Dialogue w Protestants: “Full of Grace” / Immaculate Conception

Dialogue w Protestants: “Full of Grace” / Immaculate Conception August 13, 2022

This is taken from a lengthy dialogue from the initial version of my website, dated 23 January 2002. Portions of it were utilized in chapter 13: “The Blessed Virgin Mary” from my 2004 book, The Catholic Verses: 95 Bible Passages That Confound Protestants [see: Luke 1:28 (“Full of Grace”) & Immaculate Conception]. Here I preserve the parts of the original dialogue that were not included in my book. My opponents’ words (from the old God Talk public Internet Bulletin Board) will be in blue.

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Acts 6:8 “And Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.

The argument [is] that if the Immaculate Conception is implied by Mary being “full of grace”, then why isn’t Stephen?

In Acts 6:8, the phrase is pleres charitos, not kecharitomene, as in Luke 1:28. I have already noted what the latter phrase means, according to Greek scholars. Greek scholar Marvin Vincent (Word Studies in the New Testament) notes that even Wycliffe and Tyndale (no fanatical supporters of the Catholic Church, they) both rendered kecharitomene in Luke 1:28 as “full of grace,” in their Bible translations. The Revised Version of the KJV (1885) had “endued with grace” in the margin, and this is the literal translation of kecharitomene, according to Vincent (vol. 1, 259).

So it appears that many Bible versions are not applying the principle of literal translation when it comes to Luke 1:28 A.T. Robertson concurs with Vincent, in holding that kecharitomene means “endowed with grace” or “enriched with grace” (Word Pictures in the New Testament, vol. 2, 13). Likewise, W.E. Vine, who defines it as “to endue with Divine favour or grace” (An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, vol. 2, 171). These are all Protestant reference works, and cannot, therefore, be accused of Catholic bias in translation or definition.

The bias (if there is any here) would seem, however, to be evident in some Protestant commentaries (on Lk 1:28):

‘Favoured’ means simply that God graciously chose Mary to be the mother of Jesus and not that she was ‘full of grace’. (Eerdmans Bible Commentary)The mistake of the Vulgate’s rendering, ‘full of grace,’ has been taken abundant advantage of by the Romish Church . . . let them listen to the Lord’s own words. ‘Nay, rather blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it.’ (See on ch. 11:27). (Commentary on the Whole Bible: Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown)

This is what happens when one looks at Bible commentary (or translation, for that matter) as a polemical tool to promulgate prior theological predispositions, rather than letting the Bible speak for itself, and following it wherever it leads.

If Mary’s name was changed to “full of grace” why is she called Mary in every other place she is mentioned in the NT? Simon was called Peter elsewhere, Abram was called Abraham, Sarai was called Sarah etc. etc. etc. It seems to me that if your name is really changed, your new name would actually be used.

The argument was not, technically, that Mary’s name was changed; just that she was called this name by an angel (in the sense of a title, or additional identifier), and that that act could not possibly be without significance, in the Hebraic (and biblical) worldview. Consider this analogy: “If Jesus’ name was ‘Prince of Peace’ [Isaiah 9:6] why is He called ‘Jesus’ in most places He is mentioned in the NT?”

This is the only time that I know of that Jesus is called “Prince of Peace.” It isn’t even used in the New Testament. Yet in Isaiah 9:6, the text (RSV) says that “he shall be called . . . Prince of Peace” (and three other titles which weren’t used all that often referring to Jesus, if at all — two seem to apply more directly to the Father and the Spirit).

The same holds true for “Emmanuel” (Matthew 1:23), derived from Isaiah 7:14 and 8:8. Is 7:14 states “. . .. shall call his name Immanuel.” Mt 1:23 quotes this passage: “. . . ‘his name shall be called Emmanuel’ (which means, God with us).” Yet the title (name?) appears nowhere else in the New Testament, not even in the other Gospels. It doesn’t have to. Once is more than enough, in biblical thought.

The point is that all names in Scripture have a high symbolic and descriptive significance, usually indicative of a person’s character, nature, or leading personality trait (one need only look up “Names” in any Bible Dictionary). A person’s name doesn’t have to be changed — in terms of exclusive use of a different name thereafter (or the specific title used often) for this to apply, as the examples above concerning Jesus have shown.

Thus, the fact that Mary is called “Full of Grace” one time does not lessen the significance of this address at all (particularly since it came from the angel Gabriel). But the fact that this title was applied to her, uniquely, as an individual, is supremely important, and altogether in line with the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (though not an airtight “proof” in and of itself — Catholics deny sola Scriptura anyway, so our view doesn’t absolutely require such “proof texts”).

