Luther’s Devotion to Mary (James Swan vs. History)

Luther’s Devotion to Mary (James Swan vs. History) June 21, 2024

Photo Credit: Posthumous Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk (after 1546), from the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

+ Luther’s Wonderful Commentary on the Magnificat (March 1521)

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Anti-Catholic Reformed Protestant polemicist James Swan, of Boors All infamy, wrote an article called, “Luther: Mary… [She is the] highest woman and the noblest gem in Christianity after Christ . . . She is nobility, wisdom, and holiness personified.” (8-15-07). His words will be in blue; Martin Luther’s in green.

Here’s one of a number of quotes used as proof that Luther was “devoted” to Mary:

[She is the] highest woman and the noblest gem in Christianity after Christ . . . She is nobility, wisdom, and holiness personified. We can never honor her enough. Still honor and praise must be given to her in such a way as to injure neither Christ nor the Scriptures. (Sermon, Christmas, 1531).

This quote probably came into cyber space via an earlier form of this article by a defender of Rome.

He links to my article, “Martin Luther’s Devotion to Mary,” which was published in The Coming Home Journal on January-March 1998, pages 12-13; originally written in 1994. An expanded version remains on my blog.

Swan ridiculously mocks the notion of Luther being “devoted” to Mary. I have no idea why. He clearly was, and he even used the very word, according to the English translation of his remarkable and edifying commentary, The Magnificat, in Luther’s Works (vol. 21, 297-358; I have the complete hardcover set in my living room). Luther states at one point, “From this we may learn how to show her the honor and devotion that are her due” (p. 322; my emphases). Therefore, not only was he devoted to her, but he also thought that everyone should be. Note that “devotion” was the word used in the title of my old article that Swan savages. It affirms nothing more than what Luther himself stated.

This article says, “Luther held to the idea and devotional practice of the veneration of Mary and expressed this on innumerable occasions with the most effusive language.” The quote cited above (along with some others) is offered as proof. 

Yes. That’s accurate and I will prove it all the more so in this article.

these defenders of Rome took this quote from a secondary source. 

There is nothing whatsoever wrong with that, as long as the secondary source provides a primary source.

I think I know the secondary source this quote comes from. It is from William Cole’s article “Was Luther a Devotee of Mary?” (Marian Studies Volume XXI, 1970, p.131). If I were to take the time to go through the Internet archive service, I would probably find that the earliest occurrences of this quote in cyber space were the direct result of a particular Roman Catholic website. Cole states:

In a Christmas sermon of 1531, Luther speaks of Mary as the “highest woman and the noblest gem in Christianity after Christ.” He goes on to claim that “she is nobility, wisdom and holiness personified. We can never honor her enough. Still honor and praise must be given to her in such a way as to injure neither Christ nor the Scriptures” (WA 34, 2, 497 and 499).

“WA” there stands for Weimar Ausgabe: the most complete edition of Luther’s works in German (127 volumes). That’s a primary source. Luther spoke these words.

Note, the quote as cited by Cole is actually two quotes from two different pages, separated by an entire page!

Yes; which is why I used ellipses (. . .): to show that there was text in-between. One web page devoted to “Ellipses” from the University of Arizona states that the omitted material can be “a whole paragraph or more” (my italics). Cole separated the two portions by writing, “He goes on to claim . . .” I simply used ellipses rather than quoting Cole’s interjection.

The question that needs to be asked is what exactly is Marian devotion? In other words, what does it mean for a Roman Catholic to be devoted to Mary, and what does it mean for Luther to be devoted to Mary?

Luther explains exactly what he means by it in his 61-page commentary on the Magnificat (which I will cite at length below), and that was my topic, that Swan is criticizing: Luther’s view: not the Catholic one. He wrote that Mary was owed “honor and devotion” and reiterated over and over what this did and did not entail. I misrepresented nothing whatever in his thinking.

Roman Catholic apologists don’t tell you. They leave you thinking both are the same.

Maybe some do that (and they would be partially wrong); I did not and do not. Swan’s article was directed (like many of his Luther arfticles0 towards me, and I simply didn’t do what I was accused of doing. I made several statements indicating that Luther’s view of honoring Mary was close to Catholic Marian piety but not identical to it. For example:

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.

Of course I should note that the Catholic Church does the same.

His major departure occurs with regard to the intercession and invocation of the saints, which he denied, . . .

He . . . venerated Mary in a very touching fashion which, as far as it goes, is not at all contrary to Catholic piety.

