Marian Doctrine in General Flows from Christian Reflection upon the Incarnation (Enfleshment) of God the Son in Jesus Christ Through Mary’s Virgin Birth
All of the Catholic Church’s beliefs concerning Mary, the mother of Jesus, flow from the ancient and continuing meditation of Christians upon the central mystery of Christianity: the Incarnation (enfleshment) of God in the person of Jesus Christ, who is God the Son made Man through the instrument of the Virgin Mary, fully Divine (His heritage from His fully Divine Father) and also fully human (His heritage from His fully human mother), enabled by His dual nature to as the New Adam make atonement for the sin of Adam and the sins of all humanity descended from fallen Adam, in His human yet Divine person offering perfect human obedience to God and repairing the damaged relationship between God and humanity, becoming the bridge, the “one mediator between God and men” (1 Timothy 2:5) for the salvation of all mankind.
1 Timothy 2:1-8 – Christ Is the “One Mediator” Who Mediates Through the Prayers of His Body the Church (Including Mary)
It should be noted at the outset that the Greek word translated “one” in this above passage is not monos, “sole” or “exclusively one,” but eis, “primary” or “first one.” Jesus is not the “sole, exclusive mediator” (which would contradict the Bible’s testimony about the mediation of angels1 and of human prayer) but rather the “primary mediator,” whose mediation between God and men allows other mediators to share in His “one mediation” which is effective for all because of His Incarnation. And this only makes sense, since Christ is the “one mediator” but we are His Body, we partake of His Divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) and share His life (Galatians 2:20). This is why we can intercede in prayer for others as He intercedes for us before the Father, and our prayer makes a difference, such that as His Body we are involved in the mediation of God’s Grace in the world through our prayers (and through our love).
In fact the immediate context of 1 Timothy 2:5 is the prayer of the Church, its necessity and its effectiveness. This verse which identifies Jesus as the “one mediator” falls right in the middle of 1 Timothy 2:1-8, which is all about the mediation of the Church through prayer. Paul begins this passage “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone,” and ends “I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer.” Verse 2 indicates that Paul has urged such prayer for political leaders specifically “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (v. 2-4). Paul here links the prayers of the Christian Church he has urged to the results of a peaceful political situation which allows for the easier spread of the Gospel – a case of Christian prayer mediating between God and men for Grace which effectively brings positive results in the political sphere. So Paul’s identification of Christ Jesus as the “one mediator” in the very next verse, far from excluding the mediation of the human Church (of which Mary is a member), in context specifically includes the prayer of the human Church, Christ’s Body. If it did not, all of the prayers of Christians would be a farce, a waste of time. But in fact it is precisely because we Christians are the Body of Christ the one, primary mediator, sharing in His mediation that “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16 KJV) – by our prayers for them we mediate the grace of God to others. All of the members of Christ’s Body the Church are mediators of Grace by the prayers and love we give, and Mary’s unique motherly mediation of all graces as “Mediatrix” (female mediator) is a special function of the one mediation of Christ Jesus which is shared by His entire Body the Church, including its first member, Mary.
Mariology Is Simply an Appendix to Christology Which Supports the Essential Christian Doctrines about Christ
Thus it is said that Mariology (the study of Mary) is simply an appendix to Christology (the study of Christ). The Catholic Church’s ancient and ongoing prayerful meditation upon the Incarnation of God in Christ has resulted in several secondary but logically necessary conclusions concerning the human element of the Incarnation, which comes from Mary, Christ’s human mother. The deep love of Christians for Christ Jesus their Savior since ancient times has likewise drawn them into gradually deeper relationship with His beloved family (His Divine Father, His human mother, and His human brothers and sisters adopted by God the Father through His work), manifested by various loving devotions involving both the Divine and the merely human (but glorified in Heaven!) members of God’s adopted Family the Church.
