What should we “believe, teach and confess” about Mary?

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.

EVER-VIRGIN?

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.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, the position under the Lutheran Confessions is:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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37 Responses to What should we “believe, teach and confess” about Mary?

  1. Chris Jones says:

    Luther was mistaken to believe that all forms of veneration of the saints is idolatry. The distinction between relative veneration and absolute adoration was established as legitimate by Nicaea II, and applies as much to the saints (who after all bear the image of God) as to the images.
    By his sweeping condemnation of all forms of veneration, Luther is implicitly denying the teaching of Nicaea II.

  2. Atwood says:

    Thanks for pulling out the material from the confessions on the perpetual virginity of Mary. I am of that opinion as well.

  3. John H says:

    Chris J: As I hope to make clear in later posts, Luther did not sweepingly condemn all forms of “veneration” of Mary, just any form of veneration that might remotely smack of turning her (or any other saint) into another intercessor in place of Christ – i.e. “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”.
    Far from denying Nicaea II, I wonder if his attack on “adoring” the angels and saints draws on the same language you yourself use in your comment.
    Chris A: “I am of that opinion as well.” – don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me. 😉

  4. John H says:

    Chris J: As I hope to make clear in later posts, Luther did not sweepingly condemn all forms of “veneration” of Mary, just any form of veneration that might remotely smack of turning her (or any other saint) into another intercessor in place of Christ – i.e. “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”.
    Far from denying Nicaea II, I wonder if his attack on “adoring” the angels and saints draws on the same language you yourself use in your comment.
    Chris A: “I am of that opinion as well.” – don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me. 😉

  5. John H says:

    Chris J: As I hope to make clear in later posts, Luther did not sweepingly condemn all forms of “veneration” of Mary, just any form of veneration that might remotely smack of turning her (or any other saint) into another intercessor in place of Christ – i.e. “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”.
    Far from denying Nicaea II, I wonder if his attack on “adoring” the angels and saints draws on the same language you yourself use in your comment.
    Chris A: “I am of that opinion as well.” – don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me. 😉

  6. Jordan says:

    I understand that you are chiefly concerned with explicating the position of the Lutheran confessions on the question of Mary.
    But I wonder why the Third Ecumenical Council, in its affirmation of the title of Theotokos to Mary and the rejection of the Nestorian heresy, is not mentioned as a basis for Protestants affirming that Mary is the “Mother of God.”
    Would not Protestants in general, or Lutherans in particular, fall under the condemnation of this council if they refuse to acknowledge Mary as Theotokos?
    Do you, as a Lutheran, find that the doctrinal decisions of such ecumenical councils are more or less authoritative than the Book of Concord? Of course it is a hypothetical, but what would happen if the Book of Concord were to contradict the decision of the Third Ecumenical Council on this matter? Which position would be binding?
    I’m coming to the discussion late, so please forgive me if you address this elsewhere. It just seems curious to me that in wondering whether Lutherans are to acknowledge Mary as the Mother of God you only seem to go to the Lutheran confessions.

  7. Chris Jones says:

    John,
    While I eagerly await your further posts on this topic, I would note that it is impossible to [turn] her (or any other saint) into another intercessor in place of Christ, because it is precisely because the saints are in Christ – not apart from Christ – that veneration is fitting.
    The union between Christ and His saints is so intimate that it is not possible to approach one of the saints without encountering Christ. The more deeply one understands theosis the more the objections to the veneration of the saints melt away.

  8. Atwood says:

    Chris, the “impossible” and “not possible” here disturb me. Are you really arguing that it is impossible for there to be any danger of excess in the cult of the saints? If the legitimacy of any ritual act is related to the subjective state of the performer, isn’t it just “possible” that a very poorly instructed Catholic or Orthodox believer might actually treat a local saint as “an interecessor in place of Christ”?
    In short, discussion of what state the saints are or are not today is only half the issue. The other half is what state the person praying to saints is in as he or she does it, what he or she hopes to get from it, and of course, why he or she feels the need to pray to a saint, when he or she can pray directly to the Father.

  9. Chris Jones says:

    Are you really arguing that it is impossible for there to be any danger of excess in the cult of the saints?
    No, of course not. It is of course possible for a poorly catechized believer to fall into the error of separating Christ from His saints, thinking that the saints are more “approachable”, etc. But it is just that – an error. One may erroneously conceive a saint as being “in place of” Christ, but that is not, and cannot be, the way it is. That’s what I meant by “impossible”.
    This issue is not theoretical for me. My views on it are formed by a lifetime of praxis as an Anglo-Catholic and an Orthodox, during which I have not encountered or participated in the excesses that you are worried about. That doesn’t mean that excesses don’t happen, and shouldn’t be guarded against.
    But I can’t agree with a blanket condemnation of the veneration of saints as being per se idolatrous.

