Sinless Mary: Dialogue w Old Testament Professor

Sinless Mary: Dialogue w Old Testament Professor December 8, 2017




Jonathan Huddleston (see Facebook / resume) is an ordained Church of Christ minister, and has been assistant professor of Old Testament at Abilene Christian University. He obtained his doctorate in Hebrew Bible / Old Testament from Duke University and he speaks biblical Hebrew, koine Greek, Ugaritic, Aramaic, German, French, and Swahili. That’s extremely impressive. What an honor, then, that he was willing to dialogue on this topic with me, on my Facebook page! A true scholar and a gentleman . . . He was originally responding to my paper, The Bible Teaches us that the Blessed Virgin Mary Was Without Sin. His words will be in blue.


Thank you for sharing your biblical and linguistic arguments, and the steps you took to get from the meanings of Gabriel’s words to the idea that Mary was sinless. As someone who has some experience in interpreting linguistic arguments about texts, I don’t think you have made the case that this is a natural way that someone without a pre-commitment would read this Greek sentence. (At most, your words might persuade them to see Mary as not only favored, but also an exemplary recipient of grace to resist sin–just as Abraham was exemplary in his faith. It’s hard to see how a reader would know, without centuries of church tradition and some pretty interesting theological moves, that this means she had never sinned at all.)

This wouldn’t really bother me if I belonged to a tradition that thought Mary’s sinlessness was theologically significant. We probably all believe things that require a bit of special pleading, or at least a special set of pre-understandings, to get something from Scripture that doesn’t really seem to be the most natural way to read what Scripture is saying. But I would be careful calling these interpretations “straightforward and biblical.”

The argument as I constructed it was entirely Bible-based, not depending on tradition. This is how I generally defend Catholic doctrines, with Protestants always in mind. The idea in my argument is quite simple, and laid out clearly enough:

1) Grace is presented (esp. in Paul) as the antithesis of sin.

2) To be full of such grace (simple logic) is to be without sin.

3) Mary was proclaimed by an angel as “full of grace” (Lk 1:28); therefore, she is without sin.

This sinlessness is the kernel idea of the Immaculate Conception. I have made further biblical arguments by analogy for that (John the baptist in the womb, etc.).

Now of course different people are persuaded to different degrees, and determine degrees of plausibility in many different ways. But my argument was neither complex nor did it require “aid” from extra-biblical tradition.

If someone like yourself disagrees, in order to move the discussion forward, I would have to see the exact reasons why it is unconvincing to you; at what point my argumentative chain supposedly fails. All you have told me is that you aren’t persuaded and that tradition is necessary to agree. I deny the latter (or in any event it formed no part of my argument) and don’t have enough data to understand the rationale of the former.

David, if you want to know why I think your argument is not straightforward and biblical, I’ll tell you. But I’m assuming you already know everything I write below. So my real question is why, exactly, the things that seem to me so blindingly obvious (see below), don’t figure into your argument. The only reason I can imagine is not that you are unaware of the blindingly obvious, but that you are doing something different from what everyone I know calls “straightforward biblical” reading. I don’t think you are wrong; I just don’t know what you are doing and why you think it is straightforward and biblical.

1) Everyone I know thinks that “straightforward biblical” readings take into account the full range of a word’s meanings. The Greek word for favor/ grace is only in some contexts (but not all or even most of them) the antithesis to sin. So in a context in which sin is not mentioned, the mere appearance of the word “grace” doesn’t at all mean that a reader would think “antithesis to sin.” Perhaps it will make it clearer if I present a silly example: because Paul (in some contexts) thinks of “grace” as the antithesis to “something earned,” to call Mary “full of grace” must mean that she never, ever earned anything. Except that language doesn’t work that way.

2) Everyone I know thinks that “straightforward biblical” readings take the words “full of” to mean that this characteristic is really really strong in you–but not necessarily to the exclusion of all other characteristics, and not eternally. I can cite hundreds of places in the Bible where a place, building, or person is “full of” something. Never does it mean that there is nothing else there. (A land “full of” wickedness also has some righteous people in it.) Never does it mean that the condition is permanent. (A person “full of” joy may be far less joyful later.) It certainly doesn’t mean the person always had that characteristic. (A person “full of the Holy Spirit” is often that way because of a special filling, not from birth.) Unless you can explain the special difference in the way Gabriel uses “full of,” unlike hundreds of other uses in both Testaments, there is nothing “simple” about the logical jump from “full of grace” meaning “without sin before and after.”

