Saturday, September 09, 2006

Some Later Sources On The Sinlessness Of Mary

I recently posted an article about the earliest Christians' belief that Mary was a sinner. That post addressed the New Testament and ante-Nicene eras. I now want to address sources who wrote from the fourth century onward.

Though belief in some sort of temporary or lifelong sinlessness of Mary appears in some sources from the fourth century and beyond, the older view discussed in my previous post continued to be advocated in many places. Even among those who viewed Mary as sinless for some period of her life or as unusually righteous, we need to interpret such passages in light of other passages in those same sources that refer to Mary as being cleansed by the Spirit, as committing a particular sin, etc. It seems that some of the later church fathers viewed Mary as sinless or as unusually righteous for some period of her life, but didn't view her as sinless from conception onward.

Below are several examples of sources from the fourth century onward denying that Mary was sinless in some sense. Many more examples could be cited.

Basil of Caesarea

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).

"About the words of Simeon to Mary, there is no obscurity or variety of interpretation....By a sword is meant the word which tries and judges our thoughts, which pierces even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of our thoughts. Now every soul in the hour of the Passion was subjected, as it were, to a kind of searching. According to the word of the Lord it is said, 'All ye shall be offended because of me.' Simeon therefore prophesies about Mary herself, that when standing by the cross, and beholding what is being done, and hearing the voices, after the witness of Gabriel, after her secret knowledge of the divine conception, after the great exhibition of miracles, she shall feel about her soul a mighty tempest. The Lord was bound to taste of death for every man--to become a propitiation for the world and to justify all men by His own blood. Even thou thyself, who hast been taught from on high the things concerning the Lord, shalt be reached by some doubt. This is the sword. 'That the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.' He indicates that after the offence at the Cross of Christ a certain swift healing shall come from the Lord to the disciples and to Mary herself, confirming their heart in faith in Him. In the same way we saw Peter, after he had been offended, holding more firmly to his faith in Christ. What was human in him was proved unsound, that the power of the Lord might be shewn." (Letter 260:6, 260:9)

Hilary of Poitiers

"On the incident of Mary and the brothers waiting outside for Jesus [Matthew 12:46-50], H. [Hilary of Poitiers] proposes a novel exegesis: 'But since he came unto his own and his own did not receive him, in his mother and brothers the Synagogue and the Israelites are foreshadowed, refraining from entry and approach to him.'" (Michael O'Carroll, Theotokos [Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1988], p. 171)

Cyril of Jerusalem

"For we tell some part of what is written concerning His loving-kindness to men, but how much He forgave the Angels we know not: for them also He forgives, since One alone is without sin, even Jesus who purgeth our sins....Immaculate and undefiled was His generation: for where the Holy Spirit breathes, there all pollution is taken away: undefiled from the Virgin was the incarnate generation of the Only-begotten....This is the Holy Ghost, who came upon the Holy Virgin Mary; for since He who was conceived was Christ the Only-begotten, the power of the Highest overshadowed her, and the Holy Ghost came upon her, and sanctified her, that she might be able to receive Him, by whom all things were made. But I have no need of many words to teach thee that generation was without defilement or taint, for thou hast learned it." (Catechetical Lectures, 2:10, 12:32, 17:6)

John Chrysostom

John Chrysostom refers to Mary committing various sins:

