“Live Chat” Debate: Mariology of the Church Fathers (vs. James White)

“Live Chat” Debate: Mariology of the Church Fathers (vs. James White) December 2, 2015

Madonna and Child, by Filippo Lippi (1406-1469) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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Original title: “Live Chat” Dialogue on Patristic Consensus (Particularly, Mariology) (vs. James White)
(original exchange: 29 December 2000. “Footnotes” added shortly afterwards. Revised on 4 December 2002)

The following live exchange (with an “audience”) occurred in the chat room of the website of Reformed Baptist anti-Catholic apologist James White, on 29 December 2000. White asked to dialogue with me. This was absolutely spontaneous and not pre-planned at all. I was unable to cut-and-paste excerpts from my website while I was in the room (nor did I wish to: I wanted informality and discussion as it would occur in someone’s living room, over tea and crumpets). Bishop White’s words will be in blue

The dialogue is unedited, excepting chronological changes to make it clear what question a reply was responding to, comments about time limits and rules, and inadvertent factual error (e.g., White cited Ignatius when he meant Irenaeus). I will add some commentary and links separately from the actual chat at the bottom of this paper, footnoted and hyper-linked to the dialogue text, so that later elaboration will be easily distinguishable.

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Mr. Armstrong, care to dialogue a bit?

“no, no more than it was for the Fathers who appealed to apostolic Tradition.” 

Remember that statement Dave?

Dave: The earliest reference in all patristic writing to something “passed down from the Apostles” that is not in Scripture is Irenaeus’ insistence that those who knew the Apostles confirmed that John 8 teaches that Jesus was more than 50 years of age at his death. Rome has rejected this idea.[Footnote 1] If “tradition” can be corrupted in its first instance, upon what basis do you affirm the idea that such doctrines as the Bodily Assumption, without witness for over 500 years, is truly apostolic? [Footnote 2]

who claims that this is the first instance of Tradition passed down? Now we are in areas that require research to answer, so I can hardly do that on the spot.

Well, if you can find an explicit statement that is earlier, I’d like to see it. To my knowledge, it is the earliest example.

I doubt that…..the principle is explicitly biblical in the first place. If indeed the notion [Tradition passed down] is in the Bible, then that is the earliest instance, not Irenaeus.

I’m sorry, I must have been unclear: I was referring to a statement by an early Church Father concerning an alleged extra-biblical tradition passed down from the Apostles. And I believe Irenaeus’ claim is the earliest….but that point aside….

Okay, that may be (I don’t know).

I assume, then, you are not familiar with this particular issue? Okay, then let us use another example. Basil said that it was an apostolic tradition to baptize three times, facing east, forward. Upon what basis do you reject his testimony, if you do?

Patristic consensus over what period of time? For example, the “patristic consensus” through the end of the fourth century was that Mary had committed acts of sin. That is no longer
the “view” taken by Rome.

the patristic period is generally considered to go up to John Damascene, no?

That all depends. :-)

no; some Fathers thought she sinned, but I don’t believe they were the majority, by any means.

Would it follow, then, that you believe the “patristic consensus” up through John Damascene supports such doctrines as the Immaculate Conception and the Bodily Assumption?

Can you name 5 or 10 who thought that?

Yes. Origen, Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Basil. Big names. :-) Even Anselm held Mary was born with original sin.

how about western fathers? Those are all eastern guys. :-)

Anselm isn’t. :-)

Anselm was not a father.

Let’s hope not. :-) He was under orders…. just kidding.

all you’re doing now is helping to support Roman primacy and orthodoxy. The east had a host of errors. They split from Rome five times, and were wrong in every case by [the criteria of] their own later “orthodox” beliefs. 
[Footnote 3]

Hmm, so you are switching now to a Western “consensus”?

no, but your citing of only eastern fathers hardly suggests that this is overall “patristic consensus,” does it?

I would dispute that, actually, but I’d like to stick to the issue I’ve raised here. Is it your belief that these two dogmas are apostolic in origin?

first name me western fathers who thought Mary sinned, since you brought this up.

