Immaculate Conception and the Development of Christian Doctrine

John Chapman.jpg

Fr. John Chapman (1865-1933), a well known Patristic scholar who wrote, gives a brief overview of the theological development of the doctrine of the Virgin Mary’s immaculate conception.

“The Immaculate conception is a particularly interesting instance of development. Three Fathers of the second century — St. Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus, and Tertullian– call Mary the second Eve, as Christ was the second Adam. They emphasize her co-operation (of course, in a wholly subordinate sense) in the work of the redemption of man as parallel to the part played by Eve in the fall. The obedience of the second Eve reversed the curse which had fallen on the first Eve by her disobedience. The same views are repeated in succeeding centuries. In the fourth century the absolute and perfect purity of Mary from all sin is constantly preached. Epiphanius, Ambrose, Ephrem may be cited as witnesses from the Greek, the Latin, and the Syrian Churches. St. Augustine has even been thought to say in two famous passages that she was free from original sin. However this may be, it was evidently impossible that this question should be asked when as yet the doctrine of original sin itself had not been fully elucidated. After St. Augustine’s works against the Pelagians, this latter doctrine was much in view, and consequently the question whether our Blessed Lady contracted the sin of Adam or not was discussed. There was no difficulty about one point. It was soon everywhere taught that Mary was born in a state of grace. St. John Baptist was filled with the Holy Ghost in his mother’s womb, and the Fathers taught that he was consequently born in grace, like a child who is baptized before birth. This privilege of our Blessed Lady would therefore not be unique, and less than this could certainly not satisfy the sayings of the Fathers as to her freedom from all sin. But was even this sufficient? The affirmative reply was confined to a few theologians. Only its patronage by St. Bernard gave it prominence. At what precise point of time, after her conception and before her birth must the cleansing from sin have taken place? No answer was forthcoming. The more obvious and natural view was expressed in the popularity of the Feast of the Conception. It was not hard to see that the only moment which could be imagined as suitable for the first influx of the Holy Spirit into Mary was the first moment of her existence in her mother’s womb; for any subsequent moment there was nothing to be urged. Further, this explanation abundantly satisfied the belief of the Church in the exemption of the Mother of God from all sin. But though the pious opinion spread among the people, it met with opposition from a few theologians, including St. Thomas Aquinas… An, at first sight, more serious objection was found: it was asked how it could be said that Mary was redeemed from sin if sin never touched her at all? It was the glory of the Doctor subtilis, Duns Scotus (an Irishman, it is now said), to have given a reply which was found satisfactory to all; the most perfect form of redemption is to be delivered from the devil in such a way that he has no opportunity at all in exercising his power. The precious Blood of Jesus Christ would have been foiled of an effect which it was capable of producing if none of the progeny of Adam had been saved from all effects of his sin. When this was seen to be reasonable, there was no longer any possibility of doubting the answer to the question originally posed. At the same time the scriptural evidence became clearer. The woman who makes war against the dragon in the Apocalypse is mystically the Church, but literally she is the Mother of a Divine Child, so that she is Mary taken as a type of the Church. Thus the prophecy in Genesis is fulfilled, and the words of the early Fathers about the second Eve are justified” – John Chapman, Bishop Gore and Catholic Claims (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1905), 34-35; [emphasis added].

