Mary in the Reformed Confessions

In my book Mary for Evangelicals, I considered how Reformed and evangelical Christians should think about the Virgin Mary—something we usually think reserved for Roman Catholics. I focused my attention there on the Reformers, notably Luther, Zwingli, Bullinger and Calvin, and the confessional dogmatics that unpacked both Lutheran and Reformed confessions.[1] I observed there that early Protestant antipathy toward the Virgin Mary emerged gradually and was directed against abuses of piety rather than dogmatic, specifically Christological, assertions. No questions of significance were raised against Mary’s perpetual virginity; her status as theotokos (even if the word was deemed suspect by some) was regarded as necessary; there was even some acknowledgement of her unique calling, and (most surprisingly of all to modern Reformed Christians) her consequent preservation from sin is sometimes acknowledged until the Reformation is well into its third generation.

Yet the Reformers and post-Reformation dogmaticians represented the start of a trend in Protestant theology in which extended reflection on Mary dwindled to silence. Every once in a while, anti-Catholic polemic would pop up, but Mary simply wasn’t a subject of dogmatic inquiry and barely registered as a matter of reflection among the theologians. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), in his dogmatics, simply dismisses the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke (and accordingly, dogmatic reflection on Mary) as irrelevant to authentic faith, while his Christmas sermons present her as no more than a model housewife.[2]

I did not treat the confessions (whether Lutheran or Reformed) extensively in Mary for Evangelicals because I believed (and still hold) that, as summaries and guides for belief and practice, they do not add significantly to this thesis. But there’s more to this article than simply filling a lacuna in earlier research. Specifically because of their brevity and consistency, the confessions allow us to press deeper into the assumptions held by the Reformers regarding Mary—assumptions which, as noted, surprise many of those who purport to stand in the confessional tradition of these Reformers, and should perhaps serve to curtail the tone (if not the substance) with which they criticize Roman Catholics on the topic of Mary. I begin with the documents of the Continental Reformation.

The Continental Confessions[3]

In the earliest confession to be considered, Zwingli’s Sixty-Seven Articles of 1523, Mary, though unnamed, is easily discerned. The first sixteen articles summarize the Gospel, stressing throughout that Christ has no rival: “whoever seeks or points to another door [i.e., than Christ] errs—yea is a murderer of souls and a robber.” When reflecting on matters of piety and prayer, Zwingli reiterates that there is indeed no other mediator “beyond this life” but Christ, and while we pray for one another “on earth” we trust “through Christ alone all things are given to us.” One is immediately struck by the deep interconnection of the Reformation solas, in this case Sola Scriptura and Solus Christus and how they are perceived immediately and directly to call into question long-held notions of created mediation, saintly intercession, and the intercommunion of the church militant and the church triumphant. Though unnamed, Mary is of course “first in line” in each of these neuralgic subjects and, given the context, we are not wrong to see Marian piety indicted here. Seven years later, in his contribution to Augsburg, A Reckoning of the Faith (1530), Zwingli would reiterate his rejection of that same piety with these words: “For this is the one, sole Mediator between God and men, the God and man Christ Jesus.”[4]

This ought not to be taken to mean, however, that Zwingli was a modern Protestant Marian minimalist. In the same document, he summarizes his doctrine of the incarnation thusly: “I believe and understand that the Son assumed flesh, because he truly assumed of the immaculate and perpetual Virgin Mary the human nature, yea, the entire man, who consists of body and soul.” “Immaculate” and “perpetual” are words most contemporary Protestants are not used to seeing, but there they are—the former affirming, in whatever fashion, Mary’s preservation from original and actual sin and the latter her perpetual virginity until the end of her life on earth. Modern Reformed Christians may read references to Mary as “Virgin” in the confessions as referring purely to her virginity at the time of Christ’s conception, and not necessarily implying that she retained perpetual virginity. Yet that is clearly not the case for Zwingli here. Nor was it for Luther.[5] It would be anachronistic to assume that the early Reformers did not understand references to “the Virgin Mary” to refer to a perpetual virginity. Similarly, modern Protestants may likewise be unsure of exactly what “immaculate” refers to with regard to Mary. Suffice to say, at the time of the Reformation, any reference to Mary’s “immaculate” status would have been taken to refer to her sinlessness; i.e., that she was in some way preserved from the ravages of original sin and did not sin throughout her life.