Actually, Augustine’s influence regarding the universality of original sin had to be overcome for the Immaculate Conception to be contemplated and codified, sir. :-)

but that’s a separate issue. Did Augustine think Mary sinned?

No, not in her personal life. But he did believe she contracted original sin, correct?

There is the distinction between actual sin and original sin in Mary’s case.

Do you consider Tertullian a Western?


Would you include Hilary? J.N.D. Kelly lists them both in that category. I think that makes six, does it not?

I’m not sure, but you started by discussing acts of sin, now you are switching to original sin.

Actually, for both Tertullian and Hilary, it would be acts of sin.

okay, so you have two?

Yes, two. May I ask how many you have that positively testify of the later Roman belief in the same time-period?

one second….consulting some papers.

Be that as it may, does it not follow from these considerations that there is no positive consensus upon this issue? The only relevant answer to that would be to ask, “Who wrote on the specific question of Mary’s sinlessness? Not many.”

was this in Tertullian’s Montanist or semi-Montanist period? About how many fathers were there, in your estimation?

The Tertullian citation is De carne Chr. 7. [Footnote 4]

how many say she was without sin? That’s what you are asking? Actual sin?

I think you can see my point, can you not, Mr. Armstrong? If these concepts were, in fact, passed down through the episcopate, how could such widely differing church leaders be ignorant of these things?

the same way Luther was ignorant about baptismal regeneration, and Calvin of adult baptism. :-) Neither got it right, according to you.

Well, it would seem that if you wish to substantiate a dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the task would be rather easy to demonstrate a positive witness to the belief in the patristic period, would it not?

I think this can be done, but probably not to your satisfaction.

Does it follow, then, that you parallel individual Reformational leaders with the early Fathers, the very ones entrusted with “apostolic tradition”? Or was that rhetorical?

I was making a point about noted leaders and teachers differing. We would expect that in the Fathers to an extent, being human; nevertheless, there is still overall consensus.

Have you ever listened to my debate with Gerry Matatics on the subject of the Marian dogmas, Mr. Armstrong?

no. Did you win that one? :-)

It’s on the web…..Gerry said I did, actually. :-) As did Karl Keating. Does that count? :-)

I can name names as to who believed in sinlessness, but I don’t have it at my fingertips……

Be that as it may, during the course of the debate I repeatedly asked Gerry for a single early Father who believed as he believes, dogmatically, on Mary. I was specifically focused upon the two most recent dogmas, the Immaculate Conception and the Bodily Assumption.

of course, if you are looking for a full-blown doctrine of Immaculate Conception, you won’t find it. 
[Footnote 5]

How would you answer my challenge? Did any early Father believe as you believe on this topic?

the consensus, in terms of the kernels of the belief [i.e., its essence], are there overall. I would expect it to be the case that any individual would not completely understand later developments.

So many generations lived and died without holding to what is now dogmatically defined? [Footnote 6]

Did any father of the first three centuries accept all 27 books of the NT and no others? 
[Footnote 7]

Three centuries…..you would not include Athanasius?

I think his correct list was in the 4th century, but at any rate, my point is established. How many fathers of the same period denied baptismal regeneration or infant baptism?

The issue there would be how many addressed the issue (many did not). But are you paralleling these things with what you just admitted were but “kernels”? [Footnote 8]

if even Scripture was unclear that early on, that makes mincemeat of your critique that a lack of explicit Marian dogma somehow disproves Catholic Mariology.

I’ll address that allegation in a moment. :-)[Footnote 9] By the way, would you like that specific Irenaeus reference to look up? Just in passing?

I can look it up…I have enough resources. The question of this dialogue is whether we are gonna address topics which require heavy research….. That is more appropriate for a paper. If I were answering all your questions in a paper I would have spent a good three hours already. 
[Footnote 10]A guy like Joe Gallegos could instantly address questions about particular Fathers’ beliefs……. but I’ll still give you names who taught Mary’s sinlessness, if you like.