The progression goes from Mary as (1) 2nd Eve, (2) a sinless Woman, (3) surely born sinless, (4) in utero cleansed from all sin, (5) withheld from all contact with sin and the dominion of the devil, and finally resulting in (6) a sanctification from all sin at the first moment of her conception in the womb of her mother, St. Anna. I found this progression quite interesting. Mary as 2nd Eve is a specific office in salvation history, and that would require certain marks to make her and the only other (the 1st Eve) unique from everyone else. Because the 1st Eve failed by succumbing to temptation and contracting sin, it is not a far fetched inference if we say that the 2nd Eve would have to have refrained from sin in order to furnish herself as successful in her office as the 2nd Eve. That would yield a sinless woman. However, we also know that man’s propensity to sin is not something grown onto him after his conception and birth, but something innately rooted in his or her conception. A human conception from Adam links them to his fall from grace, and this is the root of the contagion of fallenness in human nature. If Mary is the 2nd Eve and a sinless woman, this would also make us question as to whether she was born into the world just like everyone else. If we take the principle that all that is good, especially in us, comes from God, then we should also say that God prepares the human for that good. If the highest good is sinless fellowship with God, then that preparation would have to be in consideration of the whole life of that human being, and thus it is just as much a reasonable to examine what happened to prepare St. Mary at her own conception. It stands to reason that if human conception in Adam links humanity to the stain of original sin, then Mary’s conception would have to require some intervening fix that would exempt her from contracting that stain of original sin, as well as secure for her the status requisite for the office of the sinless 2nd Eve (this argument was made by St. John Henry Newman years ago, and by others before him). There is also the Scriptural teaching that the “enmity” (Gen 3:15) between the long-awaited child of Eve and the Serpent would be equally possessed by the Woman who takes up the task to give him birth. Yet, in order to secure the Virgin Mary as 100% at enmity with the Serpent, then she cannot be marked at her conception as a child of the devil. All of humanity is naturally born “children of wrath” (Eph 2), and children of the devil. When we are saved in Christ, we make the transition from the kingdom of darkness and are brought into the kingdom of the Son (Col 1). If Mary is going to share equally in the enmity between the Serpent and the Messiah, then she would have to be salvaged from even having to experience this transition from darkness to light. Ergo, the immaculate conception is within the field of reason for what happened.

However, keen Orthodox and Protestant observers, and perhaps, as well, former critics of the Immaculate Conception doctrine prior to its dogmatic definition in 1854, might note that this theological development seems to lack to the force of logical necessity. There is no strict necessity from the primitive data from which to necessarily conclude the immaculate conception, one wonders how in God’s name the Catholic Church could think it her right to set it up as a dogma of faith, the rejection of which results in apostasy and the shipwreck of one’s salvation? I’m not sure the Eastern Orthodox have so much a right to pose this question since Mary’s perpetual Virginity, her sinlessness, and her Assumption into heaven (via Dormition) are all required beliefs given their liturgical pedigree. However, none of those doctrines seem to be required beliefs from primitive data. Many of the Patristic authors who taught these things may have (and they did) qualified their statements as personal opinion or their own theological speculations. Going from opinion to dogma requires a long bridge. In fact, many Fathers seem to out-in-out reject the sinlessness of St. Mary (St. Basil, St John Chrysostom, St. Cyril of Alexandria, just to name a few). St. Epiphanius and others speak about the great possibility of her assumption into heaven, but make it clear no one knows, and that Scripture makes no mention of it. Clearly, he didn’t perceive it as part and parcel with the public preaching of the Apostolic Church by his time (400AD). Then there is the criticism from the Orthodox that its explicit formulation is so late in history, and lacks any clear testimonies from the holy fathers. This is a stronger objection, but it, too, seems to fail in light of the fact that the Orthodox, too, carry dogmatic beliefs which have a same lateness of arrival on the scene of history (i.e. icon veneration, real essence/energies distinction, and others). It would seem the Orthodox, too, are beholden to accepting scientific and theological developments which introduce new formulas, however much they are acclaimed to be conceptually rooted in the primitive data. And they would justify this by the authority of Ecumenical Councils. We would say the same for the Immaculate Conception. Between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, then, it must be left to other tests of credibility.

