The Immaculate Conception of Mary teaches that, at her conception (specifically “at the first moment of her animation”; Catholic Encyclopedia, source), the Virgin Mary was given such grace that she was kept free from the stains of original sin, so that Christ may be born from a pure and untarnished body. From one papal source:
…in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin. [Pius IX; Ineffabilis Deus; source]
From this immaculate conception came the removal of every inclination to sin within Mary as well. To quote another source:
The state of original sanctity, innocence, and justice, as opposed to original sin, was conferred upon her, by which gift every stain and fault, all depraved emotions, passions, and debilities, essentially pertaining to original sin, were excluded. [Catholic Encyclopedia; ibid]
The Immaculate Conception of Mary, and her sinless, perfected life, are in fact considered dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church, and are nonnegotiable beliefs for those seeking conversion to Rome. As the previously quoted pope said:
“Hence, if anyone shall dare — which God forbid! — to think otherwise than as has been defined by us, let him know and understand 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…” [Pius IX; ibid]
However, contrary to the teaching of Pius IX and others, the Immaculate Conception is not a doctrine that has always been taught by the great teachers of church history. Of course, many Church Fathers, such as Augustine, used language that was similar to the doctrine as Rome teaches it today. For example, Augustine, writing against the Pelagians, and contending against the idea that many personalities in the Bible lived perfect lives, wrote:
We must except the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom I wish to raise no question when it touches the subject of sins, out of honour to the Lord; for from Him we know what abundance of grace for overcoming sin in every particular was conferred upon her who had the merit to conceive and bear Him who undoubtedly had no sin. [On Nature and Grace, 42; source]
However, plenty of Church Fathers, or well known teachers, opposed it, or taught contrary to it. Origen and Basil of Caesarea, for example, took the words of Simeon (Lk 2:25) and interpreted it to mean she suffered from doubt and disbelief at the cross (see especially Basil’s Epistle 260, sections 6 and 9). John Chrysostom, considered a Doctor of the Roman Church, accused her of ambition and vanity, calling her intentions in Matthew 12:46 to be out of vainglory (see his Homily 44 on Matthew). On top of this, many well respected theologians in the west “such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Thomas Aquinas denied the doctrine” (source), as did others like Bonaventure. Certainly some did believe Mary to have been sinless, and in some respects she had been preserved, by God’s providence, from all sins, as Aquinas does. Aquinas, for his own part, speaks of Mary being a sinless and devout carrier of Christ more in relationship to the dignity of Christ and his godhead than the issue of being tainted by original sin (cf. 3:27:4). In regarding Christ’s birth and his human nature, Thomas Aquinas writes:
Christ assumed human nature in order to cleanse it of corruption. But human nature did not need to be cleansed save in as far as it was soiled in its tainted origin whereby it was descended from Adam. Therefore it was becoming that He should assume flesh of matter derived from Adam, that the nature itself might be healed by the assumption…Christ’s body was in Adam in respect of a bodily substance – that is to say, that the corporeal matter of Christ’s body was derived from Adam: but it was not there by reason of seminal virtue, because it was not conceived from the seed of man. Thus it did not contract original sin, as others who are descended from Adam by man’s seed. [Summa Theologica, 3:31:1; source]
It should be noted, while we are on the subject of the doctrinal development in church history, that this dogma is one found solely in Roman Catholicism. The Eastern Orthodox (and I would imagine the Coptics, Assyrian Orthodox, and other groups as well) do not subscribe to this dogma, nor teach it as such. While they do profess the Virgin Mary to have been sinless and pious (or at least, as sinless as a human being can be), it is not with the understanding that Mary was given a special kind of grace (immaculately conceived) and hence made free from all sin, let alone that she was kept free from Adam’s stain (which Eastern Orthodox do not even believe in), but that, under her own free will, she never committed any major sins during her lifetime. While venerating the Virgin Mary, Eastern Orthodox find the Roman Catholic doctrine to be troubling:
In the past individual Orthodox have made statements which, if not definitely affirming the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, at any rate approach close to it; but since 1854 the great majority of Orthodox have rejected the doctrine, for several reasons. They feel it to be unnecessary; they feel that, at any rate as defined by the Roman Catholic Church, it implies a false understanding of original sin; they suspect the doctrine because 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. [pg. 259-260; Ware]
