By Keith Thompson
The Immaculate Conception of Mary Defined
The doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary states that at the first instance of Mary’s conception she was preserved from original sin, thereby not contracting it. Therefore, her conception was immaculate or pure. This teaching was officially given dogmatic status and defined by Romanism in 1854 when Pope Pius IX declared the following in the bull Ineffabilis Deus:
"We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful” (Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus).
Further explanation of this doctrine can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church promulgated by Pope John Paul II. It states:
“To become the mother of the Savior, Mary ‘was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role.’ The angel Gabriel at the moment of the annunciation salutes her as ‘full of grace’. . . . Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, ‘full of grace’ through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. . . . The ‘splendour of an entirely unique holiness’ by which Mary is ‘enriched from the first instant of her conception’ comes wholly from Christ: she is redeemed, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed., pp. 137-138 par. 490-492).
Thus, in Roman theology Mary did not contract a sin nature like all other humans do at conception. She was therefore sinless due to her alleged preservation from original sin. The sensible and evidenced position to take on this subject is that no one in the early church period believed in the Immaculate Conception of Mary.
The apostolic fathers were students of the apostles. Such men include Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, Clement of Rome and Papias. An early Christian instruction manual on known as the Didache is also relevant since it was composed by students of the apostles. Not only do these extra-biblical writings have nothing in support of Mary’s alleged Immaculate Conception or any other distinctive Roman Marian doctrines, but their writings hardly even mention Mary at all. Like the book of Acts, they are not really concerned with Mary. In these writings there are only seven references to Mary. They are found in Ignatius’ letters and Papias’ fragments. Polycarp, Clement and the Didache have nothing whatsoever to say about her. And the majority of the seven references to her in Ignatius and Papias are either brief passing remarks or of a Christ-centered context or focus.
Roman Catholic patristic scholar Luigi Gambero agrees when he remarks, “the name of Mary rarely appears in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers” (Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought, [Ignatius Press, 1999], p. 27). However, he goes on to argue that the reason why this is so is because the surrounding religions almost all had a feminine goddess or deity and these early Christians did not want to risk confusing those they witnessed to who came from such pagan backgrounds. For, exalting Mary may have provoked the pagans to exalt her as a goddess (p. 28). This view leaves room for the possibility that the apostolic fathers may have taught the Roman Marian doctrines. Though, in Gambero’s view, they did not do so openly.
What evidence does Gambero offer in support of the idea that the apostolic fathers consciously avoided mentioning Mary for the reason he proposes? None. Moreover, the argument does not hold up since not only do the apostolic fathers not mention Mary or Rome’s doctrines about her when writing to churches comprised of many converts who were conditioned pagans, but they fail to mention her or exalt her in a Romish way even when writing letters to established believers (e.g. Ignatius’s letter to Polycarp). What is more, the students of the apostles held to early Christian practices and beliefs which could be misunderstood by pagan converts with erroneous similar prior ideas. Yet, this fact did not stop the apostolic fathers from openly teaching on such subjects. One could note the following teachings pagans embraced: propitious sacrifice to pagan gods (D. A. Carson, The God Who Is There, The: Finding Your Place in God's Story, [Baker Books, 2010], p. 178) which could be seen as similar to the atonement, water purification in the mystery cults (Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of early Christianity, [Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2003], p. 298) which could be seen as similar to the Christian rite of baptism, and a pagan meal to celebrate the birth of someone or where the god or goddess presides over it (Panayotis Coutsoumpos, Paul And the Lord's Supper: A Socio-historical Investigation, [Peter Lang, 2005], p. 36) which could be seen as similar to the Christian Eucharist etc.
Gambero has another argument as well. He asserts Ignatius made some comments un-related to Mary about mysterious silence being a form of exaltation or honour in his writings. Therefore, according to this reasoning, the apostolic fathers may have accomplished more for Mary’s “maternal presence in the faith and life of the first Christians” by being silent about her in a mysterious sense, than they would have by actually writing about her.
