Martin Luther on “Clauso Utero” and “Semper Virgo”

Some people dispute about exactly how this birth [of Christ] happened, whether she [Mary] was delivered of the child in the bed, in great joy, whether she was without all pain as this was happening. I do not reproach people for their devotion, but we should stay with the Gospel, which says, “she bore him,” and by the article of faith that we recite: “who is born of the virgin Mary.” There is no deceit here, but, as the words state, a true birth. We certainly know what birth is, and how it proceeds. It happens to her as it does to other women, with good spirits and with the actions of her limbs as is appropriate in a birth, so that she is his right and natural mother and he is her right and natural son. But her body did not allow the natural operations that pertain to birth, and she gave birth without sin, without shame, without pain, and without injury, just as she also conceived without sin. The curse of Eve does not apply to her, which says that “in pain shall you bring forth children” [Gen. 3:16], but otherwise it happened to her exactly as it does with any other woman giving birth. For grace did not promise anything, and did not hinder nature or the works of nature, but improved and helped them. In the same way she fed him naturally with milk from her breasts; without a doubt she did not give him any stranger’s milk or feed him with any other body part than the breast. (“Sermon for Christmas” [1522], quoted in Luther on Women [edited by Susan C. Karant-Nunn and Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks] [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003], p. 50)

When the wise men came from the east, they found the child with Mary, his mother, still at Bethlehem. As I see it, this would have taken place at the end of six weeks. For the Law of Moses needed to be kept which required that a woman who had given birth to a son had to stay indoors forty-two days, that is, six weeks, and be considered unclean, meaning that she was to have no social intercourse with anyone, nor could she go out in public; for everything she touched would be unclean. ... Now, although Mary was not required to do this – the Law of Moses having no claim over her, for she had given birth without pain and her virginity remained unsullied – nevertheless, she kept quiet, and submitted herself to the common law of all women and let herself be accounted unclean. She was, without doubt, a pure, chaste virgin before the birth, in birth, and after the birth, and she was neither sick nor weakened from the birth, and certainly could have gone out of the house after giving birth, not only because of her exemption under the Law, but also because of the uninterrupted soundness of her body. For her son did not detract from her virginity but actually strengthened it; but, in spite of this, not only the mother, but also the son, both allowed themselves to be considered unclean according to the Law. (“The Day of the Holy Innocents” [Sermon on Matthew 2:13-23] [1541], The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000], Vol. 7, pp. 255-56)

Christ, we believe, came forth from a womb left perfectly intact. (Weimarer Ausgabe 6:510)

Christ did not impair the virginity of His mother’s body. (Erlangen 15, 261; quoted in What Luther Says [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959], p. 1257)

Now just take a look at the perverse lauders of the mother of God. If you ask them why they hold so strongly to the virginity of Mary, they truly could not say. These stupid idolaters do nothing more than to glorify only the mother of God; they extol her for her virginity and practically make a false deity of her. But Scripture does not praise this virginity at all for the sake of the mother; neither was she saved on account of her virginity. Indeed, cursed be this and every other virginity if it exists for its own sake, and accomplishes nothing better than its own profit and praise. The Spirit extols this virginity, however, because it was needful for the conceiving and bearing of this blessed fruit. Because of the corruption of our flesh, such blessed fruit could not come, except through a virgin. Thus this tender virginity existed in the service of others to the glory of God, not to its own glory. If it had been possible for him to have come from a [married] woman, he would not have selected a virgin for this, since virginity is contrary to the physical nature within us, was condemned of old in the law [cf., e.g., Isa. 4:1; Judg. 11:37-38], and is extolled here solely because the flesh is tainted and its built-in physical nature cannot bestow her fruit except by means of an accursed act. Hence we see that St. Paul nowhere calls the mother of God a virgin, but only a woman, as he says in Galatians 3 [4:4], “The Son of God was born of a woman.” He did not mean to say she was not a virgin, but to extol her virginity to the highest with the praise that is proper to it, as much as to say: In this birth none but a woman was involved, no man participated; that is, everything connected with it was reserved to the woman, the conceiving, bearing, suckling, and nourishing of the child were functions no man can perform. It is therefore the child of a woman only; hence, she must certainly be a virgin. But a virgin may also be a man; a mother can be none other than a woman. For this reason, too, Scripture does not quibble or speak about the virginity of Mary after the birth of Christ, a matter about which the hypocrites are greatly concerned, as if it were something of the utmost importance on which our whole salvation depended. Actually, we should be satisfied simply to hold that she remained a virgin after the birth of Christ because Scripture does not state or indicate that she later lost her virginity. We certainly need not be so terribly afraid that someone will demonstrate, out of his own head apart from Scripture, that she did not remain a virgin. But the Scripture stops with this, that she was a virgin before and at the birth of Christ; for up to this point God had need of her virginity in order to give us the promised blessed seed without sin. (“That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew” [1523], Luther’s Works, Vol. 45 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1962], pp. 205-06)