Another Eastern Orthodox writer states:
The dogma of the immaculate conception is foreign to the Eastern tradition, which does not wish to separate the Holy Virgin from the descendants of Adam upon whom the fault of the first parents weighs. Nevertheless, sin acting as a force in her nature, and as impurity could find no place in her…She was not holy in virtue of a privilege, of an exemption from the destiny common to all humanity, but because she has been kept from all taint of sin though without any impairment of her liberty. [pg. 140-141; Lossky]
Yet another Eastern Orthodox writer states:
Not only is the Immaculate Conception a theological error, it opens the door for further “developments” that are even more objectionable. [pg. 151; Carlton]
Theologians of both East and West praised and hymned the Virgin’s purity. Indeed, on the whole, the hymnography of the East can be more flowery and exuberant in its rhetoric than that of the West. Everyone agreed, therefore, that the Virgin was pure, but how and when did she get that way, and what implications does it have for how we view her? The starting point for the diverging of traditions was…the Augustinian definition of original sin as the guilt or the taint of Adam’s sin that is passed on through sexual reproduction. [pg. 153-154; Carlton]
This mindset is found in many Church Fathers, most notably John of Damascus:
Then planted in the House of God and increased by the Spirit, like a fruitful olive tree, she became the home of every virtue, turning her mind away from every secular and carnal desire, and thus keeping her soul as well as her body virginal, as was meet for her who was to receive God into her bosom: for as He is holy, He finds rest among the holy. Thus, therefore, she strove after holiness, and was declared a holy and wonderful temple fit for the most high God. [An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, IV, 14; source]
Hence, the Eastern churches, while considering the Virgin Mary to have been a pure and devout woman, do not believe her righteousness to be based on an immaculate conception or imparting of grace into her sinful nature around her conception. For them, “Mary’s glory lies precisely in the fact that she is a human like us, including a human nature subject to the passions” (pg. 155; Carlton). Therefore, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is a distinctly Roman Catholic one, found only in the traditions and annals of Rome and its associated churches.
Nonetheless, many Roman Catholics defend the doctrine, and believe it to be perfectly legitimate. In this post, let’s examine a few of the more common arguments for the immaculate conception and sinless nature of Mary.
Some contend that, because scripture never says Mary sinned, it must imply that she never really did sin. Of course, the problem with this argument is that, when used with consistency, it can be used to apply to many other people in the Bible. Nowhere in scripture does it say Timothy ever sinned – are we to assume Timothy never sinned? Was Timothy sinless and immaculate? Nowhere in the Bible does it say Titus ever sinned – are we to assume that Titus was sinless? We could also apply this to things other than sinning: scripture never says King Hezekiah used the bathroom…are we to assume Hezekiah never used the bathroom? Are we to presume that Luke, who never speaks of tying his sandals in the Acts of the Apostles, never ever tied his sandals, let alone wore shoes?
The point is, scripture’s supposed silence on whether or not Mary sinned is not evidence to conclude that she, in fact, never sinned. Silence should not lead us to conclude something never happened, unless scriptural or simple truths compel us to believe one or the other. For example, people have to use the bathroom every now and then, thus it’s reasonable to assume, at some point in Hezekiah’s life, the king had to use the bathroom. For the purposes of this discussion, what is important is what scripture says on the state of man, and man’s tendency to sin. Which brings us to our next point…
Many protest the doctrine of Mary’s sinless state with the words of the apostle Paul: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). Some Roman Catholics respond to this by immediately saying that Romans 3:23 is not applicable to everybody. Bishop Robert H. Brom writes:
But what about Romans 3:23, “all have sinned”? Have all people committed actual sins? Consider a child below the age of reason. By definition he can’t sin, since sinning requires the ability to reason and the ability to intend to sin…We also know of another very prominent exception to the rule: Jesus (Heb. 4:15). So if Paul’s statement in Romans 3 includes an exception for the New Adam (Jesus), one may argue that an exception for the New Eve (Mary) can also be made. [source]
That Jesus was not a sinner is, of course, beside the point. Jesus lived as the only sinless man. Jesus was he who “knew no sin” (2 Co 5:21). Likewise, those in heaven do not sin because they have reached a stage of glory. Most people recognize this, and would never suggest that they are included in the “all” of Romans 3:23.
