All orthodox Christians acknowledge that Mary conceived Jesus as virgin before giving birth to him (virginitas ante partum). But Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some Protestant Christians also assert that Mary miraculously retained her virginity during birth (virginitas in partu) and remained a virgin for the rest of her life after the birth of Jesus (virginitas post partum). This view runs deep in the tradition. Many patristic and medieval theologians affirmed Mary’s status as the “ever-virgin.”
This paper examines the reception of this Marian tradition in the Protestant tradition, highlighting significant differences in the theological method and theological anthropology of those who affirm this teaching and those who reject it. While many, if not most, evangelicals would deny or ignore this teaching, many of their theological forebears embraced it. Catholic apologists frequently point out that Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin upheld Mary’s perpetual virginity. Luther and Zwingli certainly affirmed this doctrine, and Calvin was at least open to the possibility. But to quote these Reformers who came out of a background of Marian devotion to support this doctrine is to miss the main point of their method.
Popular religious texts in the early second century like the Ascension of Isaiah (c. 150 AD) and The Odes of Solomon (c. 125 AD) promoted the idea that Mary had a miraculous, pain-free delivery (in partu). Yet the most important source for the perpetual virginity doctrine is a mid-second-century apocryphal gospel called The Protoevangelium of James.
When the Protestant Reformers like Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin pushed the theology of the church back to the Bible, they didn’t reject all forms of tradition. Protestants have no difficulty accepting creeds or confessions that make claims about the meaning of Scripture, even when councils must invent new theological terms and conceptual categories to describe its contents. But contemporary Protestants are reluctant to take as authoritative claims about events in redemption history which are not explicitly mentioned in the canon of Scripture.
The doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity grew out of an ascetic church culture where virginity was prized as a superior virtue, the ultimate example of physical and emotional self-denial for the glory of God. This represents a fundamentally different theological anthropology with regards to marriage and sexuality. Whereas modern Protestants and evangelicals do not blush to talk about sex for the sake of pleasure and intimacy in marriage, many early church theologians would have winced at such talk. These two extremes—the denial of the goodness of married sex and the somewhat crass parading of married sensuality—represent two very different ways of thinking about marriage, singleness, and sex.
Protestant Reformers like Luther had a tenuous relationship with this view of marriage and sexuality. On the one hand, Luther was a reformer of Christian views on marriage, advocating for marriage in the clergy. On the other hand, Luther held to the perpetual virginity of Mary throughout his entire life.