Thursday, November 12, 2015

A Waste of Wax: Luther's opposition to material devotion

As we discussed in class on Thursday, most of the problems Protestant Reformers found with Catholic veneration of Mary were for the most part non-issues, misunderstandings of devotional practice and concern over the same sorts of problems that had been discussed and settled centuries before by the likes of Cyril and Nestorius. The “outbreak of common sense” Luther claims to be leading seems to come out of left field, as if he were unacquainted with Marian tradition and drawing his conclusions from very superficial understanding of contemporary practice. However, as we discussed in class, there were several specific changes to theological inquiry and focus prior to and during the Protestant Reformation that make Luther’s frustrations with Marian veneration more understandable. For one, the re-translation of scripture by the humanists allows for and even encourages re-interpretation of texts that had been for centuries interpreted a different way, and as we learned in class, the Hebrew sources they consulted were often in disagreement with the accepted Catholic interpretation of Old Testament passages that may or may not refer to Mary. Furthermore, by the sixteenth century the apocryphal Gospels have fallen out of use and, seemingly, of memory, for none of the Reformation authors we read even bothered to dispute their authenticity as sources of information about Mary.
Another contemporary source of tension that seems to inform Luther’s dissatisfaction with veneration of Mary seems to be more an issue of economics. Obviously the flow of money through the Church was a matter of pivotal importance to Luther, as the sale of indulgences was one of the chief abuses he decried in his 95 Theses: in fact over 40 of the theses refer to indulgences specifically. To Luther the distribution of papal absolution as reward for monetary donation was a corruption of God’s justice and mercy. It is very significant to the problem of Mary that Luther’s original complaint, the issue that catalyzed all the other diverse theological and organizational changes of the Reformation was this issue of the monetary exchange of grace on behalf of the Catholic Church.
Throughout Medieval Marian veneration, donations or offerings to Mary have been an essential element of devotion. Pretty much every miracle experienced at Rocamadour was followed by an offering made to the chapel which was often specifically chosen to match the miracle in a very quantitative way: sometimes a wax model corresponding to the nature of the miracle is presented, in one case a man to whom four teeth were restored by the Virgin presented the chapel with four identical teeth made out of silver (The Miracles of Our Lady of Rocamadour, p. 113), and concerned father William Ulric is told to present the Virgin with a wax effigy of his ailing son weighing as much as the child (p. 165). In fact the explanation given in the prologue to The Miracles of Our Lady of Rocamadour is that it is being written to explain the stories behind the many effigies and wax models in the chapel, which we soon learn are many and diverse. It is significant, too, that these are not mere donations, but often effigies of a person or object involved or else donations of wax correspondent in weight to some element of the miracle. It’s almost as if Mary is being paid a fee for her services, and the recipients are careful to make sure the cost matches the services.
I don’t think anyone would argue that devotion to Mary was in any way restricted to the wealthy; throughout the miracle stories we see examples of poor men and women who are just as dedicated to Mary as are the knights and monks that offer her wax effigies, and she blesses them with miracles just as generously as their wealthier counterparts. For Luther, the problem isn’t so much that the offerings people made to Mary differed based on their economic means, but rather that vast amounts of resources that could have been going to aid the poor were instead being displayed in Marian shrines in the form of silly wax or silver effigies of obscure miracle events, or spent on lengthy and expensive pilgrimages across Europe, or in reliquaries to artifacts from Mary’s life. Even the time spent by priests and monks in observing the Marian liturgy could be better spent praying directly to God, rather to an intermediary with the intercessory power of a mere human. Luther says fairly directly “The second harm that occurs because of the deep honoring of the Mother of God concerns poor needy Christians. People lift their eyes to heaven and yammer, forgetting about the saints that are here on earth” (Luther on Women, p. 36).
So perhaps this is why Luther’s grievances with Mary seem to come almost out of nowhere, largely uninformed by the centuries-old tradition of the theology of Mary. Though he draws on elements of Marian theology he finds problematic, the impetus for his rejection of her veneration was likely as related to the misappropriation of resources into symbolic devotion rather than alleviation of actual social ills.
I think this reading of Luther scans particularly well in the context of indulgences and the 95 Theses. Though the Protestant Reformation grew to include sweeping theological revision of Christian doctrine, it started as a protest by a German monk against the exchange of spiritual indulgence for money and, in more general terms, the materialism that had become rampant in the Catholic Church throughout the Middle Ages. Mary is problematic not only because prayer to her distracts from God, but because the care and devotion that was being offered to Mary could easily have gone to help suffering “saints” amongst the living.