Far more than some sort of ecumenical gloss for the sake of Lutherans and Catholics at Augsburg, these adjectives accurately reflect Zwingli’s ongoing affection for the Mother of God.[6] As we’ll see below, perpetual virginity and preservation from sin are hardly unique to the Swiss Reformer. Further, he thus introduces what will become the standard distinction in Reformed confessions. On the one hand, Mary is from here on expressly named as a guarantor of the true humanity of Christ and the unity of his person, while on the other, Marian piety, whether as included in a general rejection of created mediation and the cult of the saints or singled out, is rejected in the strongest of terms.

Another Augsburg document, The Tetrapolitan Confession (1530), takes a similar stance. Reflecting the Reformed faith of the cities of Strasbourg, Constance, Memmingen, and Lindau, and prepared by Martin Bucer (1491-1551) and Wolfgang Capito (c.1478-1541), its standard Christology includes this credally reminiscent summary of Christ’s incarnation: “conceived by the Holy Ghost, then born of the Virgin Mary.” Pious abuses, however, are named and condemned: “Another abuse concerning these things has been rejected, by which some think that by fastings and prayers they can so oblige the Virgin Mary that bare God, and other saints, as, by their intercession and merits” to be delivered from evil and receive divine favour. Mary and the saints are to be held in high esteem, even honored, but appropriate devotion is found not in prayer to them, but in following their holy examples: “Yet [our clergy] teach the duty of honoring the most holy Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, and all saints, with the greatest devotion, but that this can be done only when we strive after those things which were especially pleasing to them,” namely, holiness in conduct, after their own examples. It is striking that although theotokos language does not appear in the Christology section, it appears twice later even as certain abuses of piety are clearly condemned.

We turn now to the Confession of Basel, prepared in 1534 by Oswald Myconius (1488-1552). In Article 4, “Concerning Christ, the True God and Man,” we read: “we believe that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the pure, undefiled Virgin Mary.” By now almost boilerplate, it is worth noting that language of immaculacy (“pure”) and perpetual virginity (“undefiled”) are included without comment or controversy. This is carried over into the second of Basel’s confessions, which appeared in 1536 and was produced by a committee led by Henrich Bullinger (1504-1575): “From the undefiled Virgin Mary by the cooperation of the Holy Spirit, this Lord Christ, the Son of the living, true God, has assumed flesh which is holy through its unity with the Godhead in all things like unto our flesh yet without sin.” At the same time, however, it is not difficult to see the abuses typically associated with the cult of the saints and Mary especially in the same article: “Here we reject everything that represents itself as the means, the sacrifice, and the reconciliation of our life and salvation, and we recognize none other than Christ the Lord alone.”

Remaining with Bullinger, piety comes to the fore in The Second Helvetic Confession of 1566. Chapter 4 rejects both the “idols of the Gentiles,” and “the images of the Christians.” Further, Chapter 4 asks rhetorically, “since the blessed spirits and saints in heaven, while they lived here on earth, rejected all worship of themselves and condemned images, shall anyone find it likely that the heavenly saints and angels are pleased with their own images before which men kneel, uncover their heads, and bestow other honors?” Mary is not named, but she is clearly implied. Likewise in Chapter 5, Mary is implicated in the rejection of the cults of the saints: “we do not adore, worship, or pray to the saints in heaven, or to other divine beings, and we do not acknowledge them as our intercessors or mediators before the Father in heaven.” Saints are living members of Christ who are objects of love and honor; they are certainly worthy of imitation, but not worship. Their true relics are not bits of bone or cloth, but their virtues, doctrine and faith. Chapter 11, entitled, “Of Jesus Christ, True God and Man, the Only Savior of the World,” nevertheless continues to describe Mary as “Ever-Virgin” who “most chastely conceived by the Holy Spirit.” It indeed implies that such a description is, with the doctrine of the incarnation as traditionally understood, a matter of basic fidelity to the Gospels: “as the evangelical history carefully explains to us.”