How and Why the Protestant Rejection of Catholic Mariology Which Supports Christology Has Contributed to Protestant “Doctrinal Liberalism” (Which Doubts or Rejects the Fundamentals about Christ) in the Oldest and Largest Protestant “Mainline” Churches, and Has Contributed to a Generally Shallow Protestant Grasp of the Incarnation Compared to That of the Undivided Early Church
In an opposite motion of development, the 16th-century Protestant rejection of the Marian conclusions of Catholic reflection upon the Incarnation, and corresponding rejection of all forms of Marian devotion which (especially the Rosary) focus one’s attention upon the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, has gradually resulted in an increasingly thin Protestant grasp of the true Incarnation of God in Christ, fully God and fully man, such that the numerical bulk of Protestant Christians (in the so-called “mainline denominations” with their large “doctrinally liberal” streams) today question, doubt, or outright deny the true Incarnation of God in Christ. While “liberal” Protestant Christians have frequently lost their grip on the central (and closely related) Christian teachings of the Trinity and of Jesus Christ’s divinity, even conservative/Evangelical Protestant Christians generally have a much less substantial and much more superficial understanding of these central Christian doctrines than did the Undivided Early Church – in part due to their sharing with liberal Christians the rejection of Catholic Mariology (which developed in the Undivided Early Church).
Before I continue, I wish to remind readers of this second volume of So That The World May Believe that in the Introduction to this 3-Volume work (and in various places throughout) I have expressed my deep love and appreciation for my Protestant brothers and sisters in Christ. I have expressed how there are certain characteristics of the Undivided Early Church (especially love for Bible reading) which the “doctrinally conservative” and Evangelical branches of Protestant Christianity have generally preserved better than the Catholic Communion of Orthodox Christian Sister Churches (collectively known as the Catholic Church), meaning that they have much to offer to enrich both Catholic and Orthodox Christians as today’s divided Christians dialogue together and share our particular strengths with each other as we together seek the Christian Unity Jesus prayed for on our behalf. But in the course of this dialogue, of course we must also (with brotherly love) discuss our own and each other’s weaknesses. I have freely admitted Catholicism generally has more of a problem with “nominalism” than Protestantism has, though it has much less of a problem with “doctrinal liberalism.” But in my personal Protestant experience, I have found that there is a generally weak or shallow Protestant grasp on the central Christian beliefs (compared with that of the Undivided Early Church), which has in many Protestant churches eventually resulted in rejection of these most basic of Christian fundamentals. The following shares my insights from my long personal experience as a Protestant Christian who spent much time in both the “mainline” and the “Evangelical” Protestant churches. As part of our loving and affectionate Christian dialogue, I must share my insights into a significant Protestant weakness which I have discovered is directly related to the Protestant rejection of Catholic Mariology.
While “doctrinally liberal” Protestant Christians tend towards denying the Divinity of Jesus, conservative/ Evangelical/fundamentalist Protestant Christians tend (in overreaction) to overemphasize the Divinity of Jesus to the minimization (usually without actual denial) of the true Incarnation, the true human enfleshment of God the Son in the person of Jesus Christ, usually missing all this entails for us who are of the same nature and substance2 as Christ the God-Man in His humanity. Whether Protestant Christians deny the Incarnation (and the Divinity of Christ) as liberal Protestants tend to do or accept it more or less superficially (focusing on Christ’s Divinity to the diminishment of His true humanity) as conservative Protestants tend to do, in either case the Protestant refusal to prayerfully reflect upon Mary whom God the Father through His Holy Spirit’s overshadowing used to make His Eternal Son Incarnate,3 and the Protestant refusal to grant her any role in His Church Family established through this Incarnation of God accomplished through her as willing human instrument, has resulted in a very limited Protestant grasp of the Incarnation, and of the Church as the Body of Christ (a mysterious extension of the Incarnation), such that both remain in danger of being lost where Protestants have not lost them already (note that every liberal Protestant denomination which currently denies or doubts the Incarnation and Divinity of Christ used to be a conservative Protestant denomination which affirmed them). A deficient Mariology leads to a deficient Christology, for Mariology is a supporting “appendix” to Christology. Denying the conclusions of Mariology leads to denying the revealed truths about Jesus Christ which the conclusions of Mariology are based on – and there are many millions of Protestant Christians whose faith lives, doubting or denying that Jesus is God and so on, testifies to this.