As for babies, or (as other Roman Catholics argue) the mentally handicapped, it might be contended that they are indeed sinners. Mentally handicap people are not perfect, and even they have committed acts that would put them under the wrath of God, and babies are conceived and born as natural sinners, as the Psalmist wrote: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psa 51:5). Also, the question has to be asked: if those infants ever grew up, would they never sin? Would they ever be able to please God on their own, sans the righteousness of Christ? No, they would not. This also leads us to question the times in the Old Testament where infants and children were killed under orders from God (eg., Deu 2:33-35), or by God himself (the flood, the tenth plague, etc.) – if those infants were perfect and sinless, was God at fault for killing them, or having them killed? This gives credence to the complaints of atheists and agnostics who think God is a monster killing the innocents at will.
As with the previous point, logical consistency finds us questioning whether or not this verse applies to everybody, not just Mary. Are there any who are not mentally handicapped who are not sinners? And why, even if this verse is recognized as a hyperbole, does it not apply to Mary? This is an example of special pleading. Another example of a similar argument is seen at the website Scripture Catholic:
Rom. 3:23 – finally, “all have sinned,” but Jesus must be an exception to this rule. This means that Mary can be an exception as well.
Again, of course Christ is the exception to this rule – however, that’s because scripture confirms that Christ was without sin – the apostle Paul writes, as we quoted before, that Christ was he “who knew no sin” (2 Co 5:21). No where does it state that Mary was without sin in the same manner Christ was. Likewise, such an argument forgets that Paul is building up in Romans 3 to salvation in Christ alone – of course he would exclude Christ from his words in verse 23. Likewise, to argue “x happened, therefore y is possible” is an incredibly fallacious position, especially when the conclusion is that the hypothetical scenario did happen. It is a terribly weak thing to ground one’s dogma on mere cans and coulds. This is how conspiracy theories operate, but it should not be how Christian doctrine operates.
The same source likewise states, playing off the contention taken from Romans 3:23:
Rom. 9:11 – God distinguished between Jacob and Esau in the womb, before they sinned. Mary was also distinguished from the rest of humanity in the womb by being spared by God from original sin.
Such an argument, however, misunderstands the point Paul was making when he discussed the election of Jacob over Esau. Paul was merely emphasizing that God’s election was chosen not on what Jacob and Esau did, but rather, this was done so that “God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls” (Ro 9:11), and to demonstrate God’s point: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Ro 9:15). God’s electing Jacob over Esau does not lead one to automatically conclude that the Virgin Mary was distinguished from the rest of mankind by being spared from original sin – such a position is plain eisegesis, reading the doctrine of the immaculate conception into a passage that could never be talking about it.
