Friday, May 11, 2012

Luther's Use of Scripture

One of the aspects of Luther's preachings on the Virgin Mary that everyone has commented on thus far is that he emphasizes a strict interpretation of scripture, rejecting parts of Mary's story that had accrued through apocryphal texts, such as her birth and her ascension.  He says people "use the epistles to refer to Mary, which actually concern only the eternal truth of Christ" and "yank scripture to where it does not belong" (35).  This is especially interesting because it goes along with the general purging of Christianity of its ritual elements that went on during the Reformation, since these were occasions for festivities and, in Luther's opinion, distracted from the importance of Christ and HIS ascension.

While some may argue, as we did in class, that the story of Mary's ascension carries a special significance, in that it serves as a model for how we will all ascend at the day of judgment, Luther contends that Christ's ascension can serve as this same model and that a story of Mary's ascension is completely unnecessary in this role: "we Christians do not know of any ascension that we can enjoy except for that of our dear Lord Jesus Christ.... For that reason we can console ourselves in his Ascension and know that we will enjoy this, that we will also come to heaven and shall be heard here on earth by him in everything that we ask for in his name" (47).  In this sentence, Luther also gives Christ the role traditionally attributed to Mary of the intercessor of man with God.  This is the same point he later emphasizes in his sermon on the wedding at Cana, when he refutes the idea that Mary could intercede for man with Christ by pointing to how Jesus rebukes her when she voices the people's complaints to him about not having enough wine (55).  He sees this as more than just a passing incident, but rather as a symbolic gesture saying that Mary is not an intermediary between man and God, that God does not need her to tell him what the people need, and that if he does not respond to prayer for help, that is because he is deciding it is not the right time for action.  This argument makes sense in the context of the Protestant Reformation, because Luther taught that anyone could communicate directly with God, that the relationship between man and God was a personal one, and that church was a collective religious experience rather than a unitary one guided by the preacher.  If people had to communicate with Mary as a medium for contacting Christ with their problems, this would violate the idea that they have access to direct communication Christ.  It also sets Mary in a privileged position, whereas Luther emphasizes that she is our "sister" and completely human, undistinguished for having borne Christ, but rather elevated by her obedient response to the angel at the Annunciation (37, 40).

There are also a few instances, however, in which Luther chooses to adopt a more lax approach toward scripture, and studying when he decides to permit and when he decides to restrict looser interpretations of the scripture can tell us something about his beliefs.  For instance, when describing the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth, Luther strays from Luke and says that Elizabeth recognized Mary was pregnant with Christ on her own, not because the baby John the Baptist in her womb jumped when he sensed Christ near. This seems strange to me, because considering that elsewhere Luther wants to de-emphasize the uniqueness of the women involved and show that everything comes through Christ, this scene seems to give Elizabeth a special insight without the intervention of John the Baptist.  Perhaps this is the key, however; once again, Luther wants to show that there is no medium necessary between man and God.  By eliminating John the Baptist's role, he shows Elizabeth as communicating directly with Christ, even as he is still a fetus.

Another instance I found where it seemed that Luther was accepting less-than-literal readings of scripture and also possibly condoning ceremony in worship was when he says, "See what a fine song this is" after elaborating on what people should say to honor Mary instead of singing hymns and saying Hail Marys.  The reference here to "song" seems to me to be alluding to the use of the Song of Songs in Marian worship, as well as to more general hymns that he mentions.  However, the fact that he says this is a song to replace Hail Marys and hymns explains the reference to song as a way of making his verses into a more suitable replacement for these more heretical "songs."  Even so, he is still advocating song in church, which is more ceremony than I would have expected from Luther.


  1. I see what you’re saying about Luther and Mary’s assumption. I think the reason why Mary’s assumption is important for people is because she was fully human, like we are. Christ is fully human and fully divine so His assumption does not seem to be the best model, as a result of his divinity. It’s a model of course, but Mary was a part of creation so it’s a model for us humans. Luther greatly diminished Mary’s role because he taught that direct communication and relationship should be with God. I always thought that Mary as intercessor was like us asking Mary to pray for us in the same way we ask our friends or family to pray for us. I agree that Luther has a few instances when he veers from Scripture a bit. It seems that he was doing that to further is view of no medium between man and God like you mentioned. Yet it is surprising because Luther was in a position where he could make no mistakes if he wanted his ideas to spread. Luther’s belief that Mary distracted the people from the importance of Christ is easy to imagine I think based on the fact that religion is actually really hard to understand and convey to others. Yet I think if one understood and looked into the matter, they would see that nobody was trying to make Mary more important than Christ.


  2. The "song" that Luther is talking about is the Magnificat, so it does in fact fit his scriptural requirements. Nevertheless, yes, you are right: he does not always seem to be entirely consistent in his interpretation of Scripture; or, rather, he is, but in order to make the points that he wants to, rather than because he reads every passage in the same mode (literal, allegorical, moral, anagogical--as the medieval exegetes would put it). Not that this means he was wrong necessarily, but it does sometimes seem like a case of the pot calling the kettle black when he accuses earlier exegetes of reading Scripture wrong.


  3. AB: Nice.
    Again, here is Luther “betwixt and between” (to borrow a phrase)–a reformer, but not yet a “revolutionary” (perhaps?). I agree with A fundamental aspect of Luther’s statement that “we Christians do not know of any ascension that we can enjoy except for that of our dear Lord Jesus Christ” is what it means “to know” for Luther. As you are addressing here, he seems to mean something like “what is *plainly* manifest in scripture.” You nicely show that Luther is by no means immune to extrapolating from the text (is anyone?) as he imputes symbolic and didactic aspects to the Wedding at Cana. What is “plainly visible” to Luther here comes from Luther. Your example of Mary and Elizabeth is a great example of this, and you provided me real insight here.

    You write, “Luther also gives Christ the role traditionally attributed to Mary of the intercessor of man with God.” Here “tradition”’ is as important as “knowing” from scripture mentioned previously. If tradition is meant in the formal sense (the tradition of the Catholic) than the statement is straightforward; in a less formal sense it may present questions. How might Luther view this claim? Was Luther *only* making an argument from “appropriateness” (i.e., proper worship is that which concentrates devotion of Christ–Luther’s “zero sum” view of Marian devotion)? What about the historical aspect of his arguments, that “original Christianity” focused on Christ and gradually shifted away from this and towards devotion to Mary?