Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Not Contradictory, but Complimentary

I received an email from a gentleman yesterday morning, who informed me that our Society's Rule was contradictory, since, in his estimation, Rule 1 is contradicted by Rule 7 (you can read our Rule in the right sidebar). He stated:
"Your Society begins its list of rules by confessing Holy Scripture as the sole norm or judge, but you go on to negate that with your Rule 7, which is not based on Holy Scripture at all, but purely on tradition, and in fact directly contradicts what Holy Scripture teaches us about Mary. How can you guys claim that you confess Holy Scripture as the sole norm or judge, but then go on to confess against what Holy Scripture declares so clearly, that Mary gave birth to other sons and daughters, as recorded in Matthew 1:25; 12:46-47; 13:55-56; Mark 3:31-32; 6:3; Luke 2:7; 8:20-21; John 7:3?
I must preface my response by noting that I completely understand where this gentleman is coming from, as I used to adhere to this same argumentation, using these same Scripture passages to refute this silly notion of the perpetual virginity of St. Mary. Indeed, I was so convinced of this that, when I first learned that Martin Luther himself confessed the perpetual virginity of St. Mary years ago, I began to question whether or not being a Lutheran was for me. I really struggled with that. How could Luther, who had become my theological hero during my mid-teens, after bouncing around from this or that Protestant denomination during my childhood, betray me so? How could the king of Sola Scriptura get this one so blatantly wrong? It's right there in black-and-white, for crying out loud! Jesus had brothers and sisters. His mother could not have possibly remained a virgin.

Interestingly, the thing that saved me from leaving Lutheranism and allowed me to cut Luther a little slack on this issue was an LCMS pastor telling me, "Remember, Luther was just a man and capable of error. He accomplished a lot of good in the Reformation he led, but he wasn't able to shake off everything in his Roman Catholic upbringing." That made sense to me at the time. Luther's confession of the perpetual virginity of St. Mary was just an unfortunate vestige of his past.

Many years later, I found myself scratching my head in confusion over this issue again. I was at seminary now, studying Pieper, who, like Luther and, as I learned, nearly every other orthodox Lutheran since him, including Walther, confessed the perpetual virginity of St. Mary. Suddenly, the contention that Luther's confession of the perpetual virginity of St. Mary was due to him still having a little Roman Catholicism running through his veins didn't make as much sense. What of the Lutherans who followed in his train? Were they somehow infected with this vestige of Luther's Roman Catholic past? Why couldn't any of these Lutherans shake this infection?

To make matters worse, I then learned that even Calvin and Zwingli confessed the perpetual virginity of St. Mary. That really had me confused, since these guys led their own 16th-century Reformations, which, to one degree or another, were focused on wiping the slate clean from any vestige of Roman Catholicism. How in the world could these guys allow this anti-Scriptural, purely traditional belief to stand pat in their churches? They had no problem teaching something completely new regarding the Holy Sacraments and many other doctrines, but somehow retained this doctrine? It made no sense.

The explanations given to this confused seminarian at the time revealed that this is something about which Lutherans in general are confused. Some remain wholeheartedly convinced that Holy Scripture clearly rejects the notion of St. Mary's perpetual virginity, relegating the fact that nearly every orthodox Lutheran right into the early part of the 20th-century confessed this to a sort-of perpetual clinging-to of a tradition long ago proven false. Others vehemently defend this belief, pointing out the absurdity they find in charging nearly four hundred years' worth of orthodox Lutherans with missing the boat on something their opponents find so clearly refuted by Holy Scripture. The solution? Pious opinion. You believe what your piety allows and I'll believe what my piety allows, and we'll all live happily ever after.

That remains the solution to this day, although the "we'll all live happily ever after" part is a bit far-fetched. We don't really live happily ever after holding different pious opinions in this matter, which is evidenced by the fact that, whenever this subject comes up for discussion among fellow Lutherans, sparks begin to fly. Those who continue to confess what is confessed in our Lutheran Confessions, and what was confessed by nearly every orthodox Lutheran right into the early 20th-century, like those of us in the SSP, are looked at with suspicious eyes by fellow Lutherans, who are convinced that Holy Scripture rebukes our pious opinion, such as the gentleman who sent me the email.

Be that as it may, this gentleman's charge that our Socitey's Rules 1 and 7 are contradictory is patently false. In fact, it is precisely because of what we have written in Rule 1 that members of our Society confess what is found in Rule 7. The two are not contradictory, but wholly complimentary. We do not approach the Holy Scriptures and attempt to interpret them in isolation, in a "Me and My Bible" fashion, but rather through the guidance of the Church and her Holy Doctors and Fathers throughout the centuries. This is the true Lutheran approach to the Scriptures, as our own Symbols testify clearly. We approach and interpret Holy Writ through the lens of our own Lutheran Confessions, who approach and interpret the same through the lens of the Holy Doctors and Fathers of the Church through the ages, so that, as our Rule 1 states, "the Lutheran confessors could say that 'the churches among us do not dissent from the catholic church in any article of faith.'"

