Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Is Luther really talking about Mary when he talks about Mary?

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.



  1. You bring up some important issues with scriptural interpretation in general, but perhaps at the cost of objectivity you seem to be employing Luther as a sort of scapegoat for these issues we have encountered with many of our sources. I do not wish to play his advocate, but as something of a Christian skeptic myself I am all too familiar with that strait between the Scylla and Charybdis that you identify, and I think that his hermeneutical conclusions may not be as uniquely self-serving as they seem prima facie. Certainly, he tends to use Mary as a "battleground" for other theological arguments, but is that not exactly what his Catholic opponents were doing as well?

    The distinction emphasized in the modern scholarship between the "official theology" and "popular religion" of Luther's day is surely a false dichotomy: whatever Christological (or Marian) innovations the pope decided to institute were recognized by all of western Christendom, whether willingly or otherwise. Is that not exactly what Luther was struggling against? When he seems to manipulate the interpretation of scripture in order to challenge papal policy, is he not engaging in exactly the same exercise as his Catholic counterparts? When he invokes allegorical readings of scripture to suit his purpose, is the maneuver not based on ecclesial precedent?

    As I said, I do not wish to take his side necessarily, but merely to complicate your conclusions as stated. We have seen variously that Marian devotion had elevated the Virgin to a position of pseudo-divinity by this time, so the issue of "what actual religious practice regarding Mary claimed about her" is entirely relevant to the discussion. The very rhetoric of "actual religious practice" is problematic since any pragmatic notion of popular religion was determined by the pope, so perhaps we should instead treat Luther's criticisms as even more indicative of public sentiment than whatever you identify as "actual practice."

  2. I wasn't trying to "scapegoat" Luther at all, just to point out that he's dealing with a web of issues, not just or even primarily Marian devotion, and that some of his solutions have their own implications for how he works through the topic of Mary, specifically. Reading the Bible poses a problem to all traditions in various ways. I don't think it's at all unique to Luther. R.C.H.

    1. Dear RCH,
      Thank you for this post. I'm glad to probe more deeply into Luther's theological motivations for his Mariology. With you, I see Mary as a sort of 'test case,' ideal thought experiment as well as 'battleground' for working out certain implications of one's theology.
      You give a strong description of Luther's view of sola Scriptura as a possible motivation. Certainly Luther’s principle underlies much of this thought from the beginning. However, I do not think sola Scriptura is necessarily opposed to many of the Marian doctrines or devotions - despite the common complaints to that effect - for this reason: Most Marian doctrines or devotions are derived from allegorical, typological readings of Scripture. As we have seen (too often, I think, to cite here), devotees of Mary do not craft their metaphors ex nihilo, but rather most often gather them from Scripture (read or sung and prayed in liturgy), especially from Psalms, Song of Songs, and other texts of Wisdom literature. To limit Marian discourse to Scripture would indeed jeopardize some traditions, especially the Assumption, but most others would have remained intact as having allegorical warrant in Scripture.
      What is in fact original with Luther is his view of praise: To praise Mary much (or ‘more than is proper') is “an injury to Christ, for when human hearts are set more on her than on Christ himself, Christ is left at the back in the dark and is completely forgotten.” (WA XI.312-32; cited in “Luther on Women”, 35) Hitherto (near) universal agreement held that praise of Mary was praise of Christ; one cannot exceed in praise of Christ, so one cannot exceed in praise of Mary, viewed as the highest and purest creature and cooperator with Christ. With Luther, praise becomes a zero-sum game, as if there is a finite amount of praise; giving praise to Mary means withholding from Christ, who is the proper object of praise. Praise or honor of Mary and the saints is appropriate up to a point; after that point, it harms Christ (as if, it is acceptable to withhold certain praise from Christ, but only so much?):
      “So you can yourself measure how far the honor of the saints should go: namely, that it should not harm Christ. This will happen when we accept his blood and pain and set our hearts on this alone and not on any saints.” (Ibid. “Women,” 36)
      Perhaps, we can distinguish in Luther’s Zero-Sum Praise a kind or quantity of praise which is more superficial, which does not entail “setting our hearts on” the person praised, as well as a kind which does entail the “setting.”
      During my reading I tried to keep a close eye on the articulated principles governing praise. I am sufficiently convinced of the shift into what I have been called zero-sum praise. (Perhaps, you are not? Do not trust me on this, of course.) What I am trying to understand is how and why such a reformation of praise came about?
      I am not yet satisfied I have anything coherent to say on this, but I shall come back to it.

