In my previous post, we’ve seen how the Lutheran Confessions take a much less minimalist approach to the Blessed Virgin Mary than do, say, many evangelicals today. Mary is affirmed to be the Mother of God, and her “Ever-Virginity” is presented as (at the very least) a permissible “pious opinion” for Lutherans to hold.
This high view of Mary does not, however, lead us to accept the post-Reformation developments of Marian doctrine and devotion within Roman Catholicism. The 20th century Lutheran theologian, Dr Hermann Sasse, responded to the 1950 promulgation of the dogma of the Assumption with a letter to his fellow pastors in which he takes a very strong line against such theological innovations and the parallel expansion of Marian devotion.
He opens by noting the irony of how an action as divisive and schismatic as that papal proclamation does in fact demonstrate a deep underlying unity among Christians:
Time and again at various points in the history of the church, in spite of all the divisions, in spite of the confessional differences, which reach right to the heart of the faith, it becomes evident that some unity of Christianity does exist. The proclamation of the dogma of the bodily assumption Mary into heaven in the Apostolic Constitution “Munificentissimus Deus” of 1 November 1950 was felt as an event by all of Christianity, Roman and non-Roman alike, which affects all churches, and all Christians.
And it is quite right that this announcement should have had the impact it did, because it goes to the heart of the Reformation’s (and, indeed, Orthodoxy’s) disagreement with Rome. It presents all Christians with a choice that cannot be avoided:
For this dogma is either true or it is false. Either it really is “divinely revealed dogma, that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever-virgin Mary, after the completion of the course of her earthly life, was taken body and soul into heavenly glory,” or this assertion is blasphemy against God.
This in turn gives us a stark choice about the nature of the Papacy:
Either it is actually the vicar of Christ who declares in this doctrinal assertion directed at all of Christianity that anyone who “denies or casts doubt,” has defected from the “divine and Catholic faith,” or the correct faith – who else could pronounce such a dogma as revealed by God and demand its acceptance at the cost of eternal life? – or it is the Antichrist who speaks here, the Antichrist who in this “last,” “evil” time, the time in which Christianity on earth awaits the parousia of her Lord, has sat down in the temple of God, in the church of Christ, and seeks to deceive the faithful, and bring about apostasy from the correct faith. Tertium non datur [“There is no third way”].
Dr Sasse argues that the Marian cult arose following the adoption of Christianity as the official cult of the Roman Empire. As the previously pagan masses streamed into the church, “Mary, the apostles and martyrs took the place of the old gods”. He points to the “religio-historical correspondence between the popular uprising in Acts 19:23ff and the scene at the Council of Ephesus”: the Ephesian mob that ran through the streets after the condemnation of Nestorius, shouting “Thenemy of the Virgin is conquered!”, consisted of the descendants of those who had, almost four centuries earlier, cried “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” for about four hours.
The Marian cult might not have proved such a problem had it merely been a Christian alternative to the pagan goddess cults. However, Sasse argues that it was more than this:
[U]nfortunately it was not only a Christian replacement for a pagan religion, it was likewise a pagan religion in Christian guise … The Marian cult is Christianized paganism, a paganism which lives, closely bound up in a form of symbiosis with the Christian faith, and from which it draws ever-new power. It is as though the super-human powers which stand behind the pagan religions, after the collapse of the pagan cults and myths, had taken refuge in the Christian religion.
Dr Sasse does not deny that the Roman Catholic Church has many strengths: after all, as he points out, it is principally Protestant theologians who have been responsible for attacking historic Christian doctrines such as the virgin birth, the Incarnation and the Trinity.
But “the unspeakable tragedy of church history” is precisely that errors such as Mariolatry, the sacrifice of the Mass and the Papacy have arisen, “not merely in one confessional church which is separated from us”, but in “the one holy church of God, which is indeed also there as certainly as the gospel and the sacraments of Christ are there”. That is precisely what makes the Marian cult so dangerous and so powerful:
No pagan madonna cult outside of Christianity would concern us … But a madonna cult in which the mother of the Lord is the madonna, is a power in the world … As is the case in every church, so also the Roman Church does not live from her errors, but from her truths. The fearful thing in her history is this: these truths have been used to justify those errors.
Dr Sasse goes on to ask how the “Christianized paganism” of the Marian cult could have “forced its way into the church”. He argues that it was the unbiblical parallel drawn by the early church between Christ as the “New Adam” and Mary as the “New Eve” that lies at the root of this:
That Christ is the New Adam is taught in the New Testament. But the New Testament knows nothing of a New Eve.
This concept of the “New Eve” has taken on a life of its own, and (as Dr Sasse could see as soon as the dogma of the Assumption was promulgated) has as its inevitable destination the declaration of Mary as “Co-Redemptrix” and “Mediatrix”.
Finally Dr Sasse argues that there is an intimate link between the Marian cult and the Papacy, despite the fact that the Marian cult arose in the Christian East, which has always rejected Papal pretensions. This “deep connection” is the belief in the divinized man, the belief that man can be his own co-redeemer:
The doctrine of the Vicarius Christi and the infallible teaching office is an expression of that natural religion which ascribes to man that which can only be said of the God-man Jesus Christ. Therefore they both belong together, the corredemptrix and the Vicarius Christi, the Roman view of the Mary and of the pope.
So how are Lutherans to respond to all this? Dr Sasse argues that the first task of the Lutheran Church in this situation “is certainly rejection”:
For what is said here is indeed said for the entirety of Christianity and for all times. The Roman Church must and will stand by this decision to the end of time. It is therefore quite appropriate that non-Roman Christianity speak very plainly what it has to say.
But there is also a need for the Lutheran Church and her leaders to remove “the log from their own eyes, namely that fearful laissez faire with which they face the loss of doctrine in their own church”. “[T]he rejection of heresy is only the flip side of the confession of pure doctrine”, Sasse argues, because:
How will one who does not confess the spiritual realities of the believing and confessing church of the gospel, which actually lives from the Word and Sacrament, face the powerful spiritual and intellectual realities of the Roman Church?
The closing words of Dr Sasse’s letter make an interesting contrast with words that have been repeated a lot in recent days, “Habemus Papam”, “we have a Pope”. Instead, Dr Sasse declares:
Verbum solum habemus. We will hold to the Word of God.
Amen to that.
As for the rest of Dr Sasse’s letter as summarised above, my view is that he explains with great clarity and force why the wrong type of devotion to Mary is indeed very, very wrong. But he doesn’t really address the positive question of the right approach to take towards Mary.
As John Stott (I think) has written in a different context, “the answer to abuse is not non-use but right use”. But Sasse’s hard line would appear to rule out even the level of devotion to Mary practised by someone like Martin Luther, or even Zwingli and Calvin, all of whom retained the use of the Ave Maria in its pre-Reformation form (of which more in my next post).
Perhaps that should be ruled out, but it’s a shame Sasse couldn’t have addressed that issue more precisely rather than appearing to paint all forms of veneration towards the Blessed Virgin as “Christianized paganism”.