Sunday, September 4, 2011

Apologetics toolbox: The Immaculate Conception (Part II)

In addressing the historical objection, we state that, whether the early Christians explicitly believed in an Immaculate Conception or not, it’s a legitimate development from things they held true about Mary from the earliest days: that she gave birth to Christ without labor pains (a legacy of original sin), and that she is the “New Eve”. Indeed, not only did the early Christians believe in a painless birth, many have argued from that time forth that her hymen remained intact … a position not strictly necessary to maintain her perpetual virginity, perhaps, but not one completely out of court, either.

But the doctrine also derives from the belief in Mary’s life without sin. And here’s where we start running the proof-text gantlet:

Objection 2: In the Magnificat, Mary “rejoices in God my Savior”(Lk 1:47). How could she require a savior if she was born without original sin, and had not sinned in her life?

Consider the following scenario: You and your mother are on a cruise ship that runs into an iceberg and sinks. Fortunately, another ship is nearby, and you’re pulled from the water with the rest of the survivors. Your mother, however, is fortunate enough to step onto a helicopter and be flown to the rescue ship without getting so much as a toenail wet.

Here’s the question: Was she saved or not? The answer is, of course, that she was saved, just in a different manner from how you were saved. But notice that the objection contains the answer to a different objection——


Objection 3: It was the free sacrifice of Christ on the cross that saves us, and baptism that removes the stain of original sin. Therefore, Mary could not possibly have been conceived without original sin, as her conception preceded the crucifixion.

If that were so, then it would have been impossible for Mary to speak of “God my Savior”, since by this argument she would not have been saved. But in announcing the good news to her, St. Gabriel greeted her as kecharitōmenē (Lk 1:28 LXX). This Greek word is usually translated as “(highly) favored one”, but this construction falls well short. From the verb charitoō (to make graceful, i.e., charming, lovely, agreeable; to pursue with grace, compass with favor; to honor with blessing [Thayer]), kecharitōmenē is a perfect passive participle, which implies an action started in the past and continuing through the present. It’s precisely this sense of perfect, perpetual grace that led St. Jerome to translate kecharitōmenē as gratia plena, “full of grace”. And since the verb implies that the filling with grace began before the angel addressed her, any point between conception and that moment would be arbitrary, without logical foundation even in the apocrypha.

Moreover, the action of the Cross doesn’t just extend forward over time, but also backwards. Indeed, if we hold all the prophecies and typologies to be true, then its necessity has driven all sorts of action through time, from David at his lyre to Jeremiah at his quill. Thus Bl. John Duns Scotus’ rationale of preredemption: Jesus’ sacrifice redeemed Mary before she was born, because her cooperation was intrinsic to his life, death and resurrection.

Objection 4: But if “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23 NIV), then we must conclude that Mary sinned too, and that St. Paul didn’t believe her sinless.

This is an out-of-context fallacy. Saint Paul was engaging in the kind of hyperbole used by the authors of the Scriptural passages he cites in verses 10-18, much as Jesus himself engaged in rhetorical exaggeration (“If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” [Mt 5:29-30 NIV]).

Let’s take a closer look at the passage (Rom 3:9-24 NIV):

What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” [Pss 14:1-3; 53:1-3; Eccl 7:20]. “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit” [Pss 5:9]. “The poison of vipers is on their lips” [Pss 140:3]. “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness” [Pss 10:7 LXX]. “Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know” [Is 59:7-8]. “There is no fear of God before their eyes” [Pss 36:1].
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Saint Paul’s purpose in writing this passage is to assert that Jews and Gentiles are alike in their propensity to sin, but — so far as the Law of Moses could justify — it could only work on behalf of the Jews, and even then imperfectly. With the sanctifying grace of Christ’s sacrifice, however, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28 NIV). To pull out a denial of Mary’s impeccability from this passage is to misuse it, one of the pitfalls of cherry-picking Scripture for proof texts.

Objection 5: But if the apostles and evangelists thought she was without sin, wouldn’t they have said so?

This simply re-introduces the problem of sola scriptura, in its guise of “the Bible as first-century catechism”. Granting its “God-breathed” nature, there are still challenges to its material sufficiency and its formal sufficiency. Nothing in Church history shows that the bishops and scholars of the third and fourth century were attempting a compendium of first-century beliefs rather than a simple, authoritative canon of apostolic texts. And, as I reminded you in Part I, the beliefs of the early Church would have been mentioned only so far as they addressed the occasion or were being opposed; we can’t intuit anything from the evangelists’ silence other than their silence.

But we do have an indirect reference to it, and — ironically — it’s a passage many Protestant apologists will recognize: “As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, ‘Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.’ He replied, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it’” (Lk 11:27-28 NIV). This isn’t a rejection of his mother or a denial of her blessedness (“From now on all generations will call me blessed” [Lk 1:48 NIV]). Rather, Jesus tells the woman that his mother is blessed not just because she bore him but because she submitted herself to the will of God (“I am the Lord’s servant, … May your word to me be fulfilled”[1] [Lk 1:38 NIV]).

*          *          *

Most of us are familiar with Jesus’ comparison of the kingdom of Heaven to a mustard seed: “It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Mt 13:31-32). The parable can also speak to us not only of the growth of his Church but also to the development of Christian dogma, as the long centuries have passed while we have unpacked the evangelium. Branches not present when the seedling first sprouts eventually emerge, their advent dictated by the plant’s DNA.

So it is with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Though we never see it explicitly mentioned in Scripture, the basic elements were present for the first eleven hundred years of the Church’s life, to eventually spring out in the writings of Eadmer and Osbert of Clare. If it isn’t the oldest of our beliefs, it still doesn’t follow that it’s not an authentic part of the apostolic tradition.

In sum: The dogma of the Immaculate Conception is a logical outgrowth of early Church beliefs about Mary’s sinlessness.

Further patristic citations: Mary: “Full of Grace” (Catholic Answers)


[1] This is an instance where the translating technique used for NIV, dynamic equivalence, trades linguistic accuracy for bad prose.