Counter-Reply: Martin Luther's Mariology (Particularly the Immaculate Conception), Part II (vs. James Swan)

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Sub-Title: Has Present-Day Protestantism Maintained the "Reformational" Heritage of Classical Protestant Mariology?

[originally uploaded by Dave Armstrong on 24 April 2003. Re-edited, with numerous additions and subject headings added: 26 April 2003]

James Swan's words will be in blue; Martin Luther's in green. My cited words will be in purple.


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*** CLICK ON "Tolle, lege!" immediately below to finish this article ***

VI. Cardboard Caricatures of Medieval (and Orthodox Catholic) Marian Piety

Mr. Swan continues in his paper with an absurd anti-medievalist (and ultimately anti-Catholic) picture of the Christianity and piety of the Middle Ages:

Young Luther was enveloped in a religious climate consisting of a host of saints and superstitions. All worked together in a grand scheme of relief from the ravages of medieval life, as well as appeasing the always-watching wrathful God. Perhaps a few thought they were fortunate enough to one day attain ultimate salvation. Most expected the dismal grind of medieval life to continue beyond into the bowels of Purgatory, or worse. It was a religious "survival of the fittest," with saints beseeched for aid in enduring the grueling journey.

Near the end of the paper he returns to this lamentable tactic, creating even more garden-variety, warmed-over Charles Hodge, wrongheaded stereotypes of Catholic Mariology (the following are all self-contained excerpts):

Here was the centrality of the issue for Luther. Mary had taken the role of intercessor, co-redeemer, and had been elevated to the status of a "goddess" who would defeat Satan. She had become an idol. In the worship of idols, there is no salvation.

The Devil will even let us hold to an especially orthodox biblical understanding of the person of Christ, but without truly trusting in Jesus. The modern Roman Catholic who venerates Mary finds himself in the same situation as his medieval ancestor: Mary takes on the attributes of Christ and thus becomes an idol, even while one may be holding to a particularly orthodox view of Christ.

While Luther could call Mary the "Mother of God," he was far more concerned to say something about the work of God in Christ than about her, thus, he un-deified her by definition. His usage was not intended to be a quasi-divine statement of veneration similar to medieval or current Roman Catholic trends. When Luther abandoned aspects of Mariology like the Immaculate Conception, it served to further un-deify the goddess. Christ was the only one conceived sinless ruling the throne of the heart, the only Savior in whom one could place their complete trust. While retaining such beliefs like perpetual virginity, Luther did so in undogmatic terms, making sure that Mary was not to be deified for such an attribute.

The colors of the Roman Catholic picture of Luther's devotion to Mary become blurry and unfocused when examined in the light of his writings and theology. Once the intercessory role of Mary was abandoned, Luther saw the idol medieval theology had created. The medieval veneration had its sole purpose of appealing to her for daily and ultimate help. Her attributes were worshipped in order to gain her favor.

I need not concern myself with this merely polemical sort of comment. I'm infinitely more interested in rational and factual argument. Mr. Swan continues:

Contemporary Protestants distance themselves from the title, "Mother of God," and perhaps for good reason. The term has evolved in its usage. What was once a rich theological term expressing a doctrinal truth about Christ developed quickly into a venerating praise to Mary.

No documentation is given (in contrast to the profuse documentation of this paper of mine, and others of similar nature). Mr. Swan follows the widespread Protestant contra-Catholic polemical tendency of stating the correct, orthodox definition of a doctrine but then refusing to note and document how the official Catholic doctrines completely concur. Rather, excesses in popular Catholic or "folk" piety are decried as if they represented Catholicism as a whole - on the dogmatic level. This is terribly fallacious "reasoning." One must always compare the doctrinal teachings of one Christian communion with another, not give the best theological and creedal views of one and rhetorically "oppose" them with the worst excesses of the man on the street of the other. The unfairness and sheer silliness of that is obvious, but unfortunately, it happens all the time (on both sides), and Mr. Swan is no exception, with statements like these:

Thus, young Luther partook in Mariolatry, but the mature Luther looking back saw only the excesses of medieval devotion and teaching on Mary. He saw that she had been adorned with attributes that only belonged to Christ.

