Was Mary Sinless?
Because of the atmosphere of ecumenicism that has pervaded the Christian Church in recent decades, many Evangelical Christians are ill-equipped to properly handle the distinctive doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. Mariology is one particularly sticky topic. Many misconceptions abound, and there are relatively few Evangelical writings that adequately handle this topic. As such, it is necessary to tackle the Roman Catholic Marian Dogmas with care and accuracy, and this will hopefully be accomplished in this analysis of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
Although the Immaculate Conception has an interesting history that goes back to the Middle Ages, it is one of the more recent of the Marian dogmas to have been officially declared a dogma by the Roman Catholic Church. It was declared as such by Pope Pius IX during 1844 in the apostolic constitution entitled Ineffabilis Deus. It is worth looking at the text of this constitution to see how Rome defines this dogma:
From the very beginning, and before time began, the eternal Father chose and prepared for his only-begotten Son a Mother in whom the Son of God would become incarnate and from whom, in the blessed fullness of time, he would be born into this world. Above all creatures did God so loved her that truly in her was the Father well pleased with singular delight. Therefore, far above all the angels and all the saints so wondrously did God endow her with the abundance of all heavenly gifts poured from the treasury of his divinity that this mother, ever absolutely free of all stain of sin, all fair and perfect, would possess that fullness of holy innocence and sanctity than which, under God, one cannot even imagine anything greater, and which, outside of God, no mind can succeed in comprehending fully.
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. To her did the Father will to give his only-begotten Son — the Son whom, equal to the Father and begotten by him, the Father loves from his heart — and to give this Son in such a way that he would be the one and the same common Son of God the Father and of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was she whom the Son himself chose to make his Mother and it was from her that the Holy Spirit willed and brought it about that he should be conceived and born from whom he himself proceeds.
This is basically what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is about. The Roman Catholic Church has declared this to be an essential aspect of the Christian faith and anathematizes anybody who dissents from this view:
Hence, if anyone shall dare — which God forbid! — to think otherwise than as has been defined by us, let him know and understand that he is condemned by his own judgment; that he has suffered shipwreck in the faith; that he has separated from the unity of the Church; and that, furthermore, by his own action he incurs the penalties established by law if he should are to express in words or writing or by any other outward means the errors he think in his heart.
The Biblical Evidence
In support of this dogma, many Roman Catholic apologists appear to the words of the Angel Gabriel during the Annunciation and those of Elizabeth in the Visitation. Those who are or have been raised in Roman Catholicism would recognize these words very easily, for they are recited by Roman Catholics in the Ave Maria (Hail Mary). Here are the words:
The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured [κεχαριτωμένη]! The Lord is with you.
In a loud voice she [Elizabeth] exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!
The argument that many Roman Catholics make based on Luke 1:28 has mainly to do with the usage of the Greek word κεχαριτωμένη (a perfect tense form of χαριτoω), which is translated in the Roman Catholic Douay Rheims Bible as “full of grace.” The popular Roman Catholic apologist Karl Keating in his book Catholicism and Fundamentalism contends that this is the best translation of this word, and proceeds to make an exegetical point based on this. Keating writes,
The newer translations leave out something the Greek conveys, something the older translation conveys, which is that this grace (and the core of the word kecharitomene is charis, after all) is at once permanent and of a singular kind. The Greek indicates a perfection of grace. A perfection must be perfect not only intensively, but extensively. The grace Mary enjoyed must not only have been as “full” or strong or complete as possible at any given time, but it must have extended over the whole of her life, from conception. That is, she must have been in a state of sanctifying grace from the first moment of her existence to have been called “full of grace” or to have been filled with divine favor in a singular way. This is just what the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception holds…
Patrick Madrid, in an article posted in the popular Roman Catholic apologetics website known as Catholic Answers, provides the same argument, adding some comments on Luke 1:42 as well in the process:
Look first at two passages in Luke 1. In verse 28, the angel Gabriel greets Mary as “kecharitomene” (“full of grace” or “highly favored”). This is a recognition of her sinless state. In verse 42 Elizabeth greets Mary as “blessed among women.” The original import of this phrase is lost in English translation. Since neither the Hebrew nor Aramaic languages have superlatives (best, highest, tallest, holiest), a speaker of those languages would have say, “You are tall among men” or “You are wealthy among men” to mean “You are the tallest” or “You are the wealthiest.” Elizabeth’s words mean Mary was the holiest of all women.