3) Everyone I know thinks that “straightforward biblical” readings take the words of angels at their face value, and don’t assign them special eternal meanings. When an angel says “fear not” it generally means “don’t be afraid now and in the near future,” and “The Lord is with you, valiant warrior” generally means “you are a valiant warrior now and the near future,” and “Greetings Mary, full of grace” means “you are receiving special grace now and in the near future.”

Finally, everyone I know thinks that “straightforward biblical” readings look at the very nearest context (in this case, a much closer look at all of Luke 1-2 than you or I have yet given), but also searach for the closest “match” to that phrase elsewhere in Scripture. It’s therefore astounding to me that while you talk at length about what “full of” means and what “grace” means, you don’t ever cite the passages where “full of grace” occurs. It’s crystal clear to me that somebody who really wanted to know what “full of grace” means would look at Acts 6:8 (and possibly 1 Peter 1:2). The fact that you don’t seem to have done so tells me that you are doing something very different from what I, and other biblical scholars I know, mean by “straightforward reading of the Bible.”

This doesn’t mean you are wrong. It just means that I don’t know what you are doing and why you think it is straightforward. Sorry for the long answer and please let me know if it is (or isn’t) helpful.

Thanks very much, Jonathan, for this much “fuller” account (no pun intended) of your reasoning.

As for #1 and #3, I have done at least some cross-referencing and examination of similar instances, in my book, The Catholic Verses; Chapter Thirteen: “The Blessed Virgin Mary” (pp. 181-190) ]. That was in 2004. The whole chapter is online.

The post above is a more compact version of that argument, and so didn’t get into particulars and relevant considerations to as great of an extent.

You mentioned Acts 6:8. So did I:

First, it was argued that St. Stephen was also described as “full of grace” in Acts 6:8. But in that verse, the phrase is pleres charitos, not kecharitomene. If the Greek terminology is different, then the argument loses most or all of its relevance and force.”

I also dealt in some depth with Ephesians 1:6, which is often brought up as a counter-example (but not by you). Here is part of my argument:

Ephesians 1:5-6 reads, “He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”

[Anti-Catholic polemicist Eric] Svendsen thinks this defeats the Catholic exegesis at Luke 1:28, but the variant of charitoo (grace) here is different (echaritosen). According to Marvin Vincent, a well-known Protestant linguist and expert on biblical Greek, the meaning is:

. . . not “endued us with grace,” nor “made us worthy of love,” but, as “grace – which he freely bestowed.” (Vincent, III, 365)

Vincent indicates different meanings for the word grace in Luke 1:28 and Ephesians 1:6. He holds to “endued with grace” as the
meaning in Luke 1:28, so he expressly contrasts the meaning here with that passage. A. T. Robertson also defines the word in the same fashion, as “he freely bestowed” (Robertson, IV, 518).

As for the grace bestowed here on all believers being parallel to the fullness of grace bestowed upon the Blessed Virgin Mary, this simply cannot logically be the case, once proper exegesis is undertaken. Apart from the different meanings of the specific word used, as shown, grace is possessed in different measure by different believers, as seen elsewhere in Scripture:

2 Peter 3:18: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.”

Ephesians 4:7: “But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” (cf. Acts 4:33, Rom 5:20, 6:1, James 4:6, 1 Pet 5:5, 2 Peter 1:2)

The “freely bestowed” grace of Ephesians 1:6, then, cannot possibly be considered the equivalent of that “fullness of grace” applied to Mary in Luke 1:28 because it refers to a huge group of people, with different gifts and various levels of grace bestowed, as the verses just cited show.

. . . the perfect stem of a Greek verb, denotes, according to Friedrich Blass and Albert DeBrunner, “continuance of a completed action” (Greek Grammar of the New Testament [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961], 66). Mary, therefore, continues afterward to be full of the grace she possessed at the time of the Annunciation. That cannot, of course, be said of all believers in Ephesians 1:6, because of differences of levels of grace, as shown earlier.

