IMMACULATE CONCEPTION, THE [ISBE]
IMMACULATE CONCEPTION, THE
- i-mak'-u-lat kon-sep'-shun:
The historic designation of the Roman Catholic dogma promulgated by Pope Pius IX on December 8, 1854, in the Papal Bull entitled "Ineffabilis Deus." The term is often incorrectly applied, even by those whose intelligence should make such an error impossible, to the VIRGIN BIRTH of Christ (which see).
2. Statement of the Dogma:
The central affirmation of this proclamation, which was read in Peter's in the presence of over two hundred bishops, is expressed in the following words: It is proclaimed "by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ and the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul and in our own authority, that the doctrine which holds the blessed Virgin Mary to have been, from the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, in view of the merits of Christ Jesus the Saviour of Mankind, preserved free from all stain of original sin, was revealed by Cod, and is, therefore, to be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful" (see Schaff, A History of the Creeds of Christendom, II, 211, 212).
3. Objections to the Dogma:
(1) Drawn from Specifically Protestant Principles.
Objections to the dogma are mainly two: (a) the claim to authority upon which the proclamation rests. There is every reason to believe that one of the major motives to the entire transaction was the wish, on the part of Pius and his advisers, to make an unmistakable assertion of absolute doctrinal authority by the Roman pontiff. To Protestants of all shades of opinion there would be unbearable offense in the wording of the decree, even if assent could be given to the doctrine itself. The whole vital issue of the Reformation is involved in the use by an ecclesiastic of the words "in our own authority" in addition to the words "by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ and the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul." (b) The tendency to Mariolatry in the entire movement. As we shall see, the ascription of Divine honors to Mary is avoided in the public statement of the dogma and in the defense of it by Roman Catholic writers, but one has but to survey the course of discussion leading up to the publication of 1854, and subsequent to it, to discover a growing tendency to lift Mary out of the realm of human beings and to endow her with Divine attributes and functions. An extended discussion of Mariolatry lies beyond the range of this article (see MARY); it is only necessary to point out the obvious connections (see Roman Catholic Dictionary and church histories, sub loc.).
(2) Drawn from Roman Catholic Principles.
It is far from the truth to suppose that there are no objections to this modern dogma save those which are specifically Protestant. From the viewpoint of the devout Roman Catholic, and for the sake of the prestige of the papacy, this particular dogma seems to have been unfortunately chosen.
(a) It Has No Basis in Scripture.
The only attempt made to provide a Scriptural argument is by using a vague and unsatisfactory parallel between Mary and Eve before the Fall, to be found in the writings of certain church Fathers who did not hold the papal dogma but unconsciously provided a slender and most insecure basis for it (see inacanus). Most Roman Catholic writers are intelligent enough to admit that theory of inspired tradition alone can be appealed to in support of the idea. The ordinary and only tenable argument is that the ecclesiastical promulgation and acceptance of the doctrine prove its apostolic origin (see Catholic Dictionary, sub loc.).
(b) It Weakens the Authority of the Church.
