I think it would be difficult to disagree that modern-day Protestantism, especially in America, is a pastiche of different beliefs and practices that have been invented, accepted, rejected, switched around, and so forth over the past five centuries. Yet, with the exception of “Anglo- Catholics” and “Evangelical Catholics,” these various and often dissonant streams of thought generally seem to be an agreement on one point in particular: that even though Jesus was born from a Virgin (as the Virgin Birth protects the Divinity of Christ), God had no use for Mary after Jesus’ birth, and so we shouldn’t have a use for her, either.
In the English-speaking Protestant world, this anti-Marian attitude developed sometime during the years between 1550 and 1729 (the time between Calvin’s Institutes and Conyers Middleton’s A Letter from Rome, the first fully-developed Protestant attempt to link any given Catholic practice descends from such-and-such a Pagan one). Yet, what may come as a surprise to the majority of Catholics and Protestants alike, is that the Reformers themselves were not at all anti-Marian. Although they did not favor invocation to the Blessed Mother, nor did they support the idea of coming to her as an Intercessor or Mediatrix – that would be in direct conflict with the doctrines of Solus Christus and Soli Deo Gloria – we must keep in mind that they still held a place of honor for her in their hearts, which is far from the “Concubine of God: Use Her and Lose Her” mentality tacitly expressed in much of modern-day American Protestantism.
Calvin, in his Bible Commentary on John 2:1-11, makes use of this passage to mount a “full frontal assault” on the Catholic custom of devotion to Mary, but we must keep this in the context that Calvin was one to take cheap shots at his opponents any time he saw a chance. Far from being unique to his own style, this was merely a common tactic of the age; controversialists on all sides routinely took pot-shots at each other at any available opportunity. Yet he also refers to her, in his commentary on this passage, as “the holy Virgin,” and in his Bible Commentary on Matthew 13:55, he seems to anticipate the most common modern attack (from his own descendants, the Reformed Protestants, no less!) on the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity.
The verse, along with Mark 6:3, mentions that Jesus had “brothers,” and modern Protestants use these verses to “prove” that Mary was not a virgin after Jesus’ birth. Calvin takes the correct response to such uninformed litteralism by holding up the manner the word “brother” is used in the Bible. He says: “The word ‘brothers,’ we have formerly mentioned, is employed, agreeably to the Hebrew idiom, to denote any relatives whatever; and, accordingly, Helvidius displayed excessive ignorance in concluding that Mary must have had many sons, because Christ’s brothers are sometimes mentioned.”
As an aside, I would mention that not only is Calvin’s reasoning correct, as the Old Testament is replete with the use of the word “brother” in reference to other relatives, but that in the New Testament for example John 19:25, that the mother of James and Joset is actually the Blessed Mother’s sister, “Mary the wife of Cleopas.” In Acts 1:12-15 we have the number of “brothers of Jesus” amount to 120, which would be a lot of brothers for anyone! So we find ourselves led to the conclusion that the “brothers” of Jesus refer not to his biological brothers, but rather to his cousins and, later, his followers.
Back to Calvin, even though he saw devotion to Mary as superstitious and idolatrous, and he refused to allow images or statues in any event, he agrees with some points of modern Catholic Mariology in that he sees her outright submission to God as an example to be followed by true Christians. In Book II, Chapter 14:4 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, he is also firm in denouncing Nestorius’ teaching that Mary should not be called the “Mother of God.” (Though this is most likely because the title “Theotokos/Mother of God” protects Christ’s divinity, more so than any special honor to the Mother herself.)
Hence, while it must be realized that everything he says must be kept in light of his model of double predestination and attempted emphasis on the sovereignty of God, we would do equally well to realize that even in this most prolific and antagonistic of the Reformers, the Blessed Mother received none of the derision and scorn placed upon her by many who would call themselves Reformed Protestants today.
From Calvin, who can be considered one of the “second generation” of the Reformers, let us go back in time to the first generation of the Reformed Tradition, notably in the person of Ulrich Zwingli. According to some, Calvin tried to find a middle ground between the differences between Luther’s and Zwingli’s theologies, but here Zwingli basically agrees with Calvin. If we were to look at the “Zwingli’s Works” (Zwingli Opera) section of the Corpus Reformatorum, we find Zwingli saying essentially the same things as Calvin.
In one place, Zwingli defends Mary’s perpetual virginity by saying that: “I firmly believe that Mary, according to the words of the gospel as a pure Virgin brought forth for us the Son of God and in childbirth and after childbirth forever remained a pure, intact Virgin.” While in another place, he says that the proper way to honor Mary is to honor Christ: “The more the honor and love of Christ increases among men, so much the esteem and honor given to Mary should grow.” As there is so much agreement with what has been said already, a lenghty discussion of Zwingli’s Mariology need not detain us here, save to comment that just as in the case of Calvin,
Zwinglian Mariology must be viewed within the context of the doctrine of Solus Christus, and both could be seen, though without the veneration of her, to have at least some agreement with the Montfortian formula: Ad Jesum Per Mariam!
