Calvin and the Marian Doctrines

Calvin did not accept the Marian doctrines. Without wanting to sound too rancorous, I have to say that anti-Protestant polemics can be the worst.

I’m sorry. I know that’s a very one-sided thing to say, but I encounter anti-Protestant polemics more than anti-Catholic polemics, because I’m not Roman Catholic. Sometimes the phenomenon goes by the name “Catholic apologetics,” as though it’s really a pro-Catholic thing, but that’s not how some of these warriors-for-Rome present themselves. They’re about claiming scalps in arguments.

I love some Catholic theologians and philosophers – and Catholic people in general. So I’m not going to refer to these people as just “Catholic scholars.” It would be unfair to Catholic scholars in general to lump them all together, which is why I keep open a category for anti-Protestant polemics, separate from Catholic scholarship. It’s a let-down for me, because some of the finest work in philosophical theology today has been produced by Roman Catholic Scholars (think Brian Leftow, Brian Davies, Edward Feser – EDIT: My mistake, Brian Leftow is not Catholic. He’s Anglican. But he sure writes like the best Catholic philosophers), so to turn from such fine minds and work to online blunt-axe-swinging warriors is a bit like swallowing the cheapest bourbon and cola money can buy after sampling a fine port.

That somewhat frustrated preamble aside, here’s what moved me to write this post. The other day I saw yet another anti-Protestant polemicist make the familiar claim: “Most Protestants would be surprised to learn that all the early Reformers accepted the Marian doctrines.” That’s not a direct quote, but it’s close (the part about all the early Reformers was central to the claim), and I’ve seen the claim made numerous times.

Supposing it were true, I’m not really sure what the argument is supposed to be (if there is one). That Protestants should believe something just because the Reformers did? That Protestants are supposed to view the Reformers in the same way Catholics view the Pope? At best it’s simply an appeal to authority, but unless the Reformers offered good reasons to believe the Marian doctrines, there’s no good reason for Protestants to be impressed by the fact that they believed the Marian doctrines. After all, the Reformers were recently Catholic, and habits die hard. Luther trained as a priest, Calvin was employed as a Bishop’s clerk at age 12 and was initially headed for the priesthood until his father changed his mind and had him train as a lawyer instead. These were people raised to adulthood as Catholics, so it wouldn’t be surprising if they held some Catholic theology.

But when anti-Protestant polemicists make this comment, and in particular when they list the name of John Calvin as someone who accepted the Marian doctrines, I do wonder if they are saying it because of their own broad knowledge of what Calvin said, or just because an anti-Protestant website supplied a couple of quotes. On the basis of my recent conversation (and others like it), I suspect the latter. Even at the popular level of online Catholic apologetics (some of which is far from innocent in this particular error), there are some – but not enough – who are willing to speak up about anti-Protestant rhetoric that repeats this false claim about Calvin. More of them need to do this. But if I can do anything to help put out the fire of such gossip about the dead, I am happy to do so.

What are the Marian Doctrines?

When I talk about the Marian doctrines, I am talking about those things that Roman Catholics believe about Mary, the mother of Jesus, which are not usually believed by other Christians (although some of them are believed by Eastern Orthodox Christians). Specifically, I mean the following six doctrines:

The Immaculate Conception: Mary, unlike the rest of humanity, was conceived without original sin.

Perpetual virginity. This is the doctrine that although Mary was legally married to Joseph, she did not have a sexual relationship with him and she remained a virgin her whole life. This doctrine is sometimes construed in terms of purity, so that if Mary had had a normal marriage to Joseph, this would have somehow diminished her purity or holiness.

The sinlessness of Mary. This is the doctrine that not only was Mary conceived without original sin, but she also committed no actual sins in her life.

Bodily Assumption: Mary was taken up into heaven at the end of her earthly life. Some Catholics (and Eastern Orthodox) teach that she first died and was then resurrected and assumed into heaven. Others (and in my experience this has seemed to be the majority view among Roman Catholics) teach that she never died but was taken up into heaven at the time when she would have died.