It would almost seem as if the doctrines of ecclesiastical authority and particularly of papal infallibility had, in this unfortunate proclamation, reached a reductio ad obsurdum for the comfort of their foes. Notice with care the historical standing of this dogma: (i) The acknowledged absence of all positive evidence for apostolic origin and primitive authority (see Catholic Dictionary ut supra). (ii) The abundant positive evidence that the principal Fathers of the early church did not believe in the sinlessness of Mary (see list of names and references given by H.C. Sheldon, History of the Christian Church, sub loc.). (iii) The uncertain and equivocal testimony per contra drawn from the early Fathers. They are practically confined to the following: Ephrem Syrus (Carmina, Hymn 27, strophe 8), where he says "Truly it is Thou and Thy mother only who are fair altogether. For in Thee there is no stain and in Thy mother no spot"; Augustine (De Natura et Gratia, cap. 26), "Two were made simple, innocent, perfectly like each other, Mary and Eve," etc. To these may be added the words of Irenaeus: "The knot of Eve's disobedience was untied by Mary's obedience" (Catholic Dictionary, 422). In regard to these three passages it may reasonably be contended that even if these statements necessarily implied the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which they certainly do not, they would still have to be estimated against the many weighty statements which may be brought forward on the other side. (iv) The prolonged controversy over the doctrine. From the earliest time when the idea of Mary's miraculous freedom from sin appears, up to the Old Catholic agreement of 1874, devout and faithful Roman Catholics have protested against the addition of this unscriptural dogma to the faith of the church. Bonaventura (Locus Theol., VII, 1) says: "All the saints who have made mention of this matter, with one mouth have asserted that the blessed Virgin was conceived in original sin." With the statement of the Old Catholic agreement we may safely sum up the ecclesiastical situation, even from the viewpoint of those who hold to the doctrinal validity of tradition. Art. X reads: "We reject the New Roman doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as being contrary to the tradition of the first 13 centuries, according to which Christ alone is conceived without sin."
(3) Drawn from General Considerations of Christian Doctrine.
The most serious objections to this offensive and gratuitous dogma are not at all specifically Protestant but, rather, broadly Christian. It is necessary at this point to assure ourselves that we understand (as many Protestants evidently do not) just what is meant by the doctrine as a doctrine. According to the accepted Roman Catholic explanation, Mary, at the supposed stage of her conception when the soul was actually infused into the body waiting for it, received the special grace of God whereby she was delivered from all stain of original sin. The point which Protestants need especially to note is that, according to Roman Catholic ideas, this gracious act of God was performed on the basis of the foreseen merits of Christ's sacrifice. This tones down the offensiveness of the doctrine in that it does not per se imply the equality of Mary with Christ, but rather the contrary, in so far as the grace bestowed upon her was gained by anticipation from Him. Roman Catholic writers naturally emphasize this fact in recommending the doctrine to Protestant minds. None the less the offense remains. The "Immaculate Conception" necessarily implies the "immaculate life," and on the same basis of supernatural grace, else would the special miracle have occurred in vain and the fall of Adam been repeated in Mary. Hence, a full account of the doctrine would be that Mary was completely and miraculously redeemed at her conception and completely and miraculously kept from sin throughout her whole life. Apart from all questions as to the rightful place of Mary in Christian thought, this idea involves utter doctrinal confusion. It means that Mary never became a true human being and never lived a true human life. Redemption by a miraculous process begun at conception and carried on throughout the life is an utter impossibility, for the Holy Spirit does not work impersonally, and miraculous holiness which is holiness of a purely Divine character, without a free, cooperating human factor, is no human holiness at all. This dogma reads Mary out of the human family, reduces her to an image and makes her life a phantasm. Moreover, the parallels which are adduced in its support are not true parallels at all.
Our Lord's sinlessness was not mechanically guaranteed by His miraculous conception (see VIRGIN BIRTH) but was His own achievement through the Holy Spirit granted to Him and personally appropriated. The Hallowing of Children at the Font (see Catholic Dictionary, 470a), the sanctifying of those "separated from the womb" (Gal 1:15) to God's service, does not imply the miraculous guarantee of artificial sinlessness, but such a gracious influence as enables the subject freely cooperating to obtain victory over sin as a controlling principle. Actual sin and need of forgiveness is not pretermitted by such special grace.
We can only say, in conclusion, that every reason, which usually operates in a Christian mind to insure rejection of a false teaching, ought to preclude the possibility of accepting this peculiar dogma which is Scripturally baseless, historically unjustified and doctrinally unsound.
The best simple and reasonably fair-minded discussion of this dogma from the Roman Catholic viewpoint is to be found in the Catholic Dictionary already mentioned, where wide references will be found. For the Protestant view consult any authoritative church history, especially that of Professor H.C. Sheldon where copious references to Patristic literature will be found.
Louis Matthews Sweet