"even to have borne Christ in the womb, and to have brought forth that marvellous birth, hath no profit, if there be not virtue. And this is hence especially manifest. 'For while He yet talked to the people,' it is said, 'one told Him, Thy mother and Thy brethren seek Thee. Butt He saith, who is my mother, and who are my brethren?' [Matthew 12:46-48] And this He said, not as being ashamed of His mother, nor denying her that bare Him; for if He had been ashamed of her, He would not have passed through that womb; but as declaring that she hath no advantage from this, unless she do all that is required to be done. For in fact that which she had essayed to do, was of superfluous vanity; in that she wanted to show the people that she hath power and authority over her Son, imagining not as yet anything great concerning Him; whence also her unseasonable approach. See at all events both her self-confidence and theirs. Since when they ought to have gone in, and listened with the multitude; or if they were not so minded, to have waited for His bringing His discourse to an end, and then to have come near; they call Him out, and do this before all, evincing a superfluous vanity, and wishing to make it appear, that with much authority they enjoin Him. And this too the evangelist shows that he is blaming, for with this very allusion did he thus express himself, 'While He yet talked to the people;' as if he should say, What? was there no other opportunity? Why, was it not possible to speak with Him in private?" (Homilies On Matthew, 44)

"For where parents cause no impediment or hindrance in things belonging to God, it is our bounden duty to give way to them, and there is great danger in not doing so; but when they require anything unseasonably, and cause hindrance in any spiritual matter, it is unsafe to obey. And therefore He answered thus in this place, and again elsewhere, 'Who is My mother, and who are My brethren?' [Matthew 12:48], because they did not yet think rightly of Him; and she, because she had borne Him, claimed, according to the custom of other mothers, to direct Him in all things, when she ought to have reverenced and worshiped Him. This then was the reason why He answered as He did on that occassion....And so this was a reason why He rebuked her on that occasion, saying, 'Woman, what have I to do with thee?' [John 2:4] instructing her for the future not to do the like; because, though He was careful to honor His mother, yet He cared much for the salvation of her soul" (Homilies On John, 21)


"he [Augustine] did not hold (as has sometimes been alleged) that she [Mary] was born exempt from all taint of original sin (the later doctrine of the immaculate conception). Julian of Eclanum maintained this as a clinching argument in his onslaught on the whole idea of original sin, but Augustine's rejoinder was that Mary had indeed been born subject to original sin like all other human beings, but had been delivered from its effects 'by the grace of rebirth'." (J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines [San Francisco, California: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978], p. 497)

Augustine wrote the following about Christ being the only post-Adamic human conceived without original sin. He approvingly quotes another church father, Ambrose. Notice that one of his quotes of Ambrose specifically mentions Mary, so it can't be argued that they didn't have Mary in mind at the time that they wrote. After quoting Ambrose, Augustine comments that Ambrose's view is a view consistent with "the catholic faith":

"And now that we are about to bring this book to a conclusion, we think it proper to do on this subject of Original Sin what we did before in our treatise On Grace, --adduce in evidence against the injurious talk of these persons that servant of God, the Archbishop Ambrose, whose faith is proclaimed by Pelagius to be the most perfect among the writers of the Latin Church; for grace is more especially honoured in doing away with original sin. In the work which the saintly Ambrose wrote, Concerning the Resurrection, he says: 'I fell in Adam, in Adam was I expelled from Paradise, in Adam I died; and He does not recall me unless He has found me in Adam,--so as that, as I am obnoxious to the guilt of sin in him, and subject to death, I may be also justified in Christ.' Then, again, writing against the Novatians, he says: 'We men are all of us born in sin; our very origin is in sin; as you may read when David says, 'Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.' Hence it is that Paul's flesh is 'a body of death;' even as he says himself, 'Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?' Christ's flesh, however, has condemned sin, which He experienced not by being born, and which by dying He crucified, that in our flesh there might be justification through grace, where previously there was impurity through sin.' The same holy man also, in his Exposition Isaiah, speaking of Christ, says: 'Therefore as man He was tried in all things, and in the likeness of men He endured all things; but as born of the Spirit, He was free from sin. For every man is a liar, and no one but God alone is without sin. It is therefore an observed and settled fact, that no man born of a man and a woman, that is, by means of their bodily union, is seen to be free from sin. Whosoever, indeed, is free from sin, is free also from a conception and birth of this kind.' Moreover, when expounding the Gospel according to Luke, he says: 'It was no cohabitation with a husband which opened the secrets of the Virgin's womb; rather was it the Holy Ghost which infused immaculate seed into her unviolated womb. For the Lord Jesus alone of those who are born of woman is holy, inasmuch as He experienced not the contact of earthly corruption, by reason of the novelty of His immaculate birth; nay, He repelled it by His heavenly majesty.' These words, however, of the man of God are contradicted by Pelagius, notwithstanding all his commendation of his author, when he himself declares that 'we are procreated, as without virtue, so without vice.' What remains, then, but that Pelagius should condemn and renounce this error of his; or else be sorry that he has quoted Ambrose in the way he has? Inasmuch, however, as the blessed Ambrose, catholic bishop as he is, has expressed himself in the above-quoted passages in accordance with the catholic faith, it follows that Pelagius, along with his disciple Coelestius, was justly condemned by the authority of the catholic Church for having turned aside from the true way of faith, since he repented not for having bestowed commendation on Ambrose, and for having at the same time entertained opinions in opposition to him." (On The Grace Of Christ, And On Original Sin, 2:47-48)