However, there are three problems with this argument:
1) The few quotes provided do not actually demonstrate Ignatius believed mysterious silence was a form of exaltation or honour in regards to saints or God. The closest would be his comment that a man accomplishes more by silence than by speaking in vain (Epistle to the Philadelphians 1, 1). However, Ignatius refers to a meek quiet bishop, not a method of exaltation in regards to saints or God. Thus Gambero is engaging in eisegesis.
2) The few small Ignatian quotes Gambero puts forth mostly concern Christ himself (e.g. one on Christ coming forth from silence, one on Christ’s silent deeds being worthy of the Father, and one on hearing Jesus’ silence). If Gambero was correct we would therefore expect Ignatius to not mention Jesus Christ himself too much since not doing so would be a form of honour. However, he mentions Christ a lot. This means Ignatius failed to give Christ honour with mysterious silence even though his statements on silence mostly concern Christ. This leads one to the conclusion that Gambero is reading ideas and forms of honour into Ignatius’s writings which he himself didn’t teach or practice.
3) Such comments concerning silence from Ignatius do not actually prove the other apostolic fathers and he believed the modern Roman Marian teachings. Even if one granted Gambero’s argument it would only follow that Ignatius failed to mention her or teachings about her. But it wouldn’t establish which teachings about her he failed to mention. Otherwise put, one would not be justified in asserting Ignatius held to the specific novel Romish Marian doctrines even if Gambero’s second argument was granted.
The fact is the students of the apostles did not write about the Marian dogmas Catholics claim one must believe under pain of anathema. Neither did they write about the other distinctive Marian doctrines Catholics through out recent history have closely held to and eagerly written about. This demonstrates how utterly divorced from apostolic Christianity modern papalism is. Gambero’s response to this fact is specious and irresponsible.
The Early Church Fathers after the Apostolic Fathers
There were three early views concerning Mary’s condition in the patristic period after the apostolic fathers. 1) Mary sinned at times. This view forfeits an immaculate conception; 2) Mary was purified from sin around the time of the birth of Christ which is not an immaculate conception. A slight variation of this view is that she was partially sanctified in the womb and then completely sanctified at the time of the birth of Christ; and 3) Mary was fully sanctified sometime while in her mother’s womb, though not at the first instance of conception. This is not an immaculate conception. These early church views are all contrary to the specific Roman claim which is that Mary was preserved from any stain of original sin at the first instance of conception - never contracting it in the first place.
View 1) is in line with the Protestant position. Tertullian stated the following in his work Treatise On the Flesh of Christ: “His mother likewise is not shown to have adhered to him, though Martha and other Marys are often mentioned as being in his company. At this juncture their unbelief at last comes into the open” (Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ, Ch. 7 italics mine). Unbelief and doubt are sins (2 Chronicles 30:7; Psalms 119:158; Jeremiah 3:12; Matthew 8:26; Matthew 14:31; Romans 14:23; James 1:6). Tertullian also understood Matthew 12:46-40 as teaching Jesus was very angry at Mary for standing outside in unbelief while others listened closely to him:
“He was justly indignant, that persons so very near to Him stood without, while strangers were within hanging on His words, especially as they wanted to call Him away from the solemn work He had in hand. He did not so much deny as disavow them. And therefore, when to the previous question, Who is my mother, and who are my brethren? He added the answer None but they who hear my words and do them, He transferred the names of blood-relationship to others, whom He judged to be more closely related to Him by reason of their faith” (Tertullian, Against Marcion, Book 4, Ch. 19).
Second century Irenaeus remarked that Jesus rebuked Mary for her untimely haste:
“For all these things were foreknown by the Father; but the Son works them out at the proper time in perfect order and sequence. This was the reason why, when Mary was urging [Him] on to [perform] the wonderful miracle of the wine, and was desirous before the time to partake of the cup of emblematic significance, the Lord, checking her untimely haste, said, Woman, what have I to do with you? My hour is not yet come—waiting for that hour which was foreknown by the Father” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3. 16. 7).