Modern scholarship has dismissed the translation “full of grace” as a nonviable rendition of charitoo. BAGD, for instance, translates the word as ” one who has been favored by God.” Louw and Nida has “you to whom (the Lord) has shown kindness.” Even a Catholic source such as Zerwick avoids the  translation “full of grace,” opting instead for the less theologically loaded phrases “endowed with grace; dearly loved.” The MNT taskforce translates it as “graciously favored by God,” while noting that the Douay Rheims translation, “full of grace,” “is not literal and is gradually being replaced among Roman Catholic translators.” The most recent standard Catholic translations, the NAB and the JB, have followed suit in their renditions ( NAB, “O highly favored daughter”; JB, “So highly favored” . . . [citation from Dr. Eric Svendsen: Who is My Mother?(Calvary Press: 2001), 129]

Translation controversies will go on till kingdom come. In a linguistic dispute such as this, it is necessary to look at the phrase or word in question more closely, which we have done. It may be rendered variously, but the meaning is a deeper project of inquiry: more particular, specific, and nuanced (as words have different meanings in the first place, according to context, the writer’s purpose, type of language or style being used, and exegesis).

Catholics have nothing to fear on this issue from either linguistics or exegesis, whereas the Protestant objections are easily overcome by recourse to both sources of knowledge. Nothing in Scripture is contradictory to the Immaculate Conception. It cannot be shown to be unbiblical or anti-biblical. But it can be shown to entirely consistent with biblical teachings as a whole. I suspect that this is one reason that even such a one as Martin Luther believed in the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

I don’t claim that these biblical and linguistic arguments support Catholic belief with regard to the time of the Immaculate Conception. The exact time of the miracle is not of the essence of the doctrine, which is that Mary is sinless, and was sinless when the Annunciation occurred and the angel Gabriel addressed her in this extraordinary way.

Catholics, it must be understood,  are only arguing that the Immaculate Conception is harmonious with Scripture and matters of Greek language and grammar. I don’t accept sola Scriptura, and I don’t believe that all doctrines have to be proven, whole and entire, and explicitly from Scripture (neither do Protestants, in the final analysis, when it comes to sola Scriptura itself, and the canon of the NT). I have never denied that there is a speculative, deductive element to the doctrine (just as there is with the Trinity and many other Christian doctrines).

But Protestants are compelled by their own belief-system and opposition to so-called “extra-biblical” Catholic doctrines, to demonstrate how the Immaculate Conception is unbiblical or contrary to anything else in Holy Scripture. My observations and apologetic arguments are undertaken always with that perspective in mind, according to Paul’s evangelistic principle, “I have become all things to all people.” “To the Protestant I became as a Protestant.” Etc.

All I have been arguing is that the Immaculate Conception is consistent with the biblical data. Protestants often try to show that it can’t be absolutely proven from the Bible, in a sola Scriptura sense. Since I never claimed that it could be (nor does any apologist I am aware of), those contentions are completely irrelevant to the “case” I have set forth.

Yes, the words are different, but Dr. Svendsen explains how they are from the same Greek root.

So what?

And he points out that Sirach 18:17 uses the exact same word, same tense, everything that Luke uses, which completely disproves your point.

Not at all. That verse is in a general sense. In my RSV translation it refers to a “gracious man.” Besides, this is proverbial, or wisdom literature, and it is a standard hermeneutical principle that this is not exactly the sort of biblical literature that one builds doctrines or systematic theology (or even precise meanings of words) upon. On those grounds alone, it is quite easy to decisively overcome Dr. Svendsen’s rather weak argument. The classic example which illustrates the “non-Greek” nature of proverbial Hebrew literature is the following coupling of verses (RSV):

Proverbs 26:4  Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.

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Proverbs 26:5  Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.

In a proverbial framework, what may appear to be contradictory is not, because application depends on the situation, timing, prudence, discretion, discernment, the wisdom to know when which response is called-for, and so forth. So use of such a verse in the present context of cross-reference to Luke 1:28 and an angel’s salutation of the Blessed Virgin is no disproof at all.

. . .  you can glean the proper meaning from fool in the whole context. This in no way mitigates the usefulness of Sir. 18:17 in understanding what kecharitomene means.

It does (even if I grant your point, which I do not grant, since meaning still depends on context, as any lexicon will prove in a minute), because the application is of a general nature. Thus, the cross-exegesis runs into the same insuperable problems that Ephesians 1:6 did. Nor do any of these supposed “disproofs” have anything to do with the fact that Mary was addressed as a title (with all that that implies in the Hebrew and biblical mind).