Your #2 is a fair argument and I grant its force, as far as it goes. In the chapter above, I did, for whatever it is worth, find examples of what I thought were other “zero-sum games” in Scripture:

1 John 1:6-10 (RSV) If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; [7] but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. [8] If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. [9] If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. [10] If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

1 John 3:6, 9 No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. . . . [9] No one born of God commits sin; for God’s nature abides in him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God.

1 John 5:18 We know that any one born of God does not sin, but He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him.

I have argued in other discussions that 1 John is generalizing, almost proverbial language, but I think there is some relevance here to the discussion of being full of one good thing and thus devoid of another bad thing.

Catholics also follow an approach to Scripture in which a thing is “biblical” if it is harmonious with the Bible; not necessarily spelled out explicitly by it (a concept not taught in Scripture, that I have ever found, yet blithely assumed by many Protestants as an aspect of sola Scriptura). I’ve noticed that Martin Luther agrees with this, in my collection of “traditional” quotes of his for an upcoming book:

What is not against Scripture is for Scripture, and Scripture is for it. (To Philip Melanchthon, 13 Jan.1522, tr. Gottfried G. Krodel; in Luther’s Works [“LW”], v. 48)

I do enough if I prove that it is not contrary to God’s Word, but consistent with Scripture. (That These Words of Christ, “This Is My Body,” etc., Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics, March 1527, tr. Robert H. Fischer; in LW, v. 37)

We, however, are certain enough, because it [infant baptism] is nowhere contrary to Scripture, but is rather in accord with Scripture. (Concerning Rebaptism, Jan. 1528, tr. Conrad Bergendoff; in LW, v. 40)

Thus, I would contend that a sinless Mary and also an Immaculate Mary are in harmony with Scripture and don’t contradict it. We also know that two human beings were at least temporarily sinless: Adam and Eve, so that such a state is not incompatible with created human beings.

I have no problem with people having different exegetical rules, and having complex history-of-theology reasons for thinking those are credible. But really they don’t seem straightforward to me–straightforward would be something like, “Someone who didn’t know about the discussion would read this sentence in Scripture and (given enough contextual knowledge about the culture/ language/ context) know that Gabriel is referring to Mary’s sinlessness.” So appealing to the mere fact that it is “harmonious” to the Bible is much more complicated (in my view) and much more reliant on something other than what I call straightforward readings. Thanks for giving me your ideas, and yes, I knew I should have checked the Greek on Stephen!

Thanks for the good spirit you’ve engaged me in. I’m probably too far from your interpretive paradigm to regard it as much more than a curiosity, but you’ve really helped me to assume less that I know where Catholic interpreters are coming from.

We obviously define “straightforward” differently with regard to this discussion. I simply meant by it not “crystal clear Bible passage” but rather, “straightforward logic that seems to follow by noting the nature of grace and its relationship to sin in Scripture.”

Protestants demand more-or-less explicit texts in the Bible, in order to believe anything (except that, ironically, sola Scriptura is supported by no such passages that I’ve ever seen, and I would argue, none whatever).

I question this premise from the outset. The Bible doesn’t teach it; therefore, if Protestants are demanding that, it is arbitrary and not compelling. It’s self-defeating from within a sola Scriptura paradigm.

My argument was one of “biblical plausibility” based on the standard of proof as expressed by Luther: harmony with Scripture rather than some sort of absolute biblical demonstration that no one could possibly question.

Fine, Dave. Again, I think you’ve done a decent job (one I’d want to interrogate further) of showing biblical plausibility.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think you are at all right in saying that Protestants believe only what is explicit in the Bible. I do think that Protestants–at least people like me–are more likely to leave an issue more open when it is less explicit in Scripture.

For example, a “straightforward” reading of Jesus’ life and teaching would lead me to believe in strict pacifism, but I actually don’t, because of some things I’ve read (by Catholic writers), and because of a friend who helped liberate Dachau in World War II, and because of Sergeant York’s story impacting me as a child–and possibly for other reasons having to do with canon, tradition, etc.

