenders appeal to Luther in support of Mariology, often at the expense of research and a context. The quote examined above demonstrates that if you track down the context, it may say something quite different. It's typical of Rome's cyber defenders that when they cut-and-paste quotes like this, even when the secondary source they're utilizing provides accurate documentation, they often don't bother to look up the context. This is not being "deep into history" as they so often claim.

Addendum #1
Both O'Meara and Cole say Luther did not stop preaching on Marian feast days. In actuality, Luther abandoned the festival of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, her birth, and her Assumption. Consider the following noted by Eric Gritsch in his article “The Views of Luther and Lutheranism on the Veneration of Mary,” found in: H. George Anderson, J. Francis Stafford, Joseph A. Burgess (editors) The One Mediator, The Saints, and Mary, Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1992):
“He rejected the festivals of Mary's Immaculate Conception, December 8, and her Assumption, August 15” (p. 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" (p. 241).
“Luther continued to preach on these festivals, but stopped preaching on the other three festivals after 1523”  (p. 382).
When one actually reads Luther’s Marian sermons, one finds that Mary is usually not the main subject, Christ is. Mary is often simply mentioned in passing, with perhaps a few paragraphs allotted to any discussion about her. There are exceptions to this, but the older Luther got, the less his Marian sermons focused on Mary. For instance, here is a complete "Marian" sermon,  “The Day of Annunciation to Mary” by Martin Luther (Luke 1:26-38, Second Sermon 1534). See for yourself how much Luther emphasized the veneration of Mary.

Addendum #2
This blog entry is a revision of an entry I posted back in 2012. The original can be found here. Because so many sources are now available online, I'm revising older entries by adding additional materials and commentary and also fixing or deleting dead hyperlinks. Nothing of any significant substance has changed in this entry from that presented in the former. The original entry was provoked by a 2012 discussion on Luther's Mariology at Catholic Answers (still view-able).  The current revision was prompted by a CARM discussion.


Turretinfan said...

So, it's basically a part of original sin. LOL

Jeph said...

Shame on those Roman apologists who deliberately misrepresent Luther.

The Blogger Formerly Known As Lvka said...

Catholics are going straight to Hell !!!

James Swan said...


When Protestants have beyond and back stories, I don't believe them either.

William said...

Great post.