I was thinking of the others looking on. :-) It is chapter 22, section 5, of Irenaeus’ work, Against Heresies, Book 2, I believe….

so where do we go from here?

Anyway….You seem to think that if there is disagreement on any issue, this means the Scripture is unclear, correct?

no; rather massive disagreement on many issues seems to me to fly in the face of this alleged perspicuity. I think Scripture is clear, by and large, actually, but human fallibility will lead to “hermeneutic relativism,” thus requiring authoritative interpreters.

What do you do with Peter’s words? 2 Pet 3:15-16:

and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. (NAS)

a good description of many Protestants! How does this bolster perspicuity?

If the untaught and unstable distort the Scriptures, then what can the taught and stable do, of necessity?

it doesn’t follow logically that if the unstable distort the Scripture, that the stable will always get it right, does it?

()()() James is Away. Lord willing, he will return. :) ()()()


1. Early Patristic “Extra-Biblical” Citations Without too much trouble, I managed to find what I believe to be an earlier reference, in this instance, to what the writer describes as “Scripture” (I assume he would hold that the Bible was “passed down from the Apostles” and that Bishop White would grant the point). The writer is St. Clement of Rome, in his Letter to the Corinthians (aka First Clement), dated 95-96 A.D. In 23:3, he writes:

Let this Scripture be far from us where he says . . . .

Then he proceeds to cite a passage which is not in present-day Scripture (it is also cited in 2 Clement 11:2-4 – not considered to have been written by St. Clement, but perhaps the oldest Christian sermon extant: c.100 A.D. -, where it is described as “the prophetic word”). The famous Protestant scholar J.B. Lightfoot speculated that it was from the lost book of Eldad and Modat mentioned by Hermas (Vis. 2.3.4). Now how is it that a prominent Church Father in the first century can be so ignorant as to the contents of “Scripture,” when Bishop White and Protestants must believe Scripture to be apostolic in order for it to be inspired and the rule of faith, over against both Tradition and Church?

But Bishop White’s argument suffers from an additional fallacy, viz., what shall we consider to be “scriptural” or conversely, “extra-biblical” in the first place? How do we ultimately determine that? This inevitably becomes at least partially a subjective affair. In addition to not properly knowing what Scripture is, St. Clement also urges his readers to conform to the glorious and holy rule of our tradition (7:2). Bishop White, of course, rejects any “tradition” as a rule of faith; Scripture Alone is the rule of faith, according to Protestants. So St. Clement, by White’s criterion, is referring to an “extra-biblical” notion. In point of fact, however, Sacred Tradition (even oral Tradition) is indeed an altogether biblical and Pauline concept (1 Cor 11:2, 2 Thess 2:15, 3:6, 2 Tim 1:13-14, 2:2, 2 Pet 2:21, Jude 3).
Furthermore, moving on about a dozen years later to the epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch, dated c.105-110 A.D., we find a host of doctrines which Bishop White would consider “extra-biblical.” Again, it is a matter of definition as to what is biblical, and what should be considered “orthodox” in Christianity. In our extensive 1995 debate by US Mail, Bishop White wrote:

How do you know you are in company with, say, Athanasius or Ignatius or Irenaeus? In the final analysis, is it not because Rome tells you so?

Well, I submit that my Catholic views are far closer to those of Ignatius than are Bishop White’s Baptist views. If allegedly “extra-biblical” views are so prevalent among the earliest Church Fathers, what becomes of Protestantism’s vaunted, mythical “early (quasi-Protestant and ‘biblical’) Church”? So let us briefly examine a few of the “extra-biblical” teachings of St. Ignatius (emphasis added, with my comments in brackets):

“It is, therefore, advantageous for you to be in perfect unity, in order that you may always have a share in God.” (Eph., 4,2)

“Let there be nothing among you which is capable of dividing you . . .” (Mag., 6,2)

“Flee from divisions, as the beginnings of evils.” (Sm., 8,1)

“Focus on unity, for there is nothing better.” (Pol., 1,2)