But we cling to the Scriptures of the prophets and apostles, who spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). Their testimony about Christ is clear. He is our Brother; we are members of His body, flesh and bone of His flesh and bone. According to His humanity, He, Christ, our Savior, was the real and natural fruit of Mary’s virginal womb (of which Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to her in Luke 1:42: “Blessed is the fruit of your womb!”). This was without the co-operation of a man, and she remained a virgin after that. (“Sermons on the Gospel of St. John” [1537], Luther’s Works, Vol. 22 [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1957], p. 23)

Now the question may occupy us how Christ could have brothers, since He was the only Son of Mary, and the Virgin Mary bore no children besides Him. Some say that Joseph had been married before his marriage to Mary, and that the children of this first wife were later called Christ’s brothers. Others say that Joseph had another wife simultaneously with Mary, for it was permissible for the Jews to have two wives. In the Book of Ruth we hear that a poor daughter was often left on the shelf (Ruth 3:10 ff.). This displeased God; therefore He commanded that such daughters be provided for. Thus it became incumbent upon the nearest relative or friend to marry such a poor orphan girl. Mary, too, was a poor little orphan, whom Joseph was obligated to marry. She was so poor that no one else wanted her. Any children born to Joseph by other wives would have been half brothers of Christ. This is the explanation offered by some. But I am inclined to agree with those who declare that “brothers” really means “cousins” here, for Holy Writ and the Jews always call cousins brothers. Be that as it may, it matters little. It neither adds to nor detracts from faith. It is immaterial whether these men were Christ’s cousins or His brothers begotten by Joseph. In any event, they moved to Capernaum with Christ, where they took charge of the parish. (“Sermons on the Gospel of St. John,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 22, pp. 214-15)

It is an article of faith that Mary is Mother of the Lord and still a virgin. (Weimarer Ausgabe 11:319-320)

The evangelist [Luke] says that Mary kept the Law of Moses and considered herself unclean. She has just given birth, and the Son is her firstborn. Therefore, since she had observed her six weeks, and the time of her purification had come, she entered the temple and presented her Son [cf. Luke 2:22 ff.]. For thus says the Law: “Every male who is first to open the womb shall be called holy to the Lord” [Exod. 13:2]. Here the mother and Son have to bear the epithet “unclean,” as if the Law applied to them. For though this commandment and the forty days apply to all other mothers and children, nevertheless it does not apply to this mother and Child, for the Law says, “Every male who is first to open the womb.” Opening the womb is said only of those who have lost their virginity and who have got a child from a man. That did not happen with this mother, for she remained a virgin during the birth and after the birth, just as she was before the conception and the birth [lsa. 7:14]. And she suffered no harm to either body or virginity. The childbearing of other women does not arrive with laughing or amusement; instead, they have to feel fear and pain, as God said to Eve: “In pain you shall bring forth children” [Gen. 3:16]. But in this case it took place without pain or injury, and there was nothing but joy when she had borne the child. That is why the law of purification and the requirement to redeem the firstborn son did not apply to this mother and her Son, and likewise neither was she unclean. But over all other women, as over Eve, stands the law: “In pain you shall bring forth children.” They have to feel fear and pain, but for Mary the birth came without bitterness, fear, hardship, or pain. Although she is pure and the Law cannot bind her or her Son, nonetheless she submits herself and her Son to the Law. She obeys the commandment, though Moses had commanded nothing that pertained to them; and both mother and Son voluntarily submit themselves to and obey the Law, even though they were under no obligation to follow or obey it. For this command applied neither to the mother, Mary, nor to her Son. In the same way also He demonstrates His obedience to the Law in the circumcision, an obedience that He did not owe the Law in this case either, and there He shed His holy blood. For He was not born in sin like other children, and His mother also remained a pure, chaste maiden. (“Sermon for the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 58 [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2010], pp. 433-34)

