The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

One privilege of the Convergence Movement is that we get to draw upon the very best features of the divergent Christian Traditions and take them as our own.  That privilege can be quite perilous though.  We run the great risk of picking and choosing doctrines and traditions which suit us rather than those which truly represent the Faith Catholic.  We must not only appropriate those tenets of the faith which we believe to be true and reject those which we believe to have been in err, but we must also diligently investigate those various tenets of the faith which are controversial and seek the Lord’s discernment on how to handle those elements of the faith.  One tradition which deserves careful and intense deliberation is the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

This doctrine is entirely distinct from the Virgin Birth, although the two are often confused.  The doctrine of the Virgin Birth teaches that Jesus was conceived through the Holy Spirit without the participation of any man.  The Immaculate Conception teaches that the Blessed Virgin Mary was conceived by normal means but, through a special act of grace, was conceived without Original Sin.  Original Sin is both the first sin that Adam committed and the perpetual consequence for all humanity ever since.  Different Christian traditions disagree on the way in which Original Sin affects humanity and how its consequences are passed on.  On Church Father, Tertullian of Carthage said that Original Sin as well as other spiritual traits, both positive and negative, were passed on from parent to child in a way akin to passing on eye or skin color.  According to that theory, a particular giftedness towards the prophetic or fasting would be passed from parent to child, as would a tendency towards sloth or lust.

A logical conclusion stemming from this idea involves the proposition that the Blessed Virgin Mary’s spiritual traits, including Original Sin, would have been passed on to Jesus as well.  This would open theoretical doors that would call into question the sinlessness of Jesus Christ, which is essential to redemption.  In order to keep those doors closed, someone developed the idea of the Immaculate Conception.  The doctrine itself may have begun originally in England and the earliest written reference we have to the Feast comes from the 10th century English writer Eadmer. After the Conquest in 1066, the Normans suppressed observance and the legitimacy of the Feast was hotly contested throughout the Middle Ages. The doctrine was defended primarily by Franciscans, especially St. John Duns Scotus. It is surprising for many to learn that the Dominicans, especially St. Thomas Aquinas, did not believe in the Immaculate Conception. He did, however, agree to accept what Holy Mother Church decided on the issue. Pope Sixtus IV made the observance a Universal Feast, but refused to define the doctrine as dogma and therefore granted Roman-Catholics the freedom to accept or refuse the teaching without fears of being labeled a heretic.

In 1845, Pope Pius IX promulgated the Papal Bull Ineffabilis Deus. The document stated, “We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful.” From that point on for Roman-Catholics, at least officially speaking, the matter was settled. Declaring a tenet of the faith a dogma means that, for all intents and purposes, if one does not believe the dogma, they are outside of the faith. In order to be considered a faithful Roman-Catholic, you must believe in the Immaculate Conception.

For Roman-Catholics there is no discussion on the matter.  I, however, am obviously not a Roman-Catholic. Yet the Charismatic Episcopal Church cannot simply dismiss every teaching of the Magisterium with a gallant charge of “Popery” either. At one point, some of us now in the CEC might have called vestments and the Real Presence “mere popery” as well.  I have said before that the Charismatic Episcopal Church is all about rescuing the babies of the Faith Catholic from the bath water thrown out during the Reformation. We, as Christians who profess to be part of the One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, must endeavor to find whether the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is a legitimate tenet of the Faith or an inappropriate addition to the faith (along the lines of Limbo or the sale of indulgences).

There are principally three Scriptures used as proof of the Immaculate Conception. These are Genesis 3:15; Song of Solomon 4:7; and St. Luke 1:28. According to Roman-Catholic interpretation, the “enmity” between the woman and the Devil spoken of in that passage refers to the fact that the woman who would ultimately fulfill the prophecy, the Mother of God, would never be subject to sin and corruption and, thus, always at odds with the Devil. That certainly is one way of interpreting the passage, but it is far from a necessary interpretation. Likewise, Song of Songs 4:7 reads, “You are fair my love, and there is no spot in you.” The “spot” in that passage is macula in the underlying Latin. Being without stain or spot or blemish (of sin) would make one “Immaculate,” hence the name of the feast. However, once again, although the reading is possible, it is by no means the only way of interpreting the verse. The same may be said of the passage from the Gospel according to Saint Luke where Roman-Catholic interpreters take “Full of Grace” to mean “conceived without original sin.” All three of these passages might be read to support the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception or they might be read otherwise. Scriptural evidence is, in short, non-conclusive.

Arguments from the Church Fathers are abundant but not entirely persuasive. Similarly, the arguments from reason are not entirely conclusive. The primary argument from reason suggest that if God had the power to preserve His mother from sin, and it was fitting that He do so, then clearly He would do it. After all, they assert, if you could preserve your mother from all corruption, wouldn’t you do it?

