This is one of my many critiques of the book entitled, Roman but Not Catholic: What Remains at Stake 500 Years after the Reformation, by evangelical Protestant theologian Kenneth J. Collins and Anglican philosopher Jerry L. Walls (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2017).
Kenneth Collins, in his chapter 16: “Mary Again: From Dogmatic definition to Co-Redeemer?,” argues that “if Mary lacked original sin and therefore, lacked a carnal nature, then she was like no other human being who ever lived.”
This is untrue. Adam and Eve before the fall were without sin and a carnal nature, and could have been so indefinitely had they (and the entire human race “in” them) chosen not to rebel. Jesus Christ also had a human nature (as a Divine person), yet without sin and concupiscence. So that is three people (or two, if we omit Jesus, being the God-man), whereas they claimed “no other . . . ever.” But of course, we could also refer to the saved in heaven who are now without sin. The Bible says they are more alive than we are, and are not dead. They still live. That makes multiples thousands, and likely millions, who remain human beings (now glorified, but still human), but without sin.
He continues, piling on errors:
What is being eclipsed here, in a roundabout sort of way, is the true humanity of Mary, and along with it nothing less than the true humanity of Christ as well. Once the latter is undermined, so is the unique status of Jesus as the God / Human. . . . the affirmation of the immaculate conception in effect denies that Jesus was truly human simply because he was not born of a woman who herself was really human, like the rest of humanity. . . . Mary approaches perhaps a demigod . . . not a genuine human being, certainly not any human being whom we have ever known.
This is absolutely outrageous. What makes Collins conclude or assume that the very essence of being a human being is to be a fallen / sinful human being: so much, so, that if this sin is not present, the person ceases to be “a genuine human being” or “really human”? This makes no sense at all. “Fallen” is the descriptor of something else. It’s not equated with the thing it describes. A human being is a human being (a=a). However we define “human being” it’s not being “fallen” that is its essence. It can’t possibly be, because that would mean that the human being was not what it is, till it fell. Then it became human. What was it before? It’s utterly nonsensical.
This highly curious, odd “reasoning” would be like saying that a “fallen tree” is the only “genuine” tree; the only tree that truly is one, because it has fallen. Clearly (logically), there is a thing called a tree, and then there is an event that happens to it (falling). It makes no sense to say that it was not truly a tree till it fell, or that there is no such thing as a tree that hasn’t fallen.
This is a rather typical Protestant quasi-Nestorian outlook, whereby it is concluded that the essence of a human being is a sinful nature, rather than being made originally good and sinless and in the image of God. It’s simply not true. We weren’t created to be sinners, and the whole point of regeneration, justification, sanctification, and eschatological salvation and glorification in heaven is to rise above the abnormal (not normal!) state that we are in and to get back to that which God had always intended for us, from all eternity. Being saved and glorified in heaven is being truly, genuinely human; rather than the opposite scenario of Collins, where the saints in heaven are some kind of weird freaks, and we are the normal humans.
This ties into the common Protestant antipathy to the notion of saints. They are regarded as the oddballs, misfits, and freaks; masochists, pie in the sky, somehow not really human; not like us. They are goody-two-shoes and Holy Joes and fit only for mocking (like all those repressed celibate nuns and priests, who deny the reality of the sex drive). We mock and look down on them, of course, so we can pretend that we shouldn’t aspire to be like they are, and can remain in our own cesspool of sin.
The Catholic view is (with all due respect) far more in line with the biblical view, where Jesus (perfectly holy) is said to be our example; where St. Paul tells us to imitate him as he imitates Christ; where the same Paul says that consecrated virginity is “better” and more to be desired, but that marriage is also very good (whatever one is called to); where the list of saintly people in Hebrews 11 are our heroes, to be honored and emulated. So, with such an unbiblical mentality starting out, we would fully expect that the notion of one solitary, sinless person (the Mother of God the Son! What more appropriate person?) would be fit for an “oddball / abnormal” classification; rather than being the one truly normal person out there: the Second Eve; the one who said “yes” to God rather than “no.”
