Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Lutheran Reformers and the Issue of Perpetual Virginity

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?



  1. I found your commentary on early Reformation approaches to the doctrine of “perpetual virginity” to be quite reflective! My own train of thought on the issue flows something like this: depending on which of the early Reformers in class we discussed, you’ll find varying degrees of willingness to tolerate Marian devotion. Luther, as we can see from his warm exposition on the Magnificat, is deeply impressed by how God bestowed upon Mary such grace, and through her humility and smallness, she was magnified to become wonderful – he even applies the term “Queen of Heaven!” (MacCulloch 200). Zwigli and Calvin are less enthusiastic, but all of them do accept perpetual virginity.

    You pointed out your difficulty in accepting the idea that perpetual virginity was so closely naturalized and connected with the Incarnation of Christ by the Reformation that accepting the doctrine would be a strong defense against radical thoughts of the time. I actually think that the doctrine was quite strongly established – just look at the Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds, referenced even back in the time of Nestorius and Cyril! By accepting that Mary is the Theotokos, Reformers could draw on these “ancient traditions” against the radical “celestial flesh” doctrine emerging.

    Now, you’re right that this does undermine their espoused sola scriptura foundation for exegetical faith, especially when it means they have to liberally interpret the verses of Scripture that mention Jesus’ “brethren.” But I think by subtly accepting perpetual virginity, these early Reformers were able to protect a greater good – the Godhead of Christ. Of course, no Reformation doctrine officially listed perpetual virginity as a sacred belief, which is why no Protestant today really thinks about it. Just goes to show how much contemporary Christians think about Our Lady!


  2. Beautifully observed! I agree with SL: you do an excellent job here teasing out the difficulties in the reformers' continuing acceptance of the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity in the face of the references in Scripture that would seem quite clearly to suggest that she did, in fact, have other children (which she still might have, even after conceiving the Son of God without a human father). You raise an interesting question about the implication of accepting that Jesus had brothers--what to do with these potential saints? But there was already a place for at least one of them, James "the brother of the Lord", who is mentioned by both Paul and in Acts as a leader of the Jerusalem church. So why did the Reformers not make more of James? RLFB

  3. In reflecting on Luther’s argument regarding Mary’s perpetual virginity, I’m in fact reminded of Dun Scotus’ conclusion regarding the Immaculate Conception. After much to-ing and fro-ing, Duns Scotus finally lands on the idea simply that the Immaculate Conception is more “seemly” and for that reason is worthy of belief. Luther seems to be doing a somewhat similar thing in that – as the author points out – he declines to give an official position but says that she is “not judged to be the mother of human sons”. On one hand, this makes me think that this type of argument based on “seemliness” may have been more common and therefore more accepted at the time – though I agree with the author that it is very unsatisfying. However, on the other hand, I suspect Luther himself was not completely decided on the issue. There were likely legitimate concerns that both MacCulloch and SL point out, and for this reason, Luther kept a very ‘diplomatic’ stance on the issue. What is interesting about this problem for me is that most later Protestants followed suit and mostly ignored Mary. I find it hard to believe that, in the almost 500 years since Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, this tension in the reformed churches has not been addressed – though this may not be the case but we may have not had the time to read into the issue more in this course. –LDD

  4. As someone who grew up Catholic but joined a Baptist youth group, I feel strongly Luther’s frustrations with the sometimes too theological, less practical nature of the Catholic church. But the first time I read this, the idea of totally denying Mary her most important adjective, “Virgin”, shocked me. I agree with LDD on this- I’m not quite sure that Luther had fully decided this doctrinal issue. However, based off of what he does write and his issues with Marian devotion, I think it was his Catholic upbringing that allowed him to more easily accept her as a perpetual virgin. I might be laying my personal thoughts too closely to Luther’s, but honestly, she IS the Virgin Mary and as SL pointed out, the doctrine of her as Virgin had been set in stone for the most part by the time Luther writes his critiques of the church. While virginity is a huge part of Marian doctrine, I think that Luther probably saw it as obvious that Mary be virgin because he was indoctrinated with that from an early age. It was just who she is. And he has no issues with this idea of her, just that Catholic priests seek to emulate that virginity because he sees nothing inherently wrong with marriage and childbirth. In a rather trite conclusion, Luther had bigger fish to fry. If he could still adapt her characteristics to suit his view of womanhood AND use doctrine to show that current Marian devotion was too excessive, then who cared if she remained a virgin?