  3. On Dea Maria and Her Need for a Savior

    In the meantime, I would also like to address two common points that are sprinkled throughout the reading:
    Did medieval piety exclude Mary from the need of a savior?
    As our readings and Professor Fulton Brown witness, no one (ever?) claimed that Mary had no need of a savior. It is difficult to understand how Luther and so many continental reformers can so baldly make this claim, without citations. Perhaps we can take this as polemical edging to their argumentation? Perhaps we can read them charitably as saying, ‘they made her have practically no need of a savior’? But perhaps the reformers perceive the implication of having no need for a savior in the characterization of Mary as a goddess? So we should ask:
    Did medieval piety make Mary into a Goddess?
    The answer of course is: Some medieval devotees and devotions did so, some explicitly. But does ‘Goddess Mary’ no need for a savior? Luther seems to think so: “They make a God out of the Virgin Mary, give her all power over heaven and earth, as if she had this from herself.” (WA LII.632-33; “Women,” 39)
    In a previous comment, I have argued that the deification of Mary is the completion of the salvific process through the work of God’s grace. This salvific deification (or theosis) is perfectly orthodox, although more prominent in Eastern Orthodoxy than in western Catholicism and Protestantism. As I pointed out, this deification process functions with the metaphysics of participation. (You can find the comment under the insightful blogpost (not mine!) “Divinizing Mary” 4/26/2012: )
    Deification by participation functions by sharing more and more in the Divinity of God. A creature becomes a god or goddess by sharing in the one God. The difference lies in how one has divinity. The one God by nature has divinity as its own source and font; creatures become gods and goddesses by drinking in the divinity of another, from the one God by nature.
    By this understanding of salvation, all who are being saved are on the road of deification. However, no one at any level of perfection in divinity, not even Mary, ever has divinity from themselves. This is where Luther has fundamentally misunderstood or misinterpreted (or, possibily, witnessed devotion fundamentally severed from its roots in understanding of participation). He complains that Mary is made a God “as if she had this from herself.” (Ibid.)
    In sum, Mary’s perfect deification not at all strips her of need for a savior, for it is precisely from a savior that she and all (by this view) becomes gods and goddesses.


  4. R.C.H.:
    Good post. In many places your writing on this matter is as subtle as befits Luther’s complexity (e.g., “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*;” emphasis mine). Luther is definitely quite nuanced on Mary (though I think that he starts out less “dogmatic” than he ends up), and I think that with more time spent on Luther’s writings, this would have emerged in our discussions. I agree with your general sentiment when you write: “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.” However, I do think that Luther is at pains to assure that his audience understands that he does know that Mary is unique.

    I am also largely in agreement with you when you write that Luther’s spotty stance on allegory is to be expected. The key is to question why he comes down on one side or on the other in each of his judgments. Or better, what are the criteria for the constitution of “literal” readings for Luther, and why? How does one read the Song literally, and why is it in the canon? Throughout the quarter I have alluded to the use of Mary’s proper name in scriptures cited in dealing with Mary because, as simple as it may sound, the “literal/allegorical” division in reading scripture about Mary could hinge on the presence or absence of this one item. (It’s not just me.*) However, if this is the case, what about the absence of the Savior’s earthly name in Isaiah, or Genesis, etc.? When you write that Luther “limits himself to Scriptural accounts,” when discussing Mary, what would his criteria be for not including the Song?

    *Review April 25 and May 2 readings and you will see it mentioned.

  5. I loved how you said that most of the arguments on Mary are less about Mary and more about other controversial theological issues at the time. Sometimes I think we get focus in class on Mary and everybody arguing over Mary but it’s entirely true that she just happened to be the perfect vehicle and almost the corner stone where many of the controversial issues of Christianity at the time revolved around. When that happens, the pressures of such a situation can exaggerate greatly in either way and I think for the most part scholars had to simplify and overstate their claims to make a “solid” point. Also, Luther’s insistence on a Scriptural grounding does in a way change Mary’s position but for theological purposes. I believe you’re right in saying he doesn’t want to get rid of allegory but rather he wants to recenter and strengthen the foundations and the basis of the faith, Scripture in the literal sense. Also, your claim at the end that because a large group followed him must’ve meant his ideas were commonly felt by other people is a concept often over looked in many other modern cultural changes.

  6. I have only a slight nuance to add to the comments above: there is a reason that Mary ends up as the "battleground," but it is not that these are "other theological problems." Rather, I would argue, that it is only through Mary (how's that for a polemical position?) that we can see the theological problems in the first place. After all, she is the one who makes God visible! She is likewise the one that makes the questions visible. So you are absolutely right that the stakes are high! We can think of Mary as the proverbial canary (sorry for the rhyme): she makes visible the tensions and anxieties around the interpretation of God's self-revelation through the Word.


  7. Fantastic post.

    "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."

    I agree completely; what I appreciate about your post was bringing in a discussion about the context in which Luther was operating. His use of Mary as an example was, on the whole, not meant to denigrate her hallowed position as the mother of Christ, but rather, to remove from the Christian conversations the trappings of Catholic misguidance.

    I took a class on the Reformation and Counter-Reformation MANY years ago, but what has stick with me after all of these years is just as you have put it in your post. Luther and the other reformers (good name for a band btw- Luther & the Reformers) were fed up with what the Church had become. Corruption was rampant (many Popes definitely weren’t living very Christian lives, and the purchasing of indulgences was absolutely out of control), and in their view, things had moved completely in the opulently wrong direction.

    Mary was simply available as an example of just how far the Catholic Church had veered astray. As you said: Sola Scriptura was all the jam we need for the bread, and Jesus Christ is the only butter. That’s it: get rid of the Saints, get rid of intercessor-ship, get rid of the absurd position to which Mary had been elevated.

    I don’t think this was a gender issue as others are inclined to state, but purely a theological one. Luther was fed up with what he perceived was the complete corruption of the church into something it was never meant to be. Mary, while an exemplar of human capacity and humility, definitely didn’t possess an iota of the things that Catholics were attributing to her.

    Really interesting subject, and a great look at Mary from a source in opposition to the Catholic perspective.