The belief in the Immaculate Conception of Mary is a dogma unique to Catholicism. Catholics believe that by a special act of God’s favor and grace in her role to become the Mother of God, Mary was conceived without original sin. We also believed she remained sinless her entire life. The Orthodox churches often affirm they too believe Mary lived a sinless life, but they tend to reject the belief she was also conceived without original sin.
In my last post I covered what is the most common objection to those who believe this dogma is not Biblical, and that is when St. Paul says in Romans 3:23 “all have sinned.” For most Protestants that statement by St. Paul should end any discussion of whether Mary remained sinless – they interpret “all” to mean every individual who ever lived. But when we actually study how the Bible uses the term “all,” and especially within the context of Paul’s statement “all have sinned,” we discover that is not the case. I’ll now consider some of the other more common objections presented to this dogma of the faith.
One common objection is expressed in this thought:
“What are the ramifications of Mary being sinless? She would be the first human being without sin since Adam. She would qualify to be our substitute just as Jesus, since only a sinless being could redeem mankind. There would have been no need for Jesus.”
At its core, this argument is either a deliberate straw man or exhibits a lack of care in trying to understand another’s actual position prior to launching an objection. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception is clear Mary receives this unique grace as a gift – “by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race.” This gift to Mary is totally dependent upon the salvific work of her son, so in no way could anyone make a reasonable argument that to believe it would mean there would have been “no need for Jesus.” This is not something Mary “earned” by the virtue of who she was – it is a gift she was given by the nature of who Jesus is. Another way to look at this is Christ is sinless by nature; Mary is sinless by grace. As with all aspects of the Catholic understanding of salvation, everything is grace.
I think one of the things that can make this concept so difficult to understand in our modern world is since the advent of democracy as the norm for governing society we can tend to extend the idea that “all are equal,” into the realm of a kingdom – in this case the kingdom of God. The idea that Mary in her role could receive a “singular grace” that was not given to all seems foreign to us. But it’s not a foreign idea in Scripture at all. St. Paul writes in Ephesians 4:4-7 “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” In Romans 12:4-6 he writes “For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.” St. Peter writes in 1 Peter 4:10 we are to be good stewards of God’s “varied grace.” The idea that Mary would have been gifted by her son with a unique, singular grace in her unique and singular role to become his mother is not in conflict with what Scripture teaches us about the grace we receive for our various roles. That the sensibilities of some are offended because Catholics believe Mary received such a unique gift simply shows how far removed many have become in understanding what it means to be part of a kingdom.
Along the same lines people will try to use Mary’s own words against her in order to prove she was a sinner. In her Magnificat she says her spirit rejoices “in God my Savior” (Luke 1:47). This again fails to recognize the premise of the dogma and that while she may have been saved from sin in a unique way, she was still dependent upon God for her salvation. Her son is indeed her Savior. One common example used by Catholic apologists is that of a person who falls into a mud hole and can’t get out and is dependent upon someone to save them by pulling them out of the mud. But they could likewise have been saved by someone who prevented them from falling into the mud hole in the first place. Catholics absolutely recognize Jesus was Mary’s savior – we simply believe that because of the unique grace she received for her unique role she was prevented from falling into sin in the first place and sustained by God’s grace throughout her life.
Does that mean Mary couldn’t have sinned? Was her free will so impaired she had no choice in the matter? As Catholics we would say that is not the implication of the dogma. Mary created without original sin, like Eve, retained her free will. Unlike Eve, she relied totally on God’s grace to choose to resist all temptations presented to her so remained sinless. As with all things in the Catholic understanding of salvation, everything is grace.
The Orthodox often object to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (even though there is a general thought she remained sinless). One reason given is they believe this makes Mary the great exception rather than the great example. I would disagree with that for this reason – even though the measure of God’s gift of grace to Mary was unique, she still had to cooperate with that grace. She, unlike Eve, lived in a fallen world and encountered all the sorrows and challenges that brings, just like the rest of us. She endured poverty, she lived in a land occupied by brutal Roman rule, she no doubt endured gossip about her pregnancy and child, she endured facing the illness and death of those she loved, and most tragically endured watching her innocent son undergo a brutal execution by the Romans but promoted by her own religious leaders. In all of these and many more challenges she faced the temptations we all have to sin, yet she placed herself totally in the center of God’s will and relied on His grace. She is indeed our great example.
Another objection often raised to Mary being sinless is that the Bible teaches only God is holy. An example of this thinking:
The Bible is clear only God is holy in this way. 1 Sam.2:2 says, “there is no one holy as the Lord,” in Rev.15:4 we see the redeemed singing the song of the lamb in heaven “You alone are Holy.” They are not singing this to Mary! If you are without sin, you are Deity! (this of course means after Eve sinned and before the resurrection where all believers will be changed together to have a completely new nature not having sin).
The qualification used in this example is interesting. The statement is made that “if you are without sin, you are Deity!” But then it was promptly qualified — of course this only means referring to someone being without sin after Eve sinned and before the resurrection of all believers. So, if you were sinless before or after the fall you are not equal to Deity, but if you are sinless in between that period of time, that means you are God? I’m not sure how that makes sense at all.
But that qualification is necessary for the author because when carefully considered, it is fairly obvious being sinless does not equate to being Deity. Adam and Eve before the fall were sinless. The angels who did not follow Satan are, and have always been sinless. Scripture refers to them as the “holy angels” (Mark 8:38, Luke 9:26, Revelation 14:10). The concept that to be sinless equates to being God is simply false. That a human being could be sinless in our fallen world certainly required a special favor and gift of grace from God, but being sinless is in no way equivalent to being God regardless of the time and place that occurs. Mary is simply a human woman as we were created to be in the beginning. Sin is not part of being human as designed by God; it’s a parasite that has invaded humanity. Preventing Mary from being infected is indeed a special grace and favor but the idea that it elevates her to Deity is simply nonsense.
So what does Scripture mean when it says of God that “You alone are holy” (Rev 15:4) yet then cites others as being holy such as John the Baptist (Mark 6:20) or the angels (Mark 8:38, Luke 9:26), or the apostles (Ephesians 3:5)? I think the answer is found in the other verse cited in the example from 1 Samuel 2:2 – “there is no one holy as the Lord.” God is certainly unique in His holiness for He alone is holy in His very essence and is the source of all holiness. That is the truth attested to by Scripture. Not that others cannot be “holy” or that believing someone is sinless equates to making them God.
I will continue to review other objections to this dogma in my next post.