Sunday, December 19, 2010

Luther on the Immaculate Conception

When I first set out on this endeavor my attitude was pretty much, "who cares about what Luther thought about the Immaculate Conception?  He was a heretic anyway."  This is true, he was a heretic - but not on the grounds of the Immaculate Conception (which would be an anachronism in itself since it was not dogmatically defined in Luther's day).  The main reason I am doing this now is because James Swan confronted me with my article on "The Reformers and Mary" citing I got virtually everything wrong with the Luther quotes.  I'll deal with the broader accusation against the full article later.  In this article, I will be answering to Swan's denial that Luther held a life-long belief in the Immaculate Conception (IC).   Swan acknowledges that early on in Luther's life he accepted the teaching of the Immaculate Conception (IC) but later in life, Swan believes, Luther rejected the IC.  Swan has spent a good deal of time on this subject already in answering Dave Armstrong, so I will utilize some of his research and add some of my own.  I am also putting the citations in chronological order (which Swan intermixes the order of events/citations) in order to see more clearly the flow of Luther's thoughts, plus interjecting a timeline of outside events which likely affected Luther's attitude and thoughts.

Let us look at the 1854 definition before we proceed:
    We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.     []
This is the only anachronism in my article, but I wanted to present the definition to have in our minds before comparing this to Luther's teachings some 300+ years prior to the definition.

1483 Luther born in Eisleben (November 10)
1484 Luther family moves to Mansfeld
1497 Luther attends school in Magdeberg
1498 Luther attends parish school in Eisenach, staying with relatives
1501 Luther begins study at University of Erfurt
1502 Receives Baccalaureate in the Liberal Arts
1505 Receives Master of Arts; plans for law school
1505 Caught in a thunderstorm, pledges to become a monk (July 2)
1505 Enters Augustinian monastery at Erfurt
1506 Takes monastic vows
1507 Ordained priest
1507 Begins study of theology at University of Erfurt
1512 Luther receives doctorate in Theology
1512 Begins work as Professor of Theology at U of Wittenburg
1514 Becomes priest of Wittenberg's City Church
1514-15 Lectures on the Psalms
1515-16 Lectures on Romans
1516-17 Lectures on Galatians
 October 31, 1517 - Luther nails the 95 Theses to the Castle Church door at Wittenberg.

Swan quotes:
“Second, even if the pope along with a large part of the church should feel thus and so, and even if it were true that he does not err, it is still not a sin, nor is it heresy, to take the opposite position, especially in something which is not necessary for salvation, until the one position has been rejected by a general council and the other approved. But, lest I become too involved, let me state that my position is proved in this one instance, namely, that the Roman church along with the general council at Basel and almost with the whole church feels that the Holy Virgin was conceived without sin. Yet those who hold the opposite opinion should not be considered heretics, since their opinion has not been disproved.”[LW 31:172-173.]
So, while completely agreeing with the Church's view on the IC, Luther stated that those who hold the opposite opinion should not be considered heretics - and at the time of this writing, and for over 300 years after it, this is true!  Until the dogma was defined, faithful Catholics could hold to a contrary opinion on this matter and not be counted as a heretic.  Also keep in mind, this was 1518, and it was just October 31, 1517 that Luther posted his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg.  Luther is still considered a Catholic at this time.

1517-18 Lectures on Hebrews
1518 Inquisition on Luther begins in Rome
1519 Death of Emperor Maximillian - Rome distracted from Luther
1520-21 Freedom of a Christian, Babylonian Captivity, Address to German Nation
1520 Inquisition on Luther taken up again
1520 Papal bull Exsurge Domine issued (June 15)
1520 Luther burns bull and canon law with students (December 10)

January 3, 1521 - Luther is excommunicated from the Catholic Church.

