Friday, April 18, 2008

The Immaculate Conception in Church History

The immaculate conception is a doctrine which troubles those of us with a Puritan background like no other and to no end. My first night at RCIA (deciding whether to become Catholic or not) was on the feast day of the Immaculate Conception 2005. Hah! As I look back on that fateful evening, I remember the first question I piped up and asked: "If Jesus being born without original sin requires His mother to be born sinless as well, then for her to be born so, wouldn't it require her parents to be born without sin as well?" The answer I received: "Not necessarily".

Heh. God must have really wanted me to become Catholic. So what of this doctrine which was not formally pronounced until 1854? Surely this late doctrine has no real place among Christian history..right?

Thus also the demonstration makes the matter clear to us. Since the Saviour of the world, with the purpose of saving the race of men, was born of the immaculate and virgin Mary,


For as to a virgin bearing, this we have known only in the case of the all-holy Virgin, who bore the Saviour verily clothed in flesh.
You may be surprised to learn that was St. Hippolytus sometime around 220 AD. And from here I'll highlight a few interesting quotes from Jaroslav Pelikan's book "Mary Through the Centuries":
In a famous and controversial passage of On Nature and Grace, one of the most important treatises that he devoted to the defense of the doctrine of original sin, Augustine had listed the great saints of the Old and New Testaments, who had nevertheless been sinners. Then he continued: "We must make an exception of the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom I wish to raise no question when it touches the subject of sins, out of honor to the Lord. For from him we know what abundance of grace for overcoming sin in every particular [ad vincendum omni ex parte peccatum] was conferred upon her who had the merit to conceive and bear him who undoubtedly had no sin" pg 191
Is it so hard to see why we say Protestants only view Augustine as a hero because they quote him so selectively?
Mary could not have been the archetype of the saved unless she herself had been saved. She had been saved in a special manner, as by now [early 13th century] almost all the theologians of the church affirmed, although it did not become official and binding until 1854 - that is, by being preserved from original sin rather than, as everyone else was, rescued from it- but saved by the same divine grace and through the same divine Redeemer as the rest of humanity. pg 149

As the controversy over the immaculate conception developed already in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, it became customary to put into juxtaposition these two passages from teachers of massive authority in the Latin West: Augustine's identification of Mary as in some way or other an "exception," and Bernard's Epistle 174 to the canons of Lyons, opposing the immaculate conception. When they were lined up that way, depending on the viewpoint, the author would proceed to explain one of them on the basis of the other. Gregory of Rimini, citing other passages from Augustine that made Christ the only exception to the universality of original sin, explained that in the passage under discussion he must have been referring only to actual sin, from which everyone, including Bernard, agreed that Mary was from. But this explanation could not satisfy those who interpreted Augustine's phrase "overcoming sin in every particular [ad vincendum omni ex parte peccatum]" as comprehending both actual and original sin, so that she alone among all the saints did not have to pray the words of the Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our debts." pg 194
It's interesting to note that throughout the entire history of the Church (up until the reformation of course) there was never any debate about whether Mary was sinless or not, just whether she had been born under the penalty of original sin or not.

Finally, it was interesting for me to learn that the Church had attempted to deal authoritatively with this issue long before 1854 when the Council of Basel decreed:
that the immaculate conception was "a pious doctrine, in conformity with the worship of the church, the Catholic faith, right reason and Holy Scripture." It prescribed that the doctrine "be approved, held, and professed by all Catholics," and it forbade and preaching or teaching contrary to it.
Though the council was later deemed invalid (for unrelated reasons see page 198) it was clear that:
"By the end of the fifteenth century, with or without the authority of the Council of Basel, the doctrine had become generally accepted in Western Christendom, believed by the faithful and taught by the doctors of the Church."
In other words - it didn't pop out of nowhere in 1854. In fact, as a universal doctrine, it's older than any of the Protestant ones.


Rob said...

Wisdom from St.Louis De Montfort.