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ed. James Orr, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1939, 1956, vol. 4, 2807), confirms my understanding of Sirach, in its lengthy article on the book:

The book follows the lines of the canonical Book of Prov[erbs], and is made up of short pithy sayings with occasional longer discussions . . . Most of the book is poetical in form and even in the prose parts the parallelism of Heb[rew] poetry is found . . . an examination of the book itself confirms, that the compiler and author put his materials together with little or no regard to logical connection . . . The Hebrews never developed a theoretical or speculative theology or philosophy: all their thinking gathered about life and conduct . . . This is the only philosophy which the  Bible and the so-called Apoc[rypha] teach, and it is seen at its highest point in the so-called Wisdom Literature.

And so we find the same sort of non-systematic, practical, “empirical” wisdom in the following pair of couplets from Sirach (aka Ecclesiasticus – RSV):

29:14  A good man will be surety for his neighbor . . .29:18  Being surety has ruined many men who were prosperous . . .

And:

25:19, 24  Any iniquity is insignificant compared to a wife’s iniquity; may a sinner’s lot befall her . . . From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die. (cf. 25:13, 16-18, 20, 23)

36:24  He who acquires a wife gets his best possession, a helper fit for him and a pillar of support.

I don’t know about the exact term used in Sirach 18:17, but I’ll take Dr. Svendsen’s word for it. The type of literature still must be taken into account. I didn’t pursue this argument primarily because my Greek reference works don’t include the Deuterocanonical books in their analysis, since they don’t regard them as Scripture. And there is no sense arguing about a verse in a Deuterocanonical book with Protestants because if one succeeds, they will always simply say, “but that ain’t Scripture, anyway.” If Protestants and Catholics are to argue about Bible interpretation, they can only limit themselves to books both parties agree are biblical books.

Of course, whether or not a type of literature is developed “theologically or speculatively” has nothing to do with the definition of a term. Words have meaning. All we’re interested in is the meaning of the word kecharitomene. Sir. 18:17 gives us an example of the word in use. If the word kecharitomene has to mean “full of grace” then this must be applied to the “gracious man”. If kecharitomene does not have to mean “full of grace” then your argument collapses.

Words indeed have meaning, but the variance in precise definition, according to context is quite wide, as any lexicon makes abundantly clear. When Little Kittel discusses charis (grace) — it places charitoo under that category — it goes on for seven large pages, giving a host of nuanced meanings of the word. It is not, then, just a simple matter of coming up with one definition and applying it to all usages, across the board. If you believe that, then you are truly a rookie Bible student and have tons of things yet to learn.

If it doesn’t have to mean “full of grace” then how do you know that in Mary’s case it means “full of grace” but for the “gracious man” it only means gracious? Why can’t it mean that Mary is merely a “gracious woman”? We all can agree with that.

Because of context, and because of how the word is applied to her as a title or name.

However, kecharitomene in Luke 1:28 is rendered in English does not nullify or change the fact that it is still a form of charitoo, a word whose root (charis) has the meaning (and translation) of grace in dozens of places in Scripture. That fact cannot be denied, whether one wants to render kecharitomene as “highly-favoured” or what-not. Nor does this overcome my exegetical argument.

If all you are trying to show is that Luke 1:28 does not contradict the IC, then I don’t think anybody would disagree with that. But we’re under the impression that you are trying to present an argument for the IC.

Yes, it is a Catholic biblical argument for the Immaculate Conception, but Protestants must understand that we are not presupposing sola Scriptura as we argue points from the Bible. I don’t adopt a stance just for fun, or for rhetorical purposes only. I try to relate to the view of my opponent as much as possible, but I always argue (even if I am doing an occasional explicitly satirical piece) within my own framework of authority and theology, until someone shows me a superior framework to adopt.

My framework is the acceptance of the material sufficiency of Holy Scripture (within an overall schema or paradigm of development of doctrine within Scripture itself, and in the post-apostolic era, continuing in perpetuity, guided by the Holy Spirit on an ecclesiological level), but not its formal sufficiency, which is what sola Scriptura entails.

I could contend, for example, based on my argumentation, that Lk 1:28 suggests the IC, is harmonious with it, is perfectly consistent with the notion; that the IC is the best interpretation of that verse, taken in conjunction with other related cross-references, that nothing there or elsewhere in Scripture contradicts it or makes it impossible to hold, etc., without logically falling into a category of claiming that the doctrine is absolutely proven by Luke 1:28, in the way that many doctrines are unarguable from Scripture by itself.