Swan continues with another quote: 
“In regard to the conception of our Lady they have admitted that, since this article is not necessary to salvation, it is neither heresy nor error when some hold that she was conceived in sin, although in this case council, pope, and the majority hold a different view.  Why should we poor Christians be forced to believe whatever the pope and his papists think, even when it is not necessary to salvation? Has papal authority the power to make unnecessary matters necessary articles of faith, and can it make heretics of people in matters which are not necessary for salvation?”[LW 32:79-80.]

In this 1521 citation Luther is a bit more bitter towards Catholicism and specifically the pope, and has not denied the IC - but repeated the sentiment from 1518, (along with challenging papal authority, that's a whole different topic). Also keep in mind, just recently Luther was officially excommunicated from the Catholic Church - which may account for his more bitter approach here.

1521 Arrives at Diet of Worms (April 16)
1521 Departs Worms (April 25)
1521 Kidnapped by Frederick, taken to Wartburg Castle (May 4)
1523 On Secular Authority
1524-25 The Peasants' War
1525 Bondage of the Will and Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants


June 13, Married Katherine von Bora

The 1527 sermon by Luther on "The Day of Conception of the Mother of God" can be found in English here (the applet will take you to page 124, he actually starts the discussion of Luther on 122, and you can scroll back and forth through it) - or read the text version I post right after this*:

Here is the text version:
Let us now turn to Martin Luther.

In a sermon on the Gospel from the eleventh chapter of St. Luke, "Blessed is the womb that bore thee," and preached on the day of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin, Luther has put forth the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in so clear and solid a way, that one may almost forgive him the fling at the Religious Orders with which he opens his discourse. After speaking on original sin, and of the birth of Christ from the Blessed Virgin, he says :—

"But as the Virgin Mary was herself born of a father and mother in the natural way, many have been disposed to assert that she was also born in original sin, though all with one mouth affirm that she was sanctified in the maternal womb, and conceived without concupiscence. But some have been disposed to take a middle way, and have said that man's conception is two-fold;—that the one is from the parents,—but that the other takes place when the little body is prepared, and the soul infused by God, its Creator. Of the first conception we shall say nothing. Nor does it much concern us, so that the Virgin Mary be conceived in such manner after the common way, that Christ may still be excepted, as alone conceived in the- way peculiar to Himself, that ie, without man. For it must so have been, that Christ, God and man, would be conceived in all His members perfect; wherefore it was necessary that His should be the most spiritual and most holy of all conceptions. But in the conception of the Virgin Mary, whose body was formed with progress of time, and after the manner of other children, until the infusion of the soul there was no need of such conception, for it could be preserved from original sin until the soul was to be infused. And the other conception, that is to say, the infusion of the soul, is piously believed to have been accomplished without original sin. So that, in that very infusing of the soul, the body was simultaneously purified from original sin, and endowed with divine gifts to receive that holy soul which was infused into it from God. And thus in the first moment it began to live, it was exempt from all sin. For before it could begin to live, perhaps it maybe said that there was neither absence nor presence of sin, for that only belongs to the soul and to the living man. Thus the Virgin Mary holds as it were, a middle position between Christ and other men. For if indeed Christ, when he was conceived, was both living, and at that very moment was full of grace; whilst other men are without grace, both in their first and in their second conception ; so the Virgin Mary was, according to the first conception, without grace, yet, according to the second conception, she was full of grace. Nor was this without reason. For she was the midway between all nativities, being born of a father and mother, but bringing forth without a father, and being made the mother of a Son who was partly of the flesh, and partly of the Spirit. For Christ was conceived -partly of her flesh and partly of the Holy Ghost. Moreover, Christ is the father of many children, without a carnal father, and without a carnal mother. But as the Virgin Mary is properly the midway between the carnal and the spiritual nativity, the end of the carnal but the beginning of the spiritual, so she justly holds the midway in her conception. For as the rest of mankind are, both in soul and in body, conceived in sin, whilst Christ is conceived without sin, as well in body as in soul, so the Virgin Mary was conceived, according to the body, indeed, without grace, but according to the soul, full of grace. This is signified by those words which the angel Gabriel said to her, 'Blessed art thou amongst women.' For it could not be said to her, Blessed art thou, if at any time she had been obnoxious to the curse. Again, it was just and meet that that person should be preserved from original sin, from whom Christ received the flesh 'by which he overcame all sins. And that, indeed, is properly called blessed which is endowed with divine grace, that is, which is free -from sin. Concerning this subject, others have written far more things, and have alleged beautiful reasons, but it would lead us to too great lengths if we repeated them in this place."*

Such is the testimony which the founder of Protestantism has left on record, concerning the Immaculate Conception.

