Last week we looked at the perpetual virginity. While we didn’t agree on each point, we did behave ourselves and, speaking for myself, worked our way through some issues that we might not think of very often. The immaculate conception, while it is not at all defensible from specific biblical passages, is one of the Marian doctrines that may have a theological logic much more in tune with Protestant theological thinking.
So, here goes. As I understand it, Ambrose of Milan put into a powerful set of word what many were already believing: that the virginal conception occurred so that Jesus could be sinless. Ambrose did this in his Commentary on Psalm 37, and this idea influenced St. Augustine — and on down through the Western Church to Luther and to Protestant theology. Jesus was “not conceived in iniquity nor born in sin.” Augustine, you may remember, made an exception for Mary when it came to all humans being sinners.
There is a lot here, and I want to bring out some emphases that are not customarily said in this way in order to make the issue all the more clear for each of us:
1. The sin nature must be passed on through males, and that is why a male is not involved. (I’m not sure Ambrose ever put it quite like this, but this thought is involved in this issue.)
2. The virginal conception, in essence, was a “new creation” of Adam by God in the womb of Mary in order to redeem Adam’s descendants by completely identifying with them (as humans) yet without sin.
3. Jesus’ flesh, if we think about it, is entirely from Mary.
Now this creates a problem if one does not understand the male as the one through whom the sinful nature passes on.
If Mary is born in sin or the sin nature is passed on to her through her parents, then the “flesh” and human nature she passed on to Jesus must have been sinful, and that would mean Jesus had a sinful nature. The irony of the argument from virginal conception to Jesus’ sinlessness is that eliminating the male, which is what most of us emphasize, does not eradicate sin from the female and Jesus came from the female. So, the theory that the virginal conception eliminated the sinful nature inevitably throws all the theological debate onto Mary. If we are fair to our thinking, we need at least to think about Mary and the sinful nature with honestly.
By eliminating Joseph from the picture, the theological issue lands on Mary. Jesus got his human nature, and all the other categories we might choose to use for his humanity, from Mary. If we don’t think this, then we have to argue that Jesus got a totally unique human nature, neither from Mary nor Joseph, and that means Mary simply “housed” Jesus. We are, therefore, led to think more about Mary.
Was Mary sinful? If she was, did Jesus inherit her sinful nature? If he didn’t inherit her sinful nature, how did it happen that he was “of” her but not sinful? This is the issue: if we believe, and as orthodox this is required, that Jesus is sinless, we have to ask if he could be sinless if his mother had a sin nature.
So, if the sin nature is inherent to females as much as it is to males, then for Jesus to have been sinless, Mary somehow had to be preserved from or saved from her sinful nature before, at, or after the moment of conception.
The immaculate conception teaches precisely this, and it is a logical corollary of Ambrose’s major argument: connecting sinful nature and normal reproduction, or to say that the virginal conception occurred to preserve Jesus from a sinful nature. If we use his logic completely, we are driven to argue that Mary’s sinful nature was somehow resolved by an act of God’s grace.
Hence, the immaculate conception.
The immaculate conception teaches that Mary was, from the moment of her conception, “by the singular grace and privilege of almighty God and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ the Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.” (This from the official papal declaration by Pope Piux IX, on December 8, 1854, on the immaculate conception.)
Let this be observed: Mary was not born perfect, but somehow from the moment of her conception (there’s a bit of time there) was preserved from the stain of orginal sin.
Let this also be observed: Mary’s perservation was based solely on the atoning work of Jesus Christ. She was in need of grace as anyone else was. She was preserved from sin while all others are saved from sin.
Textually, the “full of grace” in Gabriel’s words to Mary at the annunciation is a understood by many Roman Catholics to be a special plenitude of grace that saved and preserved Mary. This “full of grace” includes the virginal conception itself as an act of God giving Mary the grace of the incarnation.
Let this also be observed: the immaculate conception implies that Mary lived a sinless life, and for some (not all so far as I can see) this also means she did not experience pain in childbirth, the normal aging of her body since it was not susceptible to decay (all art of Mary is of a young woman), and she did not die in the normal way but “assumed” into heaven. If these are all features of what happens because of sin (Genesis 3), then these features did not occur to her since she did not sin.
Let this also be observed: Mary, in order to be perfectly free and do God’s will had to be in perfect harmony with God. Since she was, she must have been preserved from a sinful nature and sinful will.
Are we driven by our own theological logic (illustrated by Ambrose) to the immaculate conception?
Here’s our (Protestant) set of questions: How can Jesus be sinless if Mary was sinful? The virginal conception may have cleaned Jesus from Joseph’s sinful nature, but what about Mary’s?