What are We to Make of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary?

Mary (610x352)What are we to make of the traditional Lutheran position that Mary remained a virgin her entire life?  This short theological pondering from Pastor Futrell helps us look at this teaching with historic eyes.


From the time of Martin Luther’s excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church taught and believed that Mary remained a virgin her entire life.  This was the teaching of the New Testament Church from the beginning, which the Lutheran Church simply received from the Church catholic.  Yet, if the early Church did not have a strange view of sexuality, why would the Church have passed down such a teaching from the beginning?


1. The Church called, and calls, Mary the bearer of God (Theotokos).  This expression is not to elevate Mary but to affirm that the One to whom she gave birth, Jesus, is God in the Flesh.  Understanding that, the Church also saw Mary as the Ark of the Covenant’s fulfillment.  In a similar way that the Ark was the place of God’s presence in the Old Covenant (Leviticus 16:2), in the New Covenant, Mary became that Ark, containing and bringing God’s presence to earth by giving birth to God in the flesh.

For example, Hippolytus (170-236 AD)–a student of Ireneaus, who was a student of Polycarp, who was a student of the Apostle John–wrote:

At that time, the Savior coming from the Virgin, the Ark, brought forth His own Body into the world from that Ark, who was gilded inside with pure gold by the Word, and outside by the Holy Spirit, so that the truth was shown forth.

So the Church taught that in a similar way that someone was not allowed to touch the Old-Covenant Ark, so also did they see Mary as an Ark that was not to be “touched.”

The Church Fathers also saw other foreshadowings in the Old Covenant that pointed to Mary.  Mary was seen, not only as a New-Covenant Ark, but also:

  • A New-Covenant Holy of Holies in which God dwelled (Ephraim the Syrian, Jerome, and Ambrose)
  • The “Rod of Jesse” from whom blossomed Christ (Ambrose, Tertullian, and Jerome)
  • The “Burning Bush that is not consumed” (Gregory of Nyssa) [the fire being God, the bush being Mary]

We must remember that Joseph was a pious man fully steeped in the Old Covenant.  When he realized Whom Mary had within her, and that she gave birth to, God in the flesh, how would he then view and treat her?  He would see her as a special and holy vessel who brought God’s physical presence into this world.  Joseph would have viewed and treated her with such dignity and respect, not simply as any other woman.


2. According to the Old Covenant, the oldest son took care of his mother after his father died.  If the oldest son died, the responsibility then passed to the next oldest son.  After we see Jesus at age 12 in the Temple, we read no more about Joseph.  Even more, that Jesus asked another to take care of Mary shows that Joseph had already died.  Yet, if Jesus had younger brothers, who were born from Mary, then his younger brother was to take care of his mother.  Yet, Jesus tells John to take care of Mary.

But if Jesus had step-brothers from Joseph, the law did not require them to take care of Mary.  Jesus said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.  I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).  Does it make sense that Jesus would throw everything away at the last moment by not fulfilling the law on the cross?  That is what would have happened if Jesus had younger brothers who were born from Mary.  For Jesus then would not have fulfilled the law and we would still be trapped in our sins.

But if Jesus’ brothers (Matthew 12:46, Mark 3:31, and Luke 8:19) were step-brothers, from a previous marriage of Joseph’s, then Jesus fulfilled the law just as He said he would do.  (The Greek word for brother [adelphos] can mean brother, step-brother, and in some cases, even a cousin.)  Epiphanius of Salamis taught that Jesus’ brothers were His step-brothers (315-403 AD).


3. But what about the Bible passage that says that Joseph did not know (have sex with) Mary until she gave birth to a son (Matthew 1:25)?  Ah yes–that word “until.”  In English, when we read “until,” we understand that passage to mean that Joseph had no sex with Mary before Jesus’ birth.  After Jesus’ birth, he did.  Yet, in the Greek, “until” (eos) does not carry that implication.  Eos simply means that something did or did not happen up to a particular time, with no implication after that.

For example: In Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus tells His Apostles that He will be with them “until” (eos) the end of the age.  Jesus was not saying anything about His presence after the end of the age, just until the end of the age, that is, up to the end of the age.  It would be presumptuous for us to assume that Jesus’ presence would somehow disappear after the end of the age because Jesus only promised to be with them “until” the end of the age!

In the Old Testament, we read in 2 Samuel 6:23: “Saul’s daughter Michal had no child until the day of her death.”  The Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint) used eos for “until.”  Yet, we know that Michal could not have become pregnant and given birth after she died.

In the same way, Matthew is saying nothing about Mary or Joseph after she gave birth to Jesus.  He is simply saying that until (up to the time that) Mary gave birth, Joseph and Mary did not have sex.  That was to emphasize the virgin birth of Jesus, which is the point Matthew is making when telling us about Jesus’ birth.  It’s absurd to think that he is telling us about the sexual life of Joseph and Mary!


4. The traditional Lutheran position is that Mary is “ever virgin” and even now remains as virgin (SD, section VIII, para 24, Latin text).  Luther, who translated the entire Bible, held this view.  All of our Lutheran fathers into the 20th century held this view.  It was not until our current LC-MS’ official systematics text was published that pastors could officially believe that Mary did not remain a virgin.

If the Christology of a theologian is orthodox in all other respects, he is not to be regarded as a heretic for holding that Mary bore other children in a natural manner after she had given birth to the Son of God. [Franz Pieper, Christian Dogmatics (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1951), 2: 308]

Notice that Francis Pieper, LC-MS President from 1899-1911, shows the normal, default position for Lutherans: They believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary.  Not believing it to be true is the exception, which is allowed “if the Christology of a theologian is orthodox in all other respects.”  Denying the perpetual virginity of Mary is a recent innovation and a historical aberration within the Church.


But why does the perpetual virginity of Mary even matter?

Mary’s perpetual virginity fulfills prophecy.  Before Jesus’ birth, Mary’s virginity affirms the truth in Genesis 3:15 and Isaiah 7:14.  After Jesus’ birth, Mary fulfills Ezekiel 44:1-2:

Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east.  And it was shut.  And the Lord said to me, “This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it, for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it.  Therefore it shall remain shut.”

Even more, Christ’s conception and birth through Mary is tied to our rebirth in Baptism.  Like Jesus and Mary’s conception of Him, we are born anew by the Holy Spirit.  Yet, this spiritual birth for us takes place through the Church.

And so, using biblical imagery, the Church is both virgin and mother.  As mother, the Church gives spiritual birth to children who are brought into the life of Christ (Galatians 4:26).  The Church is our mother because she brings forth children through the Holy Spirit.  Yet, the Church is also a perpetual virgin, for she keeps the purity of the faith of her spouse, Jesus Christ.  In 1 Corinthians 7:34, the Apostle Paul teaches that unmarried women and virgins are “concerned about the things of the Lord.”  In this way, the perpetual virginity of Mary represents the Church always being “concerned about the things of the Lord.”