* Martini Lutheri Postilse. In die Conceptionis Mariffl Matria J)ei. p. 360-1. Argentorati apud Georgium Ulricum Adlanum. •anno. xxx.

So Luther's view was that of "two conceptions" - the "second conception" does align quite well to the 1854 definition of the dogmatic definition.  Swan does acknowledge this view from the 1527 sermon in section "V(5).H" of his article/response to Armstrong stating "I grant this is probably what Luther held to in 1527, yet his later statements prove he abandoned it."  Well, two things here:
  1. Abandoning the statements cannot be equivocated to denying the statements.
  2. As we will see below, Luther doesn't really abandon the statements either!
1530 Edict of Worms (Luther declared an outlaw by the Emperor)
1531 Smalkaldian Alliance formed

Continuing, James Swan documents in the same article (mentioned above) on this subject:

In (a) 1538 sermon, Luther explains:
“In our Christian Creed we confess that Christ was conceived and became man or was incarnate (if I may so speak), that He became a real human being by assuming a body. We confess that He assumed genuine flesh and blood from the Virgin Mary that He did not pass through her as the sun shines through a glass but brought her virgin flesh and blood with Him. If this had taken place only with the co-operation of Mary, the Babe would not have been pure. But though Mary has been conceived in sin, the Holy Spirit takes her flesh and blood and purifies them; and thence He creates the body of the Son of God. This is why it is said that "He was conceived by the Holy Ghost." Thus He assumed a genuine body from His mother Mary, but this body was cleansed from sin by the Holy Spirit. If this were not the case, we could not be saved.”[Martin Luther, D.Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, Abteilung Werke 45:51 quoted in Martin Luther, What Luther Says, Vol. I, 152.]
This view, "But though Mary has been conceived in sin, the Holy Spirit takes her flesh and blood and purifies them" can be compared to Luther's belief, documented previously, in the two conceptions of Mary - one physical and one spiritual.  Luther believed the physical conception still inherited original sin, but upon Mary's second conception, wherein the soul is conceived and life is given, that at the moment of spiritual conception Mary was cleansed from all stain of original sin.  Bearing that in mind, Luther here has not denied his earlier teaching on the two conceptions - nor does this reference explicitly state when Mary was purified.  It can still be maintained that he has not denied the Immaculate Conception.  Being that this is a bit vague in this sermon as to exactly when Mary was purified - we can see how those who deny the IC impute their interpretation into this citation, and if this citation alone was all we had, they may have a point, but let us continue.  Likewise, it can still be maintained that he did not abandon the "two conceptions" concept he taught earlier.

1543      On the Jews and Their Lies

Swan writes:
These comments are from his Genesis Commentary, toward the end of his life in 1544:
But in the moment of the Virgin’s conception the Holy Spirit purged and sanctified the sinful mass and wiped out the poison of the devil and death, which is sin. Although death remained in that flesh on our account, the leaven of sin was nevertheless purged out, and it became the purest flesh, purified by the Holy Spirit and united with the divine nature in one Person.
1546      Death of Luther in Eisleben on February 18 

