This past Saturday’s Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception occasioned no little debate on social media as certain Catholics and Protestants who are co-laborers in many cultural and political endeavors—publications, pro-life work, and the like—went after each other hammer and tongs in theological agonies, as various champions entered the virtual arena for the contest. Passionate but never ad hominem (at least in my feeds), ornery but not mean, the combatants sparred, parrying and thrusting, throwing out this argument, that Bible verse, this quotation, that rejoinder.
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception
One serious evangelical Protestant called out a relatively popular modern image of Eve and Mary, with Eve downcast in red holding an apple, and Mary in blue and white comforting her, holding Eve’s hand on her swollen belly, pregnant with the hope of redemption, the Christ child. (The image was created by Sr. Grace Remington of Our Lady of the Mississipi Abbey, whose sisters belong to the Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, following the Rule of St. Benedict.) In a tweet, he called it “heretical theology (i.e., Mary as co-redemptrix),” and followed up with a later tweet claiming “I’d have no objection to interpreting the image that way if the straightforward meaning (Mary crushes the serpent) wasn’t an entrenched heresy. Because it is, I just think it’s better to avoid confusion than hope all viewers read into it an orthodox meaning.”
Co-Redemptrix is not an official Catholic title for Mary, though many pious Catholics would like to see that move made. In my recollection, John Paul II once broached it with his prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger, who dissuaded him from pursuing the matter.
Being that as it may, for many the root issue is the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the teaching that the Blessed Virgin Mary was conceived without sin through the retroactive merits of Christ. The Church found the doctrine necessary, I think, for two fundamental reasons. First, Christ needs sinless human flesh, for he cannot be a sinner, and second, he must take his flesh from his mother really and truly if he is to be fully human. Indeed, the Eve-Mary typology iconographed in the image assumes Mary’s sinlessness, for she has to be in the prelapsarian (i.e., pre-fall) position of Eve to be able to undo what Eve did. She obeys freely, where Eve disobeyed, in parallel to Christ’s obedience undoing Adam’s disobedience (see Romans 5:12–19 and 1 Corinthians 15:21–22, 45–49).
And so that we may have the precise and mature claims before us, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (§§ 490-93) teaches:
To become the mother of the Savior, Mary “was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role.” The angel Gabriel at the moment of the annunciation salutes her as “full of grace.” In fact, in order for Mary to be able to give the free assent of her faith to the announcement of her vocation, it was necessary that she be wholly borne by God’s grace.
Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, “full of grace” through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854:
“The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.”
The “splendor of an entirely unique holiness” by which Mary is “enriched from the first instant of her conception” comes wholly from Christ: she is “redeemed, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son.” The Father blessed Mary more than any other created person “in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” and chose her “in Christ before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before him in love.”
The Fathers of the Eastern tradition call the Mother of God “the All-Holy” (Panagia) and celebrate her as “free from any stain of sin, as though fashioned by the Holy Spirit and formed as a new creature.” By the grace of God Mary remained free of every personal sin her whole life long.
The teaching summarized: (1) Mary was sinless from conception on (2) through the forthcoming merits of Christ so that (3) she could “give free assent” to her calling and (4) provide Christ with a sinless human nature.
How the New Testament fulfills the Old
I don’t want to rehearse the history of the development of the dogma, the controversies surrounding it, or the typical apologetic maneuvers each side makes. Rather, I want to engage a little bit in how I came to believe in the Immaculate Conception on my way to becoming Catholic. In doing so, I hope to contribute a bit to the discussion at a different level, as I often find people talking past each other. Most debates surrounding Mary (and indeed most Catholic-Protestant debates) happen on a surface level, when the real issues concern bedrock: how we read the Bible and how Scripture informs theology, in particular.
I was always fascinated with the Old Testament, even from childhood, but like most Christians today, had little idea what to do with it. In Sunday School I loved the Old Testament stories, but cannot remember what was said, if anything, about how they related the Jesus Christ in the Gospels. I got an RSV Bible as a Lutheran second-grader, and I remember a picture of an Old Testament priest before the altar in the book; What does that have to do with anything? I asked myself.