One of the earliest Messianic prophecies in scripture involves the words of God to the serpent, shortly after the fall of man:
“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” [Genesis 3:15]
Roman Catholics believe this to be likewise one of the earliest scriptural evidences for the immaculate conception of Mary. Pope Pius IX, in the previously quoted document, stated:
Hence, just as Christ, the Mediator between God and man, assumed human nature, blotted the handwriting of the decree that stood against us, and fastened it triumphantly to the cross, so the most holy Virgin, united with him by a most intimate and indissoluble bond, was, with him and through him, eternally at enmity with the evil serpent, and most completely triumphed over him, and thus crushed his head with her immaculate foot. [ibid]
The Catholic Encyclopedia likewise states:
The conqueror from the seed of the woman, who should crush the serpent’s head, is Christ; the woman at enmity with the serpent is Mary. God puts enmity between her and Satan in the same manner and measure, as there is enmity between Christ and the seed of the serpent. Mary was ever to be in that exalted state of soul which the serpent had destroyed in man, i.e. in sanctifying grace. Only the continual union of Mary with grace explains sufficiently the enmity between her and Satan. The Proto-evangelium, therefore, in the original text contains a direct promise of the Redeemer, and in conjunction therewith the manifestation of the masterpiece of His Redemption, the perfect preservation of His virginal Mother from original sin. [ibid]
However, the immediate context of this verse works against such an assumption. The serpent is being addressed, and the “woman” mentioned is Eve, who succumbed to the serpent and listened to his commands. The reference to “her offspring” is two-fold: 1) generally, to men, whom Satan will afflict with sin and hence bring about death; 2) to Christ specifically, the offspring born from the line of Adam, whom Satan will “bruise” on the cross, and yet who will crush Satan in his resurrection. There is nothing in the verse to imply “eternal enmity” (as Pius IX says) between Mary and Satan. Yes, there is said to be enmity between the woman and the serpent, but as the rest of the passage shows, this is more in relation to his offspring (that is, sin and the power of death) and her offspring (behind mankind as a whole, and Christ in particular). The focus is not on Eve or the “woman” of the verse, but the offspring, and how the devil and the offspring will interact. The eternal enmity is seen between the seed of man and the serpent.
Certainly to be fair, even some Protestant commentators believe that this passage may be making some reference to Mary, even if it were just as the mother of Christ. However, none read anything further than that, and indeed, given the context, we cannot ourselves read anything further than that. It does not grant to Mary any kind of special grace to not sin, let alone does it present some kind of enmity between her and Satan. Even if this were granted, it would not lead one towards the immaculate conception, or a “continual union with grace” on Mary’s part.
Many Roman Catholics appeal to the words of the angel Gabriel when he addresses Mary for the first time. One Roman Catholic translation renders it: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women” (Douay-Rheims 1899). The rendering “full of grace” is said by many Roman Catholics to be evidence of her immaculate conception:
The salutation of the angel Gabriel — chaire kecharitomene, Hail, full of grace (Luke 1:28) indicates a unique abundance of grace, a supernatural, godlike state of soul, which finds its explanation only in the Immaculate Conception of Mary. [Catholic Encyclopedia; source]
Other translations, however, render the words differently:
“Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” (ESV)
“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” (NASB)
“Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” (NIV 1984)
Some might immediately notice that the phrase “blessed are you among women” is not present in any of the newer translations. This is because it is a textual variant found only in later manuscripts, probably included by scribes for a balance with Luke 1:42 (where Elizabeth says it of Mary). The original Greek of the angel’s words are:
“χαῖρε, κεχαριτωμένη, ὁ κύριος μετὰ σοῦ.”
We will here examine the words and phrases used in this verse bit by bit.
a) χαῖρε – “hail”
The word χαῖρε comes from the verb χαίρω which means “to rejoice, be glad,” and is often used in this form as a respectful greeting that sort of wishes further rejoicing and gladness. Elsewhere in the New Testament, it is used (though mockingly) in this exact form towards Christ (Mt 26:49; 27:29; Mk 15:18; Jn 19:3). Other forms of the word are found as well: the tribune writing to Governor Felix gives him χαίρειν, “greetings” (Acts 23:26); the apostle John tells the faithful not to grant heretics χαίρειν, “a greeting” (2 Jn 1:10). There is no immediate theological implication from the angel’s use of it, other than a form of respect.
