Saturday, February 04, 2006

The Immaculate Conception


It should be noted that while Catholics like John Salza refer to the church fathers believing in and advocating Mary's sinlessness, other Catholics will acknowledge that the concept was absent and widely contradicted for centuries. Catholics will make mutually exclusive claims about the history of their doctrines, and anybody who responds to something like John Salza's view will be accused by other Catholics of misrepresenting Catholicism.

To make matters worse, those Catholics who acknowledge that their doctrines were absent or widely contradicted early on will claim that the doctrines are credible anyway, yet won't ever give a coherent and verifiable explanation of why we're supposed to believe that the doctrines are credible. We'll get vague references to doctrinal development, an allegorical method of scripture interpretation, etc., but we won't get any coherent, verifiable argument that leads us to the conclusion that the doctrine in question is true.

Regarding Mary, Catholics often quote church fathers referring to her as "undefiled", "spotless", etc. without realizing either that virginity is being addressed rather than sinlessness or that a temporary sinlessness is in view. (Remember, a term like "undefiled" can sometimes refer to virginity rather than sinlessness.) For example, Ephraim the Syrian and Augustine are often cited referring to Mary as sinless in some sense, but those same fathers refer to Mary as a sinner in other contexts. Some of these sources thought of Mary as sinless for part of her life (after her conception or around the time of her conceiving Jesus, for example), but viewed her as a sinner during another part of her life.

Nobody in the earliest centuries of church history refers to Mary as sinless from conception onward. Many sources either directly or indirectly refer to her as a sinner. Evan, in a previous thread, has referred to my comments on Luke 2:48-50. See my article on the subject at:

Other passages of scripture could be cited as well. The most natural reading of the Bible leads to the conclusion that Mary was a sinner.

Justin Martyr refers to Jesus as the only sinless human and denies that his Jewish opponent Trypho can cite any human who completely obeyed God so as to not need the salvation Christ offers (Dialogue With Trypho, 17, 88, 95). Clement of Alexandria is emphatic on the point that Jesus is the only sinless human (The Instructor, 1:2, 3:12). Tertullian accuses Mary of such sins as "keeping aloof" from Christ and "want of adherence" to Christ, and he refers to Mary's "unbelief" (On the Flesh Of Christ, 7). Origen denied that Mary was sinless both indirectly (Against Celsus, 3:62, 4:40) and directly. J.N.D. Kelly comments:

"Origen insisted that, like all human beings, she [Mary] needed redemption from her sins; in particular, he interpreted Simeon's prophecy (Luke 2, 35) that a sword would pierce her soul as confirming that she had been invaded with doubts when she saw her Son crucified." (Early Christian Doctrines [San Francisco, California: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978], p. 493)

Athanasius maintained that it was Jesus, not Mary, who introduced consistent righteousness into the world (Four Discourses Against The Arians, 1:51). Basil of Caesarea explains that the meaning of Luke 2:34-35 is clear: Mary sinned, and she needed to be restored after Jesus' resurrection, just as Peter was restored (Letter 260:6-9). John Chrysostom accuses Mary of lack of virtue and "superfluous vanity", for example, and comments that she didn't hold a high enough view of Christ (Homilies On Matthew, 44). Ambrose maintained that Jesus was the only immaculately conceived human (cited in Augustine, On The Grace Of Christ, And On Original Sin, 2:47). I could give many other examples, but I'll move on to a category that's particularly relevant when addressing Roman Catholicism.

The Protestant historian Philip Schaff counted seven different Roman bishops who denied the sinlessness of Mary (The Creeds of Christendom [Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998], Vol. I, p. 123). Even as late as the second millennium we see the sinlessness of Mary rejected by the Roman bishop Innocent III. The Roman Catholic scholar Michael O'Carroll cites the Pope saying that Mary was "begotten in guilt", that she needed "cleansing of the flesh from the root of sin" (Theotokos [Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1988], p. 185).

Again, the examples I'm giving here are just a portion of what could be cited. The concept of Mary as sinless throughout her life, from conception onward, is unmentioned in the earliest centuries and is a small minority view when it first arises in later centuries. The concept is explicitly and repeatedly denied by a wide range of church fathers and Roman bishops for hundreds of years. It's denied so much that Augustine could refer to Jesus as the only immaculately conceived human and think that his belief was consistent with the faith of the universal church (On The Grace Of Christ, And On Original Sin, 2:47-48).

It's undeniable that Evan is on the correct side of this dispute. But, given the state of modern Roman Catholicism, John Salza can radically change his argument, yet remain within mainstream conservative Roman Catholicism. Salza could begin arguing that although the sinlessness of Mary was absent and widely contradicted for hundreds of years, including among Roman bishops, the doctrine is still credible and part of the apostolic tradition always held by the church. When asked for an explanation, he could make vague appeals to doctrinal development, allegorical scripture interpretation, etc. and suggest that people read Cardinal Newman. When people ask him for more details, and he can't provide them, he can then try to change the subject to baptismal regeneration, apostolic succession, or something else with more patristic support. When he's losing the debate on those other subjects, he can change the subject again. That's the flexibility of modern Catholicism. You keep going around and around, and you never get to a coherent, verifiable argument.

# posted by Jason Engwer : 2/03/2006 2:16 PM


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