If this exegetical (or rather, eisegetical) argument proves anything, however, it proves too much. There is no reason to believe that κεχαριτωμένη is “a recognition of her sinless state,” because if this was the intended of the word, then we end up with all sorts of exegetical absurdities. For example, Saint Stephen is referred to as being “full of grace and power” [πλήρης χάριτος καὶ δυνάμεως] in Acts 6:8. If being full of grace is a description of being immaculately conceived, then we must therefore conclude that the Bible is teaching the immaculate conception of Stephen! Not only that, but the exact same verb that is used of Mary is also used of all believers in the aorist tense in the epistle to the Ephesians:
…he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given [ἐχαρίτωσεν] us in the One he loves.
The text is literally saying that God has graced (ἐχαρίτωσεν) Christians with His glorious grace. If the usage of κεχαριτωμένη in Luke 1:28 is good enough to prove the immaculate conception of Mary, then the usage of ἐχαρίτωσεν in Ephesians 1:6 is good enough to prove that every true believer is just as immaculately conceived as Mary is. This is absurd, of course, but if we are to follow the argument given to us by Roman Catholic apologists such as Keating to its logical conclusion, then we end up with this glaring absurdity.
As for Luke 1:42, does Elizabeth’s greeting “Blessed are you among women” (εὐλογημένη σὺ ἐν γυναιξίν) mean that she was considering Mary to be “the holiest of all women?” If this is so, we encounter even more exegetical absurdities, for the exact same phrase is used of Jael in the old testament:
Most blessed of women be Jael,
the wife of Heber the Kenite,
most blessed of tent-dwelling women.
If we applied Madrid’s eisegesis of the phrase “blessed among women” consistently throughout the whole Bible, then we are forced to conclude that Jael is also immaculately conceived. It should be clear at this point that Roman Catholic apologists cannot consistently apply their eisegetical tricks without proving the immaculate conception of other persons besides Mary.
So what do the phrases “highly favoured” and “blessed among women” actually mean? Well, it is quite simple: Mary has received favour and blessing by being chosen by God to be the instrument by which the Lord Jesus shall be made incarnate in the world (she is, after all, the Theotokos). That is all. There is no reason whatsoever to read into these passages the idea of sinlessness and immaculate conception. In fact, this is precluded by the very same chapter of Luke. In the Magnificat, we see Mary’s exaltation of Jesus as her Saviour:
And Mary said:“My soul glorifies the Lordand my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,for he has been mindfulof the humble state of his servant.From now on all generations will call me blessed.(Luke 1:46-47)
Now, from a plain reading of the text, we could easily deduce that since Mary called Jesus her Saviour, then she could not have been sinless, otherwise she would have nothing to be saved from in the first place. Of course, Roman Catholic apologists remain undaunted by the statement that Jesus Christ was Mary’s Saviour. They have devised ingenuous methods of getting around the plain meaning of the text. In Patrick Madrid’s article, he tries to make the argument that Jesus saved Mary by preventing her from ever even becoming a sinner. His argument is as follows:
Medieval theologians developed an analogy to explain how and why Mary needed Jesus as her savior. A man (each of us) is walking along a forest path, unaware of a large pit a few paces directly ahead of him. He falls headlong into the pit and is immersed in the mud (original sin) it contains. He cries out for help, and his rescuer (the Lord Jesus) lowers a rope down to him and hauls him back up to safety. The man says to his rescuer, “Thank you for saving me,” recalling the words of the psalmist: The Lord “stooped toward me and heard my cry. He drew me out of the pit of destruction, out of the mud of the swamp; he set my feet upon a crag” (Psalm 40:2-4).
A woman (Mary), approaches the same pit, but as she began to fall into the pit her rescuer reaches out and stops her from falling in. She cries out, “Thank you for saving me” (Luke 1:47). Like this woman, Mary was no less “saved” than any other human being has been saved. She was just saved anticipatorily, before contracting original sin. Each of us is permitted to become dirtied with original sin, but she was not. God hates sin, so this was a far better way.
