Virgin and Mother of God?
In his Christmas sermon of 1531, Protestant reformer Martin Luther extolled the Blessed Virgin Mary, saying, “[She is the] highest woman and the noblest gem in Christianity after Christ. … She is nobility, wisdom, and holiness personified. We can never honor her enough.” It surprises many to learn that the Protestant reformers of the 16th century had a great respect for, if not a devotion to, the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Luther maintained throughout his life a belief in Mary’s sinlessness and perpetual virginity, which he viewed as consistent with Scripture. He honored her as a woman of great faith who cooperated with God’s grace. Reformers John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli likewise held Mary in high regard, though they shunned what they saw as excessive devotion to Mary among Catholics.
The modern difference between Catholic and Protestant beliefs about Mary is more than a question of degree of honor. More so than the reformers themselves, those who came after the Reformation consciously distanced themselves from Catholic belief and practice, including devotion to Mary. Protestant believers have inherited a view of Mary that accords her little role in salvation history. They reject her intercession and shun beliefs about her perpetual virginity, her sinlessness, and her title as Mother of God.
In particular, Protestants object to the role of Mary as mediator, as they do for all the saints. The emphasis on “Jesus alone” served to reject her mediation. Luther made clear that prayers offered to Mary and not to Jesus are not properly ordered since “God does all.” Prayers to Mary, including the rosary, consequently were abandoned. The Marian feast days in the Church calendar were limited to those found within the Bible — for instance, the Annunciation and the Visitation. The belief in the bodily assumption of Mary was rejected as unscriptural.
For Catholics, however, the Bible is consistent with its beliefs about Mary, as is the witness of the early Church, which saw Mary as one worthy of prayer and veneration. The greeting of the angel Gabriel to Mary, “Hail, full of grace!” (Luke 1:28, RSVCE) and the words of Elizabeth to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42), are especially important to Catholics. They helped to form the most important Marian prayer, the Hail Mary, and are witness to the enduring belief that Mary was honored in a special way by God and continues her maternal role of care for the Church even in heaven.
Devotion to Mary is biblical and is as old as Christianity itself.
Non-Catholic Christians interpret the same Scriptures about Mary in a different light. Protestants concur, for instance, that Mary is “mother of the Lord,” but not “mother of God,” since the title is not found in the Bible. They do not believe in Mary’s perpetual virginity, but cite the Scriptures where the brothers and sisters of Jesus are mentioned (though the terms for blood relatives at the time of Jesus were not always clear).
The differing beliefs of Catholics and Protestants regarding Mary have resulted in markedly different prayer practices. Non-Catholic Christians view praying the rosary or going on pilgrimage to a Marian shrine as unnecessary, maybe even spiritually harmful. Such devotions are seen as “works” that obstruct true faith in Jesus alone. For Catholics, however, they are an important form of intercession, but not a form of worship since worship is for God alone. In the eyes of Catholics, Mary intercedes by taking one’s prayers to God, who, as Luther rightly said, “does all.”
Where do Catholics and Protestants find common ground in their beliefs about Mary? Protestants join with other Christians in acknowledging Mary as a holy woman of the Scriptures who serves as a model of faith. No matter the denomination, Christians believe Mary should be considered “blessed by every generation” (see Luke 1:48). And we can see in Mary how God “exalts the lowly” and identifies with the poor and weak of this world (as seen in Mary’s song, the Magnificat, found in Luke 1:46–55).
For Catholics, devotion to Mary is biblical and is as old as Christianity itself. But devotion to Mary is not an end, for Mary as a true first disciple always leads us to her son. Belief in and devotion to Mary as virgin and mother does not prevent a relationship with Jesus, but instead provides the model for those who seek to follow Christ.