The Immaculate Conception, the Bible, and the Church Fathers

            The Immaculate Conception (IC) and the Development of Doctrine
  (excerpted from my debate with JasonTE on the Catholic Church)

For a FULL ARTICLE on the Theology and History of the Immaculate Conception

"The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is a classic example of the development of doctrine" (Mariology edited by Juniper Carol, volume 1, page 18). Why? Because Catholic theologians have distinguished three stages in the progressive awareness of a revealed truth over time:

(1) the first is "implicit acceptance"
(2) second is "the period of discussion and controversy"
(3) third is "the doctrine is received by the entire Church" or "finally even solemnly defined"

Without going into all the details, these three stages fit the Holy Trinity, the canon of Scripture, and the Marian dogmas. On the Immaculate Conception, the first stage is "the tranquil acceptance of the unique graces and privileges of Mary...The early Christians accepted Mary's singular position as Mother of God, as ever a virgin, as all-holy, as the new Eve. Thereby they implicitly accepted the Immaculate Conception, which is implied by the divine motherhood." During this period the first liturgical evidences appear: feasts of the Conception of St. Anne, hymns, homilies, etc (Mariologyedited by Juniper Carol, volume 1 page 17ff, 344ff).

The Catholic Church believes Mary is all-holy and free from sin (along with the Orthodox, and the Protestant Reformers, see the citations from Calvinist Max Thurian below), even from the first moment of her existence (from her conception).

Pope Pius IX and the Encyclical Ineffabilis Deus

Let's discuss the basis for the Immaculate Conception according to the encyclical of Pope Pius IX that defined this doctrine as dogma (Ineffabilis Deus, 1854). The argument from "fittingness" and the Divine Maternity (Mary as Theotokos or Mother of God) is what the Pope refers to as the supreme reason for this Marian privilege:

"And indeed it was wholly fitting that so wonderful a mother should be ever resplendent with the glory of most sublime holiness and so completely free from all taint of original sin that she would triumph utterly over the ancient serpent" (cf. Genesis 3:15).

This is a sufficient reason for the IC by itself: Mary is the Mother of God, so God would want the greatest mother of all (a holy and sinless Mother by the grace of God).

The evidence for the doctrine of the IC (which includes Mary's personal sinlessness) in Scripture is good, but not great. The Pope refers to Genesis 3:15 (the Woman, Eve who disobeyed and fell into sin paralleled by the early Fathers with Mary the New Eve who obeyed and did not fall into sin); Proverbs 8 (the Wisdom of God); Luke chapter 1 (especially Full of Grace [Greek: kecharitomene] and Blessed Among Women); the various Marian types -- the Ark of Noah; holy Ark of the Covenant; Ladder of Jacob; Burning Bush of Moses; the impregnable tower; that garden that cannot be corrupted; the resplendent city of God; the temple of God full of the glory of God; and other types (cf. Luke 1 with 2 Samuel 6; Song of Songs 4:4,12; Psalm 87(86):1; Isaiah 6:1-7; etc).

Here is a grammatical point on the phrase "full of grace" from Fr. Mateo's booklet Refuting the Attack on Mary:

"...Luke 1:28 uses the perfect passive participle kecharitomene. The perfect stem of a Greek verb denotes 'continuance of a completed action'; 'completed action with permanent result is denoted by the perfect stem.' [Blass/DeBrunner and Smyth]. On morphological grounds, therefore, it is correct to paraphrase kecharitomene as 'completely, perfectly, enduringly endowed with grace.'"

The biblical parallels between the Blessed Mother/Virgin Mary, the Church, Israel, and the Holy Ark of the Covenant are quite clear. From The Truth About Mary by Robert Payesko (see also his site

"In introducing Mary as the Ark, [Luke] draws on Old Testament texts that any Jewish reader would understand and identify with the Ark. Examples here include the similitude between Exodus 40:34,35 and Luke 1:35 and the striking parallels between the Elizabeth's visit to Mary and the transportation of the Ark of the Covenant from the house of Abinadab to that of Obededom and to Jerusalem..."

OT Ark of the Covenant                                 NT Blessed Mother of God

"The cloud covered the Tent of meeting and the glory of Yahweh filled the tabernacle." Exodus 40:34    "The power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God." Luke 1:35

"However can the Ark of Yahweh (= My Lord) come to me?" 2 Samuel 6:9     "Why should I be honored with a visit from the mother of My Lord?" Luke 1:43

"And David danced before the Lord with all his might ... So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet." 2 Samuel 6:14-15     "As soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy." Luke 1:44

"And the Ark of the Lord continued in the house of Obededom the Gittite three months." 2 Samuel 6:11            "And Mary abode with her about three months." Luke 1:56