The Protestant is a better position to be launching objections to the Immaculate Conception, even a consistent one. To the Protestant, a Catholic must simply admit that there is no direct and absolutely necessary part of the primitive data of revelation which makes it absolutely necessary to conclude St. Mary’s immaculate conception. Although, as I’ve shown above, the primitive data of St. Mary as 2nd Eve makes it more than fitting for her to have been immaculately conceived, just short of bearing its implication. Would it have been less problematic for neutral onlookers if the Catholic Church would have decided to leave the matter undecided? Sure. Who can fight with “We just don’t know for sure?” Perhaps the Catholic Church’s bold move to answer the question seems like overstepping its boundaries, given that neither Scripture nor Tradition make this a necessary deduction. The Catholic can respond simply by saying that the Scripture and the Tradition do speak of the promise of Christ in empowering His Apostolic Church to teach His gospel accurately and faithfully until the end of time. And since history, up until the time of the Reformations, has no Protestant witness, it would be terribly difficult task to suppose that what Christ meant by protecting His Church is to let it fail for 15 centuries, only to fix it with the Protestant Reforms, all which ended up yielding variegated “proper interpretations” of the Holy Scripture and the historical patrimony of the Christian Church. Ah, but what of the “via media” of the high Church Anglican ? He too denies the reliability of the visible Church, of both East and West (both of which deny him even the sacred ritual or ordination), since the original English reforms cleaned off so much of the Church’s faith with a magic erasure that it strikes out by St. Vincent de Lerin’s fast, curve, and knuckle balls. That which must be believed by all, everywhere, at all times exposes the Anglican doctrine to have been believed by the English, in England, and since the 16th century.

Yeah, a Catholic might be left simply to trust in the empowerment of Christ’s magisterium, centered around the successor of St. Peter. Might it look like a like naïveté? Might it appear like we are idiots ? Yes and yes. But the Catholic stands firm here lest he find his feet on the shifting and collapsible floor of what else exists out there in Christian name. The Protestant, or the Deist, looks to the lazy witness of scholars, historical documents, and self-made tests of coherence as the hobby table upon which to ascertain the credibility of this or that proclamation from the Christian Church. The real smart ones have altogether lost their confidence in the faith when they enter critical studies on the Scripture itself, as well as other philosophical projects which undermine basic Biblical theism. But how could it be that the God who raises the dead and who entrusted his treasures to ordained witnesses would be found anywhere else but in the succession from those witnesses? The final word on Christ’s gospel is not the halls of Academia, but the Church He founded. God is free to make that act of discrimination, even if it makes the wisdom of the world foolish. That seems altogether reasonable given the facts of history : an empty tomb and the power of miracles could still leave skeptics under the power of their machinated explanations in the 1st century. Is it at all surprising that with evidence far less than this we have more unbelief and more skepticism? I think it follows naturally. All this to say that the only chance of a continuity from that empty tomb to a viable contemporary witness of Christ is the machinery that can only be claimed by the Catholic Church. In all other ways, the program runs into error and malfunction.

5 thoughts on “Immaculate Conception and the Development of Christian Doctrine

  1. Thank you for this Erick.Your point about the lack of logical necessity is the one which I tend to have the most trouble answering. I typically fall back upon the typology i.e. Mary as Ark of the covenant and re-emphasizing the grandiose reality of the Incarnation which would necessitate the IC. God bless you and your family and happy Feast of the Immaculate Conception!

  2. Excellent blog post Sir (as always),

    It always strikes me as self-refuting when certain Protestants and Eastern Orthodox especially try to claim that within their traditions there has been no development, I mean even pre Schism, the veneration of images is nowhere to be found in the first few centuries of the Church, but you do find the great reverence given to saints, and more specifically to their relics. The Marian Dogmas are such an excellent synthesis of the available Patristic and Biblical Data as you have succinctly summarised the key points.

    On a side note Erick, I understand if for reason of principle you do not want to engage characters like Ubi Petrus, but some of the disinformation being spread and so called “refutations” of your excellent work is getting out of hand. I know you have covered some of these objections in various videos, but I feel it is necessary to specifically tackle them in one long form video to settle this. I admire your desire to not muddy the waters with the various (no theological) problems in the Eastern Orthodox Churches, I only wish this same courtesy was carried forth by the extremely toxic Orthodox contingent online

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