The subject of Mary in relation to the Reformation, and to Protestantism in general, is as I’ve alluded to in my earlier post, of particular closeness to me, having been raised Protestant. In fact, I was raised Lutheran. That said, I do not claim to be an expert on Luther or Lutheranism (and I no longer consider myself part of that tradition), so I welcome clarifications and corrections to what follows.
One of the most deceptively simple observations in our discussion today was that of how Luther’s understanding of “justification by faith alone” influences the position he takes on Marian devotion, emphasizing her lowliness and de-emphasizing the act of saying “yes.”
I think this is indeed part of what Luther is doing. Mary, he argues, is not made more special by having given birth to God. There are not varying levels or qualities of grace, but one grace which is sufficient for all.
But I think it is only part of the story. Luther’s doctrine of predestination, as I was catechized, is not as total as Calvin’s; he believes that on some level it is possible to accept or reject grace. There is a “yes” involved, but that “yes” is the beginning and the end of our contribution, if it can be called that, to salvation. I think Luther might sympathize with the metaphor of a gift: when one accepts a gift, one does not claim that by accepting it, one has somehow earned the gift and received it as a reward or wage for labor. It’s true that the gift we receive is not to be bodily pregnant with God, but that for Luther is a distinction without a difference.
What was particularly frustrating to me about the scholarly work we read on Luther’s attitude toward Mary was how intently and unreflectingly these writers insisted on viewing Luther’s (and the rest of the reformers’) attitude toward Mary as an outgrowth of a discourse on Mary, meanwhile only touching on other hotly contested areas within the Reformation.
As we’ve seen throughout our discussions, Mary is often not the issue; rather, the poor woman frequently serves as a battleground for the working out of other theological problems. I think it’s not much different with Luther.
One of Luther’s big problems, not just in the context of the debate over Mary, is with the authority he perceives the priests and the broader bureaucracy of the church, particularly in Rome, holding over salvation. We can see this reflected in his 95 Theses. Luther is not overly concerned with how “popular religion” distorts orthodoxy, but by how the official theology confuses and misleads the populace, causing them to think that salvation is purchased through penance or indulgences and to despair of their own salvation as well as of doing actual good works, out of love rather than duty. Whether his assessment is accurate, I am in no position to judge. But it seems to me that justification by faith alone is at least in part a powerful response to this concern and perhaps to Luther’s own anxiety over the salvation of his soul.
I want to unpack two components of this issue of authority, which I think reveal the stakes in Luther’s discussion of Mary.
In the first place, it becomes necessary for Luther to reject arguments for the authority of the Church in the forgiveness of sins. For some of these arguments, it is sufficient for Luther to fall back on a position of sola Scriptura, of insisting that extra-Scriptural argumentation cannot carry authority which supersedes the words of Scripture. For those arguments which are based in Scripture, it is necessary to deny that they are based in Scripture by asserting a Scriptural hermeneutic which precludes such readings.
This dovetails with the second issue--that of locating all authority in Scripture and therefore needing a reading of Scripture which is somehow clearer and less corruptible by language than so-called allegorical readings. Particularly, a way of reading Scripture that does not allow for manipulation by priests or a kind of idolatrous slippage from metaphor into a literalized belief in, for example, Mary as Goddess.
Yet this leaves Luther with a fairly significant hermeneutic and epistemological problem. Scripture is a notoriously difficult book. What is the “right” way to read it, and how do you know? Luther tries to sail between the Scylla of the “papists’” use of allegory to, as he sees it, bolster their own authority and deny the good news of salvation, and the Charybdis of Christological heresy.
Luther is emphatically literal in certain readings (such as his famous insistence on the literal, or real, presence of Christ in the Eucharist), but I don’t mean to suggest that he wants to dispose of allegory entirely. Like many reform movements, there is an element of nostalgia in Luther’s reforming impulses. The current age is always the most depraved of ages, and reform involves looking back as well as looking forward. In this respect, Luther’s conservatism toward certain doctrines is not to be puzzled over but expected.
We can see this in how he treats Mary. He limits himself to Scriptural accounts and tries to destabilize the metaphors which seem to elevate her above the ordinary Christian, and especially metaphors which place her between the Christian and salvation. (Her role as intercessor is doubly charged, since it is not only problematic in its own right but it also, I would suggest, reflects for Luther the role the priests and the Pope have usurped from Christ as mediators of salvation.) Yet there is little in Luther’s treatment of Mary that’s actually new to the tradition.
In this light, it is almost irrelevant what actual religious practice regarding Mary claimed about her. Perhaps he heard a priest preach of Mary as a Goddess and misconstrued the metaphor; perhaps the priest himself misconstrued it. Regardless, Mary also functions as a cipher for all of the issues Luther is trying to work out—use of argumentation by authority not drawn from Scripture, use of extra-Scriptural apocryphal sources, metaphors which when literalized slip into idolatry, issues of priestly mediation and saintly intercession, and of course, justification by faith.
That people followed him is perhaps evidence that at least some of those concerns had a wider resonance, but we must be careful not to treat his criticisms, especially of one particular aspect of the current religious devotion, as representative of the whole, or to take his critique of Marian devotion too literally--that is, as properly describing actual practice.