. . . Luther shifts the emphasis away from Mary and back to God. He explains that Mary thought herself "blessed" because God "regarded" her; that is, God turned His face toward her and gave grace and salvation, . . . Luther sees this "regarding" as God's bestowal of grace in choosing His children unto salvation and sanctification

Of course. Someone ought to direct Mr. Swan to an orthodox Catholic catechism. This is such an elementary thing; does he think that the average theologically-educated Catholic does not know this? Granted, there are many ignorant Catholics. But these sorts of considerations are absurdly presented as if they have the "Imprimatur" and full acceptance of the highest levels of the Catholic hierarchy. I can assure Mr. Swan that Catholics who know anything are quite aware that:

1. Mary is not God (as there is one God - monotheism).

2. Mary does not save herself (contra Pelagianism).

3. Mary is nothing that God did not grant to her, in grace (Catholics believe in sola gratia every bit as much as Protestants do, even - especially - where Mary is concerned).

4. Mary does not compete with God, but declares His glory, as the "masterpiece" of His creation, just as praise of a masterpiece of art is praise of the painter or sculptor or composer (Catholics don't view veneration of saints and worship of God as identical, and don't espouse an "either/or" or zero sum game notion: viz., that veneration of saints somehow detracts from or contradicts the worship of God, and His unique glory and majesty).
VII. Immaculate Conception, Part One: The Fathers and Mary's Sinlessness

Though Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, and even the great venerator of Mary, Saint Bernard, held that Mary had been infected by original sin, the later Middle Ages saw the rise of theologians supporting her sinlessness.

Mr. Swan seems to be confused about the difference between original sin and actual sin. Apparently, he is unaware that Mary's actual sinlessness was the consensus of most Church Fathers (thought not all; e.g., St. John Chrysostom, Origen, St. Basil). St. Ephraem (4th century) wrote:

You alone and your Mother are good in every way; for there is no blemish in thee, my Lord, and no stain in thy Mother.

(Nisibene Hymns, 27,8)

O virgin lady, immaculate Mother of God, my lady most glorious, most gracious, higher than heaven, much purer than the sun's splendor, rays or light . . . you bore God and the Word according to the flesh, preserving your virginity before childbirth, a virgin after childbirth.

(Prayer to the Most Holy Mother of God)
St. Gregory Nazianzen (e.g., Carmina, 1,2,1) and St. Gregory of Nyssa (e.g., Against Appolinaris, 6), in the same century, frequently refers to Mary as "undefiled." Eusebius, the first Church historian, calls her panagia, or "all-holy." St. Ambrose taught that she was sinless (Commentary on Luke, 2,17 / Commentary on Psalms 118, 22,30), as did St. Augustine. The notion of actual sinlessness developed into freedom from original sin (the Immaculate Conception). St. Augustine is illustrative of the broad consensus of the Fathers (at least in the West). Luigi Gambero observes:

. . . Augustine, following in the footsteps of Ambrose, affirms that the holy Virgin was certainly without sin or imperfection, not, however, as a consequence of her personal effort alone, but thanks to a special grace from God. In support of this, we have a famous text from his De natura et gratia:

With the exception of the holy Virgin Mary, in whose case, out of respect for the Lord, I do not wish there to be any further question as far as sin is concerned, since how can we know what great abundance of grace was conferred on her to conquer sin in every way, seeing that she merited to conceive and bear him who certainly had no sin at all?

(36, 42; PL 44, 267; CSEL 60, 263)
. . . Undoubtedly he excludes any personal sin from Mary. Is it possible to hypothesize that Augustine also intended to exclude original sin? Some scholars think so and make him a forerunner of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. A full treatment of the question would call for a lengthy discussion. To us it seems safer to adopt the contrary position, which is held by many experts and appears more in accord with numerous Augustinian texts.

(Mary and the Fathers of the Church, translated by Thomas Buffer, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999; originally 1991 in Italian, 226. Gambero lists in a footnote no less than nine sources which deal with the question of Augustine and the Immaculate Conception)
Development of doctrine, however, goes beyond our immediate subject: Luther's view of Mary. My main concern here is with the inaccuracy of the opinion that "the later Middle Ages saw the rise of theologians supporting her sinlessness." That had occurred long before. To be fair to Mr. Swan, however, he may have meant free from the sin of original sin (i.e., total freedom from all sorts of sin including original). He may perhaps be excused for the "loophole" of sloppy, imprecise terminology.

