The Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary
August 15 is celebrated as the Assumption of Mary by the Roman Catholic Church. This is the belief that Mary was bodily assumed into heaven - either instead of, or after, her death (the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches differ in their traditions). This belief is obviously extra-scriptural, as Scripture itself is silent on whether or not the Blessed Virgin Mary was assumed into heaven - thus we cannot say, “Thus says the Lord” one way or the other. Many early Lutherans retained the Feast of the Assumption in the liturgical calendar, while recognizing it as a speculation rather than a dogma. However, the Pope Pius XII dogmatized this belief in 1950 in his decree Munificentissimus Dei, thus imposing it as doctrine upon Roman Catholics.
The Assumption and its shift from speculation to pious belief to defined Roman Catholic dogma is similar to that of the Immaculate Conception. This is the belief that Mary was conceived in such a way as to protect her from original sin, which enabled her womb to be a sterile, holy environment in which to conceive our Lord. As with the Assumption, since it isn’t taught in Scripture, it is a historical question. It is within the realm of pious speculation. It might be true. It might be false. It might be partly true. We have no specific revelation on the matter. We cannot say, “Thus says the Lord” one way or the other.
Martin Luther’s beliefs on the Assumption are a subject of scholarly debate. But when it comes to the Immaculate Conception, he certainly believed that the Blessed Virgin Mary was somehow protected from sin for the sake of her Son in her unique vocation as mother of God. The sainted professor Kurt Marquart taught in the classroom that in many ways, Mary is an exceptional to the rule, and allowed for the possibility that she was given special treatment for the sake of preserving Jesus from original sin. Clearly, we are dealing with an unrevealed mystery.
However, in 1854, nearly a century before Pius XII dogmatized the Assumption, Pope Pius IX took these speculations concerning Mary’s conception and dogmatized them. Thus since that time, Roman Catholics have not been at liberty to believe other than what his decree Ineffibilis Deus teaches. For us Lutherans, Scripture is the only infallible rule and norm of the faith, and thus we are free to believe or deny such things as the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception so long as we do not make our speculations binding upon consciences.
One area where Lutherans and Roman Catholics agree is that Blessed Mary is the mother of God. This is really a simple syllogism. 1) Jesus is God. 2) Mary is Jesus’ mother. 3) Mary is mother of God. There should be no debate on this issue. It is one of the beautiful implications of the mystery of the Trinity. For Mary not to be mother of God, she must either: 1) Not be our Lord’s mother (as might be confessed by Docetists), or 2) Jesus is not God (as confessed by the Arians. Both heresies are contrary to Scripture.
A few years ago, several of us were in an online discussion with a particular LCMS pastor who was, shall we say, not part of the Gottesdienst Crowd. He scolded us for referring to Mary as mother of God. He begrudgingly conceded the syllogism, but still argued that we were somehow going beyond Scripture, as St. Elizabeth referred to her cousin as “the mother of my Lord.” Of course, the discussion went on about the meaning of “Lord.” We could have saved a lot of time and keystrokes had our friend known his church history better. For this argument had played at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. The title “mother of God” smoked out the Nestorians, and to this day it remains a helpful Shibboleth to test Christological orthodoxy.
In fact, our Book of Concord (FC SD 8:24) refers to the Blessed Virgin Mary as “mother of God.” Our interlocutor tried to wriggle out of this by claiming that the German of the Book of Concord that specifically says “Gottes Mutter - literally “God’s mother”) is not authoritative, but rather the Greek upon which the term is based (Θεοτόκος - Theotokos) - which means “the one who gives birth to God.”
The fathers of the Church, Doctor Luther, our Book of Concord, the centuries’ long train of our Lutheran theologians right down to our time teach this biblical and confessional truth that Mary is the mother of God.
Today’s feast is described in Lutheran Service Book as “St. Mary, Mother of our Lord.” Certainly, “mother of our Lord” isn’t wrong. But it is weak. Nestorius was willing to go that far. But our unequivocal tradition is that we are bold to say that Mary is mother of God, for Jesus is God. We are willing to say what neo-Arians (such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses) and modern Docetists (like spiritualists and Unitarians) will not confess. When it comes to making an orthodox confession, we should strive for non-inclusivity, as this isn’t about making everybody feel part of the club. That’s not the purpose of confessional theology.
And this is one small illustration of why church history is so important - especially the Early Church and Reformation eras.
