What does the Lutheran Book of Concord (aka The Lutheran Confessions) teach regarding the Virgin Mary?
Our churches teach that the Word, that is the Son of God, assumed the human nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (AC III, 1-2)
“The Son became man in this manner: He was conceived, without the cooperation of man, by the Holy Spirit, and was born of the pure, holy Virgin Mary. …Concerning these articles, there is no argument or dispute. Both sides confess them. Therefore, it is not necessary now to discuss them further. (SA Preface, The First Part 4)
Granted, the blessed Mary prays for the Church. Does she receive souls in death? Does she conquer death? Does she make alive? What does Christ do if the blessed Mary does these things? Although she is most worthy of the most plentiful honors, yet she does not want to be made equal to Christ. Instead she wants us to consider and follow her example. (AP XXI 27)
These citations set the limits of Lutheran Mariology. Although Lutherans may respect and venerate Mary, as did the fathers, including the Lutheran confessors; and although they believe, teach, and confess that Mary prays for the church; yet they do not believe that Mary usurps any of the prerogatives that properly belong to Christ. Therefore Lutherans reject the concept of the Virgin Mary as a mediatrix interposed between us and her Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. The merits of Mary (and they are many) are not offered on our behalf, nor if they were would they be effective. “Each will receive his wages according to his labor” (I Cor 3:8). Thus, as the Apology says, “[The saints] cannot mutually give their own merits, one to another.” (AP XXI, 29)
The citation from the Smalcald Articles is fascinating passage, for it expands the boundaries of Mariology beyond what Protestants and modern Lutherans generally accept. The Smalcald Articles define as a matter of faith that Lutherans believe, teach and confess exactly what the Catholic church (prior to the Council of Trent) confessed concerning Mariology. This is true with the exceptions delimited in the Apology, Article XXI. When Lutherans confess Mary as pure & holy, it is a reference to the chastity and sinlessness of Mary. When Lutherans confess Mary as Virgin, it is meant that Mary is virgin, not that she was virgin. The Blessed Mother of our Lord is as virgin today as she was when the angel Gabriel appeared to her some 2,000 years ago. When we talk of the Virgin Mary, that is itself a confessions of her perpetual virginity, for no one having lost their virginity is described as virgin.
The preface to the Smalcald Articles explains why the Book of Concord contains no articles on Mariology, for in the main it was not an issue between Lutherans and Catholics. What the papacy professed, the Lutheran fathers believed, pausing only to correct errors and abuses (points where they believed the papacy had departed from the deposit of the faith.) Thus where the Lutheran fathers believed the papacy to be in error, they wrote extensively on the subject. But where the Lutheran fathers agreed with the Catholic Church, they said little or nothing. This is a profound doctrinal principle for Lutherans, for it presupposes a third norm[i] besides Sacred Scriptures and the Book of Concord: the writings of the church fathers and the teaching of the church (explained by Vincent of Lerins as antiquity and consent; for more information, see the post entitled “Mariology and the Vincentian Canon“.)
Since some question the idea that the doctrine of the confessions are limited to the areas of controversy, let me quote from the Preface to the Book of Concord, primarily composed by Jacob Andrea and Martin Chemnitz. “Subsequently many churches and schools committed themselves to this confession as the contemporary symbol of their faith in the chief articles of controversy over against both the papacy and all sorts of factions.” (Tappert, et al. 1959, 3) [Emphasis added] The Preface contains many such references, most specifically relating to the development of the Formula of Concord.
“Mindful of the office which God has committed to us and which we bear, we have not ceased to apply our diligence to the end that the false and misleading doctrines which have been introduced into our lands and territories and which are insinuating themselves increasingly into them might be checked and that our subjects might be preserved from straying from the right course of divine truth which they had once acknowledged and confessed. (ibid, 4)
Once again, we see that the confessions are delimited over against error, meaning that the content of the confessions are limited to the areas of controversy and doctrinal error. Thus, an article of faith that was not at issue is not discussed in the Book of Concord.
We …unanimously subscribed this Christian confession, based as it is on the witness of the unalterable truth of the divine Word, in order thereby to warn and, as far as we might, to secure out posterity in the future against doctrine that is impure, false, and contrary to the Word of God.(Tappert, et al. 1959, 6)
This last quote is remarkable, as it demonstrates not only that the content of the confessions were delimited to the areas of theological controversy between the papacy and other factions, but that it is the intent of the confessors to create a doctrinal standard that will stand the test of time. This means that for Lutherans, the interpretation of the confessors is binding upon all who call themselves Lutherans. This does not mean that those who disagree with the Lutheran Confessions are not Christian, but that they cannot properly style themselves as Lutheran who do not believe as Lutherans believe concerning the content of the Sacred Scriptures.
