Immaculate Conception (1618)
An Anglican reader with a love for Mary described her concerns about the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption:
I appreciate that Mariology grounds our understanding of Christ’s human nature, and that without her assent the incarnation could not have happened. We should call her blessed.
Out of obedience to that call, I have given much time and thought to Marian devotion. I appreciate that doctrine develops over time from principles embryonically present in scripture. However, the post reformation doctrines of the immaculate conception and assumption puzzle me, not because they inherently contradict scripture, but because I cannot find their embryonic form. The barrier that this presents to Christian unity saddens me.
This is a reasonable question, and it deserves a straightforward answer. It’s also a question that I’m sure many Catholics have wondered as well: do we find a belief in the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary, at least in an embryonic form, in the early Church? Yes and yes. Let’s look at each doctrine in turn.
This is the doctrine that Mary was preserved from original and actual sin from the moment of her conception. I’ve written before on the way that Scripture depicts Mary as the New Eve, the Ark of the New Covenant, the Temple Gate, and the builder of the Temple.
- Eve was without original or actual sin while she was still named “Woman,”
- the Ark and the Temple were made with the finest materials, and consecrated totally to the Lord, and
- the builder of the Temple had to have hands free of blood (which is why David couldn’t build the Temple).
|Theotokos Panachranta (c. 1050)|
This is also why Mary is a Virgin: her Virginity is a symbol of her sinlessness, and of her unadulterated devotion to God. Yesterday, I talked about another Marian image that the early Christians pointed to: that she’s an Icon of the Church, which is also a Virgin, Bride, and Mother.
The Church Fathers immediately pick up these things, as I’ve noted before in the context of the Eve imagery. By the time St. Augustine lays out the doctrine of original sin, he’s careful to exempt the Virgin Mary, and doesn’t feel any need to explain why. The early Church already knew she was sinless.
This was the universal belief of the Church, and hardly a post-Reformation development of some sort. Even Luther believed in Mary’s sinlessness (although he was contradictory on whether or not he believed in the Immaculate Conception). It would be much more accurate to say that the post-Reformation development was Protestantism diminishing Mary more and more. If you don’t believe me, read the immediate pre-Reformation writings on Mary, and tell me which Church would be comfortable proclaiming those things today.
Where, prior to the Reformation, there was resistance to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, much of it centered around two issues: (1) the doctrine of original sin, and (2) the point at which the soul enters the body. On the first of these, you’ll occasionally find those (like many Eastern Orthodox today) who admit that Mary never sinned, but believe she still suffered the taint of original sin. This raises broader questions about how the East and West tend to understand original sin. On the second, you’ll occasionally find those, like St. Thomas Aquinas, who believed that “the Blessed Virgin was sanctified before her birth from the womb,” but believed that this occurred after conception, at the moment of “ensoulment,” in which a rational soul was infused in her body.
This is all a far cry from Protestantism for two reasons. First, even these objections presuppose that Mary never sinned. But second, Protestants tend to agree with Catholics (rather than Orthodox) about original sin, and don’t believe in the idea of post-conception “ensoulment.”
|Jean Fouquet, Death of the Virgin (c. 1455)|
As for the Assumption, there are passages that are understood as prophetic of this event. For example, in John 14:3, Jesus says of the Church, “if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” If Mary is the icon of the Church, as the early Christians believed, the Assumption is a fulfillment of this promise.
Is it possible that the Catholics, Orthodox, and Copts are all wrong on this? I’d say no: to claim that every part of the Apostolic Church is in error is to simply cut oneself from the Apostolic Church.
Update: I’m going to be on Son Rise Morning Show next week, talking about this post. More details later.