Thursday, November 12, 2015

Luther and MacCulloch: Grace & the Straw-Men

In class on Tuesday, we discussed the Reformers’ desire to portray Mary as “just any other Christian.”  Paradoxically – at least in the case of Luther – some of this similarity is deduced from Mary’s participation in a seemingly anomalous event: The Annunciation.  In his Sermon on the birth of Mary (1522) and his Sermon on the Day of the Annunciation (1532), Luther shows this through an argument against Marian intercession.  This argument is centered on his notion of her as a grace-receiver rather than a grace-conferrer.  While this scriptural argument is internally consistent – and possibly ruinous for those who believe that she “earned” her grace – it is not clear that such people actually existed.  While MacCulloch takes it for granted that they did, our course readings suggest that Luther’s understanding – one of Mary as a grace receiver – was the same understanding posited by medieval Catholics.

Luther On Mary’s Grace:

Made necessary by priests’ and monks’ supposed exaltation of Mary to goddess-like status, Luther begins Sermon on the Birth of Mary by explaining that it necessary to honor the virgin correctly.  This basis for her honor is Scriptural, but it comes from neither Isaiah 7:14 nor Ezekiel 44:2.  Rather, Luther invokes Paul, citing Romans 12:10: “…love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor” (NSRV, Luther 36).  This suggestion that Mary should be honored because she is a Christian person, rather than because she is the mother of God, prefigures his “she is the same as us” language in Sermon on the Birth, as well as his later work in Sermon on the Day of the Annunciation.

In the former, while discussing why improperly honoring Mary harms Christ, Luther explains, “She did receive great grace, but this did not happen because she earned it, but because of the mercy of God.  We cannot all be the bodily Mother of God; but she is the same as us; she came to grace through the blood of Christ just like I did” (Luther 36).  There are two concepts of import here: she did not earn the grace (she received it from God), and “she is the same as us.”  
Because she got the grace from God by no work of her own – note the slight difference between this and the Cistercian conception of Mary’s will affirming the Incarnation – she cannot give it out to others.  She is not an arbiter, but rather a receiver.  Therefore, she cannot be an intercessor, nor can she be a goddess (Luther 37).  It is in this way that she remains “like us,” who can only receive grace through God’s mercy.

For Luther, as is to be expected, this argument is grounded in the words of the New Testament.  In Sermon on the Birth of Mary, he implores those who honor Mary to not “turn the scripture into lies” (Luther 35).  He chides the “papists” for using the Epistles to refer to Mary, which notably he does just a few paragraphs earlier (although in reference to Mary as just any other Christian).  So, in Sermon on the day of the Annunciation, he looks to Luke 1:27, where Mary’s name is invoked by the Evangelist.  It is this phrase, quoted by Luther as “Do not fear, Mary, you have found grace with God” (Luther 39), on which much of the supposed impropriety of the “papists” was hinged.  It is also the same phrase that Luther uses to show why they are wrong.

This argument is similar to the one made in Sermon on the Birth of Mary; the “papists’” behavior suggests that Mary had this grace “from herself,” but the angel makes clear in Luke 1:27 that she is just like the other saints in that her exalted status is the result of nature and not earned (Luther 40).  Mary “finds” grace with God, and therefore has come to grace and cannot “give it out.” (Luther 40). This passage, the same that suggests that she will do something that no other human has ever done (give birth to God), is utilized so adamantly to show that she is just like any other human.

MacCulloch & the “Straw Man:”

In “Mary and Sixteenth Century Protestants,” MacCulloch mentions the importance of this same passage – Luke 1:27 – when discussing Erasmus’ translation of the New Testament (McCulloch 193).  He claims:

In his 1519 revision of his New Testament edition, he [Erasmus] rewrote the Latin version of the angelic salutation which was quoted devotionally in the Hail Mary; now the Virgin became ‘gratiosa’ rather than ‘gratia plena,’ and thus became less available as a prop for the theology of merit.

MacCulloch’s language suggests two things: people using Luke 1:27 to suggest that Mary “earned” her grace and Erasmus’ modification decreased this (or at least made it more challenging to claim).  As MacCulloch believes that in Erasmus’ ideas are the prehistory of the Reformers,’ he takes for granted the existence of those against whom Luther fights (MacCulloch 192).

Even though MacCulloch takes it for granted, and Luther spends sermons carefully showing why Mary was given grace – and is therefore not an intercessor – it is not clear who actually propagated this “theology of merit.”