"The Augustinian view long continued to prevail; but at last Pelagius won the victory on this point in the Roman church." (Philip Schaff, section 81 here)

Cyril of Alexandria

"In this commentary, C. [Cyril of Alexandria] uses phrases about Mary which seem to continue the opinions of Origen (qv) and St. Basil (qv) on imperfection in her faith: 'In all likelihood, even the Lord's Mother was scandalised by the unexpected passion, and the intensely bitter death on the Cross...all but deprived her of right reason.' He tries to imagine the thoughts that passed through Mary's mind. Had Jesus been mistaken when he said he was the Son of Almighty God? Why was he crucified who said he was the life? Why did he who had brought Lazarus back to life not come down from the Cross? Then he recalls what had been written of the Lord's Mother: Simeon's sword, 'the sharp force of the Passion which could turn a woman's mind to strange thoughts.' The word woman is significant, for C. thought that the frailty of the female sex was a factor in what he then thought was collapse." (Michael O'Carroll, Theotokos [Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1988], p. 113)

Leo the Great

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). Leo I, a Roman bishop of the fifth century, taught that sin is transmitted by means of sexual intercourse, thus suggesting that Mary was conceived in original sin:

"And whereas in all mothers conception does not take place without stain of sin, this one [Mary] received purification from the Source of her conception. For no taint of sin penetrated, where no intercourse occurred." (Sermon 22:3)

Elsewhere, Leo refers to Jesus being the only one conceived without sin. He even refers to Christ's stock, a reference to Mary, being corrupt:

"For the earth of human flesh, which in the first transgressor was cursed, in this Offspring of the Blessed Virgin only produced a seed that was blessed and free from the fault of its stock." (Sermon 24:3)

And elsewhere:

"And therefore in the general ruin of the entire human race there was but one remedy in the secret of the Divine plan which could succour the fallen, and that was that one of the sons of Adam should be born free and innocent of original transgression, to prevail for the rest both by His example and His merits. Still further, because this was not permitted by natural generation, and because there could be no offspring from our faulty stock without seed, of which the Scripture saith, 'Who can make a clean thing conceived of an unclean seed? is it not Thou who art alone?'" (Sermon 28:3)

The unclean seed would include Mary. And he refers to there being one from Adam who is sinless.

Roman Catholic scholar Michael O'Carroll comments that Leo viewed sin as being communicated by means of sexual intercourse (Theotokos [Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1988], p. 217).

Gregory the Great

"On Mt 12:48-50, [Gregory the Great] thinks that Mary momentarily represented the Synagogue, which Christ no longer recognized." (ibid., p. 159)

Innocent III

Even as late as the second millennium we see the sinlessness of Mary rejected by the Roman bishop Innocent III and other Western sources. O'Carroll cites the Pope saying that Mary was "begotten in guilt", that she needed "cleansing of the flesh from the root of sin" (ibid., p. 185).

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