Christian TraditionsMaryRoman CatholicTheology & Spirituality

The Immaculate Conception and Martin Luther

Last week, the Roman Catholic Church celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. While there is common confusion that the immaculate conception celebrates the conception of Christ without sin, the doctrine actually refers to the conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary without original sin. Because Mary was destined to be the Mother of God, God by his grace intervened so that Mary would be free of the stain of original sin.

The immaculate conception officially became Catholic dogma in 1854, after centuries of debate surrounding the topic. History provides evidence that churches celebrated the Feast of the immaculate conception as early as the 5th century AD. The doctrine of the immaculate conception first received theological treatment from Byzantine theologians, including Saint Gregory of Nazianzus who spoke of Mary as “prepurified.”

Discussion of the immaculate conception did not enter into Latin theology until the 12th century with Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. In the true manner of lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of praying is the law of believing), many Latin churches already celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception by this time. While Saint Bernard affirmed that Mary never sinned, he did not support the theology of the immaculate conception because he was unsure as to whether she was born without original sin.[1] Rather, Saint Bernard stated, “If Mary could not be sanctified before her conception itself, on account of the sin (concupiscence) involved therein, it follows she was sanctified in the womb after conception, which, since she was cleansed from sin, made her birth holy and not her conception.”[2]

This debate continued as scholasticism dominated Western theology in the 13th and 14th centuries. Saint Bonaventure and Saint Thomas Aquinas, the two great minds of scholasticism, both denied the doctrine of the immaculate conception and insisted that the sanctification of the Blessed Virgin occurred only after her conception. They based this upon the grounds that if Mary did not have original sin, she could not have been redeemed by Christ. Aquinas states in Question 27 of Part III of his Summa Theologiae, “It is therefore with reason that we believe the Blessed Virgin to have been sanctified before her birth from the womb,” rather than that she was sanctified before her very conception.[3] Aquinas further states in Article 3 of Question 27 that she was not freed from original sin in the womb, but only when she conceived Jesus: “Therefore it seems better to say that by the sanctification in the womb, the Virgin was not freed from the fomes [original sin] in its essence, but that it remained fettered…Afterwards, however, at the conception of Christ’s flesh, in which for the first time immunity from sin was to be conspicuous, it is to be believed that entire freedom from the fomes redounded from the Child to the Mother.”[4]

In the years leading up to and during the Protestant Reformation, the dominant Catholic opinion denied the immaculate conception. The Dominicans, who taught at most of the European universities, taught that Mary never sinned but was not without original sin, thus following the teaching of Aquinas. Saint Catherine of Siena upheld Aquinas’s opinion as well, and the Council of Trent did not affirm the doctrine of the immaculate conception.

Most remarkably, the most prominent Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, supported the doctrine, thus aligning certain aspects of Luther’s Mariology with modern Catholic Mariology. Martin Luther firmly believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary, in her role as the Mother of God, her reign as the Queen of Heaven, and in her immaculate conception. Luther wrote, “It is a sweet and pious belief that the infusion of Mary’s soul was effected without original sin; so that in the very infusion of her soul she was also purified from original sin and adorned with God’s gifts, receiving a pure soul infused by God; thus from the first moment she began to live she was free from all sin.”[5] Luther firmly asserted here and in other sermons and writings that Mary was conceived without original sin so that she might become the Mother of God.

Luther’s high Mariology did not end with support of theological doctrines, and it must be noted that many of his writings on Mary are dated well after his break from the Roman Catholic Church. While he appropriately warned against treating Mary as a savior and neglecting Christ, he encouraged devotion to the Blessed Virgin and prayer for her intercession. He wrote in his Personal Prayer Book, “Our prayer should include the Mother of God … What the Hail Mary says is that all glory should be given to God, using these words: “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus Christ. Amen!”[6]

The striking similarities between Luther’s Mariology and modern Catholic Mariology invite Protestants to examine the role the Blessed Virgin Mary plays in their faith and understanding of the Incarnation. December and January celebrate many Marian feasts: the Immaculate Conception on December 8, the Feast of Mary the Mother of God on January 1, and of course her role in the Nativity of Our Lord on December 25. Timothy George pointed out in last year’s First Things article, “Bringing Mary In From the Cold,” that for many theologians, including Martin Luther, no Mary means no Christmas, no Christmas means no Christ, and no Christ means no salvation. As George states, “In this season of the year it is good to remember that Mary belongs to all Christians—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant alike. All generations, and presumably all denominations, are meant to call her blessed (Luke 2:48).”[7]

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Laura Norris

Laura Norris

Laura Norris is a Catholic, freelance writer, running coach, and outdoor enthusiast. She holds a master's degree in Theological Studies and now works as a running blogger and coach as, in the words of St. Ignatius Loyola, "a woman for others" in helping others live a healthy life and achieve their goals. She and her husband live on the Eastside of Seattle and spend their time running their own businesses and hiking in the mountains.

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