And I cited a portion of Luther’s commentary on the Magnificat, that made it clear what he was advocating; for example: “Mary is nothing for the sake of herself, but for the sake of Christ . . . Mary does not wish that we come to her, but through her to God.” See also the first thing — from Luther — that Swan cited from my article, at the top. It makes the same distinction.

Not being contrary to something is not the same as being identical. Luther goes on and on about honoring Mary (which he says that God did). Therefore, it follows biblically and logically that if God Himself greatly honored and “exalted” Mary (Lk 1:52), then who can forbid human beings from doing the same thing? After all we are to imitate God. St. Paul wrote, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1) and “you became imitators of us and of the Lord” (1 Thess 1:6). And St. Peter noted, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet 2:21).

Servant of God Fr. John A. Hardon, S. J. (my mentor), who was one of the leading catechists in the world, defined “Veneration of Saints” in his Modern Catholic Dictionary in a way virtually identical to Luther’s rationale for honoring Mary in this work of his:

Honor paid to the saints who, by their intercession and example and in their possession of God, minister to human sanctification, helping the faithful grow in Christian virtue. Venerating the saints does not detract from the glory given to God, since whatever good they possess is a gift from his bounty. They reflect the divine perfections, and their supernatural qualities result from the graces Christ merited for them by the Cross.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church uses the terminology of “devotion” and “honor” with regard to the Blessed Virgin Mary, just as Luther did (even in commenting on the same section of the Magnificat that Luther commented on at length):

971 All generations will call me blessed“: . . . The Church rightly honors “the Blessed Virgin with special devotion. From the most ancient times the Blessed Virgin has been honored with the title of ‘Mother of God,’ to whose protection the faithful fly in all their dangers and needs. . . . This very special devotion . . . differs essentially from the adoration which is given to the incarnate Word and equally to the Father and the Holy Spirit, and greatly fosters this adoration.” [my bolding and italics]

Heiko Oberman referred to the “warm praise which Luther has for the Mother of God throughout his life” (The Impact of the Reformation, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1994, 242). Luther used the terminology of “the immaculate Virgin Mary” (Personal Prayer Book, Luther’s Works [LW], Vol. 43, 26-27) and urged his readers to “praise and thank God through Mary and the grace given her. Laud and love her simply as the one who, without merit, obtained such blessings from God, sheerly out of his mercy . . .” (LW, 43, 39). He thought that the Hail Mary was “not concerned with prayer but purely with giving praise and honor” (LW, 43, 39), and again asserts her sinlessness:

In the first place, 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. (LW, 43., 40)

He affirms Mary’s the Catholic doctrine of perpetual virginity, including in partu: “she gave birth without labor, pain, and injury to herself, not as Eve and all other women” (LW, 43, 40). Nor was this only “early” Luther, which was to change over time. He was still urging Christians to honor Mary in 1536: “We do not want to take away from Mary any honor which is her due. . . . let the Blessed Virgin keep her place of honor.” (Lectures on Genesis, Chapters 1-5, Feb. 1536, LW, Vol. 1, 192). And Luther taught in 1528 and 1535 that we should honor (i.e., venerate) the saints:

We rightly honor the saints when we recognize that they are held up before us as a mirror of the grace and mercy of God. For just as Peter, Paul, and other saints like us in body, blood, and infirmity, were made blessed by the grace of God through faith, so we are comforted by their example that God will look in mercy and grace on our infirmity, . . . Honoring the saints, also, consists in exercising ourselves and increasing in faith and good works in a manner similar to what we see and hear they have done. Thus the people are to be aroused to faith and good works by the example of the saints, as it is written in Heb. 13 [:7]: . . . (Instructions for the Visitors of Parish Pastors in Electoral Saxony, Jan. 1528; in LW, vol. 40)

[H]e [Abraham] cannot be praised enough. . . let us extol and proclaim him with the highest praises, and let us fill heaven and earth with his name; . . . (Lectures on Galatians, 1535; in LW, vol. 26)

So, challenge the Roman apologists to define their terms. They need to be able to tell you what Marian devotion is.

The current topic is what Luther thought of Mary, and what he taught about how all of us should approach her. He carefully defined what he meant and I am passing it along.

They cannot be allowed to equivocate: Luther saying nice things about Mary does not equal Rome’s version of devotion.

There are many strong similarities and some differences (duh!).

I do not deny that Luther spoke favorably about Mary, but when Catholics say “honor” or “devotion”, they mean something quite different than Protestants.

