Monday, June 28, 2010

Semper Virgo.

More from the book.

Beyond the Scriptural data which clearly teaches the virginity of Mary at the time of Jesus' conception, there is the issue of the extra scriptural tradition of her perpetual virginity (semper virgo).  As it is well known, the perpetual virginity of Mary was taught widely in the early Church, some claim as early as St. Ireneaus in the late second century.[1]  The doctrine was also supported by Luther,[2] Zwingli,[3] Calvin,[4]and the later Lutheran Scholastics.[5]  The Protestant Reformers and Scholastics mainly drew their arguments in favor of Mary's perpetual virginity from St. Jerome's work, Against Helvidius.  This teaching continues to be upheld by the Roman Catholic Church to this day.[6]

The difficulty with this doctrine, is of course, that Jesus is clearly stated to have brothers and sisters in the Gospels (Mt 12:46, 13:55-56, Mk 3:31-34 Lk 8:19-21, Jn 2:12).  Other objections have been raised by verses such as "But he [Joseph] had no union with her until she gave birth to a son" (Mt. 1:25, Emphasis added).  In other words, this seems to suggest that Joseph did have sexual intercourse with Mary after Christ was born.  To these objections, Jerome argued that within their biblical idiom, the words "brothers" and "sisters" could also mean cousins or even just countrymen.[7]  It might also be argued that they were children from a previous marriage of Joseph.  In that Joseph does not appear in stories concerning Jesus' later ministry (unlike Mary) it is possible that Joseph was considerably older than his wife and could have been married to another at an earlier date.  Nevertheless, this is amounts to speculation.  Regarding the "not until" of Matthew 1:25, Jerome claimed that this was a mere turn of phrase, similar to "before he repented, he was cut off by death."[8]  Of course, the person in question never did repent and consequently saying "before" does not mean that they eventually repented. 

Jerome's main goal here was not simply to vindicate a tradition of the early Church.  Helvidius had claimed that virginity is no better than matrimony and children in the eyes of God.[9]  To prove this, he had stated that because Mary, one "blessed among women" had occupied both, that both must be equally good.  To counter this claim and laud the superiority of virginity, Jerome did his best to vindicate the tradition. 

Although Luther and the majority of the Lutheran tradition prior to the Enlightenment held to the doctrine of the perpetual virginity, Lutheran theology must be wary of accepting this idea for several reasons.[10]  The first difficulty is the lack of Scriptural data.  Although we do not have the space here to engage in a thorough exegesis of every passage that Jerome cites, let us posit for the sake of argument that all of his exegesis is essentially correct.  Even if we do this, his arguments do not positively vindicate the tradition on the basis of Scripture.  Jerome's argumentation style is rather ad hoc.  What he suggests is that the word usage of Scripture provides wiggle room. If one accepts that this wiggle room exists and therefore the possibility that the texts can be read in such a way as not to exclude perpetual virginity, the exegete can take the next step and read the text in light of the extra biblical tradition.  By these means, semper virgo becomes exegetically plausible.  If one was not motivated by imperative of the extra biblical tradition and one was simply left to make a decision on the question purely on the basis of Scripture alone, it is difficult to see how one would come to conclusion that Mary always remained a virgin.  Even Jesus' turning his mother over to the disciple John (Jn 19:26-7) is far too ambiguous to make this a positive of suggestion.  Again, read in isolation, there are any number of alternative reasons why Mary's natural sons might be incapable of taking care of her.  In essence, the difficulty is that the exegetical method here employed allows a non-biblical tradition to not merely shed light on a passage in Scripture, but be the determining factor in the interpretation the Scriptures.  This is not acceptable in light of the Reformation principle of scriptura sui interpres.

The second point is that Lutheran theology cannot accept the idea that the state of perpetual virginity is inherently superior to married vocation.  Jesus and Paul certainly do praise virginity for those who can accept it (Mt 19:3-121Cor 7:8-9, 27, 32-35, 38), but this does not negate other vocations (1 Cor 7:7).  God placed Mary in a married vocation and it would have been in violation of God's commandment at the beginning of creation (Gen. 1:28) if she did not engage in sexual intercourse with her husband. 