Ultimately this is the purpose to which Luther puts Marian devotion. Previous devotees had seen the Blessed Virgin as not only an object of devotion herself but also as an example of devotion. To Bernard, the image of Mary contemplating Scripture or praying at the time of the Annunciation was the epitome of the monastic calling, the perfect example of how monks ought to dedicate themselves to God. Luther takes the Marian example away from the monastery and gives it to the common people, portraying Mary not as the perfect devotee but as the perfect wife and mother, and moreover the perfect poor wife and mother, as his Mary was neither rich nor noble as the traditional medieval Mary. To Luther, whose entire theology revolved around salvation by grace alone, Marian devotion was a problem because it mired the typical believer in rituals and sacrifices to a human saint in heaven, to the detriment of the suffering on earth. For him the noblest expression of devotion to the Mother of God is not to travel to Rocamadour bearing wax effigies, but to live quietly and simply in assistance to the poor.


  1. The "economic" aspect of Luther's critique of Marian devotion is very interesting, and I'm glad you took time here to draw out some of the threads behind it. However, I would caution you against the assumption that Luther's protest began merely as a critique of the materialism of the Church during his lifetime. This is a common story about the Reformation, but on closer examination, like the critiques of Marian devotion, it proves not to be grounded in the sources themselves. There were many others who critiqued the practices of the Church, who called for a reform of discipline and practice, but Luther wasn't, in the end, all that interested in this. Instead, he was concerned with a profound reform of doctrine, arguing for a fundamentally new (albeit grounded in older ideas) interpretation of salvation, Scripture, and Church. The same, I think, can be said of his Marian critiques. While there certainly was an economic edge to them, I think it's worthwhile to dig deeper to see what lay at the theological core of his thought on Mary.

  2. I think the questions you're asking about Luther and poor people are really interesting. On the one hand, he does say all the things you quoted about helping the saints on earth, instead of spending a lot of money giving things to Mary. But on the other hand, these shrines and indulgences were popular even among poor people, as we saw in the miracle stories you mentioned. So is it just paternalism on Luther's part-- they wanted to worship Mary and he knew they would be better off using that money for food? I don't think Lutherans did a particularly better job of feeding the hungry than the pre-Reformation church had, so I wonder how what he says here about the poor relates to the theological points he's making.
    -- ADM

  3. I would concur with dyingst and ADM: I think you have hit upon something very important here that is certainly worth exploring as a possible cause of Luther's critique of Marian devotion, but like them, I am not entirely persuaded that the critique of this devotion in material terms should necessarily end in abolishing prayer through Mary as such. As dyingst notes, this kind of critique had been (and was being) made long before Luther without leading to the conclusions that he did. It is one of the great puzzles of how the tradition changed that I myself am still struggling with: why reject Mary outright as a way to God even if you have criticisms about the way in which offerings are made? Why not, e.g., give alms to the poor in her honor rather than wax to the shrines? Materialism may be a problem without the theology needing changing. RLFB

