(This is based, in part, on John Gerstner’s Primer on Roman Catholicism from a compilation of his primers in the book Primitive Theology. I am using Primitive Theology for my Sunday School class. For this lesson, I will also draw from James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy, (Bethany House, 1996).There is a growing list of links on the left for the posts for this class.
The Immaculate ConceptionHaving discussed the Mass, purgatory, indulgences, and the treasury of merit, we know move on to one of the Catholic Churches Marian doctrines: The Immaculate Conception.
If you have heard of this doctrine but have never studied it, you may have a common misconception among non-Catholics that the Immaculate Conception refers to Mary’s conceiving Jesus. It does not—we all agree that Jesus’ conception was immaculate—that is he was conceived without being tainted by Original Sin. The Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, however, refers to Mary’s conception in her mother’s womb—in a nutshell the doctrine states that Mary was born not just washed of sins but, like Jesus, sin-free.
Here is how the Catholic Encyclopedia defines the doctrine:
In the Constitution Ineffabilis Deus of 8 December, 1854, Pius IX pronounced and defined that the Blessed Virgin Mary "in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin."It is interesting to ask whether or not this doctrine is said, by Rome, to be taught in the bible or only in tradition. The answer: both. That is almost always the modern answer, a partial response to the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura: that all Catholic doctrines are taught, explicitly or implicitly, in both scripture and sacred tradition. To see an example of how Catholics find scriptural support, we present excerpts from an article entitled Ark of the new covenant by Catholic apologist Patrick Madrid from the December, 1991 issue of This Rock magazine.
"The Blessed Virgin Mary . . ." The subject of this immunity from original sin is the person of Mary at the moment of the creation of her soul and its infusion into her body.
". . .in the first instance of her conception . . ." The term conception does not mean the active or generative conception by her parents. Her body was formed in the womb of the mother, and the father had the usual share in its formation. The question does not concern the immaculateness of the generative activity of her parents. Neither does it concern the passive conception absolutely and simply which, according to the order of nature, precedes the infusion of the rational soul. The person is truly conceived when the soul is created and infused into the body. Mary was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin at the first moment of her animation, and sanctifying grace was given to her before sin could have taken effect in her soul.
". . .was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin. . ." The formal active essence of original sin was not removed from her soul, as it is removed from others by baptism; it was excluded, it never was in her soul. Simultaneously with the exclusion of sin. The state of original sanctity, innocence, and justice, as opposed to original sin, was conferred upon her, by which gift every stain and fault, all depraved emotions, passions, and debilities, essentially pertaining to original sin, were excluded. But she was not made exempt from the temporal penalties of Adam -- from sorrow, bodily infirmities, and death.
". . .by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race." The immunity from original sin was given to Mary by a singular exemption from a universal law through the same merits of Christ, by which other men are cleansed from sin by baptism. Mary needed the redeeming Savior to obtain this exemption, and to be delivered from the universal necessity and debt of being subject to original sin. The person of Mary, in consequence of her origin from Adam, should have been subject to sin, but, being the new Eve who was to be the mother of the new Adam, she was, by the eternal counsel of God and by the merits of Christ, withdrawn from the general law of original sin. Her redemption was the very masterpiece of Christ's redeeming wisdom. He is a greater redeemer who pays the debt that it may not be incurred than he who pays after it has fallen on the debtor.
Such is the meaning of the term "Immaculate Conception."
His face stiffened, and his eyes narrowed to slits. Until now the Calvary Chapel pastor had been calm as he "shared the gospel" with me, but when I mentioned my belief in Mary’s Immaculate Conception, his attitude changed.Madrid employs an obvious stereotype fall guy—the fundamentalist bumpkin.
"The problem with you Roman Catholics," he said, thin forefinger stabbing the air a few inches from my face, "is that you’ve added extra baggage to the gospel. How can you call yourselves Christians when you cling to unbiblical traditions like the Immaculate Conception? It’s not in the Bible--it was invented by the Roman Catholic system in 1854. Besides, Mary couldn’t have been sinless, only God is sinless. If she were without sin she would be God!"
