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.