Thursday, November 12, 2015

Reformation Mary and the Incarnation

            Tuesday’s writers, like so many before them, were concerned with the essential questions of how do we understand and interact with God, but they answered them in a new way—though not, perhaps, as new as we’re given to thinking. We began class by walking through the very specific claims that Susan Karant-Nunn and Merry Wiesner-Hanks were making about Marian tradition before Luther and identifying why each of them was, in fact, not representative of what we had seen thus far. It was very eye-opening to compare these texts to their medieval counterparts we’ve now spent so much time with and see how drastically the Reformation texts themselves have affected our understanding of what the medieval scholars thought and said about Christian doctrines. In fact, as a Protestant Christian, it’s interesting to realize to what degree the things that I have been taught growing up about the Catholic faith as a whole can be traced back to these claims that the 16th century reformers were making about traditions up to that point.
            For Luther and his peers, the pivotal moment and issue in determining Marian doctrine is the Incarnation. Really, he isn’t really concerned with Mary herself at all, but rather the ways in which God uses her as a vessel. Diarmaid MacCulloch discusses the language the Reformation writers used to describe this idea: he quotes a tailor who claimed that Mary was like “a sack that had once held cinnamon, but now only retains the sweet flavor” (207). Although Mary does get to retain some of the “flavor” of Christ, she has been bumped way down from Conrad’s mirror of God. In some ways, this still does continue on the tradition; Mary has always been considered a vessel for God. Indeed, all of the temple and Ark of the Covenant imagery that surrounds Mary is just a far grander version of this metaphor.
However, the writers discussed Tuesday don’t seem to have the awe that has generally accompanied such descriptions of the Incarnation. Oddly enough, even as they portray Mary as incredibly ordinary and almost lacking any sort of personality or individuality—she is literally compared to a sack—they don’t seem at all concerned with how the eternal Creator of the universe could fit into this sack. None of the wider than heaven imagery seems to come into play either here or in Luther’s discussion of the Incarnation. Perhaps this reflects the extent to which that particular theological issue had been accepted by the tradition by the time the 16th century rolled around; maybe it was by then just such a given that it never even crossed anyone’s mind to question it.
            At any rate, the Reformation portrayal of Mary completely hinges on the Incarnation. Indeed, it’s almost the only episode of her life that he allows to remain in the canon. The apocryphal stories of Mary’s childhood and Jesus’s life pre-ministry have been completely rejected, as have any readings of the Old Testament that are typological rather than prophesies. For this reason, Song of Songs cannot be read as describing the relationship between Mary and Jesus, but Isaiah 7:14 can. Indeed, of the Old Testament verses that the reformers argue can still be considered Marian in nature, all of them are prophesies that are in fact primarily about Jesus rather than Mary herself. Of course, the earlier writers would probably argue that everything Marian is primarily about Jesus because Mary herself is a way for us to see Jesus, but I think that the Reformation writers we read Tuesday would disagree with that statement.
            Part of why they would disagree with the idea that Mariology is at its core an exploration of the nature of Jesus Christ rather than his mother is that they do not think that Mary is an accurate or in any way acceptable way to come to see or understand God. In fact, Luther argues the opposite: “That is thus the first harm and injury, that through the deep honoring of the Mother of God the honoring and understanding of Christ is weakened.” (35). He clarifies that this isn’t just about honoring—the old arguments about what it means to serve Mary and who exactly that glorifies should of course be brought to the forefront of our minds with such a statement—but it is also about understanding Christ. Writers like Anselm in the medieval era argued that Mary was a way to do so, but Luther thinks that nothing could be further than the truth because Mary is, in fact, just a vessel.
            Mary herself is not, Luther reiterates time and again, somehow special or set apart from any other believer in any way other than the specific role that she fulfilled. Bernard, with his long descriptions of Mary’s extraordinary humility and its pleasing nature, and others like him in the tradition stand starkly in contrast with this Reformation idea that the only thing that makes Mary in any way special is the act of God done through her—and even that does not in any way make her an object of reverence. The action is God’s, the glory is God’s, and Mary is, again, just a vessel—especially since they are working on an Aristotelian understanding of biology, wherein Mary really didn’t play any part in Jesus’s Incarnation other than as the temporary host. Luther expresses it this way: “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” (36). Although he acknowledges the singularity of her position, he refuses to accord to it any extraordinary standing.
The entirety of the tradition would almost certainly agree that the only reason Mary received great grace was through the mercy of God, but many of the prior writers would argue that this grace extended to the formation of her character, and that she was not only practically set apart but somehow created differently by God, both in terms of her character and also, for some, in terms of the Immaculate Conception. Mary is not a means to understanding God; she is us, but with a very specific purpose that the writers strangely don’t seem to consider particularly meritorious.
            If the Reformation writers are to be believed, the true, best way for us to understand God is through the scriptures. The Word become flesh is, for Luther and other Reformation writers, almost analogous to the Word made print in the scriptures in that they both allow people to come to see God himself. Mary may, indeed, be a woman about whom “the Gospels say so little,” but the entirety of scriptures only follow suit because a very specific vision of Biblical interpretation has been set in place by the Reformation writers. However, if we have this view of what the true purpose of scriptures ought to be, then the Mary of the tradition directly usurps the role of scriptures in the believer’s quest to understand the true nature of God. The only thing remaining for her, then, is her maternity; in this way, it makes perfect sense that the Incarnation is so often what the reformers discuss when they talk about Mary.



