Recently-across-the-Tiber Jason Reed says:”And then, as I started reading the reformers, they’re Catholic! Luther believed in the devotion to Mary.” While Luther said nice things about Mary, his mature Mariology is not modern-day Roman Catholic Mariology. Saying nice things about Mary is not the same thing as Roman Catholic Marian devotion, both then and now.
Young Luther, Saints, and the Virgin
Young Luther was enveloped in a religious climate consisting of a host of saints and superstitions. All worked together in a grand scheme of relief from the ravages of medieval life as well as appeasing the always-watching wrathful God. The Virgin Mary played a prominent role in medieval culture. To her was bestowed great veneration and devotion. Roman Catholic Historian Joseph Lortz explains,
Everything was dedicated to her and bore her name – places, churches, alters, girls. The widespread custom of singing the Salve Regina on Saturday evenings arose as a means of extolling her fame. The devout soul of the people was as much expressed in fervent hymns to Mary and legends about her, as in the countless number of paintings and sculptures of the Madonna, some of them very beautiful. Many confraternities were formed in her honor, and many endowments made. In all of this period her praise was never silent.
Participating in the cults of sainthood with all the fervent zeal of the time, A Tabletalk records young Martin called on three saints at every Mass. He recalled selecting twenty-one saints, “Thus I came the round in a week“. Another recollection from Luther’s Tabletalk expresses the impact medieval Mariolatry had on the young Martin Luther. Sometime in 1503, a Tabletalk records he unintentionally stabbed his shin on a short sword and cut an artery in his leg. Thinking himself near death from the wound, he cried out, “Mary, help!” Help indeed arrived, but in the form of a surgeon who dressed the wound. Later that evening, the wound broke open again. The same fear of death gripped him, and Mary was called upon once more to save his life. Had Mary saved Luther? The mature Luther looking back on this experience realized how far from the spiritual help of Christ he actually was: “I would have died with my trust in Mary“.
In the Augustinian monastery, meditation on the blessed mother was also a unique channel to make the heart fertile for divine grace. Mary was crowned with a special degree of glory that surpassed others in the divine realm. Luther at this time was influenced by the Mariology of Bernard of Clairvaux. Later recollecting on this influence, Luther stated:
St. Bernard, who was a pious man otherwise, also said: “Behold how Christ chides, censures, and condemns the Pharisees so harshly throughout the Gospel, whereas the Virgin Mary is always kind and gentle and never utters an unfriendly word.” From this he inferred: “Christ is given to scolding and punishing, but Mary has nothing but sweetness and love.” Therefore Christ was generally feared; we fled from Him and took refuge with the saints, calling upon Mary and others to deliver us from our distress. We regarded them all as holier than Christ. Christ was only the executioner, while the saints were our mediators.
He also recollected,
Christ in His mercy was hidden from my eyes. I wanted to become justified before God through the merits of the saints. This gave rise to the petition for the intercession of the saints. On a portrait St. Bernard, too, is portrayed adoring the Virgin Mary as she directs her Son, Christ, to the breasts that suckled Oh, how many kisses we bestowed on Mary!
Reflecting on this Luther concluded, that even in St Bernard’s incessant praise of Mary as she directs the sinner toward Christ, Bernard left out Christ completely: “Bernard filled a whole sermon with praise of the Virgin Mary and in so doing forgot to mention what happened [the incarnation of Christ]; so highly did he… esteem Mary” . Thus, young Luther partook in Mariolatry, but the mature Luther looking back saw only the excesses of medieval devotion to Mary. He saw that she had been adorned with attributes that only belonged to Christ.
Martin Luther Prayed to Mary?
Roman Catholic devotion to Mary includes a heavy practice of praying to Mary. In a sermon of August 15, 1516, Luther was to say, “O blessed mother! O most worthy virgin! Remember us, and grant that the Lord do such great things to us too“. In 1519, Luther still could exhort his congregation to “call upon the holy angels, particularly his own angel, the Mother of God, and all the apostles and saints“ as a comfort in the hour when each was to face their own death. By 1522 things had changed. Erfurt Evangelists questioning Luther on the intercession of saints received this response,
I beseech in Christ that your preachers forbear entering upon questions concerning the saints in heaven and the deceased, and I ask you to turn the attention of people away from these matters in view of the fact… that they are neither profitable nor necessary for salvation. This is also reason why God decided not to let us know anything about His dealings with the deceased. Surely he is not committing a sin who does not call upon any saint but only clings firmly to the one mediator, Jesus Christ.
In the same year, Luther put together his Personal Prayer Book (which included the traditional Hail Mary). Luther though was to place the Hail Mary in an evangelical context, and this to the consternation of his critics. An early pamphlet criticized his prayer book as a “subtle mixture of poison with much that was good.” The “poison” was Luther’s evangelical interpretation of the Hail Mary, “which was bound to offend many who were accustomed to, the cult of the Virgin“[10.]