Now this refutes also the false interpretation which some have drawn from the words of Matthew, where he says, “Before they came together she was found to be with child.” They interpret this as though the evangelist meant to say, “Later she came together with Joseph like any other wife and lay with him, but before this occurred she was with child apart from Joseph,” etc. Again, when he says, “And Joseph knew her not until she brought forth her first-born son” [Matt. 1:25], they interpret it as though the evangelist meant to say that he knew her, but not before she had brought forth her first-born son. This was the view of Helvidius which was refuted by Jerome. Such carnal interpretations miss the meaning and purpose of the evangelist. As we have said, the evangelist, like the prophet Isaiah [cf. Isaiah 7:14], wishes to set before our eyes this mighty wonder, and point out what an unheard-of thing it is for a maiden to be with child before her husband brings her home and lies with her; and further, that he does not know her carnally until she first has a son, which she should have had after first having been known by him. Thus, the words of the evangelist do not refer to anything that occurred after the birth, but only to what took place before it. For the prophet and the evangelist, and St. Paul as well, do not treat of this virgin beyond the point where they have from her that fruit for whose sake she is a virgin and everything else. After the child is born they dismiss the mother and speak not about her, what became of her, but only about her offspring. Therefore, one cannot from these words [Matt. 1:18, 25] conclude that Mary, after the birth of Christ, became a wife in the usual sense; it is therefore neither to be asserted nor believed. All the words are merely indicative of the marvelous fact that she was with child and gave birth before she had lain with a man. The form of expression used by Matthew is the common idiom, as if I were to say, “Pharaoh believed not Moses, until he was drowned in the Red Sea.” Here it does not follow that Pharaoh believed later, after he had drowned; on the contrary, it means that he never did believe. Similarly when Matthew [1:25] says that Joseph did not know Mary carnally until she had brought forth her son, it does not follow that he knew her subsequently; on the contrary, it means that he never did know her. Again, the Red Sea overwhelmed Pharaoh before he got across. Here too it does not follow that Pharaoh got across later, after the Red Sea had overwhelmed him, but rather that he did not get across at all. In like manner, when Matthew [1:18] says, “She was found to be with child before they came together,” it does not follow that Mary subsequently lay with Joseph, but rather that she did not lie with him. Elsewhere in Scripture the same manner of speech is employed. Psalm 110[:1] reads, “God says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool.’” Here it does not follow that Christ does not continue to sit there after his enemies are placed beneath his feet. Again, in Genesis 28[:15], “I will not leave you until I have done all that of which I have spoken to you.” Here God did not leave him after the fulfilment had taken place. Again, in Isaiah 42[:4], “He shall not be sad, nor troublesome, till he has established justice in the earth.” There are many more similar expressions, so that this babble of Helvidius is without justification; in addition, he has neither noticed nor paid any attention to either Scripture or the common idiom. (“That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew,” pp. 211-13)

Helvidius, that fool, was also willing to credit Mary with more sons after Christ’s birth because of the words of the Evangelist: “And [Joseph] knew her not till she had brought forth her first-born Son” (Matt. 1:25). This had to be understood, as he thought, as though she had more sons after the first-born Son. How stupid he was! He received a fitting answer from Jerome. (“Vom Schem Hamphoras und vom Geschlecht Christi” [1543], St. L. XX:2098; quoted in Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, Vol. II [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1951], p. 308)