I say with the saints, the divine Mary is the terrestial paradise of the New Adam, where He was made flesh by the operation of the Holy Ghost, in order to work there incomprehensible marvels. She is grand and divine world of God, where there are beauties and treasures unspeakable. She is the magnificence of the Most High, where He hid, as in her bosom, His only Son, and in Him all that is most excellant and most precious. Oh, what grand and hidden things that mighty God has wrought in this admirable creature, as she herself had to acknowledge, in spite of her profound humility "He that is mighty hath done great things tome'(LK.1:49) The world knows them not, because it is both incapable and unworthy of such knowledge

Tim I converted in 1994 and Mary's immaculate conception made sense to me from the being. The way it was explained to me was, "How could God enter into anything that was not Holy?" He could not so it just made sense that the first tabernacle of our Lord was pure made that a way by God for God.

You gotta love our fatih so much beauty,so rich in Gods mysteries.You can't help but share with everyone


Devin Rose said...

Rock on, Tim.

George Weis said...


I just can't buy that. There is only one who was blameless. But you already know my stance on that.

If anything, my heart is so sold on the Lord Jesus and what He was and what He did... I take this as a degradation of Him. So, from your standpoint, please don't judge me. I understand your place on this and the reasoning... but in my heart it would be treachery to believe such a thing... indeed, one of the most offensive things to a non-Roman Catholic. You know me and my "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus"... ya know, I love Him deeply!

May all of your days be blessed!


Tim A. Troutman said...

It's not an easy doctrine for folks like us but that doesn't make it false.

Without any exception that I know of, all the great Christians in history (aside from the Reformers and their heirs) believed this doctrine or at least believed she was free from actual sin. This would include Agustine, Aquinas, Bernard of Clairvaux, Hippolytus, Irenaeus (of him we can implicitly say so anyhow) which is to mention nothing of theological juggernauts in recent years of which I needn't make a list.

While it may seem completely wrong from out personal point of view, the fact that so many greats believed it ought to make us do some serious - prayerful consideration of the issue.

Otherwise, we are putting ourselves above them as if by our 16th century view points we can judge the tradition of the Church which extends to the apostles. It takes more than a small amount of humility to approach these doctrines (Marian) with an open mind and heart.

Hippolytus said the above quotes, he studied under Irenaeus who called Mary the new Eve and who was in turn a disciple of the blessed Saint Polycarp (my patron saint btw) who studied directly under St. John (to whom the care of the blessed Virgin was entrusted to by Christ). If anyone knew about Mary , John did. If anyone learned that Polycarp did and if he told anyone he told Irenaeus. It's not a far stretch to say Hippolytus would have been privy to the same apostolic line of tradition on Mary.

At any rate, the question comes up, which is more authoritative, my personal interpretation of certain biblical passages or the testimony of one such as Hippolytus? -- One who not only lived in a similar time and culture and spoke the very language which the NT Scriptures were written but also received direct apostolic tradition from an unbroken line leading back the Virgin herself by only three degrees of separation.

Maybe Hippolytus was off base, but I'd find it easier to believe that I was regardless of how convinced I was. Sometimes we have to step back and put things into perspective to get the details right.

George Weis said...


I will never ever say that my thoughts are worth any more than the people who were far less removed from the times, language, people and places. However I always want to be sure a specific tradition isn't reading more into something than is actually there.

I want you to know that I very much appreciate your thoughts. I especially do because I can tell it wasn't something you just agreed with without some serious thought.

I will say this, protestants at large diminish her role. Yet, I feel too that she and others might be highlighted beyond what they should be also.

I think the logical thought process behind this doctrine does make sense. Yet, if that principle is applied, then the whole line of Mary's family would need to be without blemish. One might say NO, because God could make Mary only without sin. Then I would respond to that... could He also not do the same for His only Son? The answer is ABSOLUTELY. We shouldn't go overboard and assume things that aren't expressly stated.

I feel deeply in my heart, that I would rather be wrong (if so) and stand before God saying... I loved your Son... I wanted nothing more than to uphold Him more than anything else... I missed it with Mary. Rather than uplift her to a place that diminishes Christ (If the doctrine is wrong) and be sorry before my Lord because of some form of idolatry.

It frankly scares me. I would rather go straight to Jesus. Why do I need a mother to go through. She was a blessed vehicle for brining the incarnate Word into the world (AMAZING!), but where oh where is the backup for her as a go between?