None of the Catholic medieval authors we read would claim that Mary’s grace came “from herself” (Luther 39).  The closest that we have seen to that in our readings for class may be the Bernardine notion of the necessity of Mary’s consent to the angel, seen for example on page 54 in “Homily IV.”  While he does seem to import Mary’s will into salvation, Bernard also makes it clear that God chose Mary “before all ages” to take part in salvation, suggesting that it was by Him and not her own merit that she was chosen to be exalted and receive such grace (Bernard 54). 

Further, Mechthild – who actually takes Mary as a Goddess in The Flowing Light of the Godhead – does not insist that Mary’s merit was from herself.  She states quite explicitly, on 111, “…you [Mary] were also not able to sin.  This you had not from yourself, for the heavenly Father watched over you long before…” She clearly does not believe that Mary earned her grace, or that it was “from herself.”

Luther’s insistence that Mary is “just like any other human” (and therefore not an intercessor) because she received grace without her own merit is then a “straw-man” argument.  He creates an unorthodox reading virtually unattested in the Marian canon, and then he eviscerates it.  In presupposing the existence of these adherents to the “theology of merit,” MacCulloch seems to fall into a similar trap as Karant-Nunn and Weisner-Hanks in their introduction to “Mary” in Luther on Women.  He takes for granted the veracity of the “straw-men,” and he then looks backward from the Reformation with the understanding that they necessarily exist.  It is in this conundrum that I found my main takeaway from class on Tuesday.  In understanding the Reformation – and in particular its Mariology – we must both closely read the Reformers and their predecessors.  The portrayal of the latter in the formers’ work, in this case Luther’s, is not not always charitable.  However, as in this case, we see that their ideas are not always dissimilar. 



  1. The natural question that arises from your post, and indeed which came up during class, is, of course, where then did these views which Luther et al. ascribe to the "papists" come from? Is this a common stereotype? An actual live belief among the less educated? A consequence of Luther simply not reading or understanding the previous tradition? Unfortunately, it seems extremely difficult to say with any degree of certainty. Because of this, perhaps we should ask what does Luther's argument tell us, about Luther's thought, about the thought of his opponents, and about the prevailing theological currents of the Reformation. How would these currents reshape our view of Mary both in the Reformed and Catholic traditions going forward?

  2. Very nice proof of the problem that we talked about in reading Luther's critiques of Mary doctrine. Which, as dyingst points out, leaves us with a notable problem: where did Luther get the idea that anybody believed that Mary *didn't* need God's grace? While the usual tactic is to blame the ever-nebulous and impossibly-to-verify "popular devotion," as you show, none of the medieval sources that we read (or indeed that I know of) ever claim that Mary had grace of herself rather than through God (thus the whole point of the next phrase in the angel's greeting, "The Lord is with you"). And yet, Luther and the other reformers clearly feared that someone did. Is this fear an expression of their own anxieties about the source of grace? Straw men are typically created out of a speaker's own fears--perhaps we need to think about where these fears might have been coming from? I am not sure how to answer these questions myself! RLFB

  3. This post begins with a very astute observation. Luther reduces Mary to the Annunciation, and he seems to think this explains her away into a pious Lutheran housewife. Yet, the Annunciation itself is an astonishingly unique event.

    I think some useful thoughts can be drawn from Mary: the Church at its Source (Ratzinger and Balthasar). I don't have the book at the moment, so my citations will be very fuzzy. Both Ratzinger (in his 3rd essay) and Balthasar (towards the end) position Mary at the culmination of a story beginning with the Old Testament. For Ratzinger, Mary is the last in a series of Israelite women (Miriam, Judith, etc.) that parallels the series of patriarchs and prophets that ends in Jesus. For Balthasar, Mary is the last in a series of Biblical characters given children (the penultimate being Zechariah, so this is less gendered than in Ratzinger). For both, Mary fulfills prior revelation, she is at the center of a mystery revealed to the Church. Similarly, we saw in Boss that the Annunciation draws clear parallels to Genesis - Mary is the water form which the new creation is born.

    While Luther is, I think, correct in emphasizing the greatness of God compared to our weakness (so Mary is infinitely poor-metaphorically-before God), he fails by leaving the story there. The angel tells Mary, "The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among have found favor with God...the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you." Whether or not Mary did anything to "deserve" God's grace, clearly something has happened now, and she has it in a special way. The Holy Spirit comes upon her! She has found favor and is blessed! And this is where Ratzinger and Balthasar become relevant. These words are amazing on their own, but they are not meant to be heard in isolation. When we compare Mary to her predecessors, we see that this story is relevant to God's work of redemption and that in her Annunciation, Mary incomparably surpasses her predecessors.

    Whether we think Luke wrote "full of grace" or "highly favored," whether we accept the apocrypha or not, the Biblical account of the Annunciation seems to be a lot more than Luther has made it.