This is because it is impossible to reflect deeply upon the Incarnation (enfleshment) of God in the person of Jesus Christ without learning much about Christ’s mother who is so intimately involved in it. And so the Protestant refusal to think about Mary, out of a poorly directed desire to give more honor to her son, has led frequently to a very superficial Protestant understanding of the true Incarnation of God in Christ. Thus the original Protestant desire to give more honor to Jesus by giving none to His mother often ultimately results in much less honor being given to Mary’s son Jesus, as mainline Protestants start to doubt or deny that they should worship the unarguably human, historical Jesus as Divine at all.
You see, to underestimate the role of Mary in God becoming man is to underestimate the significance of God becoming man – and in fact I know many Protestant Christians who, whether they believe in the Incarnation or not, do not think it is very important, perhaps do not even believe in the Atonement or the literal Resurrection. They have a superficial regard for the Incarnation which ultimately comes from the Protestant prejudice against Jesus’ human mother without whom He would not be Incarnate!
But by saying ‘yes’ to God’s Will for her (Luke 1:38) Mary gave flesh to the Word-made-flesh,4 she put the carne (flesh) into the Incarnation (enfleshment) of God in the person of Jesus Christ, enabling Him, being now truly human like her, to die on the Cross to atone for human sins and be bodily resurrected for human salvation. Mary literally gives flesh to the Mystery of the Incarnation. Without Mary, without a real, concrete historical human being giving her literal human flesh to God the Word, literally giving birth, literally nursing the God-Man at the breast, actually raising and even potty-training God the Son Made Man, the Incarnation loses its concreteness and it becomes easy for Protestant Christians to “spiritualize” the traditional Christian belief in the Incarnation/Divinity of Christ and therefore also to “spiritualize” the bodily Resurrection of Jesus, (denying the literal Incarnation and Resurrection) which is precisely what has happened in so many Protestant churches which have gone doctrinally liberal.
Protestant Fundamentalism (and its later, milder cousin, Evangelicalism) was historically a 20th Century reactionary movement against the liberalization of the Mainline Protestant denominations descended from the 16th Century Protestant Reformation, but the original booklet series, The Fundamentals (from whence the movement got its name), and many contemporary Fundamentalist or Evangelical creedal “statements of faith” or other lists of what they consider to be “the fundamentals” of Christian faith, do not even mention by name the Incarnation (or even the Trinity), but simplistically reduce these concepts (for which Early Christians died!) to a blunt affirmation of “the Divinity of Christ.” Because they as Protestants also (like liberal Protestants) refuse to look more than superficially at Mary who gave flesh to God the Word, they articulate the center of their Christian faith simplistically as “the Divinity of Christ” instead of “the Incarnation of God the Son, Second Person of the Holy Trinity, in Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, who was and who remains fully Divine and fully human” – which is the clearly and precisely articulated faith of the Early Christian Church in the Divinity of Jesus.
Although most Fundamentalist and Evangelical Protestant Christians would not deny the Incarnation or the Trinity or the full humanity as well as divinity of Jesus, these things do not come quickly to their minds as “fundamentals” (I speak as a former long-time Evangelical) because they have only a superficial grasp of these truths,5 even though the Early Church recognized each of these points as vitally necessary to human salvation and early Christians would suffer martyrdom for these truths.6 And their grasp is superficial because any attempt to minimize or downplay Mary’s role in the earthly life of Jesus and her ongoing relationship with Jesus as His mother downplays the central Christian truth of the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, downplays the truth of Jesus’ full humanity as well as divinity.
Did not our mothers not only give us life, sharing their human nature with us as “flesh of their flesh,” but also nurse, raise and nurture us to adulthood? Are they not still intimately bound to us and we to them in a never-ending mother-child relationship? Is not a repudiation of our mother (whatever our age) a horribly inhuman thing to do, as well as a sin (against the Commandment to “honor your Father and Mother”)? Thus is not the fully human Jesus so eternally bound to Mary? Did not Jesus in His true humanity perfectly keep the Commandment to honor His mother during His (and her) earthly life, and would not Jesus in His ascended and glorified humanity in Heaven continue to keep the Commandment regarding His also glorified human mother? And are not we, as Jesus’ very Body (and called to imitate Him), also bound to honor His mother as our own, fulfilling the prophecy which the Holy Spirit spoke through Mary that “all generations would call her blessed” (Luke 1:48)? The Protestant refusal to fulfill this Biblical prophecy dehumanizes both Mary and Jesus.
