15 August 2017

The Dormition and exploring
Martin Luther’s views on
traditional Marian teachings

Saint Mary’s Church Askeaton, with the ruins of the earlier mediaeval church and the Templar Tower (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Today is known in the Orthodox Church is the Feast of the Dormition, and in the Western Church it is known as the Feast of the Assumption.

In the Orthodox Church, the Dormition of the Mother of God (Η Κοίμησις τησ Θεοτόκου, Koímēsos tis Theotokou) is a Great Feast and recalls the ‘falling asleep’ or death of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, and her body being taken into heaven. In the Greek of Scripture and Orthodoxy, death is often called a ‘sleeping’ or ‘falling asleep.’

This day [15 August] is marked in the Calendar of Common Worship in the Church of England, this is a Festival of the Virgin Mary, without any reference to either the Dormition or the Assumption. Other Anglican churches, including the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, mark this day as a commemoration of ‘The Falling Asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary,’ and in the Episcopal Church in the United States of America it is observed as the holy day of ‘Saint Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ.’

Surprisingly, she is perhaps the only New Testament saint who is not remembered in the Calendar of Church of Ireland on the traditional or supposed day of death.

I spent the morning yesterday [14 August 2017] finishing the last in a series of features on Martin Luther for the diocesan magazine, Newslink, marking the 500th anniversary of his posting his 95 Theses in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517. Later in the afternoon, as I walked around the churchyard of Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, I wondered about Luther’s theology of the Virgin Mary.

Martin Luther’s Marian theology was developed out of the deep Marian devotion he experienced in his childhood and in his training for the priesthood. Later, it became an integral part of his theology and piety.

Luther asserted dogmatically what he considered firmly established biblical doctrines, including the divine motherhood of Virgin Mary and held to what were then pious opinions about the Immaculate Conception and the perpetual virginity of Mary, although they only became dogmatic teachings of the Roman Catholic Church as recently as the 19th and 20th centuries.

But Luther also taught that all doctrine and piety should exalt and not diminish the person and work of Jesus Christ. He emphasised that the Virgin Mary was a recipient of God’s love and favour, but could not see her as a mediatrix of intercession or redemption.

Luther accepted the Marian decrees of the ecumenical councils and the dogmas of the Church, and held to the belief that the Virgin Mary was a perpetual virgin and the Theotokos, the Mother of God.

Luther accepted the popular view of the Immaculate Conception, over three centuries before Pope Pius IX declared it a dogma in 1854, and he believed in the Virgin Mary’s life-long sinlessness. Although he pointed out that the Bible says nothing about the Assumption of Mary, he believed that Virgin Mary and the saints live on after death.

In his Commentary on the Magnificat (1521), Luther extolled the magnitude of God’s grace towards the Virgin Mary and her own legacy of Christian instruction and example demonstrated in this canticle of praise.

Throughout his life, Luther also believed in the perpetual virginity and sinlessness of the Virgin Mary. He wrote a number of pious poems that focus on her virginity, and translated into German old devotional Latin hymns about her. In his interpretation of the Magnificat of Mary, he maintains traditional Marian piety.

Many Lutheran communities in Germany continued to sing the canticle Magnificat in Latin. In the Church Order in Brandenburg and other places, the Lutheran Church maintained three Marian feast days.

Lurther approved keeping Marian paintings and statues in churches, said ‘Mary prays for the Church,’ and advocated the use of the portion half of the ‘Hail Mary.’

Throughout his life, Luther called the Virgin Mary by the title Theotokos, Mother of God. He believed that as Christ was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary and was ‘born of the Virgin Mary,’ then she is the Theotokos, the God-bearer. He wrote:

[S]he became the Mother of God, in which work so many and such great good things are bestowed on her as pass man’s understanding. For on this there follows all honour, all blessedness, and her unique place in the whole of mankind, among which she has no equal, namely, that she had a child by the Father in heaven, and such a Child … Hence men have crowded all her glory into a single word, calling her the Mother of God … None can say of her nor announce to her greater things, even though he had as many tongues as the earth possesses flowers and blades of grass: the sky, stars; and the sea, grains of sand. It needs to be pondered in the heart what it means to be the Mother of God.

This belief is officially endorsed in the Lutheran Formula of Concord, which declares:

On account of this personal union and communion of the natures, Mary, the most Blessed Virgin, did not conceive a mere, ordinary human being, but a human being who is truly the Son of the most high God, as the angel testifies. He demonstrated his divine majesty even in his mother’s womb in that he was born of a virgin without violating her virginity. Therefore she is truly the mother of God and yet remained a virgin.

The Dormition of the Theotokos … an icon completed last year by Alexandra Kaouki for a church in the old town of Rethymnon © Alexandra Kaouki

The title Theotokos (Θεοτόκος) is translated as ‘Mother of God’ or ‘God-bearer.’ The Council of Ephesus decreed in 431 that the Virgin Mary is the Theotokos because her son Jesus is both God and man: one divine person with two natures (divine and human) intimately and hypostatically united.

The word Theotokos is an adjectival compound of two the Greek words Θεός, God, and τόκος, childbirth, parturition; offspring.’ A close paraphrase is ‘[she] whose offspring is God’ or ‘[she] who gave birth to one who was God.’

The full title of the Virgin Mary in Greek is Ὑπεραγία δεσποινίς ἡμῶν Θεοτόκος καὶ ἀειπαρθένος Μαρία, ‘Our Most Holy Lady Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary.’

The theological dispute over the term revolved around the use of words Θεός, God, against Χριστός, Christ, and τόκος, bearer, against μήτηρ (mater, mother). The two terms have been used as synonyms throughout Christian tradition, but the word Θεοτόκος was preferred to reject the views of Nestorius without implying that the Virgin Mary was the Mother of God from eternity.

The status of the Virgin Mary as Theotokos was decreed at the Council of Ephesus in 431 because her son Jesus Christ is one person who is both God and man, divine and human. Nestorius argued that divine and human natures of Christ are distinct, and while the Virgin Mary is evidently the Christotokos or ‘bearer of Christ,’ it could be misleading to describe her as the ‘bearer of God.’

At the heart of this debate is the Orthodox understanding of the Incarnation, and the nature of the hypostatic union of Christ’s human and divine natures between Christ’s conception and birth.

In Article 2 of the 39 Articles, Anglican tradition reaffirms this understanding of the Incarnation and rejects Nestorianism, when it states:

The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took Man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect Natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God, and very Man; who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men.

An icon of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child … a present from a friend in Crete last year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Collect (Common Worship):

Almighty God,
who looked upon the lowliness of the Blessed Virgin Mary
and chose her to be the mother of your only Son:
grant that we who are redeemed by his blood
may share with her in the glory of your eternal kingdom;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

God most high,
whose handmaid bore the Word made flesh:
we thank you that in this sacrament of our redemption
you visit us with your Holy Spirit
and overshadow us by your power;
strengthen us to walk with Mary the joyful path of obedience
and so to bring forth the fruits of holiness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton … a walk in the churchyard yesterday focused attention on the Dormition and Martin Luther’s Marian teachings (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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