Our final three examples continue to plow the same furrows. Thus, The Geneva Confession of 1536 explicitly links the intercession of saints with mistrust in the “sufficiency of the intercession of Jesus Christ.” Similarly, while The Geneva Catechism of 1541-1542 continues to use “Virgin” with respect to Mary, it also decries the use of images in worship and insists that “God has not assigned to saints this office of aiding and assisting us.”[7] To cultivate such devotion, in fact, is not merely a distraction from the unique office of the Mediator, but a lack of trust in him: “it is a sure sign of infidelity if we are not contented with what the Lord gives to us. Moreover, if instead of having a refuge in God alone, in obedience to his command, we have recourse to them [i.e., all that conflicts with the divine order of prayer], putting something of our reliance on them, we fall into idolatry, seeing we transfer to them that which God has reserved for himself.” Likewise The Belgic Confession (1561), which affirms that “The Son took the ‘form of a servant’ and was made in the ‘likeness of man,’ truly assuming a real human nature, with all its weaknesses, except for sin; being conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, without male participation.” And yet it insists that “sheer unbelief has led to the practice of dishonoring the saints [with intercessions, etc.], instead of honoring them.” Last, the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) teaches that the “eternal Son” took upon himself “true manhood from the flesh and blood of the Virgin Mary through the action of the Holy Spirit,” but that images should never set “in place of books for unlearned people” in churches.

The pattern is now well in place. Mary is affirmed in articles pertaining to the incarnation. She is the guarantor of true manhood and the unity of Christ’s person and therefore necessary in the articulation of a robust Christology. Though none of the documents use theotokos explicitly, its anti-Nestorian content is preserved and expressed in other turns of phrase. Devotion to Mary–as with devotion to all the saints–is also affirmed, not in terms of images, intercession or other pious practices, but in terms of emulation and encouragement toward holiness of life. The one curiosity is the loss over time of explicit language of perpetual virginity and immaculacy. I conclude that this loss is part and parcel of the trend toward silence that I mentioned in the introduction. Still, it is worth noting that while later confessions are more muted, none deny what the earlier ones seem to affirm, namely that “Virgin” means “Ever-Virgin,” and that Mary was in some way graciously preserved from the ravages of sin. Though I venture to guess that very few Dutch, German, or Swiss Reformed Christians would affirm perpetual virginity or sinlessness today (especially the latter), departure from these in any explicit way is simply not found in the Reformed Confessions surveyed thus far.

The English Confessions

Turning first to England, we might consider The Ten Articles (1536), the first confession of Henry VIII’s “reformed” church—albeit a highly transitional document with an interesting political background. These mention Mary twice and allude to her once. The positive tone of these references is unique among the confessions examined here, both from the continent and the British Isles. For example, images of Christ and Mary should appear in churches as “representers of virtue and good example, and that they also be by occasion the kindlers and stirrers of men’s minds, and make men oft to remember their sins and offences.” On the other hand, abuses such as “censing of them, and kneeling and offering unto them, with other like worshipings,” must be discontinued. Saints in heaven are to be honoured not simply because they are elect, but also because they already share in Christ’s reign, and have left us examples of virtue. While perhaps more fulsome than continental reflections, it is not a departure. Until the insistence that saints are to be taken “in that they may, to be advancers of our prayers and demands unto Christ.” Article 8 then expands just what “taking a saint” implies:

It is very laudable to pray to saints in heaven everlastingly living, whose charity is ever permanent, to be intercessors, and to pray for us and with us, unto Almighty God… and in this manner we may pray to our blessed Lady, to St. John Baptist, to all and every of the apostles or to any other saint particularly…. [We must not] think that any saint is more merciful, or will hear us sooner than Christ, or that any saint doth serve for one thing more than another, or is patron of the same.