b) κεχαριτωμένη – “favored one”
The word κεχαριτωμένη is the Perfect Participle Middle/Passive form of the word χαριτόω, a verb which means “to favor” or “bestow freely upon.” It does come from the Greek noun meaning grace (χάρις), however the idea here, as implied by the verb form, is that grace is being bestowed upon or given to the person, not that the person already has it, or is full of it. The only other time that the verb is used in the New Testament is in Ephesians 1:6, when Paul speaks of grace “which He freely bestowed (ἐχαρίτωσεν; Aorist Indicative Active) on us in the Beloved” (NASB). This is why the newer translations render it as “O favored one” rather than “full of grace.” In the interlinear work created by William and Robert Mounce, χαριτόω is defined in the context of Luke 1:28 as “to be visited with free favor, be an object of gracious visitation” (pg. 1194). The NET notes likewise read:
The address, “favored one” (a perfect participle, Grk “Oh one who is favored”) points to Mary as the recipient of God’s grace, not a bestower of it. She is a model saint in this passage, one who willingly receives God’s benefits. The Vulgate rendering “full of grace” suggests something more of Mary as a bestower of grace, but does not make sense here contextually.
Far from the notion that the phrase full of grace “finds its explanation only in the Immaculate Conception of Mary,” let alone that it implies a “godlike state of soul,” even a layman’s study of the angel’s words discovers that, while respectful and signifying the special favor Mary had found with God, it doesn’t represent anything close to what the Immaculate Conception of Mary teaches. In fact, the previously quoted Catholic Encyclopedia even admits that the use of “full of grace” in Luke 1:28 serves “only as an illustration, not as a proof of the dogma” (ibid).
One serious attempt at defending the Roman Catholic understanding of Luke 1:28 can be found in Dave Armstrong’s book The Catholic Verses. In the chapter dealing with this subject, Armstrong writes that “the Catholic argument hinges on the meaning of kecharitomene” (pg. 183). In order to prove the correctness of the Roman position, he takes the noun form of the word (χάρις), cites several passages from the epistles of Paul and John that speak of salvific grace, and then argues that, as Mary was said to have been “full of grace,” this clearly meant she was, in essence, full of salvific grace and hence completely saved and sinless (pg. 183-184).
A few problems arise from this line of argumentation:
1) χαριτόω is a verb, not a noun. Verbs function differently than do nouns. You cannot take nouns and try to read them as operating, or referring to, the same thing as a verb. It would be like taking “pizza” and “delivering pizza” and implying that the two are equatable in what they are trying to convey. This doesn’t even cover that χαριτόω here is in participle form, and hence serves to qualify or modify a noun, further transforming its function.
2) Even if we accept (for the sake of argument) that there is a connection between χαριτόω and χάρις, this argument relies upon a picking and choosing of New Testament uses for χάρις. It is said in Luke 2:52 that the young Christ grew “in stature and χάρις with God”: does this imply that Christ was formerly empty of salvific χάρις? Did the young Christ have to be filled up with salvific χάρις over time like an automobile would with gasoline? Does that imply that the young Christ was formerly unsaved, or could have lost his salvation, because he wasn’t full of the salvific χάρις Paul speaks about. Likewise, Christ asks in Luke 17:9 if the master in the parable would be χάρις towards the servant for doing what he was ordered: does this imply that the human master, by his own power, was able to give salvific grace to his servant? Was salvific grace even part of the context of Luke 17:9, let alone Luke 2:52? Why are we to only accept the use of χάρις in a salvific context from Paul’s and John’s epistles to read into Luke 1:28? Why not the use of the word elsewhere? Again, this argument relies upon picking and choosing.
3) There is no word here in the Greek which signifies “full of” or “complete.” This argumentation is using a noun form of “grace” and applying it to an archaic English translation of the verb form. Also, there are no Greek words for “full of” in this passage, those are part of the archaic translation for χαριτόω – a translation which most New Testament Greek scholars (including the ones Armstrong himself cites) believe to be erroneous, along with the Vulgate’s translation and the Roman Catholic interpretation.
4) Similar to the first problem, this argumentation presumes that the very word means the exact same thing in every single context, similar to how some synergists try to argue that the words “world” and “all” are used in the exact same context throughout scripture. Armstrong, for his part, will admit that the word has different meanings, but only when he examines his critics and those with differing viewpoints.
5) The word, as we said before, is also seen in Ephesians 1:6, which is commonly translated as “bestowed upon.” Most New Testament Greek scholars connect the use of the two passages (Lk 1:28; Ep 1:6) in their use of χαριτόω, including the Protestant scholars whom Armstrong cites in his book.