Another anecdote that illustrates the implications of the study of Church History: a fellow first year seminarian was on the AR (Alternate Routes) curriculum at Concordia Theological Seminary - Fort Wayne. We were in the cafeteria, and he was wondering why our chapel had a crucifix and not a plain cross. We had been discussing this in Dr. Weinrich’s Early Church class - which was required by all MDiv students, but was not required by AR students (who were also not required to study the Biblical languages). After a brief recap of what we discussed in class, my classmate was grateful, and said that he had never heard this before. From that moment on, I have been opposed to all of the various plans to truncate theological education. Another classmate began as an AR student, but decided to transfer to the MDiv program because he wanted to get as much theological education as possible. He remains a faithful pastor and respected theologian to this day.
There is a strain within American Christianity that eschews the study of history and historical theology. “Can’t we just read the Bible?” Of course, let’s read the Bible - every word of it, many times. Let’s pore over it and study it in the original languages. And let’s read it along with the Early Church and the Reformers. Let’s hear the Word preached by Chrysostom and Augustine and Luther and Weinrich. Let’s stand on the shoulders of our beloved fathers in the faith. Let’s also study it through the lenses of Arius and Nestorius, lest we too fall into heresy.
Or as a board member of the Lutheran high school that I used to serve put it: “These kids don’t need all that Book of Concord stuff, they just need to know that Jesus loves them.” The “Book of Concord stuff” that I was teaching them was the Small and Large Catechisms.
This dearth of theological depth has left a gap that can only be filled by emotion. And in modern American Christianity, this is proving to be a disaster.
I find that younger people are often ignorant about history in general, not only church history. And it is little wonder. For decades, the study of history has been whittled away and increasingly replaced by disjointed factoids and political propaganda. In my own generation, being in elementary school in the 1970s, my parents were baffled to learn that we no had classes called History and Civics. I had no idea what my parents were talking about when they told me what they studied at my age. Instead, we had a class called “Social Studies.” I remember my grandfather being scandalized at how much US History I did not know about (and my knowledge was encyclopedic compared to university, high school, and grade school students today).
This recent brief article from Memoria Press’s “The Classical Teacher” (Late Summer 2019 issue) called “Should Schools Teach History” is illustrative. I encourage every reader to follow the link and read this piece! The author, Martin Cothran, points out that in 2014, only “eighteen percent of American high school kids were proficient in U.S. history” and in 2012, “eighty-eight percent of elementary school teachers considered teaching history a low priority.”
I believe this is by design - as the founders of the progressive model openly told us in their theories on education. Progressive (vs. Classical) education does not train young people for critical thinking, but rather to be obedient citizens and cogs in a machine. It should be no shock to us today, after generations of this approach to Social Studies vs. History, that we have university students who are woefully ignorant, who cannot tell you what century the American Revolution was fought, or even find their own state on a map. It should shock no-one that a majority of millennials in America are amendable to Socialism.
During the near riots that we had in New Orleans a couple years ago over our historical monuments, I had many interactions with young anti-monument protesters - some of whom were openly Communist Antifa terrorists. Many were university students. I posed the same question to many of them, and not a single one of them had read a book, an article, or even a Wikipedia entry on the historical figures represented by the over century-old statues. But what’s worse, they didn’t care. Their ignorance was worn like a badge of honor. What mattered to them was emotion.
This is the culture we live, work, and minister in. History is crucial, and what history could be more crucial than the history of the kingdom of God?
We must continue to teach Church History and not short-circuit our theological education. It is crucial that every pastor in our synod rigorously study church history, especially the Early Church and Reformation periods. Every pastor must have intimately studied every word of the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions. There is no excuse for a man to be in the pulpit who is ignorant of the Trinitarian and Christological controversies of the Church’s first centuries. There is no excuse for pastors who never crack open their Books of Concord (some even boast about how they use it as a doorstop, because they’re so relevant). There is no excuse for an LCMS pastor to be aping the theological argument of Nestorius.
Some of our early Lutheran fathers celebrated August 15 as the Assumption of Mary, but others instead celebrated it as the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, honoring the traditional date of her falling asleep in the Lord, based upon the saving work of her holy Son, as she herself confessed as “God my Savior.” As to whether or not her body was received into heaven in an extraordinary way, we cannot say dogmatically one way or the other. As to the Blessed Virgin Mary being the mother of God, there is no way that an orthodox Christian can deny this reality.
Let us boldly confess Christ as true God and true Man by reflecting upon the mystery of the Incarnation, and the fact that we, like the great saints of history, will fall asleep in Jesus, our God and Savior. Let us know the history of the great saints of the Church and the theology of their bold confession. And let us follow in their train and join in their saving confession of our Lord and God. For ultimately, that is why we celebrate feasts and festivals and days of commemoration in the Church - especially today’s feast which is a clear confession of our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and true Man: The Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God.