Coronation: After being bodily taken into heaven, Mary was crowned as the “Queen of Heaven.”

Mediatrix: Lastly, Mary is a mediatrix (the feminine of mediator), who is able to hear us when we make petitions for her to offer prayers on our behalf to God. This is probably the most visible of the Marian doctrines today as Catholics worldwide offer prayers such as the Rosary, in which they ask Mary to pray for us, including such prayers of devotion as “Hail, Holy Queen.” As a young Catholic I prayed many Rosaries. This (prayers to Mary – not the Rosary in particular) is a practice that appears to have originated in the second half of the third century.

There may be further views on Mary and terms used for Mary in Roman Catholic thought that are generally absent from Protestant thought (e.g. referring to Mary as “co-redemptrix” or speaking of her as an “Ark” of the new covenant), but I have listed the main Marian doctrines here. When I ask whether or not Calvin held to the Marian doctrines, these are the ones I mean. It would be sneaky, after all, to find some possible, albeit ambiguous, support in Calvin for one of these doctrines, and then to proclaim that Calvin held “the Marian doctrines.”

Did Calvin affirm the Marian doctrines?

With this short list of the Marian doctrines in mind, let’s turn to the writings of John Calvin and ask whether or not he believed these doctrines to be true. The short story is that in some cases he clearly did not, and in the remaining cases there is no good evidence that he did.

The Immaculate Conception (and sinlessness) of Mary

As far as I know, Calvin does not comment directly on whether or not Mary was subject to original sin. Certainly he had no need to believe that Mary was immaculately conceived in order for Jesus to be free of original sin. After all, Calvin held to federal headship, believing that Adam was like a legal representative of humanity when he sinned, and that is why his sin is imputed to us. Calvin did not write that sin was somehow transmitted biologically.

Although he did not comment explicitly on her conception, Calvin did voice his disagreement with Rome’s view that Mary was without sin. The Council of Trent was a Roman Catholic Council held in part to define Catholic teaching over and against that of Protestant groups, and to condemn Protestant teaching. Trent’s Canon 23 reads as follows:

lf any one saith, that a man once justified can sin no more, nor lose grace, and that therefore he that falls and sins was never truly justified; or, on the other hand, that he is able, during his whole life, to avoid all sins, even those that are venial,-except by a special privilege from God, as the Church holds in regard of the Blessed Virgin; let him be anathema.

Calvin responded to Trent in his work Acts of the Council of Trent with the Antidote. Responding to Canon 23, Calvin wrote:

As to the special privilege of the Virgin Mary, when they produce the celestial diploma we shall believe what they say: for to what do they here give the name of the Church, but just to the Council of Clermont? Augustine was certainly a member of the Church, and though he in one passage chooses, in order to avoid obloquy, rather to be silent respecting the blessed Virgin, he uniformly, without making her an exception, describes the Whole race of Adam as involved in sin. Nay, he even almost in distinct terms classes her among sinners, when writing to Marcellinus, he says, They err greatly who hold that any of the saints except Christ require not to use this prayer, “Forgive us our debts.” In so doing, they by no means please the saints whom they laud. Chrysostom and Ambrose, who suspect her of having been tempted by ambition, were members of the Church. All these things I mention for no other end but to let my readers understand that there is no figment so nugatory as not to be classed by these blockheads among the Articles of Faith.

Blockheads! The impartial reader can hardly take this as an approving remark. It is quite evident that Calvin did not share the Council’s view on Mary’s sinlessness, and, additionally, in his view some of the Church Fathers didn’t either.

Perpetual Virginity

Readers of Calvin’s exegesis may know (or at least I think they should believe) that he had a generous streak. By that I mean he didn’t claim victories over the meaning of biblical passages when he genuinely didn’t think the evidence was decisively in his favour. He was the guy who said “OK guys, it would be nice if this passage worked for us like you say it does, but no, it doesn’t actually say that.” We can see this in his Sermon on Matthew 1:22-25. Matthew 1:24-25 tells the reader that after Mary and Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant, “he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.”