6) Let us say (again, for the sake of argument) that the use of χαριτόω in Luke 1:28 does mean Mary was full of salvific grace at the annunciation – this does not conclude this salvific grace was given at her birth. Nothing in the grammar itself suggests something that happened in the far past, and one might as well assume that this means the Virgin Mary was filled with salvific grace right at that very moment, or at some point just before the angel appeared. Going from Luke 1:28 and the grammar of χαριτόω alone, it grants only the slight possibility of the sinlessness of Mary from that point on, not the possibility of her immaculate conception.
The fact is, κεχαριτωμένη simply means a bestowing of favor from God. It does not mean anything more.
c) ὁ κύριος μετὰ σοῦ – “the Lord is with you”
The phrase ὁ κύριος μετὰ σοῦ (“the Lord is with you”) was a common greeting back then among the Jews. We see the angel of the LORD use it with Gideon (Jdg 6:12), and Boaz says it to the reapers (Ruth 2:4). It does not necessarily designate to Mary anything which places her above all mankind.
Some Roman Catholics have turned to the words said by a woman to Christ, as found in Luke’s gospel:
While Jesus was saying these things, one of the women in the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, “Blessed is the womb that bore You and the breasts at which You nursed.” [Luke 11:27]
The idea behind the use of this passage is that, according to the woman, the mother who bore Christ was clearly a blessed woman, and from this comes the insertion of the Immaculate Conception teachings.
However, this form of expression was actually common among the Jews at that time, and wasn’t unique to Mary. John Gill writes in his commentaries:
This was a form of blessing among the Jews: so it is said of R. Joshuah ben Chananiah, a disciple of R. Jochanan ben Zaccai, who lived about these times, “blessed is she that bore him”: and they had also a form of cursing among them, much after the same manner, as, “cursed be the paps that suckled him”. [source]
The woman, seeing Christ’s miracles and hearing his teachings, declares, according to Jewish custom, that his mother must truly be a blessed woman to have such a son. This no more means, however, that Mary had some great amount of grace granted to her than it did for all the rabbis that had come before and after Christ, who had similar things said of their mothers.
More importantly, however, is what Christ says immediately afterward:
But He said, “On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.” [Luke 11:28]
While some would contend that Christ does not dismiss the idea that his mother was blessed or happy, neither does he affirm it as a high institution. In fact, Christ said that those who are blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it. In other words, what is truly blessed is not the mother of Christ, but those who are, indeed, true Christians, and true believers. This verse is not attempting to teach any kind of Marian dogma, but rather the importance of faith in Christ.
One common argument made, historically, for the immaculate conception of Mary is that, in order for Christ’s truly pure human nature to be realized, he had to be born from someone without the stain of sin and Adam’s guilt. Pope Pius X, after writing on “leaving aside tradition…as well as Scripture,” writes:
…to the Christian intelligence the idea is unthinkable that the flesh of Christ, holy, stainless, innocent, was formed in the womb of Mary of a flesh which had ever, if only for the briefest moment, contracted any stain. And why so, but because an infinite opposition separates God from sin? There certainly we have the origin of the conviction common to all Christians that Jesus Christ before, clothed in human nature, He cleansed us from our sins in His blood, accorded Mary the grace and special privilege of being preserved and exempted, from the first moment of her conception, from all stain of original sin. [Ad Diem Illum Laetissimum, 18; source]
This is similar to the teachings of Pope Pius IX, who said that because of Mary’s sinless and perfect state “she was entirely a fit habitation for Christ, not because of the state of her body, but because of her original grace” (ibid). The Catholic Encyclopedia writes in their article on the immaculate conception:
The immunity from original sin was given to Mary by a singular exemption from a universal law through the same merits of Christ, by which other men are cleansed from sin by baptism. Mary needed the redeeming Saviour to obtain this exemption, and to be delivered from the universal necessity and debt (debitum) of being subject to original sin. The person of Mary, in consequence of her origin from Adam, should have been subject to sin, but, being the new Eve who was to be the mother of the new Adam, she was, by the eternal counsel of God and by the merits of Christ, withdrawn from the general law of original sin. [ibid]
The same article likewise writes:
