High Churchism, Mary and the Gospel

A devotion written by Professor A.C. Piepkorn of St Louis* is an especially disturbing indicator of the dangers of the 'High Church' tendency. It is entitled 'Blessed Art Thou Among Women'**, and is an attempt to set forth the true Lutheran position on Mary in opposition to the extremes of Roman Catholic cult of Mary (Marienkult) on the one hand and modern Protestantism's 'excessive downgrading of the Mother of God' (Piepkorn's words) on the other. This is indeed a worthy task, and the three Marian festivals set down in the old Lutheran church calendar, which are simultaneously Christological celebrations, provide ample opportunity to do this. But in light of these celebrations we must note that the position taken on Mary will always be a reliable indicator of the presence of a true or false understanding of the Gospel. In modern Protestantism the Nestorian denial of the doctrine of the Theotokos reveals that this position, even if it bears the name 'Lutheran', no longer understands the doctrine of the person of the God-man. On the other hand, the confession that Mary is indeed the Theotokos isn't yet solid evidence of a true understanding of Christ - for it can be combined with the veneration of Mary, which is always a sin against the 1st Commandment and a challenge to the unique mediatorship of Christ. The cult of Mary (which also took root and grew among the Nestorians), along with the Marian doctrines which have grown from it, is most definitely to be rejected as being in contradiction to the Gospel***.

From Liturgy and Confession, A Brotherly Warning Against the 'High Church' Danger, first published in Lutherische Blaetter (Christmas 1959). [trans. mine]

* Arthur Carl Piepkorn (1907-1973), a scholar and theologian of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, sometime professor of historical theology at the Concordia, St Louis seminary, translator of some of the Lutheran confessional documents for the Tappert English edition of the Book of Concord, and an official participant in the early rounds of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue in the US. Piepkorn was a man of prodigious learning who served as a mentor to a number of LC-MS pastors who later styled themselves 'Evangelical Catholics', some of whom would convert to Roman Catholicism, notably Richard John Neuhaus.
** This devotion is available in the compilation of Piepkorn's essays, 'The Church, Selected Essays By Arthur Carl Piepkorn', edited by Plekon and Weicher and available from the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau.
*** Why, in Sasse's opinion, is Mariology and Marian piety in contradiction to the Gospel? Elsewhere, Sasse links the Marian doctrines and piety directly with synergism, the view that man co-operates with God's grace in obtaining salvation. Sasse believed that the Roman and Orthodox churches, along with some Anglicans, held Mary up as a model of such co-operation.


  1. I am curious; what word have you translated as "veneration"?

  2. There is a whole other side to the story, well worth considering. Dr. Secker has written about this very persuasively, showing the personal items that no doubt colored Dr. Sasse's woefully incorrect assessment of Dr. Piepkorn's words - words that mostly were citing Luther!

  3. I sense a higher veneration of Luther in our churches than of blessed Mary! His image and seal are omnipresent, whereas she is banished until Christmas.

    Is this devotion online anywhere? I would like to see what Sasse finds troubling.


  4. Phil -without being able to check - my copy is packed in a moving box - I think Sasse used 'verehrung'. I have only done extracts into English (the good bits!) since I am not a fluent translator and it is painstaking work for me.

    William - Yes, there is another side to the story, which is why I have tried to be as objective as possible in my comments here and refer readers to the ALBP book. I have discussed this matter a coupe of years ago with Dr Secker, via e-mail. I have a v. high regard for Dr Piepkorn too!

    Jon - it's not available on the 'net as far as I know, but the Piepkorn essays are well-worth getting hold of. Dr Secker at the Piepkorn Study Centre has brought out a 2nd volume now too. Thoroughly recommended!