Some people (in my own view, correctly) take this to mean that Joseph took Mary to be his wife but did not have sex with her until (ἕως οὗ, heos hou) after Jesus was born, at which point normal, healthy marital sexual relations would have ensued. This of course would deny the perpetual virginity of Mary. I won’t offer a defence of this view here (and it would be uncharitable to interpret this silence as though there is no case to be made). The interested reader can consult how heos hou is used throughout the New Testament. Similarly, “until she had born a son” is translated as “until she had brought forth her firstborn son” in some versions, suggesting that he was the first of many sons. But Calvin resists this interpretation of Matthew 1:25, even though it would have given him ammunition against Rome. Here is his reply:

There have been certain folk who have wished to suggest that from this passage (Matt 1:25) that the Virgin Mary had other children than the Son of God, and that Joseph then dwelt with her later; but what folly this is! For the gospel writer did not wish to record what happened afterwards; he simply wished to make clear Joseph’s obedience and to show also that Joseph had been well and truly assured that it was God who had sent His angel to Mary. He had therefore never dwelt with her nor had he shared her company… And besides this, our Lord Jesus Christ is called the first-born. This is not because there was a second or a third, but because the gospel writer is paying regard to the precedence. Scripture speaks thus of naming the first-born whether or not there was any question of the second. Thus we see the intention of the Holy Spirit. This is why to lend ourselves to foolish subtleties would be to abuse Holy Scripture, which is, as St. Paul says, “to be used for our edification.”1

Notice that in rejecting this interpretation of Matthew 1:25, Calvin does not deny that Mary and Joseph went on to have normal sexual relations. But he denies that this is what is taught here in this verse, the key words being “from this passage.” True or otherwise, a view on Joseph and Mary’s later sex life should not be inferred “from this passage.” Instead, Calvin says, the writer was actually silent about what happened afterwards, and was only trying to stress that Joseph was obedient and to note that Joseph had never slept with Mary. This was the Son of God in Mary’s womb. In the same way, Calvin does not affirm that there was no second-born son. He says, in the same spirit of generosity, that Jesus is not here called the firstborn son because there was a second or a third, but for another reason entirely, namely to indicate the “precedence” of Christ, even though there is no question of a second son raised here (and hence that question is not answered in the negative or the affirmative).

Unfortunately, many anti-Protestant polemicists reproduce this quote from Calvin, claiming that it shows he did believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary. While Calvin himself expressly wrote that the Evangelist wanted to say nothing here about whether or not Joseph and Mary had a normal marriage after Jesus’ birth, his Catholic abusers (which of course does not include all Catholic readers of Calvin) wish to read him has doing the opposite – making a claim about what happened after Jesus’ birth!

This is not the only time Calvin made it clear that he did not affirm or deny the virgin birth on the basis of this passage. In his commentary on this passage in Matthew, Calvin offers the following:

This passage afforded the pretext for great disturbances, which were introduced into the Church, at a former period, by Helvidius. The inference he drew from it was, that Mary remained a virgin no longer than till her first birth, and that afterwards she had other children by her husband. Jerome, on the other hand, earnestly and copiously defended Mary’s perpetual virginity. Let us rest satisfied with this, that no just and well-grounded inference can be drawn from these words of the Evangelist, as to what took place after the birth of Christ. He is called first-born; but it is for the sole purpose of informing us that he was born of a virgin. It is said that Joseph knew her not till she had brought forth her first-born son: but this is limited to that very time. What took place afterwards, the historian does not inform us. Such is well known to have been the practice of the inspired writers. Certainly, no man will ever raise a question on this subject, except from curiosity; and no man will obstinately keep up the argument, except from an extreme fondness for disputation.

