Friday, May 11, 2012

Luther, Latimer, and Redundancy

I went into these readings thinking that I was going to encounter something drastically different, an entirely novel perspective on Mary and her role in the Church. I figured that a phenomenon like the Reformation would have developed entirely new Marian theories to suit its reforming agenda. A little na├»ve, I know, but what I was definitely not expecting was to see the same arguments and justifications for Mary’s position that we have consistently seen throughout the duration of this course, a repackaging of old ideas. I was particularly interested in these ‘re-gifted’ notions: by simply changing the tone, by using a particularly charged word or phrase, reformers and scholars alike have managed to create the illusion of a canyon in Mariology where there is actually just a small crack.


In his sermons, Luther identifies Mary’s place in Christianity by emphasizing scripture as the sole source of any interpretation of her role: ‘I allow her to be honored, but also charge those who honor her not to make Scripture into lies’. This isn’t a particularly revolutionary idea, as most of the early writings that we’ve examined constantly worry about how to account for the almost total lack of description of Mary in the scripture.

He then mentions that Mary, just like the rest of humanity, is dependent on Christ alone, therefore we are ‘Mary’s brothers and sisters’; this is different than the typical argument, but the familial analogy at its heart had been common in Mariology for centuries: Mary is not only Christ’s mother, but often referred to as his daughter, wife, sister, or handmaid…Thus the familial metaphor, although intended to be a radical repositioning of the mother of god, is just one facet of the Marian tradition that had been evolving since the early centuries of Christianity.

More importantly, he claims several times, that Mary’s grace comes from God, not through any merit of her own. This view is presented as contrary to ‘Papist’ teachings, but in fact represents a view propagated by many early Church fathers. However, I wasn’t sure what to do with his narrative of her lowly status/position in life: “she probably was a servant in house of a relative and did general housework like any other young woman who was lowly, pious, and upright”. The early church thinkers, in texts like the Protoevangelium of James in particular, tended to expound a vision of Mary as a noble, upper class figure, descended from David, raised in the Temple. I’m not sure how to account for this complete 180; it is supposed to be his attempt to ‘save Mary’s humanity’, but I’m not sure how emphasizing her low rank alters her humanity any more than claiming that she was descended from human kings: either way, she was human and need a Savior.


Latimer follows the same general pattern as Luther in that he presents extant ideas in a different light and calls them innovation. In his letters, he asserts repeatedly that whether or not Mary was a sinner or sinless is irrelevant, because at the end of the day she was dependent on Christ for salvation, just like the rest of humanity. If she was born without sin then it was only possible because God had singled her out and absolved her- hence, God is her savior. If she was born in sin, like the rest of humanity, then Christ redeemed her when he chose her to be his mother. Ultimately, ‘Christ was her necessary Savior, whether she sinned or no.’ Again, ultimate end of stories of Mary’s grace has always been to show the awesome power of God in providing it.    

I also found it interesting that he referenced ‘good authors’ who have written that she never sinned, but also never said that she was not saved. I’m not familiar enough with Christian writings to know for sure, but it seems to make sense that the ‘good writers’, the authorities that a Bishop in England would have been exposed to, would be those like we’ve read in class: the original authorities on Mary. If these are the sources that Latimer feels comfortable using to back up his claim, then it would appear that his ideas are not so much an innovation or a radical reworking of previous Marian thought, but rather a continuation of existing Marian traditions.

He critiques the saying of the Ave Maria as blasphemous in that it diverts attention away from worship of God toward worship of one of God’s lowly creatures. When said with the Pater noster, the Ave Maria is an effective form of worship. However, should it be said on its own, then it becomes nothing more than a salutation, not a real prayer at all. His emphasis on the importance of the Ave Maria’s dependence on the Pater noster is telling: just as the Ave Maria can only be considered proper prayer in connection with the Pater noster, Mary is only relevant in service of Christ. This is also an old idea dressed up in a new hat. It made me think of the miracle stories we read, in which people can say the Ave Maria all they want and pray to Mary for intercession, but ultimately she has power only as a mediator between humanity and Christ; it is Christ who makes the final decision about salvation (that being said, Mary has more influence over Christ in these stories than in the Reformation readings).


I found Luther and Latimer’s interpretations of Mary’s role and virtues interesting as examples of late medieval misogyny. Toward the end of his sermon on the Visitation Luther goes on to comment on the regrettable status of women, who have become nothing more than ‘slutty idlers’. He then goes on to say: “Maidens and women should stay in their houses and if they are on the streets go quickly to their place and not stand counting the tiles on the roof or the sparrows under the roof or hold little gossip sessions while they are on their way. The Virgin Mary did not act this way…” Mary is an example for women, but the qualities that are estimable in his opinion are those that render women invisible and silent.