Swan prefaces that citation with "Rather she was purified at the conception of Christ."  I believe he has misread the citation.  What Swan has quoted from Luther in 1544 is "in the moment of the Virgin's conception..." (that's Mary's conception, not Jesus') "...the Holy Spirit purged and sanctified the sinful mass and wiped out the poison of the devil and death, which is sin."  Remember, Luther has already posited that Jesus' conception was preserved from all sin, even in His physical conception so Luther could not have been referring to Jesus' conception here.  As we saw above, Luther adhered to a concept of a dual conception - one physical and one spiritual.  The Catholic definition does not make such a distinction, so Luther's view of the "second conception" fits quite perfectly with the dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception which was so defined over 300 years after 1546, the year of Luther's death, but more to the point here, just two years before his death he expresses belief that "in the moment of the Virgin's conception the Holy Spirit purged and sanctified the sinful Mass (the product of the "first conception" in Luther's theology) and wiped out the poison of the devil and death, which is sin."  So what we have seen here, even using Mr. Swan's own citations, is that Luther did indeed have a life-long belief in the Immaculate Conception.  Was it identical to the 1854 definition?  That is debatable, but also unnecessary as the precision of the definition comes with the 1854 ex cathedra decree from Pope Pius IX.  Thus Luther's belief in the "two conceptions" was an acceptable understanding of the Immaculate Conception for his day and this belief does not seem to have changed throughout Luther's life.  Mr. Swan's harsh criticism of Catholic apologists who have affirmed Luther's life-long belief in the Immaculate Conception is therefore unwarranted.

Now, to directly answer the statements Mr. Swan made in his BeggarsAll article:

