This is a chapter from my book Mary-A Catholic-Evangelical Debate written with David Gustafson.
Dwight: I expect the Catholic doctrine that is most objectionable to Evangelicals is Mary’s Immaculate Conception. However, since our aim is to approach our differences directly, I’ll state it right up front: Catholics believe that Mary was sinless from the moment of her conception through to the end of her earthly life. Or, as the doctrine was officially defined:
the most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by the singular grace and privilege of almighty God and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ the Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin….
We admit that this doctrine is not stated explicitly in the Scriptures. Does that fact end the matter for Evangelicals?
David: Well, we’re a little more nuanced than that. It’s true that our first question is always, “What does the Bible say?” Cardinal Newman himself acknowledged that “No one can add to revelation. That was given once for all.”
(Evidently he alludes to Jude 3–“the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints”.) If a supposed doctrine is not actually within the sacred “deposit” entrusted by the Apostles to the Church (1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:14, 2:2), then it is not an authentic part of the Christian Faith.
However, we don’t expect a Catholic to put on Sola Scriptura, Bible-only blinders. Instead, you’ll make the point that even the oral teaching of the Apostles was authoritative (1 Thess. 2:13) and was handed down as such (2 Thess. 2:15); and if there’s evidence that a doctrine was taught orally by the Apostles, you’ll argue forcefully that such a doctrine commands our assent. Moreover, you’ll argue that even truths implicit in the Apostles’ teaching are a part of the Faith. (Cardinal Newman explained that, “as time goes on, what was given once for all is understood more and more clearly”.) For example, neither the doctrine of the Trinity
nor the doctrine of Jesus Christ as true God and true Man
is explicitly taught in the New Testament, but each of these doctrines is a synthesis of what the Apostles certainly did teach. Thus, these theological and Christological truths do indeed command our assent.
In the same way, the case for the Mary’s sinlessness could be pretty strong, even in the absence of direct Biblical support, if there is evidence that the first-century Church had received it orally from the Apostles, or if Mary’s sinlessness is implicit in what the Apostles taught. So you will attempt to show how Mary’s sinlessness is implicit in the Scriptures, right?
Dwight: I want to consider what the Bible says, but I also want to explain how we actually think of Mary’s perfection, and how it fits in with the whole plan of redemption. That way, even if our Evangelical readers still disagree with this doctrine, they will at least understand what it is they disagree with.
In previous chapters I’ve tried to show how the fact that Mary was a virgin indicates her character, and not just a lack of sexual experience. When the early Church taught that she was a virgin for her whole life, they were saying that Mary’s special God-given purity included a wholeness that permeated Mary’s whole being. By the end of the second century Mary was referred to as “all holy.”
This does not mean that Mary was seen as some sort of goddess or superwoman. Instead, by God’s grace, she was a completely fulfilled and whole human being.
So we believe Mary was perfect, but not in the same way Jesus was. His was the total perfection of God made flesh. Mary’s perfection is the wholeness of humanity preserved in its original innocence by the redemption of Christ. We agree, don’t we, that sin is a twist in our human nature? It is a lack in our lives. Because of sin, the glory of God’s image is depleted in us. (Romans 3:23) Another way of saying this is that, in our sinful condition, we lack God’s grace.
This was not so with Mary. Rather than lacking God’s grace, Mary was “full of grace.” (Luke 1:24.) Modern versions translate this phrase “highly favored one”, but the Greek word is kecharitomene, a form of the verb charitoo. The root is charis, the word translated “grace” in the New Testament– and kecharitomene, which indicates a fullness or perfection of grace, can be paraphrased “completely, perfectly, enduringly endowed with grace.”
If a person is completely, perfectly and enduringly endowed with grace, then sin, which is an emptiness or distortion in human nature, would be absent.
David: You infer quite a lot from “full of grace”. The Catholic Encyclopedia, however, admits that “kecharitomene … serves only as an illustration, not as a proof of” the Immaculate Conception. In fact, every forgiven sinner has received “the riches of God’s grace”, which God “has freely given us” and indeed has “lavished on us” (Eph. 1:6-8),
but this is no indication of sinlessness; rather, we receive grace precisely because we are sinners. If someone is said to be full of God’s grace, this is not a description of her virtues. It is a comment on the graciousness of God, and not praise to the recipient.