The cult of the saints is curtailed, pious abuses thereof restrained, but it is explicitly affirmed rather than eliminated. Representing the earliest stage of the English Reformation, when Henry’s need for an heir was more significant than matters of doctrine or practice, The Ten Articles are clearly more Roman than they are Reformed. Penned by an English delegation sent to meet German Lutherans in 1535 to explore a possible accord, they were, as Gerald Bray puts it, “phrased in the way they were in order to get past the eagle eye of Henry VIII and to be acceptable to the Convocation of Canterbury.”[8] We can only speculate on exactly what the Lutheran-influenced authors of the articles personally felt about Marian devotion at this point in time, and to what extent they viewed the document’s statements about Mary as a compromise, but the Ten Articles nevertheless offer a crucial snapshot of a specific moment in the unfolding confessional life of the Reformation.

After the definitive move toward a strongly Protestant church during the short reign of Edward VI, and the failed reinstitution of Catholicism under Mary, it fell to Elizabeth I and her theological advisors to craft a confession for the Church of England that Parliament could affirm and the majority of English Christians could practice, even if Catholics and Puritans at the extremes could not. The resulting Thirty-Nine Articles follow the established Reformed pattern perfectly. Article 2 asserts that Christ “took man’s nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, of her substance” so that two natures were inseparably joined in one person. At the same time, however, Article 22, simply titled, “Of Purgatory” groups images, relics, intercessions–the entire edifice which had Mary at the head–under one condemnation: “The Romish doctrine concerning purgatory, pardons, worshiping and adoration, as well of images as of relics, and also invocation of saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture but rather repugnant to the word of God.” It is clear, then, that the basic Reformed pattern was part of the Elizabethan settlement, and that would not change significantly until Newman and the Tractarians of the nineteenth century.

It is perhaps not surprising that the Scottish confessions represent the exception to the pattern by being even more reluctant to say much of anything about the Mother of Our Lord. Thus, she is anonymous even in Article 6, “The Incarnation of Christ Jesus,” of The Scots Confession of 1560: “God sent his Son, his eternal wisdom, the substance of his own glory, into this world, who took the nature of humanity from the substance of a woman, a virgin, by means of the Holy Ghost.” John Craig’s 1581 The King’s Confession, intended to supplement the 1560 document, doesn’t acknowledge Mary at all, but we can still glimpse her beneath all anti-Catholic polemic: “we especially detest and refuse:…his [i.e., the Roman Antichrist’s] canonization of men, calling upon angels or saints departed; worshiping of imagery, reliquaries, and crosses.”[9] However, with The Irish Articles (1615), penned by Archbishop James Ussher for the Church in Ireland, there is a reversion to the broader Reformed pattern. Thus, Article 29, on the incarnation, says, “the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the true and eternal God, of one substance with the Father, took man’s nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, of her substance, so that two whole and perfect natures–that is to say, the Godhead and manhood–were inseparably joined in one person, making one Christ very God and very man.” Article 47 reminds readers that Christ alone is the mediator, and Article 54 insists that “All religious Worship ought to be given to God alone.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) and Shorter Catechism (1648), English-speaking Reformed theology’s classical statements, hew to the well-established formula. In the confession, Chapter 8, “Of Christ the Mediator,” affirms Mary’s virginity, Christ’s humanity, and personal unity with these words: “conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, of her substance…the only Mediator between God and man.” And Chapter 21 definitively rules out any notion of created mediation and saintly veneration or intercession: “Religious worship is to be given to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and to him alone, not to angels, saints, or any other creature, and since the fall, not without a mediator, nor in the mediation of any other but of Christ alone.” The Catechism’s summary of the incarnation is similarly stated: “Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to himself a true body and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and born of her, yet without sin.” Finally, Question 47 on the first commandment reminds catechumens that only God is to be worshipped and Question 51 adds that such worship is to be entirely image free.


