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.