In Honor of the Immaculate Conception

Here’s a little snatch from Mary, Mother of the Son, Volume 2: First Guardian of the Faith. We are here considering the question of the development of the dogma and looking at issues like “If it’s apostolic, why don’t the Orthodox have a dogma of the Immaculate Conception?” and “I heard St. Thomas Aquinas rejected the Immaculate Conception, so who’s the heretic? Him or the Church?”:

What About the Eastern Orthodox Churches?

That said, the question still remains: If the Immaculate Conception is truly apostolic teaching, then why do the Eastern Orthodox Churches reject it? After all, those Churches trace their lineage to apostolic times just as the Catholic Church does. To answer that, we have to understand why the Roman Church developed her doctrine in the way she did and why the East did not take the same path.

Some people have the notion the Eastern Orthodox Churches reject the Immaculate Conception because a few early Eastern Fathers (Origen, Basil, and John Chrysostom) expressed a couple of doubts about Mary’s sinlessness. Origen thought that, during Christ’s Passion, the sword that pierced Mary’s soul was disbelief. Basil had the same notion. And John Chrysostom thought her guilty of ambition and pushiness in Matthew 12:46 (an incident we have already examined).

But the remarkable thing about these opinions is how isolated they turn out to be. Essentially, they demonstrate (once again) something about the development of doctrine that we’ve already seen in connection with the Trinity: The Catholic Church is not a monolith and her people, even very good people, sometimes voice in good faith ideas that end up departing from the orthodox norm. For the reality is that, apart from these three, the overwhelming consensus of the Fathers in both east and west is that Mary is “most pure,” “formed without any stain,” “all-Holy,” “undefiled,” “spotless,” “immaculate of the immaculate,” “inviolate and free from every stain of sin,” and created in a condition more sublime and glorious than all other natures.

In short, for the Eastern Fathers, as for the Catholic Church, Mary is as St. Ephraem describes her:

Most holy Lady, Mother of God, alone most pure in soul and body, alone exceeding all perfection of purity . . . alone made in thy entirety the home of all the graces of the Most Holy Spirit, and hence exceeding beyond all compare even the angelic virtues in purity and sanctity of soul and body . . . my Lady most holy, all-pure, all-immaculate, all-stainless, all-undefiled, all-incorrupt, all-inviolate spotless robe of Him Who clothes Himself with light as with a garment . . . flower unfading, purple woven by God, alone most immaculate.

So if the Eastern Orthodox Churches ignored Origen, Basil, and Chrysostom when they speculated that Mary was sinful, why do they reject the Immaculate Conception? In a nutshell, they reject it because the Immaculate Conception is the answer to a number of questions the Eastern Christians were never much interested in asking. And if you don’t ask the questions, you don’t come up with the answers. But, as we shall see, that’s cold comfort for Evangelicals.

The Pelagian Controversy

Here’s the deal: In the fifth century, a question arose in the Western Church: “Are we sinners because we sin or do we sin because we are sinners?” A monk from Britain named Pelagius began to teach that we are only sinners because we sin, and so we can save ourselves simply by willing not to sin anymore. Jesus, said Pelagius, was primarily sent as a good example. Our task was to just grit our teeth and, through sheer will power, imitate him perfectly, thereby freeing ourselves from sin. This notion began to attract some Christians in western Europe because it appealed to a cultural imperative that approved of demanding high and heroic deeds from oneself. There was only one problem: Pelagianism wasn’t true—a fact proven in the Laboratory of Human Experience by everybody who has ever tried it.

The foe of Pelagianism was the great Father of the Western Church, Augustine of Hippo. Basing his argument on Paul’s teaching, Augustine reminded the Pelagians that, in truth, we sin because we are sinners, born of the fallen Adam. This is why, Augustine argued, the Gospel says, “[S]in came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned” (Rom. 5:12). And so, concluded Augustine (with the agreement of the Western bishops and the pope), Pelagius is disastrously wrong to claim that we can, on our own and without God’s aid, save ourselves from sin. For sin is, in its most fundamental reality, the lack of the life of God. And it’s nonsense to speak of restoring the lack of God’s life in our souls without God.

Now all of this was basically believed in the Eastern Orthodox Churches as well. Eastern Orthodox Christians read the same Pauline letters their Roman cousins read. But the Pelagian controversy never really affected the Eastern Churches. So the Eastern theologians never saw much point to closely defining just how it occurs that we are sinners, and therefore they never got around to fussing much about philosophical terms like “original sin.” The East simply tended to affirm the broad and mysterious statement that we are all sinners “in Adam” and left it at that.

