Luther’s Mariology: the Protestant View (vs. James Swan)

Luther’s Mariology: the Protestant View (vs. James Swan) May 15, 2021

This is section I of a lengthy paper (posted on Internet Archive in its entirety): Counter-Reply: Martin Luther’s Mariology (Particularly the Immaculate Conception), Part I (Has Present-Day Protestantism Maintained the “Reformational” Heritage of Classical Protestant Mariology?)(vs. James Swan). It is a response to Swan’s piece, Martin Luther’s Theology of Mary.

Tim Enloe, a Reformed Protestant writer who was very active in contra-Catholic apologetics in the early 2000s, but no longer is, wrote about Swan’s piece on Eric Svendsen’s anti-Catholic forum:

For those who encounter RC apologists making exaggerated claims about Luther’s Marian beliefs, I have just put up an outstanding paper by James Swan, a Westminster Seminary student whom I met on CARM [a Protestant discussion board] a few months ago when he was demonstrating Dave Armstrong’s extremely poor research methods and outlandish claims about Luther. Given the large number of RC apologists who rely heavily on Armstrong’s site for information about the Reformation and the Reformers, this is an exciting and thoroughly researched “set the record straight” paper.

I have removed from my blog tons of material from Tim, at his request. I don’t know if he would still hold to this opinion of me or not. If so, he has never told me that he renounces this jaded view of my research. He later clashed theologically and personally with even fellow Reformed Protestants like Bishop “Dr.” [???] James White. I simply note that his views have no doubt evolved and matured, these past 18 years.

This material was originally posted on 26 April 2003. James Swan’s words will be in blue. My older cited words will be indented.


A quick search for information about Martin Luther on the World Wide Web reveals that polemics against Luther remain frequent and high-pitched, as different groups create the villain they find in his writings. The basic elements of Luther’s thought are generally missing, distorting the man, his theology, and his impact upon post-Reformation society.

Sketches of Luther from Roman Catholic perspectives bring forth numerous images. Some cling to presenting Luther as Cochlaeus did five hundred years ago, as a “a child of the devil”, a liar and a hypocrite, cowardly and quarrelsome. [Joseph Lortz, The Reformation in Germany, trans. Ronald Walls (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1968), 1:296. Lortz does not give the reference to his quote of Cochlaeus] Others present a more “Catholic” Luther, one of whom contemporary Protestants allegedly suppress to maintain doctrinal hostility to Rome. Such is the case with Luther’stheology of Mary. One Roman Catholic [myself] paints the Reformer as being a devotee to the Blessed Virgin:

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.  [Dave Armstrong, Martin Luther’s Devotion to Mary [linked]; Internet; accessed 20 November 2002. This document is included in Appendix 1.] [Dave (5-15-21): later, it was retitled, Martin Luther Was Extraordinarily Devoted to Mary and posted to my current blog]

The author draws a picture of Luther espousing a doctrine of Mary that reflects Roman Catholic theology, with little or no conflict with his
Reformation ideals.

This is inaccurate. In the above paper, which is not all that long, I made several nuanced, qualifying remarks, contrasting Luther’s Marian views with those of the Catholic Church:

Probably the most astonishing Marian belief of Luther is his acceptance of Mary’s Immaculate Conception . . . 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. [Dave (5-15-21): later I changed my mind and accepted the view that Luther later held a modified opinion on the Immaculate Conception] 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 . . . 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.

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, . . .

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 [but see my later clarification], 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.

It is pointed out that Luther used the venerating term, “Mother of God.” He also believed in her perpetual virginity, Immaculate Conception, and her “spiritual motherhood” of all Christians. He believed that prayers to her with “heartfelt faith” were allowed.

Insofar as demonstrated in the paper and elsewhere on my website, by citations, yes indeed. Historical facts are what they are; I didn’t make up Luther’s views on Mary.

Has the great reformer been done an injustice by his theological offspring? Have they neglected to follow his lead in venerating Mary as part of historic Protestantism? . . . By reading selected quotes [of] Luther, it does indeed appear that Protestantism has deviated from his veneration of Mary.

That is for Protestants themselves to decide (note that Mr. Swan — strangely — appears to even doubt the fact of such a change). I was merely presenting certain little-known facts about Luther’s Mariology. Of course the Catholic would contend that Luther was more biblical and traditional on this score (hence, more correct and “orthodox” from the historic Catholic standpoint) than virtually all present-day Lutherans.

As for Protestant “suppression” of Luther’s Mariology, I will cite just two examples from countless ones that could easily be brought forth. In the standard reference work, The Theology of Martin Luther, by Paul Althaus (tr. Robert C. Schultz, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), a work of 464 profusely-documented pages, no section on Mary appears at all, though there are sections on topics such as, for example, “The People of God,” “The Church as the Community of Saints,” “The Office of the Ministry,” etc., thus showing that the work is rather wide-ranging. Mary cannot even be found in the Index of Names. The closest it gets is “Virgin Birth, dogma of” (p. 464). The author writes in his preface:

My purpose in this book is . . . to present a comprehensive overview of the basic elements of Luther’s theological work . . .

It is my intention that this book systematically present and interpret Luther’s teaching.

Perhaps the key to the omission might be located in the following words:

Luther’s understanding of the gospel remains a vital reality in spite of everything in his theology which reflects the conditions of his times and which we cannot use. (Preface to German edition, v-vi)

It is neither my intention nor purpose to cast aspersions upon professor Althaus’s generally excellent and helpful research. My point is only that current-day Lutherans and Protestants in general emphasize Mariology far less than the “Protestant Reformers” did (Luther, perhaps, above all). I don’t see that this is even arguable. Whether one holds that this reality is a desirable or undesirable change (which is another question: one of theology, orthodoxy, creeds, and confessions), it exists nonetheless.

To assert it as a rather obvious sociological fact (that is, obvious once one is a bit acquainted with the historical background of the development of Protestant thought) is not necessarily to take any particular position on the Mariological disputes in theology. Not all research on these issues has to have polemics and defense of one’s own particular position on theology or history as its motivation.

A similar situation can be found in Williston Walker’s book, John Calvin: The Organiser of Reformed Protestantism (New York: Schocken Books, 1969). In this comprehensive treatment of Calvin’s life and theology (nearly 500 pages), one discovers a single (rather casual) reference to Mary.


Photo credit: James Swan, Reformed Protestant, anti-Catholic polemicist.


Summary: I engaged in a lengthy dispute over Luther’s Mariology in 2003 with James Swan, Reformed Protestant, anti-Catholic polemicist. I am re-posting old excerpts from Internet Archive.


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