VIII. Mr. Swan's Inconsistent Use of Catholic Scholar Hartmann Grisar / Citation Disputes

Luther was able to say of Mary early in his career, "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." [Luther's Works, 43:40] Catholic historian Hartman Grisar states, "As late as 1527 [Luther] even acknowledged the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary, in conformity with theological traditions of the Augustinian Order." [Martin Luther His Life and Work (Baltimore: Newman Press, 1959), 211] Early on though, Luther held this doctrine with the qualification that it was not essential to salvation. He said in 1518, "the Roman church along with the general council at Basel and almost with the whole church feels that the Holy Virgin was conceived without sin. Yet those who hold the opposite opinion should not be considered heretics, since their opinion has not been disproved." [Luther's Works, 31:173]

I don't disagree with any of this, nor does anything on my website or in my books. Grisar wrote in his six-volume biography, Luther:

. . . her immaculate conception and exemption from original sin from the first moment of her soul's existence - Luther himself accepted at first and adhered to for a considerable time, following in this the tradition of his Order.

[Footnote] He admitted this belief handed down in the Catholic Schools, though not proclaimed a dogma till much later, in the sermon he preached in 1527 "on the day of the Conception of Mary Mother of God": "It is a sweet and pious belief that the infusion of Mary's soul was effected without original sin; so that in the very infusion of her soul she was also purified from original sin and adorned with God's gifts, receiving a pure soul infused by God; thus from the first moment she began to live she was free from all sin" ("Werke," Erl. ed., 152, p. 58)

Dave: "Erl ed" is the 67-volume German set edited by J.G. Plochmann and J.A. Irmischer, Erlangen, 1826-1868; 2nd ed. edited by L. Enders, Frankfurt, 1862 ff.
Mr. Swan quotes the rest of Grisar's foootnote:

"The sermon was taken down in notes and published with Luther's approval. The same statements concerning the immaculate conception still remain in a printed edition published in 1529, but in later editions which appeared during Luther's lifetime they disappear." The reason for their disappearance is that as Luther's Christo-centric theology developed, aspects of Luther's mariology were abandoned. Even Grisar recognizes this. In regards to the Luther quote in question, Grisar says, "As Luther's intellectual and ethical development progressed we cannot naturally expect the sublime picture of the pure Mother of God, the type of virginity, of the spirit of sacrifice and of sanctity to furnish any great attraction for him, and as a matter of fact such statements as the above are no longer met with in his later works."

He then gives the source as Luther, Vol. IV, p. 238 (London: B. Herder, 1915). My own edition which I cited was from the first edition of 1915, published by Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner in London; authorised translation from the German by E.M. Lamond; edited by Luigi Cappadelta. Mr. Swan makes much hay of this citation in his Appendix:

This quote is frequently cited on Roman Catholic web pages attempting to prove Luther's lifelong belief in Mary's immaculate conception. Unfortunately, the quote is almost impossible to track down. The sermon is not included in the English edition of Luther's Works, nor have any Roman Catholic web sites ever given any documentation on where to find it. No mention is ever given of any Luther collection or secondary source material, other than the sermon title.

The source information on my website contradicts Mr. Swan's absurd all-knowing proclamation of a supposed complete lack of source material "ever" being given. I gave the full documentation from Grisar in my paper, The Witness of the Church Fathers With Regard to Catholic Distinctives (With Examples of Protestant Corroboration of Catholic Doctrines or Clear Contradiction of Patristic Consensus), footnote #238. As the end of the paper states, this material was uploaded to my website on 7 June 2001. Mr. Swan states elsewhere in his essay that he "accessed" my site on 20 November 2002; this paper had been present on my site for a good 17 months before that.

In any event, it is silly for him to issue a sweeping negative statement about this when it is so easily contradicted by producing one example. The same documentation was given in my first book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism, published in October 2001 (completed in 1996; revised from an earlier version of 1994), chapter nine, footnote #44, though I don't fault Mr. Swan for not having seen that. The point is that I provided documentation for this citation on my website. I didn't bother citing the further German source of Luther's works, since I assume that most English readers don't have access to an 1868 67-volume work written in German.