Picking up on this line of argumentation, another Roman Catholic apologist by the name of Mark Shea argues that Christ saves Mary in a “preventative” manner. In volume two of his book series entitled Mary, Mother of the Son, he writes,
There are two ways Christ saves us from sin, just as there are two kinds of medicine>curative and preventative… Christ the physician can apply preventative medicine, too. It’s possible to rescue somebody from quicksand by keeping them out of it in the first place. And so Mary, according to the Church, was saved from original sin by Christ in [that]… he never let Mary fall into any sin in the first place.
Now, it is safe to say that both Madrid and Shea are grasping at straws here when it comes to the meaning of Luke 1:47. It doesn’t take an exegetical genius to figure out that nowhere in the entire text of scripture is the word “save” being used to mean that someone is prevented from ever actually sinning. One has to presuppose the immaculate conception in advance for this type of eisegesis to actually work, since the plain reading of the text does not allow for it.
And this brings us to one more verse which is frequently brought up, and that is Romans 3:10-23. The text stresses the universality of sin, which climaxes in verse 23 where it says “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Now, Roman Catholic apologists try to argue that Mary is an exception here since she has not sinned, according to their theology. Mark Shea spends a great deal of time trying to lay a case that the passage does not refer to every individual without exception, but that “all” means both Jews and Gentiles. To this effect, he even quotes Psalm 18:20 which says:
The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness;
according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me.
Shea argues that righteousness is being used in a non-legal sense. He may be right about that part, but he makes two mistakes in citing this verse. First, he thinks that just because righteousness is used in a non-legal sense in Psalm 18:20, then it must not be legal either in Romans 3. But the context of Romans 3 makes it quite clear that the word is being used in a legal sense, hence the abundant references to the verb δικαιόω (something which does not occur in Psalm 18, which has a totally different context altogether). Second, Shea misses the fact that David isn’t even sinless! Is David trying to claim sinlessness in Psalm 18:20? Of course not.
Now, it may be true that “all” refers to both Jews and Gentiles, but think about this: Is Paul trying to establish a third class of men who are not encompassed by “all?” Obviously not, so while “all,” does refer to both Jews and Gentiles, it does not preclude the meaning of “every single individual.” That is simply a false dichotomy. Now, one may argue that Jesus is an exception to the rule, but that is because Jesus is the incarnate God-man, and there are plenty of scripture passages that explicitly teach His sinlessness (such as John 8:46, 1 Peter 2:22 and Hebrews 4:15). Shea tries to argue for Mary being another exception to the rule, by saying that, “[i]f our ‘lens’ is Sacred Tradition, we know the apostles always intended to read passages like those in Romans to exclude, not just Jesus, but Mary.” By “Sacred Tradition,” Shea must be referring to what Rome has been teaching since the middle ages, since it cannot be established from church history that this was a historic belief of the Christian Church. In fact, it is to this that we shall come to next.
The Historical Evidence
The Roman Catholic Church claims that this doctrine, like all of their other distinctive doctrines, has the “unanimous consent of the Fathers” (contra unanimen consensum Patrum). They argue that what they teach concerning the Immaculate Conception has been the historic belief of the Christian Church since the very beginning. As Ineffabilis Deus puts it,
The Catholic Church, directed by the Holy Spirit of God… has ever held as divinely revealed and as contained in the deposit of heavenly revelation this doctrine concerning the original innocence of the august Virgin… and thus has never ceased to explain, to teach and to foster this doctrine age after age in many ways and by solemn acts.
However, the student of church history will quickly discover that this is not the case. The earliest traces of this doctrine appear in the middle ages when Marian piety was at its bloom. Even at this time, however, the acceptance of the doctrine was far from universal. Both Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux rejected the immaculate conception. The Franciscans (who affirmed the doctrine) and the Dominicans (who denied it, and of whom Aquinas was one) argued bitterly over whether this doctrine should be accepted, with the result that the pope at the time had to rule that both options were acceptable and neither side could accuse the other of heresy (ironic that several centuries later, denying this doctrine now results in an anathema from Rome).