Three conclusions suggest themselves as I review the data above. First, even if Mary’s preeminence dwindled in the minds of the Reformed as each generation succeeded the last, the confessions quickly established a pattern that was kept with only minor deviations: Mary was a Christological necessity; her virginity and maternity were matters of biblical record; affirming them guaranteed the full yet unique humanity of her Son and the unity of his person. Above, I called this the Christological intent of theotokos language. Though none of the documents surveyed use this term, earlier ones do approach it. There is, in modern terms at least, a high view of Mary in the confessions.

But from whence then comes the growing silence about Mary as Reformed confessionalism progressed? It stems largely from the recognition that although theotokos and “Mother of God” both say something necessary about the incarnation of Christ, and Mary’s role therein, historically, they were used to justify many things said about Mary that the Reformers were loath to approve. Such reticence–even as its Christological necessity continued to be acknowledged–grew after John Calvin’s reluctance to use the term became well-known.[10] In a 1552 letter to the French church in London, Calvin famously wrote:

I cannot conceal that the title [i.e. “Mother of God”] being commonly attributed to the Virgin in sermons is disapproved, and, for my own part, I cannot think such language either right, becoming or suitable. Neither will any sober-minded people do so, for which reason I cannot persuade myself that there is any such usage in your church, for it is just as if you were to speak of the blood, of the head, and of the death of God. You know that the Scriptures accustom us to a different style; but there is something still worse about this particular instance, for to call the Virgin Mary the mother of God, can only serve to confirm the ignorant in their superstitions.[11]

With such a Reformed luminary as Calvin stating his opposition to well-worn Christological terminology regarding Mary, it is no surprise that those after him followed his lead and shied away from certain statements in their own confessions.

Second, the documents make clear the early emergence and ongoing persistence of the Reformed conviction that Marian piety could be separated from the incarnation in order to be criticized and rejected. This is not to say, however, that there is no development over time on this score. Earlier documents make clear that they are rejecting abuses but still want to hold up Mary and/or the saints as virtuous examples, and insist that the proper form of “devotion” and honor to them is emulating their holy lives. Later documents, however, do not make this distinction; they simply speak of the rejection of the errors.

It seems to me that these two conclusions can come into tension with each other, as Calvin himself recognized. He knew that the Christology which culminated in the Council of Ephesus and the enshrining of theotokos said something true about the person of Christ. He also knew that all subsequent Marian piety developed from this watershed moment.[12] His solution was that of the confessions: preserve the intent; reject the piety. The question is, did it work?

While we cannot prove causation, history does suggest that the answer is, in certain quarters, no. If any focus on the uniqueness of Mary is simply equated with idolatrous worship and scrubbed, we cannot be surprised if orthodox Christology follows. Erasmus predicted this would happen, and with the advent of Schleiermacher and liberal Protestantism, it did. It would be reductive to lay the blame for the advent of liberal Protestantism entirely on this point, but it bears consideration.

Although the Reformers were right to reject that which is generally meant today by “Marian piety”–prayers for her intercession, her role as co-redemptrix, and so forth–the gradual silent rejection of any pious attitude towards Mary as a unique figure in salvation history, as a spiritual exemplar, and as the one rightly labeled theotokos, was neither necessary nor fruitful. I have heard Reformed theologians say (and have said myself) that Roman overemphasis on the Mother of God has contributed all too often to a loss of purchase on the humanity of Christ in their piety. The history of liberal Protestantism suggests to me that the converse is true for Protestantism: an underemphasis on the Mother of God has contributed to a loss of purchase on his deity, and his saving power. I believe that underemphasis is found, further, in the confessions themselves, especially the later ones.