  10. Chris Jones says:

    I think it would be instructive to look at the daily prayer book for Orthodox laity, which contains the discipline of private prayer recommended for Orthodox. It does contain a number of prayers to the Mother of God and other saints, including some that would, I suppose, make your Protestant hair stand on end. But they are far outnumbered by prayers addressed directly to the three Persons of the Trinity, and no one could read this collection of prayers and conclude that anyone is being encouraged to pray to the saints instead of to God directly. Those relatively few prayers directed to the saints are an expression of the truth that we are saved in and through the Church, and that the prayers of all Christians for one another are an important aspect of how God accomplishes our sanctification.
    I have no problem with that.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Hi,
    I have a question if Mary was to be “ever-virgin” how is James’ relationship to Jesus explained, and how is the passage when the people said to Jesus “your mother and brothers are outside” explained?
    JWM

  12. John H says:

    JWM – my understanding is that the Greek word translated as “brothers” can also be translated as “cousins”. That was the interpretation placed on the word not only be Roman Catholics but by John Calvin.
    Another possible explanation is that James, Jude et al were Joseph’s children by a previous marriage.
    And the view that James and Jude were the sons of Mary also has to address the question of why Jesus, on the cross, entrusted Mary to the Apostle John. This would be a pretty extraordinary breach with the usual practice by which her other sons would have cared for her.

  13. John H says:

    JWM – my understanding is that the Greek word translated as “brothers” can also be translated as “cousins”. That was the interpretation placed on the word not only be Roman Catholics but by John Calvin.
    Another possible explanation is that James, Jude et al were Joseph’s children by a previous marriage.
    And the view that James and Jude were the sons of Mary also has to address the question of why Jesus, on the cross, entrusted Mary to the Apostle John. This would be a pretty extraordinary breach with the usual practice by which her other sons would have cared for her.

  14. John H says:

    JWM – my understanding is that the Greek word translated as “brothers” can also be translated as “cousins”. That was the interpretation placed on the word not only be Roman Catholics but by John Calvin.
    Another possible explanation is that James, Jude et al were Joseph’s children by a previous marriage.
    And the view that James and Jude were the sons of Mary also has to address the question of why Jesus, on the cross, entrusted Mary to the Apostle John. This would be a pretty extraordinary breach with the usual practice by which her other sons would have cared for her.

  15. Chris Jones says:

    JWM
    The Greek adelphoi usually translated “brothers” can (particularly in Semitic usage) refer to male kinsmen of any kind (e.g. cousins), not just sons of the same mother and father. Traditionally James is thought to have been a son of St Joseph by an earlier marriage, and thus the Saviour’s step-brother.
    Of course, the Scriptural text allows for the possibility that the Blessed Virgin gave birth to other children after the birth of Jesus. But it does not require it.

  16. FDN says:

    The idea that it’s only the “poorly catechized” who fall into Mariolatry holds no water, as anyone familiar with the devotional commitments of John Paul II should know. Among the RC I know it’s the best-catechized (assuming by “catechized” you mean in the rigors of their own tradition, not the pure ecumenical truth) who are craziest with the Mary-worship. And I do mean worship. Far worse than any turn of phrase you might find in a formal prayer book is the subjective attitude of standing in direct mental communication with Mary and other saints, receiving spiritual consolations and inward revelations from her, etc., of the type our own tradition finds questionable even when attributed to Christ Himself.
    I also fail to see how theosis is an argument for inserting creatures into the devotional life. If theosis is such a thing, that should strengthen our hold on the privilege of approaching God directly in Christ, rather than putting us to the back of the line, mediated by all those who have gone before.

  17. Peter John says:

    So FDN, how do you venerate Mary?

  18. Peter John says:

    So FDN, how do you venerate Mary?

  19. Peter John says:

    So FDN, how do you venerate Mary?

  20. Peter John says:

    So FDN, how do you venerate Mary?

