Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Traditional Lutheran View of Mary's Virginity

For the past few weeks Dr. Kenneth Wieting at Luther Memorial Chapel, in Shorewood, Wisconsin, has been teaching a class on the Epistle of St. James. It has been a wonderfully insightful study, and I have appreciated it very much. He very insistently teaches, however, that the James who penned this epistle is a brother of Jesus in the literal, narrow, modern, Western sense of brother, ie., that he and Jesus both issued from Mary's womb. The notion that Mary had only one Child, and remained a virgin all her life is, to Dr. Wieting, an unbiblical mariology that arises only several centuries later. I respectfully disagree, and would offer an alternative view.

In differing from the commonly accepted notion that Jesus had maternal siblings, I am not merely diverging from this or that eminent theologian, like David Scaer, but also from virtually all of modern Biblical scholarship. And I think that is actually a good note on which to begin this discussion. That is, despite the fact that the advocates of the view that Mary had other children base their argument upon a conviction that the New Testament and the earliest centuries of Christianity are on their side (a notion which is debatable), the first point which needs to be made is that their view is the modern one, and goes against millennia of churchly tradition.

My conviction is that the Blessed Virgin Mary was mother to precisely One, and that He displayed His divine nature even in the fetal stage of His earthly sojourn by preserving His mother's virginity. I did not come to this conviction first by exegetical study, nor by ante-nicene historical findings, nor by the theological value of such ideas (though something could be said in all three of these areas), but by the overwhelming weight of the Church's tradition. In view of the thoughtful and rigorously theological tradition of churchly devotion, confession, preaching, and discourse, and of the respect given to such tradition by the Lutheran Confessions, the modern denial of Mary's perpetual virginity would certainly strike both those who penned and those who signed the Lutheran Confessions as a "new" doctrine, ie, that against which the Lutheran Symbols firmly take their stand. 

To those who insist, out of an admirable desire to rest on scripture alone, that they will believe it only when they see it, ie, that they will accept the perpetual virginity of Mary only when shown explicit references to it in sacred scripture, I would introduce an idea that will seem at first ridiculous.  Namely, the true value of approaching the life of Mary in a way in keeping with the evangelical tradition of the Church is that one finds the opposite to the be the case, ie, the traditionalist Lutheran begins to see it in scripture (the absence of explicit proof texts notwithstanding) when he approaches the scripture with this belief.  You will, in fact, to turn a phrase on its head, see it when you believe it.  And on this count I do not merely have in mind a few isolated verses, which I choose to read in a traditional manner, though of course such texts are worth pondering (such as Ezekiel 44), but an extended pattern, stretching from the Old Testament into the New; a pattern, moreover, with deeply christological and ecclesial dimensions.

Let us establish first, for the record, that the perpetual virginity of Mary is not merely the view of a few bishops of the fourth century, nor merely the prevailing view of the Medieval Church, nor merely a characteristic aspect of Roman Catholic mariology, but is undeniably the traditional and universal view of the Lutheran fathers, beginning with Luther and the sixteenth century divines and continuing through every succeeding epoch into the twentieth century.  In the Latin edition of the Lutheran Book of Concord, published in 1584, we have the following Catholic confession of the Evangelical Church:
That the Son became man in this manner, that He was conceived, without the cooperation of man, by the Holy Ghost, and was born of the pure, holy and always Virgin Mary.
That term "always" is not in the German text of this confession, as the deniers of Mary's perpetual virginity are quick to point out.  Nevertheless, it is clearly part of the official Latin edition of the Book of Concord, and it received no objection when it was published, no objection in the sixteenth century, no objection until pretty much our own times.  Moreover, it is in no way unfair to Luther's view.  We need not belabor this blog post with many quotations, for Luther's firm stand on Mary's virginity before, during, and after the birth of the Christ is well established.  We may consult his comments in the Personal Prayer Book, for example, or his Christmas preaching, for good material on this topic.