[T]here was no better way to counteract the mendacious calumnies and the religious controversies that were expanding with each passing day then, on the basis of God’s Word, carefully and accurately to explain and decide the differences that had arisen with reference to all the articles in controversy, to expose and reject false doctrine, and clearly to confess the divine truth….[T]he said theologians clearly and correctly described to one another, in extensive writings based on God’s Word, how the aforementioned offensive differences might be settled and brought to a conclusion without violation of divine truth, and in his way the pretext and basis for slander that the adversaries were looking for could be abolished and taken away. Finally they took to hand the controverted articles, examined, evaluated, and explained them in the fear of God, and produced a document in which they set forth how the differences that had occurred were to be decided in a Christian way. (Tappert, et al. 1959, ibid, 6)
This quote is clearly states that the confessions are based on God’s Word, and are meant 1) to “counteract the mendacious calumnies [a deliberately untrue defamatory statement, a.k.a. slander] and religious controversies”; 2) to explain the differences in doctrine that has arisen; 3) to decide upon the correct interpretation of the controverted articles in a Christian way without violation of divine truth; and 4) to abolish the basis for slander. Through all this, it is clear that the confessions are not a dogmatics treatise, in that they do not systematically treat all of Christian doctrine, but are delimited over and against controversy and error.
In my book “Why Mary Matters”, I discussed the Marian title of Mother of God as a confession of Chalcedonian Christology concerning the two natures in Christ, over against the Nestorian heresy. Here I briefly discuss this topic as it is expressed in the Epitome of the Formula of Concord.
So we believe, teach, and confess that Mary conceived and bore not merely a man and no more, but God’s true Son. Therefore, she also is rightly called and truly is “the mother of God”.(Ep VIII, 12)
The title of Mother of God is properly a Christological title, not a Marian title. It was adopted as a reaction against the Nestorian heresy by the Third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus. Nestorius held that Mary should be properly titled the “Mother of Christ”, since no one can give birth to that which is antecedent in time. The Council of Ephesus held that Nestorius was falsely dividing the two natures in Christ and creating two persons: one who was the Son of Mary, and the divine nature which was not. Thus the title “Mother of God is a Christological confession that the two natures were united in one person, such that Mary was truly the mother of God. The opposite Monophysite heresy soon developed which stated that the Christ had only one nature, that the human was subsumed into the divine leaving only a single nature, one that was not fully human. This heresy was dealt with by the Council of Chalcedon, which gave rise to the Christological doctrines expressed in the Athanasian Creed.
Christ Jesus is now in one person at the same time true, eternal God, born of the Father from eternity, and a true man, born of the most blessed Virgin Mary.(SD VIII, 6)
The descriptive title of “most blessed Virgin Mary” is, of course, a reference to the Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel said “blessed art thou among women” (Luke 1:28). It is also a reference to the Visitation, where Elizabeth shouted in the Spirit: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. …And blessed is she that believed” (Luke 1:42, 45). And finally, it is a reference to the Magnificat, where Mary says: “From henceforth all generations shall call me blessed” (Luke 1:48).
On account of this personal union and communion of the natures, Mary, the most blessed Virgin, did not bear a mere man. But as the angel testifies, she bore a man who is truly the Son of the most high God. He showed His divine majesty even in His mother’s womb, because He was born of a virgin, without violating her virginity. Therefore, she is truly the mother of God and yet has remained a virgin. ( SD, VIII 24)
It may take a careful reader to understand what the Solid Declaration is saying. First, the Solid Declaration uses the Mariological titles “Blessed Mother” and “Mother of God”, making them wholly Lutheran. Second, this passage teaches the perpetual virginity of Mary by stating that she is “the mother of God and yet has remained a virgin”. The point here is twofold: first, that the passage of an infant through the birth canal would destroy itself destroy the evidence of virginity, should it still exist; and second, that Mary was and remains perpetually virgin. Regarding the first point, the Solid declaration states that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, “without violating her virginity”. This is known as the “painless parturition”.
Luther himself taught this position, as in this “Sermon on Christmas”:
Some people dispute about exactly how this birth [of Christ] happened, whether she [Mary] was delivered of the child in the bed, in great joy, whether she was without all pain as this was happening. I do not reproach people for their devotion, but we should stay with the Gospel, which says, “she bore him,” and by the article of faith that we recite: “who is born of the virgin Mary.” There is no deceit here, but, as the words state, a true birth. We certainly know what birth is, and how it proceeds. It happens to her as it does to other women, with good spirits and with the actions of her limbs as is appropriate in a birth, so that she is his right and natural mother and he is her right and natural son. But her body did not allow the natural operations that pertain to birth, and she gave birth without sin, without shame, without pain, and without injury, just as she also conceived without sin. The curse of Eve does not apply to her, which says that “in pain shall you bring forth children” [Gen. 3:16], but otherwise it happened to her exactly as it does with any other woman giving birth. For grace did not promise anything, and did not hinder nature or the works of nature, but improved and helped them. In the same way she fed him naturally with milk from her breasts; without a doubt she did not give him any stranger’s milk or feed him with any other body part than the breast. (Karant-Nunn and Wiesner-Hanks 2003, 50)
Karant-Nunn, Susan C., and Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, . Luther on Women. Translated by Susan C. Karant-Nunn and Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Preus, Robert. Getting Into the Theology of Concord: A Study of the Book of Concord. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1977.
Tappert, Theodore G., Jaroslav Pelikan, Robert H. Fischer, and Arthur C. Piepkorn, . The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959.
[i]Lutherans accept the Book of Concord as normative for doctrine, in the sense of the norma normata: the normed norm, or secondary norm. The sacred scriptures, on the other hand, are normative in the sense of the norma normans: the norming norm, the primary norm, or the source. The Preface to the Book of Concord proposes three norms: Scripture, confessions, and the “ancient consensus”. (Tappert, et al. 1959, 3) Preus describes this three-fold tier of authority as scripture, confessions, and other good Christian literature. (Preus 1977, 22)