This brings us to one of the most puzzling aspects of the doctrine of the perpetual virginity.  Namely, if Mary decided to remain a virgin perpetually, were did she get the idea?  The idea that she did so of her own accord without a Word from God suggests a sort of Enthusiasm on her part.  This would have been rather inconsistent with her faithful harkening to the Word of God spoken to her by the angel (Lk 1).  One might also ask as to what purpose always remaining a virgin within marriage might serve.  It is easy to see why Jerome and the Latin tradition in general would think of virginity as superior.  If it meant a greater degree of self-denial, it could function as an act of supererogation.[11]  In contrast to this, Evangelical Lutheran dogmatics posits on the basis of Scripture that no vocation can be considered meritorious (Lk 17:7, 1 Cor 7).  All are justified by faith and all serve an equal and important function in the one body (Rom 12, 1 Cor 12). 


  1. You are on to something here that can lead to developing a hermeneutic for prophetic exegesis. The only argument I have heard for Semper Virgo has had to do with a prophecy in Ezekial about a Gate that only God would go through. This is seen as being fulfilled in the perpetual virginity of Mary. In otherwords they seem to think the prophecy demands that Mary be Semper Virgo even though there is not a word in the NT that supports it. In someways this is similar to dispensationalist prophecy teaching which argues from a prophecy forward to what they believe must be the fulfillment. This is different from looking at the fulfillment and then looking back at the prophecy or type.

  2. I've heard the argument about the gate from Catholics before. I suppose that for me this would violate the Reformation principle of interpretation, that is, that the clearer passages illuminate the less clear. The gate is unclear. In fact, I have a theory about what the Temple in Ezekiel means, but I'm not really that confident in it. The whole last 10 chapters or so are fairly vague as to what their concrete meaning is. So, I would never use it as a basis of interpreting other passages of the Bible.

  3. "God placed Mary in a married vocation and it would have been in violation of God's commandment at the beginning of creation (Gen. 1:28) if she did not engage in sexual intercourse with her husband."

    So you're saying that if a couple married and did not copulate then they would be in violation of God's command? What of the couple that marries, and then finds out one of them has an STD, thereby rendering such relations impossible? Or similarly, what of the couple that is deeply in love and they know that one fo them has some condition that renders intimate relations impossible, and yet they still marry? Would they be in violation of God's command?

    I tend to think that whether or not a married couple engages in such relations is between them and God. It is true that such relations are a gift from God, and are used to "be fruitful and multiply". However, if a couple decides that for whatever reason they will not engage in sexual relations, I am not going to judge them and say they are in sin.

    While I understand your argument, I think you might want to refine it a bit, so that there is not so much room for implied content. Also, I personally think the whole "not having relations is a violation of God's command" may be a bit of a stretch.

    Just my two cents. Looking forward to hearing from you.

  4. Re the "gate" passage, note these words from Gerhard:

    Mary, the mother of the Lord, is a virgin and the locked up gate (Ezekiel 44:2); so also Christ is born in virginal hearts which do not cling to the world nor live in sin with it. All believing souls are locked up gates upon the living temple of God, through which only the Lord, and no one else, enters. For true faith opens the door of the heart for no one except for Christ alone, and clings to no one, except to Christ alone.


    Fr. Gregory Hogg

    PS Forgive an unrelated note: I'm selling a number of Lutheran books, and am rather out of the loop in Lutheran circles now. Those interested may look at my blog (I won't put up the address because I don't mean to horn in on your parade here.). Thanks!

  5. Fr. Gregory- I'll take a look at your books. And yes, I realize Gerhard and the Lutheran orthodox interpreted the gate this way. My point in the earlier comment is that violates their methodology.

    Tim- You make a good point that there might be reasons why a couple might not want to have sex. The ones you noted are acceptable. My point is that in normal circumstances, where there is no problems like the ones you name, it is God's commandment to have sexual intercourse. I absolutely believe this. It is a duty. No question. So, being that the Virgin Mary didn't have an STD and have other problems, my point remains.

  6. Tim- to further clarify my point, I don't believe it's ok to ignore God's commandments, but I agree with Luther that when we consider God's commandments we have to consider not merely that God has said a thing, but to whom and to what purpose. So, I think that if the dangers of engaging in sexual intercourse out stripe the end to which God has ordained marital relations, then the commandment does not apply (for example, with Magic Johnson and his wife). But again, this does not apply to the Virgin Mary.

  7. The strange thing is, re Gerhard, that he *didn't* think he was violating his methodology (I assume there you mean the "sola Scriptura" principle.).