  5. Jon,
    Meant to add - sometimes I do wonder whether the excessive (?) veneration of Luther isn't in reponse to his denigration by Catholics, which only began to moderate in the latter half of the 20th C.? I have heard Catholics only recently for whom Luther still seems to be the anti-christ!
    In any case, the 'veneration' of Luther's memory in the church would fall under the guidelines set down for veneration in the Apology, namely that God is praised for his gifts, that Luther himself is praised for using these gifts in God's service and finally that his good qualities are held up as worthy of imitation.

    If official Mariology only went so far, we wouldn't have an objection to it. Certainly the Catholics will say they offer hyper-dulia to Mary and not worship (latria), but a) is that a valid distinction in the first place? and b) is it understood by the masses of uneducated RC laity for whom Mary assumes a greater role in their lives than our Lord? That concern goes back to the Reformation and the confessional documents. Granted, the post-Vatican II church has in some countries moderated Marian devotion, but in many traditional RC countries it still goes on excessively, and is encouraged by the Pope(s). Not to mention, of course, that the Marian dogmas are post-Reformation phenomena (with historical antecedents, to be sure).

    Btw, I briefly skimmed through the Piepkorn devotion - it is several years since I read it - but there doesn't seem to be anything objectionable about it, unless I have missed something.

  6. Now I see, Sasse objects to Piepkorn placing the Virginal Conception (ex intacta virgine) on the same level as the Virgin Birth - he says it is not a dogma of the Lutheran Church, and that Piepkorn has been unduly influenced by Roman Catholic dogmatics in this belief.

  7. The Lutheran Confessions state:

    He *showed His divine majesty* even in His mother's womb in that He was born of a Virgin without violating her virginity. Therefore, she is truly the mother of God and yet remained a virgin.

    Note that what is reference here is not the conception, but the birth! SD VIII:24 (cf. also the words cited from Luther in VII:100).

  8. Yes, precisely William, it refers to the birth not the conception, that is the point Sasse makes too. And yet Dr. Piepkorn, apparently led -Sasse thinks - by RC dogmatics, which based this tradition in part on on the old monastic tradition and its allegorical interpretation of Ezekiel 44:2, regards the virginal conception of our Lord as a dogma that is being denied by modern Protestantism along with the Virgin Birth. For Sasse there is no such dogma; like the bodily assumption of the VM, which Piepkorn also apparently held, it is a pious opinion only. The Virgin Birth is the dogma, not the Virginal Conception, since the latter has no basis in scripture, but is the result of pious thoughts. Are we on the same page? Thanks for your comments, I am honoured by your interest in this project.

  9. You've run them backwards, Mark, I think. It is the virginal conception that is widely held and believed today as dogma. It is the virginal birth (that she remained virgin in giving birth) that is largely disputed, but to which the FC VII bears witness.

  10. P.S. The tradition of referring Ezekiel 44 to the virginal birth is one that is present in the Lutheran dogmatic tradition as well; Piepkorn demonstrates it. You can find it treated in Gerhard's Loci Theologici (387.8).

  11. William,
    Rather than rely on my second-hand exposition, I feel it would be best to read Sasse's original along side Piepkorn's devotion to see clearly what he is getting at.
    In Sasse's defence it may be worth noting here that while the received form of the Apostles' Creed certainly has 'Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary', the Old Roman form which goes back to at least c. AD390 and probably before is actually 'Qui natus est de Spiritu Santo ex Maria virgine', and the distinction between conception and birth certainly seems unknown before the 4th century AD.
    Again, the question at issue is not "Was Jesus' conception miraculous?"; clearly it was, but "What is the dogma?" Sasse thinks it is the Dogma of the Virgin Birth, which is inclusive of a miraculous conception, yet makes nothing of it (!). For Sasse, the emphasis on a virginal conception, to the point of separating the single dogma into two, arises out of the false asceticism which arises so soon in the early church and which includes a semi-Pelagian attitude towards salvation. Thus he writes, "Later ascetisicm was the first to tie together the semper virgo with the natus ex Maria virgine".
    Is Sasse labouring the point, or is he on to something???


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