Dwight: I agree. Mary’s grace-full status glorifies God, not Mary. Mary says this too, when she sings, “The Mighty One has done great things for me.” (Luke 1:49)
This particular form (kecharitomene) is used only once in the New Testament–in this reference to Mary. Furthermore, the grammatical construction of the angel’s greeting means that kecharitomene is actually used as a name for Mary. This is similar to God giving Abram a new name meaning “Father of Nations” and Jesus calling Simon, “Peter the Rock.” We know that when God gives people a new name he is emphasizing their character and the role they have to play in the drama of redemption.
It is vital to understand that this grace was in no way Mary’s own merit. She shared in the guilt of original sin (though not the “stain”) and needed Christ’s redemption. We believe in Mary’s case Christ’s redemption worked backwards through time as it did for the Old Testament men and women of faith.
David: It’s right that you distinguish grace and merit, but you fail to carry that distinction through: No matter how complete, perfect, and enduring was this grace that Mary received—make it as unique as you like—by its nature, that superlative grace was grace, and was therefore evidence of God’s generosity (as indeed Mary saw it to be; see Luke 1:48-53) and not of Mary’s being somehow special. In your view, though, because Mary was “full of grace”, she had never had to repent of sin. Her recitations of the penitential Psalms would have been hypothetical. Any sacrifices and offerings for sin that she had made under the Law of Moses would have been superfluous. She never had to “mortify the flesh”, and if she underwent sanctification, it would have been nothing like that process as we experience it. She was not one of us.
Dwight: Mary didn’t receive grace because she was special; she was special because she received grace. Mary was most certainly “one of us”. That’s why we praise God when we see what he has done in her life. Mary was simply given the wholeness that is the destiny of all believers. We are all called to perfection. (Matt. 5:48, 19:21; 2 Cor. 7:1; James 1:4; I John 3:9) In fact, we were predestined in Christ to be “holy and blameless.” (Eph.1:4) Mary is simply the first Christian to be brought to that total perfection in Christ Jesus. As the Protestant theologian John de Satge writes,
The Immaculate Conception of Mary gives the clue to understanding her particular place among her son’s people. She is “the first Christian, the first of the redeemed, the first of our flawed human race to have received the fullness of redemption. From first to last—in Catholic dogma, from Immaculate Conception to Assumption—she was a human being transformed by the grace of God into what, in the divine purpose, she was intended to be.”
This graced wholeness means that Mary was in a fulfilled creature-creator relationship with God. As such Mary was natural. From this perspective it is everybody else—twisted by original sin—who are distorted and un-natural. This is vital to understand: in her fully natural state, Mary was all that every woman was created to be. We say Mary was sinless, but that is really a negative definition. It is better to understand Mary’s perfection as wholeness. Mary then, was not a goddess but a woman preserved in all her primal innocence, as fresh and natural as Eve. This is why the Christians of the first and second centuries taught that Mary was a perpetual virgin, and why the first Christian theologians—Justin Martyr and Irenaeus—referred to Mary as the “second Eve.” Their teaching is based on the prophecy of Genesis 3:15, where the offspring of a woman will conquer the serpent, and Revelation 12, where that woman is revealed as Mary. They saw that, in Mary, God had given humanity a second chance.
David: A Mary with restored full humanity certainly feels less objectionable than a Mary who is a demi-goddess. However, this argument based on the Eve-Mary parallel implicates our prior discussions about poetry becoming dogma. First of all, why assume that Eve was a virgin when she was tempted and fell? On the very first day of Adam and Eve’s existence, God told them to “be fruitful” (Gen. 1:28); and the Biblical teaching about man and wife becoming “one flesh” (Gen. 2:24) precedes the Fall. Thus, if the Mary-Eve parallel depends on their both being virgins, the parallel is problematic.
Dwight: You’re going all literal on me again. We are simply saying that in her first created state Mary, like Eve, was innocent and pure in the widest definition of the term.