In some respects there are differences, but in most, Luther’s approach is very much like ours. Now I will go through Luther’s commentary on the Magnificat and comment on it. The online version I am using came from an earlier English translation (probably the six-volume 1930 Philadelphia edition), so it has some minor differences from the Luther’s Works version. But they are very similar. I will cite the page numbers from LW. I would say that Catholics agree with maybe 95-97% of what Luther writes in this extraordinary treatise. The main difference would be that Luther denies any merit at all in Mary. Catholics affirm merit and infused justification, because they are biblical doctrines. Fr. Hardon defined merit:

Divine reward for the practice of virtue. It is Catholic doctrine that by his good works a person in the state of grace really acquires a claim to supernatural reward from God. ‘The reward given for good works is not won by reason of actions which precede grace, but grace, which is unmerited, precedes actions in order that they may be performed meritoriously’ (II Council of Orange [529 A.D.], Denzinger, 388) . . .

Merit depends on the free ordinance of God to reward with everlasting happiness the good works performed by his grace. On account of the infinite distance between Creator and creature, a human being alone cannot make God his or her debtor, if God does not do so by his own free ordinance. That God has made such an ordinance is clear from his frequent promises, e.g., the Beatitudes and the prediction of the Last Judgment. (Pocket Catholic Dictionary, New York: Doubleday Image, 1980, 259)

St. Paul taught it:

1 Corinthians 3:8-9 (RSV) He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.

1 Corinthians 15:10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me. (cf. 15:58; Gal 5:6, 6:7-9)

Philippians 2:12-13 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (cf. Titus 3:5-8)

2 Timothy 2:15, 21 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. . . . [21] If any one purifies himself from what is ignoble, then he will be a vessel for noble use, consecrated and useful to the master of the house, ready for any good work.

So did Jesus:

Matthew 5:16, 20 “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. . . . [20] For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 25:21 His master said to him, “well done, good and faithful servant; . . .” . . .

Luke 18:28-30 And Peter said, “Lo, we have left our homes and followed you.” [29] And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, [30] who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”

In the Last Supper Discourse, His last major teaching to His disciples (i.e., that we know of), Jesus highlights meritorious works. They had already given up “everything” to follow Him (Mt 19:27), so He didn’t need to mention that. But He told them no less than six times (14:15, 21; 15:10, 12, 14, 17) to keep His commandments.

And St. Peter:

1 Peter 1:17 And if you invoke as Father him who judges each one impartially according to his deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile.

2 Peter 1:10 Therefore, brethren, be the more zealous to confirm your call and election, for if you do this you will never fall;

And St. John:

Revelation 20:12-13 And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. [13] And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.

See also: Final Judgment & Works (Not Faith): 50 Passages [2-10-08].

Luther thought in “either/or” terms; in false dichotomies. For him, if God gave Mary grace, then Mary can get no credit or merit at all throughout her whole life. God is everything; she is nothing. Catholics, on the other hand, think in scriptural “both/and” terms, like Paul did: “we are God’s fellow workers”; “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God”: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you.” Luther seems to be unable to grasp this thinking of God rewarding us for utilizing and following His own gifts and grace. But it’s thoroughly biblical and Hebraic. Here is Luther expressing an absolutely classic example of the typically Protestant fallacious “either/or” concept:

But she does take it amiss that the vain chatterers preach and write so many things about her merits. They are set on proving their own skill, and fail to see how they spoil the Magnificat, make the Mother of God a liar, and diminish the grace of God. For, in proportion as we ascribe merit and worthiness to her, we lower the grace of God and diminish the truth of the Magnificat. . . . Hence all those who heap so great praise and honor upon her head are not far from making an idol of her, as though she were concerned that men should honor her and look to her for good things, when in truth she thrusts this from her, and would have us honor God in her and come through her to a good confidence in His grace. (LW, 21, 322)

Luther speculates that Mary might have said the following:

“. . . No one should praise me or give me the glory for becoming the Mother of God, but God alone and His work are to be honored and praised in me. It is enough to congratulate me and call me blessed, because God used me and did His works in me.” Behold, how completely she traces all to God, lays claim to no works, no honor, no fame. (LW, 21, 329)

Catholics do both. We absolutely concur with honoring God “in her” and “through her” and we also honor her obedience and sanctity and holiness. Catholics are the ones who have always said that when we give praise to God’s masterpieces, we are ultimately honoring Him. When we admire Michelangelo’s Pieta or Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper or Mona Lisa, we are honoring the artists. It’s the same with saints. Mary being the Immaculate Mother of God is holier and more worthy of honor than all of them.