"And the Lord blessed Obededom and all his household." 2 Samuel 6:11 [fertility is associated with blessing]    "Now Elisabeth's full time came that she should be delivered; and she brought forth a son." Luke 1:57

The Immaculate Conception and the Church Fathers

Granted, none of these are compelling arguments for the IC doctrine from purely modern "exegetical" or "grammatical-historical" methods of biblical interpretation. But the Fathers (and the Catholic Doctors and medieval theologians who followed them later) did not believe the doctrine based on these "modern" methods of exegesis. The Fathers and Doctors were clearly not "Sola Scripturists" as modern "Protestant evangelicals" might be today. We know this from the way they used Scripture to demonstrate various Marian beliefs. These "biblical parallels" were compelling and sufficient for the Church Fathers (and the Church's Liturgy) who used such texts and types for Mary's holiness:

"In such allusions the Fathers taught that the exalted dignity of the Mother of God, her spotless innocence, and her sanctity unstained by any fault, had been prophesied in a wonderful manner...they celebrated the august Virgin as the spotless dove, as the holy Jerusalem, as the exalted throne of God, as the ark and house of holiness which Eternal Wisdom built, and as that Queen who, abounding in delights and leaning on her Beloved, came forth from the mouth of the Most High, entirely perfect, beautiful, most dear to God and never stained with the least blemish." (Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus)

Where did the Fathers get such ideas about the Blessed Mother if they are not found explicitly or implicitly in Scripture or passed on from Christ and His Apostles themselves?

The more compelling argument comes from the Fathers and early ecclesiastical writers who universally affirmed Mary's holiness and sinlessness (with few exceptions). The evidence for the doctrine of the IC (or Mary's personal sinlessness) in the Fathers and Doctors is not just good, but great. Mariologist Juniper Carol sums it up:

"The conviction of the writers relative to her holiness is founded, necessarily, in revealed truth which became more explicit with the passing of time. In denying that she herself had ever sinned, the Fathers placed her merit in a distinct class above the rest of human-kind, and no eulogy was too great to describe her, nor were any words adequate to convey the measure of her holiness. She was "most pure"; "inviolate"; "unstained"; "unspotted"; "blameless"; "entirely immune from sin"; "blessed above all"; "most innocent." If she was free from sin without qualification, then why not also from original sin?" (Juniper Carol, Mariology, volume 1, page 348, and see all the evidence in these three volumes).

The Anglican historian JND Kelly (in Early Christian Doctrines) does refer to Origen, then Basil and John Chrysostom as doubting the sinlessness of Mary, but also notes that St. Ephraem in Syria did believe her "free from every stain, like her Son." Let's examine the fuller evidence from the Fathers and Doctors. First, the Catholic Encyclopedia states:

"But these Greek writers [who doubted Mary's sinlessness] cannot be said to express an Apostolic tradition, when they express their private and singular opinions. Scripture and tradition agree in ascribing to Mary the greatest personal sanctity; She is conceived without the stain of original sin; she shows the greatest humility and patience in her daily life (Luke 1:38,48); she exhibits an heroic patience under the most trying circumstances (Luke 2:7,35,48; John 19:25-27). When there is question of sin, Mary must always be excepted." (Catholic Encyclopedia [1913], on "Blessed Virgin Mary")

Juniper Carol writes that "St. Augustine's opinion is the real attitude of Christian antiquity." What was Augustine's view on the personal sinlessness of the Blessed Mother?

"Now with the exception of the holy Virgin Mary in regard to whom, out of respect for the Lord, I do not propose to have a single question raised on the subject of sin -- after all, how do we know what greater degree of grace for a complete victory over sin was conferred on her who merited to conceive and bring forth Him who all admit was without sin -- to repeat then: with the exception of this Virgin, if we could bring together into one place all those holy men and women, while they lived here, and ask them whether they were without sin, what are we to suppose that they would have replied?" (St. Augustine, De natura et gratia PL 44:267, from Carol Mariology, volume 1, page 15)

As mentioned some of the Eastern theologians "appear to have spoken of imperfections in the Virgin, and even of positive faults" while the Fathers St. Ephraem (c. 310-378) and St. Epiphanius (c. 315-403) "seem to have escaped succumbing to the renowned authority of Origen" (Carol Mariology, volume 1, page 352) who first implied Mary had minor faults. Subsequent Fathers and Saints in the East are clearer on the complete sinlessness of Mary: Theodotus, Bishop of Ancyra in Galatia (d. 430); St. Proclus, Patriarch of Constantinople (d. 446); Hesychius of Jerusalem (d. 450); Basil of Seleucia (d. 458); St. James of Sarug (452-519), St. Anastasius I (d. 598); St. Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (d. 637); St. Modestus (d. 634) another patriarch of Jerusalem; St. John Damascene (c. 675-749); St. Tarasius, Patriarch of Constantinople (d. 806); Joseph Hymnographus (d. 833); Georgius Nicomediensis (friend and contemporary of Photius); Euthymius, Patriarch of Constantinople (d. 917); Petrus, Bishop of Argo (d. 920); and on and on.