At least the minister got the date right, 1854 being the year Pope Pius IX infallibly defined the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, but that’s as far as his accuracy went. His reaction was typical of Evangelicals. He was adamant that the Catholic emphasis on Mary’s sinlessness was an unbearable affront to the unique holiness of God, especially as manifested in Jesus Christ.
After we’d examined the biblical evidence for the doctrine, the anti-Marianism he’d shown became muted, but it was clear that, at least emotionally if not biblically, Mary was a stumbling block for him. Like most Christians (Catholic and Protestant) the minister was unaware of the biblical support for the Church’s teaching on the Immaculate Conception. But sometimes even knowledge of these passages isn’t enough. Many former Evangelicals who have converted to the Catholic Church relate how hard it was for them to put aside prejudices and embrace Marian doctrines even after they’d thoroughly satisfied themselves through prayer and Scripture study that such teachings were indeed biblical.Madrid has set the stakes high, hinting at substantive biblical support. Let us see if we are indeed astonished at the biblical support he musters. He continues:
For Evangelicals who have investigated the issue and discovered, to their astonishment, the biblical support for Marian doctrines, there often lingers the suspicion that somehow, in a way they can’t quite identify, the Catholic emphasis on Mary’s sinlessness undermines the unique sinlessness of Christ.
Several objections are raised by Protestants.This is a strawman. First of all, the primary Protestant objection to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is that it is absent from scripture. If it were in scripture, then we would deal with the apparent inconsistencies with the indicated passages. But the doctrine is nowhere to be found. Secondly, for reasons that Madrid is about to point out, the Protestant position is not that a creature cannot exist in a state of sinlessness unless he is a God, the Protestant position is that since the fall no man in his humanity, save one, can live in sinlessness. The second and third points are fair.
First, if only God is sinless, Mary couldn’t have been sinless or she would have been God.
Second, if Mary was sinless, why did she say, "My spirit rejoices in God my savior" (Luke 1:47)? If only sinners need a savior, why would Mary, if free from sin, include herself in the category of sinners? If she were sinless, she would have had no need of a savior, and her statement in Luke 1 would be incoherent.
Third, Paul says in Romans 3:10-12, 23, "There is no one just [righteous], not one, there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God, all have gone astray; all alike are worthless; there is not one who does good, not even one. . . . all have sinned and are deprived [fallen short] of the glory of God." In Romans 5:12 he says, "Therefore, just as through one person sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all, inasmuch as all sinned . . . ." These verses seem to rule out any possibility that Mary was sinless.
The Immaculate Conception emphasizes four truths: (1) Mary did need a savior; (2) her savior was Jesus Christ; (3) Mary’s salvation was accomplished by Jesus through his work on the Cross; and (4) Mary was saved from sin, but in a different and more glorious way than the rest of us are. Let’s consider the first and easiest of the three objections.As mentioned, Madrid sets up a strawman and proceeds to knock it down. He is addressing an argument that Protestants don’t really make.
The notion that God is the only being without sin is quite false--and even Protestants think so. Adam and Eve, before the fall, were free from sin, and they weren’t gods, the serpent’s assertions to the contrary notwithstanding. (One must remember that Mary was not the first immaculate human being, even if she was the first to be conceived immaculately.)
The angels in heaven are not gods, but they were created sinless and have remained so ever since. The saints in heaven are not gods, although each of them is now completely sinless (Rev. 14:5; 21:27).
The second and third arguments are related. Mary needed Jesus as her savior. His death on the Cross saved her, as it saves us, but its saving effects were applied to her (unlike to us) at the moment of her conception. (Keep in mind that the Crucifixion is an eternal event and that the appropriation of salvation through Christ’s death isn’t impeded by time or space.)Madrid appeals to our emotions, arguing that since neither murdered infants nor the mentally handicapped can sin, then obviously Paul didn’t really mean “all have sinned” when he wrote “all have sinned” and to interpret “all have sinned” as “all have sinned” is to be guilty of hyper-literalism. How does Madrid know that neither infants nor the mentally handicapped have sinned? He doesn’t say. Why then does the Catholic Church baptize infants if even young children cannot sin? He doesn’t say. What of the clear teaching in scripture that we all are born in rebellion to God (Ps. 51:5)? He ignores it.
