Concise Lexicon of Christianity

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Teachings, worship, rites, sermons, and terminology

The Protestant Reformers and Mary

John Calvin, Martin Luther, and Ulrich Zwingli were the most important Protestant Reformers. On the topic of Mary, the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, they all agreed on the following:

The Roman Catholic treatment of Mary is a major issue for Protestants today, but it was a relatively minor issue for the Protestant Reformers. If Calvin, Luther, or Zwingli preached about Mary in a Protestant church today, the congregation would think it was a Roman Catholic sermon. 

At the time of the Protestant Reformation, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians all agreed that Mary was a virgin, not just at the time of Jesus birth, but for her entire life. Youve heard the explanation that Jesus brothers were really His cousins? You may be surprised to learn that that was John Calvins opinion! Ulrich Zwingli especially emphasized Marys perpetual virginity. All three also agreed that Mary is blessed among all women, and that it is right for Christians to honor and venerate her. Martin Luther taught that Mary was born without sin and he continued his devotions to the Virgin Mary until his death.

The Protestant Reformers, however, did think that people were wrong to invoke Mary as a mediator or to intervene. This was not a uniquely Protestant view, because there were many Catholics who agreed with them on that point, and there still are today. The Reformers did not disagree with the emphasis the Roman Catholic Church placed on Mary so much as they disagreed with the role they often gave her. We cant say that they wanted Protestant teachings to be different from Roman Catholic teachings, because they wanted the Roman Catholic Church to clarify its teachings so that Mary would never be put in a position of intervening or mediating. Otherwise they had no substantive differences with the Roman Catholic Church on this topic.

Most of the dogmas about Mary that we associate with the Roman Catholic Church have long historical roots, but they were not official until very recently. The two primary dogmas about Mary are the Immaculate Conception (that Mary was sinless from the moment she was conceived) and the Assumption of Mary (that Mary was assumed into heaven at the end of her life, like Elijah was). I said above that Luther held that Mary was sinless from birth. Although we can trace that teaching back as early as Justin Martyr in the second century, it wasnt a mandatory article of faith for Roman Catholics until 1854, when the pope officially declared it as a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church. Similarly, we can trace the opinion that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven at the end of her life back to the very early years. Gregory of Tours, who died in AD 594, advocated this as a doctrine of the church, but it wasnt until 1950 that the pope declared it an official dogma of the Roman Catholic Church. Martin Luther definitely would have agreed with the content of both dogmas, and John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli probably would have also.

In the Orthodox churches, these are widely held beliefs, but not official dogmas.

The Roman Catholic Church has not promulgated an official dogma that Mary is a coredemptrix with Christ, but so far as I know, it does not prohibit anyone from thinking that.