The key here is “from these words.” Whatever case an opponent of Rome might have wanted to make, Calvin maintained, this passage does not make it, because this passage tells us nothing, he thought, one way or the other about whether or not Mary remained a virgin. He does, however, indicate that he does not think it is a subject we should be speculating about, given that Scripture does not give a clear indication on the subject.

Some (and again, I think, probably correctly) take Matthew 13:54-56 and similar passages to indicate that Mary and Joseph had other children. This passage reads “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us?” Those who interpret the passage this way take the brothers and sisters here to be other members of Jesus’ immediately family, including Joseph (assumed by the speakers here to be Jesus’ father), Mary his mother, his brothers, and his sisters. There are some who accept the meaning of “brothers” and “sisters,” but maintain that these were all children of Joseph to a former wife, not Mary. Calvin denies that this passage is proof that Mary gave birth to other children, since the Hebrew word (actually Aramaic, in this setting) that would have been used for “brothers” can have a range of meaning, so we therefore cannot say that Mary must have had other children on this basis. See his commentary on Matthew:

The word brothers, we have formerly mentioned, is employed, agreeably to the Hebrew idiom, to denote any relatives whatever; and, accordingly, Helvidius displayed excessive ignorance in concluding that Mary must have had many sons, because Christ’s brothers are sometimes mentioned.

Notice again Calvin’s conservatism. He does not claim that Mary had no other children, or that she did (although he uses “cousin” when referring to this and similar passages). What he says is that it is ignorance to claim that Mary must have had other children simply because Christ’s brothers are sometimes mentioned. This alone, he says, proves nothing.

But here, too, anti-Protestant websites have been guilty of quoting this remark from Calvin as though it proves that he believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary. If only they were as conservative and generous in their reading of Calvin as Calvin himself was in his reading of Scripture!

Lastly on the perpetual virginity of Mary, Calvin was just as careful to reign in over-zealous Catholic interpreters of the Bible as he was others, and it is here that he makes perhaps his most revealing comments. In Luke 1:34, right after Gabriel tells Mary that she is going to have a baby, we read, “Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?’,” “I am a virgin” is translated from Greek that literally means “I have not known a man.” Catholic interpreters have taken this saying of Mary to indicate a promise to remain a virgin in perpetuity. But true to form, Calvin pounces on this, too, noting that this is unfounded based on what is in the text. But in this case, Calvin goes further. He does not just say that the doctrine cannot be defended on the basis of this verse. He actually offers his view on the doctrine itself (namely that Mary committed to a life of virginity). See his commentary on this passage:

The conjecture which some have drawn from these words, that she had formed a vow of perpetual virginity, is unfounded and altogether absurd. She would, in that case, have committed treachery by allowing herself to be united to a husband, and would have poured contempt on the holy covenant of marriage; which could not have been done without mockery of God. Although the Papists have exercised barbarous tyranny on this subject, yet they have never proceeded so far as to allow the wife to form a vow of continence at her own pleasure. Besides, it is an idle and unfounded supposition that a monastic life existed among the Jews.

Not only does Calvin say that the claim that Mary committed herself to perpetual virginity is “unfounded” in this passage, but it is also “absurd” because to commit to perpetual virginity and to also take a husband would be an act of treachery against your husband, showing contempt for marriage, amounting to a mockery of God.

This is a striking claim. Here Calvin is speaking more strongly than before, not merely saying that a claim about Mary is not warranted based solely on the text, but he says, in effect, that it should be judged false. Surely Calvin did not believe that Mary engaged in treachery against Joseph. He is clearly targeting the “Papist” position here, which is that of the perpetual virginity of Mary. Who else, he asks, would be permitted by the church to be married and yet committed to virginity?