David: If linking Eve and Mary depends on their both being virgins, then for me it’s in doubt. But even if they are both presumed to be virgins, inferring Mary’s sinlessness from unfallen Eve’s is still quite a stretch. It was a fallen angel who tempted Eve, but Mary’s messenger Gabriel was unfallen, so the Eve-Mary comparison includes that unpoetical asymmetry. Poetically speaking, wouldn’t it be more pleasing to have a symmetrical comparison (a chiasmus, perhaps?)–In Eden a fallen angel (Satan) leads an unfallen woman (Eve) from righteousness into disobedience, but in Nazareth an unfallen angel (Gabriel) leads a fallen woman (Mary) from unrighteousness into obedience. It’s more symmetrical and better poetry that way, but of course I can’t let my poetical judgments drive my doctrine. My point is simply that the Eve-Mary comparison is unreliable to teach us a doctrine (e.g., Mary’s supposed sinlessness); we have to know the doctrine already, and then see it (or not) in the comparison.
Dwight: This Biblically-based comparison isn’t proof for the Immaculate Conception. It is part of the whole belief and practice of the early Church regarding Mary. As we’ve already seen the belief that Mary was sinless was formulated very early. As the Church came to a fuller understanding of the incarnation in the early fourth century, she also matured into a fuller understanding of the extent of Mary’s grace-filled wholeness. As theologians reflected on the incarnation, they came to realize that if Jesus was free from sin, and if he really took Mary’s humanity, then Mary had to have been preserved from the stain of original sin.
Saint Augustine sums up their view,
[W]ith the exception of the holy Virgin Mary, in whose case, out of respect for the Lord, I do not wish there to be any further question as far as sin is concerned, since how can we know what great abundance of grace was conferred on her to conquer sin in every way, seeing that she merited to conceive and bear him who certainly had no sin at all.
For logical reasons we believe that Mary was blessed with this fullness of grace from the first moment of her life. Some theologians in the Catholic and Orthodox churches have debated when this fullness of God’s grace touched Mary’s life, but none has denied that she enjoyed this wholeness. Mary’s full and wholly graced humanity has been praised by the vast majority of Christians–Eastern and Western—down through the ages. Many Anglicans believe in the supernaturally graced humanity of Mary,
and Martin Luther wrote, “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.… [T]hus from the first moment she began to live she was free from all sin.”
To be fair, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as defined in 1854 is not fully articulated in these passages. However, the early church texts as well as Luther’s words, are in complete harmony with the more precise doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, on the other hand, the typical modern Evangelical view is totally out of synch with the predominant thrust of Christian doctrine in this matter.
David: You make two points to which I’d like to respond now: As for the early Church’s consensus, the idea that Mary is sinless is admittedly an ancient and widely held belief, though not a unanimously held belief. Most notably, Origen (185-254) observed that if Mary had not sinned, then “Jesus did not die for her sins”, which (he suggested) could not be “if ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’” (quoting Rom. 3:23).
Dwight: Even Origen referred to Mary as “all holy”.
It’s just that he considered her perfection to be something she grew into, rather than being granted at conception.
David: As for the “logic” of the doctrine, I’ll just say that it is not obvious to me. It was the Virgin Birth that assured the sinlessness of Jesus by sparing Him the transmission of sin from a human father,
and any further theories about how Mary’s nature would have affected Jesus’ nature are just that: theories.
Dwight: There are two matters that are logical here. Although Jesus was spared original sin because he was not generated in a natural way, he would still have been “infected” by original sin as he assumed Mary’s human flesh. If he really took Mary’s flesh as we both agree, then Mary needed to be preserved from original sin.
David: By your reasoning, Mary would have been “infected” by original sin as she assumed Anna’s flesh, unless Anna had been preserved from original sin as well—and so on, through her ancestry.
Dwight: We could chase our tails on this one for a long time. Let me point out another logical reason why Mary needed to have been preserved from the stain of original sin. One of the effects of original sin is that our will is tainted. Original sin causes us to choose wrongly. In order for Mary’s “yes” to God to have been valid it needed to be a totally free choice. So Mary had to be preserved from that stain of original sin that would have biased her choice.
David: I can see how sinlessness could have facilitated Mary’s “Let it be”, but even sinners with tainted wills can do God’s will. As God said to Cain, “Sin is crouching at your door; … but you must master it.” (Gen. 4:6.) Jesus’ lineage is full of sinners who said yes to God at crucial moments: Abraham heeded God’s call (Gen. 12:1-4); Rahab the pagan harlot hid the Hebrew spies (Jos. 2); David the sometime adulterer was, in spite of his sin, a “man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22); and so on.
