Luther & Mary’s Assumption + James Swan’s Silliness

Luther & Mary’s Assumption + James Swan’s Silliness June 19, 2024

Photo Credit: Assumption of the Virgin (1526-1529), by Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

“Please Hit ‘Subscribe’”! If you have received benefit from this or any of my other 4,600+ articles, please follow this blog by signing up (with your email address) on the sidebar to the right (you may have to scroll down a bit), above where there is an icon bar, “Sign Me Up!”: to receive notice when I post a new blog article. This is the equivalent of subscribing to a YouTube channel. Please also consider following me on Twitter / X and purchasing one or more of my 55 books. All of this helps me get more exposure, and (however little!) more income for my full-time apologetics work. Thanks so much and happy reading!

***

This is a reply to anti-Catholic Reformed Protestant polemicist James Swan’s article, “Martin Luther and Mary’s Assumption” (12-18-06). His words will be in blue; Luther’s in green.

Here’s another one of those “Martin Luther was devoted to Mary” quotes. This time, Luther is said to believe in Mary’s assumption.

Well, yes. Lutheran scholars agree that he did, as I will document.

William J. Cole did not have anything to do with the Weimar edition of Luther’s Works.

Since it was compiled either before he was born or when he was very young, that would follow, yes.

He was a Roman Catholic scholar who wrote an article on Luther’s Mariology many years ago. . . . The quote is originally from WA 10(3), 268,13 to 269. The translation utilized is from Cole’s old article from 1970, “Was Luther a Devotee of Mary?” [Marian Studies XXI].

Yep. I put it online (probably the first person to do so). And that’s where I got it. There is nothing improper in this. A secondary scholarly source can be used if he or she cites a primary source. That’s what Cole did. Nor does a person have to read the original in a different language in order to cite a secondary source citing it in English. Swan — who knows why? — has this ludicrous notion in his head that this is what is required of everyone.

The quote is from Luther’s sermon of August 15, 1522. Cole mentions it was the last time Luther preached on the Feast of the Assumption, which should tip us all off on where Luther was heading with his “Mariology” (recall, Luther lived till 1546, thus this comment comes very early in his “Reformation.”). Cole quotes Luther as saying,

“There can be no doubt that the Virgin Mary is in heaven. How it happened we do not know. And since the Holy Spirit has told us nothing about it, we can make of it no article of faith.”

Now, one could say here that Luther leaves the door open for Mary’s assumption. Perhaps he did in 1522. . . . Here we find Luther living up to “Sola Scriptura.” One is not believe in the Assumption. 

Not all Lutheran historians or other scholars would agree with Swan that Luther always thought his followers should “not believe in the Assumption.” Lutheran scholar Eric W. Gritsch, who was a major translator in the English set, Luther’s Works (edited by Jaroslav Pelikan), observed:

Luther affirmed Mary’s assumption into heaven but did not consider it to be of benefit to others or accomplished in any special way. (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; footnote 44; p. 382: “Sermon on the Festival of the Assumption, August 15, 1522. WA 10/3:269.12-13. Sermon on the Festival of the Visitation . . . August 15, 1522. WA 52:681.27-31.”; my bolded emphasis)

In the same book, twelve Lutheran and ten Catholic scholars participated. Their “Common Statement” (a sort of creed-like formulation agreed-upon by all) yielded some very interesting conclusions indeed:

(89) Luther preached on the Assumption . . . There were early Lutheran pastors who affirmed the Assumption as both evangelical and Lutheran.

(101) From the Lutheran side, one may recall the honor and devotion paid to the Mother of God by Luther himself, including his own attitude to the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, which he accepted in some form. (p. 55; my bolded emphasis)

Luther signed an August 19, 1527 letter to Georg Spalatin in the following (very “unProtestant”) manner:

Yours, Monday after the Assumption of Mary, 1527. Martin Luther. (in Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, edited and translated by Theodore G. Tappert, Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2003, 230)

It is not to be an article of faith.

