Luther & Mary’s Virginity (James Swan’s Silly Tactics)

Luther & Mary’s Virginity (James Swan’s Silly Tactics) April 22, 2020

Reformed Protestant anti-Catholic polemicist James Swan specializes in belittling and mocking Catholics, as regards anything to do with Protestant Founder Martin Luther.  He has developed a modus operandi that is remarkably uniform (and foolish). I thought I would take an example (a very typical one) of his posts to illustrate his methodology (endlessly repeated in hundreds of similar articles).

I’ve been interacting with Swan off and on for 17 years now. I’m very familiar with how he works, and distorts things for his own anti-Catholic purposes. Not to mention that I’ve often been the target myself of his systematic distortions (he has often been obsessed with my work in the past), and since I am the world’s biggest expert on my own writings, I have firsthand experience of his dubious tactics. I also happen to run the largest online Catholic web page devoted to a critique of Martin Luther, and have written two books about him as well (one / two).

The paper I’ll examine is called, “Luther Believed in Mary’s Perpetual Virginity?” (4-20-20). Swan’s words will be in blue; Martin Luther’s in green.

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A favorite tactic of Rome’s apologists is to find quotes from Martin Luther in which he says things sounding blatantly Roman Catholic and confusingly un-Protestant at the same time. 

And what is wrong with that? I can think of at least two good reasons to do so:

1) it’s praiseworthy for Christians to find unity on whatever they can. That is a desire expressed by Jesus (His prayer of John 17) and often by St. Paul in the Bible (e.g., “maintain the unity of the Spirit”: Eph 4:3, RSV).

2) It’s also historically instructive to see how Protestants have developed or evolved through the years: often in ways that would be very foreign to their own founders, and almost always away from an initial strong similarity to Catholicism: so that Catholics are, surprisingly often, closer in belief to early Protestants than various of today’s Protestants are.

So: unity and history: both things are good to seek and better understand, respectively. Why, then, does Swan object to this? I can see objecting to citations that are outright false or taken out of context or misrepresented (which happens), but not to this overall practice of citing early Protestant views that are quite “Catholic.” Is it because it embarrasses Swan, that this is so often the case, and so he writes tedious articles like this one? That’s as good an explanation as any, I reckon.

Yes, it’s true Luther adhered to Mary’s perpetual virginity, . . . 

And that’s precisely the point. So why engage in so much labor protesting when someone points out the obvious? It’s just odd . . .

but, it’s important to realize this convert has assumed the overarching context of a Roman Catholic historical interpretive paradigm.

Not necessarily. He may simply be pointing out common ground where it can be found: as I have done scores of times with Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and other early Protestants.

Many of Rome’s defenders use a basic historical narrative: the early church testifies to to their beliefs only,

Yes, we Catholic apologists are weird that way: we produce much patristic material showing that the Church fathers were essentially Catholic in their beliefs, and far from the Protestantism that would arise some 1400 years later. I know it’s uncomfortable for a guy like Swan, but hey, historical facts is facts. We didn’t make them what they are.

those who don’t are exceptions or heretics,

Yep, there is a such a thing as a heretic, and heresy was determined by not adhering to what had always been believed, and passed down through apostolic succession. That was the bottom line. Everyone appealed to the Bible, so the Bible alone was not enough to settle the question of Christian orthodoxy.

if particulars of the early church don’t quite fit their narrative, “development of doctrine” is brought in to smooth the rough edges over.

It’s the usual asinine (and very ill-informed) denigration of development of doctrine by anti-Catholics, which I have criticized, sometimes in great depth, and against folks who never counter-respond for 18 and 20 years.

If Luther testifies to a distinctively Roman Catholic belief, his testimony is put forth to demonstrate modern Protestants have deviated from their founder and the universal testimony of the ancient church. 

In cases where this is true (and there are many), again, what in the world is wrong with noting it? It’s simply historical examination. Luther (like fellow rebel Calvin) was scathingly critical of fellow Protestants who disagreed with him (favoring killing Anabaptists over the issue of adult baptism), so why is it that we can’t even point out when Protestants today do the same? Why is Swan so ultra-defensive about it?

Simply because Luther accepted perpetual virginity does not necessarily mean contemporary Protestants have to accept a distinctively Roman Catholic Marian dogma.

No one is saying that. We are simply noting interesting and “anomalous” facts of Protestant history.

Swan (rightly) goes after some Catholic citing Luther’s words on perpetual virginity, spread over 190 pages. He mentions my book on Mary (without naming me, as usual) as a possible source of the quotation. What he does not note is that I was very careful to separate the two citations, with full documentation from Luther’s Works (56 volumes of which I have in my own library, in hardcover). He points out the shoddy Catholic research, while ignoring and failing to credit the good research (my own) because that would be 1) contrary to his purpose, and 2) would constitute a compliment of my work, which he can never make, out of his extreme personal contempt towards my person and work alike.