Dwight: Of course sinners can choose to do God’s will, but the underlying point is that Mary’s will also needed to be totally free because it was the human will which Jesus was going to take to himself. For her will to be totally free Mary had to have been preserved from the stain of original sin. When did this fully graced condition begin? It could only have begun at the beginning of Mary’s life. As we came to understand better just exactly when human life begins, it became clear that this “all holiness” began at her conception.
But you make a fair point when you ask how far logic can take us. You ask, “how can we know?” You are right that we are helpless on our own to fathom such mysteries. Left to our own devices, we end up chasing our own hypothetical theories. To avoid such quicksand of private interpretation, we turn to the Church to understand the mysteries of redemption. So St Paul writes, “His [God’s] intent is that now, through the Church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known…” (Eph. 3:10)
David: Before asking what the Church finds implicit in the Scriptures, the Evangelical bumps into a few explicit things: If Mary was conceived without sin and if she thereafter unfailingly avoided actual sin, these were things that no one, not even Mary, could have known without supernatural revelation, so when and to whom was it revealed that Mary was sinless? The Apostles taught the generality that all humans have sinned (Rom. 3:9, 10, 23; Rom. 5:12, 18; 1 Cor. 15:22; Gal. 3:22; Eph. 2:3), and when they wanted to teach that someone—namely, Jesus Christ—is sinless, they knew how to do it; and we can line up their “Bible proof texts” for Jesus’ sinlessness. (Matt. 27:4,19; Luke 23:41, 47;John 8:46; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; Heb. 7:26; 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 John 3:5.) The New Testament writers made no such case for Mary.
Someone who believes in Mary’s sinlessness might take care to exempt her from blanket statements about human sin,
but Paul did not bother to do so, even when writing to her home town of Ephesus (see Eph. 2:3), and Mary’s own adopted son John implied no exemption for her when he wrote, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us…. If we claim we have not sinned, we make [God] out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.” (1 John 1:8, 10.) Moreover, Paul said that “death came to all men, because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12), and Mary herself indicated that she was one of those who need a “Savior” (Luke 1:47). For the sake of argument, however, I’ll concede that even a non-sinner might have been graciously kept from sin only in view of the Savior’s merits; still, at least in general it’s actual sinners who need a Savior. Thus, the Scriptures teach a generality of human sinfulness that tends against Mary’s sinlessness. An exception would be possible, but I would expect that exception to be founded on at least some pretty strong implications. And as I’ve already explained, the implications you find in Gabriel’s “full of grace” and in the Eve-Mary parallel seem very weak to me.
Dwight: Why did Paul and the gospel writers not acknowledge Mary’s sinlessness? Two reasons: First, the church rightly needed to discern who Jesus really was, and only after they refined his true status could they go on to reflect on the stature of Mary. Second, by the very nature of her perfection, Mary was humble and hidden. Like all really holy people, she didn’t stand out. If she was totally natural, then she didn’t stand out, because what is natural is not unusual. I believe that if we had met Mary, she would have seemed like just another Jewish matron—perhaps with a special indefinable sweetness, or an intense quality of love and interest in others.
I accept your point that the implications of two Biblical references are not proof of a dogma. As you’ve observed at the beginning of the chapter, Catholics do not rely on Scripture alone for the development of doctrine. Jesus said he had many things to teach, but that he couldn’t reveal them because the disciples couldn’t cope with it all. Instead, the Holy Spirit would come and lead them into all Truth. (John 16:3, 12.) At Pentecost the Holy Spirit inspired the apostolic Church, and now the Church is the very pillar and foundation of truth. (I Timothy 3:15.) We therefore submit our own theories to the dynamic and living tradition of the Church. For two thousand years the best Christian minds have been reflecting, praying, and debating these issues, guided by the promised Holy Spirit. One might be able to formulate other theories, but we believe that the consensus of the Church in this matter is the right one.
