Following on from my posts last week on Fatima (covering the good stuff and the other stuff), some posts looking at a range of Lutheran responses to the question of where the correct balance should lie between the “Marian maximalism” on display in my first Fatima post, and the “Marian minimalism” that leads many contemporary evangelicals to reject even the title “Mother of God” (and to feel uncomfortable referring to Mary even as “the Blessed Virgin”).
It’s worth pointing out from the start that I am not 100% clear myself where that balance should lie, which is one reason for this series of posts: I’m hoping that any feedback these posts get will help to develop my own thoughts on this subject.
First of all, a look at what the Lutheran Confessions have to say about Mary.
MOTHER OF GOD
The Confessions are absolutely clear on one point: it is appropriate to describe Mary as “the Mother of God”:
[W]e believe, teach, and confess that Mary conceived and bore not a mere man and no more, but the true Son of God; therefore she also is rightly called and truly is the mother of God. (Epitome, VIII.12)
The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord expands on this statement:
Mary, the most blessed virgin, did not conceive a mere, ordinary human being, but a human being who is truly the Son of the most high God, as the angel testifies … Therefore she is truly the mother of God … (Solid Declaration, Article VIII)
Alert readers will have noticed some significant omissions from that paragraph: more on those later.
The point is that to deny that Mary is the Mother of God – by saying, for example, that she is instead merely the Mother of Christ, or “Christotokos” – is to deny the true union of the divine and human natures in Christ. In other words, to deny the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation. This was declared a doctrine of the Christian church at the Council of Ephesus in 431 (though the concept dates from somewhat earlier):
If anyone does not confess that Emmanuel is God in truth, and therefore that the holy virgin is the mother of God (for she bore in a fleshly way the Word of God become flesh), let him be anathema.
More controversial is the question as to whether the Lutheran Confessions teach that Mary is/was “Ever-Virgin”: that is, she remained a virgin for the rest of her life following the birth of Jesus.
The Smalcald Articles declare:
That the Son became man in this manner, that He was conceived, without the cooperation of man, by the Holy Ghost, and was born of the pure, holy [and always] Virgin Mary.
The words in square brackets are not present in the original, German version of the Smalcald Articles, but are included in the Latin text.
In the previous section, I quoted the Solid Declaration, Article VIII, with some omissions, which are now restored below in bold:
Mary, the most blessed virgin, did not conceive a mere, ordinary human being, but a human being who is truly the Son of the most high God, as the angel testifies. He demonstrated his divine majesty even in his mother’s womb in that he was born of a virgin without violating her virginity. Therefore she is truly the mother of God and yet remained a virgin. (Formula of Concord [Solid Declaration], Article VIII)
The closing words, “and yet remained a virgin”, translate the German “und gleichwohl eine Jungfrau geblieben ist”. At the very least, this passage appears to affirm that Christ was born in a miraculous way that meant that Mary remained virgo intacta in a “physical” sense (the so-called “utero clauso”, or closed-womb, argument).
As for what happened following the birth of Jesus, I have heard it suggested that a more natural translation of “eine Jungfrau geblieben ist” would be, “she has remained a virgin”. In other words, the Solid Declaration here affirms both the “utero clauso” and the “semper virgo”.
The “utero clauso” crops up on one more occasion in the Solid Declaration, in a discussion of the various modes in which Christ can be present, which include:
…the incomprehensible, spiritual mode of presence according to which he neither occupies nor yields space but passes through everything created as he wills … He employed this mode of presence when he left the closed grave and came through closed doors, in the bread and wine in the Supper, and, as people believe, when he was born from the most holy virgin Mary, his mother. (SD VII 99,100)
So it seems clear that the Lutheran Confessors believed that Jesus was born miraculously and that Mary remained a virgin for the rest of her life. But does this mean that we are required to believe this today?
The most compelling argument against saying that the Confessions teach the perpetual virginity of Mary as binding doctrine (rather than as a “pious opinion”) seems to be that these statements are not claiming to be a confession of Christian doctrine as taught by Scripture. The Confessions are not binding on us as regards opinions of history, science or even the precise interpretation of particular biblical texts: they are only binding on us as regards the doctrines taught by Scripture.
As Scripture is silent on the subject of Mary’s perpetual virginity, then this is a matter not of Scriptural doctrine but of historical facts and the personal beliefs of our Reformers and Confessors. Thus the “Ever-Virgin” is valid as a “pious opinion” (one held by Luther, and even by John Calvin) but cannot be insisted upon as binding doctrine.
I find that quite a compelling argument, even though personally I find myself very sympathetic to the “pious opinion” that Mary “has remained” a virgin.
In conclusion, the position under the Lutheran Confessions is:
- It is clearly believed, taught and confessed by the Evangelical Lutheran Church that Mary is the Mother of God. Denial of this scriptural doctrine is especially serious because it imperils the even greater doctrine which the doctrine of the Theotokos guards, namely the Incarnation of Christ, and particularly the personal union of His divine and human natures.
- It is certainly legitimate, at the very least, for us to believe that Christ was born miraculously, and that Mary remained a Virgin after the birth of Christ. The argument is not as to whether Christians may believe that Mary is Ever-Virgin; the only question is whether they must do so, as binding Christian doctrine rather than merely pious opinion.
However, it is equally clear that the Confessions offer no justification for praying to Mary (or to any other saint), or for many other forms of Marian devotion. As Luther writes in the Smalcald Articles:
Although the angels in heaven pray for us (as Christ Himself also does), as also do the saints on earth, and perhaps also in heaven, yet it does not follow thence that we should invoke and adore the angels and saints, and fast, hold festivals, celebrate Mass in their honor, make offerings, and establish churches, altars, divine worship, and in still other ways serve them, and regard them as helpers in need [as patrons and intercessors], and divide among them all kinds of help, and ascribe to each one a particular form of assistance, as the Papists teach and do. For this is idolatry, and such honor belongs alone to God.
So those are the parameters as defined by the Lutheran Confessions: a confession that Mary is the Mother of God is obligatory; belief in her ever-virginity is permissible; prayer to her for help is forbidden. In the next couple of posts, I’ll look at two very different Lutheran approaches within (?) those parameters.