Martin Luther’s Exceptionally “Catholic” Devotion to Mary

Luther’s Mariology is (ironically) closer to that of the Catholic Church today than to the modern-day Lutheranism.

Martin Luther portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder. (Public domain)
Martin Luther portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder. (Public domain) (photo: Screenshot)

It may surprise many to discover that Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, was rather traditional in his doctrinal views regarding the Blessed Virgin Mary.

He accepted the traditional belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary (Jesus had no blood brothers), and her status as the Theotokos (Mother of God):

Christ . . . was the only Son of Mary, and the Virgin Mary bore no children besides Him . . . “brothers” really means “cousins” here, for Holy Writ and the Jews always call cousins brothers. (Sermons on John, chapters 1-4, 1537-39)

He, Christ, our Savior, was the real and natural fruit of Mary’s virginal womb . . . This was without the cooperation of a man, and she remained a virgin after that. (Ibid.)

God did not derive his divinity from Mary; but it does not follow that it is therefore wrong to say that God was born of Mary, that God is Mary’s Son, and that Mary is God’s mother . . . She is the true mother of God and bearer of God . . . Mary suckled God, rocked God to sleep, prepared broth and soup for God, etc. For God and man are one person, one Christ, one Son, one Jesus, not two Christs . . . just as your son is not two sons . . . even though he has two natures, body and soul, the body from you, the soul from God alone. (On the Councils and the Church, 1539)

Luther believed in a view very similar to our dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. I call it “Immaculate Purification” and described it in an earlier, in-depth Register article as follows:

If we mean the dogma as believed by the Catholic Church, and the timing of God's special act of grace (at Mary's own conception), he eventually denied that aspect of it, but if we mean “removal of original sin,” which is the essence and heart of the doctrine, then he did not deny it. . . .

The common ground in his views is God's removal of original sin from Mary by a special act of grace, and he seems to think that she was free of all actual sin, too, after Christ's conception.

Luther appeared to hold that belief in Mary’s bodily Assumption was permissible among Lutherans, but not required. In his sermon of August 15, 1522, the last time he preached on the Feast of the Assumption, he stated:

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 . . . It is enough to know that she lives in Christ.

He held to the idea and devotional practice of the veneration of Mary and expressed this on innumerable occasions with the most effusive language:

One should honor Mary as she herself wished and as she expressed it in the Magnificat. She praised God for his deeds. How then can we praise her? The true honor of Mary is the honor of God, the praise of God’s grace. God has given Mary the honor to be the Mother of God and this honor we all wish to give her, to praise her highly, and to hold her in respect. But we must thereby enter the right path, and this way is Christ, for Mary is nothing for the sake of herself, but for the sake of Christ and she bore Christ for me, not herself.  (Explanation of the Magnificat, 1521)

[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)

Luther goes even further, and gives the Blessed Virgin the exalted position of “Spiritual Mother” for Christians, much the same as in Catholic piety:

Mary is the Mother of Jesus and the Mother of all of us even though it was Christ alone who reposed on her knees . . . If he is ours, we ought to be in his situation; there where he is, we ought also to be and all that he has ought to be ours, and his mother is also our mother. (Sermon, Christmas, 1529)

He 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, too. 

His opinion about the use of the “Hail Mary” prayer (the first portion of the Rosary) is illustrative of his overall Marian views. Sometimes he appears to condemn its recitation altogether, but he is only forbidding a use of Marian devotions apart from heartfelt faith, as the following citation makes clear:

Whoever possesses a good (firm) faith, says the Hail Mary without danger! Whoever is weak in faith can utter no Hail Mary without danger to his salvation. (Sermon, March 11, 1523)

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

Therefore, it may be confidently stated that Luther’s Mariology is (ironically) closer to that of the Catholic Church today than to the dogmatic theology of modern-day Lutheranism.