Luther and Mary – intercession?

In 1520 Luther was working on a translation of and commentary on Mary’s Magnificat [Das Magnificat, verdeutscht und ausgelegt]. Before he was able to finish it, he was summoned to the Diet of Augsburg (1521) to defend his writings (“Here I stand..”). He finished the work during summer 1521 on the Wartburg (where he hid from persecution). The book was published in august/september 1521. He concludes his comment on Mary’s Magnificat with a prayer for proper understanding. Because of his lively idiom and sense of language I first quote the original:

“Hier lassen wir’s diesmal bleiben und bitten Gott um rechtes Verstehen dieses Magnificat, das nicht allein leuchte und rede, sondern brenne und lebe in Leib und Seele. Das verleihe uns Christus durch Fürbitte und Willen seiner lieben Mutter Maria. Amen.”

Translation (Charles Francis) is always also interpretation:

“We’ll stop here and not go beyond this point (we have gone far enough with this explanation), and we will now ask God to give us a correct understanding of this Magnificat which should not only shine within us and speak to us, but also burn itself into, and continue to live on, in both body and soul. May Christ grant this to us through the intercession and the willpower of his dear mother, Mary. Amen.”

The last line seems to have it both ways: Mary is still the intercessor and her ‘willpower’ (?) seems important, the prayer itself, however, is addressed to Christ, who is the only one who can make this intercession possible. Is this Luther’s first, very careful, shift away from the importance given to the role of Mary in the Catholic Church?
Or should we translate differently:

This grant us Christ through intercession and for the sake of (the implicit proposition supposed is: ‘Um Willen’) his dear mother Mary. Amen.”

In the commentary, similar phrases can be found, e.g., “May the tender Mother of God herself procure for me the spirit of wisdom profitably and thoroughly to expound this song of hers.” (Introductory letter ). From both quotes it is clear that Luther not only ‘adores’ Mary, but also addresses Mary in his prayer, and ‘asks’ something of her. This might come as a suprise to many an orthodox Lutheran, but it’s written and published.

  • The question is not whether Luther venerated Mary. He did. (He was an Augustine monk, brought up with a devout cult around Mary. Every vesper (evensong) he recited or sang the Magnificat, which traditionally concluded it. He is very fond of this hymn of Mary and praises the tradition to read/sing it every day (because of the contents of course!).
  • The question is: Did Luther allow Mary to act as an intercessor or are ‘appearances deceptive’. (and is there any change in Luther’s thinking on this point).

I think it necessary to sketch the background first, because Luther’s position cannot be understood when we don’t have an idea of the tradition, he stands in. I’m not a Maria-expert, but recently I had to speak about exactly this subject at a concert/conference with 15th/16th century music for Mary. In preparation I read a wonderful instructive book about the subject by Jaroslav Pelican who also was responsible for the lemma in the Encyclopedia Brittanica sub ‘Mary’ (readable I suppose on the EB internetwebsite). It was precisely the quotation of the final line from Luther’s explanation of the Magnificat there, which made me read Luther’s book myself.

Dogmatically Mary was first brought before the footlight to guarantee Christ’s true humanity. (He was not a ‘ghost’ or a ‘half-god’, a ‘hero’ (as the greeks would easily accept, but a man of flesh and blood, who had really lived: That is probably why Mary is named in the creed together with Pilate: These two names make him a real man participating in human nature and human history).

After Christ’s human nature was thus safeguarded his ‘godly nature’ became point of discussion and was also established (Creed of Nicea-Chalcedon 381/451). This moment is crucial for the Mariology. Mary participated (benefited?) of Jesus ‘deification’ (forgive me the improper and imprecise terms). She also was ‘exalted’. Since Jesus was not only supposed to be 100% human but also 100% godly Mary became – so to speak – the Mother of GOD (in Greek: theo-tokos, in German: Gottesgebärerin: council of Ephesus 431). This sounds blasphemous nowadays. For me, ‘Mother of our Lord’, is the maximum.