Basil commented on the sword of Luke 2:35-36 stating, “Even you yourself [Mary], who hast been taught from on high the things concerning the Lord, shall be reached by some doubt. This is the sword” (Basil of Caesarea, Letter, 260, 9 italics mine). John Chrysostom argued Mary, in an ungodly way, sought glory from Jesus’ miracles:
“perhaps too she had some human feelings, like His brethren, when they said, Show yourself to the world, desiring to gain credit from His miracles. Therefore He answered somewhat vehemently, saying, Woman, what have I to do with you? My hour is not yet come” (John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John, homily 21).
Commenting on Chrysostom’s Mariology is Catholic scholar Richard P. McBrien who observed that he
“acknowledged the negative flavour of Mark’s estimation of Mary, and in his Homilies on St. John’s Gospel, declared that ‘she did not cease to think little of [Jesus] . . . but herself she thought everywhere worthy of the first place, because she was his mother.’ At Cana, Mary told Jesus there was no more wine only because ‘she wanted to confer a favour on the others, and render herself more illustrious through her Son.’ Even at the annunciation she was at fault. The angel had to calm her down lest she kill herself in despair over the news that she was to have a son” (Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism: Completely Revised and Updated, [HarperCollins, 1994], p. 1084).
There is broad academic support for the fact that many early church writers taught Mary had sinned. World-renowned historian and scholar of early Christian doctrine J. N. D. Kelly notes:
“In contrast to the later belief in her moral and spiritual perfection, none of these theologians had the least scruple about attributing faults to her. Irenaeus and Tertullian recalled occasions on which, as they read the gospel stories, she had earned her Son’s rebuke, and Origen insisted that, like all human beings, she needed redemption from her sins; in particular, he interpreted Simeon’s prophecy (Luke 2, 35) that a sword would pierce her soul as confirming that she had been invaded with doubts when she saw her Son crucified” (J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, [HarperOne, 1978], p. 493).
Concerning Origen’s comments Kelly cites his work Homilies on Luke, 17. Romanist scholar Ludwig Ott gave an important admission stating, “individual Greek Fathers (Origen, St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, St. Cyril of Alexandria) taught that Mary suffered from venial personal faults, such as ambition and vanity, doubt about the message of the Angel, and lack of faith under the Cross” (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, [Tan Books and Publishers, 1960], p. 203).
Moreover, church historian Philip Schaff relayed that Irenaeus “was still widely removed from the notion of the sinlessness of Mary, and expressly declares the answer of Christ in John ii. 4, to be a reproof of her premature haste” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 3, [Hendrickson, 2011], p. 415). He also remarked, “In the same way Tertullian, Origen, Basil the Great, and even Chrysostom, with all their high esteem of the mother of our Lord, ascribe to her on one or two occasions (John ii. 3; Matt. Xiii. 47) maternal vanity, also doubt and anxiety, and make this the sword (Luke ii. 35) which, under the cross, passed through her soul” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 3, [Hendrickson, 2011], pp. 415-416).
Roman Catholic patristic scholar Luigi Gambero concedes that John Chrysostom “does not hesitate to attribute defects and imperfections to Mary . . . he interprets certain Gospel passages in such a way as to attribute defects to the virgin Mary such as unbelief or vanity” (Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought, [Ignatius Press, 1999], p. 172). These are sins and all sin is incompatible with the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Gambero also admits Basil of Caesarea “considers himself justified in affirming that the Virgin’s holiness was not totally without shadow. He refers to the doubt that she suffered at the moment of her Son’s Passion, which Simeon had foretold, using the metaphor of the sword” (Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought, [Ignatius Press, 1999], p. 148).
It is germane to highlight here Philip Schaff’s remark that “Jerome taught the universal sinfulness without any exception, Adv. Pelag. ii, 4” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 3, [Hendrickson, 2011], p. 418 n. 2).