An Evangelical Protestant once told a Catholic friend of mine that Mary was only an “incubator” for Jesus. I would suggest that she say to the Evangelical Christian, “tell your Protestant mother that she was ‘only an incubator’ for you, that her bearing you in her womb for nine months, breast-feeding you, and protecting and raising you to adulthood leaves you with no special bond or affection for her. Do you think that might hurt her feelings?” It assuredly hurts Mary’s. It is inhuman to say such a thing. And this is precisely the typical conservative Protestant error – to accept Jesus as Divine but not really as fully human, with all that entails, such that an Evangelical Protestant could so depersonalize Mary as only an “incubator” for the Divine Jesus coming to visit us. Meanwhile the typical liberal Protestant error is to accept the humanity of Jesus but not the Divinity, or to question or doubt the Divinity of Jesus.
Both errors compromise the true Incarnation of God the Son in the person of Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man. Both extremes could be avoided by meditatively praying the Rosary, the mostly Scriptural set of prayers and meditations which focuses attention on the true Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ (which enabled the crucifixion and Resurrection), and its consequences for Mary (and for us) in heavenly glory.
The Rosary, by far the most popular of all Catholic “Marian devotions,” is an extended Christian meditation upon the Incarnation (enfleshment) of God the Son in Jesus Christ through Mary’s Virgin Birth. Starting with the Apostle’s Creed, the most ancient Christian “statement of faith” detailing the fundamentals of Christian belief, it then consists of rhythmic use of formula prayers taken from the Bible while meditating upon a series of 20 “Mysteries” of the Incarnation which follow the joyful birth, luminous life, sorrowful death, and glorious resurrection of Jesus the God-man, of God the Eternal Son Incarnate or enfleshed (the last 2 of the 20 dealing with the glorious consequences of Jesus’ Incarnation for Mary the first Christian who was God’s human instrument in bringing it about, consequences which will be shared in a different fashion by all members of the Body of Christ the Church).
Mary was present for most of these 20 mysteries of Christ and “pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19), and so Christians, inspired by her model of Christian discipleship, likewise “ponder in their hearts” what God has done in Christ Jesus by meditatively praying the Rosary. The three rhythmic formula prayers are the Lord’s Prayer (the Our Father), the “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit” prayer, and the “Hail Mary” prayer (which simply quotes from Luke 1:28,42,43 and adds a request for Mary’s prayer intercession within the Body of Christ the Church).7 The 20 Mysteries of the Incarnation which Catholic Christians meditate upon in the Rosary prayer are divided into 4 categories as follows: The Joyful Mysteries: The Annunciation of Gabriel to Mary (of the Conception of Jesus “Son of the Most High” in her womb); The Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth (during which John the Baptist in the womb of Elizabeth leaps in the presence of Jesus in the womb of Mary); The Birth of Jesus (the Nativity); The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (during which Simeon prophesies over Jesus and Mary); Finding Jesus in the Temple (at age 12); The Luminous Mysteries: The Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan (at which the Father speaks and the Holy Spirit descends); The Wedding at Cana (the Manifestation of Christ in His first miracle); The Proclamation of the Kingdom of God by Jesus; The Transfiguration of Jesus (where Moses and Elijah appear and Jesus’ glory is manifested); The Last Supper (Jesus Institutes the Holy Eucharist or Holy Communion); The Sorrowful Mysteries: The Agony of Jesus in the Garden (of Gethsemane); Jesus is Scourged at the Pillar; Jesus is Crowned With Thorns; Jesus Carries His Cross; The Crucifixion of Jesus; The Glorious Mysteries: The Resurrection of Jesus; The Ascension into Heaven of Jesus; The Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (for which Mary the first Christian disciple prayed along with the other disciples – Acts 1:14); The Assumption of Mary into Heaven (as a logical consequence of the Incarnation, see below); The Crowning of Mary as Queen of Heaven (Queen of the Heavenly Kingdom of the “New Israel” of Jesus, her son, the King – as all the Queens of Israel in the Old Testament were the mothers (not the wives) of the reigning King – see Volume II Chapter 5).