Luther did state that. But that’s a separate issue from whether he believed it at that time.

Interestingly, Cole goes on to point out that Luther “used strong language….for the elimination of the Assumption as an aspect of the ‘hypocritical church’,” particularly in celebrating a feast for it. Cole cites Luther as saying in 1544:

“The feast of the Assumption is totally papist, full of idolatry and without foundation in the Scriptures. But we, even though Mary has gone to heaven, should not bother how she went there. We will not invoke her as our special advocate as the Pope teaches. The pope takes away the honor due to the Ascension of our Lord, Christ, with the result that he has made the mother like her Son in all things.”

Even this doesn’t particular quotation necessarily require that Luther himself gave up all belief in Mary’s Assumption, since he was discussing not the thing itself, but how the feast celebrating it was conducted in the Catholic Church (thus, he referred to invoking her, etc., which has nothing directly to do with the doctrine itself).

In fairness to the work of William Cole, Cole doesn’t take a stance one way or the other if Luther ever held to the doctrine of Mary’s Assumption. He simply says that for Luther the Assumption was of “little importance…” and Luther never explicitly “denied” it either.

Swan (the world’s greatest expert on how to make a citation) gets this wrong, too, and he refutes himself in his later article, “Revisiting Luther on the Assumption of Mary” (5-24-16). He himself quotes Cole from the same article, where Cole certainly did take a “stance“:

For Luther the Assumption seems not to be so much a matter of doubt as of little importance and this is perhaps the reason, as Max Thurian affirms, that Luther did not pronounce clearly on the subject, but was content simply to affirm it.

