The Virgin Enthroned
Maria zur Höhe, Soest, Germany
Maria zur Höhe, Soest, Germany
This past Tuesday (December 8) was the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, a holy day in which Catholics celebrate the conception of Mary without original sin, in the womb of her mother Anne. Over the past week I encountered two arguments against this doctrine.
The Orthodox Church in America recently stated this on on its website:
The Orthodox Church does not accept the teaching that the Mother of God was exempted from the consequences of ancestral sin (death, corruption, sin, etc.) at the moment of her conception by virtue of the future merits of Her Son. Only Christ was born perfectly holy and sinless, as St Ambrose of Milan teaches in Chapter Two of his Commentary on Luke. The Holy Virgin was like everyone else in Her mortality, and in being subject to temptation, although She committed no personal sins. She was not a deified creature removed from the rest of humanity. If this were the case, She would not have been truly human, and the nature that Christ took from Her would not have been truly human either. If Christ does not truly share our human nature, then the possibility of our salvation is in doubt.
Grace, in Catholic theology, is not merely divine favor, but is also a participation in the divine nature. (2 Peter 1:4) To receive sanctifying grace through baptism is to be granted a participation in God's own nature, and in that sense to be deified is to be granted to share by a divine gift in God's very nature. That participation in God's nature is in seed-form in this present life, and is perfected in the life to come, in the Beatific Vision, where we shall be like Him perfectly, because we will see Him just as He is. (1 John 3:2) Glory is the culmination of grace; grace is the seed of glory.
So this first argument against the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception runs like this:
(1) If Mary had been immaculately conceived, then during her life on earth she would have been deified.
(2) If Mary had been deified while on earth, she would not have been truly human, and the nature Christ took from her would not have been truly human.
(3) But Christ was truly human.
(4) Mary was not immaculately conceived.
What is wrong with this argument? The first premise is true, if we understand 'deified' in the Catholic sense I explained above. The third premise is also true. The second premise, however, is not true if we understand 'deified' in the Catholic sense. Deification, whether in this life, or in the life to come, does not detract from our humanity or make us non-human. The baptized infant does not cease to be human at the moment of baptism. Grace builds on nature; grace does not destroy or nullify nature. Even if Mary was given the preternatural gifts enjoyed by Adam and Eve prior to their Fall, this would not have made Mary non-human, because it did not make Adam and Eve non-human. Adam and Eve did not change species when they fell. They lost sanctifying grace and the preternatural gifts, but they remained human by nature. So the argument is not sound, because the second premise is false. In order to make the argument sound, we would have to use a definition of 'deified' that is contrary to Catholic theology. In other words, in order for the argument to be sound, we would have to construct a strawman of the Catholic position. That's the first argument.
I discovered the second argument when I was recently directed to a post titled "The Holy Tradition and the Veneration of Mary and other Saints in the Orthodox Church," written by Very Reverend John Morris, and posted on the "Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America" site. He too offers an argument against the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. He writes:
The Orthodox Church calls Mary "immaculate," and "all pure," as a manifestation of the Orthodox understanding of salvation as deification. Orthodox Christians believe that through the grace of God Mary has been deified or made by grace what God is by nature or, as St. Paul wrote, "And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another …" Vladimir Lossky wrote, " … the very heart of the Church, one of her most secret mysteries, her mystical center, her perfection already realized in a human person fully united to God, finding herself beyond the resurrection and the judgment. This person is Mary, the Mother of God." Thus salvation for Orthodox theology is more than the forgiveness of sins or justification, but is also the transformation of the believer by the grace of God to become a partaker of the Divine Nature. Orthodox Christians see the realization of salvation in the deification of Mary.
However, Orthodox Christians do not accept the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. On the contrary, Orthodox believe that the Blessed Virgin was born in ancestral sin just like any other person. This is important because if Mary had not been born in ancestral sin, God could not have assumed sinful human nature from her. As St. Gregory Nazianzen wrote, "For that which He has not assumed He has not healed." If God had not assumed sinful human nature from the Blessed Virgin, He could not have saved sinful human nature through the Incarnation of Christ. Indeed, a prayer addressed to the Virgin Mary from the service of Compline contains the beautiful words, “thy glorious birth-giving has united God the Word to man and joined the fallen nature of our race to heavenly things."
A Catholic can fully agree with everything in the first paragraph, but Rev. Morris' argument against the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is found in the second quoted paragraph. The argument goes like this.
(1) If Mary had not been born in ancestral sin, God could not have assumed sinful human nature from her.
(2) If God had not assumed sinful human nature from the Blessed Virgin, He could not have saved sinful human nature through the Incarnation of Christ.
(3) But God saved sinful human nature through the Incarnation of Christ.
(4) Mary must have been born in ancestral sin.
It is one thing to assume human nature from sinful humans. It is quite another to assume a sinful nature. There are not two human natures, because there are not two species within a genus 'human'; 'human' is a species, not a genus. There is human nature with sanctifying grace, and human nature without sanctifying grace. Human nature without sanctifying grace is human nature in a state of original sin. Human nature with sanctifying grace is human nature participating in the divine nature.
So the second premise of Rev. Morris' argument amounts to this: Unless Christ received a human nature lacking sanctifying grace, He could not redeem those lacking sanctifying grace. That is essentially saying that unless Christ had original sin, He could not save those in sin. But that is false. If Christ Himself had original sin, then as the Church Fathers teach, Christ too would have needed a Savior. So Christ did not need to lack sanctifying grace in order to redeem those lacking sanctifying grace. On the contrary, He needed to be free from original sin in order to redeem those under sin. So the second premise of this argument is false. Christ needed to receive our human nature in order to redeem us, but He did not need to receive sinful human nature (i.e. human nature in a state of sin) in order to redeem man from sin. And because the second premise is false, therefore the argument is unsound.
Moreover, because Christ did not need to receive sinful-human-nature (i..e human nature in a state of sin), He did not need to receive human nature from someone lacking sanctifying grace in order to redeem those lacking sanctifying grace. Otherwise, Mary would have had to be in a state of mortal sin when Christ was conceived. But no one in the history of the Church has ever believed such a thing, nor do the Orthodox believe such a thing.
So both of these Orthodox arguments against the Catholic doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception are unsound.
Immaculate Theotokos, bring all your children to unity in the truth. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.