Let us leave behind the realm of the Reformed theologians, though, and enter into the camp of those who first called themselves “Evangelical,” but who soon became known as “Lutheran.” We should probably start here by saying that in its basic essence, the core of Luther’s Mariology was not much different from Zwingli’s or Calvin’s, in the sense that he saw her as an example for Christian behavior, he saw her as the Mother of God, and he likewise defended her Perpetual Virginity, rightly referring to Jesus’ supposed brothers as “his cousins.”
His Commentary on the Magnificat is also a great source for his Marian theology, wherein he makes a break with Zwingli and Calvin in these words: “That is why I said Mary does not desire to be an idol; she does nothing, God does all. 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.”
This is in contrast with anything else he has to say regarding the invocation of the Saints or even of the Blessed Mother, yet it is here, in his writings. This may perhaps be the result of the fact that he never fully fleshed out his own stance on the Blessed Mother’s place in the economy of salvation, or perhaps he simply felt there were other things he needed to teach the people first. What we can draw from this, though, is that even though (elsewhere in his writings) he may not approve of the direct veneration of Mary, it would appear that he did not proscribe such a thing when kept in a manner that did not detract from the glory due to God. Again, however, the words of St. Louis ring loudly in our ears: Ad Jesum Per Mariam!
There are others I could mention in this discussion, such as the Anglicans under and after Cranmer (who generally followed the Reformed view), and John Wesley (who also supported the doctrine of Perpetual Virginity), and others. But what should interest us, however, is how vastly different these earlier Protestant depictions of Mary are from the depictions heard amongst many Protestants today.
According to Mariology.com, a possible reason for this break in continuity could be: “We might wonder why the Marian affirmations of the Reformers did not survive in the teaching of their heirs – particularly the Fundamentalists. This break with the past did not come through any new discovery or revelation. The Reformers themselves (see above) took a benign even positive view of Marian doctrine – although they did reject Marian mediation because of their rejection of all human mediation. Moreover, while there were some excesses in popular Marian piety, Marian doctrine as taught in the pre-Reformation era drew its inspiration from the witness of Scripture and was rooted in Christology. The real reason for the break with the past must be attributed to the iconoclastic passion of the followers of the Reformation and the consequences of some Reformation principles. Even more influential in the break with Mary was the influence of the Enlightenment Era which essentially questioned or denied the mysteries of faith.”
Of the Enlightenment Era, I plan to discuss in more detail if I ever manage to get back to my series of essays on how Neo-Pagan thought was influenced by Enlightenment-era and 19th-Century Liberal Protestantism, especially as it had a direct effect not only on later developments in Protestant Mariology (especially in the English-speaking world), but also on the way that Protestants view Catholics, how Neo-Pagans view Christians, and how Atheists view the entire lot. Yet we could also bear in mind that at the time, the proto-Reformers took to concentrating their efforts on what they saw as abuses within the Church, and since the Marian doctrines discussed here were universally agreed not to be abuses, they generally left well enough alone (save for where pot- shots could be made against the Catholic Church). As a result, their descendants were left in a world where Marian theology was thoroughly divorced from Marian devotion, and therefore when the Rationalists came to invade the Camp of Christ, it was his Mother who was left the most vulnerable.
Yet if we put aside the descendants of the so-called “Radical Reformation,” it would seem that in at least some small pockets of some of the mainline churches, devotion to Mary has been making a slow but steady comeback for the past century. May we pray God that this tendency will extend itself to these other churches as well, and that our “separated brethren” will come to know the Mother of God as strongly and as wonderfully as we do!
This article first appeared on my old Agostinal Reflections blog in 2009. The version here is the second edition, printed and distributed as a sermon aid for the Feast of the Assumption, 2011. All dates and citations have been retained.
ENDNOTES AND LINKS TO SOURCES:
Calvin, John. Bible Commentary on John 2:11. Retrieved 8/19/2009 http://www.ccel.org/osis/xml/calvin-calcom34.xml#viii.i
2. Calvin, John. Commentary on Matthew 13:55. Retrieved 8/19/2009 http://www.cceorg/ccel/calvin/calcom32.ii.xxxix.html#ii.xxxix-p19.1
3. Calvin, John. Institiutes of the Christian Religion. Retrieved 8/19/2009 http://www.cceorg/ccel/calvin/institutes.iv.xv.html
The Corpus Reformatorum is still in the process of being digitized at Google Books, and not entirely online as of this writing. Thus I will give citations to where particular quotes may be found, and point to a link at the Internet Archive, (retrieved 8/11/2011) which is found at: http://www.archive.org/details/corpusreformato01bretgoog
Zwingli Opera, Corpus Reformatorum, Volume I, p. 424.
6. Ibid. Volume I, pp. 427-428.
7. Luther, Martin. Commentary on the Magnifica Retrieved 8/19/2009 http://www.godrules.net/library/luther/NEW1luther_c5.htm
Mariology.com. The Protestant Reformers and Mary. Retrieved 8/19/2009. http://www.mariology.com/content/view/16/28/
Unfortunately, as of 8/11/2011, this website is going through a major reconstruction, and so the article is currently offline, with a message saying that the site will return in the near future.