[She is the] highest woman and the noblest gem in Christianity after Christ … She is nobility, wisdom, and holiness personified. We can never honor her enough. Still honor and praise must be given to her in such a way as to injure neither Christ nor the Scriptures.
(Martin Luther, Christmas Sermon, 1531)
A very different Lutheran approach to the veneration of Mary from that of Dr Sasse is promoted by Darel Paul, a Lutheran layman who is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Williams College in Massachusetts. Prof. Paul’s Orthodox Lutheran website (linked from Revd Webber’s Lutheran Theology site) includes a range of materials on the subject of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in which he argues that the Lutheran Church has lost site of the high regard and fond devotion towards Mary shared by the Lutheran Reformers and Confessors.
In his essay, “The Blessed Virgin Mary and Christian Dogma”, Prof. Paul looks at the Lutheran attitude towards the four Marian dogmas held by the Roman Catholic Church. These are the two pre-Reformation Marian dogmas – Mary Mother of God (declared by the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431) and Mary Ever-Virgin, (declared at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in 553) – and the two further dogmas of modern times, Mary’s Immaculate Conception (declared by Pope Pius IX in 1854) and the Bodily Assumption of Mary (declared by Pope Pius XII in 1950, and which prompted the letter from Dr Sasse covered in my previous post).
He argues that both pre-Reformation Marian doctrines were retained as Christian doctrine by the Lutheran Reformers. In addition to the statements in the Lutheran Confessions set out in my first post, Prof. Paul also points to the statement of the Augsburg Confession that “reminds us of the fundamental agreement of the Reformers with the traditional church”:
Only those things have been recounted whereof we thought that it was necessary to speak, in order that it might be understood that in doctrine and ceremonies nothing has been received on our part against Scripture or the Church Catholic. For it is manifest that we have taken most diligent care that no new and ungodly doctrine should creep into our churches.
He argues that, while the Confessions’ affirmation of Mary, Ever-Virgin is less clear-cut on the face of it than their affirmation of Mary, the Mother of God, other comments made by Martin Luther and others make it clear that any ambiguity in the Confessions is to be resolved in favour of Mary’s Ever-Virginity.
Not only that, but Prof. Paul also argues that both the Immaculate Conception and the bodily Assumption of Mary into heaven were accepted by the Reformers. The fact that we reject the Papal declarations of these beliefs as binding dogma “does not mean that the teachings themselves are wrong or that they contradict Scripture”; just that the lack of clarity in Scripture and in church tradition concerning these peripheral matters are such that “they cannot be forwarded as clear deposits of the faith”.
As Luther says concerning the Immaculate Conception:
In regard to the conception of our Lady they have admitted that, since this article is not necessary to salvation, it is neither heresy nor error when some hold that she was conceived in sin, although in this case council, pope, and the majority hold a different view. Why should we poor Christians be forced to believe whatever the pope and his papists think, even when it is not necessary to salvation?
However, Luther still insists that the angel’s declaration of Mary as being “full of grace” should be taken to heart, even if we do not insist on how and when this happened:
In the first place, 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.
In short, “Lutherans … should be more concerned with the dogmatization of this teaching than with the actual teaching itself.
The same applies to the Assumption. One historical piece of evidence supporting this teaching (indeed the only one, as Dr Sasse acerbically points out) is the striking failure of the church to expend any significant energy on tracking down relics of Mary. The absence of such relics was explained in AD 451 by the Patriarch of Jerusalem by the fact that “Mary had died in the presence of the apostles; but her tomb, when opened later … was found empty and so the apostles concluded that the body was taken up into heaven.”
As for the Lutheran Confessions, while they are silent on the question of whether Mary was assumed bodily into heaven, the Apology to the Augsburg Confession does state “that the blessed Mary prays for the Church”.
Prof. Paul’s website is perhaps best known for its promotion of his Lutheran Rosary. Prof. Paul argues that Luther’s attacks on the rosary were aimed at “the overuse and the misuse of the rosary rather than against the rosary itself”, and that it is possible to have an Evangelical understanding of the rosary that avoids any question of its being a meritorious work.
As part of his discussion on the rosary, Prof. Paul talks about the Ave Maria, the “Hail Mary” prayer. This was retained by Luther in the following form:
Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus Christ. Amen.
This is, Prof. Paul argues, “an excerpt from scripture (Luke 1:28, 42) and thus should find no objection from Lutherans today”. It is “not … a prayer or invocation but rather a giving of praise and honor to the Blessed Virgin Mary”. The mistake medieval Christians made was to add requests to Mary that turned it into a prayer, such as the (in)famous words formalised at Trent in 1568:
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Luther urges that:
…we should make the Hail Mary neither a prayer nor an invocation because it is improper to interpret the words beyond what they mean in themselves and beyond the meaning given them by the Holy Spirit.
Instead, Luther commends a twofold approach to the Ave Maria:
First, we can use the Hail Mary as a meditation in which we recite what grace God has given her. Second, we should add a wish that everyone may know and respect her as one blessed by God.
Prof. Paul is less sympathetic to other Marian hymns such as the Salve Regina (“The Lutheran objects on so many grounds!”), and his Lutheran Rosary (PDF) provides less objectionable Marian material for use in personal devotion, such as the Magnificat, or Martin Luther’s “Evangelical praise of the Mother of God”:
O Blessed Virgin, Mother of God, what great comfort God has shown us in you, by so graciously regarding your unworthiness and low estate. This encourages us to believe that henceforth He will not despise us poor and lowly ones, but graciously regard us also, according to your example.
Personally, while Prof. Paul makes a strong case for increased veneration of Mary among Lutherans, I still feel uncomfortable with the suggestion that we should adopt the use of the rosary or the Ave Maria, even in their “Lutheranised” (or “de-Papalised”) forms.
There is a difference between occasionally addressing Mary in the second person as a form of “literary apostrophe” (as FDN put it in the comments to my first post), such as is found in certain hymns (see v.2), and directly addressing her, as someone who is listening to what we say, as part of our regular devotional life. Also, since the Reformation the Ave Maria and the rosary have acquired such specifically Roman Catholic connotations – and Roman Catholic doctrine and devotion in this area have become so much more extreme – that it seems next-to impossible to “reclaim” them (and is it even all that worthwhile doing so anyway?).
There is also a difference between giving an Evangelical interpretation to an existing practice (encouraging late-medieval Christians to treat the Ave Maria as “a meditation in which we recite what grace God has given her”), consistent with Luther’s conservative approach to Reformation, and reviving a questionable (and optional) practice that has all-but died out in the Evangelical Lutheran Church.
And part of me wonders whether such attempts to promote Marian devotion aren’t just rooted in the pagan appeal highlighted by Dr Sasse. And perhaps Prof. Paul is just a lone maverick layman whose views should be treated with caution – takes one to know one, after all 😉 – though Pr Webber’s imprimatur gives some comfort on that score.
But then, part of me wonders in turn whether my discomfort isn’t just reflective of an unfounded hyper-Protestant prejudice against practices and beliefs that were held by the Lutheran Fathers during the Reformation and for many decades afterwards, as seems amply attested on Prof. Paul’s website.
Any feedback on all this will be most welcome.