“Affirm” means holding a belief. This ain’t rocket science. Cole thought that Luther affirmed Mary’s Assumption. But for some strange reason, Swan thinks he didn’t. The well-known Luther scholar Eric Gritsch also thought he did (“Luther affirmed Mary’s assumption into heaven”), as did the twelve Lutheran scholars in the ecumenical book mentioned above (“he accepted [Mary’s Assumption”] in some form”).
*
So who are we supposed to believe on this score?: a self-appointed Luther “expert” and anti-Catholic Protestant apologist with a philosophy degree and no published books, or a guy who helped translate the materials in the 55-volume standard set, Luther’s Works, along with twelve other Lutheran scholars, who all agree that Luther believed in it? They didn’t even say that he stopped doing so. Maybe he did. But they didn’t seem to think so, or else — it seems to me — they could and would have mentioned that.
*
It is simply the case that people in the Bible died. Scripture doesn’t tell us how many of them died. On Roman Catholic logic, one might as well suggest all the biblical characters that did not have their deaths mentioned were assumed into Heaven…or, one can simply cease and desist from sophistry.
*
Yeah, most people die a normal death; no argument there! But in Scripture there are extraordinary departures from this life, too, and Catholics are saying that if these parallels exist in Scripture, that it can’t be absolutely ruled out that Mary’s departure was of the same or similar nature. It’s a possibility, in other words: one that is in harmony with other events in the Bible. It’s not unbiblical. But it is speculative, with regard to the biblical data with respect to Mary. I think a theological / biblical case can be made for it.
*
If indeed Mary was free from sin, then it follows that she would not undergo the decay of death, which was the penalty for sin (Gen 3:16-19). But for the fall of man, no one would have died. Mary is the exception, for very good reason, and the forerunner of the resurrection that all who are saved will experience (1 Cor 15:12-23; cf. Mt 27:52-53).
*
This in turn is based on a prior acceptance of her Immaculate Conception, which can largely be argued from the Bible as well. We have the case of Enoch (Heb 11:5; cf. Gen 5:24), Elijah (2 Ki 2:1, 11), and many during the Second Coming (1 Thess 4:15-17): none of whom died before they were taken up into heaven. We also have in the Bible similar dramatic “going-up-to-heaven” events after having died, in the case of the two witnesses of Revelation (11:7-12) and our Lord Jesus Himself. Catholics are free to believe that Mary died or that she didn’t die (the dogma allows either scenario). Either way, there are scriptural parallels.
*
Swan goes on to make a more in-depth case in his follow-up article on this topic (mentioned above). Let’s see what he comes up with there:
*
Citing Luther’s 1522 sermon on the feast of the Assumption, Swan opines, “A careful reader will notice nowhere in this context does Luther admit to believing in the Assumption of Mary, . . .  There is no Luther-an affirmation of the Assumption here.” I see. Why, then, does Gritsch think that this same sermon is evidence for his affirmation of the doctrine? After all, he cited it in his footnote when he wrote, “Luther affirmed Mary’s assumption into heaven.” He also cited his “Sermon on the Festival of the Visitation” from the same date. I tried unsuccessfully to find this latter sermon online. Swan cites a partial citation and translation of it, after making the point that he believes Gritsch got the date wrong:
*
It was preached in 1532 (see WA 52, XXIV). . . . Eric Gritsch actually places the preaching of this sermon in 1522, . . . but this is an error. 
*
Swan then cites a portion of this 1532 sermon (source: Susan C. Karant-Nunn and Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks  Luther on Women: A Sourcebook; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 46-47). The relevant portion is: “We however, even if she has already gone to heaven, cannot enjoy her ascension, and should not for that reason call to her or to take comfort in her intercession.” So Luther affirms her Assumption (casually assumes it) in 1532, and this is one of two reasons that Gritsch gives for asserting that he held the doctrine. I love facts!
*
Swan cites the Catholic William Cole, who correctly observed:
In summary, we can see that if the Feast is rejected, it is for reasons extraneous to the fact itself, which Luther never denied. Essentially, as Luther himself said in the same sermon the reason he does not celebrate it, “although she has gone to heaven” is that he sees it is a source of justifying invocation to Mary.
Bingo! (to use some Catholic lingo there . . . )
*
Once again, we see here that Cole simply assumes what he’s never proved, that Luther accepted the Assumption of Mary.
*
Before, Swan claimed that he took no stand either way. Now he is bashing him for supposedly assuming without proof. Swan himself (thankfully) provided more context for the second 1532 sermon, that Gritsch cited as evidence. Luther assumes her “ascension.” 
*
Cole’s “benign interpretation” is a malignant interpretation of the context. Luther says there’s nothing in Scripture about it, and because of that, her ascension into heaven is not to be celebrated.
*
Again, those are two different things. We can believe in a doctrine, while not thinking a celebration of it is required or pious. And Luther explained in both 1532 and in 1544 that what he objects to is invocation of Mary in the context of the feast. So he wanted to ditch the feast, not the Assumption itself. He says there is nothing in Scripture about it, yet still believes it, so it has to be on the authority of Church and tradition, doesn’t it? In so doing, he makes a temporary exception to sola Scriptura, his rule of faith. And that is fascinating, too.
*
***
*
This though has not stopped some of Rome’s scholars from saying this [1522] sermon serves as proof that Luther believed in the Assumption of Mary.
*
Nor has it stopped Lutheran Eric Gritsch and twelve other prominent Lutheran scholars from believing that he held to the Assumption, based in part on this sermon. Swan actually deals with Gritsch’s statement, and spins it more wildly than a tornado:
*
Gritsch’s main proof? This 1522 sermon. Keep your eye on the ball again. Notice how careful Gritsch is: Luther is said to affirm Mary’s Assumption into heaven but it was not “accomplished in any special way.” In this brief synopsis offered by Gritsch, he appears to redefine what it means to be “Assumed” into heaven. What he gives with one hand, he takes away with the other, for being Assumed into heaven by its very nature is a special way of arriving in heaven!
*
Well, I would say that Luther says many silly and/or self-contradictory things. Nothing new there. In any event, Gritsch says that he affirmed the Assumption. Period. End of story. So it ain’t just us lowly “Romanists” who believe this out of our alleged desire to systematically lie and pretend, etc.
*
Many years ago now these irresponsible conclusions from Cole and O’Meara were taken by Rome’s cyber-apologists and plastered all over the Internet.
*
Swan just can’t stop with this idiocy. It’s in his anti-Catholic blood, I guess. Many Lutheran scholars agree with this conclusion! At least he acknowledged that Gritsch did so. Miracles never cease . . .
*
Why would these pop-apologists be so interested in Luther believing in Mary’s Assumption?
*
Presumably for some of the same reasons I do:
1) We are interested in Christian history, including the founder of Protestantism (who is an extremely fascinating figure). I’ve always loved history in general, and it’s much more interesting to me than fiction. Anomalies like this are interesting and educational by nature.
*
2) We would make the point that if a person committed to sola Scriptura believed in the Assumption, then it must be based in some fashion (assuming internal consistency) on the Bible, since these people reject authoritative apostolic tradition and an infallible Church.
*
3) If the founder of Protestantism believes in a Catholic “distinctive” then it’s no longer in fact exclusively a Catholic distinctive, is it?
*
4) We rejoice in any agreement from our Protestant separated brethren, since it means that we have that much more in common than we already do (which is quite a bit) and are more unified.
From how I’ve encountered these people, the motivation seems to be to cause dissonance in the minds of non-Roman Catholics.
*
Case in point. But what Protestants think of these facts that they are rarely told in their own circles is up to them. To me they are at bottom interesting facts, and I always seek facts and truth rather that fables and lies. They are what they are.
*
First,  Luther believed in sola scriptura, but look: he also adheres to our Mariology. 
*
That corresponds to my point #2 above. Kudos!
*
Second, Roman Catholics are typically fairly critical of Martin Luther. But when it comes to the topic of Mary, Luther becomes the staunch supporter of Mary; a leader that all contemporary Protestants should learn a great lesson in Mariology from.
*
We disagree with some of his teachings and agree with others. DUH! Like this is some big revelation or shocking thing? We write about disagreements because that is apologetics and comparative theology. We write about agreements for the sake of more unity and mutual understanding (#3 and #4 above). We’re not as far apart as we thought . . .
*
***