My point is that I find some form of just-war or limited-war to be “biblically plausible” and I think most Protestants are fine with that. But we never say we have a “straightforward Biblical” argument for just war doctrine, because it just isn’t that clear. And for that reason we allow some latitude among the various Christians who do (or don’t) agree with us–who are, for example, pacifist.

On the other hand, I do have a straightforward Biblical argument against militarism (“kill anybody the nation-state tells you to kill” stretches the Biblical witness out of shape). On this issue, I don’t just appeal to tradition (which is, sadly, more multivocal than I wish), but to the clear straightforward reading of what the Bible really seems to be saying, without requiring a bunch of “logical” leaps that don’t seem to flow from the context or content of the text itself. On this issue, I have less latitude for the heretics who violate the clear teaching of Scripture.

Thanks again for the discussion.

I’ve enjoyed this discussion a lot, Jonathan, and hope we can have many more in the future. If a Protestant theological professor like yourself can say, “I think you’ve done a decent job . . . of showing biblical plausibility,” to me regarding Mary being sinless, I have done as much as I could do! I’m quite pleased with that!

Well, I’m extremely happy that you enjoy the discussion.

And let me also say that part of the difference here is not “Protestant” versus “Catholic” but “theologian” versus “biblical scholar.” The theologian is constantly making “logical” moves to connect dots in light of major biblical themes, like sin/ grace and war/ love. The biblical scholar comes behind him and says, “None of this sounds to me like it is really what the concrete text is actually saying, and I wish you spent more time considering the most natural reading of a phrase like ‘full of grace’ or ‘love your enemy.'”

That’s why the word “straightforward” is a bit of a trigger to me–I see it as a promise that someone is presenting a natural reading of a text, not a theologically sophisticated dot-connecting “logic” of major themes like sin/ grace or war/ love. I don’t think a normal audience would read what Jesus said and say, “OK, I can kill people”–or read what Gabriel and say, “Wow, Mary must be sinless.” But a theologian has to move beyond that (admittedly narrow) perspective on what a text means to a natural straight-forward reader.

 Good point.

Thanks for the great compliment of calling me a “theologian.” That made my day.

Again, it depends on one’s goals. I am an apologist, of course (that’s what I call myself). I am also very fond of analogical arguments and the notion of cumulative argumentation adding up to a strong case, like a rope with many strands. By nature, I am partial to systematic theology, so that explains my approach as well.

As I’ve explained, “straightforward” referred to the logic, given accepted premises about grace that I laid out as part of my argument. I provided many passages regarding that aspect, so the argument as a whole (i.e., at the level of premise) did not lack biblical substantiation.

It’s true that we can only come up with one verse that (we would contend) directly implies Mary’s sinlessness (Lk 1:28). I think it is a significant one, and the fact that Protestant linguists like A. T. Robertson freely admit that “full of grace” is a permissible rendering (and Wycliffe and Tyndale used the phrase in their Bibles), helps our case, in a world where it is usually translated “highly favored.”

So the question comes down to what it means. I think we can all agree that it is striking: coming from an angel to a young woman. We all agree that Mary is an important figure. What does “full of grace” mean?

Martin Luther held that she was sinless, so he must have seen some evidence somewhere to believe that: both in Scripture and in tradition. That’s an indication, too, that “the difference here is not ‘Protestant’ versus ‘Catholic'” as you say . . . though that is usually how the lines come down on this issue.

Yeah–I just can’t get over the basic question, which seems to me so straightforward, “What would I think if I heard an angel call someone full of grace?” And the answer isn’t that far from the answer with Stephen (yes, I know the Greek is different–but it’s similar). I would think that someone who just received a significant outpouring of joy from God is “full of joy,” and someone who just received a significant outpouring of the Spirit from God is “full of the Spirit,” someone who just received a significant outpouring of favor/ grace from God is “full of grace.” (As a Biblical scholar, I try not to think in English, so it’s not as though “grace” and “favor” are two completely different alternatives–they are two English renderings of the same concept.) Nothing here makes me go, “Hmm, wonder if that person is also sinless from birth.” So your whole argument flies right by me.


Photo credit: Lucas Cranach the Elder, Madonna under the fir tree (1509) [pubic domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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