“If anyone follows a schismatic, he will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Ph., 3,3)

[Bishop White can’t even agree with Protestant Founder Martin Luther, concerning baptismal regeneration and the Real Presence in the Eucharist and the Immaculate Conception of Mary, or with John Calvin concerning the legitimately Christian and covenantal status of baptized Catholics, let alone attaining “perfect unity” and abolishing sinful denominational divisions. Quite unbiblical, or “extra-biblical”. . . ]


“You must all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ followed the Father . . .” (Sm., 8,1)

“Let everyone respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, just as they should respect the bishop, who is a model of the Father, and the presbyters as God’s council and as the band of the apostles. Without these no group can be called a church.” (Tr., 3,1)

“It is good to acknowledge God and the bishop. The one who honors the bishop has been honored by God; the one who does anything without the bishop’s knowledge serves the devil.” (Sm., 9,1) 

“It is obvious, therefore, that we must regard the bishop as the Lord himself.” (Eph., 6,1)

[Bishop White, being a Baptist, of course doesn’t believe in bishops, which is strange, seeing that it is an explicit biblical office. He can hardly call this an “extra-biblical” idea. Why, then, does his affiliation expunge it? Perhaps, then, we should invent the term “sub-biblical” or “anti-biblical” to describe the myriad subtractions and omissions of various Protestant Christianities?]
Bishop White later strongly objected to the paragraph above, as an inaccurate statement, in his mind proving that I knew “nothing” about either “biblical” or Baptist ecclesiology (he is not renowned for understatement) [and he claimed to be a “bishop” himself]. I, of course, offered a counter-response.

Real Presence

“I want the bread of God, which is the flesh of Christ.” (Rom., 7,3)

“They abstain from the Eucharist and prayer, because they refuse to acknowledge that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.” (Sm., 6,2)

[Bishop White denies the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. How could St. Ignatius become so “extra-biblical” in such a short space of time from the Apostles?]

Vicarious Atonement (A Species of Penance)

“I am a humble sacrifice for you.” (Eph., 8,1)”May my spirit be a ransom on your behalf.” (Sm., 10,2)
“May I be a ransom on your behalf in every respect.” (Pol., 2,3)

[Bishop White would consider these beliefs outrageously “extra-biblical.” So here is yet another instance of such teaching occurring very early on. Were there no “evangelical Christians” to be found at such an early date?!!]
2. Development of the Doctrine of Mary’s Assumption This is a false analogy, because by Bishop White’s criteria of “orthodoxy,” “tradition” could not possibly have been first corrupted by St. Irenaeus. But be that as it may, I have dealt with the question of the slowly-developing tradition of Mary’s Assumption elsewhere. White’s rapid-fire questioning and constant switching of topics and subtle changing even of terms within topics hardly allowed me to deal adequately with such a complex subject, so I refer readers to a previous exchange with Bishop White, from 1996:

“Dialogue on Whether the Assumption and Immaculate Conception of Mary are Legitimately Part of Apostolic Tradition”

3. Eastern Heresy / Roman Orthodoxy See my paper: “A Response to Orthodox Critiques of Catholic Apostolicity.”

4. The Fathers on Mary’s Sinlessness Sure enough, The Flesh of Christ (dated 208-212 A.D.) is from Tertullian’s semi-Montanist period. Protestants often fail to note the different theological periods with regard to citing Tertullian. Many will conveniently ignore this if a Tertullian quote suits their purpose (or else some are ignorant of the dating and/or of his later heresy altogether). Whichever the case with Bishop White, he failed to answer my question during the dialogue, thus illustrating another reason why these clarifying notes are important and useful. What I suspected turned out to be true. Whether Bishop White knew this beforehand or not, we don’t know, as he didn’t say.
As for Hilary of Poitier’s views concerning the Blessed Virgin, in the book Mary and the Fathers of the Church, by Luigi Gambero (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999, p. 186) the author (a priest with background in philosophy and also author of a 4-volume work on Marian thought) wrote:

Hilary always considered it normal for Mary to have had some small imperfections . . . Our author does not mention any specific defect or imperfection in Mary’s conduct but seems to hold that some such flaw exists, if even Mary must face the judgment of God. However, this is an isolated observation [Tractatus super Psalmum 118,12; PL 9,523], to which Hilary does not return.