Possibly Mary’s sinlessness could be proven by the verse, but I’m not sure I would even (decisively) claim that at this point: only that it is very strongly suggested to me, after studying other instances of charitoo, and the meaning of this particular form of it: kecharitomene. I feel that my present argument is an exploratory one, and I find the opposing arguments thus far very weak, so that confirms my present tentative opinion (as to the merits of this particular biblical argument), and makes it all the stronger, for now, anyway. This is one of the blessings of apologetics. :-)

I thought time was absolutely essential to the IC. I thought for the IC it was important that Mary was endowed with special grace at conception. I’m not too well read on this, but I thought the whole debate between the Dominicans and Franciscans regarding the IC came down to just a few hours. The Dominicans rejected the IC, but actually believed that Mary was still cleansed in utero, just a few hours after conception.

Yes, that is the doctrine itself. But — this is crucial — I am distinguishing between the full definition as now held, and the kernel, or essence of the doctrine. For example, the kernel of transubstantiation is the Real Presence. The former is a development of, and elaboration upon the latter. Likewise, the IC is a development of the notion that Mary is sinless, which was held by the Fathers, and is held by the Orthodox today.

I would deny that the essence of the IC is sinlessness. We think the essence of the IC is that Mary was immaculate at conception.

Again, you are thinking in terms of the present definition. I am looking at the doctrine as it developed through history, and at possible biblical kernels, or implicit indications of it (Luke 1:28 has long been a primary Catholic argument for it, as far as I know). The kernel or essence is clearly sinlessness, in conjunction, particularly, with the New Eve, or Second Eve motif in the Fathers (e.g., Irenaeus). The IC developed from that.

The Church as a whole pondered what it meant to be sinless and what was entailed in being the Theotokos. It was thought that the Mother of God (the Son) would be properly sinless, and that (with the Assumption) she would be immediately resurrected after this life in order to be the “firstfruits” of the resurrection all (created) saints will attain eventually.

And this is the Apostolic Tradition which was handed down, along with the Virgin Birth, perpetual virginity, and other beliefs. So the sinlessness is the essence. Then it develops to pondering how original sin (itself another development) enters into the equation (as opposed to actual sin alone), and in what sense Mary called Jesus her Savior (which was Aquinas’ argument against it — but he was, in point of fact, arguing against something different than our present definition).

Then the notion was arrived at that one can be saved by being prevented from entering into sin from the outset by the grace of God, as well as by being pulled out of the pit of sin (redeemed), having already fallen into it, as we all do, due to original sin. That was how the fully-developed doctrine came about. The propriety (and inevitability) of development of doctrine itself is, of course, another huge subject. I believe I have more material about that on my site than can be found anywhere else on the Internet.

It looks like we agree that Luke 1:28 is not evidence that Mary was immaculate at conception, and for this reason we don’t think it provides any evidence for the IC.

Again, it may not for the belief in toto, but it does in the sense I have described above, which was my intent in the first place. It supports the essence. Most Protestant thinkers and opponents of Catholic doctrine would, I think, all things being equal, assume that the IC could easily be disproven from Scripture. My point is that I don’t think it can be; not that it can be absolutely proven from Scripture alone. This is another crucial point to understand about my argument, and what I claim for it. But if you approach the argument as insufficient because it doesn’t prove every particular aspect of the IC, then in that sense it will not provide “any evidence.”

Yet consistency with Scripture and exhaustive, “airtight” evidence are two different things. Protestants are on shakier ground even in that sense, because they can’t prove Scripture Alone from Scripture alone, yet they make that tenet one of their pillars. It’s a self-defeating endeavor. Catholics, never having accepted the unbiblical notion of Bible Alone as the Final Authority above authoritative Councils, Church, and tradition, do not have any such self-defeating dilemma to grapple with.

For the sake of brevity, please answer this question. Is it your position that Luke 1:28 positively teaches that Mary was immaculately conceived?

No. I have never stated that. You have superimposed that understanding into my argument, presumably because of your prior commitment to sola Scriptura, which leads you to believe that all biblical arguments present doctrines whole and entire in the pages of Holy Writ.

If kecharitomene means highly favored and not full of grace your argument has been disproven.

The word comes from the root word which is used tons of times in Scripture for “grace,” so it is not impermissible to render it as “full of grace” (as even Wycliffe and Tyndale did). Vine, Robertson and other lexicons support this interpretation.