Why does this matter? Because if you don’t have a concept of original sin threshed out and articulated as it has been in the West, then you don’t need to explain how it is that Mary isn’t affected by original sin. You can—and, until need arises, probably should—simply do what the Eastern Churches did: acclaim Mary as “Panagia” or “All Holy” (i.e. sinless), sing “Hail, O Bride and Maiden ever-pure!” and leave it at that. That’s why there’s not much comfort for Evangelicals in the Eastern Orthodox Churches. For Eastern Orthodoxy doesn’t bother with the notion of original sin (which Evangelicals, relying on Catholic tradition, insist upon) while heaping the same accolades on Mary’s sinless life that Catholics do.

St. Thomas and St. Bernard

This leaves us with the question of why medieval Catholics like Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux did not preach the Immaculate Conception. The basic answer, as I discovered, is, “Because even Michael Jordan misses layups.” People like Bernard and Thomas were still hashing out the question, “How do we reconcile Mary’s sinlessness with original sin?” And they overlooked a few things in the process. It happens when people do pioneering works of discovery.

Evangelicals may be surprised to learn Sts. Thomas and Bernard believed Mary never sinned. How can they believe that, and yet not believe in an Immaculate Conception? Easy. The problem for Thomas and Bernard, as for virtually all Christians until well into the sixteenth century, was never, “Did Mary sin?” Both men, like all their contemporaries, answered that question with a firm negative. Thomas, for instance, writes:

I answer that, God so prepares and endows those, whom He chooses for some particular office, that they are rendered capable of fulfilling it, according to 2 Cor. 3:6: “(Who) hath made us fit ministers of the New Testament.” Now the Blessed Virgin was chosen by God to be His Mother. Therefore there can be no doubt that God, by His grace, made her worthy of that office, according to the words spoken to her by the angel (Lk. 1:30, 31): ‘Thou hast found grace with God: behold thou shalt conceive,’ etc. But she would not have been worthy to be the Mother of God, if she had ever sinned. First, because the honor of the parents reflects on the child, according to Prov. 17:6: “The glory of children are their fathers”: and consequently, on the other hand, the Mother’s shame would have reflected on her Son. Secondly, because of the singular affinity between her and Christ, who took flesh from her: and it is written (2 Cor. 6:15): “What concord hath Christ with Belial?” Thirdly, because of the singular manner in which the Son of God, who is the “Divine Wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:24) dwelt in her, not only in her soul but in her womb. And it is written (Wis. 1:4): “Wisdom will not enter into a malicious soul, nor dwell in a body subject to sins.”

We must therefore confess simply that the Blessed Virgin committed no actual sin, neither mortal nor venial; so that what is written (Song of Songs 4:7) is fulfilled: “Thou art all fair, O my love, and there is not a spot in thee,” etc.

The only puzzle for Thomas and others who pondered the matter was how—not whether—Mary was sinless. So we find Bernard of Clairvaux is also cold comfort for Evangelicals, since from an Evangelical perspective, Bernard’s issue is a minor quibble:

If Mary could not be sanctified before her conception itself, on account of the sin (concupiscence) involved therein, it follows she was sanctified in the womb after conception, which, since she was cleansed from sin, made her birth holy and not her conception.

Bernard, like Thomas and the apostolic Tradition of the East and West, takes it for granted that Mary was born sinless and remained that way forever. The only issue for him, as for Thomas, is how she got that way.

Enter the Subtle Doctor: Duns Scotus

Bernard, Thomas, Albert the Great, and Bonaventure were participants in what proved to be a very long and complex theological argument. To boil that argument down, some argued Mary was purified of sin before her soul was infused into her body. Others, like Bernard, et al, insisted she was purified of sin after her soul was infused into her body (but well before her birth).

In the end, a guy named Duns Scotus finally resolved the problem by addressing two questions: 1) Why would God preserve Mary from sin? and 2) How did God do it?

Scotus’ answer as to why God would do this is telling, because it again shows Mary as a) a living commentary on the saving power of Christ who is totally referred to him and b) a kind of icon or archetype of the whole Church, whereby God does first in her what he will one day do for all his saints.

Duns Scotus said that since Christ is a perfect savior, there must be at least one instance of somebody who is perfectly saved by Jesus—saved from top to bottom and from beginning to end—saved so perfectly that they were saved, not by being pulled out of the pit of sin, but by being kept from ever falling in at all. And the fitting candidate for that perfect gift of preventative salvation is Mary:

He who is the most perfect mediator must have a most perfect act of mediation in regard to some person on whose behalf he exercises the mediatorial office. Now Christ is the most perfect . . . and he had no more exalted relation to any person than to the Blessed Virgin Mary . . . This could not be if he had not merited for her preservation from original sin.

Notice the logic here. The point is not ultimately Mary’s glory, but Christ’s. Mary’s absolutely perfect salvation—a salvation so perfect that sin never got its hooks in her in any way—is a witness to the perfection of Christ’s saving power. It’s a sign of hope to all sinners—even the most wretched—that Christ’s saving power displays complete dominion in any human circumstance.

