How Revelation Proceeds

There’s a little discussion going on about the Immaculate Conception and several Catholics are voicing the “She had to be immaculate so that Jesus could dwell in her womb” theory. A Protestant is (understandably) saying “Then how does the Holy Spirit dwell in the rest of us unimmaculate types?” I’m not going to try to answer that question (since I don’t buy that explanation of the reason for the IC either, so I’m not obliged to).

Instead, I’m going to point out something else. Folks trying to deal with some point of revelation need to remember that theories about *why* God chose to do X and not Y are different than the revelation that God has, in fact, done X and not Y. C.S. Lewis referred to this in Mere Christianity when he spoke of vitamin theories. He said that people ate their dinners for centuries without ever knowing what vitamins were. They just ate and felt better. Then somebody came up with vitamin theories to explain why dinners make you feel better when you are hungry. If, tomorrow, somebody proves that vitamins don’t exist, people will go on eating their dinners and feeling better.

Theories of the atonement are the same way. We know *that* Christ’s death and resurrection have atoned for our sins. We don’t really know how and all our various theories attempting to explain how are just that: theories about the Reality, not the Reality itself. What matters is that we receive the atonement in faith and baptism. Theories of how it all works are handy, but quite secondary. They are not the revelation, only our attempts to understand the revelation.

Dittos for the Immaculate Conception. What is revealed is the fact that Mary was preserved from sin (both original and actual). Why God chose to do so is an entirely secondary question. Bad explanations by Catholics don’t refute the revelation. They merely show that some Catholics have inadequate theories about why God does the strange and wonderful things he does.

It is worth noting that revelation proceeds much more like falling in love than like deriving the solution to a math problem. The early Church did not come up with a passel of doctrines and then say, “Let’s tell people that God is a Trinity, Mary is sinless, and predestination and free will are both true so that we can play logic games with this cool leatherbound book we just published.” Rather, revelation hit them on the head out of clear blue sky and they spent the rest of their lives asking, “What the heck was that?” Just as we don’t get up in the morning planning to meet That Special (Wo)Man Who Changes our Lives Forever, so the apostles were not expecting to meet Jesus and have him do all the weird things he did. They weren’t expecting the Resurrection. Or Pentecost. Or the conversion of the Gentiles. Or Mary. These things happened and then the Church has spent 2000 years trying to figure out what happened and what it all means.

This means that the Church often doesn’t really know *why* it teaches what it teaches. “Why no women priests?” somebody asks. And the Church spends several decades or centuries saying, “Good question. All we know is what Jesus told us to do. Here are some possible reasons why. But the important thing is Jesus told us to do it this way.” Same with the Immaculate Conception. The Church is satisfied *that* Mary is immaculately conceived and sinless. Reasons *why* God might have chosen to do this are an entirely secondary matter.


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