When we go further back to the days of the early church, however, the evidence becomes even more glaring. For example, the third century church father Origen of Alexandria taught in his treatise Against Celsus (3:62 and 4:40) that that the words of Genesis 3:16 applies to every woman without exception. He did not exempt Mary from this. As church historian and patristic scholar J.N.D. Kelly points out,
Origen insisted that, like all human beings, she [Mary] needed redemption from her sins; in particular, he interpreted Simeon’s prophecy (Luke 2.35) that a sword would pierce her soul as confirming that she had been invaded with doubts when she saw her Son crucified.”
Also, it must be noted that it has been often pointed out that Jesus’ rebuke of Mary in the wedding of Cana (John 2:1-12) demonstrates that she is in no wise perfect or sinless. Mark Shea scoffs at this idea that Mary is “sinfully pushing him [Jesus] to do theatrical wonders in John 2,” arguing that “there is no reason to think [this] is true.” However, if we turn to the writings of the early church fathers, we see that this is precisely how they interpreted Mary’s actions and Jesus’ subsequent rebuke of her. In John Chrysostom’s twenty-first homily on the gospel of John (where he exegetes the wedding of Cana), he writes,
For where parents cause no impediment or hindrance in things belonging to God, it is our bounden duty to give way to them, and there is great danger in not doing so; but when they require anything unseasonably, and cause hindrance in any spiritual matter, it is unsafe to obey. And therefore He answered thus in this place, and again elsewhere “Who is My mother, and who are My brethren?” (Matt. xii.48), because they did not yet think rightly of Him; and she, because she had borne Him, claimed, according to the custom of other mothers, to direct Him in all things, when she ought to have reverenced and worshiped Him. This then was the reason why He answered as He did on that occasion… He rebuked her on that occasion, saying, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” instructing her for the future not to do the like; because, though He was careful to honor His mother, yet He cared much more for the salvation of her soul, and for the doing good to the many, for which He took upon Him the flesh.
Now why on earth would Jesus care for the salvation of Mary’s soul at this point in time if she was already “preventatively” saved through having been immaculately conceived, as was claimed earlier? That does not make any sense, whatsoever. Likewise, Theodoret of Cyrus agrees with John Chrysostom in saying that the Lord Jesus rebuked Mary during the wedding at Cana. In chapter two of his Dialogues, he writes,
If then He was made flesh, not by mutation, but by taking flesh, and both the former and the latter qualities are appropriate to Him as to God made flesh, as you said a moment ago, then the natures were not confounded, but remained unimpaired. And as long as we hold thus we shall perceive too the harmony of the Evangelists, for while the one proclaims the divine attributes of the one only begotten—the Lord Christ—the other sets forth His human qualities. So too Christ our Lord Himself teaches us, at one time calling Himself Son of God and at another Son of man: at one time He gives honour to His Mother as to her that gave Him birth [Luke 2:52]; at another He rebukes her as her Lord [John 2:4].
And then there is Augustine of Hippo, whom many Roman Catholic apologists attempt to appeal to for their belief in the immaculate conception. They like to quote a portion of chapter 42 of his treatise, On Nature and Grace, where Augustine states,
We must except the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom I wish to raise no question when it touches the subject of sins, out of honour to the Lord; for from Him we know what abundance of grace for overcoming sin in every particular was conferred upon her who had the merit to conceive and bear Him who undoubtedly had no sin.
However, those who quote this passage miss the point of what Augustine is trying to communicate. He was trying to refute the Pelagian heretics (who were the ones who were claiming that Mary—among other biblical characters—were sinless, since they denied the depravity of man). The article explaining Augustine’s view of Mary on Allan Fitzgerald’s Augustine Through the Ages helps clear up misconceptions regarding this passage:
His [Augustine's] position must be understood in the context of the Pelagian controversy. Pelagius himself had already admitted that Mary, like the other just women of the Old testament, was spared from any sin. Augustine never concedes that Mary was sinless but prefers to dismiss the question… Since medieval times this passage [from Nature and Grace] has sometimes been invoked to ground Augustine’s presumed acceptance of the doctrine of the immaculate conception. It is clear nonetheless that, given the various theories regarding the transmission of original sin current in his time, Augustine in that passage would not have meant to imply Mary’s immunity from it.
