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Apologists Make Mistakes Too!

Tim Staples

In researching and writing my new book, Behold Your Mother – A Biblical and Historical Defense of the Marian Doctrines, I not only lay out an exhaustive defense of the Marian doctrines against scores of misguided attacks, but I also point out some errors going in the other direction. Well-intentioned Catholics—even some Catholic apologists—have presented things concerning Protestant beliefs that are just plain wrong.

And error is error no matter the source.

I shouldn’t tell you this, but I will. Please, keep this between us, okay? But one of those apologists I had to correct, is named Tim Staples. But don’t tell anybody about that.

So now you know.

Here are two examples of what I am talking about:

Luther Was Not Buried Beneath An Image of Our Lady

As I point out in my book, Martin Luther did retain much of his Catholic Mariology after having left the Church. But there are also not a few myths about what Luther did and taught floating about in Catholic circles. If you haven’t heard this one yet, you will. It has been written about and spoken about by quite a few Catholics, and I have personally heard some very well-known apologists state it as true as well.

The myth claims there to be a relief of the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary with an accompanying inscription by Peter Vischer the Younger over the tomb of Martin Luther in the Wittenberg “Schlosskirche” (“Palace Church”) where he is buried.

“See?” The argument goes. “Luther believed in Mary assumed into heaven and crowned as Queen of Heaven and Earth!”

Unfortunately, it is actually a memorial plaque for Henning Gode, the last Catholic Prior of that church, who died in 1521. Same building, but not connected to Luther.

Luther did believe in Mary as Mother of God, Perpetual Virgin, and even, at least at times in his writings, free from all sin, though he goes both ways on this one, but there is nary a hint of Mary’s assumption.

Calvin Did NOT Believe in the Perpetual Virginity of Mary

This second myth is even more widespread, but I must qualify it. There can be no doubt that John Calvin, at least at some point in his career, believed in the Perpetual Virginity of Mary. But to place him on the same level of Luther, Zwingli and Wesley is misguided. It is not to paint the entire picture accurately. And this is why.

The error seems to have stemmed from a misapplication of some comments from John Calvin’s 3-volume set, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Transl. by Rev. William Pringle (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2009). I have found numerous publications in which Calvin’s commentaries on Matt. 13:55 and Matt. 1:25, in volume 1, are used to prove the point. In these sections of his commentary he takes Helvidius to task for assuming Mary had other children because of the mention of the “brothers of the Lord,” in Matthew 13:55, and for assuming “Joseph knew her not until…” meant that Joseph then was being said to have known Mary conjugally after Christ was born.

Calvin correctly and sternly (in good Calvin fashion) teaches the “brothers” of the Lord may well be a Hebrew idiom representing “cousins” or some other extended relative. And he also points out that the “until” of Matt. 1:25 really says nothing about what happened after Mary gave birth. It was used there to emphasize the virginity of Mary up “until” that point.

Don’t get me wrong here. This is good stuff from John Calvin. He honestly exegetes these texts and corrects not only Helvidius, but, no doubt, some of his own confreres who were presuming what was not in these texts. That’s a good thing!

But unfortunately, many Catholics have taken these two sections of Calvin’s commentary out of context and claim it to mean he agreed with the Perpetual Virginity of Mary out of hand in this commentary. But in fact, he never says that. He simply concludes these Scriptures to be silent on the matter. They prove neither yeah nor nay when it comes to Mary’s perpetual virginity.

My thanks to Dave Armstrong for pointing out to me something I did not know. There is a sermon that John Calvin preached on the Harmony of the Gospels (sermon 22) where he explicitly defends the PVBVM, but this occurred earlier in his career. So again, there is no doubt that Calvin at least earlier in his career believe this Catholic dogma.

However, what I found in researching for my book was that if we read further in Calvin’s commentary and head over to Luke 1:34, in volume 2 of this same work I mentioned above, he seems to deny what he had earlier accepted as true.

Luke 1:34 is the famous text where Mary, having heard God’s invitation for her to become the Mother of God through the message of the Archangel Gabriel, asks the obvious question: “How shall this be since I know not man?” In other words, “How is this going to happen since I do not plan on having conjugal relations?” For more details on this and more, get my book!

Calvin’s commentary on this text reads: “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 have poured contempt on the holy covenant of marriage…”

Notice here, he not only denies this text could be used to prove Mary had a vow of Perpetual Virginity before her marriage to St. Joseph, but that this “would have poured contempt on the holy covenant of marriage.” This would seem to deny the Perpetual Virginity of Mary itself as a possible consideration for Calvin, and it seems to be a change in Calvin’s thinking on the matter.

So what may have informed this change? I argue, it may well have been his understanding of the “covenant” of marriage. Remember, John Calvin did not believe marriage to be a sacrament that is ratified as such at the altar of a church and then consummated on the wedding night. It was a “covenant” conditioned upon certin essential things, including the exchange of vows, a minister present, public witnesses, and the consummation. In his commentary on Eph. 5:28, for example, he says:

Marriage was appointed by God on the condition that the two should be one flesh; and that this unity may be the more sacred, he again recommends it to our notice by the consideration of Christ and his church.

The consummation, for Calvin, was essential to marriage. But even more, in his commentary on Eph. 5:31:

And they two shall be one flesh. They shall be one man, or, to use a common phrase, they shall constitute one person; which certainly would not hold true with regard to any other kind of relationship. All depends on this, that the wife was formed of the flesh and bones of her husband. Such is the union between us and Christ, who in some sort makes us partakers of his substance. ‘We are bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh,’ (Ge 2:23;) not because, like ourselves, he has a human nature, but because, by the power of his Spirit, he makes us a part of his body, so that from him we derive our life.

If “all is dependent upon this,” it is no wonder that Calvin (and this followers today) would eventually come to view the PVBVM as out of the question.

And one more thought: The commentary in question here, at least the French version of it that Calvin himself translated from his orginal Latin text, was so translated in 1563, just one year before Calvin died. Here, I think, we get a glimpse of Calvin’s final words on the matter.

Lesson Learned?

I suppose we will always get things wrong from time to time no matter how hard we try to be accurate in our presentations of the truth. The Pope and the bishops in union with the Pope are infallible—and they alone. And even they in very limited circumstances. But I know one thing that has come from the research I did for the book. I am personally more committed than ever, or at least committed anew, to re-doubling my efforts to be as accurate as I can be whether I am presenting Catholic teaching itself, or what those outside of the Catholic Church either teach as doctrine or claim about ours.


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