There is an incongruity in the supposition that the flesh, from which the flesh of the Son of God was to be formed, should ever have belonged to one who was the slave of that arch-enemy, whose power He came on earth to destroy. Hence the axiom of Pseudo-Anselmus (Eadmer) developed by Duns Scotus, Decuit, potuit, ergo fecit, it was becoming that the Mother of the Redeemer should have been free from the power of sin and from the first moment of her existence; God could give her this privilege, therefore He gave it to her. [ibid]
A response on the Catholic Answers website, written by Fr. Vincent Serpa O.P., explains in shorter terms:
It was because he was to take on his human nature in her womb that God deigned her to be free of all sin and therefore “full of grace” (Lk 1:28). It would be unthinkable, given the revelation that we have in Scripture and Tradition, for him to be conceived in anything but a holy place. [source]
Amazingly enough, another response on Catholic Answers (answered by the staff) calls this line of reasoning an “easily refutable argument of necessity,” and that this kind of argumentation (which Pope Pius X himself clearly used) is “not a good one,” warning Roman Catholics not to use it. They instead argue that it was “fitting” God would do this to Mary, which in essence says that God simply chose to do it by His will – which is not how Pope Pius X was arguing. This demonstrates the common problem in finding consistency between Roman Catholic doctrine, church teaching, and modern-day lay apologetics (the latter one often playing a kind of “damage control” to the more difficult beliefs and arguments found in the former two).
In either case, is this argument a perfectly valid one? The question lies in the presupposition that Christ’s pure and undefiled nature must stem from a pure and undefiled mother – was this, at any time, a necessity? Do we see this in the scriptural teachings regarding God the Son’s incarnation? On the contrary, nothing like this is found in scripture whenever the topic of the incarnation is spoken about. Let’s review a few examples in which the incarnation is spoken of on theological terms:
In the famous Carmen Christi, the apostle Paul states that Christ, at the incarnation, “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men,” and that “being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Php 2:7-8). It was from this humility that God “highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name” (Php 2:9). All we learn is that Christ, in becoming man, took on the form of a bond-servant, being made in the likeness of men, humbling himself in his obedience to the point of death on the cross. This fits into the mold of Christ’s humility in his incarnation, which we see in Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism, but it does not confirm anything found in Roman Catholicism’s dogma of Mary’s immaculate conception.
The apostle John wrote in his gospel: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). We are told here by the evangelist and beloved apostle that God the Son took on flesh and dwelt (more properly “tabernacled“) among us, and those at that time witnessed his glory. This glory was “full of grace and truth.” Was this grace and truth sourced to his mother, or (more properly) dependent upon her nature? On the contrary, the apostle ties it to Christ himself, and his own existence as the Son of God. It does not appear necessary that God the Son should require a mother full of grace and truth in order for the incarnation to work.
Some here might contend that I am arguing from silence – however, I am simply examining whether the claim made by the other side is really grounded upon any passage of scripture, or whether the word of God truly teaches that Christ’s incarnation and ability to live a sinless, pure life was dependent upon a sinless, pure mother. As it stands, scripture is silent on it…which means that it is not a scriptural teaching. Some might also contend that none of the verses I have cited directly deny the immaculate conception of Mary, but this is a burden of proof fallacy, forgetting that the burden is not on the person responding to a claim to deny it, but the person making the claim to prove it.
The closest passage I have heard used in reference to the necessity of Mary’s Immaculate Conception was from the book of Job:
“Who can make the clean out of the unclean? No one!” [Job 14:4]
It is true that this is speaking of birth, and the deep-seated corruption of man’s nature (it also says something about the unscriptural basis for the “age of accountability,” which was used to argue against Romans 3:23 earlier). However, to come to the conclusion that one must therefore demand Mary be free of the curse of Adam and hence free from the stain of sin is a far stretch. There is no reason to not presume that God merely created the incarnate Christ pure and holy in the womb of Mary, just as Roman Catholics presume that Mary was made pure and holy without respect to her own parents’ sinful natures. In fact, if it was not necessary for Mary’s parents to be free from Adam’s stain in order for her to be free from Adam’s stain, then why was it necessary for Christ? Again, it is simply presumed that this is necessary without any kind of definite proof.