Among the Western theologians besides St. Augustine we have St. Ambrose of Milan (333-397) in the fourth century; (St. Hilary appears to be the lone exception in the West who had doubts); St. Peter Chrysologus in the fifth; St. Maximus of Turin (d. 470); Sedulius a writer of hymns; St. Fulgentius, Bishop of Ruspa (d. 533); St. Venantius Fortunatus, Bishop of Poitiers (d. 609); St. Ildephonse of Toledo (d. 666); Ambrose Autpertus (d. 778); Paulus Warnefridus; Haymon, Bishop of Alberstadt (d. 853); Paschasius Radbertus (d. 860); St. Fulbert (d. 1028); then we have the controversy in the West leading to the solution by John Duns Scotus (1270-1308). That is a fuller picture of the historical evidence and development of the IC doctrine (see Carol Mariology, volume 1, pages 328ff).

The most famous Doctor to dispute the IC is St. Thomas Aquinas, but even he was absolutely clear on the personal sinlessness of the Mother of God:

"Since Mary would not have been a worthy mother of God if she had ever sinned, we assert without qualification that Mary never committed a sinful act, fatal or non-fatal: You are wholly beautiful, my love, and without blemish. Christ is the source of grace, author of it as God and instrument of it as man, and, since Mary was closest to Christ in giving him his human nature, she rightly received from him fullness of grace: grace in such abundance as to bring her closest in grace to its author, receiving into herself the one who was full of every grace [for others], and, by giving birth to him, bringing grace to all." (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica IIIa:27.4-5)

Catholic Marian Doctrine and the Protestant Reformers

If one were a "historic Protestant" one should believe in Mary's perpetual virginity, as well as her unparalleled holiness. For example, Calvinist theologian Max Thurian in Mary, Mother of All Christians (1963) notes:

"A very ancient tradition of the Church affirms a perpetual virginity of Mary; and the Reformers of the sixteenth century themselves confessed 'Mariam semper virginem' [Mary ever-Virgin].....The entire tradition of the Church has held to the perpetual virginity of Mary as a sign of her dedication and of the fullness of God's gift of which she was the object. The Reformers themselves respected this belief....For Calvin and the other Reformers accept the traditional view that Mary had only one son, the Son of God, who had been to her the fullness of grace and joy....In regard to the Marian doctrine of the Reformers, we have already seen how UNANIMOUS they are in all that concerns Mary's holiness and perpetual virginity." (Thurian, pages 37-40, 89, 197)

Heinrich Bullinger, Cranmer's brother-in-law, Zwingli's successor said:

"What pre-eminence in the eyes of God the Virgin Mary had on account of her piety, her faith, her purity, her saintliness and all her virtues, so that she can hardly be compared with any of the other saints, but should by rights be rather elevated above all of them..." (cited in Thurian).

French Reformed pastor Charles Drelincourt, who well represents the Reformed belief of the 17th century:

"We do not simply believe that God has favoured the holy and blessed Virgin more than all the Patriarchs and the Prophets, but also that He has exalted her above all Seraphim. The angels can only qualify as servants of the Son of God, the creatures and workmanship of his hands; but the holy Virgin is not only the servant and the creature but also the Mother of this great and living God." (cited in Thurian)

In this marvelous book by Calvinist theologian Max Thurian (he later became a Catholic), which Catholic Scripture scholar Fr. Raymond Brown called at the time "not only the best Protestant evaluation of the Mariological question, but far better than many Catholic treatments" (see Brown, Gospel of John [Anchor Bible, 1969], page 107), Thurian states:

"...we can assert nothing other than this, for this is the most as well as the least that we can state to those who on the one hand would wish to speak of Mary as if she were sinful or on the other as separated from our condition as human creatures. We do not see how either the one or the other can be legitimately proved from the Gospel. Mary, full of grace, Daughter of Zion, the Mother of God Incarnate, the symbol of Mother Church is holy because in her the Gospel sees the living sign of a unique and pre-destined choice of the Lord, the response of faith from a perfectly human creature, but one who was also totally obedient." (Mary, Mother of All Christians [Herder, 1963] by Max Thurian, page 25)

Finally, a comment by eminent Orthodox theologian John Meyendorff is relevant as to the Eastern/Byzantine difference on their view of Original Sin and the definition of the Immaculate Conception:

"Quotations can easily be multiplied, and they give clear indications that the Mariological piety of the Byzantines would probably have led them to accept the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary as it was defined in 1854 [by Pope Pius IX], if only they had shared the Western doctrine of original sin." (John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology, page 148)