Underlying Disagreements in ECT Evangelicals’ Objections to the Dogma of the Immaculate ConceptionDec 8th, 2011 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts
Today is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. Last year, immediately preceding this Solemnity, Taylor posted “Mary Without Sin (Scripture and Tradition),” and on the Feast I posted “Mary’s Immaculate Conception, in which I included podcasts of Prof. Lawrence Feingold’s lecture and Q&A on this dogma. Those two posts provide evidence for the Catholic dogma, and I will not repeat their content here. Instead I examine here a section of a statement titled “Do Whatever He Tells You: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Christian Faith and Life,” published by a group of Evangelical and Catholic scholars in the November, 2009 issue of First Things. This statement is a continuation of the project known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together, which released its first statement in 1994. The “Do Whatever He Tells You” statement contained a section written by Evangelicals explaining their reasons for not accepting the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Here I show that the Evangelicals’ reasons for not accepting this dogma reveal five more underlying reasons that are at the heart of their disagreement over this dogma.
The Evangelical statement reads as follows:
Immaculate Conception. Evangelicals find unnecessary and unbiblical the notion that Mary was preserved from the stain of original sin from the first moment of her conception. Still, we affirm much of what this teaching is intended to convey—that Mary was the object of God’s gracious election in Christ; that she was uniquely prepared to become the mother of our Lord; that she is an extraordinary model of the call to discipleship and the life of holiness; that her assent to the purpose of the Lord was itself the result of God’s unmerited favor toward her—an example of sola gratia; and that she should be honored and called “blessed one” in all places and by all generations.
Much interconfessional discussion has centered on the Greek kekaritomene of Luke 1:28 which the Vulgate renders gratia plena and the Douay-Rheims version as “full of grace.” In its clearest form, this perfect passive participle expresses divine favor in the passive voice, as in the King James Version: “Hail thou that art highly favoured” (cf. Luther, holdselige, and Calvin, agréable). Luke 1:28 does not mention Mary’s conception, though Scripture does teach that God’s redemptive call can take place before birth or even conception (Jer. 1:5; Gal. 1:15).
The concrete manifestation of divine favor occurred through the descent and overshadowing of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35), whose sanctifying activity enabled Mary’s response of faith and thus inaugurated the renewal of all creation in her womb (Luke 1:38). Calvin affirms this point by stating that “to carry Christ in her womb was not Mary’s first blessedness, but was greatly inferior to the distinction of being born again by the Spirit of God to a new life” (Commentary on the Harmony of the Gospels, 42). By divine grace alone Mary was enabled to give birth to the Son of God, and from her alone he received his human nature. It is not to be doubted that this was wrought by the power of God in a way no less miraculous or mysterious than the virginal conception itself.
Immaculate Conception is not accepted as a dogma by the churches of the East and was much debated in the West before and after the Reformation. Augustine held to a high view of the personal holiness of Mary but believed that God’s abundant grace was conferred on her “for vanquishing sin in every part” (On Nature and Grace 36.42). The idea that Mary was conceived without original sin was rejected by Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Thomas Aquinas, among other notable teachers of the Church. Their thinking about Mary deserves fresh consideration.
Evangelicals confess the sinlessness of Christ but not the sinlessness of Mary. Hebrews 7:26 refers to Jesus as our High Priest. He alone was perfectly holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners. The Bible makes clear that no other human being can claim this (John 8:46; Rom. 3:23, 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:22; 2Cor. 5:21; Eph. 2:3; Heb. 4:15). Jesus taught his disciples, among whom Mary was the first, to pray “Our Father who art in heaven . . . forgive us our trespasses” (Matt. 6:12). The Bible declares that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and he was the Savior as well as the son of his blessed mother (1 Tim. 1:15; Luke 1:46–47).
What disagreements lie behind the disagreements stated here by Evangelicals concerning the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception? I find five underlying disagreements.
The first is the notion that only what is explicitly stated in Scripture, or follows by logical entailment from what is taught explicitly in Scripture, is necessary for Christians to believe. That can be seen in the claim that “Evangelicals find unnecessary … the notion that Mary was preserved from the stain of original sin from the first moment of her conception.”1 (emphasis mine) The Catholic teaching, by contrast, is that the deposit of faith comes to us through both Scripture and Tradition. See “Sola Scriptura: A Dialogue Between Michael Horton and Bryan Cross VIII. Scripture and Tradition.” Therefore, from this Catholic perspective a doctrine not being explicitly stated in Scripture does not make it unnecessary.
The second underlying disagreement visible here is the notion that Tradition is not an authoritative guide in the interpretation of Scripture, but is instead itself judged by the interpretation of Scripture one arrives at apart from that Tradition. That notion can be found in two claims made in the Evangelical statement above. Evangelicals find the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception “unbiblical” because in their view (a) “The Bible makes clear that no other human being can claim [to be perfectly holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners]. (John 8:46; Rom. 3:23, 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:22; 2Cor. 5:21; Eph. 2:3; Heb. 4:15), and (b) “The Bible declares that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and he was the Savior as well as the son of his blessed mother (1 Tim. 1:15; Luke 1:46–47)”
Regarding the second claim, Evangelicals assume that since Christ was the Savior of His Mother, therefore it must follow that she was a sinner, and that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is false. But that conclusion does not follow, as Lawrence Feingold explains in “Mary’s Immaculate Conception, drawing from Scotus.”2 Through His Passion, Christ gloriously saved His Mother by preventing her from falling into original sin and actual sin.