  21. FDN says:

    Peter John, whether I do or not depends what you mean by “venerate.” I give her what I think of as ‘third-person’ veneration, meaning that I strive to think and speak well of her and to emulate her example, and I rejoice at my Evangelical church’s use of liturgical formulations and hymns which honor her either in the third person or, very rarely, in the second person through the device of literary apostrophe. That’s OK along the same lines as ‘benedicite opera omnia…’ and there are a couple hymns like that in TLH. If you want to call that “veneration,” great. But I never address her in the literal second person as the Roman Catholics do. Whatever arguments might be made for the permissibility of others’ doing so if they wish, there’s certainly no argument for its being mandatory, and I will never apologize for omitting religious devotions toward any creature, however noble.

  22. FDN says:

    Peter John, whether I do or not depends what you mean by “venerate.” I give her what I think of as ‘third-person’ veneration, meaning that I strive to think and speak well of her and to emulate her example, and I rejoice at my Evangelical church’s use of liturgical formulations and hymns which honor her either in the third person or, very rarely, in the second person through the device of literary apostrophe. That’s OK along the same lines as ‘benedicite opera omnia…’ and there are a couple hymns like that in TLH. If you want to call that “veneration,” great. But I never address her in the literal second person as the Roman Catholics do. Whatever arguments might be made for the permissibility of others’ doing so if they wish, there’s certainly no argument for its being mandatory, and I will never apologize for omitting religious devotions toward any creature, however noble.

  23. Tom R says:

    I agree with John H that “Mother of God”, as a loose translation of Theotokos, is unobjectionable in itself. The Lutheran (and general Protestant) discomfort with the term is more what it implies, encourages and authorises when extended.
    An analogy might be if Evangelicals persisted in referring to the Pope as “the Roman Chief Priest”. Literally speaking, this is true. A Pope is Roman (in domicile and immediate episcopal jurisdiction), he is a priest, and he is chief over all other priests. But the implications of this phrase (likening a Pope at once to Caiaphas and to pagan Rome’s Pontifex Maximus with the sacred geese, the vestal virgins, etc) would make it unacceptable to Catholics.

  24. Tom R says:

    I agree with John H that “Mother of God”, as a loose translation of Theotokos, is unobjectionable in itself. The Lutheran (and general Protestant) discomfort with the term is more what it implies, encourages and authorises when extended.
    An analogy might be if Evangelicals persisted in referring to the Pope as “the Roman Chief Priest”. Literally speaking, this is true. A Pope is Roman (in domicile and immediate episcopal jurisdiction), he is a priest, and he is chief over all other priests. But the implications of this phrase (likening a Pope at once to Caiaphas and to pagan Rome’s Pontifex Maximus with the sacred geese, the vestal virgins, etc) would make it unacceptable to Catholics.

  25. John H says:

    Tom – I’m not sure I agree with your analogy, or with the caution that rejects the title “Mother of God” because of how it may be “extended”. The title “Son of God” can be “extended” in such a way as to turn Christ into a separate, subordinate being (as the Arians did), but that doesn’t mean we should shy away from the term.
    I’m about to put up a post based on Dr Hermann Sasse’s “Remarks on the Dogma of the Assumption of Mary” in which he acquits the title “Mother of God” of any blame for the Marian cult. In a section that isn’t covered in my post, he writes:
    It is common to treat the Council of Ephesus of 431, with its condemnation of Nestorius and the proclamation of the dogma of Mary as the Theotokos, the Mother of God, as the proper beginning of the Marian cult in the church. And this is correct to a certain extent, in so far as this event introduced the great surge of the veneration of Mary.
    But it is also the case that this cult played no lesser role where the Theotokos was rejected. Nestorius did not differ from Cyril on the veneration of Mary, and the Nestorian Church, which condemned the Council of Ephesus, is in her liturgy and her hymns, if not the classical church, then at any rate, a prominent advocate of the Marian cult. For this reason it is also completely incorrect to make the designation of Mary as the Mother of God responsible for the Marian cult, as is occasionally done.

    It also has to be said that the rejection by many Protestants of the title “Mother of God” has parallels with Calvinistic/Zwinglian Christology, which tends in a more Nestorianising direction of seeing the two natures as stuck together like two pieces of board, remaining distinct – so that a Calvinist can say both that “Mary is the mother of Christ’s human nature but not of his divine nature” and that “It is not possible for Christ’s human nature to be present in the Lord’s Supper, even though His divine nature is present everywhere”.
    The phrase “Mother of God” stands guard over the truth that the union of natures means that where the divine nature is, there also is the human nature, so that it can rightly and properly be said that God was born in Bethelehem, God died on the Cross.