David: It’s not just any tradition to which Christians adhere; it’s Apostolic tradition. Jesus particularly condemned teachers who confused mere human tradition with authentic, divine doctrine (Matt. 15:3-8 = Mark 7:6-13), and the Apostles made the same distinction (Col. 2:8; Titus 1:14; 1 Pet. 1:18). The Church is the “pillar and foundation of the truth” when it faithfully perpetuates what the Apostles taught (and, arguably, what the Apostles’ teaching implies); the Church is not a perpetual revelation machine. The “faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3) consists of what the Apostles wrote and taught. Other ideas—even if generations of Christians have thought those ideas fitting or sweet—are simply not part of what was “once for all entrusted”. I think you agree with me, at least in principle, if not in application.
Dwight: We have a larger understanding of apostolicity than you do, but basically I agree with what you say. We agree that there can be no new revelation. But it is also true that the Church comes into a fuller and fuller understanding of the “faith once entrusted to the saints” over the course of time. (CCC, para.66.)
David: Then the question is whether a given doctrine that is not explicit in the Bible (here, the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception) is a legitimate development in the understanding of the Apostolic “faith once entrusted” or is, instead, a novelty. This “development vs. novelty” distinction is implicated in much of the debate about Catholic and Protestant differences. In that debate, the greatest difficulty of the Protestant is, fittingly, catholicity: The opponent of Roman Catholicism has the most difficulty when he opposes doctrine that can be shown to be truly catholic–that is, world-wide or universal—doctrines that (in the famous fifth -century formula of St. Vincent of Lerins) have been believed “everywhere, always, by everyone”. Only the most audacious Protestant can easily shrug off the fact that all recorded Christian opinion on a given issue goes against him until, say, the sixteenth century.
However, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception makes the Protestant debater breathe easy, since it is probably the least “catholic” and most novel of the Catholic dogmas. Third century theologians like Origen and Tertullian considered Mary to be a sinner, so that even the doctrine of her mere sinlessness lacks catholicity.
Dwight: You mustn’t confuse catholicity with unanimity. Vincent of Lerins’s statement is excellent as a sound bite, but catholicity means consensus–not unanimous consent.
David: The particular doctrine of the Immaculate Conception—i.e., that her sinlessness began at her very conception—is even more awkward. Against the Immaculate Conception per se we can line up great popes like Innocent III (d. 417), Leo I (d. 461), and Gregory I (d. 604), along with esteemed theologians no less than Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109), Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), and “the angelic doctor” Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274),
who all, while they thought Mary sinless, nonetheless affirmatively opposed the doctrine of her Immaculate Conception
—at least, as they understood it. The doctrine was clearly not known and affirmed by them.
Luther (himself admittedly a devotee of Mary) was unduly generous to call this un-catholic and un-Scriptural doctrine “a sweet and pious belief”. However, if Luther was right, then the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is at most a permissible opinion. It is quite another thing to say, as the Catholic Church says, that the Immaculate Conception is a cardinal Christian doctrine, so that (according to the Pope who defined the dogma) someone who denies the Immaculate Conception should know—
that he is condemned by his own judgment; that he has suffered shipwreck in the faith; that he has separated from the unity of the Church; and that, furthermore, by his own action he incurs the penalties established by law if he should dare to express in words or writing or by any other outward means the errors he think in his heart.
Even making allowances for Pope Pius IX’s nineteenth-century rhetoric to be, well, more emphatic than we might employ in our more ecumenical era, this dogmatic assertion is all out of proportion. If even Thomas Aquinas, surely the preeminent Catholic theologian, could fail to see this doctrine at least implied in what the Apostles wrote or taught, then it is hard to see how this doctrine could be Biblical, or catholic, or Apostolic.
Dwight: It’s a curious thing to find Pope Pius IX and Martin Luther on the same side, but I think you overstate the case of Thomas Aquinas. Due to Thomas’s thirteenth-century understanding of human conception, he reasoned that Mary was sanctified not at her conception, but at the point that her soul was infused into her body. In fact Thomas believes not only that Mary was sinless, but also that her perfection began before her birth, and before she had personally committed any actual sin.
The same applies to the objections of other Catholic popes and theologians.
