Thursday, November 12, 2015

Luther and Lowliness

Luther’s reaction against Marian devotion was less extreme than many of the other sixteenth century reformers like Latimer or Calvin. He was happy to allow statues and images of her to remain in churches and continued to celebrate those Marian feasts that had biblical precedent.  Having said this, he still preached for a fairly major change in the nature of this devotion, with Mary’s ‘lowliness’ emphasised as her key virtue. Her position shifts from intercessor and intermediary to example and perhaps even teacher. Through looking at his homilies to the Virgin, you can see what motivates this shift and how he articulates it, along with he is so focused on Mary’s lowliness.

In his ‘Sermon to the birth of Mary’ in September 1522, Luther begins by stressing people are right to honour Mary, ‘But it is right that she is honoured correctly.’ I think it is helpful to see his opinion on Marian devotion in the context of his wider religious mission. In this sermon, he makes an interesting distinction that helps to illustrate his grievances, showing how incorrect practice can injure both Christ and the ‘common people’. I think this shows Luther pulling his criticism of Mary in line with his wider project of promoting an individualised relationship with God for every believer and attacking church abuses. I’ll start by looking at the abuses of the church. In his essay, Mccculoch claims that it was sites like the newly construct ‘Beautiful Mary’ shrine in Regensburg that drew such fury from Luther (p197). He claims it was similar to Luther’s attacks on Tetzel concerning the selling of indulgences. This is an interesting parallel as it suggest that Luther’s frustration is less focused towards the act of devotion itself but rather the corruption and the inequality that surrounded it. In the lesson we claimed the reformers sometimes accused mainstream Marian worship unfairly, falsely representing their devotion then attacking it as sinful. However, if seen in the context, although such devotion may not have been strictly blasphemous, it was is so intertwined with the abuses that surrounded it so became tainted and difficult to defend. It is true that Marian pilgrimage could be done in a totally orthodox manner, yet its spiritual legitimacy cannot be separated by the corruption, commerce and misinterpretation that it accompanied.

Luther is equally concerned with the harm the incorrect honouring of Mary has upon believers ability to honour Jesus. His rejection of the feast of the Mary’s Ascension illustrates this. In his ‘Sermon on the Visitation’ in 1532, which was held on the same day as the Virgin’s Ascension, Luther claims The Ascension is a process that should be limited to Christ. In giving Mary the honour, you make the mother equal to the son. As there is no mention of it in the New Testament, for Luther it amounts to ‘witchcraft and all types of superstitions’ (p47). Luther is attempting to promote the individualization of faith, foregrounding the direct link between believer and God. Anything outside of that relationship is to him extraneous. This is not just a problem of misinterpretation on behalf of the masses. In his 1522 ‘Sermon to the birth of Mary’ he says, ‘But we should absolutely not make her into a goddess, as the priests and monks pretend we should.’ Luther clearly believes that overzealous Marian devotion is not merely problem of ‘popular religion’ but a genuine flaw in the way the church propagates faith. This is, in a sense, a given as if it were merely a problem of misinterpretation, the dramatic break from Rome would not have been necessary.
The aggressive way Luther expresses these perceived Marian abuses shows his strength of feeling. Luther says in the ‘Sermon to the birth of Mary’ (1522) that Catholics ‘grab scripture by the hair, forcing it into places it does not belong.’(p37) This tone is echoed in his Sermon on the Visitation and Magnificat (1523), saying attaching our self to Mary instead of God amounts to ‘copulating with his creatures.’ (p42) The Holy Scripture itself is violently disfigured and sullied when the Mary is lifted above her station. I found Luther’s aggressive, almost sexualised use of language here is surprising but it points to the centrality of the correct use of scripture to his theology.
The role that Luther does give to Mary is centred upon her ‘lowliness’. For Luther, Mary did not ‘earn’ the right to be the mother of God. It was not a position she deserved through her own merit as no-one could deserve the honour of being the Mother of God. It is God who therefore deserves our honour, not Mary. There is sometimes a slight tension in these ideas. In his 1521 ‘Sermon on the Magnificat’ he says ‘her sole worthiness to become Mother of God lay in her being fit and appointed for it.’ (46) In a sense he is saying Mary was merely in the right place and the right time. He stresses her lowliness to show that she is just as worthy of praise as any other Christian. However, a few lines later he says ‘What great things are hidden here under this lowly exterior.’ Sometimes Luther’s view on Mary appears slightly contradictory. Luther almost constructs a prayer to her lowliness and is keen to stress he does not mean simply modesty but a genuinely menial status. For him her only actively impressive feat is her ability to avoid pride despite the gift that is bestowed upon her. Mary lacks any agency in Luther’s sermons, and is in fact praised because of this lack of agency. She is above all an example of commitment to God. At most, she can be seen as a teacher, who ‘teaches us, with her words and by the example of her experience, how to know, love and praise God.’ She is worthy of respect, but God should be the sole recipient of praise.

W. Russell


  1. Something to be careful to recognize when discussing the "abuses" of an era, whether it's the Reformation, the period of the Gregorian Reform, or even the recent past, is to what extent the things the reforming party identifies as abuses were considered wholly normal by those on the other side of the debate. Whether they were abuses or not is often precisely the question at hand. In other words, to what extent does categorizing them as abuses concede the field to Luther, in the same way that the secondary sources we considered essentially accepts his understanding of Marian devotion? For that reason, I'm glad that you highlighted that Luther wasn't merely asserting that there was misinterpretation going on, but a fundamental problem of the dogmatic understanding of the Church.

    An area which my be interesting to plumb deeper is the distinction between the "lowliness' that Luther stresses and the "humility" which was so important to the Marian devotion of some of our earlier sources. In what sense are these two ideas distinct, and what's at stake in that distinction? Does it point to the fundamental differences between Luther and the pre-Luther Church?