That said and clarified, virtually everything else I will cite from Luther in this magnificent treatise is perfectly compatible with the Catholic faith.

the wondrous pure spirit of Mary is worthy of the greater praise, because, having such overwhelming honors heaped upon her head, she does not suffer that to make her stumble, but . . . clings only to God’s goodness, . . .  (Luther’s Works, Vol. 21, 311)

Now, we described above at length, how lowly was the estate of this tender Virgin, and how unexpectedly this honor came to her, that God should regard her in such abundant grace. Hence she does not glory in her worthiness nor yet in her unworthiness, but solely in the divine regard, which is so exceeding good and gracious that He deigned to look upon such a lowly maiden, and to look upon her in so glorious and honorable a fashion. They, therefore, do her an injustice who hold that she gloried, not indeed in her virginity, but in her humility. She gloried neither in the one nor in the other, but only in the gracious regard of God. (LW, 21, 314)

Yes, of course Mary, being the quintessence of humility, doesn’t “glory” in anything that God does for her. But it doesn’t follow that God doesn’t give her glory. He not only gives it to her, but indeed, even to all of his saints: which is part and parcel of merit. Hence, St. Paul states that “we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God” (Rom 5:2), and “we all, . . . are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18), and “God . . . calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thess 2:12), and “To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess 2:14).

St. Peter adds, “the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Pet 4:14), and “him who called us to his own glory” (2 Pet 1:3). We don’t glory and revel in any of that (Mary being our exemplar) –it didn’t originate with us — , but we accept God’s gifts and we are thankful and we act upon them. Luther writes accordingly:

Thus David says in Psalm 131:1, “Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty.” And Job 22:29, “He that hath been humbled, shall be in glory: and he that shall bow down his eyes, he shall be saved.” Hence honors always come unexpectedly upon them, and they are exalted all at unawares; for they have been simply content with their lowly station and never aspired to the heights. (LW, 21, 315)

when honor and elevation come, they must take it unawares and find it immersed in thoughts of other things. Thus Luke tells us (Luke 1:29) that Mary was troubled at the angel’s saying and considered in her mind what manner of greeting this might be, since she had never expected anything like it. (LW, 21, 315)

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Note that she does not say men shall speak all manner of good of her, praise her virtues, exalt her virginity or her humility, or sing of what she has done. But for this one thing alone, that God regarded her, will men call her blessed. That is to give all the glory to God as completely as it can be done. Therefore she points to God’s regard and says, “For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.” . . . Not she is praised thereby, but God’s grace toward her. . . . From this we may learn how to show her the honor and devotion that are her due. (LW, 21, 321-322)

Whoever, therefore, would show her the proper honor must not regard her alone and by herself, but set her in the presence of God and far beneath Him, must there strip her of all honor, and regard her low estate, as she says; he should then marvel at the exceeding abundant grace of God Who regards, embraces, and blesses so poor and despised a mortal. . . . She does not want you to come to her, but through her to God. (LW, 21, 322-323)

This is where Luther goes a little off again. Mary indeed is praised, and this is biblical. Luther does a great deal of this himself, so he’s a bit at cross-purposes with himself. If God honors her, and an angel hails her, and God shares His glory with her (as He does with all Christians) then by the same token we can and should praise and honor and hail her. An entire chapter of the New Testament (Hebrews 11) is about recognizing the righteousness of saints and honoring them.

St. Paul makes reference to “glory and honor and peace for every one who does good” (Rom 2:10) and commands us to “outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom 12:10; cf. Phil 2:29), and states, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor” (1 Tim 5:17). So Catholics highly venerate and honor the Blessed Virgin Mary, and it is all perfectly in line with the Bible and a fundamental, presuppositional understanding that God made Mary all that she was.

