The Immaculate Conception
The Immaculate Conception
A New Year card from a good friend contained a message which suggested certain themes that needed dealt with in the magazine. As I was already reflecting on one of these, it wasn't difficult to comply with the suggestion that I say something about the difference between Reformed belief and Roman Catholic doctrine. The following is no more than a small sample, illustrating one or two key points of divergence.
I suspect that the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception causes problems for uninstructed Protestants. It is not a phrase we commonly use, but it sounds right.
But it sounds right only through a misunderstanding. They think the phrase refers to the Immaculate Conception of our Lord. (I've come across intelligent Roman Catholics who made the same mistake.) And of course, if the phrase indeed referred to that, then it would be absolutely accurate. Conceived as he was, not by human activity but through the Holy Spirit's special intervention, Jesus was not of Adam's line; he was conceived as the founder of a new humanity, free from the guilt of Adam's sin and pure from the taint of the corruption of man's sinful state. That was an immaculate conception.
Because of this teaching about Christ, Protestants need to be reminded that the phrase Immaculate Conception is used not of our Lord but of Mary his mother.
But when that fact is grasped a vague acceptance of the idea turns rapidly to savage rejection: "Mary shared our humanity; Mary, therefore, was sinful; Mary needed redemption; Mary was dependent on her Son for that redemption; Mary was saved by grace like any other redeemed human being".
However understandable that spontaneous reaction is, it is not entirely appropriate in the circumstances — a crude instrument to combat the subtlety of this dogma. This is so because the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception seeks to combine Mary's stainless conception with the view that she was saved by grace.
Any response to this — or any other false doctrine — cannot afford to be simply a knee-jerk reaction to something only partially understood but must be a reasoned rejoinder based on knowledge. Our starting point here, as elsewhere, must be an attempt to understand what the disputed doctrine actually says. It is principle not prejudice that counts.
We begin with the Papal declaration promulgating this teaching. Such edicts are known as Bulls and are identified by their opening (Latin) words. It was on 8th December 1854 that Pope Pius IX issued the Bull Ineffabilis Deus dealing with the Immaculate Conception of Mary.
He defined the doctrine thus: "the most holy Virgin Mary was kept pure from every stain of original sin in the first moment of her conception, by the special grace and privilege of Almighty God, on the basis of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race".
These last words, which I have emphasised, guard against the spontaneous criticism of this doctrine outlined above, for it was just this problem of the relationship of the sinless Mary to the Saviour that had occupied the minds of Roman Catholic theologians.
Thomas Aquinas (1225 -1274), an Italian theologian and Dominican friar, insisted that justice should be done to the universal redemption effected by Jesus. But John Duns Scotus (?1265 -1308) — John the Scot from Duns — a Franciscan, maintained that Christ's redemptive grace was applied to Mary to prevent sin from reaching her soul and that this special intervention resulted in a more perfect redemption in her case. This latter view prevailed and found expression in the formal definition of the doctrine.
Just because the dogma purports to safeguard the place of the Saviour even in Mary's case does not, however, free this teaching from criticism.
Unnecessary and Unrealistic←⤒🔗
Firstly, this doctrine is unnecessary. It seems to stem from the view that Mary as "the mother of God" (theotokos — "the God bearer") must have been "holy". It was considered inconceivable that the holy Son of God be associated so closely with one who was in any sense stained by sin.
This is a deduction nowhere supported by Scripture. In fact, it is a point of view that does not do justice to the work that Jesus came to do. True, Jesus was separated, through his own supernatural conception, from Adam's sinful line and was sinless. But in the fulfilment of his role as the Second Adam, he was brought into the closest connection with sin, and humiliation was the keynote of his life. He was born of a woman, made under the law (Galatians 4:4). He was circumcised and presented to the Lord (Luke 2:21-22); he paid the temple tax (Matthew 17:22-24) and received a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins (Mark 1:4, 9) — all of which spoke of cleansing or atonement. He was the friend of tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:10). It is even said that he was made sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21).
His whole life was lived in the closest possible association with the presence of sin: that was what he came for. In the midst of it he was kept free from its taint. Given this, we do not find it out of place but rather we consider it fitting that the one who was given the great privilege of bearing this person should herself be stained with the sin from which Jesus was kept pure. His birth is thereby in keeping with his style of life.
Secondly, the teaching of the Immaculate Conception does not accord with Mary's reaction to the announcement of the virginal conception. Look at Mary's Song (Luke 1:46-55). Her "spirit rejoices in God her Saviour" and she feels her "humble state". Throughout she identifies with those to whom God's mercy has been extended, with the humble whom God has lifted up, with the hungry that were filled with good things, with the fathers to whom mercy had been shown. She doesn't lay claim to some unique experience, but identifies herself with those who actually knew deliverance from the burden of sin and distress. We find it impossible to think that one who speaks like this had never had consciousness of personal sin.