Note also that it’s fittingness, gauged in relationship to God’s sovereignty, and not some idea of exterior restraints on God, that Duns Scotus has in view here. Mary is a fitting recipient of this singular gift, just as a fine wine is most fitly served in a golden goblet and not a styrofoam cup. I mention that because it has become common among some Catholics to claim that the Immaculate Conception was not fitting in the sense Scotus uses, but truly and actually necessary since, according to them, “In order to be a worthy vessel for the all-holy God, she had to be utterly holy”

The dicey words in such an argument are “had to.” It’s one thing to say Mary “had to” be holy, if you mean that God’s gracious and unmerited mercy turns out to work in certain ways and not others. But it’s another thing entirely to suggest that God “must” arrange the universe to work in a certain way. When Catholics fail to keep this distinction in mind, they unintentionally end up suggesting that God was under some preexisting, independent obligation to grant Mary the grace of Immaculate Conception. One typical form of this problematic argument runs:

If God is Holiness Itself, how could He dwell in an unholy vessel? How could the One Who demands holiness from His people (Lev. 19:2) and particularly from the priests who minister before him (Ex. 28:6) [sic] dwell for nine months in an unholy woman!

One can be forgiven for thinking that such an apologetic for the Immaculate Conception pictures a sort of matter/anti-matter explosion should a Holy God come into contact with a sinner. The notion that creeps in is that the Incarnation would have been impossible for God without the Immaculate Conception and that God was therefore obliged by the circumstances in which he found Himself to preserve Mary from sin.

Rather than approach the Immaculate Conception in this way I think it’s much wiser to approach it as though God is an artist or, better still, a Father. The only obligations God is bound by are those he places on himself. So, for instance, God “has to” speak the truth, not because he is under some exterior constraint, but because truth is his nature. In the same way, steel “has to” be strong because that’s what steel is. Likewise, God “must,” in the end, “render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury” (Rom. 2:6–8). Again, this is not something he is obliged to do by some law imposed on him, still less because he owes us anything. Rather, it’s the fitting reward justice himself gives in accord with own his nature.

Very well then, men like Duns Scotus asked, “Would the God of justice and mercy grant the first Eve, who He foreknew would betray Him, a greater glory in her creation than He would give the second Eve, who He foreknew would be His handmaid forever?” The Immaculate Conception is not a necessity in the sense that the Incarnation would be impossible for God without it. Nor is it something God “owes” Mary any more than He “owes” us salvation. It’s a gratuitous gift, fittingly given to adorn the still more gratuitous gift of the Incarnation. Precisely the nature of the “fit” is that the second Eve would not only receive the grace of sinlessness in her conception, but she would preserve that sinlessness throughout her life. And, like all God’s gifts, it is given to the chosen for the sake of the unchosen—as we shall see more clearly in a moment.

As to how God kept her from sin, Scotus’s contribution to the argument (which, after much mulling over, was eventually received by the whole Church) was to solve the objection that Mary was a daughter of Adam (and therefore afflicted by original sin) before she became an adopted child of God by showing that:

in the order of nature, Mary was a child of Adam before she was justified; but in the order of time, her sanctification coincided with the creation of her soul.

In other words, in the order of nature Mary was headed straight for the quicksand. But in the order of time, God pulled her out of the quicksand’s way, granting her the grace Christ won by his Passion and Resurrection, in anticipation of his sacrifice and not apart from it. And this happened in the first moment of her conception, neither before she came into existence nor at some time after. This argument, which was contested bitterly in some quarters, eventually carried the day and found official theological favor in the popes’ judgments. In 1483, Pope Sixtus IV addressed the controversy over the Immaculate Conception, and gave Duns Scotus’s conclusion in favor of the doctrine papal approval. This approval, it should be noted, did not mean “Everybody but Scotus is wrong.” It simply meant that, in addition to the other theories of how Mary was preserved from sin floating around in the Catholic world, Scotus’s was admitted to the discussion as a legitimate contender.

After this, there wasn’t much of a quarrel in the Church. Most people happily celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (promulgated in 1476) and the controversy died down (although there were holdouts among some Dominicans, who stuck with Thomas’s theology on Mary’s holiness right up until 1854). But for the average Catholic it was a settled matter that the Church had arrived at a clearer understanding of Scripture by seeing just how full of charis Mary really was when the mysterious angelic greeting “Kaire, Kecharitomene!” (“Hail, Full of Grace!”) gave her a title as pregnant with meaning as her womb (Luke 1:28). Indeed, even early Reformers like Martin Luther had no problem with the doctrine:

It is a sweet and pious belief that the infusion of Mary’s soul was effected without original sin; so that in the very infusion of her soul she was also purified from original sin and adorned with God’s gifts, receiving a pure soul infused by God; thus from the first moment she began to live she was free from all sin.

So Why the Dogma?

The natural question to ask, once we have heard this story, is, “If the controversy settled down in the fifteenth century, why did the Church formally define the Immaculate Conception as dogma four hundred years later, in the nineteenth century?”

Why indeed? See the book to find out!


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