After all, we’re the ones who believe that God performed the extraordinary miracle at her conception of making her immaculate and sinless: before she possibly could have had anything to do with it at all. Nothing is more “pure grace from God” or sola gratia than Mary’s Immaculate Conception. And Luther even believed in this, with some relatively minor differences. We’ve seen in this treatise how he believed that she was sinless.

the exceeding riches of God joined in her with her utter poverty, the divine honor with her low estate, the divine glory with her shame, the divine greatness with her smallness, the divine goodness with her lack of merit, the divine grace with her unworthiness. (LW, 21, 323)

As I already noted, we Catholics are the ones who believe that God, in a pure act of one-way, “monergistic” grace, made Mary perfect and immaculate at her conception, fit to be the Mother of God the Son and the Second or “New” Eve (who says yes to God instead of no), before she could assent to anything. So we, above all people, know that it is ultimately “all God.” We simply refuse to go to the unnecessary and unbiblical lengths of denying that Mary has any merit through her participation and good works and freely chosen holiness, initiated by God’s grace. Luther writes similarly:

her sole worthiness to become the Mother of God lay in her being fit and appointed for it; so that it might be pure grace and not a reward, that we might not take away from God’s grace, worship and honor by ascribing too great things to her. (LW, 21, 327; my emphasis)

Catholics are sometimes lambasted by Protestants for our notion of “fittingness”: which is quite biblical. Here is Luther expressing it, too. When Luther writes his main passage about Mary being the Mother of God (Theotokos), his thoughts are thoroughly, profoundly Catholic:

The “great things” [Lk 1:49] are nothing less than that she became the Mother of God, in which work so many and such great good things are bestowed on her as pass man’s understanding. For on this there follows all honor, all blessedness, and her unique place in the whole of mankind, among which she has no equal, namely, that she had a child by the Father in heaven, and such a Child. She herself is unable to find a name for this work, it is too exceeding great; all she can do is break out in the fervent cry, are great things,” impossible to describe or define. Hence men have crowded all her glory into a single word, calling her the Mother of God. No one can say anything greater of her or to her, though he had as many tongues as there are leaves on the trees, or grass in the fields, or stars in the sky, or sand by the sea. It needs to be pondered in the heart, what it means to be the Mother of God. (LW, 21, 326)

In the next paragraph Luther states that “she was without sin” (LW, 21, 327). Luther even calls Mary the “Queen of Heaven”!:

It is necessary also to keep within bounds and not make too much of calling her “Queen of heaven,” which is a true enough name and yet does not make her a goddess, who could grant gifts or render aid, as some suppose, that pray and flee to her rather than to God. She gives nothing, God gives all, . . . (LW, 21, 327-328)

Again, any adequately catechized, informed Catholic knows full well that Mary is not a goddess. She is God’s highest creature; His masterpiece. We also know that when we ask for her intercession, it is for the purpose of her going to God to ask for our prayer request, according to the strong biblical principle of, “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” (Jas 5:16).

If a Protestant objects that we mustn’t make such requests (even of an intercessory nature) to anyone but God, then they have to explain why Jesus taught that it was proper to petition the dead Abraham (Luke 16). Best wishes in that endeavor! I’ve debated that about ten times and have never seen an adequate counter-reply. And I’ve defended from the Bible the idea that saints can hear millions of intercessory requests at once, etc.

Lo and behold, Luther also espouses invocation of Mary and other saints, too:

We ought to call upon her, that for her sake God may grant and do what we request. Thus also all other saints are to be invoked, so that the work may be every way God’s alone. (LW, 21, 329)

Later, he ceases to believe in this, but here in March 1521, three-and-a half years after his initial rebellion against the Catholic Church, he thinks it is perfectly proper.

St. Paul indeed says, in Romans 12:10, that we ought to strive to prefer one another in honor. But no one should accept the honor as accorded to him nor take it to himself, but should hallow it and ascribe it to God, to Whom it belongs, by performing all manner of good works, from which honor comes. For no one should lead a dishonorable life. But if he is to live honorably, there must needs be honor shown him. (LW, 21, 330)

Paul does both, not just the one thing, in writing, “we are God’s fellow workers” and “I worked harder than any of them” and “work out your own salvation.” The “both/and” outlook is the biblical one. “Either/or” thinking is corrupt Greek rationalism applied from the outside to the Bible, where it doesn’t belong (in other words, eisegesis).

There we have it, folks. My statement, written in 1994 and published in 1998, remains as true as it ever was: “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 . . . it is apparent that Luther was extraordinarily devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary.” I also accurately wrote, thirty years ago:

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. To the extent that this fact is dealt with at all by Protestants, it is usually explained as a “holdover” from the early Luther’s late medieval Augustinian Catholic views (“everyone has their blind spots,” etc.). But this will not do for those who are serious about consulting Luther in order to arrive at the true “Reformation heritage” and the roots of an authentic Protestantism.

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Photo Credit: Posthumous Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk (after 1546), from the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

Summary: Anti-Catholic Protestant polemicist James Swan is out to sea, in attacking my presentation of Luther’s honoring of Mary. I go in-depth in a way that he never does.

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