What we have seen, from scripture, is that Christ was born perfect, and that God the Son became incarnate so that, in His human nature and will, He would not sin, and be able to resist all temptation. God ensured this at the Incarnation in Bethlehem, not at the birth of Mary.
Therefore, while the argument that Christ required from his mother “a flesh which had ever, if only for the briefest moment, contracted any stain” makes for an interesting philosophical argument, it is nowhere found in scripture, and lies only in vain human reasoning which falls apart once it is examined.
Some Roman Catholic apologists have written “there is actually more biblical proof for Mary’s Immaculate Conception than there is for the Trinity” (source; edit: website now defunct). However, the Catholic Encyclopedia admits “no direct or categorical and stringent proof of the dogma can be brought forward from Scripture” (ibid). Armstrong also admits that the dogma “cannot be absolutely proven from Scripture alone” (pg. 190; emphasis in original).* Bishop Brom likewise admits that “the Immaculate Conception and Assumption are not explicit in Scripture” (ibid). It is quite clear that the immaculate conception of Mary, as the doctrine is understood, has no real grounding in the written word.
Indeed, as we’ve seen in this post, whenever scripture is used, it is either used out of context, or the immaculate conception is read into a passage without first demonstrating why we should be expecting to find it there (an example of begging the question). There is also the employment of philosophical arguments which have absolutely no basis on scripture or history, and, once again, can only work if one initially presumes the immaculate conception to be true. In order for this to be done, one has to accept the authority of those arguing for the immaculate conception. Pope Pius X, in writing on those who would deny the immaculate conception, and arguing that doing so denies other Christian doctrines, wrote that the dogma of the immaculate conception creates an “obligation which it imposes of recognizing in the Church a power before which not only has the will to bow, but the intelligence to subject itself” (ibid; 22). In the end, one authority must be appealed to: the authority of a single church body and government: that of the Roman Magisterium.
Many, at this point, will jump and declare that the Roman Magisterium is guided by the Holy Spirit, that it is founded by the apostles, and many other popular arguments to make in light of such examination. It is a terribly convenient thing to rely upon scripture on one moment, and then, when you are either confronted with proper exegesis, or you yourself realize the scripture is lacking, appeal to some other authority. In any case, we must ask ourselves, if the Roman Magisterium were guided by the Holy Spirit and the tradition of the apostles, why it would create as dogma something which scripture is, at best, completely silent about, and which scripture, at worse, clearly contradicts. Scripture does not give such esteem to Mary. Scripture does not tell us that it was necessary for Christ’s incarnation.
The fact is, no matter what authority you claim to follow, you should follow truth. As God is He who is Truth, look to see if the authority you follow honors Him, and not the imaginations or beliefs of an individual body. If there is an issue, follow the case seriously and closely, and see if it is accommodating to what is known for sure by God’s teachings and words. God bless.
* He likewise argues that it cannot be disproved from Scripture, but this is again committing a burden of proof fallacy: the weight of evidence is dependent upon the person making the claim, not the person denying it. One could very well argue that Timothy was sinless, and then argue that this cannot be disproved with Scripture, hence it must be correct, or at least reasonable to assume.
Armstrong, Dave. The Catholic Answers: 95 Bible Passages that Confound Protestants. Manchester: Sophia, 2004.
Carlton, Clark. The Truth: What Every Roman Catholic Should Know About the Catholic Church. Salisbury: Regina, 1999.
Lossky, Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Crestwood: SVS Press, 2002.
Mounce, William D. and Robert H. Mounce. The Zondervan Greek and English Interlinear New Testament (NASB/NIV). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.
Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church. London: Penguin, 1997.