In class, we discussed the Lutheran reformers’ motivations for toning down Marian devotion, but I wonder why they did not downgrade Mary’s importance even further. In particular, it initially seems strange that they held on to the idea of her perpetual virginity. A belief in her perpetual virginity would seem to be at odds with Lutheran prescriptions about the correct process for establishing doctrinal truths, and with attempts to attack priests and advance marriage.
The reformers believed that doctrinal truths should come from close, literal readings of the scriptures, and condemned the “unwritten verities” (MacCulloch 211) that the Church produced and supported. However, there is not only no explicit scriptural basis for Mary’s perpetual virginity, but also textual claims that she had other children. The most obvious interpretations of scriptural references to Jesus’s brothers and to Mathew calling Jesus “the firstborn son” would be that Mary was not a perpetual virgin. Thus, Lutheran acceptance of perpetual virginity would seem to threaten their rejection of Church authority to create doctrine.
Furthermore, accepting perpetual virginity meant missing an opportunity to extend the attack against priests. In class, we discussed how Lutherans disliked how much power priests had, because Luther believed people should have individual relationships with God and not rely on priests as intermediaries. We considered the argument that Lutherans downgraded the importance of Mary because of the association between Mary and priests. Following the tradition of Bernard of Clairvaux, many priests and monks viewed themselves as emulating Mary, and thus their praise of her humility brought attention to their own closeness to God. Following this line of thought, attacking perpetual virginity would have been a particularly poignant rebuke of the priests. While normal people married and had children, priests’ chastity could be compared to Mary’s perpetual virginity, and could be used as evidence of their special claim to her. Thus, by disavowing Mary’s perpetual virginity, Lutherans could have called into question this similarity between priests and Mary.
Additionally, Lutherans’ acceptance of marriage would seem to lessen the importance of perpetual virginity for them. According to Luther, “Marriage is a beautiful, wonderful gift” (Luther on Women, 57). Lutherans do not have a moral panic around marital sexuality that requires them to view copulation and childbearing as dirty; this is why they supported priests marrying. So, Mary having additional children should not threaten her grace, or the holiness of Christ; Lutherans should not have to believe in perpetual virginity in order to preserve the sanctity of Mary and Christ.
Yet, despite all of the above, the Lutherans hesitantly accept Mary’s perpetual virginity. Luther addresses this issue by saying, “The church has left this alone and has not determined this. But nevertheless the same consequence is firmly demonstrated because she remained a virgin…. She was not judged to be the mother of human sons and remained in that state” (56). The first part of this quote demonstrates Luther’s reluctance to identify an official stance on this issue, which makes sense in light of the shaky scriptural ground for perpetual virginity. However, Luther then goes on to accept that Mary and Joseph did not copulate, with his argument basically being that since Christ is not a human son, she could not have other human sons. Coming from Luther, for whom careful scriptural analysis is so important, I find this to be an unexpectedly glib case. By supporting perpetual virginity, Lutheran reformers are risking their credibility by not hoeing to the line of scripture and forgoing a chance to knock priests down, even though they do not seem to hold beliefs about sexual morality that could make perpetual virginity significant. Why would they do this? What importance does perpetual virginity hold for them?
MacCulloch argues that the reformers accept perpetual virginity because they need to take a defensive position against radical Unitarians who view Christ as solely human, a belief that reformers would of course find abominable. MacCulloch’s argument goes that since radicals denied perpetual virginity, the reformers accepted it out of reactionary impulse. In MacCulloch’s eyes, the reformers were just capitulating to the “need [for Christ] to be distanced from the more messy realities of human reproduction”, a tendency that he claims was “pervasive within Western Christianity” (213). Faced with claims that Christ was human, reformers had to deny anything that seemed vaguely human, like having siblings.
I do not find this argument to be fully satisfying. At the beginning of this course, we discussed how the importance of Mary’s virginity to Christ’s Godliness was naturalized after the fact. To accept MacCulloch’s claims, we need to believe that by the time of the Reformation, Mary’s perpetual virginity had been so successfully naturalized that it could not be questioned without laying doubt on more central doctrines like Christ as God. While this is a possibility, it is surprising that during a time of so much pushback against established dogma, no one considered severing those two beliefs, especially in light of the liberalization of their beliefs on sexual morality around the marriage issue. I am still searching for a better reason for the reformers to support perpetual virginity.
One possible explanation could have to do with their disavowal of Saints and intercessors. The Lutherans believed that God brought grace to Mary through her impregnation with Christ, making her womb the site of her reception of grace. If she were to have more children in her graced womb, it could lead to awkward questions about the spiritual state of the children. As siblings of Christ, one would expect these children to have some sort of important religious role (although as what exactly is not clear, and would require a lot of speculation without a lot of scriptural evidence, something the Lutherans were loath to do). However, the Lutherans would not have wanted to create new, significant religious figures. One of their rallying beliefs was that the Church had been corrupted by the worship of Saints, because it detracted from the individual’s direct relationship with Christ. Indeed, their main problem with Church doctrine on Mary was her role as intercessor. The Lutheran reformers would not want to further complicate the faith by introducing new religious figures that could distract people from Christ and possibly be viewed as potential intercessors.
Still, I think the Lutheran reformers missed an opportunity on the perpetual virginity issue. Even at the risk of creating new religious figures, by rejecting perpetual virginity they could have avoided undermining their claims about how to read scripture, and could have further diminished the importance of priests. If I had been a Lutheran reformer, I would have acted differently.
Commenters: why do you think Lutheran reformers accepted perpetual virginity? Do you have any additional theories on why it was important to them?