Paul’s statements in Romans chapters 3 and 5 (no one is righteous; no one seeks God; no one does good; all have sinned) should not be taken in a crassly literal and universal sense--if they are, irreconcilable contradictions will arise. Consider Luke 1:6 (Zechariah and Elizabeth). Common sense tells us whole groups of people are exempt from Paul’s statement that "all have sinned." Aborted infants cannot sin, nor can young children or severely retarded people. But Paul didn’t mention such obvious exceptions. He was writing to adults in our state of life.
If certain groups are exempt from the "all have sinned" rubric, then these verses can’t be used to argue against Mary’s Immaculate Conception, since hers would be an exceptional case too, one not needing mention given the purpose of Paul’s discussion and his intended audience.
Now let’s consider what the Bible has to say in favor of the Catholic position. It’s important to recognize that neither the words "Immaculate Conception" nor the precise formula adopted by the Church to enunciate this truth are found in the Bible. This doesn’t mean the doctrine isn’t biblical, only that the truth of the Immaculate Conception, like the truths of the Trinity and Jesus’ hypostatic union is mentioned either in other words or only indirectly.There is some truth here: we must allow for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, like the Trinity, to be deduced from other scripture. But this is another strawman; the Protestant objection is not that the phrase “immaculate conception” does not appear, but that the doctrine it refers to is not deducible from scripture.
Look first at two passages in Luke 1. In verse 28, the angel Gabriel greets Mary as "kecharitomene" ("full of grace" or "highly favored"). This is a recognition of her sinless state. In verse 42 Elizabeth greets Mary as "blessed among women." The original import of this phrase is lost in English translation. Since neither the Hebrew nor Aramaic languages have superlatives (best, highest, tallest, holiest), a speaker of those languages would have say, "You are tall among men" or "You are wealthy among men" to mean "You are the tallest" or "You are the wealthiest." Elizabeth’s words mean Mary was the holiest of all women.
Here we see the single greatest passage claimed for biblical support: the use of the Greek word "kecharitomene" to describe Mary. In essence, the entire doctrine is based on this superlative being applied to Mary. According to Rome, this word implies sinlessness. But in no Greek lexicon bears that out. Instead, it refers to divine favor, something that nobody disputes was shown to Mary. At the end of the paragraph, when referring to Luke 1:42, Madrid substitutes the superlative “holiest” for no lexical reason—the actual superlative being “most blessed.”
Madrid also argues on the basis of Genesis:
We see a crucial statement in Genesis 3:15: "I will put enmity between you [Satan] and the woman, between your seed and her seed; he will crush your head, and you will strike at his heel."Madrid’s conclusion is rather bizarre:
If Mary were not completely sinless this prophesy becomes untenable. Why is that? The passage points to Mary’s Immaculate Conception because it mentions a complete enmity between the woman and Satan. Such an enmity would have been impossible if Mary were tainted by sin, original or actual (see 2 Corinthians 6:14). This line of thinking rules out Eve as the woman, since she clearly was under the influence of Satan in Genesis 3.
Granted, none of these verses "proves" Mary’s Immaculate Conception, but they all point to it. After all, the Bible nowhere says Mary committed any sin or languished under original sin. As far as explicit statements are concerned, the Bible is silent on most of the issue, yet all the biblical evidence supports the Catholic teaching.There are many things the bible does not state explicitly. It does not explicitly negate the Mormon teaching that Jesus is Lucifer’s brother. One can prove just about anything by arguing what the bible does not explicitly negate.
A last thought. If you could have created your own mother, wouldn’t you have made her the most beautiful, virtuous, perfect woman possible? Jesus, being God, did create his own mother (Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2), and he did just that--he created her immaculate and, in his mercy and generosity, kept her that way.