Our purpose, however, is not to look at this teaching in detail, but rather to use it to illustrate areas of ongoing conflict between the Protestant and the Roman Catholic outlook. We will look at two of these.
Scripture and Tradition←⤒🔗
The alleged Biblical basis for this doctrine is tenuous indeed if not ludicrous. The basic approach is to read into Scripture what was simply not there in the first place. For example, Gabriel addresses Mary with the words "you who are highly favoured". But this does not warrant the conclusion that she was "the seat of all divine graces" and that she was "adorned with all the gifts of the divine Spirit" or that she was "an almost infinite treasure house and inexhaustible deep" of these graces. That Elizabeth pronounces Mary "blessed among women" does not necessarily suggest that she was, like Jesus, "never subject to curse" (Ineffability Deus, 12).
This is to read one's own views into Scripture on a grand scale. It is also to distort the historical context in which these words were spoken. In their Biblical context, these words highlight the privilege of Mary in being chosen to bear the Son of God. In Roman Catholic theology they are applied to the alleged privilege of her being conceived immaculately. In the Bible, the sense of grace involved in Mary bearing the Son of God is measured not by her alleged worthiness as immaculately conceived, but her unworthiness as a sinful child of Adam. "Full of grace", "highly favoured", refers to the bestowal of undeserved love (see the use of this word in Ephesians 1:6). Roman Catholics virtually empty this situation of all undeserved favour by their unwarranted exaltation of Mary. In doing so they contravene Scripture.
Other allusions to Scripture in defence of this doctrine are ludicrous. Mary is the Second Eve as Jesus is the Second Adam — but there is no trace of that idea in the Word. Nor can we see allusions to the Immaculate Conception of Mary in Noah's Ark, Jacob's ladder, or the Burning Bush (Ineffability Deus 10).
It isn't Scripture that counts for them: it is tradition. This dogma was something allegedly taught since ancient times; the Conception of Mary was set out by the Church as something for worship and veneration; religious foundations were named in honour of the Immaculate Conception; it was decreed that the Immaculate Conception should be celebrated equally with the Nativity ... And so finally, the official promulgation of the Doctrine.
It isn't a case of Tradition and the Bible, but Tradition despite the Bible; not a case of developing what's there — but of inventing what's not there. Roman Catholic doctrine while professing to be moored to the Scriptures, has cut itself adrift from them. It has embarked on an uncertain course far removed from the original starting point. That's evident in their teaching on the Immaculate Conception and that's why we say: back to the Scriptures, to the Scriptures alone, to the Scriptures understood not in the light of our own ideas or tradition but in the light of its original historical setting.
The language employed of Mary above is astounding in our ears but is simply indicative of Mary's place in Roman Catholic devotion.
To them the Virgin Mary "crushed the poisonous head of the most cruel serpent and brought salvation to the world". She is a "most sure refuge for all in danger, a most faithful helper and most powerful mediator ... before her only begotten Son". People have to come "venerating, invoking and praying to her with all confidence". She has been "constituted Queen of heaven and earth ... placed at the right hand of her only begotten Son" so her most valuable requests are always granted (Ineffabilis Deus, 19).
There is no need to go into detail in regard to our quarrel with that! The normal Protestant line is that this is an un-Biblical and a totally unwarranted exaltation of Mary and a dangerous infringement of the honour of Christ and his unique mediatorial role. God is our refuge and our strength, our helper in time of trouble (Psalm 46:1). He will not give his glory to another (Isaiah 42:8). There is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5). Only through him can one come to the Father (John 14:6) and through him alone can one come because he is able to save to the uttermost all that come to God by him (Hebrews 7:25). Mary's elevation to a mediating role is an insult to Christ's performance of that office.
It is also worth reflecting on the idea that the undue exaltation of Mary goes hand in hand with the downgrading of the privileges that come to "ordinary" believers. In the Scriptures, all true believers are "holy" (for example, 2 Corinthians 1:1 where "saints" is the word "holy"); all have access to God through Christ; all are seated with Christ in heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6); all are made kings and priests unto God (Revelation 5:10). Some of the exalted ideas applied to Mary are, at least in some sense, applied to each believer. If we lay hold of what belongs to us in Christ we certainly won't see any need of Mary. Roman Catholic doctrine not only downgrades Christ from his unique mediatorial role, but also downgrades the blessings Christ gives to his own. It is not his mother that Christ delights to honour but his people in general.
The elevation of Mary as an object of devotion insults both Christ and his people. To counteract this false teaching we must not only teach against it but grasp to the full the honour that Christ the one Mediator gives to his own.
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