    Quoting from a paper I wrote some time ago on this topic:

    "In his Loci, he responds to an argument by Bellarmine that the whole Church believes that Mary was perpetually a virgin even though there is no biblical passage which so teaches. Gerhard answers:
    1. Basil, in his sermon On the nativity of Christ (vol. 1 p. 389) says, We must not dispute curiously about this question, whether after Mary had borne the Savior she would have gone back together in marriage, or truly remained a virgin, since one ought not examine mystery of faith. . .
    2. We respond from Jerome Against Helvidius: We believe that God was born of the Virgin, because we read it. we do not believe that Mary had relations with Joseph after the birth, because we do not read it. So it suffices for our faith that the mother of the Messiah is called virgin in Isaiah 7:14, Luke 1:35.
    3. Epiphanius against the Antidicomarians, Ambrose letters 79 and 81, and Jerome Against Helvidius tried to demonstrate the perpetual virginity of Mary from the Scriptures, they produced that from Ezekiel 44:2 concerning the closed gate, again that the care of Mary was demanded of John . Jerome used this reasoning: If Joseph was moved so reverently solely from the word of an angel to him in a dream that he did not have relations with Mary, why would he not have been moved afterwards, when he heard such divine things about the child from the shepherds, Simeon, Hanna etc.?
    So they judge that this doctrine can be drawn not only from tradition, but from the Scriptures.
    4. The argument that Helvidius formed for his opinion from the particle ‘until’ in Matthew 1:25, can be explained from the Scriptures themselves, in which perpetuity is more often noted, and if it removes what precedes, it does not posit what follows. Psalm 110:2, 1 Kings 15:35, 2 Kings 6:23. Jerome posits this example: “Helvidius died before he could do penance,” to show that even in common language this way of speaking is commonly accepted.

    Gerhard rightly responds to Bellarmine’s skepticism by showing that the fathers themselves, in making the case for the semper virgo, do so from the Holy Scriptures. The semper virgo is a doctrine (“this doctrine”) for Gerhard precisely because it can be drawn from the Scriptures."

    Obviously, I don't have a dog in this Lutheran discussion any more. You might also talk with John Stephenson at St. Catharines; I seem to recall that Chemnitz had pretty strong words for a Calvinist who was among the first to deny the semper virgo.

    Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Gerhard thought the semper virgo was consistent with sola Scriptura--that Scripture itself, by itself, supported the *doctrine* (as he calls it). Of what value is a principium that leads to opposite conclusions? That, it seems to me, is a key problem.

  8. Again, Fr. Gregory, I would not expect Gerhard to think he was violating his own method.

    I think I've actually answered most of these in light of the fact that I've critique Jerome's response to Helvidius.

    The gate from Ezekiel is weird. It has no relation to the Virgin Birth. This is purely imaginary. The "until" proves nothing and even if you grant that this isn't grasping at straws, it doesn't prove anything unless you have a prior commitment to the theory of perpetual virginity. That Joseph was "moved" is again, strange. I don't read anything about Joseph "wow, what a great prophecy. Let's not have sex." Again, what's the point? Especially in Judaism of the peiod. They weren't Essenes after all. The committing of Mary to John can have other explanations- namely that she was on board with Jesus being the Messiah and as John also says, his brother weren't. It's easy to see how this could create a negative relationship with her other children who clearly rejected Jesus until after the resurrection.

    To answer your last question- I suppose the point is that you follow what the plain sense of Scripture says- not some weird theory based on the fact that the Church fathers were all Greeks and obsessed with killing or redirecting desire which was the major ethical concern of their culture. They thought that since the best thing around was to be desireless or having an erotic desire for the "Good" (which they identified with God), that not having sex would best thing to do.

    Also, the Latin ones, thought that they could source point with God and obvious the Mother of God scored the most.

    Interestingly enough you don't really get this in Irenaeus. I merely mentioned that people thought that it went back to him becuase he is often cited. The passages that I looked at don't say anything like that. He was close to John and probably the most Jewish, and least Platonic or Stoic (though there are some Stoic elements in his thought).

    If you assume (with Martin Luter) that the goal of human life is to trust in God as a sinner and therefore to be free to live an ordinary life in this world (like in the Bible, not in Middle Platonism or Stoicism), then saying Mary had sex, obeying God's commandment to Adam and Eve, and lived an ordinary life as a sinner harkening to God's Word makes a great deal of sense.