The history of the doctrine becomes far more intriguing in 1858, when a young French girl reported seeing a woman while gathering firewood. The girl would have around seventeen separate encounters with the woman whom, two years later, the Roman-Catholic bishops would officially declare was, in fact, an Apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Of significance to this issue is that on one of their encounters, the Blessed Virgin Mary declared “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Were it truly is the case that the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette at Lourdes, that would seem to settle it. After all, if the Blessed Virgin Mary herself says, “I was conceived immaculately,” who are we to argue?

It seems as though the issue of how we should address the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary depends largely on how much credence one may place on private revelation.  Did Bernadette really see the Blessed Virgin Mary?  Did the Blessed Virgin Mary really say, “I am the Immaculate Conception”?  If we cannot base doctrine on the Apocrypha, can we base it on a private revelation?  It may not be at the top of anyone’s lists of issue to tackle right now, and, perhaps, rightfully so.  Whether or not the Virgin Mary was conceived with or without Original Sin is not an issue that impacts many of the lost who are seeking the Lord.  Not many long-time Christians struggle with the state of Mary’s soul prior to her birth.  In fact, only a select few theologians ever struggle with the issue.  Nevertheless, as the Charismatic Episcopal Church continue to be a convergence movement and continues to grow into the fullness of the role Our Lord has called us to fill, at some point we will have to decide where we stand on the nature of Original Sin and the Immaculate Conception.  Additionally, were her conception immaculate or otherwise, let us never minimize the incredible role that the Blessed Virgin Mary did play in the history of our redemption.

Almighty God, who by the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin did make her a worthy habitation for Your Son and did by His foreseen death preserve her from all stain of sin: grant, we beseech You, that aided by her intercession, we may live in your presence without sin: We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.   Amen.

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6 responses to “The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

  1. Fr. John Bower

    Fr. Scott – as usual I enjoyed reading your post but think some mention of the Orthodox view would have been appropriate.
    Orthodox view on Immaculate Conception
    The Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God was first promulgated as a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church in the year 1854, by Pope Pius IX. The official statement of it, is as follow:
    “The doctrine which declares that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, was the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore must be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful of the Roman Catholic Church.”
    The declaration of this doctrine to be a dogma of the Western Catholic Church marked the end of a period of often bitter controversy between its adherents and those who denied it, a controversy that involved some of the most well known Western Catholic theologians.
    Throughout the Eastern part of the Roman empire, from as far back as the fifth century, a feast day was observed on 9th December entitled The Conception of Saint Anna. This feast day celebrated the events surrounding the conception of the Mother of God by Saint Anna in her and her husband Joachim’s old age, as set forth in the apocryphal Protoevangelion of James.
    There was no attempt on the part of the hymn writers of the early church to suggest that there was any other miracle than the conception in the face of prolonged sterility.
    This feast day soon became popular with Western Christians, and by the 8th century was celebrated on 8th December. Soon after, some western churchmen began teaching that Mary, from the moment of her conception, was “miraculously innocent” of the guilt of original sin.
    This teaching was bitterly opposed by such churchmen as the great Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, and the great Dominican Doctor of the Western Church Thomas Aquinas. Eventually however, in 1854, those who accepted the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception gained the attention of the Pope, who effectively ended all the controversy about it by officially promulgating it as an official teaching of the Western Catholic Church.

    In order to understand the position of the Orthodox Church on this teaching we must begin with understanding the Orthodox concept of original sin, as opposed to that which prevails in the Western Catholic Church.
    The Western Catholic Church’s teaching of original sin, is based in part on the writings of Saint Augustine, which states that each human being at the moment of conception shares in the guilt of Adam’s sin of disobedience.
    This was based on Saint Augustine’s slightly flawed Latin translation of Romans 5:12. Augustine did not read Greek with any great proficiency. Augustine read it as saying “so death spread to all men in whom (Adam) all men sinned”, rather than “so death spread to all men because all men sinned”, which is how the original Greek reads.
    It is this teaching that led Western Catholic thinkers to create a place called “Limbo” (from the Latin word limbus, “border” or “hem”), meaning on the border of heaven. They said this is where the souls of unbaptised infants could find refuge, since though not guilty of any personal sin, they still had the guilt of original sin on their souls, and so could not enter heaven proper.
    In the medieval Western Catholic Church, original sin was believed to be transmitted in a physical sense through conception. It thus became important to many that Mary be preserved from this taint. Hence the creation in the ninth century of the doctrine of the immaculate conception.
    The Orthodox Church has kept alive the original understanding of the early Church as regards “original sin.” The early Church did not understand “original sin” as having anything to do with transmitted guilt but with transmitted mortality. Because Adam sinned, all humanity shares not in his guilt but in the same punishment.
    We are tempted by sin and we become guilty of it through committing our own personal sins. We therefore suffer and we die. This is the orthodox understanding of original sin. It is not something that we are guilty of personally, but an action whose consequences have affected our lives as humans. As humans we sin, and our own guilt is because of our own personal sin.
    In the light of this, the Western Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is redundant.
    In Orthodox eyes, there is simply no original guilt for Mary to be made innocent of. Which is also why we have no Limbo for infants who die unbaptised, which was also at one time the usual teaching of the Western Catholic Church.
    Often those advocating the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, have sought to discover it in Orthodox writers of the Middle Ages or in Orthodox hymns.
    Orthodox writers who often refer to Mary as having been “prepared,” and “sanctified,” and who hail her as the “immaculate one,” are thinking in the context of the Orthodox view of original sin, not the Western. None of these writers put forth a claim that Mary was immortal – which necessarily follows for those who accept the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. It does not fit in the context of the Orthodox view of original sin.
    Many of these theologians held to a view that by special grace the Mother of God did not commit any personal sins. Others asserted that Mary was sanctified through her response to Archangel Gabriel at the annunciation, “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
    Taken at face value, the Western doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is seen by the Orthodox as separating the Mother of God from the rest of the human race. If true, this would have made it impossible for Christ to become truly man, because Mary would therefore not be subject to the same conditions of humanity as those for whom Christ had become incarnate in order to save. Mary is human, and through her, God became fully human as well.
    During this Advent season, the Orthodox Church frequently remembers the Virgin Mary as a gift of humanity to God, through whom God gave Himself back to humanity. One of our Christmas hymns asks “What shall we offer You, Christ, You Who for our sakes appeared on earth as a man? Every creature which You have made offers You thanks…..… We offer You a Virgin Mother. Pre-eternal God, have mercy on us.”
    Edited from an article in “The Word” Magazine. The Word is the official print publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