Let’s go a bit deeper into Reformation history than many of Rome’s defenders do when they use these quotes. There’s are curious nuances typically left out of their cut-and-pasted versions sifted from That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew. Previous to the words of Luther they cite, he makes some damning remarks of the “papist” understanding of Mary and perpetual virginity:

Then he goes on to cite Luther (Luther’s Works, vol. 45, p. 205), making one of his very characteristic contra-Catholic arguments:

Now just take a look at the perverse lauders of the mother of God. If you ask them why they hold so strongly to the virginity of Mary, they truly could not say.

Maybe some of them can say (I am one of those meself)! This is the standard Luther broad brush. Catholics are always clueless ignoramuses . . .

These stupid idolators do nothing more than to glorify only the mother of God; they extol her for her virginity and practically make a false deity of her.

Right. We don’t say a word about Jesus Christ . . . and Mary is almost in the Trinity (Quaternity?). I recently dealt with asinine, empty-headed  claims like this from a contemporary Reformed polemicist (Douglas Wilson).

But Scripture does not praise this virginity at all for the sake of the mother; neither was she saved on account of her virginity.

Yep. I’ve never yet (in now 30 years) seen an educated Catholic claim otherwise. If Luther had, he could have produced him. But that’s not his style. It wrecks the straw men caricatures . . .

Indeed, cursed be this and every other virginity if it exists for its own sake, and accomplishes nothing better than its own profit and praise.

We agree! Mary is all about her Son. Our doctrine of Mariology is all about Christology, first and foremost. I have shown, for example, that even when Mary is honored in the most flowery language (e.g., by St. Alphonsus de Liguori), Jesus is always mentioned as God to be adored in the same context.

He held Mary retained her virginity during the birth of Christ (in partu) (LW 58:433-434). How was this possible? Luther held that Christ has a “spiritual mode”  “to which he neither occupies nor yields space but passes through everything created as he wills,” including his mother (LW 37:222).

This is what is so extraordinary, because many (otherwise orthodox) Catholics do not hold this view today (that the birth itself was supernatural and not the usual physical process): even though it is a dogma of the church at the highest level. See:

Mary’s Perpetual Virginity “In Partu” (a Miraculous, Non-Natural Childbirth) is a Binding Catholic Dogma [9-24-08; expanded on 9-21-15]

Luther & Mary’s Virginity During Childbirth [10-12-11]

Mary Was a Virgin During Jesus’ Birth (In Partu) [9-19-14; slight modifications and additions on 4-18-18]

Mary’s Virginity During Childbirth: Ott’s Revision & Latin Analysis [9-29-15]

Biblical and Patristic Evidence for Mary’s “In Partu” Virginity [National Catholic Register, 11-14-19]

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Three observations. First, Luther uses perpetual virginity to criticize his papal adversaries. He was keenly aware that when he spoke of Mary’s perpetual virginity, it had different emphasis than Rome’s version.

He assumes that; he doesn’t prove it. Luther too often thinks that just because he asserts some negative claim about the Catholic Church, that it must be true.

Don’t let Rome’s defenders respond by parsing out contemporary Mariology, as if everything has always been perfect.

Swan is as free as Luther was to actually (imagine this!) document and prove that we have ever regarded Mary as God. Good luck! Again, I’ve been studying historic Catholic theology for almost 30 years now as an apologist, and I’ve never seen anything remotely like Mary-worship and idolatry. It’s simply an anti-Catholic Protestant myth that it’s out there somewhere. Now, I’m not denying that no Catholic ever committed doctrinal or idolatrous excess as regards the Blessed Virgin Mary. They certainly have.

As always, I am talking about actual enshrined Catholic doctrines and dogmas; in the “books”: things we “officially” believe; just as Protestant beliefs are determined by consulting their own creeds and confessions like the Book of Concord or Westminster Confession; not by noting some half-drunk idiot antinomian “Protestant” in a bar in Leipzig or something . . . To his (partial) credit, Swan tries to produce such examples in a separate paper, but the closest he gets to official Catholic dogmas are Catholic prayer books, which carry no authority of the Catholic magisterium at all.

If Swan wants to determine historic Catholic Mariology (if he wants to attempt serious analysis, as opposed to playing silly polemical games), there are ways to do that. He can consult the latest version of Denzinger (Sources of Catholic Dogma, 43rd edition), or the summation of Catholic dogmatic theology by Ludwig Ott (2nd revised edition): both incidentally edited and translated by my good friend, Dr. Robert Fastiggi, who has attended by group theological discussions many times.

Luther points out that Mary fades from the biblical account after the birth, because the emphasis of the Scriptures are on her child. 

