James Swan, the Immaculate Conception, Luther, & Lutherans

James Swan, the Immaculate Conception, Luther, & Lutherans June 22, 2023

He Still Refuses to Admit that Many Eminent Lutheran Scholars Contend that Luther Believed in Mary’s Immaculate Conception for His Entire Life 


This has been an ongoing debate, going back literally over twenty years now. My initial wranglings with Reformed polemicist James Swan (who runs the Boors All blog) had to do with Luther’s Mariology. I refuted his contentions in great depth in two reply-articles, dated 4-26-03 and 6-28-03. Prior to June 2003 he had at least been outwardly cordial and civil in our interactions. But when I replied the second time within a few days of his presenting his huge paper, complete with 202 footnotes,  it was too much for his anti-Catholic ego to stand, and he has treated me with the utmost contempt and dripping disdain and condescension (including serious accusations that I am supposedly severely mentally ill) ever since. See the boring details — if you have run out of things to do — in his section on my Anti-Catholicism web page.

I guess he thought it would take months for me to ever even make any attempt to offer a reply to his “magnum opus”: if I ever did at all. But I did very quickly. He still attempted to “debate” me till around 2010, at which point he ceased responding (while I continued offering rebuttals, and still do), according to the strategy also adopted in the same general time period by various other anti-Catholic luminaries, like James White, Jason Engwer, and Steve Hays (all of whom, like Swan, had extensively interacted with me prior to that time). “If you can’t beat ’em in argument, ignore them and pretend they don’t exist and flee for the hills” is the silly mentality.

Recently, Swan replied to Catholic apologist Trent Horn of Catholic Answers, in his article, “Catholic Answers on Luther’s View of the Immaculate Conception” (Boors All, 5-25-23). His words will be in blue.

Catholic Answers posted an article defending their belief that Mary was entirely without sin, particularly when detractors question the impregnation of a teenage girl. While Martin Luther’s view of the immaculate conception was only a passing comment, it represents a change in typical Roman Catholic cyber-treatments of the Reformer’s Mariology. Apologist Trent Horn writes, 

Some Protestants might say that at best, this proves only that Mary was free from sin at the Annunciation, not necessarily since her conception. Martin Luther, for example, moved away from belief in the Immaculate Conception, but even in 1540, he said with regard to the Annunciation, “The flesh and blood of Mary were entirely purged, so that nothing of sin remained.” In response, I would just say that it seems arbitrary to say God chose this moment to give Mary grace rather than at any other moment and that the angel’s greeting, “Hail, full of grace,” signifies that her being full of grace was a part of her identity even before the announcement about the Incarnation.

Let’s take a look at the citation used and conclusion reached by Mr. Horn of Catholic Answers.
It’s nothing new in my own treatment of Luther’s Mariology. On 2 October 2010 I announced that I was persuaded that the later Luther ceased believing in Mary’s Immaculate Conception, and instead held that she was sinless only after the conception of her Son (rather than her own conception). I described this view as the “Immaculate Purification” of Mary. I wrote:
Luther continued (most of the time) to assert that Mary was without actual sin, and that she was freed from original sin (the latter being the most constant aspect of his evolving beliefs on the matter). Since those are the two essential elements of the Immaculate Conception (and vastly different from the opinions of almost all Protestants today), then we are quite justified in continuing to say that he held the doctrine “in some form” (as I expressed it in my 2003 paper) until his death: he held to Immaculate Purification. It’s not identical to the Catholic position (which wasn’t yet a dogma during his lifetime, anyway, so that folks were free to disagree a bit), but it is far closer to the Catholic position than any denominational or creedal Protestant position today. . . . I have argued that the substance or essence of Luther’s views remained the same, insofar as he held that Mary was purified of original sin. That didn’t change. That’s the essence of the immaculate conception. When it happened is a different issue, but not of its essence.
Mr. Horn rightly says that Luther “moved away from belief in the Immaculate Conception.” I would qualify this though by saying: Luther didn’t just “move away” from it, he ceased believing it. It appears earlier in his life he accepted it, later in his life he did not.
If we mean that he ceased believing that she was made immaculate at her conception, I agree (and so, it appears, does Trent Horn). But he still believed that God made her immaculate and sinless (from both actual and original sin) at Jesus’ conception. Therefore, in my reasoning, he still accepted the essence of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. He was wrong, later in life, only concerning when God applied this grace to her. But Swan isn’t interested in any of that. His only motive — as always — is to make Catholics look ignorant and misinformed. He’s the big expert; we’re always the dummies, who can learn from his pearls of wisdom, in his habitual self-important game.
If the sands of cyber time were reversed, this same quote, and others, were used by some of Rome’s defenders to prove Luther held a lifelong belief in the immaculate conception of Mary!  It would be interesting to know what sources Mr. Horn used on Luther’s view of the immaculate conception. Back in the early 2000’s, it was common to find Roman Catholic webpages using Luther’s statements about Mary as an apologetic tool against Protestants. I do not find the same amount of these webpages today. It seems to me the newer generation of Rome’s defenders have learned from the errors of the older generation… of perhaps… they are better at using Google! 
Right. Do you notice how Swan insinuates that only Catholics have ever believed that Luther held to the Immaculate conception of Mary his entire life? That’s the impression he wishes to leave, by cynically selective and convenient emphasis. The actual fact is that many Lutheran Luther scholars have also held this.
I documented it back on 30 September 2010 in two papers: Luther & Mary’s Immaculate Conception: Lutheran Scholars’ Opinions  and Luther & the Immaculate Conception: More Non-Catholic Historians & Scholars. In the first paper I was interested in the views of Lutherans regarding the later Luther’s views on this topic. I summarized the results as follows (the question at hand was whether the later Luther believed in the Immaculate Conception of Mary):