  1. "Is Concordia Publishing arguing from silence as well?"  Citing "Concordia Publishing" supports that others argue as you do - but it does not present a primary source citation of Luther denying the Immaculate Conception!  As I have demonstrated above, not only was he not silent - just 2 years before he died and nearly 20 years after Mr. Swan affirms Luther DID believe in the IC, Luther affirms it again.
  2. I'll not be following all the rabbit trails where Mr. Swan claims other Catholic apologists have conceded this argument to him, namely because I do not concede it to him!
  3. Addendum 1.1:  (Not on the IC) - We agree with each other that Luther refers to Mary as "Mother of God."
  4. Addendum 1.2: (Not on the IC) - On the perpetual virginity of Mary, the original article allegedly quotes Luther saying "it is an article of faith," and then he presents context of the reference which does not include those words - however Swan concludes: "we could probably infer here that for Luther "It is an article of faith that Mary is Mother of the Lord and still a Virgin" from "Actually, we should be satisfied simply to hold that she remained a virgin after the birth of Christ."  I'm OK with that!  I'll fix the original article.
  5. Addendum 1.3 - (there isn't such an entry, Swan skips 1.3)
  6. Addendum 1.4: "First error: William J. Cole didn't translate Volume 10 of Luther's Works."  I've corrected that on the blog version of the article and will be adjusting the original article (taking Mr. Swan at his word here).
  7. Addendum 1.4 (continued): The volume from which Scott's assumption quote comes from has all sorts of feast day sermons, some to various saints. In each instance, Luther says things like "what this person did isn't in Scripture, so we aren't going to talk about it."  How is this "we aren't going to talk about it" not an "argument from silence?"
  8. Addendum 1.5: William Cole didn't have anything to do with WA 10 (3), The reference otherwise is accurate.  I fixed the blog version of the citation, will fix the original article shortly.  Again, taking Swan at his word here.  The rest of Addendum 1.5, I agree with Swan (and Luther) that over-emphasis on Mary to the point of losing focus on Christ is to be avoided.
  9. Addendum 1.6:  I have already conceded that this citation is taken out of context in the original article which was given to me by someone else.  The explanation is already on my blog entry, I will be removing this entirely from the original article on the website.
  10. Addendum 2.1: "Scott, define and explain Luther's "honoring the Blessed Virgin in a very 'Catholic" sense.' " Here you'll need to investigate Luther's "honoring." Then you need to revise that part of your blog article "Honor to Mary."  Since I've already agreed that Luther's honoring of the Blessed Virgin later in Luther's life is either flatly denied or disappeared into silence, I do not see the need to exegete Luther's view of "honoring."
  11. Addendum 2.2:  (Quoting me) "Therefore, contextually speaking I can only support that Luther held these views in his Catholic and early Protestant days - but not through to the end of his life."
    Then you contradict your posted article "the Immaculate Conception was a doctrine Luther defended to his death." Pick one.  The matter of the Immaculate Conception, as shown above, is not denied and in fact reinforced within 2 years of his death.  I stand by my statement on the IC.  The statement you've quoted is a truncated sentence which ended with "...with a few exceptions."  Those four words change the meaning of the sentence!  I did not end with the period where Swan puts one, thus this quotation of me is not accurate nor an honest representation of what I DID say.  There is no "contradiction" when one considers I explicitly stated "with a few exceptions."
  12. Addendum 2.3: (Quoting me) "Modern Protestant apologists speculate that he rejected the Immaculate Conception, but this is an argument from silence."
    I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt that you haven't read the links of the work I've done on this. Even the latest volume of Luther's Works supports my conclusion. Explain to me why my links are "arguments from silence." That is, go through my material, and show me where the "silence" is. This has been done in the article above - and there is no "silence" really - for Luther expressed an acceptable "Catholic" view of the Immaculate Conception throughout his life including up to within two years of his death.  So, I amend my statement, Mr. Swan does not argue from silence - he's just wrong on this account.
  13. Addendum 2.4: (Quoting me) "I am still looking for where the "J. Pelikan" citation originates, if it does not turn up, I will delete it entirely and stick with wholly valid sources I have found."
    Do you really think Pelikan had anything to do with a volume of Luther's writings published in the 1800's? The Latin text Ben M. found was published quite a long time ago.  I stated what I was doing, patience padawan!  This is not a matter of what I think, it is whether or not this citation is accurate at all.  I have assured that when all is said and done here the citation will be either verified, corrected or removed.  Based on the quotes and citations from this article, I will likely just remove the "Pelikan" citation entirely - it is not needed.
  14. Addendum 2.5-2.7:  Just Swan's commentary.
  15. Addendum 2.8: (Quoting me) "Quote 1: The citation was inaccurate, according to his research (based on his mistake regarding quote 6, I'm not so sure, but we'll get to that in a moment."  What mistake did I make in quote six? You then said a few paragraphs later of quote six "On this quote it would appear Mr. Swan is correct and the original citation was taken out of context."  I misspoke, I should have said "based on the fact that Vol. 4, 694 refers to the Latin citation" he claimed there was no page 694 in volume 4 - and there indeed is such a citation - AND - the quote was correct.  I still have not found reference to "Pelikan" for that citation and like I said earlier, with the research I have done I don't need that citation at all anymore and will replace it with what I've found.
  16. Addendum 2.9: (Quoting me) "Swan agrees that this can be seen as an "article of faith" since Luther said, "Actually, we should be satisfied simply to hold that she remained a virgin after the birth of Christ."  Actually, my position is it's the only thing I found in the context that was remotely possible, and I'm being generous. It's up to you to prove that the quote you're citing is correct. This takes work Scott. you know how long looking up these quotes takes? A long time. As it stands, the context doesn't say anything about "article of faith." It's up to you to prove the citation accurate, not me. As it stands, the quote isn't in the context cited. I showed you the context, now you show me where it says "article of faith." If you can't prove "article of faith"- I suggest you use the quote I provided instead.  I am in agreement with Swan on this count.
  17. Addendum 2.10:  I am not nor did I ask Mr. Swan to "spoon feed" me on this, and as this relates to the quote regarding Luther's position on the Immaculate Conception the article above is my response to this.
  18. Addendum 2.11:  Quote 4 does not assert that it is definitive proof of Luther believing in the Assumption - it allows for speculation that he did based on the statement "There can be no doubt that the Virgin Mary is in heaven. How it happened we do not know."
  19. Addendum 2.12:  Regarding quote 5, Swan provides further context from the sermon Luther preached on September 8, 1522, which I will be including in my corrected "original article" and has been included on my blog entry already.  
  20. Addendum 2:13-2.14: Just commentary from Swan which is addressed in this blog entry (above). 