I love you Tim. I hope you know that. I also love my In-Laws very much. Weather we agree or disagree I love you all!


Tim A. Troutman said...

There are certain areas where I don't get where Protestants are coming from. Sola scriptura is one of them but this isn't. I get where you're coming from.

I always thought Catholic apologetics were strong in every area except this one. I thought they were terrible. This is an area, I think, which cannot be solved by mere apologetics and polemics. For me it was an experience that opened me to the possibility.

It's interesting that you bring up that you'd rather err on the side of attributing less to Mary than to attribute more to her than she was worthy of. Pelikan points out that one of the great saints (I want to say Augustine but cant be sure) had the exact opposite logic - he'd rather err on attributing to her more than less.

We must remember the difference - Christ is holy because of Himself. He is the source of grace and holiness. Mary is holy not because of herself but because of Christ's salvation which was applied to her in a unique way. She is not the source of grace, she is "full of grace" and has been filled so by the Holy Spirit not of herself.

And in that way "The maternal role of Mary toward people in no way obscures or diminishes the unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power." - Vatican II

My post on the fallacy of solo Christo or solus Christus whichever is correct may be helpful as well.

But again, don't expect to be convinced on this issue. It's easier for some than for others - depending on your background. Actually the immaculate conception was easy for me to assent to intellectually. Like you said, you can see the logic behind it. Assenting to it and Mariology in generally spiritually was quite a bit more difficult. It doesn't happen over night.

The apprehension you have over it is quite understandable. Its the same apprehension I had and most converts I know had as well. When I first prayed to Mary (rather through Mary) I prefaced it with a conditional confession to God the Father - "Lord, you know I don't intend to sin here and if I am doing wrong by communicating with Mary, forgive me".

George Weis said...

God Bless you Tim,

Again, I think your heart is for the truth. I am not certain as to why you felt the need to take on that belief if it isn't fully provable... but boy I can hear your heart with the first prayer you mentioned.

I agree with what you said about Christ and Mary. Obviously she is a peculiar and special person to be blessed in that way. I do not feel it is worth figuring out weather she was or wasn't. We know that Christ was. For me, that is enough. Whatever God did with Mary is his deal. I in no way want to lean toward giving her to much credit. I honor her by honoring her son (as someone else said in a different post). I feel at ease with that. I find it interesting that she has such a dominant place in the RCC, when there is very little mention of her in total in the NT.

Her role is irreplaceable, and she has honor because of God's grace (as you mentioned) above all women. However, the details of that don't need to be answered with some doctrine on her. I personally want to focus on the central things of importance. Mary is central in her role, and in her honor... but I need not say more or less.

I seek to give her her due credit (actually the credit is God's). I remember, that God found favor with her. That reminds me of Jacob and Esau... so whatever that means, let's let God be God, and stop trying to fill in the blanks.

Not everything needs a systematic theology. Sometimes our systems of thinking don't do God justice.

Again, bless you... I believe in your heart of hearts you seek truth. Weather you are in the truth on this matter... I cannot say conclusively... but it doesn't matter. May God find favor with you, because you desire Him and His Truth more than anything else.


Thos said...


I'm concerned what I'm about to say will sound defensive of Marianism. It is the Catholic teaching over which I have wrestled more than any other. I think there's a lot to consider.

First, you said "I personally want to focus on the central things of importance." I do too. I've really held that as my mantra. But we need to remember that where we (individualistically) set what is "central", we are not preserved from error. We could be dead wrong. I am close to people who think that if you don't believe the world was made in 7 literal days, you are hell-bound. To them, this is critical. To me, I'm agnostic on the matter - I could go either way (new earth vs. old earth). It's not central to me. But it's central to them because it means something about how you read and interpret the Bible - also central. To me, the bible is central, but then I don't agree with the way they interpret it. Around and around we go. Anyway, I wanted to share with you that I wrestle more with WHO (or what) is the right person to identify the central teachings -- me, my church leaders, the Roman Catholics, the Orthodox? Hard question, and it is not self-evident.

Something else you said, and I don't want to be too picky, but it's a way I used to talk, so I noticed it, "If anything, my heart is so sold on the Lord Jesus and what He was and what He did..."