Cyril of Alexandria (A. D. 376 – 444) also taught that Mary sinned in severe ways thereby holding to a position in opposition to an immaculate conception:
“For, doubtless, some such train of thought as this passed through her mind: ‘I conceived Him That is mocked upon the Cross. He said, indeed, that He was the true Son of Almighty God, but it may be that He was deceived; He may have erred when He said: I am the Life. How did His crucifixion come to pass? and how was He entangled in the snares of His murderers? How was it that He did not prevail over the conspiracy of His persecutors against Him? And why does He not come down from the Cross, though He bade Lazarus return to life, and struck all Judaea with amazement by His miracles?" The woman, as is likely, not exactly understanding the mystery, wandered astray into some such train of thought” (Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John, Book 12).
View 2) was held by such notable figures as Cyril of Jerusalem (A. D. 313 – 386). He stated, “This is the Holy Ghost, who came upon the Holy Virgin Mary; for since He who was conceived was Christ the Only-begotten, the power of the Highest overshadowed her, and the Holy Ghost came upon her, and sanctified her, that she might be able to receive Him” (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, Lecture, 17, 6 italics mine). Only if Mary had sin would she need to be sanctified before the birth of Christ by the Spirit. Having sin is of course incompatible with being preserved from it at conception.
Likewise, Gregory Nazianzen affirmed that shortly prior to the birth of Christ Mary had been “purified by the Spirit in both soul and body” (Gregory Nazianzen, Sermon 38, 13). Commenting on this text Roman scholar Luigi Gambero confirms it establishes Nazianzen believed in “Mary’s purification before the conception of Christ” (Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought, [Ignatius Press, 1999], p. 163). This is not an immaculate conception.
View 3) was embraced by the influential Augustine. Augustine affirmed Mary was sinless but that she was sanctified after conception while in the womb, not at the first instance of conception. Augustine affirmed only Christ was born without the stain of original sin. He quoted Ambrose approvingly against the Pelagians stating, “For the Lord Jesus, alone of all born of woman, is holy in all things. He who did not experience the contagions of earthy corruption in the newness of His immaculate birth, and who expelled it by His heavenly majesty” (Augustine, Against Julian, Book I, 10 italics mine).
Note Augustine and Ambrose agree that Christ is uniquely alone holy on the basis of His pure birth which did not involve the contraction of original sin. This birth is described as a “newness” which it would not be had Mary been blessed with the same kind. It is relevant to note Catholic scholar Boniface Ramsey admits, “We do not yet find the doctrines of Mary’s immaculate conception and her assumption in Ambrose” (Boniface Ramsey, Ambrose, [Routledge, 1997], p. 51).
Anglican Patristic expert J. N. D. Kelly notes that with regard to sinlessness:
“Augustine denied the possibility for all other men, but agreed that Mary was the unique exception; she had been kept sinless, however, not by the effort of her own will, but as a result of grace given her in view of the incarnation. On the other hand, he did not hold (as has sometimes been alleged) that she was born exempt from all taint of original sin (the later doctrine of the immaculate conception)” (J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, [HarperOne, 1978], p. 497).
Kelly goes on to note Augustine believed “Mary had indeed been born subject to original sin like all other human beings; but had been delivered from its effects ‘by the grace of rebirth’” (J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, [HarperOne, 1978], p. 497). On this line Reformed historian Philip Schaff noted that
“In an incidental remark against Pelagius, he agreed with him in excepting Mary, ‘propter honorem Domini,’ from actual (but not from original) sin. . . . He taught the sinless birth and life of Mary, but not her immaculate conception. . . . she . . . was sanctified by a special operation of the Holy Ghost before her birth. . .” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 3, [Hendrickson, 2011], pp. 418, 419).
Roman Catholic scholar Luigi Gambero concedes the evidence points to conclusion of Kelly and Schaff noting,
“Undoubtedly he excludes any personal sin from Mary. Is it possible to hypothesize that Augustine also intended to exclude original sin? . . . To us it seems safer to adopt the contrary position, which is held by many experts and appears more in accord with numerous Augustinian texts” (Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought, [Ignatius Press, 1999], p. 226).
