Stretching Out the Tension
Semper Virgo is like a middle-of-the-night Charley horse for modern Lutheranism. You’re sleeping peacefully and then all of a sudden you’re woken up by an innocuous, yet painful, reality. And the more you toss and turn the tighter it seems to grab you.
Semper Virgo (SV) refers to the historic Christian teaching on the perpetual virginity of Mary. In the Orthodox Church we pray multiple times during liturgy the following petition that expresses this belief:
Commemorating our most holy, pure, blessed, and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and ever virgin Mary, with all the saints, let us commit ourselves, and one another, and our whole life to Christ our God.
Pretty awesome prayer.
Most Lutherans are like me; I was very surprised in my study of Lutheran theology to learn that SV is certainly the position of Martin Luther and the Confessions too! Embarrassed, many a Lutheran is quick to point out that the Living tradition among Lutherans today is that SV is optional. However, the Formula of Concord and the Smalcald Articles both confess this dogma (and not as a mere option).
The living tradition of Lutheranism is in painful tension with the written tradition.
My former church body adopted something called the Brief Statement in 1932. It’s binding for congregations and any professional church worker. Regarding Scripture it says, “Hence the Holy Scriptures are the sole source from which all doctrines proclaimed in the Christian Church must be taken and therefore, too, the sole rule and norm by which all teachers and doctrines must be examined and judged.”
If Scripture is the sole source of all doctrines proclaimed by the Christian Church, then how can SV be one of those? Doesn’t the Bible say Jesus had brothers and sisters? Why does Luther believe it? Why do the Confessions confess it when they were so careful about these kinds of things?
"That the Son became man in this manner, that He was conceived, without the cooperation of man, by the Holy Ghost, and was born of the pure, holy and always Virgin Mary. Afterwards He suffered, died, was buried, descended to hell, rose from the dead, ascended to heaven, sits at the right hand of God, will come to judge the quick and the dead, etc., as the Creed of the Apostles, as well as that of St. Athanasius, and the Catechism in common use for children, teach." – The First Part concerning the Sublime Articles of the Divine Majesty, Smalcald Articles [Emphasis Mine]
"On account of this personal union and communion of the natures, Mary, the most blessed Virgin, bore not a mere man, but, as the angel [Gabriel] testifies, such a man as is truly the Son of the most high God, who showed His divine majesty even in His mother's womb, inasmuch as He was born of a virgin, with her virginity inviolate. Therefore she is truly the mother of God, and nevertheless remained a virgin."
– Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration VIII:24 [Emphasis Mine]
Here I think the Book of Concord is simply in line with the historic dogma of the Church. Why does it matter? Because it is true! She always remained a virgin and the Church has simply confessed that fact about the Mother of God.
Why the tension today? It seems to me that Sola Scriptura, in gutting the authority of the Church and setting Scripture over and against the Church, made it possible for a continual breaking with the historic understanding of the faith. As individuals we necessarily tend to approach the text of the Bible with new and different assumptions than what our predecessors had. Each generation lives in a different context than the last, and will have its own unique worldview and presuppositions about God, faith and life in general.
No matter what it is that you are reading, a text must always be interpreted. You’re either interpreting it in line with someone else's established tradition or starting a tradition of your own. My conclusion was that Lutheranism represented a new tradition, different from the traditions preceding it. (In case you were wondering the Holy Tradition found in the Orthodox Church is the original Christian tradition given by Christ and His Apostles.)