  26. Joel says:

    On the Book of Concord, the most natural understanding of the Latin version of the Smalcald Articles would seem to be that Mary was therein described as ‘ever virgin’ dogmatically. Here, then, is a flaw in the Book of Concord, since Mary’s perpetual virginity cannot be proven biblically.
    While Church tradition is strong that the Mother of God remained a virgin, let’s not forget Mary and Joseph were Jews, not Greeks. If Joseph had failed to do his conjugal duty, Mary would have had grounds to divorce him (Ex. 21:10,11).
    On Nicaea II, this council’s decrees were rejected not only by the contemporary iconoclasts but also by the Frankish church, so the council doesn’t fully deserve the title ‘ecumenical.’ The First Commandment forbids the physical act of bowing down to manmade images and does not make an exception for those whose mental attitude while bowing differs slightly from that of gross idolators. Luther’s problem with Nicaea II was that the council expressly required image veneration, thus binding the consciences of Christians to a practice nowhere required in the Scriptures.

  27. Chris Jones says:

    rejected … by the Frankish church
    Is that why there are no crucifixes or shrines to the Virgin and no candle-stands in French Churches today? I think that whatever reservations the Franks may have had about Nicaea II have been withdrawn.
    the council expressly required image veneration
    This is not true. What Nicaea II condemns is the teaching that image veneration is idolatrous. The council does not teach that veneration is required, but that it may not be forbidden. He whose conscience precludes him from venerating the images does not run afoul of Nicaea II, but he who imposes his scruples on others does.
    There’s nothing un-Lutheran about having a crucifix or an icon corner in one’s home, and using it to focus one’s mind in prayer. Lutherans are not iconoclasts.

  28. Mark Shane says:

    Tom R: There is *no* Lutheran discomfort with the term “Mother of God.” As John H wrote, you can pin that on the Nestorians (semi or otherwise), but not Lutherans.
    John H: I may have some helpful comments regarding SV, but I’ll wait until you’ve finished with your posts.

  29. Mark Shane says:

    Tom R: There is *no* Lutheran discomfort with the term “Mother of God.” As John H wrote, you can pin that on the Nestorians (semi or otherwise), but not Lutherans.
    John H: I may have some helpful comments regarding SV, but I’ll wait until you’ve finished with your posts.

  30. Jaylynne says:

    Here’s something interesting that appears in the study note for Luke 8:19 in The Concordia Self-Study Bible. The commentator notes three explanations for the statement “mother and brothers”: 1) the Greek term for “brother” can also mean “cousin”; 2) Jesus’ brothers were step-brothers, Joseph’s sons through an earlier marriage; 3) or, as Helvidius held, they were Jesus’ younger half brothers. The study note goes on to say that #3 is the most natural conclusion.
    Since the Concordia Study Bible was published by Concordia Publishing House, is the study note sort of an unofficial support by the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod against Mary’s perpetual virginity? Just wondering.

  31. John H says:

    Jaylynne – the Concordia Self-Study Bible inherited a fair proportion of its notes from the NIV Study Bible, so it may be that that remark came from the NIV Study Bible rather than the CSSB.
    In any event, the CSSB can’t overturn the Lutheran Confessions.
    What is interesting is that a new Lutheran Study Bible is in the works from CPH, based on the ESV, and with notes entirely from a Lutheran perspective. Be interesting to see what is said then.

  32. Tom R says:

    Mark — I have heard Lutheran pastors here in Australia use the term “uncomfortable with”.
    > “On Nicaea II, this council’s decrees were rejected not only by the contemporary iconoclasts but also by the Frankish church…”
    The same guys who later decorated Notre Dame with gargolyles. (I would hate to imagine what doctrinal implications the Newmanoreans would draw from that practice!)

  33. John H says:

    I have heard Lutheran pastors here in Australia use the term “uncomfortable with”.
    Well, if some Lutheran pastors find themselves “uncomfortable” with doctrinal declarations set out in the Book of Concord, and tend towards a more “hyper-Protestantising” approach, then that’s depressing, but sadly not surprising.
    And let’s not get started on some of the terms we’ve all heard certain Anglican pastors using to describe historic Christian doctrines. 😉

  34. Jaylynne says:

    John, I was aware that The Concordia Study Bible inherited the NIV notes. Assuming, though, that the editors thoroughly vetted the material, wouldn’t it be a tacit kind of endorsement? (Not, of course, overruling the Confessions, but illustrative of disagreement)?

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