Moreover, Mr. Swan is quite inconsistent in his demands for rigorous documentation. He himself in this paper does not always provide the excruciatingly precise and comprehensive source information that he appears to demand from others. For example:

1. Footnote 2: He cites the Catholic polemicist Cochlaeus, calling Luther "a child of the devil; a liar and a hypocrite, cowardly and quarrelsome." He informs us that this tidbit was found in Joseph Lortz, The Reformation in Germany, trans. Ronald Walls (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1968), 1:296. Yet it doesn't trouble him that the primary source was absent. He is content to trust the secondary source: "Lortz does not give the reference to his quote of Cochlaeus."

2. He often cites Luther's Works in English (Pelikan et al), which is commendable, yet oddly neglects to make a simple identification of the primary Luther work which is being cited, or the exact location (the opposite shortcoming of his complaint that the Luther tract or sermon is cited without documentation as to where it can be found):

A) Footnote 10: Martin Luther, Luther's Works, vol. 54, ed. J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 14.

B) Footnote 20: Martin Luther, Luther's Works, 54:425. (followed by the next three footnotes: 21-23)

Here, Mr. Swan mentions in the text that the words are from Luther's Table Talk, but he doesn't give the number of the utterance (my copy has 846 sayings, but I can't easily look up this recollection, since Mr. Swan doesn't direct me to one of the 846). In the second mention, at least we are favored with the year: 1542.

C) Footnote 13: Martin Luther, Luther's Works, 22: 377.

D) Footnote 14: Ibid., 22: 145

E) Footnote 15: Ibid., 54: 84.

F) Footnote 18: Martin Luther, Luther's Works, 41:97.

G) Footnote 19: For example, Luther's Works 17:404; LW 35:55; LW 38: 289; LW 51:58; LW 52: 85.

H) Footnotes 25-29, on the Immaculate Conception, from Luther's Works.

I) Footnote 31: Martin Luther, Luther's Works, 43:40. All we get in the text is "early in his career."

J) Footnote 33: Martin Luther, Luther's Works, 31:173. All we learn is the year: 1518.

K) Footnote 34: Ibid., 32: 79-80. We learn only of the year again: 1521.

L) Footnote 36: Martin Luther, Sermons of Martin Luther, Vol. 3, ed. John Nicholas Lenker. ( Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 291. We get only the year: 1532.

M) Footnote 37: Ibid., 294. Mr. Swan kindly informs us of the year once again: 1537.

No further specific references are given in all these instances.
There are 71 footnotes in Mr. Swan's paper. I won't bother documenting this annoying tendency of vagueness any further. It is sufficient to discover that 20 out of the first 37 footnotes (54%) are inadequate as to source.

Furthermore, Mr. Swan shows himself to be unreasonable and unfair with regard to which source material is "worthy" and which is not. When he at length found the source information that was listed on my website for almost two years now (i.e., on his own, apart from my site), he stated:

After looking through dozens of books on Luther, and at least three different sets of his sermons, I finally tracked down the source of this quote. The quote itself is from a secondary source: Hartmann Grisar's four volume biography of Luther. Grisar was a Roman Catholic scholar, and his books are highly polemical against Luther. Though contemporary Roman Catholic scholars like Joseph Lortz have dismissed his work as far too emotionally biased against Luther, certain Roman Catholic layman-apologists still rely on his work and frequently use him as a source.

Now, note the implication that because Grisar was Catholic and "highly polemical," therefore his opinions are altogether suspect. This is the fallacy known as "poisoning the well," and is as ludicrous as dismissing John Calvin or Martin Luther himself from serious consideration when it comes to critiques or any appraisal at all of Catholicism, because they were anti-Catholic and "highly polemical" themselves (to put it extremely mildly). If we were to turn the tables on this "argument," we would end up with paragraphs like the following:

Luther was a Lutheran scholar, and his books are highly polemical against the Catholic Church. Though some contemporary Protestant scholars have dismissed his work as far too emotionally biased against Catholicism, certain Protestant layman-apologists still rely on his work and frequently use him as a source.