I started finally grasping how the Old and New Testaments related while yet a Protestant at Princeton Theology Seminary, taking a class with the late, great Don Juel on the Old Testament in the New. Therein I learned how the New Testament writers drew on everything from single words to grand narratives in the Old Testament in shaping their own stories and making their own claims about Jesus and the Church. In short, I began to learn about typology, how the New Testament fulfills the Old, and with that came an understanding of the continuity between the Testaments, and with that an understanding of salvation history. The same God superintends the story of the world form creation to end, and acts in the same ways in every age.
I was so fascinated with the question of the relationship between the Testaments that I pursued doctoral work to study that very question, working with Dr. Richard Hays at Duke University. Dr. Hays had written a famous work, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, in which he demonstrated that St. Paul remained deeply concerned for Israel and her Scriptures (i.e., the Old Testament), over and against Germanic Protestant scholarship that painted Paul as a proto-Lutheran happy to leave Moses’ corpse on the far side of the Jordan. My own work under Dr. Hays concerned how the Gospel of Matthew employed the figure of Isaac to present Jesus as the final, decisive sacrifice. In writing that dissertation, I came to see ever more strongly that the New Testament writers were doing what the Church Fathers and medievals were doing. They all were interpreting the Old Testament figuratively, and indeed the New Testament writers were really doing what later would be called the fourfold sense. They were using not only the literal sense but engaging in typology (what Aquinas would call allegoria) between the Testaments, as well as the moral (tropological) sense and anagogical sense (which concerns the soul’s progress towards heaven).
Thinking of Mary in a deeply biblical way
When I was considering becoming Catholic, then, I was in a good position to think about Catholic claims about Mary in a deep biblical way. Jesus fulfills multifold figures from the Old Testament (Isaac, Moses, Israel itself, et alios), the Church is a new Israel, Paul likely understood himself as the suffering servant. Might not the New Testament writers have similar drew on the Old Testament in presenting Mary? Further, might not the logic of the story of salvation history require a certain understanding of Mary’s role therein?
In teaching Introduction to the New Testament in my first full-time teaching gig, I of course had to address the Gospel of Luke. And so I dug deep into the first couple of chapters, in which Mary figures prominently. What did I find there? In the first chapter, we encounter the aged priest Zechariah and his barren wife Elizabeth. Immediately our thoughts should turn to the original Holy Family, aged Abraham and barren Sarah, who eventually received the gift of Isaac. Moreover, Abraham was effectively a priest, like the other patriarchs. Often overlooked, Genesis is concerned with cult, as the patriarchs offer ritual sacrifice at significant moments. And the Archangel Gabriel tells Zechariah, “your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.” It’s the same pattern used in God’s announcement to Abraham in Genesis 17:19: “Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac.” But Zechariah does not believe Gabriel’s words, asking a doubt-filled question: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (Luke 1:18). And so he is struck dumb because he did not believe Gabriel’s words until baby John is born. (Protip: When an archangel speaks, believe him.)
So we have a typology between Zechariah’s family and Abraham’s family. But it becomes a triple typology, a verbal triptych empaneling salvation history: Gabriel next goes to the Virgin Mary. He greets her, and declares that she will bear the Messiah, the Son of the Most High. Like Zechariah, she asks a question: “How can this be, since I have no husband?” (Luke 1:34). But unlike Zechariah, she is not punished. Rather, the Archangel Gabriel answers her, explaining to her that she’ll give birth as a Virgin, conceiving by the power of the Holy Spirit. And she responds with her famous fiat: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). And of course she will bear Jesus, the new Isaac, to whom John pointed.
All this proves nothing. But it suggests everything. Why, I asked myself, is Zechariah punished, but Mary not? They each asked a question. The deference the Archangel Gabriel shows Mary is incredible. Without entering into philological and linguistic debates about the Greek word kecharitōmenē—at least “highly favored by God” or (as Catholics believe) “full of grace”—the asymmetry between Zechariah and Mary in the tight triple typology of Luke 1 intrigued me.