This same article then goes on to demonstrate that Augustine did in fact believe that Mary received the stain of original sin from her parents:
His understanding of concupiscence as an integral part of all marital relations made it difficult, if not impossible, to accept that she herself was conceived immaculately. He… specifies in [Contra Julianum opus imperfectum 5.15.52]… that the body of Mary “although it came from this [concupiscence], nevertheless did not transmit it for she did not conceive in this way.” Lastly, De Genesi ad litteram 10.18.32 asserts: “And what more undefiled than the womb of the Virgin, whose flesh, although it came from procreation tainted by sin, nevertheless did not conceive from that source.”
As can be seen here, these and many other early church fathers did not regard Mary as being sinless or immaculately conceived. It is quite clear that the annals of church history testify that Rome cannot claim that this belief is based upon the “unanimous consent of the fathers,” since the belief that Mary was sinless started out among Pelagian heretics during the fifth century and did not become an acceptable belief until at least the beginning of the middle ages.
As has been demonstrated here, neither scripture nor church history support the contention of the Roman Catholic Church that Mary was sinless by virtue of having been immaculately conceived. In fact, Rome did not even regard this as an essential part of the faith until the middle of the nineteenth century. This should cause readers to pause and question why on earth Rome would anathematize Christians for disbelieving in a doctrine that was absent from the early church (unless one wants to side with the fifth century Pelagians) and was considered even by Rome to be essential for salvation until a century and a half ago. Because Rome said so? But their reasons for accepting this doctrine in the first place are so demonstrably wrong. After all, they claim that this was held as divinely revealed from the very beginning, even though four and a half centuries’ worth of patristic literature proves otherwise. This ought to be enough to cast doubt not only on Rome’s claims regarding Mariology, but their claims to authority on matters of faith and morals in general.
- Perhaps the best book that treats the topic of the Marian dogmas from an Evangelical Protestant perspective would be Eric Svendsen’s Who Is My Mother?: The Role of the Mother of Jesus in the New Testament and in Roman Catholicism. Calvary Press: 2001.
- Pope Pius IX. Ineffabilis Deus. Papal Encyclicals Online. <http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius09/p9ineff.htm>.
- Keating, Karl. Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on Romanism by Bible Christians. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1988. p. 269.
- Madrid, Patrick. Ark of the new covenant. Catholic Answers. <http://www.catholic.com/thisrock/1991/9112fea1.asp>.
- Shea, Mark P. Mary, Mother of the Son, Volume II: First Guardian of the Faith. San Diego, CA: Catholic Answers, 2009. p. 109.
- Ibid., pp. 105-107.
- Ibid., p. 108.
- Pope Pius IX. Ineffabilis Deus.
- This phrase originates from the fourth session of the Council of Trent (1546). The original Latin text of this session with an accompanying English translation may be found here: <http://www.bible-researcher.com/trent1.html>.
- Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines (Revised Edition). San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978. p. 493.
- Shea. Mary, Mother of the Son, Volume II. p. 110.
- Schaff, Philip. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Volume XXIV (Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of St. John and the Epistle to the Hebrews). New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1889. pp. 74-75.
- Schaff, Philip (ed.) Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume III (Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, & Rufinus: Historical Writings). New York, NY: Cosimo, Inc. 2007. p. 194.
- Schaff, Philip. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Volume V (Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings). New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1887. p. 135.
- Doyle, Daniel E., O.S.A. “Mary, Mother of God.” Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia (Allan Fitzgerald, ed.). Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999. p. 544
- Lack of space prevents a thorough citation of all the early church fathers who (explicitly or implicitly) rejected the concept of Mary being sinless in their writings. However, it is well worth providing a partial listing of other such fathers who are not quoted here: Ambrose of Milan, Basil the Great, Clement of Alexandria, Cyril of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory Nazianzen, Hilary of Poitiers, Jerome, Justin Martyr, Leo I and Tertullian.
- Just for Catholics – The Dogma of the Immaculate Conception
- Just for Catholics – Immaculate Conception and the Church Fathers
- Turretin Fan – Augustine and the Immaculate Conception
- James R. White – The Immaculate Conception: Is There a Biblical Basis?