So although most of what Calvin said on the subject of Mary’s perpetual virginity is no more than a call to caution about claiming too much based on too little evidence, he did indicate (even if only once) that he looked unfavourably on the doctrine. Nowhere does he affirm the perpetual virginity of Mary.2

Bodily Assumption

When it comes to the next Marian doctrine, her bodily assumption into heaven, It is difficult to know where to look in Calvin’s work to show that what some Catholic apologists say about him is false. This is because there is no evidence anywhere in Calvin’s writings that he believed Mary had been bodily assumed into heaven. When people challenge Protestants by saying that Calvin “believed the Marian doctrines,” as far as I can tell they’ve heard somewhere that Calvin believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary (a claim that doesn’t appear to be warranted by the evidence), and then rather carelessly assumed that he had a “Catholic” view of Mary, like them, and probably held the Marian doctrines. But the bodily assumption is just invisible in Calvin’s writings. The most direct reference Calvin makes to this doctrine is where he points out – in somewhat ironic fashion – that this is what Catholics believed, thereby robbing themselves of the ability to produce relics of Mary’s body parts!

The belief that the body of the Virgin was not interred on earth, but was taken to heaven, has deprived them of all pretext for manufacturing any relics of her remains, which otherwise might have been sufficiently abundant to fill a whole churchyard.3

This mockery, admittedly, is not a direct statement about his own view of Mary’s bodily assumption, but to put it gently, it hardly helps the claim that Calvin believed it!

Coronation as Queen of Heaven

Just as in the case of the bodily assumption of Mary, you will search all of Calvin’s writings in vain for any comment supportive of the doctrine of the Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven. It simply isn’t there. I’ve looked! If anyone believes I have missed his support for the notion, please provide me with a source.

You can, however, find a reference to the title given to Mary by Roman Catholicism, “Queen of Heaven,” in Calvin’s work. And there, you can see just what he thought of it. In his commentary on the Magnificat, the thanksgiving prayer of Mary in Luke 1:46-50, Calvin noted the way Mary spoke of herself in such humble terms, and contrasted this with the way “papists” speak of her.

Hence we see how widely the Papists differ from her, who idly adorn her with their empty devices, and reckon almost as nothing the benefits which she received from God. They heap up an abundance of magnificent and very presumptuous titles, such as, “Queen of Heaven, Star of Salvation, Gate of Life, Sweetness, Hope, and Salvation.” Nay more, to such a pitch of insolence and fury have they been hurried by Satan, that they give her authority over Christ; for this is their pretty song, “Beseech the Father, Order the Son.” None of these modes of expression, it is evident, proceeded from the Lord. All are disclaimed by the holy virgin in a single word, when she makes her whole glory to consist in acts of the divine kindness. If it was her duty to praise the name of God alone, who had done to her wonderful things, no room is left for the pretended titles, which come from another quarter. Besides, nothing could be more disrespectful to her, than to rob the Son of God of what is his own, to clothe her with the sacrilegious plunder.

Conclusion

In light of the evidence, it’s galling that there are people making remarks to the effect that Calvin accepted the Marian doctrines. Perhaps people are just speaking loosely and carelessly, meaning that Calvin affirmed some of them. If that’s the case, then stop speaking loosely and carelessly. But even if that’s what you’re doing, which doctrines do you mean? I’ve seen some specifically claim that Calvin affirmed the perpetual virginity of Mary, but that’s not true. And he certainly didn’t affirm the others.

So let us restore truth and care to what is often a heated war of words. Say that Calvin was wrong. Fine. I think he was wrong about some things, too (his doctrine of hell and his theological anthropology, for example). That’s the decent thing to do. But let’s at least let Calvin be Calvin. He did not affirm the Marian doctrines.

Glenn Peoples

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  1. John Calvin, Sermon on Matthew 1:22-25, published in 1562 []
  2. I am grateful that at least one apologist for Catholic doctrine, Tim Staples, makes this admission publicly and calls other Catholics to avoid the error of claiming that Calvin affirmed the perpetual virginity of Mary. https://www.catholic.com/magazine/online-edition/apologists-make-mistakes-too []
  3. John Calvin, A Treatise on Relics (Edinburgh: Johnstone, Hunter & Co., 1870), 248. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/treatise_relics.v.html []

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