It should not be understood that Joseph knew Mary afterwards. Rather this is a manner of speaking in the Scriptures. As in Genesis 8, the raven did not come back “until the soil dried out;” the Scripture does not mean that the raven came back after that. So also it does not mean to say that Joseph knew Mary afterwards. (marginal note at Matthew 1:25 in Luther’s Bible [1545])

Then he [Luther] questioned whether Mary knew [i.e., had sexual relations with] Joseph even after the birth of Christ, as Matthew calls him “the firstborn son” [Matt. 1:25]. He answered, “The church has left this alone and has not determined this. But nevertheless the same consequence is firmly demonstrated because she remained a virgin, but on the other hand she was viewed as the mother of the Son of God. She was not judged to be the mother of human sons and remained in that state.” (Table Talk #4435 [1539], in Luther on Women, p. 56)

Then he [Luther] was asked whether Mary also had intercourse with Joseph after the birth of Christ, for Matthew says that he “knew her not until she had borne a son” [Matt. 1:25]. He replied, “The church leaves this [to us] and has not decided. Nevertheless, what happened afterward shows quite strongly that Mary remained a virgin. For after she had perceived that she was the mother of the Son of God, she didn’t think she should become the mother of a human child and adhered to this vow.” (Table Talk #4435 [same as above], in Luther’s Works, Vol. 54 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967], p. 341)


For “he did not know her” – it says – “until she gave birth to a Son, her firstborn” (Mt 1:25). But this could make one suppose that Mary, after having offered in all purity her own service in giving birth to the Lord, by virtue of the intervention of the Holy Spirit, did not subsequently refrain from normal conjugal relations. That would not have affected the teaching of our religion at all, because Mary’s virginity was necessary until the service of the Incarnation, and what happened afterward need not be investigated in order to affect the doctrine of the mystery. But since the lovers of Christ [that is, the faithful] do not allow themselves to hear that the Mother of God [Theotókos] ceased at a given moment to be a virgin, we consider their testimony to be sufficient. (St. Basil the Great, PG 31, 1468 B; quoted in Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999], p. 146)

We must not debate inquisitively about this subject – whether after she had given birth to the Saviour Mary again contracted a marriage or, on the other hand, remained a virgin – because this has no application to the mystery of faith. ... The “afterward” (namely, after Christ’s birth) is something with which we do not meddle with respect to the Word of the mystery, because it takes no respect away from the Word; because it does no harm to piety. (St. Basil the Great, “Sermon on the Nativity of Christ,” Vol. 1, p. 389; quoted in John Gerhard, Theological Commonplaces, “On the Nature of Theology and Scripture,” 18, 8)

An article of faith is not a gloss, assertion, or opinion for which there is no clear and definite passage in Holy Scripture. Such, for example, are the questions concerning the time of the world’s creation, whether it took place in spring or in fall; the day and year of Christ’s birth; the perpetual virginity of the blessed Virgin after His birth; the soul sleep, and other matters in which men might exercise their wits. But these dare not be forced upon others as sacred teachings of the church. Such excrescences occur in scholastic theology by the wholesale, where one tries to milk a he-goat, while another endeavors to catch the milk in a sieve. (Johann Conrad Dannhauer, Hodosophia christiana sine theologia positiva, 11, p. 667; quoted in C. F. W. Walther, The True Visible Church [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1961], p. 107)

Grossmann: “When you subscribed to the Confessions, were you aware of the fact that they declared the permanent virginity of Mary?” Walther: “Yes, I can say so in the presence of God.” Grossmann: “Do you still believe this to be true doctrine?” Walther: “Yes, I can say so in the presence of God.” Grossmann: “What are your reasons for considering this a true presentation?” Walther: “Pardon me, but you have no right to ask this question.” (Transcript of an exchange between G. M. Grossmann of the Iowa Synod and C. F. W. Walther of the Missouri Synod, in J. P. Beyer, Stenographish aufgezeichnetes Colloquium der Vertreter der Synode von Illinois [sic for Iowa] under der Missouri, Ohio, u. a. St., gehalten vom 13.-19. Nov. in Milwaukee, Wis. [1867], p. 43 sq.; quoted in J. L. Neve, A Brief History of the Lutheran Church in America [Second Revised and Enlarged Edition] [Burlington, Iowa: The German Literary Board, 1916], p. 289).