    • sjl

      Fr. John,

      Thanks for reposting that article. I have said before that I am not a theologian nor a son of a theologian (paraphrasing the Prophet Amos), and that my specialty is Church history. It is quite likely that my apprehension on the Immaculate Conception is that I do not really have a solid understanding of the implications of Original Sin. I probably should invest some time into further research on the topic. At face value, I do not like the implications of the Immaculate Conception because I think it takes away from the humanity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Now that is a personal problem but it also a theological problem; if the Blessed Virgin Mary was not as fully human as all of the rest of us, how could her Son be fully human and represent us as a sacrifice which atones for all of our sins? Perhaps the key to making sense out of some complicated doctrines lies in looking at the issue from an Eastern viewpoint. That is exactly what I would love to see happen in our effort to live out our call to be Convergent Christians. Let’s really wrap our hands around and issue and, like Jacob wrestling with the angel, not let go until it blesses us. Happy Feast (one way or the other)!

  2. After reading this article, Daily Planet Editor Perry White would surely cry “Great Scott (pun intended) you call this news?” If you decide that you want a shaky doctrine (story) to be true and can only find a handful of equally shaky biblical proof-texts to support it, you need an eye-witness even if it is hear-say. “After all, if the Blessed Virgin Mary herself says, ‘I was conceived immaculately,’ who are we to argue?”

    Such is the world and the church we live in. If the Bible doesn’t answer all of our questions about heaven we can always find a first-grader who says he has died – gone there – and come back, to tell us what we want to hear about what it is like.

    Thanks for writing this. I don’t get enough reminders of just how silly we can be.

    • sjl

      Eric,

      If there is a lesson in this post, I think it is that our theology has the same unforeseen consequences that science and politic have. I find it hard to believe that, when we he was formulating his opinions on Original Sin, he could have imagined that someday a billion people would use that as the basis to assert the sinlessness of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is a very interesting historical study and I think that it calls us to investigate further some of these issues so that we can really come to a reasonable conclusion. Generally speaking, it is best not to be too disparaging of those who believe in apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. As challenging as they might be to your theology, in the words of a good friend of mine, “The last thing I want to hear on Judgment Day is ‘What was it you said about My mother?'”

  3. Scott, I’m a bit confused. Who is the “he” that formulated the opinion on original sin? What is the interesting historical study? And why do we even need to come to a reasonable conclusion? After all, “Whether or not the Virgin Mary was conceived with or without Original Sin is not an issue that impacts many of the lost who are seeking the Lord. Not many long-time Christians struggle with the state of Mary’s soul prior to her birth. In fact, only a select few theologians ever struggle with the issue.”

    I AM skeptical of the accounts given by people who claim to have seen apparitions or to have had near death experiences in heaven or hell, but I said nothing against our Lord’s mother. 🙂

    • sjl

      I would suggest that the “he” who first formulated the position on Original Sin would have probably been St. Paul, but that, after him, Tertulian of Carthage and St. Augustine of Hippo were the most important figures in defining the doctrine in the West. Why do we “need” to come to terms with the idea? Why do people climb Mount Everest? It’s out there. Some people climb mountains; some people wrestle with theological issues.

      I too am skeptical of near death accounts and apparitions, but this doctrine/dogma rather hangs on the issue of whether an apparition was legitimate or not. Scripture is non-conclusive; arguments from the fathers are inconclusive; arguments from reason are inconclusive. There was someone who received a vision that was definitive on the issue. Whether or not the vision was valid is essentially the deciding vote. Now how do you discern the validity of a vision from 150 year ago? That is a tough question.

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