Wednesday was the Feast of the Assumption, when we commemorate that the Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ, reached the end of her earthly life and was assumed into Heaven. So why am I writing about the Immaculate Conception? Because the end of Mary’s time on earth does not seem to be nearly so controversial for Protestants as her conception and life.
When discussing the matter with a friend of mine this week (the author of the always excellent Platypus Manifesto), he said “I don’t know of one that is more offensive to my [P]rotestant sensibilities.” And he’s right! As a former Calvinist and revert to Catholicism, the Marian doctrines were the hardest to accept – not necessarily because I had thoroughly studied them, but because at first glance these doctrines appear ridiculous and to contradict Sacred Scripture. However, I think it can be shown that a closer look reveals that these doctrines are both reasonable to assume and in accord with the Bible.
To examine claims about a sinless human, we should examine the Catholic teaching on original sin. The Fall of humanity guaranteed that not only would all men inherit an inclination to sin, but that, without some outside intervention, every new human being comes into the world a sinner. The entire human race, as it were, has rebelled together. This formulation of original sin is useful when interpreting Romans 3:22-24, a common prooftext cited contra the Church’s teachings. How can Mary have been sinless when Scripture clearly states that “All have sinned…”? We must read the entire passage. “For there is no distinction: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Unless we wish to entail universalism, we can see that ‘all’ in verse 23 cannot be “every individual without exception” or we must also hold that “every individual without exception” is justified by his grace as a gift. However, if ‘all’ is read as referring corporately to the human race rather than to individuals, the passage makes perfect sense: Humanity has fallen and cannot reach God, and the redemption of Christ is powerful enough to corporately redeem the human race. This fits very nicely with the standard “sufficient for all, but efficient for the elect” characterization of Christ’s work on Calvary. However, it is no longer necessarily implied by Scripture that each and every human is stained by sin, but that humans, members of a fallen race, naturally come into the world in as sinners.
So maybe Scripture doesn’t explicitly say that each and every individual has committed actual sin. Why would we believe Mary to be sinless? A reasonable question, and Catholics certainly bear the burden of proof: such a state would not be natural. We can make one rather good argument from Scripture, and show a few other hints from Scripture. Further, we can look to the testimony of the Church Fathers in the first few hundred years of the Church. If such a sinless life did take place, they would likely know of it.
In Luke 1:28, the account of Gabriel’s greeting of Mary is centered around the Greek word ‘kecharitomene.’ While sometimes translated “highly favored one” instead of “full of grace,” the root word is charitoo, or grace. In any reading of the text, we cannot escape the conclusion that Gabriel views Mary as one who has received grace. Further, there is good reason to believe that this Greek word means something along the lines of “one having received a perfection of grace” – referring to an event in the past, and continuing through the present. Moreover, if this word really is best translated as referring to a perfection of grace, there can be little question of Mary’s sinlessness at the time. Having perfect or full grace must preclude the possibility of sin in one’s life. Note especially that this is received grace. From whom did Mary receive this grace? From Christ, the One whom she addresses as Savior, as recorded in Luke 1:46-47. A less sure argument, just a hint really, can be found in Christ’s address to Mary at the wedding of Cana in the Gospel of John. He refers to her by the title ‘Woman.’ While some commentaries I have read state that this was a term of respect at the time, it is also notably the only way Eve was referred to before her Fall. Another hint may be found by analogy: as Jesus is the culmination of the Law received by the Hebrews, so is Mary the perfect culmination of the Ark of the Covenant. As the Ark contained the tablets of the law, Mary bore the Word of God.
The Church Fathers were not silent on Mary. Many compared the purity of Mary to the purity of Eve before the fall, gave her the title “the New Eve” and compared Eve and Mary as they did Adam and Christ. Some of the later Church Fathers are more explicit. St. Augustine says he will admit “no question” of the sinlessness of Mary. St. Ambrose referred to her as “free from every stain of sin”, as did St. John Damascene. St. Cyril called Mary an “uncorrupt vessel.” The parade of praise continues. While not all of the Fathers are as direct and effusive as Ambrose and Augustine, the general consensus is for Mary’s sinlessness.
Not only does Holy Scripture fail to contradict the doctrines of Mary’s sinlessness, but the Word of God hints at it, even if Catholic scholars are wrong about the ‘perfection of grace’ translation. Holy men of the early church affirmed, with varying degrees of directness, this doctrine. While Protestants do not hold to the infallibility of the Church’s bishops when universally affirming a doctrine, the testimony of a commanding majority should mean something.
Give it some thought. You may find Mary’s sinlessness to not only no longer be ridiculous, but rather reasonable.