Thursday, November 12, 2015

A Controversy Revisited: Scripture and the Virgin

Though we looked at far fewer primary sources for "Mary and the Reformation" than we usually do (since there's just not as much material from the 16th Century Reformers) I found it impressive that, despite this relative lack, the major themes of the Marian devotion have still made it to the fore. From the first meeting of class, Mary's place in scriptural interpretation has been a key lens for unpacking many aspects of devotion to her. The idea that the Reformation inadvertently revisits ancient controversies resonates with me. The relationship between scripture and church tradition, and in particular the traditions of scriptural interpretation, are central to the Reformation and the understanding of the role of Mary. Though the jury (us?) is still out on "why" the Reformers went after the Marian cults with such gusto, I'd like to take a closer look at the language in some of the examples we've seen, and, perhaps, get a closer look at the aspects of the Marian cult that drew the Reformers' ire.

Most interesting to me, perhaps, are certain appeals to tradition used to combat the popularity of Marian cults. The sometimes modern sense of the Reformation as a "return" to scripture is, as we have seen, a mistaken one; medieval thought, about the Virgin Mary or just about any theological or academic pursuit, was exegetical. We have seen quite a number of thinkers, from the Byzantine homilists to the Cistercians, develop a personality for the Virgin, assuming her thoughts in any number of scriptural scenes. While the Reformers do have a different way of reading scripture that leads to their theological and cultural critiques, they are far from immune to making more of Mary than what scripture presents or from sticking strictly to the Gospels. The English Reformers Hugh Latimer and William Tyndale refer to John Chrysostom and Augustine to claim that "Mary was somewhat arrogant" (Williams, 249). This claim is twice ascriptural since it is a reference to an extra-scriptural source, and builds out Mary's personality in a way not directly supported in the Gospel text. Even though these particular Reformers chose to jettison many of the traditional ways for reading scripture, they themselves fall into the "trap" of extra-scriptural interpretation. There seems to be a powerful sort of cultural habit that makes extrapolation from Biblical scenes a natural move.

Luther uses a similar exegetical technique to make the opposite claim: "She probably was a servant in the house of a relative, and did general housework like any other young woman who was lowly, pious, and upright" (Luther, 39). "And how is anyone supposed to know this when there is nothing in Scripture about it?" Luther asks in another sermon (Luther, 47). He appears to be singular in his image of the Virgin, driving home a particular perception of Mary as a humble, lowly servant. She is a servant not only to God (no one we have read would argue with this claim!) but, throughout several of his sermons or commentaries, a servant to other lowly people.

The charitable reading of this ties Mary's perceived servanthood to Martin Luther's championing of the lower classes, which does surface again and again in the sermons we read. Mary again becomes a sort of exemplar, both lowly and charitable, a woman whose simple work elevates her. This is an image of "the Christian" central to much of Luther's "popular" work. In a more cynical reading, Luther is laying Mary especially low as a reaction to her inappropriate elevation. Not only is she made a creature among creatures, but a servant to servants; it is a bit of a reversal from the Queen of Heaven imagery. I admit I am being a bit unfair launching one sermon against another in this way; however, I believe this is an important point. As we've mentioned, there is not much in scripture about Mary, so to combat against the perceived "abuses" of the Marian cult, Reformers must engage in the same sort of exegetical methods to change the perception of the Virgin.

In closing, I'd also like to take a quick look at the excerpts from the early Book of Common Prayer at the end of the Williams article. As he points out, there is a conspicuous lack of Marian language in these collects, so conspicuous, it seems to me, that the agency of the Virgin is nearly made present by so thoroughly talking around her. In the collect for the Annunciation: "...we have known the incarnation of thy Son Jesus Christ by the message of an angel" (Williams, 253). "The message of an angel to whom?" we are left to ask. The event of the Incarnation at the Annunciation, a mystery which a few centuries earlier had hinged on Mary's consent to God, now lacks Mary entirely. Even more striking is the collect from the Purification: "...thy only begotten Son was this day presented in the temple..." (Williams, 253). The author of the Book uses the passive voice here to avoid the direct agency of Mary. In an explicitly scriptural scene where the Virgin performs a simple, non-miraculous act, she is still expunged from the text. The sentence is, literally, constructed around Mary and where we would traditionally find her agency, we find only a syntactical absence – a lack of subject.  As MacCulloch notes, too, in Calvin's Institutes, there is an "absence of any of the standard Marian biblical passages, whether direct or allegorical" (MacCulloch, 203).  By avoid scripture that had traditionally supported a particular understanding of the Virgin Mary, Calvin calls a certain attention to it.  Even he, against the Marian cults, had to hold certain verses in regards to Mary, and their absence suggests that a different interpretation was difficult for even the most staunch Reformer.



  1. I am intrigued by the passages that you cited from the Book of Common Prayer: what *do* we do with the fact that the reformers seem bent not just on reading Mary only where she is explicitly, we might say historically mentioned in Scripture, but on not reading her where she is actually historically mentioned? I admit myself befuddled the more I think about the reformers' reactions to the tradition we have been studying, particularly with respect to their practice of exegesis. In their Christology, they maintain the old, "temple tradition" identification of Jesus with the LORD of the psalms and the Angel of the LORD, and yet they reject the reading of Mary as the Lady: why Christ and not Mary? Why not even acknowledge her as the one to whom the angel brought the message of the Incarnation or the one who presented the Son in the temple? You have given me a lot to think about! RLFB

  2. One thing that jumped out at me in the Diarmaid MacCulloch reading is his assessment that the Reformers (insofar as they can be thought of as a cohesive group) often adopted a sort of "guarded agnosticism" in matters of scriptural interpretation. Often, this was an attempt to find a happy medium between what Reformers saw as a bloated and irrelevant Catholic exegesis, and a rash and dangerous overreaction by radical theologians who threatened to throw the baby out with the bathwater. As the Reformist zeal continued to spread throughout Europe, radicals ran the risk of butting up against issues on which both Protestants and conservative Catholics were unabashedly in agreement. One of these cases, as MacCulloch mentions, is the point of Mary's perpetual virginity. Despite the generally iconoclastic rhetoric and actions of the early Reformers, the idea that Mary had not always been a Virgin was considered foundational to Christianity and too sensitive to be taken up by anyone except extremists and drunkards. But this is only one case among many where the Reformers had to fight a battle on both fronts; Reformed beliefs had to be protected from radicals who took things too far, as well as from Catholic doctrine. In many cases, it would have been easiest to take Mary out of the equation altogether. In light of this point, I see the absence of Mary in the Book of Common Prayer as an attempt to expurgate a problematic element from a context where it would have caused controversy. Based on the Christological focus in the liturgy, the authors of the Book (Cranmer et. al.) would have regarded Mary's presence in the story as accidental relative to Christ's position at the forefront of worship.