This blog article is largely a response to:
Most of the "Timeline" was taken from:
Swan's quotes taken from his response to Dave Armstrong (which he directed me to):

* Minor edit to the commentary here.


  1. Thanks for your comments here.

    I posted a response to you on my blog, focusing only on the Immaculate Conception:

    Luther on the Immaculate Conception: A Response to Scott Windsor

    I may address some of your comments at some point, but I tried to not address tedium- for instance you stated, "I am also putting the citations in chronological order (which Swan intermixes the order of events/citations) in order to see more clearly the flow of Luther's thoughts" I did indeed include a timeline of Luther's Mariology in this very article you cited from.


  2. I am not overly concerned about the timeline, the main article I was responding to did not include events in Luther's life which very likely affected the tone of his writing. The inclusion of a timeline was not intended to be a sort-of one-upsmanship, I just posted it for clarity.

    I'll take a look at your response shortly.

    In JMJ,

  3. I posted this comment on my blog, but thought it would likewise find a nice home under this blog entry. I also posted the same comment earlier which probably went to your spam box:

    Scott, if you can read through that extended section from LW 7 I posted in my response and still maintain your view, I'd say we'd have to a agree to disagree. Likewise, you would have to agree to disagree with the editors of Luther's works.

    Note the following from LW 7 (cited in my response to you):

    "And there she was made pregnant by the most shameful act of incest, and the flesh from which Christ was to be born was poured from the loins of Judah and was propagated, carried about, and contaminated with sin right up to the conception of Christ."

  4. (Copied comment from BA site)
    I believe James is ready to "agree to disagree," and we may have to end the discussion with that. The work James presents in this article focuses on Jesus' heritage, and I do not dispute the heritage in the least - however - Luther conflicts with his own statements when it comes to both the conception of Mary and that of Jesus. My article demonstrates a life-long acceptance of the Immaculate Conception (for those in Hooterville, that's Mary's conception) at least up until just 2 years from his death. The piece which James covers here contradicts what Luther said about Mary's "second conception" wherein the very "moment it (she) began to live" she was cleansed of all sin (from 1527 sermon). It is also in conflict where he said "But though Mary has been conceived in sin, the Holy Spirit takes her flesh and blood and purifies them" (in 1538). James himself quoted this "But in the moment of the Virgin’s conception the Holy Spirit purged and sanctified the sinful mass and wiped out the poison of the devil and death, which is sin" (1544).

    So James may feel the need to "agree to disagree" - but he's not disagreeing with me, but with Luther's own words which James himself cited from just 2 years before Luther died!

    I would also concur with another commentator on Luther - he is extremely hard to pin down on some issues, and the IC is certainly one of those. He does make some contradictory statements regarding it, this I do not deny. However, it was my goal to demonstrate that he did indeed write/publish works throughout his life in support of the IC. Granted, in his Catholic days and even early Protestant days it was much easier to find him in full and explicit support of the IC and though he did write some seemingly contradictory pieces to it - Luther does not ever come out and flatly deny the Immaculate Conception and (I repeat) just two years from his death he writes in support of it (and again, not as forceful as earlier in his life, but it is supported nonetheless).

    Keep in mind, in Luther's day one could be a wholly faithful Catholic and NOT believe in the Immaculate Conception, but Luther DOES believe in it.

    In JMJ,

  5. I also posted the same comment earlier which probably went to your spam box

    Yes, it was there and was the exact same comment, except the one in the spam box included a link (which I did not realize the current comment does not have, so I linked it here, and you already have it linked in your first comment in this thread as well). Since the content was identical, I deleted the one in the spam box.


  6. * I made a minor change to the commentary just before the applet because I figured out how to get it to page 124 which is the heart of the citation we're discussing. I changed no substance to the article.


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