Exactly! We fully agree. For this reason, we point out this very thing when we are taunted with the lack of material about Mary in the Bible. First things first. Mariology largely developed (not originated!) later, after the fine points of Christology had been developed and worked through by the early Church. Revelation 12, however, is not exactly a total fading-away of Mary.

Luther’s Mary, described in his exposition of the Magnificat, is that of a lowly and humble maiden that did housework her entire life. She has done nothing. There was no free-will choice to become the mother of Jesus or give her virginity to God.

Huh? Luther taught that Mary gave no free will consent to become the Mother of God? I highly doubt it. I can’t get to my Luther set right now because we are in the process of moving, but anyone who holds that Mary didn’t freely consent at the Annunciation has to explain her pretty clear words: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38, RSV). Was Mary some kind of programmed robot? She had a free will to say “yes” just  as Eve did to say “no” to the serpent. This is why the Church fathers (at least as far back as Irenaeus: died c. 202) call Mary the New Eve or Second Eve: her “yes” reversed Eve’s “no.”

What other “virginity” was prevalent in the sixteenth century?  The most popular was the virginity achieved by celibacy from monastic vows. To become a monk, one needed to take a vow of celibacy.  Some of Rome’s defenders argue that Mary herself made a lifelong vow of virginity at the Annunciation: . . . In this view, Mary achieved the ascetic ideal. 

It’s also the Jesus and St. Paul “ideal” (which is where Catholics got the idea):

Matthew 19:11-12 (RSV) But he said to them, “Not all men can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. [12] For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.”

1 Corinthians 7:7-8, 32-35, 38  I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. [8] To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. . . . [32] I  want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; [33] but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, [34] and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. [35] I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. . . . [38] So that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.

[C]ompare Luther’s Mary with the Catechism of the Catholic ChurchMary is celebrated as the “ever-virgin.”

Luther used the title “ever virgin” for Mary, according to The Annotated Luther: Volume 3: Church and Sacraments (edited by Paul W. Robinson, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2016. Contributor Erik H. Herrmann stated on page 35: “Luther would continue to use the title “the ever-Virgin Mary”.

Luther’s view of perpetual virginity is not exactly Rome’s view. When Luther speaks on the subject, it has some different underpinnings. 

Swan simply has not shown that Luther’s view on perpetual virginity itself is essentially any different from our own.

It’s true that the early Reformers, particularly Luther, made comments about Mary that current Protestants would not make. 

Yep. So why does Swan have a cow every time we simply point this out?

But similarly, there are comments made by Protestants today that would probably surprise Luther. 

We know this to be a fact because some Protestants today say the same stupid things that some in Luther’s day said (e.g., about iconoclasm or a symbolic Eucharist or baptism or antinomianism), and he was incensed with them. Likewise, he would feel that way towards folks today who say and believe the same.

To steal a concept from Alister McGrath: the Reformers demonstrated both continuity and discontinuity with the period which immediately preceded it. 

No kidding. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be called so-called “Reformers” would they?

It shouldn’t be at all surprising then to discover elements of Luther’s Mariology that echoed the medieval theological worldview.

This is usually how Protestants who disagree with such remnants of Catholic tradition rationalize it away: “Well, Luther was still immersed in the Catholic worldview, and so we expect to find some leftovers . . . ” Etc. They have to find some reason to reject these things as untrue, and so this is one of the most frequent tactics.

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Related Reading

Martin Luther Was Extraordinarily Devoted to Mary [1994]

Perpetual Virginity of Mary: Held by All Protestant Reformers [1-27-02]

Martin Luther’s Mariology (Particularly the Immaculate Conception) [4-24-03; major revision: 4-7-08]

Counter-Reply: Martin Luther’s Mariology (Particularly the Immaculate Conception): Has Present-Day Protestantism Maintained the “Reformational” Heritage of Classical Protestant Mariology? (+ Part II | Part III) [4-26-03, at Internet Archive]

Second Reply Concerning Martin Luther’s Mariology [6-28-03; massive rebuttal!, at Internet Archive]

Mary’s Assumption & Historic Protestantism [6-30-08]

Mary Mother of God: Protestant Founders Agree (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Bullinger) [10-10-08]

Luther & the “Immaculate Purification” of Mary [10-2-10]

Martin Luther’s Belief in the Perpetual Virginity of Mary (+ Reformed Apologist James Swan’s Belittling Contempt of Luther) [9-23-14]

Luther & Veneration of Mary: James Swan’s Revisionism (His Anti-Catholic Nonsense with Regard to Martin Luther’s Mariology & Also My Related Research) [4-22-16]

My Luther Research Lied About Again (James Swan & CARM) [8-22-17]

Martin Luther vs. Nestorius Regarding “Mother of God” [3-28-18]

Martin Luther’s (“Catholic”) Mariology in a Nutshell [4-12-18; links added on 5-8-19]

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Photo credit: Long Thiên (1-1-80) [Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0 license]

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