David: Not exactly. The objections of Bernard of Clairvaux were a bit different from Thomas Aquinas’s. Bernard was very devoted to Mary, and thought that Mary was sinless at birth, but he nonetheless objected to the celebration of the newly introduced Feast of the Immaculate Conception on the grounds that it was, in his view,
a false honor to the royal Virgin, which she does not need, and … an unauthorized innovation, which was the mother of temerity, the sister of superstition, and the daughter of levity…. He rejected the opinion of the Immaculate Conception of Mary as contrary to tradition and derogatory to the dignity of Christ, the only sinless being, and asked the [proponents of the doctrine] …, “Whence they discovered such a hidden fact? On the same ground they might appoint festivals of the conception of the parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents of Mary, and so on without end.”
Bernard’s objections are similar to those of the Eastern Orthodox, most of whom reject the Immaculate Conception because “[t]hey feel it to be unnecessary; … it seems to separate Mary from the rest of the descendants of Adam, putting her in a completely different class from all the other righteous men and women of the Old Testament.”
Dwight: Of course it is possible to discover Catholic teachers who disagree about the fine points. It is through theological debate that the Church comes to understand, define and defend the truth. There may be disagreement on the details, but neither the Orthodox nor Bernard nor Thomas is disputing the essence of the doctrine, that is, Mary’s sinlessness.
You may well find instances of Catholic leaders disputing this doctrine before it was dogmatically defined, but you won’t find them or the Eastern Orthodox actually supporting the Evangelical view. From the wider perspective, therefore, we have to ask which is the later distortion of the historic faith—the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which is totally congruent with the beliefs of the early church or the Evangelical view which denies Mary’s perfection altogether.
David: I admit that from the fifth century on, my view is all but un-heard of, until after the Reformation. Your position would have more persuasive force for me, though, if the Church’s dogma stopped where that consensus ends—i.e., at Mary’s sinlessness. But by defining as dogma a refinement of doctrine that some of the Church’s own heroes resisted shows that this doctrinal development is regulated not by what is ancient and Apostolic, but by something else—a Marian fascination that is hard to understand because it is so alien to my own spirituality.
Dwight: As a debater, you naturally gravitate to the point where you think your case is the strongest and mine is the weakest. But this discussion is not only a chance to air our disagreements, but an attempt to find some agreement too. Maybe you should return to what you think of as the less problematic and more nearly catholic idea of Mary’s sinlessness, and consider for a moment why this is so alien to your spirituality. Does it reflect the influence of Protestant theology, which is pessimistic about any kind of graced human perfection in this life?
David: It is true that Evangelicals do not expect perfection in this life (nor think that anyone is entitled to claim it), but our confident hope of ultimate perfection in Christ (Rom. 8:29; 1 John 3:1-3) is the thing that keeps us going.
Dwight: Catholics cultivate the same hope, with the exception that we think perfection is possible in this life by God’s grace. This is why the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception glorifies the Lord, because at the heart of our belief in Mary’s sinlessness is the realization that the great grace she received was won by the death and resurrection of her Son. We praise God for what he has done in Mary’s life and see in her the perfection that is promised to each one of us by God’s amazing grace.
David: Making Mary a Christian “Everywoman” would neutralize most of our objections—but the Catholic view is that Mary is different: She “has already reached that perfection”, whereas “’the faithful still strive to conquer sin and increase in holiness. And so they turn their eyes to Mary’”.
In running the Christian race, however, we do not “turn [our] eyes to Mary” but, instead, “fix our eyes on Jesus” (Heb. 12:2). I think we deny Mary’s sinlessness not from pessimism but because evidence is lacking, and because the example and means of perfection that God has expressly and unmistakably given to us is none other than His Son, Jesus Christ.
Dwight: We look to Mary not as the “author and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2) but as the first Christian in whom that redemption has been completed. We look to her therefore as an example of the promise in store for each of us. This wonderful possibility of perfection is the result of our intimate union with Christ. And what human could be more united with Christ than his mother? It is precisely because Mary and Jesus shared the same human nature that Mary was the first of the redeemed to share in the human wholeness that Christ died to win for us. Therefore, in the early church writings a high view of Mary is always linked with a correct view of Christ.