Evangelicals think Mary was not sinless, on account of their interpretation of five verses:
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (Rom 3:23)
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned— (Rom 5:12)
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. (1 Cor 15:22)
Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. (Eph 2:3)
For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. (Heb 4:15)
Evangelicals assume that the ‘all’ (and ‘our’ in the Hebrews passage) in each case is intended to include Mary, because they do not find in Scripture any exegetical evidence to justify qualifying the extension of the term to everyone but Mary. Then having concluded that the ‘all’ must include Mary, they claim that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is “unbiblical,” i.e. contrary to Scripture. And they thereby conclude that the Tradition regarding the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception must be the result of a false accretion that worked its way into the Church’s beliefs and liturgical practices. What is therefore at work in this claim that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is contrary to Scripture is the notion that Scripture is to be interpreted only by Scripture, apart from Tradition, and then the interpretations thus attained are the standard by which Tradition is to be judged. The Catholic position, by contrast is that Tradition is the authoritative guide for the interpretation of Scripture, and therefore informs us that the ‘all’ should be interpreted as qualified. (See “The Tradition and the Lexicon.”)
The third underlying disagreement concerns the nature of grace. Evangelicals view grace as only divine favor, whereas in Catholic doctrine grace is not only divine favor, but also the divine gift God gives as a result of that favor, namely, a participation in the divine nature. (See “Lawrence Feingold on Sanctifying Grace and Actual Grace.”) This difference in our conceptions of grace changes how we understand the implication of Luke 1:28. A conception of grace as mere divine favor allows for a simul iustus et peccator view of Mary’s soul even while Gabriel is speaking to her or at any other point in her life. But a Catholic understanding of grace as participation in the divine nature, along with Luke 1:28, not only indicates a prior infusion of grace, but allows a Catholic to see Christ as Mary’s Savior through preventing her at every moment from being deprived of sanctifying grace.
The fourth underlying disagreement is an implicit denial of the development of doctrine. This can be seen in the Evangelicals’ claims that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception “is not accepted as a dogma by the churches of the East and was much debated in the West,” and “The idea that Mary was conceived without original sin was rejected by Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Thomas Aquinas.” Their appeal to these facts as evidence that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is false presupposes that doctrine does not develop. If doctrine develops, as St. Vincent of Lérins describes in his Commonitory, and Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman describes in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, then the fact that at some earlier time not all Christians recognized or affirmed it is not in itself evidence that it does no belong to the Tradition.
The fifth underlying disagreement in this Evangelical statement regarding the Immaculate Conception concerns the basis of ecclesial authority. When the Evangelicals assert that the reasoning by which St. Bernard and St. Thomas rejected the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception “deserves fresh consideration,” they are not only implicitly denying the development of doctrine; they are also denying the magisterial authority of the Catholic Church, because Pope Pius IX infallibly defined the dogma in 1854, writing:
Accordingly, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for the honor of the Holy and undivided Trinity, for the glory and adornment of the Virgin Mother of God, for the exaltation of the Catholic Faith, and for the furtherance of the Catholic religion, by the authority of Jesus Christ our Lord, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own: “We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.” (Ineffabilis Deus)
Moreover the Evangelical statement implicitly affirms the ecclesial authority of Calvin and Luther. The statement not only appeals to Luther’s and Calvin’s translations of terms, but writes, “Calvin affirms this point by stating that “to carry Christ in her womb was not Mary’s first blessedness, but was greatly inferior to the distinction of being born again by the Spirit of God to a new life.” Why do Luther’s and Calvin’s opinions come up in an explanation by Evangelicals of their reasons for not accepting the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception? The appeals to Luther and Calvin demonstrate performatively that these Evangelicals believe that Luther and Calvin hold some kind of ecclesial/interpretive authority. But Catholics do not believe that Luther or Calvin had ecclesial/interpretive authority. So one more disagreement underlying Evangelicals’ disagreement with the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is the basis for ecclesial/interpretive authority. For Evangelicals, that authority reduces to agreement with their own interpretation of Scripture.3 For Catholics, that authority comes through apostolic succession.4
The resolution of a disagreement, and especially a seemingly intractable disagreement, typically requires locating the underlying disagreements that are the fundamental source and cause of the disagreement in question. In this case, the Evangelical statement concerning their disagreement with the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary reveals five underlying disagreements: (1) the notion that only what is explicitly stated in Scripture, or follows by logical entailment from what is taught explicitly in Scripture, is necessary for Christians to believe, (2) the notion that Tradition is not an authoritative guide in the interpretation of Scripture, but is instead itself judged by the interpretation of Scripture one arrives at apart from that Tradition, (3) the notion of grace is merely divine favor, (4) an implicit denial of the development of doctrine, and (5) the notion that ecclesial authority is grounded in agreement with one’s interpretation of Scripture and not in apostolic succession in union with the episcopal successor of the one to whom Christ gave the keys of the Kingdom. Subsequent attempts to resolve the Evangelical-Catholic disagreement concerning the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception will require turning to these underlying disagreements.
Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, 2011.
- This assumption is also manifested in the statement that “Luke 1:28 does not mention Mary’s conception.” [↩]
- For more detail, see Volume XX of Scotus’s Lectura in Librum Tertium Sententiarum (Q.1 dis. 3), titled “Utrum Beata Virgo fuerit concepta in peccato originali (whether the Blessed Virgin was conceived in original sin). [↩]
- See “Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority.” [↩]
- “Sola Scriptura: A Dialogue Between Michael Horton and Bryan Cross, IX. Apostolic Succession. [↩]