SV is interesting because in the Lutheran tradition asking the departed saints to pray for us had to go immediately, but Mary's perpetual virginity did not. I think it is actually easier to make a compelling argument from Scripture for invocation of the saints than for SV, but Luther doesn’t see it that way. Consider what Luther says in the same Smalcald Articles about invoking the saints:
The invocation of saints is also one of the abuses of Antichrist conflicting with the chief article, and destroys the knowledge of Christ. Neither is it commanded nor counseled, nor has it any example [or testimony] in Scripture, and even though it were a precious thing, as it is not [while, on the contrary, it is a most harmful thing], in Christ we have everything a thousandfold better [and surer, so that we are not in need of calling upon the saints]. And although the angels in heaven pray for us (as Christ Himself also does), as also do the saints on earth, and perhaps also in heaven, yet it does not follow thence that we should invoke and adore the angels and saints, and fast, hold festivals, celebrate Mass in their honor, make offerings, and establish churches, altars, divine worship, and in still other ways serve them, and regard them as helpers in need [as patrons and intercessors], and divide among them all kinds of help, and ascribe to each one a particular form of assistance, as the Papists teach and do. – Smalcald Articles II:2
Luther has no problem breaking with the past and redefining prayer by turning it into an act of worship that is directed to God alone. Yet for some reason he has no trouble with SV. Was it just his generation's collective worldview that still allowed for the belief in Mary's ever virginity? Does our culture, so enslaved to our sexual passions and out of touch with any kind of self-discipline just instantly balk at the idea of anyone remaining in their virginity for life - on purpose!?
Scripture Alone seems to mean something different today for Lutherans than it did for Luther and the authors of the Formula of Concord. Again, our perspective and our culture is much changed from that of the reformers who largely reinterpreted the Bible for themselves 500 years ago.
So which version of Sola Scriptura is right? Is it ours today, or is it Luther's or perhaps one of the other multitude of Protestant traditions? Perhaps they are all wrong and we have yet to come up with a completely accurate, truthful tradition? Maybe it will be a new church not yet to be born, or maybe no church will ever have it right, and we just need to settle for a mostly correct church. What a depressing reality, that anyone would need to settle for less than the whole Truth in the most important question of their existence. (How's that Charley Horse doing by the way?)
Some Lutherans today think SV actually teaches false doctrine, meaning that they have repudiated their own tradition; they have gone against the Confessions that should be above any reproach. Here are a couple examples of this. Taken from letters to the editor in the February 2018 edition of the Lutheran Witness:
“The cover of The Lutheran Witness (December 2017) and the article “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” are an insult to those who do not worship Mary. “Semper Virgo” is not taught in the Holy Bible. It is insisted upon by those with an insatiable desire to worship Mary and who cannot tolerate the mental images of Joseph making love to his wife. Far from being “tradition” this is false teaching which has its origins in crass paganism. What Christians “hold in good conscience” is what the Holy Bible teaches about Mary and nothing more. Luther held firmly to his “Ave Marias” and images of Mary throughout his life; he is to be pitied. What’s next? An issue dedicated to the theme: “A Lutheran Guide to Building Mary Shrines”? Please don’t send me a complimentary copy.” - Rev John Laatsch - Gillett, Wisconsin
“I’m not sure that the concept of the perpetual virginity of Mary is a viable option for Lutherans or any Bible student. The Scriptures don’t seem to know anything about it. A more likely explanation of the doctrine would be the confluence of two ideas current in the period after 100 AD: One would be the gradual elevation of Mary in pious popular opinion. The other would be the rise of Gnosticism, which believed the material world to be evil and, of course, sexual relations the worst of all. … The perpetual virginity idea is harmful since it demeans normal marital relations, highly esteemed in Jewish culture before Gnosticism took hold and corrupted the Church down to today. And imagine poor Joseph, likely a young guy around 18, doomed to live in a sexless relationship. No! The Bible doesn’t even hint about Mary’s virginity after the birth of Christ, and, given Jewish culture, the burden of proof is on those who think it does.” - Rev John A. Kenreich - Hampton Bays, New York
Beyond individuals here and there, most Lutherans don’t even know their confession of faith calls for a belief in the ever virginity of Mary. The idea seems completely contradictory to what it means to be Lutheran, some sort of crypto Catholic teaching invading the ranks.