This is one of the things I find so inconsistent with the Evangelical position. You affirm the Christological doctrines defined and defended by the fourth century church, but you dispose of the Marian doctrines that were developed and defined at the same time. These doctrines about Mary were not snap-on extra attachments to the faith. They were understood to be integral to the all-important Christological definitions. Many examples can be given, but let’s take one. I know you would hail Athanasius, who championed the deity of Christ at the Council of Nicea, as a hero and defender of orthodoxy, but do you really then disagree with that monumental theologian when he writes, “the life of Mary, Mother of God, suffice[s] as an ideal of perfection and the form of the heavenly life.”?
David: Ouch! No fair, putting Mary between me and Athanasius! He should certainly be a hero to anyone who confesses Jesus Christ as God the Son, and I have to acknowledge that I’m out of step with Athanasius when it comes to Mary. As I understand it, Athanasius is not known to have expressly taught Mary’s sinlessness; but he did of course affirm the Virgin Birth and Mary’s title Theotokos, and also—more problematic for me–taught Mary’s perpetual virginity, compared and contrasted her to Eve, saw her as the “Ark” of the New Covenant, and acknowledged her to be greater than any other created being. About Mary, I’m plainly on a different wave-length from Athanasius and others like him, whom I’d otherwise like to count as kindred spirits.
In my defense, I’ll simply say that I do give great deference to Athanasius as an expounder of the Scriptures, which abundantly support his theology and Christology. His Christological opponents may have believed he mis-interpreted the Bible, but it was quite clear that he was interpreting the Bible. Where I part company with him is where he seems to cease repeating and expounding the Apostolic message and to begin elaborating and extrapolating, and perpetuating human reflections.
Dwight: There is much more to be said on this topic of the development of doctrine, and I hope our Catholic readers will consider your very honest objections to what seems to you like Catholic high-handedness in this matter. For there to be any progress towards unity in the body of Christ, I believe Evangelicals will have to honestly strive to understand and accept certain Catholic dogmas, but Catholics will have to reconsider how they handle doctrine and struggle to re-formulate their beliefs in ways that non-Catholic Christians can understand and accept.
Your basic stumbling block seems to be the fact that the Catholic Church felt it necessary to define as essential dogma a belief that is not explicit in either Scripture or early Tradition. I actually have a lot of sympathy for your position. For some time, as an Anglican, I took your view. I regarded the Immaculate Conception as a pious opinion and wished the Catholic Church had left it that way. In fact, even after I accepted the dogma myself as a Catholic, I still wished the Church had left it in the realm of pious speculation.
However, the longer I am a Catholic, the more I come to understand how holistic Catholic doctrine is. Every element is interwoven with all the others to present a unified whole, and the doctrines of the faith are integrated into the devotional life of the Church. Pius IX’s stern words indicate our belief that to deny one defined dogma is to begin unraveling the whole tapestry of orthodox faith. In other chapters I will explain further why I think this particular dogma has come to be seen as an essential part of the faith, but suffice it to say that a widespread awareness developed in the whole of the Catholic Church that the time was right for this doctrine to be defined. As an indicator of this consensus, before Pope Pius IX defined this dogma he consulted with all the worlds’ bishops, who in turn consulted with all their priests and people. Only four out of more than 600 bishops worldwide thought the dogma should not be defined. You may think they were the right ones, but I doubt it, since all four then submitted to the mind of the church.
David: Only four bishops opposed it, it’s true; but fifty-two bishops thought defining the doctrine to be not expedient or opportune.
Naturally I agree with that minority of Catholic bishops on that score, and with your former Anglican self. I appreciate your sympathy for the Evangelical critique, and I wish I could imagine a way forward. It’s difficult, because the Catholic position is now set in concrete—defined as dogma by infallible papal decree—and it would appear that all of the sympathy, humility, and goodwill of Catholics can’t change that. We can agree to disagree, but this leaves us in disunity. Apart from a total unraveling of Catholic notions of authority in the Church, the only way toward unity is for Evangelicals to accept the Catholic position. Should we consider doing so? I can’t see it.
If the Apostles finished their ministries without teaching on Mary’s sinlessness; if Origen, Tertullian, and the early Church got by without unanimity on Mary’s sinlessness; if all of medieval Catholicism got by without a definition of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception; and if Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism largely agree in resisting the definition of this doctrine—in view of all that, I have to hope against hope that the Roman Catholic Church will somehow find a way to un-define this dogma, and leave this issue up to private conscience.