Calvin was a Reformed scholar, and his books are highly polemical against the Catholic Church. Though some contemporary Protestant scholars have dismissed his work as far too emotionally biased against Catholicism, certain Protestant layman-apologists still rely on his work and frequently use him as a source.
Whatever Grisar's (or Luther's or Calvin's) religious affiliation or merits or demerits in argument (and/or polemical rhetoric), one must deal with (and reply to) the actual arguments their opponent makes, as opposed to dismissing serious scholars out of hand as mere "polemicists" (in this case a learned, meticulous Jesuit who authored a six-volume, 3000+ page biography of Luther). If we must take this approach, I ask, "Why should anyone trust Luther's opinions on the Catholic Church, given the extremity and absurdity of much of his rhetoric about it?" See: Did Martin Luther Regard the (Roman) Catholic Church as a Non-Christian, Apostate Institution?: Featuring dozens of citations from Luther's own writings; particularly On the Councils and the Churches (1539) and Against Hans Wurst (1541). But I highly doubt that Mr. Swan would apply his leery skepticism in the same way to either Luther or Calvin. Thus he applies a blatant double standard by so easily dismissing Grisar's trustworthiness.

I dare say that Fr. Grisar is infinitely more ecumenical and fair to Luther than Luther or Calvin are to the Catholic Church. On the other hand, Mr. Swan doesn't hesitate in citing Grisar when he agrees with him, as in the Appendix, and he is delighted to repeatedly cite another Catholic scholar, Joseph Lortz, because he agrees with his assessments of Luther in various particulars. As is the case (notoriously) with Jehovah's Witness literature (which I have studied at some length), it seems to me that Mr. Swan loves Catholic scholars and writers only insofar as they are good for a quote which is agreeable to his polemical purpose; otherwise they are essentially untrustworthy. The inconsistency and inadequacy of such an approach is apparent.

Secondly, Mr. Swan fails to note the nuances and qualifications in Grisar's biographical presentation of Luther (also common in my own numerous papers); preferring to leave readers (mostly by what he omits) with the false and most unfair impression of a foaming-at-the-mouth inveterate polemical enemy of Luther and Protestantism. He sets up the straw man image of Catholic apologists supposedly presenting Luther's opinions selectively (thus inaccurately), yet notes that Grisar held the view that Luther forsook belief in the Immaculate Conception later in life. Grisar makes many such observations, which is only one of countless indications that he is not setting forth some imaginary "anti-Protestant" vision of Luther. He simply gives the facts as he understands them (without mincing words when he disagrees theologically, as a Catholic). For example, he wrote on the page before one citation used by Mr. Swan:

Luther always believed in the virginity of Mary, even post partum, as affirmed in the Apostles' Creed, though afterwards he denied her power of intercession, as well as that of the saints in general, resorting to many misinterpretations and combated, as extreme and pagan, the extraordinary veneration which the Catholic Church showed towards Mary.

(Martin Luther: His Life and Work, Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1950, 210)
So perhaps Mr. Swan would protest the first clause because it is too "Catholic," but would love the rest, as it fits in with his desired presentation of Luther. Meanwhile, Catholic writers such as Grisar and myself simply present the facts of Luther's beliefs, whatever they are, as we have no "stake" in what he believes one way or the other. We're simply interested in the history of doctrine and theology, which is, I find, invariably more interesting than polemics and propaganda with a particular agenda.

In any event, Mr. Swan seems quite pleased to find that Grisar states that Luther stopped believing in the Immaculate Conception at some point. My own statement in my web paper that Mr. Swan cited was merely a tentative and nuanced assertion that some Protestant scholars (I gave Piepkorn as an example) hold that Luther believed in this doctrine his entire life. Seeing that Jaroslav Pelikan - editor of Luther's works in English and frequently cited by Mr. Swan - highly commends the man's scholarship, this is not by any means a novel or fringe position to take. And generally, scholars place more credence in more recent historiographical research. Grisar wrote his Luther biographies during World War I (1914-1917); the ecumenical Lutheran scholar Arthur Carl Piepkorn wrote in 1967, two years after Vatican II.