Yes: 31 (16 Lutherans, 13 Catholics, 1 Reformed, 1 probably Protestant [uncertain] )

Probably: 1 (Catholic)

Probably not: 1 (Catholic)

No: 2 (1 Catholic; 1 Lutheran)

That makes for an 89% rate of scholars of various religious persuasions. Only one Protestant scholar is firmly against the opinion, while two Catholic scholars are against and probably against (putting to rest the charge of denominational bias and special pleading). The Lutheran scholars can be, I think, fully trusted for the interpretation of the founder of their branch of Christianity. Catholic scholars are, then, only agreeing with the consensus of Lutheran scholarship on this point. 

As already noted, I myself agree with Swan that later Luther appeared to change his mind (thus, I can’t be accused of bias on this topic). But the issue is whether only Catholic scholars and apologists believe that Luther maintained the same opinion his entire life. Many Lutheran scholars also hold to that. They may be right in the end, for all I know. Interpreting Luther in his endless vacillations and polemical moods and self-contradictions is always difficult. I drew my own conclusion based on the relevant data that I had found. But I’m not a Luther scholar, so I may be wrong in the final analysis. And if I am shown to be, I’ll be more than happy to change my opinion again, since I want to believe in truth, not falsehood.

The Lutherans holding to this view that Swan implies only ignorant, misinformed Catholic polemicists adhere to include some very big names. I wrote:

[T]he eminent Lutheran scholar Eric W. Gritsch, who studied for his doctorate under the famous Luther biographer Roland H. Bainton, and was a major translator of Luther’s Works in English (edited by Jaroslav Pelikan), including the lengthy treatise, Against the Roman Papacy: An Institution of the Devil (vol. 41, 263-376). He wrote:

Luther defended Mary’s perpetual virginity and regarded her Immaculate Conception as “a pious and pleasing thought” that should not, however, be imposed on the faithful. (in The One Mediator, the Saints, and Mary, Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VIII, edited by H. George Anderson, J. Francis Stafford, Joseph A. Burgess, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1992; 241)

In footnote 43 on page 382, he elaborated:

‘Haec pia cogitatio et placet.’ Exposition of the Ninth Chapter of Isaiah, 1543/44. WA 40/3:680.31-32. Two scholars doubt whether Luther affirmed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary: Preuss (n. 11 above came to the conclusion that Luther rejected the doctrine after 1528; O’Meara states that “it is likely, but not certain” that Luther rejected the doctrine (118 [n. 11 above]). But Tappolet (32 [n. 1 above]) demonstrated with the use of texts that Luther did not change his mind. The literary evidence from Luther’s works clearly supports the view that Luther affirmed the doctrine, but did not consider it necessary to impose it.

Walter Tappolet is “the man” as far as documenting Luther’s Mariology. Gritsch writes about him on page 379:

An exhaustive collection of Luther’s statements on Mary has been offered by Walter Tappolet and Albert Ebneter (eds.), Das Marienlob der Reformatoren (Tubingen: Katzmann, 1962), 17-218, 357-64. Two studies have analyzed the chronological development of Luther’s views in conjunction with his basic theological views: Hans Dufel, Luthers Stellung zur Marienverehrung ( . . . 1968) and William J. Cole, “Was Luther a Devotee of Mary?” Marian Studies 21, (1970), 94-202) . . .