Luther knew that prayers to, and faith in the saints violated the First Commandment. In his understanding, the role of faith or trust in the First Commandment determines whether one worships the true God, or an idol. To have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe in Him with the whole heart. This trust and the faith of the heart alone make either God or an idol. If faith and trust are right, then your god is the true God. If it is wrong, then you do not have the true God. That to which the heart clings is really your God. If your heart clings and entrusts itself to something God has made, then your faith is wrong, and you are caught in your sin, and you stand under the crushing condemnation of God’s law. Luther said:
No one can deny that by such saint worship we have now come to the point where we have actually made utter idols of the Mother of God and the saints, and that because of the service we have rendered and the works we have performed in their honor we have sought comfort more with them than with Christ Himself. Thereby faith in Christ has been destroyed.
As Luther’s thinking was transformed by a Christ centered hermeneutic, it was inevitable that the harsh judge and the silent idols would be replaced by the true God of the gospel. Christ the cruel judge who had to be appeased by “penance, confession, and works of satisfaction, [and] with the intercession of his mother and of all the saints“ , was now Christ the “comfort us poor sinners in the most loving and effective manner“. One was no longer saved by “works, monkery, Masses, and saint worship but exclusively through this Christ” .
Luther in Context?
In other words, as Luther’s thought progressed, his “Marian devotion” diminished. This hasn’t stopped Rome’s apologists though from sifting his writings to come up with alleged proof that Luther held some sort of lifelong devotion. One Roman apologist claimed that Luther was “..extraordinarily devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary.” As proof, Luther’s last sermon at Wittenberg was cited and it was pointed out that he “praised” Mary. Yes, the sermon mentions Mary. Luther did not say or imply though that Mary should be honored. Luther’s tone is quite sarcastic, and his main point is that Christ alone should be worshiped. Luther mocks those who would call upon Mary or venerate her. Luther insists that those who seek Christ through Mary do so by the use of “reason,” and “reason is by nature a harmful whore.”
There are a number of these sort of quotes, that when put back in context say something much different than Rome’s apologists say they do. There’s the quote from Luther that states, “The veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart.” In context though, Luther’s point is that whatever respect Mary was due, the Church of his day had collectively had gone far beyond it.”The veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart” is not a positive statement, but a negative statement. This sentence placed back in its context is in regard to excessive Marian devotion!
Setting the Record Straight
I certainly would be interested in finding out what Mr. Reed read that drove him to the conclusion that “Luther believed in the devotion to Mary.” Often times when I interact with Roman Catholics on Luther’s Mariology, they point out a number of similarities between Romanist Mariology and Luther’s Mariology. The irony of course is that in other theological areas, Luther is maligned. When it comes to the topic of Mary though, Roman Catholic sentiment towards Luther shifts considerably. Luther becomes the staunch supporter of Mary; a leader that all contemporary Protestants should learn a great lesson in Mariology from. This drastic shift is puzzling- particularly since Luther’s abandoning of the intercession of the saints and his doctrine of justification significantly changes his Marian approach.
Yes, There are some similarities. Luther did believe in Mary’s perpetual virginity. On the other hand, proving Luther held a lifelong belief in the immaculate conception is simply something that cannot be proven from the historical record. Sometimes Roman Catholics will argue Luther never denied the Assumption of Mary (therefore he may have believed it). But when one looks at the context of the quote they use as proof, it becomes obvious they’re not doing good historical research. There’s a bunch of other ridiculous arguments they put forth as proof of Luther’s devotion to Mary. They say that Luther preached on all the Marian feast days. What they don’t tell you is that Luther abandoned the festival of Mary’s Immaculate Conception and her Assumption. Even with the extant sermons available from Luther on these days, the topic more often than not, is not about Mary. Perhaps the silliest of all was when Mark Shea said Luther’s devotion to Mary was proved by Peter Vischer’s sculpture of the Coronation of the Virgin which adorned Luther’s tomb. For more of my exploration of Luther’s Mariology, see my master list.
The colors of the Roman Catholic picture of Luther’s devotion to Mary become blurry and unfocused when examined in the light of his writings and theology. Once the intercessory role of Mary was abandoned, Luther saw the idol medieval theology had created. The medieval veneration had its sole purpose of appealing to her for daily and ultimate help. Her attributes were worshipped in order to gain her favor. To suggest that Luther held a virtually Roman Mariology is to imply his veneration of Mary and the tradition of worshipping her attributes. It is to say that Luther sought her as a means to her Son. For Luther though, quite the opposite is the case:
Christ is not so much a judge and an angry God but one who bears and carries our sins, a mediator. Away with the papists, who have set Christ before us as a terrible judge and have turned the saints into intercessors! There they have added fuel to the fire. By nature we are already afraid of God. Blessed therefore are those who as uncorrupted young people arrived at this understanding, that they can say: “I only knew Jesus Christ as the bearer of my sins. 
1.WA TR 4:305-306
2.Joseph Lortz, The Reformation in Germany, trans. Ronald Walls (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1968), 1:112
3. LW 54:15
4. LW 22:377
5. LW 22:145
6. LW 54:84
7. WA 1:79; cf. Ewald Plass, What Luther Says Vol. III, (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), 1257
8. LW 42:113
9. WA 10(2): 165; cf. What Luther Says, Vol. III, 1253
10. LW 43:9-10
11. WA 11:415; cf. What Luther Says, Vol. III, 1254
12. LW 40:376
13. LW 40:375
14. LW 24:119
15. LW 17:224