  4. Well I certainly wouldn't argue that Luther's objection to the veneration of Mary was entirely material or economic, certainly in light of his very thorough and well-developed theological justification for all of his key reforms. However, it seems significant that the core of many of Luther's theological reforms involve areas where the Church has inserted itself between God and the people (i.e. the priestly class versus a priesthood of all believers; salvation by Faith Alone rather than salvation/absolution/indulgence granted by observance of Catholic sacrament and ritual; prayer through saintly intercession rather than directly to God; etc.). Certainly Luther was a theologian before he was a humanitarian, and his arguments are justified with scripture rather than some sort of appeal to populism, but Lutheran theology is (or at least was originally) particularly aimed at making religion accessible to lay people without the intercession or oversight of the Roman Church, as Luther believed Scripture was meant to be observed. It is definitely very interesting in the case of Mary that, as RLFB observed, he decides to reject Marian devotion rather than reform it, but it definitely seems that material devotion. For example, if people were traveling across Europe to visit a statue called "Our God of Rocamadour" seems not only problematically idolatrous (probably because of the distinction between worship and veneration owed to God and Mary, respectively) but also very unusual, since that just wasn't the way people were expressing their adoration of God. Worship offered directly to God, sans intermediary, had material elements (certainly those who paid for indulgence would have considered the act to be an offering to the Almighty, rather than his Church), and yet (to me at least) this seems more peripheral, something that can be removed without fundamentally changing the practice. The primary interactions between God and people aren't visions directing Spanish peasants to build him expensive Churches (at least not as far as I know; if such a vision tradition exists I'd have to rethink my argument). There were some pilgrimages associated more with Christ rather than with a saint (to visit the Holy Land or venerate the True Cross or the Shroud of Turin), but these were pilgrimages to see Christ's homeland or some relic of his life, rather than pilgrimages to see Christ himself. I don't recall every reading anything by Luther on relics, but I suspect he disapproves of them as much as he does to the cult of the saints, and for much the same reason - they distract the devotee from God, both spiritually and in the resources they expend to venerate them.

    This reply ended up being longer and more rambling than I at first anticipated. However, I still think that Luther's theological rejection of Mary as a recipient of veneration is also a very clear rejection of Mary as the recipient of material offering. And though this objection may is overshadowed in the text by Luther's scriptural discussion of Mary's, it is still very present in the text, as Luther specifically invokes the priority of caring for living saints (i.e. the poor) over devotion to the saints already in heaven (e.g. Mary). -GT

  5. I agree that Luther’s writing appear to have an economic issue at hand, but I think this happens to be because the issues of the indulgences disagreed with Luther’s ideas of faith. Throughout the class I believe there is a noticeable challenge interpreting the readings as historical sources without relying on modern conceptions of society, and religion. In an expected way it is hard for Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, etc., not to read the texts in a manner that is unaffected by their religious background. I think coming from a Protestant background I nod a little more vigorously in agreement when reading Luther than Bernard of Clairvaux, although I am not particularly religious. In a similar vain it is hard for us not to read in economic arguments to Luther’s writing when the foundations of a University of Chicago education are the writing of Adam Smith, and Karl Marx. Luther had no conception of capitalism and socialism in the modern sense. The danger of reading too far into Luther’s issue with the indulgences as an economic issue is to consider Luther a man of the common people. Luther for all his grievances with the Papacy, deeply respected power, and survived through connections with the powerful. In fact, when the peasants revolted against the authority of both the Church and nobility, Luther harshly condemned the poor peasants for anarchy, and advocated for their destruction. I believe that Luther’s depiction of Mary as a model Christian who followed God’s commands would have paralleled with his desire for the peasants to follow the law. Luther cared very deeply about how people thought about God, wished to change the Church, but did not wish to change feudal society.


  6. One of the most significant (and repeated) aspects of Luther's critique was the need for "justification through faith alone." This is a theological notion that actually intertwines nicely with the economic aspects that GT identified. Luther was concerned with the idea that Mary could intercede on anyone's behalf when they appealed to her through any action, because he interpreted portions of Paul's writing as a denial of the salvific power of any law or good deed. He insisted that a person's "goodness" (and God's favor) can only be reached through belief. (i.e. "Good people do good things," not "Good deeds make a person good.") Offerings and donations would be a waste of money not just because the money would be useful elsewhere, but because they wouldn't have any impact on a person's soul. They're also very obviously physical or worldly things, whereas the focus of religion for Luther was the spirit and belief. (Of course, these are his arguments; they don't mean that the pre-Reformation church in its entirety lacked spirituality or emphasis on belief.) -JF