Why do we Lutherans not venerate Mary as mother of God and mother of the church and our intercessor? — from Anzarabi, a Lutheran in Tanzania

David: Anzarabi, what a great question! Along with the broad tradition of Christianity, Lutherans do address Mary by the title: mother of God. That is actually a technical title (“Theotokos” in Greek) affirmed by the ecumenical council of Ephesus in 431. Martin Luther himself spoke of Mary with great reverence and respect, and Lutherans ought to continue to do so.

However, the Lutheran tradition has continued to affirm that Jesus Christ is our intercessor before God, and he can be addressed directly by any believer. There is no need to pray first to Mary, but instead we are to take our prayers directly to Christ. This very question is addressed in one of our foundational documents, the Augsburg Confession: Christ “alone has promised to hear our prayers. According to Scripture, in all our needs and concerns it is the highest worship to seek and call upon this same Jesus Christ with our whole heart.” (Augsburg Confession 21)

As Lutherans, we respect Mary and we look to her example of faithfulness. But we bring our intercessions to Christ, our great high priest before the throne of God.

Monica: Dear Anzarabi, you raise a good question for all Lutherans. I would be interested in your Tanzanian experience of Lutheranism and the relevance of Mary. I first encountered Marian Theology [or theological views about Mary] as it relates to Lutheranism during my internship in Texas in a Latino Spanish-speaking congregation where many of the members were formerly Roman Catholic. Mary, the mother of Jesus, holds great cultural, devotional and religious significance for many Latino people (i.e., Virgin de Guadalupe).

Lutherans in general affirm the virgin birth and hold Mary in high esteem. Mary was the bearer of God’s love and favor. I don’t know that Lutherans currently hold Mary as the mother of the church since the book of Acts affirms that the church came into being by the power of the Holy Spirit. But the importance and role of Mary was an important topic for Martin Luther, which he wrote in his 1521 Commentary on the Magnificat which informs Lutheran theology and liturgy.

Martin Luther opposed intercessory prayer to Mary for fear that the practice would diminish Christ’s role in our salvation and give the impression that the merits of the saints could be added to the work of Jesus Christ to save humanity.

One perspective on the significance of the Virgin of Guadalupe from a Lutheran lens is that in Guadalupe the power of the Holy Spirit was at work to bring release to the captives (El Pobre) “the peasant people” from the oppression associated with colonialism. In the Virgin of Guadalupe lies the gospel of Jesus Christ. We pray to God/Jesus/Holy Spirit and at the same time can give thanks for his messengers/prophets who even in this day proclaim to us the good news in Jesus Christ.

There is a great article on Wikipedia on Lutheran Marian Theology, which offers more reflection and resources on the topic.

Ron: Dear Anzarabi, someone once said, “When you sing, you pray twice.” I am mindful of a verse in the hymn, “For All the Faithful Women” (ELW 419) verse 6,

Mary, Mother of Our Lord
We honor faithful Mary,
fair maiden, full of grace.
She bore the Christ, our brother,
who saved our human race.
May we, with her, surrender
ourselves to your command
and lay upon your altar
our gifts of heart and hand.

So, here you hear and see what high regard Lutherans have for Mary, whom Luther called “Theotokos” — the bearer of God. A great example of Luther’s devotion for Mary is witnessed in his 1521 Commentary on the Magnificat. However, as Article XX1 of the Augsburg Confession reminds us. “it cannot be proved from the Scriptures that we are to invoke saints or seek help from them.” Then the following verse is cited: “For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human” (1 Timothy 2:5). Consequently, we confess that Jesus, “who is the only savior, the only high priest, the advocate, and intercessor before God.

Anne: Thank you for this question, Anzarabi! One of the things that I love to do as a pastor is reintroduce Lutherans to Mary. Many Lutherans grow up with the idea that the way we view Mary is the main thing that separates us from Roman Catholics: Catholics “worship” or “pray to” Mary, and Lutherans don’t. I have to admit, I thought the same thing before I fell in love with a Roman Catholic. My husband helped me understand what it means to pray through — not to — an intercessor, like Mary or another saint. He asked me if I ever ask someone else to pray for me or for my concerns, someone I know is powerfully devoted to prayer. I do that all the time! Praying through Mary is the same idea — she becomes your prayer partner, and the communion of saints add their voices to yours in prayer. Like us, Roman Catholics are free to pray directly to God, and they worship God, not Mary. The word you used, venerate, is a great word for it — Catholics honor Mary in ways Lutherans have been taught not to, even though Martin Luther himself honored Mary as an example of a life lived in humble service and faith.

In Mary, Lutherans have an incredible opportunity to not only move beyond our ignorant prejudices about Roman Catholics but also discover for ourselves one of the most important figures in our shared Christian story: Mary, not only for what she did, but for who she was and what that says about how God’s power is revealed in weakness, how God is found “under the form of the opposite,” in the last possible place you would expect to find an all-powerful deity. The last place you would expect to find God is in the womb of a poor, unwed teenager, a virgin with no position or power of her own. If we honor the cross as the central image of our story, the prime example of God showing up in unexpected places, we must also honor Mary. From even before he was born, Jesus was turning the world and its expectations upside down.

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