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What Do Lutherans Believe About the Virgin Mary?

By Dr. Richard P. Bucher

Several years ago there was an article that appeared in the June/July, 1992 issue of the Marian Helpers Bulletin entitled "Why All the Fuss about Mary?" This puzzling article has as its thesis that "devotion to Mary leads us to her Son, not away from Him." For such a statement to appear in a periodical devoted to Mary is not puzzling. What is puzzling is that this article was written by a Lutheran parish pastor, the Rev. Charles Dickson, Ph.D.

Pastor Dickson informs us that though he was raised to believe that devotion to Mary by Roman Catholics "deflected from the centrality of Christ," 30 years of parish ministry has taught him that just the opposite is true. He believes that "by upholding the importance of the blessed Virgin, Catholics do not minimize the importance of Christ, but actually ... emphasize His mission." And "When the Church ceases to focus on Mary, it loses its focus on Christ."

The author supports his position almost completely by citing the example of Erasmus of Rotterdam, that great humanist scholar of the 16th century. Erasmus was a contemporary of Luther, best known to Lutherans as the one against whom Luther directed his classic treatise Bondage of the Will. Dickson believes that Erasmus is important to us because of his warnings to Luther and Zwingli against de-emphasizing the Virgin Mary. Erasmus was afraid that this would be the first step to a denial of Christ. And, as Dickson points out, this is exactly what later liberal Protestantism did: it denied the Biblical Christ.

The argument runs as follows: to not venerate Mary is to risk losing the incarnation and the virgin Birth; to lose the incarnation and the virgin Birth is to lose Christ.

Dickson believes that the "celebration of the Marian festivals is just one of the ways in which the Church celebrates the Christ event. Mary is worthy of our homage because God chose as the means of presenting us with the greatest gift in history."

But this is, at best, muddy and irresponsible writing. The argument is flawed. Of course the Christian Church rightly believes in the Virgin Birth and the Incarnation as fundamental truths of our Faith. Of course the Christian Church rightly honors and thanks God for Mary who became theotokos, the "mother of God." Lutherans are one with the ancient Church in calling Mary that. Mary was the mother of the full Jesus, who is God and man in one Person. Of course we agree that to lose the Incarnation and the Virgin Birth is to lose Jesus Christ.

But Dickson must know that the Roman Catholic Church and certainly a society like the Marian goes way beyond that. We Lutherans gladly agree with whatever the Scriptures say about Mary. What we reject is all manmade devotion to Mary that conflicts with sacred Scripture and robs Christ of His glory (contradicts the Gospel of justification by grace through faith in Jesus). It is this manmade devotion that continues to rob Christ of His glory today. Two examples follow.

Rome teaches Mary's Immaculate Conception, that is, that she, from the first instance of her conception was preserved free from original sin (Documents of Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, VIII; par. 56. This teaching has been official Roman Catholic Doctrine since the papal bull "Ineffablis Deus" in 1854.) This is not taught by Scripture which assumes that Mary was a sinner needing a Savior every bit as much as we. More disturbing is Rome's teaching that Mary shares in Christ's redemptive work. Vatican II declared:

    In an utterly singular way she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope, and burning charity in the Savior's work of restoring supernatural life to souls. For this reason she is a mother to us in the order of grace (ibid., p. 91).

And,

    Far taken up to heaven, she did not lay aside this saving role, but by her manifold acts of intercession continues to win for us gifts of eternal salvation (ibid.).

And again,

    By her maternal charity, Mary cares for the brethren of her Son who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and difficulties, until they are led to their happy fatberland. Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked by the Church under the titles of Advocate, Auxiliatrix Adjutrix, and Mediatrix (ibid.).

These are the teachings that Biblical Christians cannot accept, for they ascribe to Mary , at least in part, the role of Mediator and Advocate, roles which belong to Jesus Christ alone. Scripture is clear in declaring, "For there is one God, and one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all" (1 Timothy 2:5-6). St. John Himself, to whom Mary was committed after our Lord's death, writes, "But if anyone sins we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for the sins of the whole world." Of His name the apostle Peter solemnly confessed: "There is no other name under heaven, given among men, by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). Nothing in all of Scripture even hints at Mary sharing Christ's saving work.

So can we honor Mary as role model? Yes! Can we thank God that by His grace (not because of her worthiness!) she became the "mother of God?" Yes! But we can never ascribe to her what the Scriptures do not. And especially can we never ascribe to her anything that contradicts the Gospel of Jesus Christ and robs him of his glory. And this is our complaint with Roman Catholic doctrine and current popular piety.