Thus, what this gentleman, and others like him, find so clearly taught in Holy Scripture is definitely not in keeping with the hermeneutical approach adhered to by Lutherans. The list of Scripture passages he provides as proving his case against the perpetual virginity of St. Mary, which were near and dear to my own heart in proving the same case many moons ago, were simply never interpreted in this fashion by our own Lutheran Fathers or the Doctors and Fathers of the church catholic who preceded them. On the contrary, many modern Lutherans would no doubt be shocked to learn that the church catholic has been well aware of the attempt to use these same Scripture passages to refute the perpetual virginity of St. Mary since the earliest centuries following our Lord's first Advent among us, and that she rejected those who attempted to do so. In other words, it is not as though the church catholic was ignorant of these Scripture passages until post-Enlightenment, liberal "scholars" began pointing to them and using them to deny the perpetual virginity of St. Mary, something that our own Lutheran fathers at the time wholeheartedly rejected. Rather, they knew these Scripture passages very well and interpreted them as doing no damage to the catholic tradition upholding the perpetual virginity of St. Mary, but as actually supporting the same, an approach the members of our Society continue to take today.

All of that said, our Society is perfectly content in following the approach laid forth by Pieper in his Christian Dogmatics, where he states that, while the default position among Lutherans is to confess the perpetual virginity of St. Mary, a Lutheran who does not confess the same, but whose Christology is orthodox in all other respects, is not to be regarded as a heretic. Even so, with Pieper, we must emphatically object when fellow Lutherans, who believe that their superior exegesis leads them to deny the perpetual virginity, disparage us, pointing out that the very Scripture passages they cite do not, in fact, provide the decisive proof against the perpetual virginity they believe (cf. Pieper's Christian Dogmatics, Vol. 2, 308-309; note, in the original German, Pieper provides three pages worth of footnotes to prove that the belief in St. Mary's perpetual virginity is orthodox).

Contrary to what some seem to believe, while members of our Society do confess the perpetual virginity of St. Mary, and are not shy about pointing out that this is the traditional, Lutheran view (and the traditional view of the church catholic through the ages), we do not exist to make this a doctrine upon which the church stands or falls. Neither is it our goal to promote ourselves as superior Lutherans for adhering to this doctrine. We readily recognize that there are many fine Lutherans who do not share our belief in this matter, and we are glad to call them brothers. We are not here looking for a fight over this at all. Our Society is about much more than the perpetual virginity of St. Mary, as our Rule makes clear.

At the same time, we will readily defend ourselves against false charges, such as the one that prompted this post. Our Rule does not contradict itself. Rule 1 and Rule 7 are complimentary. We interpret Holy Scripture with the guidance of the Church through the ages, which all confessional Lutherans must admit allows for our confession of St. Mary's perpetual virginity, even if they are not inclined to confess the same, since, well, it is that same guidance that lead our own Lutheran Fathers to make this same confession. You do not have to confess the perpetual virginity with us, but neither can you disparage us for confessing it - at least, not if you claim the name Lutheran. 

Pax Christi vobiscum!     


  1. Thank you Fr. Thomas! I wish I had had this concise apologia a few months back....

    But, yes...'What you said!'
    - Fr Jay Watson SSP

  2. Thank you, Dean Fr. Messer, for the eloquent and solid defense of what the early Church fathers, and those of the Church's Augustana spear-point, believed to be true. If one examines the Scriptures carefully and prayerfully, I believe the concept of the ever-Virgin Mary can be supported with cheerful confidence and with no little ease. Gentlemen interpreters of the Bible, meanwhile, have a burden to explain on what basis their gray-matter take, exceeds the analytical grasp of Messrs. Luther, Selnecker and Pieper.

    I think Fr. Watson summed it up best. Obviously, my problem is I run off the mouth, whenever I get the chance. It's complementary to ever-listening and ever-scribbling in a notepad, at work.

    Herr Doktor SSP

  3. Thank you for this post, Pastor Messer. Many of the issues you faced in dealing with this teaching are similar to mine. Although for me, the issue was really on the back burner until just a few years ago when I really looked into seeing what the fuss was all about. Strangely enough, a closer reading of the Confessions & of Luther & Gerhard have led me to accept, albeit with some questions still, what the Church has taught on the Blessed Virgin in this regard.

    1. Sorry, should have given my full name.

      Rev. George Naylor

    2. Those wondering about the dear Rev. Fr. Naylor's colorful atavar should not be left in any undue suspense.

      Historians have determined that it was the alternative not selected by Constantine just prior to the critical engagement at Milvian Bridge, for a perfectly understandable reason. His vision had gone on to warn, "... And with THIS sign, you'll be conquered."

      Your (unworthy) servant,
      Herr Doktor

  4. It's quite true about Constantine's vision. However, we also have to remember the vision St. John has in Revelation 23: 4, "When you see the little bear from the windy city take the series, you shall know that the end is nigh." ;)

    Rev. George Naylor