To make the tree analogy closer, imagine a world in which all trees but two have fallen down. It’s a world where it is difficult to imagine a tree that is not horizontal on the ground. Yet here are two that are upright (if we are blessed enough to be able to see them during our lives). One is 100% tree and the second is somehow 100% tree but also 100% God. Now, do we say that these two are the abnormal ones; not genuine trees or truly trees? Or do we say the ones that fell are abnormal? It’s not logically compelling that we must choose one class of trees over the other. Our experience is of all fallen trees (except for the two exceptions: if we are alive when they are around), but that doesn’t prove that they are the true trees and the upright ones aren’t. The truth could be precisely the opposite.
Imagine a second world where virtually everyone lives in a concentration camp (sort of like North Korea or Siberia). If the inhabitants of these camps had never met a person who was free to go where he or she pleased, without coercion, they would regard their situation as “normal.” Yet it is the free persons (never met or very rarely met) who are normal, and the enslaved ones are in the abnormal situation. Sheer numbers of something do not prove anything as to essence.Or we could be in a world where what was called “pizza” was the usual crust with transmission fluid and yellow glue on top. No one knew anything different. Then somehow a real pizza with spaghetti sauce and cheese appears. Do they conclude that that is not pizza because it’s different, or do they conclude that their “pizza”: no matter how numerous, is the aberration?
If we want to see some commentary from a far more biblical view, I highly recommend Cardinal Newman. I appeal to my readers — of whatever persuasion — to read the following, and ask yourself if what Newman says resonates and rings more so with you as true, or if Collins’ notions of Mary as not “a genuine human being” or not “really human” resonates and makes more sense:
- Ii is so difficult for me to enter into the feelings of a person who understands the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, and yet objects to it, that I am diffident about attempting to speak on the subject. I was accused of holding it, in one of the first books I wrote, twenty years ago. On the other hand, this very fact may be an argument against an objector—for why should it not have been difficult to me at that time, if there were a real difficulty in receiving it?
- Does not the objector consider that Eve was created, or born, without original sin? Why does not this shock him? Would he have been inclined to worship Eve in that first estate of hers? Why, then, Mary?
- Does he not believe that St. John Baptist had the grace of God—i.e., was regenerated, even before his birth? What do we believe of Mary, but that grace was given her at a still earlier period? All we say is, that grace was given her from the first moment of her existence.
- We do not say that she did not owe her salvation to the death of her Son. Just the contrary, we say that she, of all mere children of Adam, is in the truest sense the fruit and the purchase of His Passion. He has done for her more than for anyone else. To others He gives grace and regeneration at a point in their earthly existence; to her, from the very beginning.
- We do not make her nature different from others. Though, as St. Austin says, we do not like to name her in the same breath with mention of sin, yet, certainly she would have been a frail being, like Eve, without the grace of God. A more abundant gift of grace made her what she was from the first. It was not her nature which secured her perseverance, but the excess of grace which hindered Nature acting as Nature ever will act. There is no difference in kind between her and us, though an inconceivable difference of degree. She and we are both simply saved by the grace of Christ. . . .
Many, many doctrines are far harder than the Immaculate Conception. The doctrine of Original Sin is indefinitely harder. Mary just has not this difficulty. It is no difficulty to believe that a soul is united to the flesh without original sin; the great mystery is that any, that millions on millions, are born with it. Our teaching about Mary has just one difficulty less than our teaching about the state of mankind generally. (Memorandum on the Immaculate Conception, from Meditations and Devotions)
Convert from Lutheranism Louis Bouyer adds a wonderful reflection, which is a great final comment:
The case of the Virgin Mary . . . is certainly the one which best reveals the Catholic idea of sanctity, [yet] to Protestants it appears the height of idolatry . . .
If there is any Catholic belief that shows how much the Church believes in the sovereignty of grace, in its most gratuitous form, it is this one. It is remarkable that the Orthodox controversialists, contrary to the Protestants, reproach Catholics for admitting, in this one case of Our Lady, something analogous to what strict Calvinists admit for all the elect — a grace that saves us absolutely independently of us, not only without any merit of our own, but without any possibility of our cooperation, . . . whereas the Protestant view seems, not merely against reason, but completely absurd. To say that Mary is holy, with a super-eminent holiness, in virtue of a divine intervention previous to the first instant of her existence, is to affirm in her case as absolutely as possible that salvation is a grace, and purely a grace, of God. (The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, translated by A. V. Littledale, London: Harvill Press, 1956, p. 247)
Photo credit: The Virgin of the Lilies (1899), by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]