I delved much more deeply into the same question of the views of Lutheran scholars in this regard in my second long reply to Swan in April 2003. The 2010 was merely a summary. Tappolet was a Catholic, but Gritsch doesn’t hold that against the strength of his scholarly opinion. Other Lutheran scholars who believed that Luther’s view didn’t change included Arthur Carl Piepkorn, Jaroslav Pelikan, eleven Lutheran scholars on the Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue Committee (see the 1992 book edited by Anderson, cited by Gritsch, above), K. Algermissen, and Friedrich Heiler: the latter two, in the same sense as the infallible Catholic dogma proclaimed in 1854 (!). In my second paper about non-Catholic scholars, I added to this illustrious Lutheran list the famous biographer of Luther,  Julius Köstlin, who wrote in his Life of Luther (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1883):
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which Pius IX., in our own days, first ventured to raise into a dogma of the Church, was zealously defended by the Augustinians, and firmly maintained by Luther himself, even after the beginning of his war of Reformation.
In the same article I cited the scholars Bridget Heal, author of  The Cult of the Virgin Mary in Early Modern Germany: Protestant and Catholic Piety, 1500-1648 (Cambridge University Press: 2007), and Beth Kreitzer, Reforming Mary: Changing Images of the Virgin Mary in Lutheran Sermons of the Sixteenth Century (Oxford University Press: 2004). Their positions are virtually identical to the view I have held since shortly after I wrote those two articles, and in fact, their views and arguments were probably key in my own change of mind.
Bridget Heal, unlike the inimitable James Swan, is actually a scholar, interested in objectively analyzing historical questions.  Her “research focusses on the long-term impact of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations on German society and culture” and she has authored related books published by both Oxford and Cambridge universities. She stated in her book above (page 58 or 59) that Luther’s “exact position on the Immaculate Conception has been the subject of extensive debate.” One would never know that, reading Swan’s biased ultra-polemical materials, but one would learn it reading my materials, because I attempt to be objective, even about opinions that I myself do not hold, as presently.
Swan is always going after the credentials of Catholic apologists. But we can find out very little about him. As far as I can tell and recall, he has a degree in philosophy and simply blogs as an amateur historian. He hasn’t published a single book that I am aware of, not even a self-published one. I have published over twenty books with six different “real” publishers (established folks with editors, etc.), two of them non-Catholic publishers.
Trent Horn may not be an expert on Luther’s Mariology (I think he would readily admit that), but he is an adjunct professor of apologetics at Holy Apostles College, and has three master’s degrees in theology, philosophy, and bioethics from that institution and the Franciscan University of Steubenville. In an article three weeks ago, Swan, writing about Catholic apologists in general, stated:
Many (if not most) of Rome’s defenders are self-proclaimed Roman Catholic apologists: the Pope has not sanctioned them to venture into cyberspace and tap away on their keyboards to defend the Roman church. Therefore, if you are engaging in a dialog with a defender of Rome, you are not necessarily doing apologetics against Roman Catholicism, but rather, an interpretation of Roman Catholicism. Whenever possible, ask Rome’s defenders to document their points with official dogmatic pronouncements from the magisterium. . . . Similarly with history: say a defender of Rome makes a declaration about Martin Luther, make sure to inquire if it’s their opinion, or an official historical conclusion of the Magisterium.

Trent Horn has plenty of credentials, as shown, He works for Catholic Answers: the largest and arguably the most influential Catholic apologetics organization in the world, these past thirty years. It has massive oversight from many bishops, as I have written about in the past (because anti-Catholics constantly bring up this pseudo-issue). They, in turn, are under the pope.

Swan’s last sentence above shows his rank ignorance of how the Catholic Church functions and what Catholics teach and believe about authority and ecclesial oversight. Does he actually think that every jot and tittle of every opinion a Catholic expresses about Luther must be enshrined somewhere in the Magisterium (and if not, no Catholic ought to dare express an opinion!)? Of course it isn’t.
There is no official decree, that I am aware of, that informs all Catholics with regard to the question of whether Luther changed his mind on the Immaculate Conception or not. I disagree myself with other Catholics on this point. In the same screed, Swan also wrote: “If they attempt to interact with you over the Bible, make sure to challenge them to document their use of the Bible with Rome’s official dogmatic interpretation of the passage being utilized.”
This is equally clueless. In fact, Catholic exegetes (and I have done my fair share of amateur exegesis; I love it!) are only bound to seven to nine “official” decrees from the Catholic Church proclaiming interpretations of Bible passages that must be agreed with. I have been reiterating this fact for almost twenty years now, but the anti-Catholics simply keep repeating the caricature and lie. It’s what they do. And they never seem to learn from the very people who are in a position to teach them.

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Photo credit: Portrait of Martin Luther (1528), by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


Summary: I document the continuing biased presentations of anti-Catholic polemicist James Swan regarding Luther’s view of the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.

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