Martin Luther's Devotion to Mary

Despite the radicalism of early Protestantism with regard to many ancient Catholic "distinctives," such as the Communion of the Saints, Penance, Purgatory, Infused Justification, the Papacy, the priesthood, sacramental marriage, etc., it may surprise many to discover that Martin Luther was rather conservative in some of his doctrinal views, such as on baptismal regeneration, the Eucharist, and particularly the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Luther indeed was quite devoted to Our Lady, and retained most of the traditional Marian doctrines which were held then and now by the Catholic Church. This is often not well-documented in Protestant biographies of Luther and histories of the 16th century, yet it is undeniably true. It seems to be a natural human tendency for latter-day followers to project back onto the founder of a movement their own prevailing viewpoints. Since Lutheranism today does not possess a very robust Mariology, it is usually assumed that Luther himself had similar opinions. We shall see, upon consulting the primary sources (i.e., Luther's own writings), that the historical facts are very different. We shall consider, in turn, Luther's position on the various aspects of Marian doctrine.

Along with virtually all important Protestant Founders (e.g., Calvin, Zwingli, Cranmer), Luther accepted the traditional belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary (Jesus had no blood brothers), and her status as the Theotokos (Mother of God):

Probably the most astonishing Marian belief of Luther is his acceptance of Mary's Immaculate Conception, which wasn't even definitively proclaimed as dogma by the Catholic Church until 1854. Concerning this question there is some dispute, over the technical aspects of medieval theories of conception and the soul, and whether or not Luther later changed his mind. Even some eminent Lutheran scholars, however, such as Arthur Carl Piepkorn (1907-73) of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, maintain his unswerving acceptance of the doctrine. Luther's words follow:

Later references to the Immaculate Conception appear in his House sermon for Christmas (1533) and Against the Papacy of Rome (1545). In later life (he died in 1546), Luther did not believe that this doctrine should be imposed on all believers, since he felt that the Bible didn't explicitly and formally teach it. Such a view is consistent with his notion of sola Scriptura and is similar to his opinion on the bodily Assumption of the Virgin, which he never denied - although he was highly critical of what he felt were excesses in the celebration of this Feast. In his sermon of August 15, 1522, the last time he preached on the Feast of the Assumption, he stated:

Luther held to the idea and devotional practice of the veneration of Mary and expressed this on innumerable occasions with the most effusive language:

Luther goes even further, and gives the Blessed Virgin the exalted position of "Spiritual Mother" for Christians, much the same as in Catholic piety:

Luther did strongly condemn any devotional practices which implied that Mary was in any way equal to our Lord or that she took anything away from His sole sufficiency as our Savior. This is, and always has been, the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, Luther often "threw out the baby with the bath water," when it came to criticizing erroneous emphases and opinions which were prevalent in his time - falsely equating them with Church doctrine. His attitude towards the use of the "Hail Mary" prayer (the first portion of the Rosary) is illustrative. In certain polemical utterances he appears to condemn its recitation altogether, but he is only forbidding a use of Marian devotions apart from heartfelt faith, as the following two citations make clear:

To summarize, it is apparent that Luther was extraordinarily devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary, which is notable in light of his aversion to so many other "Papist" or "Romish" doctrines, as he was wont to describe them. His major departure occurs with regard to the intercession and invocation of the saints, which he denied, in accord with the earliest systematic Lutheran creed, the Augsburg Confession of 1530 (Article 21).

His views of Mary as Mother of God and as ever-Virgin were identical to those in Catholicism, and his opinions on the Immaculate Conception, Mary's "Spiritual Motherhood" and the use of the "Hail Mary" were substantially the same. He didn't deny the Assumption (he certainly didn't hesitate to rail against doctrines he opposed!), and venerated Mary in a very touching fashion which, as far as it goes, is not at all contrary to Catholic piety.

Therefore, it can be stated without fear of contradiction that Luther's Mariology is very close to that of the Catholic Church today, far more than it is to the theology of modern-day Lutheranism. To the extent that this fact is dealt with at all by Protestants, it is usually explained as a "holdover" from the early Luther's late medieval Augustinian Catholic views ("everyone has their blind spots," etc.). But this will not do for those who are serious about consulting Luther in order to arrive at the true "Reformation heritage" and the roots of an authentic Protestantism. For if Luther's views here can be so easily rationalized away, how can the Protestant know whether he is trustworthy relative to his other innovative doctrines such as extrinsic justification by faith alone and sola Scriptura?

It appears, once again, that the truth about important historical figures is almost invariably more complex than the "legends" and overly-simplistic generalizations which men often at the remove of centuries - create and accept uncritically.

Mary Index / Main Index / Protestantism

Copyright 1994 by Dave Armstrong. All rights reserved.