    1. The Jesus and scripture-centric lens is also prevalent in Latimer’s “the works of Hugh Latimer” and presents an aspect of the reformation’s perception of Mary that should be examined alongside Luther’s restructuring of Mary into a character of lowliness and, as we discussed in class, a Christian like any other. When proposing the question of Mary being born of original sin, Latimer responds by saying that the answer matters not in the context of Mary’s sin or purity, but only in the context of Jesus as, undoubtedly, Mary’s savior. So it doesn’t matter whether Mary was born of original sin or was the only sinless woman, what matters is that Jesus was her and all of humankind’s savior. This new perspective of this crucial question shows how Mary’s existence has been undermined by reformation scholars, and is now seen only through a Jesus/God lens rather than being the lens through which Christians see God. The renouncing of Ave Maria as a prayer, and the claim that Pater Noster is the only permissible prayer also supports the Luther-led reformation push to a Jesus-centric focus on Christianity.


  2. I certainly agree with what you're saying about Luther's views on Mary and traditional Roman Catholic devotion to her. I'd like to point at his relatively brief sermon on the wedding at Cena as well, to tie in with the theme that you brought up about her "lowliness." It is pointed out that Mary would have been, in any other circumstance, totally justified in seeking to interfere with the wedding. She was implied to have been closely related to the new couple, and in any case: "... the Blessed Virgin Mary is not so frivolous that she would mix with strangers or distant relatives for weddings or meals, but only if they were near relations." This was, however unacceptable; Jesus rebuked her quite sternly in Luther's interpretation and in the event only transformed the water of his own accord. I thought that this underscores your point quite nicely, that Mary's greatest virtue was her lowliness—and her humility and lack of hubris that might accompany being Jesus's mother. When she verged dangerously close to losing this quality by asking Jesus, even as she was perfectly reasonable in helping to manage a wedding ceremony, she was rebuked.


  3. I was intrigued by your comments about how Luther effectively denies Mary agency as Mother of God because, paradoxically, this is one of the criticisms that modern feminists have brought specifically against the image of Mary as a creature made in order to be the Mother of God--i.e. the image of Mary that we see in the medieval tradition, where God designs Mary from before creation (going with Proverbs 8) to be the vessel of his becoming present in creation. Again, Luther was attributing to the tradition something that both was and wasn't there: even as medieval Christians prayed to Mary to intercede with God, they consistently recognized her as a creature of God, which in modern terms could be (and has been) read as denying her agency (although as what is never clear--for only the divine, it would seem, ever has true agency, thus the need to identify her as a goddess in order to assert her agency, and round and round the argument goes!). Yet again, I find myself even as a Protestant much more persuaded by the medieval description of the mystery here than any Protestant critique, which (as I think you show nicely) almost inevitably begs the very question it sets out to answer: how can Mary have been "simply" a human being and yet somehow mother of the incarnate Lord? RLFB

  4. I too was struck by Mary’s lowliness. As we mentioned in class, the Scriptural support for Mary as some lowly handmaiden is quite tenuous. Nonetheless, Luther goes to great extents to detail Mary’s low place in society.
    How do we figure in Luther’s reframing of Mary (maybe not completely different from the previous tradition that also talked of Mary’s humility) with his veneration of the earthly poor and insistence that they have been forgotten? I find it interesting the Luther takes Mary off her pedestal as the Queen of Heaven and makes her into the type of person that he says says has been forgotten in the honoring of saints. Luther states that the excessive worshiping of saints means that “poor needy Christians are forgotten” (35). Interestingly, Luther makes Mary into one of these poor people. Luther describes the poor as the “saints that are here on earth” (36). In some sense, I think Luther is redefining the meaning of saint. His thinking about Mary speak to this change. Instead of a “goddess” or “intercessor,” saints are instead models for piety (as you argue in your post) (37). By using Mary, Luther exemplifies this change as Mary is not an object for veneration but an an example for Christians.


  5. I don’t know if I entirely buy the idea that Luther’s frustration with devotion toward Mary stems out of his anger towards the corruption within the Church and the sale of indulgences. Rather, I find it much more convincing that his desire to lessen Marian devotion comes out of his goal to re-focus Christian faith to be individualized and God-focused. Luther had a lot of disagreements with the decadence of the Roman Catholic Church, not just in regards to Mary, as he saw the material decorations as taking away from the holiness of faith. One of the markers of the Lutheran faith is actually the distinct lack of any sort of statues or icons, but rather a very stark, unadorned church setting. I think we can clearly see Luther’s major argument, as you point out, in that Luther is trying to cut out any middle man in forming a relationship with God. Mary should be admired for lowliness and looked to as a model, but should not be seen as an intermediary between an individual and God because since everyone are priests, we each have individual relationships with God. In light of these points that Luther makes, I think his issue with any Marian iconography within the Church comes more out of his dislike for all iconography because it takes away from the relationship one has with God alone.

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  7. As Professor Fulton Brown brought up in our final class, this position taken by Luther in reference to Mary stems from his need to magnify God by minimizing creatures. If Luther’s contribution to the Reformation were summed up in his focus on the “beggar” image that he impresses upon whole of the Christian religion, then his nuanced and subtle shift in Marianism as described by Russell makes sense. Though he certainly begins a novel and independent tradition to the one that created the conditions for the Reformation, Luther is not without company when seeing lowliness and humility as the most laudable virtues of the Blessed Virgin. Specifically, Luther’s thought seems to be reflective of some of St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s writings on humility as that quality that most aptly qualifies the glory of the Mother of God. And by lowering Mary into her humility, Luther (whether rightly or wrongly being a separate question) hopes to raise the esteem we give to the God who chose her to mother His Son.