(Erich Heidenreich offers an alternate and fuller translation of this exchange... Insp. Grossmann: When you subscribed to the Symbols, did you also know that the point of the perpetual virginity of Mary is stated therein? Prof. Walther: Yes, I can assure you of this before God. Insp. Grossmann: Do you also still believe this is the true doctrine regarding this? Prof. Walther: Yes, I can assure you of this before God. Insp. Grossmann: What are your grounds for it that you regard this as the correct representation? Prof. Walther: They don’t allow you a followup question. Insp. Grossmann: I only asked in such a way because I cannot understand how a human teaching can have such a fixed conviction. Prof. Walther: You say “human teachings.” Thus you have an enormous difference admitted between the teachings which are clearly stated in God’s Word, and such and similar points as those which you raised a while ago; certainly not regarding the Lutheran that subscribes, but regarding the church, if they are to explain whom they regard still as a Lutheran. Prof. S. J.: Professor Walther wills that everything that is taught in the Symbolical Books is to be binding... Prof. Walther: Because if one does not confess even that which he does not yet understand clearly, a lot of other problems will result. Insp. Grossmann: For example? Prof. Walther: For example the teaching of a still approaching thousand year reign, of the Antichrist, let alone all the explanatory and substantiating arguments and statements.)

Walther acknowledged the existence of “open questions”... He wishes to have the term “open question” used as synonymous with “theological problems.” Hence open questions are to him such as God’s Word leaves open questions which indeed arise in connection with the discussion of the Christian articles of faith, “but which find no solution in God’s Word.” (L.u.W., 14,33.) Walther insists most strenuously that open questions in this sense be acknowledged, and this for the very purpose that the Scripture principle may remain inviolate. For if one should wish to “close” a question which God’s Word leaves open, then one would be adding to the Scripture. He writes: “What is not contained and decided in God’s Word must also not be equated with God’s Word and thus added to God’s Word. But this would take place if orthodoxy should be made dependent upon any doctrine not contained in God’s Word and the denial of it should be given church-divisive significance. Open questions in this sense are therefore all doctrines which are neither positively nor negatively decided by God’s Word, or such by the affirmation of which nothing which Holy Scripture denies is affirmed, and by the denial of which nothing which Holy Scripture affirms is denied” (L.u.W., 14,33). Among such open questions Walther, with the older theologians, reckons also the following: Whether Mary gave birth to other children after Christ (the semper virgo); whether the soul is imparted to every man through propagation from his parents, as flame from flame (per traducem, traducianism), or through creative infusion (creationism); whether the visible world will pass away on the last day according to its substance or only according to its attributes, etc. (L.u.W.,14,34). On the other hand Walther insists most strenuously that nothing shall be declared an open question and treated as such which is clearly taught in God’s Word and thus decided by God’s Word. (Franz Pieper, Lehre und Wehre, July-August 1888, pp. 198-204 [translated by W. H. McLaughlin])