So Bishop White offers one western father (who held a quite “mild” opinion on the subject – not exactly a spectacular, bold dissent), and another in his heretical period, plus four eastern fathers (which I was already generally aware of – one always finds exceptions to the rule). This is what he considers a “patristic consensus.” I consider it a pathetic argument. Ludwig Ott states that the western patristic consensus was “unanimous.” Thus, Bishop White is trapped by the facts of history, not any rhetorical brilliance on my part. 

As for Church Fathers who refer to the Blessed Virgin Mary as the New Eve (Eve was originally sinless or immaculate), Second Evesinless, spotless, purewithout stainimmaculatethe Ark of the Covenant, or (negatively) who never attributed any actual sin to her, we find the following:

Hippolytus, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory Nyssa, Cyril of Jerusalem, Epiphanius, Athanasius, Jerome, Eusebius, Ephraim, Ambrose, Augustine, Proclus, Theodotus, Peter Chrysologus, Andrew of Crete, Fulgentius, Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, Germanus, John Damascene.
That makes at least 22 fathers in the affirmative, compared to 5 who attributed sin to Mary (not counting the Montanist heretic Tertullian). By this broad reckoning, that is about 81% of the fathers (and these are only the major ones), which is more than enough to achieve a “consensus,” as even the phrase “unanimous consent of the fathers” never literally meant all of them, as Catholic apologist. 
5. Development of the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception Nor would we expect to, according to the normal course of doctrinal development.
6. Development of Doctrine in General As is, unfortunately, so often the case with Protestants, Bishop White betrays a great lack of understanding of development of doctrine.

In my book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism, I wrote:

Doctrines agreed upon by all develop, too. The doctrine of the Godhood, or Divinity of Jesus Christ was not formally defined until the Council of Nicaea in 325, and the Divinity of the Holy Spirit was proclaimed at the Council of Constantinople in 381. The dogma of the Two Natures of Christ (God and Man) was made official at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. We’ve already seen how the Canon of the New Testament was also very much a “developing doctrine” itself, finalized only in 397. Original Sin was a slowly developed belief. Many other examples could be brought forth.

And I cited the great Protestant apologist C. S. Lewis:

Change is not progress unless the core remains unchanged. A small oak grows into a big oak; if it became a beech, that would not be growth, but mere change . . . There is a great difference between counting apples and arriving at the mathematical formulae of modern physics. But the multiplication table is used in both and does not grow out of date. In other words, whenever there is real progress in knowledge, there is some knowledge that is not superseded. Indeed, the very possibility of progress demands that there should be an unchanging element . . . I claim that the positive historical statements made by Christianity have the power, elsewhere found chiefly in formal principles, of receiving, without intrinsic change, the increasing complexity of meaning which increasing knowledge puts into them . . . Like mathematics, religion can grow from within, or decay . . . But, like mathematics, it remains simply itself, capable of being applied to any new theory.

[From:, God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1970, pp.44-47. Originally from “Dogma and the Universe,” The Guardian, March 19, 1943, p. 96 / March 26, 1943, pp. 104, 107]

Furthermore, the “kernels” or essential elements of all the Catholic Marian beliefs can be found in Holy Scripture, to a much greater extent than most Protestants would ever imagine, and often fairly explicitly. If this is indeed the case, then these beliefs are all quite apostolic and early: all deriving from the first century A.D. or earlier. 

And to see how “Catholic” a Protestant can get, with regard to Mariological views, see my paper: “Martin Luther’s Devotion to Mary.”