*
Practical Matters: Perhaps some of my 4,600+ free online articles (the most comprehensive “one-stop” Catholic apologetics site) or fifty-five books have helped you (by God’s grace) to decide to become Catholic or to return to the Church, or better understand some doctrines and why we believe them.

Or you may believe my work is worthy to support for the purpose of apologetics and evangelism in general. If so, please seriously consider a much-needed financial contribution. I’m always in need of more funds: especially monthly support. “The laborer is worthy of his wages” (1 Tim 5:18, NKJV). 1 December 2021 was my 20th anniversary as a full-time Catholic apologist, and February 2022 marked the 25th anniversary of my blog.

PayPal donations are the easiest: just send to my email address: apologistdave@gmail.com. Here’s also a second page to get to PayPal. You’ll see the term “Catholic Used Book Service”, which is my old side-business. To learn about the different methods of contributing (including Zelle), see my page: About Catholic Apologist Dave Armstrong / Donation InformationThanks a million from the bottom of my heart!
*
***
*

Photo Credit: Assumption of the Virgin (1526-1529), by Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

Summary: Anti-Catholic Protestant polemicist James Swan tries his hardest to prove that Luther rejected Mary’s Assumption, but infinitely more qualified Lutheran scholars disagree.

"Rule of faith just refers to the normative authorities in matters of faith. For Rome, ..."

Luther’s Error: We Think Church is ..."
"That's too easy of an assumption. They were Christians, just like the less-than-stellar Corinthians, Galatians, ..."

Luther Feared Lutherans “Even Worse Than ..."
"This just shows how few Germanscl were Christians. The Dutch Republic had no problems with ..."

Luther Feared Lutherans “Even Worse Than ..."
"Awesome, I will get it directly from you, then! And I will keep everything you ..."

Luther’s Error: We Think Church is ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!