Saturday, August 18, 2007

Martin Luther's Views on Mary and Dave Armstrong

A Frank Turk GraphicThis post is written in response to a Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong article (HERE) where he portrays Martin Luther as Catholic in his views of Mary. A Catholic gave it to one of my friends, and he passed it on to me. You need to read the Armstrong article or else what follows will be like hearing one side of a phone conversation. Here are my thoughts on what Armstrong asserts about Luther's Maryology.

Firstly, some of the quotes are from Luther's early life, one should expect him especially earlier on in his exodus from Catholicism to still hold to beliefs he would later reject or rethink.

Secondly, Armstrong wrangles the context on some of the quotes using the ellipses trick, you know the ...'s that appear mid sentence. If you throw enough of those ...'s in when quoting people you can make them appear to be saying almost anything you want. Lets look at a few of the quotes Armstrong gives of Luther.

a) Sources. He points to some texts full of ellipses from "Sermons on John chapters 1-4" well which sermon? You see I have a nagging feeling that he doesn't want you to look up the source, I have see the first quotation on countless Catholic all referenced "Sermons on John ch 1-4". That just says to me that most of these guys are just quoting these things second third and fourth and fifth...hand without actually having read the context themselves.

Just trying to look up these references in their original context without the ellipses is a herculean effort. These citations should be footnoted with links to the original, or the original should be easy to find. Luther has numerous sermons on those 4 chapters from the gospel of John which one is being referenced? Simply saying from "Sermons on John ch 1-4" isn't a footnote, and if you are going to use ellipses you had better have the original source easily available so that critical readers can double check to make sure the ...'s are not being used to twist the actual meaning of the sentence.

This is in contrast to THIS ARTICLE in response to Mr.Armstrong where the responder is excruciatingly meticulous with footnoting. The response raises almost all of the problems I saw with Armstrong's writing, as well as many more, and is very thorough. (Excellent job Mr. Swan!)
b) Mother of God. Well, yes it appears that Luther did call Mary the mother of God. However, I think he had a vastly different emphasis in the use of the phrase (particularly later in his life) than Roman Catholicism. The title mother of God is not meant to elevate Mary but Christ, it is a declaration of the divinity of Jesus Christ not the exalted state of Mary. Whenever I hear the phrase used by Catholics it is in the context of extolling the greatness of Mary, in its inception that was the context of the usage of "mother of God" it was a statement that Christ was God.
I think if you say it in that sense (focusing on the divinity of Christ not the person of Mary) it is not blasphemous and I will give Luther the benefit of the doubt and assume that was his rationale.

So I think one could call Mary the mother of God and not be blaspheming because they are exalting Christ as divine and Mary indeed was the vessel God used to bring Him into this world. However, I personally am not going to use the phrase simply because there are so many people who use it blasphemously in their idolatrous worship of Mary.

c) Quotes of Significance. This quote is probably the most significant of them all from Armstrong as it shows Luther held to the Catholic view of the sinlessness of Mary:

"She is full of grace, proclaimed to be entirely without sin—something exceedingly great. For God’s grace fills her with everything good and makes her devoid of all evil." (Personal {"Little"} Prayer Book, 1522).

I think this quote is representative of Luther's early views of Mary, again the 95 Theses was written in 1517, so we should not be surprised to find that there are still numerous Catholic errors lingering in Luther's doctrine. I mean when Luther wrote the 95 theses he had no intention of starting a new church or challenging the pope's right as head of the church, he just thought that these errors needed to be dealt with in the Church his original intent wasn't at all aimed at starting a new church but reformation in the Catholic church.

So perhaps in between realizing we are saved by faith alone in the work of Christ alone and running for his life and hiding from the Catholic hit squad he didn't get his Maryology right early on in his Christian life. I don't think we need to fault him on this. The point is this, that Luther was growing in his understanding and later in his life revisited this subject and saw it quite differently, he writes in 1544 (2 years prior to his death):

“…Christ was truly born from true and natural flesh and human blood which was corrupted by original sin in Adam, but in such a way that it could be healed. Thus we, who are encompassed by sinful flesh, believe and hope that on the day of our redemption the flesh will be purged of and separated from all infirmities, from death, and from disgrace; for sin and death are separable evils.

Accordingly, when it came to the Virgin and that drop of virginal blood, what the angel said was fulfilled: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and overshadow you”. To be sure, the Messiah was not born by the power of flesh and blood, as is stated in John 1:13: “Not of blood nor of the will of a man, etc.” 

Nevertheless, He wanted to be born from the mass of the flesh and from that corrupted blood. But in the moment of the Virgin’s conception the Holy Spirit purged and sanctified the sinful mass and wiped out the poison of the devil and death, which is sin. Although death remained in that flesh on our account, the leaven of sin was nevertheless purged out, and it became the purest flesh, purified by the Holy Spirit and united with the divine nature in one Person.

Therefore it is truly human nature no different from what it is in us. And Christ is the Son of Adam and of his seed and flesh, but, as has been stated, with the Holy Spirit overshadowing it, active in it, and purging it, in order that it might be fit for this most innocent conception and the pure and holy birth by which we were to be purged and freed from sin. Therefore these things are written for Christ’s sake. The Holy Spirit wanted Him to sink into sin as deeply as possible. Consequently, He had to be besmirched with incest and born from incestuous blood.” (Commentary on Genesis) can be found here.

I think Luther goes into speculation on the mechanics of how Christ was born sinless, but the point is clear, in Luther's mind the Spirit had to interced in His incarnation to keep Him from contamination.The Spirit would only need to intervene and preserve Christ from being born sinful if and only if the vessel He was to be housed in was herself sinful. Luther saw Mary as tainted by original sin, or rather Luther viewed Mary this way towards the end of his life, perhaps in his earlier utterances he still held much Catholic dogma about Mary.
Again can we fault him? He was a Catholic monk and professor, he was merely repeating what he had been taught for years.

Lastly, in the final analysis even if Luther was jumbled in his Maryology all I as a protestant need to say is "So what?". Luther is not my authority like a pope or a council, he is the man God used to bring about reformation and he has a good deal of wisdom. However, he is not perfect and has a good deal of things where he and I don't see eye to eye. In a number of ways he didn't carry the Reformation far enough I think but that is beside the point. Really when you get down to it Armstrong's entire article is beside the point in that as a protestant Luther and the teachings/traditions of great men of the faith are not my authority my authority is the word of God alone. I love the Johns of the faith John Calvin, John Owen, and Jonathan Edwards, BUT they are not my authority, what they say needs to be seen in light of the scriptures alone.

This really is the heart of the matter with Catholicism, it is not their soteriology or their views on purgatory, penance, mass, Mary, the saints, angels, prayer to other mediators, etc. The issue is one and one only, is the inspired word of God, the traditions given by the apostles and prophets, our authority in our doctrine (2 Thess 3:6) or is our authority and foundation in the traditions of fallible men (Mar 7:9)?
(Sorry for the large font and the poor spacing...blogger can really be fussy at times)

2 comments: said...

"Luther is not my authority like a pope or a council, he is the man God used to bring about reformation and he has a good deal of wisdom"

Well Said.

Charlie said...

Yes, Luther's views on consubstantiation in the sacrament leaves a bit to be desired as well since it confuses the human nature with the divine nature of Christ. But thank God for Luther! Without him we wouldn't have justification by faith alone, the authority of Scripture as the final word on doctrinal matters, etc.

It is truly refreshing to see other Reformed type folks out there who care about the Protestant Reformation and the theology of the Bible! Please continue your efforts:)