Latimer follows in this same vein. He claims that Mary is a ‘little arrogant’ and taken ‘with a little vain glory’. Her most positive quality is that of ‘obedience’, as her humility is less than exemplary. His nit picking of her words to Jesus seems excessive and could be read as a manipulation of language and tone to suit a specific misogynistic agenda. I understand that theologically, popular attitudes toward women did not influence Mary’s position in the church, as popular attitude is not Holy Scripture. But I’m still tempted to read into the reduction of Mary’s importance an attempt by leading intellectual/religious males to suppress the new class of free-thinking protestant women. I know that this is not their intention when writing about Mary, I just think it is an interesting aspect of it.]



  1. mcs: Good post. I know what you mean when you write: “by simply changing the tone, by using a particularly charged word or phrase, reformers and scholars alike have managed to create the illusion of a canyon in Mariology where there is actually just a small crack.” But if this is the case, where and when do the “canyons” occur?* Don’t get me wrong, I think the differences between Nestorius and Cyril also seem to be mere “cracks.” But these within “cracks” were the difference between orthodoxy and heresy.

    There certainly seems to be some sort of disconnect here. I thought that Luther was fairly moderate as well. But if what he preaches doesn’t represent a radical change, from whence do the radical changes come that will rock Europe over more than the next century? For Luther, it is the priests and popes that have altered scripture. For Williams, “popular religion” is to blame.

    I think we can see the bridging of the mentioned disconnect in the Williams and MacCulloch articles. Surely, Luther and the other Reformers became more dogmatic over time (let us remember that it is just an internal “reformation” proposed initially, not a completely separate movement), but it would seem that the subsequent scholarship took as its task the justifying of ever more divergent views. However, do we see the Reformers as constructing these differences from whole cloth (or even just from “cracks”)? If we try to read as Luther read, to see as he saw, what more could we understand about what he is writing? (For example, you indicate one difference in the last sentence before your “Digression” section). Are they really being just “offenders for a word?”

    *E.g., I mentioned in a much earlier comment that at a wedding I attended in a Lutheran chapel a few years ago, in the singing of Schubert’s famous piece, “Ave Maria” was made to be replaced by “Father in Heaven.” Without the change, the song would not have been allowed at the wedding. That seems like a “canyon” of sorts.

  2. Wonderful attention to the nuances of the texts! Yes, you are absolutely right: what Luther and Latimer insist upon as their "reformed" positions are in fact for the most part (albeit by no means entirely) simply restatements of the traditional view. And yet, thanks to the way in which they interpret the traditional view (of Mary's need for grace, of the Ave Maria as a salutation), a great chasm did indeed open up in the way in which early modern and modern Christians understand the importance of Mary. Medieval Christians said, "Mary needed grace--and she was full of it!" Early modern reformers said, "Mary needed grace--which makes her just like us, nothing special." Medieval Christians said, "The Ave Maria was the greeting given by the angel to Mary--and she experiences great joy whenever she is reminded of that moment." Early modern reformers said, "The Ave was the greeting given by the angel to Mary--but that doesn't mean there is any reason for us to repeat it for her." Thus great differences arise from apparently identical positions.


  3. P.S. I also agree that there is something troubling in the way in which Luther and Latimer talk about Mary as a woman that we simply do not see in the medieval devotion which they were criticizing.


  4. On your note that Luther and Latimer were being misogynistic, I have to agree. I think some other bit of evidence for this is the de-emphasizing (or rather, lack of total mention) of Mary's "yes." Neither Luther nor Latimer mentions the most important assent in the history of mankind, therefore denying Mary a voice and agency. Also, like you, I was expecting some radical change in Luther's rhetoric. After all, I had grown up Lutheran and knew that the Mary I grew up with was a lot different than the Mary we had been studying for the 6 or 7 weeks prior. Yet, like you, I did not seem to find anything particularly radical in Luther's sermons. I am still rather puzzled, then, as to why the Mary I knew growing up was so different? Why had I not before this class ever heard of Mary as the "Queen of Heaven" or the "mediatrix?" Honestly, I think part of it has to do with the way he said it. Because of Luther's emphasis on Mary's obedience and her similarity to ordinary humans, as I noted in my blog post, the Lutheran Church sees no reason why it should devote special praise to such a person. This actually brings up a question I hadn't thought about before now. I wonder what Mary's role was (if any) in the argument for women to be ordained in the Lutheran Church.