7. Lack of Patristic Consensus on the NT Canon This is precisely the point. Bishop White thinks he has found a “patristic consensus” when a mere five Church Fathers claim that Mary sinned. That supposedly shoots down Catholic Mariology in one fell swoop. Yet when I point out that no father from 0-300 A.D. accepted all 27 books of the New Testament and no others, as inspired and part of the Bible (Bible Alone being a crucial pillar of Protestantism – one cannot have the Bible without knowing which books belong to it), he offers no reply – and for very good reason, as there is none. The canon of the New Testament is necessarily dependent on Church Authority. Even the well-respected Calvinist R.C. Sproul admits that Protestants possess a “fallible collection of infallible books.” The analogy is an exact parallel, and devastating: if five fathers disprove Catholic Mariology, then not a single father getting the NT right for 300 years refutes sola Scriptura. So Bishop White must either drop his fallacious argument, or his acceptance of sola Scriptura, and with it, his Protestantism, which rests upon that formal principle. Silence was a wise course in the midst of such a serious dilemma.
That being the case (and I think he knew it full well), he asked, rather, whether I included Athanasius in this period (the “first three centuries,” as I stated). Well, no, since he lived from 296-373. He first listed our present 27 New Testament books as such in 367 A.D. (which is more than 300 years beyond even the death of our Lord Jesus). Disputes still persisted concerning several books after that, almost right up until 397, when the Canon was authoritatively closed at the Council of Carthage, so that the present-day “perspicuous” NT canon took longer to finalize than trinitarianism and the divinity of the Holy Spirit! But I guess a “consensus of one” in the year 367 is good enough for Bishop White, provided that it is harmonious with his own largely 16th-century-derived Baptist version of Christianity. This is all doctrinal development, pure and simple. But Protestants – for some odd reason – so often wish to ignore it when it touches upon their own peculiar doctrines.
How is it that Bishop White is so concerned about five fathers attributing fairly minor and very rare sin to the Blessed Virgin Mary, while in the “late” period from 250-325, the “perspicuous” biblical books of Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation were still being widely disputed in the Church Universal? Is that state of affairs not far more fatal to Protestant claims concerning Scripture Alone, than minor dissent on Mary is to the Catholic position? 
8. Fathers’ Unanimity on Baptismal Regeneration Bishop White cleverly avoided the issue I was raising, in terms of the live chat, but he can’t escape the logic of it, for the fathers taught baptismal regeneration with virtually literal unanimity. Yet White, of course, rejects both infant baptism (over against Calvin and the great majority of all Christians of all times) and baptismal regeneration (over against Luther and Wesley and Anglicanism, as well as Orthodoxy and Catholicism). It doesn’t seem to trouble him that no one in the whole patristic period could “get it right,” just as we saw was the case concerning the canon of the NT and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. On the other hand, his non-answer perhaps suggests that he is troubled – down deep – by all these “little” historical anomalies in his position, which I am discourteous and rash enough to point out.
9. The Unanswered Challenge I wish he would have. That might have been very interesting. But soon, there were some technical problems with the Undernet; Bishop White departed and never returned, even though I hung around for perhaps an hour or more after our exchange ended. But I’m thankful for the time I was able to spend with him in dialogue. I think his answers and non-answers strengthened the Catholic case considerably. :-) A few days later,Bishop White refused to debate me in any format, about anything (even though I offered to let him question me all night long, if I could question him for 90 minutes), and stated that he wanted nothing to do with me anymore (see Note #1 above – section on “Bishops”). So we’ll never know what his larger case might have been.
10. Written vs. “Oral”/”Live” Dialogue Indeed, I’ve spent a good many more hours than three preparing these notes, and I think they are all quite relevant to the questions dealt with in the dialogue. My point, then and now, is that the written and “oral” (or “live”) dialogue formats are vastly different. Bishop White seemed to require me to give rapid answers to his lightning-quick and ever-changing technical questions concerning particular patristic beliefs. That was not possible (I wouldn’t be able to type fast enough even if I had all the answers in my head), but I believe I managed to “de-fang” him by the use of analogy, which has been fleshed out to full effect in these notes.

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