The root word charis is translated in the KJV (I cite Young’s Concordance) as follows:

benefit 1
favour 6
grace 129
liberality 1
pleasure 2
thank 3
thanks 4
acceptable 1
gracious 1
thankworthy 1

The more closely related charitoo is rendered “make accepted” once and “highly favoured” once (at Lk 1:28). It is noted that the marginal rendering is “graciously accepted or much graced”. But you wish to argue that a word derived from a root Greek word which is translated as “grace” 87% of the 149 times it occurs in the KJV, cannot possibly be translated with “grace” anywhere in it? Even in your “proof text” Sirach 18:17, kecharitomene is rendered as “gracious,” so obviously, such a translation is permissible.

I’m much more interested in replies to my exegetical argument, whereby grace is shown to be antithetical to sin, and is in relation to it as water is to the air in an empty glass. The more you pour the water in, the less air there is. A full glass of water has no air. A person full of grace has no sin. Why would that be an impermissible opinion, given what we know about grace in Scripture? Even A.T. Robertson thinks that “full of grace” is a perfectly permissible rendering of kecharitomene in Luke 1:28.

1) Nobody has argued that Lk 1:28 is not harmonious or is inconsistent with the IC.

Good.

2) Some argumentation has been presented to indicate that the IC is not the best interpretation of that verse.

From a Protestant framework, we would expect this. Everyone has a theological paradigm within which they operate.

3) Nobody has made any efforts to show that other things in Scripture indicate that the IC  is false.

Okay.

From what you have posted elsewhere, it seems you have concluded that nobody has responded to you.

No. Mainly I have been saying that no one has responded to my own specifically exegetical argument, having to do with the 14 passages I presented, which showed the (ostensibly uncontroversial notion) that grace is the antithesis of sin and the source of salvation. How I connected that to Luke 1:28 (as a variant of charis/grace) is what I thought was the (perhaps) “new” element of my argument, and what would be fit for vigorous discussion.

It’s the heart of my argument. And, to my knowledge, no one has offered any commentary on that whatever (at least no lengthy, significant reply). What was done was an immediate appeal to arguments against Luke 1:28 by offering Ephesians 1:6, Acts 6:8, and Sirach 18:17 as countering examples of charitoo.

I make a distinction between a self-contained “argument against proposition x” and “counter-reply to an argument for proposition x.” People seem to often get that confused. To me, in a true dialogue, each party will directly reply to the other’s assertions and show how they do not follow (personally, I think that is the most, fun, stimulating, challenging aspect of dialogue). They don’t simply give their arguments without reference to the first person’s argument. I call the second method “mutual monologue.” Maybe this is a weird way of dialoguing; I don’t know. To me it is simply honestly facing the opponent’s challenge and either trying to refute it or conceding ignorance or defeat in that particular.

But I always seem to have trouble getting across analogical arguments. People apparently are not trained in that way of thinking and have a hard time with it, which is strange because it isn’t all that different from OT Hebrew parallelism and NT parables.

Don’t you think it is a significant concession for a Protestant to grant that Mary was, or might be sinless? To me that would be a giant step back towards apostolic tradition, as we view it, and accepting the “essence” of the doctrine, as tied in to the New Eve concept of Irenaeus and others, and the early development of the Theotokos. That’s why I think there is some importance. If a Protestant agrees that the verse is consistent with the IC, Mary would have to then be sinless (for to not be would be an inconsistency with the IC). To me that would be a huge “success” on our part, since that is basically all we’re trying to establish from Scripture, given that there was much development of the doctrine which cannot be explicitly tied to Scripture.

However, if you could show that this kernel inevitably leads to the IC, that would be significant.

It would be quite difficult to convince someone coming from a Protestant perspective of that. One possible way would be to say that she needed a savior, based on her statement in the Magnificat; secondly (if my argument, or the linguistic one succeeds), she is sinless. Connected with those two factors is original sin (which also developed relatively slowly in the early Church, and isn’t even in the Nicene Creed). How a Catholic harmonizes all that, taking into consideration Mary’s role as Theotokos, is to eventually arrive at, or deduce the Immaculate Conception.

But this is all inextricably bound up with (in addition to Scripture) apostolic Tradition, the mind of the Church, the sensus fidelium, the inter-relationship of various doctrinal beliefs, development of doctrine, Christology, pious reflection and practices of veneration, spiritual ponderings, prayer, and so forth. It is a very “un-Protestant” way of “doing” theology. Yet we contend that this was how it was in the early Church.

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Summary: Good discussion about the meaning of “full of grace” in Luke 1:28 & the implications of that for the sinlessness of Mary: suggesting her Immaculate Conception.

 


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