  1. I like the points you draw out here between the Reformers' attitude towards Scripture and its consequences for their though on Mary, and I think you could push it even further, in a direction hinted at by the start of your post. You note that the Reformers don't seem particularly interested in how God could fit into the "sack" that is Mary, and I think we can connect this directly to their altered attitude towards Scripture. Just as they no longer read the Old Testament typologically looking for Marian resonance, so too do they abandon the grand metaphysical scope which our earlier sources found within the Bible. Coupled with the necessity to reject the Catholic tradition of metaphysics and theology which preceded them, their lack of speculation on this front comes into focus, and we've found another way in which Mary acts as a window/mirror for us into our sources. Just as Mary becomes an impediment to proper reading of Scripture if we accept the premises of the Reformers, so to does the Scholastic theology which so informed the views of her that we've seen so far. Once we've pulled out one thread of the tapestry of medieval thought, the rest begins to unravel as well, and Mary is a big thread.

  2. It seems like part of what's going on here is what kind of valence the word "vessel" carries. If it has temple connotations, then being a vessel is a really important thing, but as those connotations start to drop out, being a vessel means being "just a vessel." It sounds like Luther and our earlier writers might actually have agreed that Mary is "just a vessel" but disagreed about the implications
    -- ADM

  3. I agree with dyingst and ADM: you have here a very nice observation about the way in which the reformers change the sense in which they talk about Mary as a container for God--what do we make of this?! I think that you have all of the pieces, the problem is figuring out how they fit together. If Mary is a sack rather than a temple or a mirror, then she can no longer be a lens for reading either Scripture or the mystery of the Incarnation. Why change the lens in the way that the reformers did? Perhaps it is just that, even as a Protestant, I have been reading the medieval sources for too long, but I am still greatly puzzled by this rejection of Mary, which seems to me to be in a very real sense at the same time a rejection of the Incarnation. And yet, that is the very mystery that the reformers insisted they were defending. A paradox, indeed! RLFB

  4. Your focus on the Reformation emphasis on Mary’s role as a vessel (and only as a vessel) is a fascinating point, and leads nicely into your point that “Although [Luther] acknowledges the singularity of [Mary’s] position, he refuses to accord to it any extraordinary standing.” As we discussed in class, if Mary is not a mirror or lens through which we understand scripture any longer, then any Christian can be equally worthy a divine intercessor. Luther’s efforts to “remove the veil” between Christians and scripture have in fact shifted the role of vessel; scripture is the means through which we can understand God, not Mary (see pages 206-207). Of course, this complicates the idea of “vessel” itself, which would be really interesting to look into--is “vessel” to Martin Luther still a privileged position now given to scripture, or has it been downgraded to the “sack” that you mention in Mary? I’m a little confused about what you’re saying when you say that “the entirety of scriptures only follow suit because a very specific vision of Biblical interpretation has been set in place by Reformation writers.” Are you referring to the point that you made earlier about the Reformation interpretation of the Song of Songs and other Old Testament verses?

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