Thursday, November 12, 2015

“Pious Child,” “Child of God”

In Martin Luther’s 1532 sermon on the day of the annunciation, he calls Mary “pious child” (39). Our class discussion brought up this epithet but our conversation centered on Luther’s depiction of Mary as “pious” (39). What strikes me, however, is not this adjective “pious” (39). Rather, I am intrigued by Luther terming Mary a “child” (39). This reference feels distinct from our previous portrayals of Mary. What accounts for this epithet? Why would Luther refer to the mother of God as a “child” (39)? I believe the answer lies in two strands of the Protestant Reformation: the new freedom for priests to marry and the assertion that Mary is like any other Christian.

Susan C. Karant-Nunn and Merry E. Weisner-Hanks’ introduction to Luther’s sermons supports the first strand’s influence. They observe a trend in “visual depictions” of Mary:
Visual depictions of Mary in much of the Middle Ages showed her as a fully adult woman, sometimes with the infant or adult Christ, but often standing or sitting alone. During the fifteenth century she gradually grew younger, softer, and more dependent, and Joseph appeared, first as an old and feeble man at the edge of the scene, but gradually becoming younger, stronger, and more central to events. (34) 
This visual trend complements the verbal trend seen in Luther; both depict a young Mary. Indeed, Luther also calls Mary “young woman” within the same sermon, further emphasizing her youth (38).

Karant-Nunn and Weisner-Hanks couple this observation with the fact that Mary’s mother and grandmother faded from view. Together, they argue, these changes point to a new ideal. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus function as a model of sorts:
Pictures of the Holy Family, both Protestant and Catholic, thus began to look more like the ideal human family envisioned by theologians: responsible and protective father, caring and loving mother, obedient and charming child. (34) 
As noted in class, Protestants, priests and non-priests, alike could pursue this “ideal human family,” since the Reformation allowed priests to marry (34). Thus, Luther’s terming of Mary as “child” and art showing Mary as younger than previous depictions had reflects this Protestant change. In class, we noted that Mary often served in our pre-Reformation readings as more a model for priests than a model for women. Here, too, then, Mary can be seen as taking on an aspirational quality as part of the model family clergy should strive for.

This explanation, however, while compelling does not seem wholly satisfying. After all, though “child” certainly encompasses ideas of youth, it still seems somewhat extreme (39). “Young woman” seemingly would encompass the same function in situating Mary as a model family member (38). I propose, then, that some other strand of Reformation thinking might offer further insight into Luther’s language choice. I believe that Luther calls Mary “child” not only to reflect familial ideals but also to emphasize his belief that Mary is like any other Christian (39).

A fuller examination of Luther’s references to Mary as a “pious child” hints at this belief (39). First, while musing on what Mary might have been doing before the annunciation, he supposes: “Or perhaps the Virgin Mary, as a pious child, was alone in the corner praying for the salvation of Israel” (39). Later on in the sermon, Luther describes Mary grappling with the news she has received: “These are great and mighty words, which upset the pious child, so she wondered what sort of message this could possibly be” (39). Luther continues in the same vein: “Such words made the pious child blush and took her breath away with shock, for she did not know what they were about” (39). As the first use of “pious child” indicates, Mary devotes attention to God; the description of her as “pious” refers directly to the religious exercise in which Luther imagines her engaging (39). The phrase “pious child” seems to refer less to Mary’s behavior in the social and familial sphere and more to her behavior in the religious sphere (39).

The other reference to “child” within the sermon bolsters this impression. Luther, speaking of how Mary obtained salvation, explains: “But she is God’s child and comes to eternal life only because she held her child to be what the angel had foretold him to be” (40). Mary is not merely any child; Mary is “God’s child” (40).

What does it mean to Luther for Mary to be “God’s child” (40)? His sermon on the birth of Mary discusses Mary using a similar phrase. When laying out his views on how and how much Mary should be honored, Luther offers the following:
So let her receive the honor that is appropriate to her as a child of God, praise God in her, as she herself praised God in the Magnificat. And everyone should pay more attention to the saints living her with is, and not run all over the place…(37)
In other words, Luther finds no differences between Mary and between other Christians. To Luther, all “saints,” all Christians are equal (37). No one deserves “attention” more than another (37). Further, Luther speaks of this “honor” (37), this “attention” (40) as something “that is appropriate to her as a child of God” (37). In doing, so he implicitly asserts that all children of God are equal and that Mary, through her identity as a “child of God” is just like other Christians.

Perhaps, then, when Luther calls Mary a “pious child,” the “child” draws on this idea (39), this idea of Mary as “God’s child” (40). Perhaps when Luther calls Mary a “child,” he means to emphasize not only Mary’s youth but also her role as “God’s child” (40).

In this way, two elements of Reformation theology come into play here, molding the way in which Luther presents Mary. Here both the newfound freedom of Protestant priests to marry and the Protestants’ claim they want to scale back on alleged over-devotion to Mary come together. 

Sources: Martin Luther, Luther on Women: A Sourcebook, ed. and trans. Susan C. Karant-Nunn and Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 32-57.


  1. I liked the connection you drew hear between Luther's language and the art historical developments of depictions of the Holy Family. It does seem a little odd, however, to refer to Mary as "child" if she's supposed to be the wife in this model family, maybe there's something else going on here? Perhaps Mary in some sense serves as both wife and child, which would also fit with his descriptions of her fear and trembling at the Annunciation.

    We might also wonder if Luther uses "child" for its diminutive connotation, minimizing Mary's role rhetorically in his sermons, to match his minimization of her in his theology.

  2. Very nicely observed! I particularly appreciated your good, close reading of Luther's language in talking about Mary as "child" (although here I would want to double-check with the original German, to know what word Luther was actually using). I think you are right about Luther's emphasis on Mary as a "child of God" in the same way that all human beings are children of God--which makes me wonder about what this says about her age at the Annunciation, if anything. Is she a child because she is young or because she is a creature? Why emphasize that she is a "child" rather than a "creature" (the usual emphasis in the older tradition)? You assume he is thinking in terms of youth thanks to what our editors say about the imagery of the holy family, but could there be other ways in which "child" is being used? Calling Mary a "child of God" shifts the emphasis in thinking about God as well as Mary, making God much more "Fatherly," than (e.g.) Trinitarian. What does Luther's image of Mary tell us about his image of God? RLFB

  3. This is an interesting observation. I agree that Luther’s use of “child” to describe Mary is likely has something to do with his instance that Mary is just another Christian. I also think I would agree with dyingst’s last suggestion that to Mary as a “child” is to minimize her role rhetorically. This diminutive term also may emphasize what Luther wants us to glean from her relationship with God. To Luther, Mary is worth noting because she was pious and humble, and was a good servant and child of God.

    However we also know that Luther accepted the title “Theotokos,” which is a little difficult to square with this discussion. Perhaps, then, Luther’s acceptance of Mary as Theotokos is primarily about his position on Jesus as fully God and fully man, and he would nonetheless reject any other “undue” praise that came to Mary by virtue of her title as Theotokos.

    Lastly, and unrelatedly, something that struck me is how different Luther’s use of “child” is from Juan Diego’s referring to Mary as “my Little Girl.” (Anderson and Chavez 173). Here, it seems, there is no diminutive connotation, but instead Juan Diego is meaning to show his endearment toward Mary.