Our examination of the Reformed confessions also brings us to a third conclusion: many Reformed Christians unwittingly decry as “Roman innovation” Marian beliefs that are actually present, in whatever fashion, in historic Reformed confessions. “Virgin,” in the later confessions is best read as a contraction of the earlier “Ever-Virgin,” rather than a rejection thereof. The same conclusion holds true with respect to Mary’s immaculacy. It is true that few, if any, of those earlier confessions containing starker Marian language are adhered to by existing Reformed denominations: none of the Three Forms of Unity or the Westminster Confession–the principle confessions of most orthodox Reformed denominations today–speak in such terms. Yet the fact is that the earlier documents affirm it, and the latter ones do not deny it.

Now, does this mean that, say, Zwingli affirmed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception as held by Roman Catholics today? Hardly—not least because it wasn’t a dogma until 1854. But it does mean that he and other early Reformers took the affirmation of Mary’s (as yet to be dogmatically defined) sinlessness for granted. The evidence suggests that to say that the later Reformed confessions rejected Mary’s perpetual virginity and immaculacy without explicitly doing so fails on two related counts. First, these documents have no problem decrying “fond things, vainly invented” elsewhere, including those pertaining to Mary, so why not here? And second, it is simply too much weight to hang on what is at best an argument from silence. These are momentous claims which, if they were erroneous, would surely have been named and rejected. When debating with Roman Catholics on these matters, then, Reformed Christians would do well to know their own “family history” on the matter, and consider how this should color the way in which they inveigh against their interlocutors.

I am by no means concluding that those Reformers who confessed perpetual virginity and immaculacy are correct, by the way. It is unwarranted by the evidence examined. Besides, confessions are not creeds and are open to revision in the light of the Spirit’s guidance further into the truth of the Word. My aim is much more modest. First: the evidence above simply suggests that Reformed believers should check themselves when delivering apologetics against Roman Marian dogma, and be ready to dismantle Luther, Zwingli, Bullinger and others on this point. Second: although the abuses of Marian piety are clearly and rightly outside the bounds of the Reformed tradition, there is room within the Reformed tradition for exploration of Marian themes—both theological (for instance, as theotokos) and devotional (for instance, as a spiritual exemplar). And if my first two conclusions hold, then it seems to me this may well be one means of preventing the Christological vacuity of liberal Protestantism from repeating itself.

Tim Perry is Professor of Theology and Church Ministries at Providence Theological Seminary and a participant in the Evangelical/Catholic Dialogue co-sponsored by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. He lives in Grunthal, MB.

  1. Tim Perry, Mary for Evangelicals: Toward an Understanding of the Mother of Our Lord (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2006), 209-225.

  2. Perry, Mary for Evangelicals, 225.

  3. All quotations taken from Jaroslav Pelikan and Valerie Hotchkiss, eds., Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition, Volume 2, Reformation Era (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).

  4. Similar sentiments are expressed in The Ten Theses of Bern, drawn up in 1528 by Berchtold Haller and Franz Kolb: “As Christ alone died for us, so he is to be worshiped as the only Mediator and Advocate between God the Father and us believers. Therefore, to propose the invoking of other mediators and advocates beyond this life is contrary to scripture.” The Ten Theses of Bern, 6.

  5. See Perry, Mary for Evangelicals, 214-17.

  6. Tim Perry, Mary for Evangelicals, 217-18.

  7. On the incarnation see Q 49, on images, Q 147-148, and on the saints, Q 238-39.

  8. Gerald Bray, The History of Christianity in Britain and Ireland (London: Apollos, 2021), 193.

  9. John Craig, The King’s Confession.

  10. Perry, Mary for Evangelicals, 221.

  11. John Calvin, “To the French Church in London,” Letters of John Calvin, vol. 2, ed. Jules Bonnet (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1858), 362.

  12. Perry, Mary for Evangelicals, 221.


Related Articles


Other Articles by

Join our Community
Subscribe to receive access to our members-only articles as well as 4 annual print publications.
Share This