In agreement is Roman Catholic scholar Peter M. Fehlner who admits,
“his [Augustine’s] reply to the specific point does not say that Mary is stainless at conception; rather he leaves the door open to a ‘liberative sanctification’ in the womb. He wrote: ‘We do not deliver Mary to the Devil by the condition of her birth; for this reason, that her very condition finds a solution in the grace of rebirth” (Peter M. Fehlner, The Virgin Mother’s Predestination and Immaculate Conception, ed. Mark I. Miravalle, Mariology: A Guide for Priests, Deacons, Seminarians, and Consecrated Persons, [Mark I. Miravalle, S.T.D., 2007], p. 248 brackets mine).
Affirming the same is Roman Catholic scholar Peter M. Stravinskas who said, “Augustine . . . believed her to fall under original sin’s dominion” (Peter M. Stravinskas, The Catholic Answer Book of Mary, [Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 2000 ], p. 50).
Although one witnesses colourful diversity on this issue in the patristic period, what is not seen is an actual affirmation of Mary’s supposed immaculate conception apart from the heretic Pelagius who denied original sin altogether and used Mary as example of someone who allegedly never inherited a sin nature. However, Augustine refuted that heretic denying his ideas as previously shown.
How Pope Pius IX could, in his bull Ineffabilis Dues, falsely assert that “the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mother of God [was] as the Fathers discerned . . . recorded in the Divine Scriptures” demonstrates his willingness to deceive the Roman people as a whole. No church father even taught the doctrine, let alone exegeted the biblical texts modern Rome does in a pro-immaculate conception sense. If they did not even affirm the doctrine, how could they interpret biblical verses to teach the doctrine? No father interpreted Genesis 3:15 to mean Mary was preserved from original sin at conception. Nor did they teach Luke 1:28 meant Mary was graced at an immaculate conception. Nothing of that nature exists in the large early church record and Catholic scholars admit this (note: fathers affirming Mary’s sinlessness or arguing it from certain texts is not the same as a father affirming the immaculate conception or arguing it from certain texts). Hence, the “infallible shepherd” of the church, Pius IX, lied in his words to the Roman people in the same document where he defined this Marian dogma. Many scholars, including Catholic ones, expose this reality Pius IX and many papists are not willing to admit. That is, not one early church father taught the doctrine.
For example, papist scholar Paul Haffner grants that while some fathers affirmed Mary’s sinlessness, not one embraced the Immaculate Conception:
“Following Augustine in the West, many Fathers and doctors believed in Mary’s perfect holiness and the absence of any personal sin in her because of her dignity as the Mother of the Lord. Nonetheless, they could not understand how the affirmation of an immaculate conception could be squared with the doctrine of the universality of original sin and the need of redemption for all of Adam’s descendants” (Paul Haffner, The Mystery of Mary, [Gracewing Publishing, 2004], p. 81
Even Roman apologist and scholar Robert Fastiggi admits the early apologists in the patristic period did not affirm the Immaculate Conception, but that only later did certain ones start to affirm the sinlessness of Mary:
“Although these early Church Fathers [Irenaeus and Justin Martyr] did not explicitly affirm Mary’s Immaculate Conception, the Eve/Mary parallelism led later Church Fathers to affirm Mary as ‘all-pure’ and sinless” (Robert Fastiggi, The Immaculate Conception: Historical and Ecumenical Perspectives, eds. Robert L. Fastiggi, Judith Marie Gentle, De Maria Numquam Satis: The Significance of the Catholic Doctrines on the Blessed Virgin Mary for All People,[ University Press of America, 2009], p. 2 brackets and italics mine).
Notice, Fastiggi admits the earlier Eve/Mary parallelism of the apologists did not lead to later fathers affirming an immaculate conception, but only her sinlessness. Mary being said to be “all-pure” or sinless does not establish an immaculate conception since those titles do not speak to when Mary was sanctified as such (i.e., at the first instance of conception, in the womb, or at the time of the birth of Christ). One can not just assume that when a patristic writer comments on Mary’s purity that they, like the modern papists, traced it back to the first instance of conception.