It proves nothing, but suggests everything. Protestants in principle only want to believe that which Scripture expressly asserts with perfect clarity. Since nowhere does Scripture say Mary was conceived without sin, they find the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception unbiblical. But Catholics read differently. For Scripture does not only assert; it also implies and suggests. Catholics ask what the biblical stories—indeed, the overarching biblical story of salvation history—permits, encourages, requires. For us, reading the Bible is a matter of logic, of theo-logic. That Mary’s question receives an encouraging response instead of punishment is suggestive.
It fits, then, with theology, and offers us a model for how theology and Scripture support each other. It’s an assumption of Luke’s Gospel and indeed the whole New Testament that Jesus is sinless. Theologically, that implies—requires—that Mary must be sinless, for Jesus must take sinless flesh from his mother. If he were to take sinful flesh on, he wouldn’t be sinless—unless we want to be Gnostic or docetist (two heresies that go hand in hand), and suggest Jesus’ soul was sinless but body sinful. Apart from the problem that the Bible throughout bears witness that God cannot dwell in the direct presence of sin, this would mean there was no real Chalcedonian union of the two natures, human and divine in Christ. We might end up as some sort of Nestorians to boot, with the natures divided.
Theologically necessary, and theologically possible
So Mary needs to be sinless. How is this possible? By the Immaculate Conception. The later merits of Christ are applied to Mary proleptically. To the Protestant that sounds like theological gymnastics born of desperation. But it’s theologically necessary, and theologically possible. God is outside of time. And if one insists on biblical backing, the warrant is there in the example of Abraham. How, we might ask, was Abraham justified by faith (Genesis 15:6, a verse St. Paul draws on twice, in both Romans and Galatians, so foundational for Protestants), over two thousand years before Christ suffered and died for sins? Abraham must have been justified proleptically, and if God could do it for him, God can do it for Mary. Why not?
If theology demands Mary be sinless and Scripture shows that God can make people righteous well before Christ, then we can say that the story of Mary in Luke 1 fits with Mary’s sinlessness. The Immaculate Conception explains why Mary isn’t chastised but answered. (Of course, she asks her question, I think, because she’s taken a vow of perpetual virginity in accord with Numbers 30, and so wasn’t planning on having children, but that’s a discussion for a different day.) Scripture is of a piece; theology is of a piece; reality is of a piece; all superintended by God.
Some modern Protestant theologians have asserted that Christ took on sinful human nature (thinking of Thomas Torrance), and before them Protestant scholarship largely in Germany in the nineteenth century gave traditional Christian beliefs—from the divinity of Christ to the Immaculate Conception and most everything in between—the acid bath of higher criticism. Some found Mary so distasteful they suggested Luke didn’t write Luke 1–2; a later proto-Catholic wrote them and appended them to the beginning of Luke.
But earlier Protestants maintained many historic Marian teachings. Ulrich Zwingli wrote, “I esteem immensely the Mother of God, the ever chaste, immaculate Virgin Mary” (quoted in G. Philips et al., De Mariologia et Oecumenismo, Rome, Pontificia academia Mariana internationalis, 1962, p. 456). For his part, Martin Luther thundered, “She is full of grace, proclaimed to be entirely without sin…God’s grace fills her with everything good and makes her devoid of all evil…God is with her, meaning that all she did or left undone is divine and the action of God in her. Moreover, God protected her from all that might be hurtful to her” (Luther’s Works, ed. Lehmann; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968).
The original Protestants knew what later Protestants, in their attempt to be biblical, have forgotten: that Mariology is a reflex of Christology, that beliefs about Jesus require believing certain things about Mary. As Jesus takes his flesh from Mary, Mother and Son are a package deal. And so sinless Mary was in a position to undo what Eve did. She cooperated with God, having that perfect Edenic free will that Eve surrendered in sin.
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