Now, I'm sure you'll agree with me, I'm not trying to pick on words, but I would merely note that Jesus *is* (not just was) and Jesus *does* (not just did). The reason I realized I was speaking of Him in the past tense is when I realized how foreign it is to us to think that he is still *bodily* in Heaven. In other words, his flesh and spirit are still perfectly united together. This isn't just Catholic, it's Protestant too. But so often in church we talk about what He did way back when. The scene in Revelation (I think 4 and 5) depicts His cross sacrifice being continuously offered in God the Father's throne room. It's incredible to think about.

As for Mary, an angle that does make sense to me, and speaks more about Christ than about Mary, is to consider the typology from the Old Testament (which you would agree was given by God to prepare us for the Messiah's coming).

Much has been written on this, so I shouldn't duplicate work. I googled and found this sight with some simple O.T. verses and an short explanation on the meaning applied to Mary.

I can at least agree with Catholics that the idea is clear in the Old Covenant that a vessel containing Yahweh's presence had to be completely pure, if for no other reason than that God's own purity demands it.

Peace in Christ,

George Weis said...

Bless you Thos!

I have visited your site, not sure if you saw other my comments on your posts.

I am absolutely in agreement with you. Sometimes when writing it is easy to sound one way, when you certainly also believe the other (in the context of Jesus did vs. Does Was vs. Is). I appreciate those comments.

I certainly know and agree He is and DOES. Yes, a very good point.

I also agree with that statement about the OT foreshadowing the idea/concept of Mary. I just don't know how far I would delve into that topic, since scripturally there isn't an extensive focus on the matter.

I am with you on the 7 day creation thing. Yes, it can effect the way the rest of scripture is viewed, but in my opinion "let God be God". As in how our salvation is a mystery... must we understand? I think not! But I hear you on interpretation!

I'll check out the web address you sent me!

Forgive me if any part of this comment is incoherent... I am typing single handedly while entertaining my one year old!

Yes, I am certainly not beyond error!

Thank you for your kindness in addressing me... always a sign of charity and love.

Blessings to you and yours in Christ Our Lord!

GioCrypt said...

And that is part of why the tradition (teaching) of the Church is so important. Because not all that Jesus did is writen in the Gospels but the Church is a living witness to his Glory.

As a craddle Catholic, I have never been force to honor Mary. At the Mass we do not ask Mary to forgive us, we dont ask her to redeem us, we dont ask her to save us for only one can do that and it is her Holy son Jesus Christ.

It is impossible to venerate Mary without thinking of her son because it is only through him, with him and in him that she is saved and made holy.

Krystina said...

I'm not a theologian in the least and feel a little like I'm not in my own league speaking with you all; however, have you considered the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal in 1917 where Our Lady appeared to 77,000 people and they fell prostrate on the ground. What is remarkable about this apparition is that it didn't appear to 77 people but rather 77,000 people, it happened on the day that the children predicted it would, and especially remarkable are the testimonies from the reporters who worked at the secular newspaper. I read the critique of this event online and found it very interesting. I usually shy away and find Marian apparitions a little sketchy, however, this one is worth looking into.

Tim A. Troutman said...

Krystina, don't worry I'm not a theologian either. In fact, I didnt even get Crescats award for best armchair theologian! Hah.

You bring up a good point though. The Marian apparitions are significant. I have a lot to study on that area so I haven't really commented on it. But you're right, Fatima is highly significant.

Pelikan also devotes a chapter to the apparitions. I'll have to post on that in the future.

Krystina said...

Tim, you may not be a theologian but you sure sound like one and it appears as though you've done quite a bit of research :)I know you haven't looked into this but it's worth mentioning that our church dismisses all apparitions as "not real" until a sufficient amount of time (I think it may be 10-30years)has elapsed at which point they revisit the validity of the occurence through eye witness testimony, weather or not the predictions came true and other various qualifiers(I'll have to loook it up later). I recently watched EWTN and they had a "specialist" on the matter and he spoke about the most recent apparition in Rwanda which was sometime in the 1980's (apparently Mary appeared to children and said that the rivers would be covered with blood and the towns would be burned to the ground)....nobody believed them, not even our church....10 years later the Rwandan Holocaust happened. Just a thought. God Bless you all!