In this perspective the virginity (and purity and chastity and holiness) of Mary became a theological (though highly speculative, because no biblical evidence at all) subject of its own. It was prolonged backwards and forwards: Maria semper virgo (always virgin). According to many theologians in Luther’s days (including Luther himself!) she must have been begotten in an ‘immaculate conception’ (to keep away original sin – which was considered to reside somehwere in the human genom, it was hereditary – of which her son, Jesus had to be ‘free’). By the way: Thomas of Aquino and Bernardus of Clairvaux didnot agree on this point. In Luther’s days Mary had become an object of enormous devotion (f.i. beautiful motets testify the love and feeling that went into that devotion.)

Reading Luther’s expositions in the Magnificat I was struck by Luther’s loyalty to tradition at this point, but I also found that when the principle matter was concerned appearances really are deceptive: All praise and warm words and high titles for Mary did not make any difference in Luther confessing that eternal salvation and assistance in this life were only and fully dependent on Christ. Luther succeeds in combining a firm belief in the uniqueness of Christ as a Mediator and a devotion for Mary. He often refers to her as the ‘graceful virgin’ and grants her the title ‘mother of God’. He even defends the good right of giving her other high titles. Considering the fact that in this one title ‘mother of God’ all others are contained it is – according to Luther – NOT inappropriate to call her Queen of Heaven (regina coelorum) and to praise her worthiness.

All generations, Mary says in her Magnificat, will ‘bless her’, call her blessed (beatify?). Luther ends his explanation of this statement by saying that the true ‘seligpreisen‘ (blessing of Mary) is not done by words, lifting hats or kneeling in reverence, nor in carving statues of her or building beautiful churches for her, but by discovering God’s ‘Hinsehen auf ihre Nichtigkeit’ (God looking mercifully on her nothing-ness; Luther’s translation of Luke 1:48) so that one really starts to wonder about Gods grace towards her and suddenly finds oneself saying with whole-heartedly: ‘O blessed virgin Mary !’

Everything she has she herself – Luther emphasizes this – ascribes freely to Gods mercy and not to her own merits. (Sie schreibt es auch frei der Gnade Gottes zu, nicht ihrem Verdienst.). In my understanding of Luther the word ‘everything’ includes: all honour, every title, every devotion AND every intercessory power she has.

Quote: But that doesnot make her an idol, that she can give or help, as some people think, who call more upon her and rely more on her help than on God. She doesn’t give anything, only God gives. [Doch sie ist dadurch keine Abgöttin, daß sie geben oder helfen könne, wie etliche meinen, die mehr zu ihr als zu Gott rufen und Zuflucht haben. Sie gibt nichts, sondern allein Gott.]

Another Quote: That’s why I said: Mary doesnot want to be an idol. She doesnot do anything. God does everything. One shall call on her, that God through her will gives and does what we ask… just in the same way we call on all the other saints in that manner, that the work (the actual doing) always remains with God. [Darum habe ich gesagt: Maria will nicht eine Abgöttin sein. Sie tut nichts. Gott tut alle Dinge. Anrufen soll man sie, daß Gott durch ihren Willen gebe und tue, was wir bitten; wie auch alle anderen Heiligen so anzurufen sind, daß das Werk immer ganz allein Gottes bleibe.]

Christ grants it and uses (gracefully) Mary’s intercession.

In his explanation of the Magnificat Luther still accepts and uses this ‘function’ of Mary. But he already states explicitly that ‘if this devotion for Mary becomes competitive to the devotion to God/Christ, he thinks it is better to cut the Marian devotion short, because it is worse to give God less than he deserves than to give Mary less than she deserves.

[„Es ist besser, ihr zuviel abgebrochen, als der Gnade Gottes. ja man kann ihr nicht zuviel abbrechen, da sie doch aus nichts geschaffen ist, wie alle Kreaturen. Aber Gottes Gnade hat man leicht zuviel abgebrochen. Das ist gefährlich. Und geschieht ihr keine Liebe damit. Es bedarf auch wohl eines Maßes, daß man den Namen, daß man sie eine Königin der Himmel nennt, nicht zu weit treibe, obwohl es wahr ist. Doch sie ist dadurch keine Abgöttin, daß sie geben oder helfen könne, wie etliche meinen, die mehr zu ihr als zu Gott rufen und Zuflucht haben. Sie gibt nichts, sondern allein Gott, wie folgt. »Der da mächtig ist«: Damit nimmt sie doch alle Macht und Kraft allen Kreaturen und gibt’s allein Gott.“]

Dick Wursten , september 2022