Also in the Book of Concord, I hasten to add, and in the indisputably authoritative German text, is a christological passage in the Formula of Concord which in one fell swoop confesses both Christ's birth in clauso utero and Mary's perpetual virginity.  I refer to the following:
On account of this personal union and communion of the natures, Mary, the most blessed Virgin, bore not a mere man, but, as the angel testifies, such a man as is truly the Son of the most high God, who showed His divine majesty even in His mother's womb, inasmuch as He was born of a virgin, with her virginity inviolate.  Therefore she is truly the mother of God, and nevertheless remained a virgin.
First, this clearly confesses the rather amazing paradox that, though Christ had a true physical birth, He nevertheless does not open His mother's womb.  He passes through the birth canal much the way He would enter the closed room years later after His resurrection.  This, in itself, I would argue, has implications for the lifelong virginity of His mother.  Second, this passage also testifies to the perpetual virginity, by means of the grammar which does not come across well in translation, which however has proven to be obvious to native German speaking theologians, even some who had no bias toward the perpetual virginity, like Herman Sasse. 

My point in making these references to the Lutheran Confessions, let me make clear, is not to impugn the Confessional loyalty of those today who do not hold to the perpetual virginity of Mary, only to establish the point that may be surprising to some, and may need to be reemphasized to others, that Mary's perpetual virginity is not a notion held by a few Lutherans here and there in the sixteenth century, but had and has a firm part in Lutheran tradition.  When did it become such a minority view?  Not until very recent times.  I would suggest that in the Missouri Synod world, it may have been the switch to seminary theological study taking place in English (which may vindicate Loehe's warning against moving away from teaching theology in German).

What the Lutherans of the theologically rigorous age of Lutheran Orthodoxy, and the arguably even purer theology of Luther, held regarding Mary, was a tradition preserved for them by the ages which came before.  While we could show ample evidence of the Church's stand on Mary's perpetual virginity for the thousand years which preceded Luther (and I have done so at this blog in the past), suffice to say that this is not in dispute.  What is claimed by many of the deniers of Mary's lifelong virginity, rather, is that it was introduced only after Mary's life, indeed several centuries later, for that is when we begin to see open and explicit reference to it.

When we examine those early explicit references to Mary's perpetual virginity (third and fourth century), however, a couple of things are worth noting.  One is the deafening lack of objection to them.  They seem to cause no scandal at all.  There are a few scattered voices in the Early Church opposed Mary's perpetual virginity; we see names like Tertullian and Helvidius, but no one of unblemished orthodoxy.  The other noteworthy thing about the first plain references to Mary's perpetual virginity is that they actually seem to imply that they are merely upholding already established Church teaching.  Take, for example, the case of Origen in the third century (and let us emphasize that means the 200s-he died in 253).  Origin writes in his Commnetary on John:
There is no child of Mary except Jesus, according to the opinion of those who think correctly about her.
Origen here is making reference not only to Mary's perpetual virginity, but also to the fact that this was the commonly accepted view of his day.  That in turn strongly implies that it predates his age, that it was handed to his generation by the ones that went before.  In fact, Origen's phrase "think correctly" likely signifies the doctrine of the Church.

Also noteworthy is the second century claims of the Protoevangelium of James.  This work, of course, was not brought into the canon of scripture.  That is not surprising, since it does not major in what is vital to salvation, and since, frankly, it is pseudepigraphal.  Nevertheless, it is an important witness for two reasons, 1. its antiquity, and 2. the fact that what it tells us on this topic was not controverted or condemned.  In other words, it is representative of the belief of the early second century (it was written as early as A.D. 120), and therefore also implies a connection with the immediately preceding age, which takes us to the first century, and the lifetime of the Beloved Disciple, who was entrusted by Christ with the care of His mother, and who tradition tells us took her to live out the remainder of her life in Ephesus.  While the Protoevangelium of James does not explicitly speak of Mary remaining a virgin till the end of her life, it does imply it by its interpretation of the "brothers of the Lord" as sons of Joseph before his marriage to Mary.  In fact, Johannes Quasten in his Patrology claims of this document:
The principal aim of the whole writing is to prove the perpetual and inviolate virginity of Mary before, in, and after the birth of Christ.
So what is a "brother" in the ancient Greek world?  The word for "brother" in Greek, adelphos, is a term which often means much more than just a literal son of the same mother.  Knowledge of classical Greek literature, or even just reference to Liddell & Scott, shows us that adelphos can easily be a reference to a "near kinsman."  Unfortunately, seminarians and theologians too often rely on the biased definitions and word studies of theological lexicons. 

Of course there is more to say on this topic, but I must get up for work in the morning, so I will have to continue this in the next day or two.

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