Distinct from the Scripture doctrine of Christ’s virgin birth is the question whether Mary gave birth to the Son of God “with closed womb” (clauso utero). The Lutheran dogmaticians leave this question undecided, but declare that the “clauso utero” is possible because of the communication of divine attributes and Christs illocal mode of subsistence. Baier, for instance, says: “But that other doctrine, which some believe, namely, that Mary gave birth to her Son clauso utero, is uncertain” [Baier-Walther III, 85]. Scherzer writes: “It is curiously asked whether the teaching of the Virgin Birth demands that a birth clauso utero be likewise taught. It is sufficient to teach that He was born without destroying her virginity ... The Calvinists, denying the communication of attributes, teach that He was born from an opened womb, because He could not have been born from a closed womb. But we teach the communication of attributes, and so also the possibility of a birth clauso utero” [Syst. 179, 181]. The Formula of Concord writes: “This (illocal) mode, according to which He neither occupies nor vacates space, He used, as it is believed, when He was born of His mother, the most holy Virgin Mary” [Trigl. 1007, F.C., Sol. Decl., VII, 100].
At this point we may discuss also the question concerning the semper virgo, that is, the question whether Mary, after she had become the mother of the Savior of the world through the miraculous working of the Holy Ghost, became the mother of other children in her marriage with Joseph. [Cp. Trigl. 461, Smalc. Art., I, 4: “The Son of man became man in this manner, that He was conceived without the co-operation of man, by the Holy Ghost, and was born of the pure, holy [and always] Virgin Mary.” – The Latin sempervirgine is not found in the German text.] The early Christian Church, as did also Luther and other Lutheran teachers, answered the question in the negative. Luther thus writes: “Helvidius [a teacher of the fourth century whose writings were condemned by Jerome], that fool, was also willing to credit Mary with more sons after Christ’s birth because of the words of the Evangelist: ‘And [Joseph] knew her not till she had brought forth her first-born Son’ (Matt. 1:25). This had to be understood, as he thought, as though she had more sons after the first-born Son. How stupid he was! He received a fitting answer from Jerome” [St. L. XX:2098. Cp., for Chemnitz’ opinion, Harmonia Evangelica, ad Matt. 1:25.]. In more recent times theologians disagree on the question. Luthardt remarks on John 2:12 that Sieffert, Wieseler, Neander, Weiss, Bleek, L. Schulze, favor brothers of Christ, in the proper sense of the term; in favor of cousins we find Holmann, Lichtenstein, Lange. To the latter belong also Hengstenberg and Keil. David Brown, in the Commentary, Critical and Explanatory (ad Matt. 13:55), leaves the question open, while his collaborator Fausset decides in favor of cousin (ad Gal. 1:19). Dummelow, in the Commentary on the Holy Bible, weighs both possibilities (ad Matt. 12:46).
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. In his Systema (I, 159) Quenstedt gives this matter careful consideration. But we must emphatically object when those who assume that Jesus had natural brothers pride themselves on their more delicate “exegetical conscience” and disparage those who hold the opposite view. They certainly cannot prove their view from Scripture, at least not from the “till” (ewsou , Matt. 1:25) and the “first born” (prwtotokos, Luke 2:7). In his Harmonia Evangelica (ad Matt. 1:25) Chemnitz shows that (ewsou, donec, priusquam, which mean “until then” or its equivalent, do not declare that the things that did not take place “till then” did occur at a later time. Chemnitz proves this fact, on the one hand, by Gen. 19:22; Lev. 12:4; Acts 25:16; and, on the other, by Gen. 8:7; 1 Sam. 15:35; 2 Sam. 6:23; Matt. 28:20, and similar passages. This second group of passages Chemnitz correctly describes as follows: “It denies the past without determining the future.” Meyer agrees as regards the (ewsou, but holds that prwtotokos entitles him to conclude that Mary gave birth to other children besides Christ. Chemnitz, however, says of “first-born” (prototokos): “The answer is simple; for in the Law, when they are commanded to offer the first-born to the Lord, the sense is not that there must be born another after the first. Not only he is called ‘first-born’ after whom others are born, but rather he before whom none was born, even though he be the only child.” Decisive proof cannot be supplied even from the passages that mention “brothers” and “sisters” of Christ, such as Matt. 12:46 ff.; 13:55 ff.; John 2:12; 7:3 ff.; Gal. 1:19. Since the question is a purely historical one, it is best not to spend too much time on it. (Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, Vol. II [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1951], pp. 307-09)

Virgin and Child
(Lucas Cranach the Elder)

Et Tamen Virgo Mansit (John R. Stephenson)

Semper Virgo, Clauso Utero and the Womb of the Church (Rick Sawyer)

Semper Virgo? A Biblical Review of a Debated Dogma (James B Prothro)

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