Yet the tension remains. If Lutherans are united by a subscription to their Confessions because those documents teach the doctrine of Scripture then there’s a big problem. Either Lutherans have largely departed from a reading of Scripture that allows them to see Semper Virgo, like the Church before her always had, or there’s an error in the doctrinal conclusions of the Book of Concord.
Why is all this important? Allow me to steal a phrase from my old stomping grounds: It’s ALL about Jesus! Our theology about Mary actually tells us a lot about our own Christology. I have many examples of this, but we will start with the perpetual virginity issue.
The following paragraphs from Archbishop Dmitri do a wonderful job of telling us why, if we are basing things on Scripture and we care about Christ’s Divinity, we need to keep to the perpetual virginity of Mary in Christian doctrine. Let’s stretch out that cramp in our theology a bit:
"The Incarnation of God was foretold in the Old Testament. A race was chosen for a specific purpose: to produce a holy humanity from which God could take flesh. Mary is the one who, in the Lord's words, "heard the word of God and kept it." (Luke 11:28) Through her personal sinlessness she fulfilled all the hopes and prophecies of Israel. She figured greatly in the very prophecies, the most important of which is that of Isaiah: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel." (Isaiah 7:14)
The Church has always considered the following as prefigures or symbols of the role of the Theotokos in the Divine plan, and appoints them to be read on the eves of three of the feasts dedicated to her memory. The first is the story of Jacob's ladder, which refers to her being the means by which God chose to enter into the world physically. "He saw in his sleep a ladder standing upon the earth, and the top thereof touching heaven, the angels also of God ascending and descending by it". (Genesis 28:12)
Then from the Prophecy of Ezekiel are the words concerning her perpetual virginity: "And the Lord said unto me: This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it; because the Lord God of Israel hath entered in by it, and it shall be shut." (Ezekiel 44:2) The same is true of the burning bush seen by Moses: Mary contained in her womb the God-man, Jesus Christ, the God who is a consuming fire, and was not consumed.
The consequences of denying the Theotokos a part in the life of Christians are more serious than one may think in view of all its implications. Orthodox theology insists upon the two perfect natures of our Lord Jesus Christ; He was perfect God and perfect Man. The Virgin Mary communicated the humanity of the Incarnate God.
The redemption of the human race was possible through the union of God and man in Christ. De-emphasis of the sinlessness of Christ's Mother, insistence upon her having other children by Joseph (which cannot be demonstrated by the New Testament), and failure to remember her part in the history of the salvation of mankind have contributed to a general misunderstanding in some churches of the Incarnation in all its fullness and power.
Very closely related to the above-mentioned things is the denial of the virgin birth of Christ, a rather popular feature of present-day liberal theology. After the virgin birth, the next basic teaching under attack is the divinity of Christ, and His resurrection, and with that, the Holy Trinity Itself.
The Virgin Mary in the Orthodox view is not regarded as a mediatrix or co-redemptress. She is an intercessor for us, and the content of prayer addressed to her is a request for her intercession. The Orthodox concept of the Church is the basic reason for the invocation of the Theotokos and all the saints.
The Militant Church on earth and the Victorious Church in heaven are intimately bound together in love. If it is proper for one sinner to ask another sinner to pray for him, how much more fitting it must be to ask the saints already glorified and near the throne of God to pray for us. Surely, they know something of what goes on here, for else how could there be rejoicing in heaven over the conversion of one sinner? (Luke 15:10) The saints in heaven are equals of the angels (Luke 20:36), who are used by God in the accomplishment of His purpose (Acts 12:7)
There is scriptural evidence to support the traditional Orthodox attitude toward the Virgin Mary and the saints. The other equally valid parts of Tradition also afford abundant evidence of its soundness and importance." - Archbishop Dmitri (Royster)
Update (5/4/2018): listen to this podcast with Fr Evan Armatas of St Syridon's Greek Orthodox Church in Loveland, CO on Luke 2:4-7. He discusses how Orthodox Christians read and understand the Bible specifically relating to the birth of Jesus and the ever-virginity of Mary.