Devout Catholic Christians have never come remotely close to losing their grip on the central Christian truths of the Trinity and the Incarnation (Divinity of Christ) as so many whole Protestant congregations and even denominations full of devout and active, church-going mainline Protestant Christians have, and they generally have a much stronger grip on the full humanity as well as the full Divinity of Jesus than conservative and Evangelical Protestant Christians have, in good part because they at least sometimes participate in the non-obligatory but very popular “Marian devotion” of praying the Rosary! Devout Catholic Christians are solidified in their faith in the fundamentals of traditional, orthodox Christianity by regularly prayerfully meditating upon all these 18 Biblical Mysteries of the true Incarnation of God the Eternal Son in Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, through the instrumentality of Mary’s Virgin Birth, and upon these two glorious (and logical – see below) consequences for Mary of the Incarnation which God brought about through her, of being assumed body and soul into Heaven and crowned there. These last two mysteries which are not directly related in the Bible are simply cases of Mary the first believer in Jesus (Luke 1:38) going before us to every place all Christians go, since all Christians will also be glorified body and soul in Heaven at the Final Resurrection, and all Christians will also receive a crown there (2 Timothy 4:8, 1 Corinthians 9:25, 1 Peter 5:4, James 1:12; see also Revelation 2:10, 3:11, 4:4,10 – and 12:1-5 relating to Mary’s crown – see Volume II Chapter 5).
Certainly history demonstrates that those Christians (Eastern and Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, whose history, unlike Protestant denominations, goes all the way back to ancient times) who believe they are adopted into God’s family through Jesus such that His mother is their mother, and so love and honor Mary as their mother in God’s family, unfailingly worship Jesus as fully God, given full humanity from Mary, and consider Holy Communion with the Divine Jesus in the bread and wine as He commanded to be the central and highest act of Christian worship. It is only Protestants who fail to recognize Mary as their mother who are very prone to liberal doubting or denying that Jesus is God and often cease to worship Jesus as God at all.8 The truth about the mother protects the truth about the son. The Catholic Church’s Marian beliefs actually defend the Divinity of Jesus and protect Catholics from the modern liberalism which has claimed the bulk of Protestants, as they protected the Early Church against the early heretics who also denied Jesus’ Divinity and various other aspects of the true Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ.
Thus authentic, Church-approved Catholic Marian devotion is based on a very clear doctrinal understanding of just who God is (the Holy Trinity) and what God is (Divine), just who Jesus is (Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Incarnate) and what Jesus is (Divine and human), and just who Mary is (human mother of Jesus) and what Mary is (human), and their relationships with each other (e.g. Jesus is Son of God the Father and son of Mary). All the Marian doctrines and general Marian practices appear very early in church history and are motivated by Christian reflection upon both the Christian belief in the Incarnation of God the Son in Jesus Christ through Mary’s Virgin Birth and the Biblical testimony that Mary was Jesus’ first disciple and a model of Christian discipleship.
The Bible Portrays Mary as the First Believer in Jesus and a Model of Christian Discipleship
Mary is the first believer in Jesus – she believed in obedient faith what God told her through the angel Gabriel about Jesus coming through her (Luke 1:38) and long meditated upon, “pondered in her heart” (Luke 2:19) the Mystery of the Incarnation of God in Jesus her son. Mary was not only the first believer in God Incarnate in Jesus, she was His first disciple, for the Bible records that she was around throughout His earthly ministry, His first miracle (John 2:1-11) through to His cross (John 19:25-27), and she was praying with the other disciples at the birth of the Church at Pentecost (Acts 1:14) as well as living with the Apostle John after this (John 19:27). Therefore she remained at the cutting edge of the new Church’s ministry and would have been well known by the earliest Christians, and she was most likely Luke’s major interview source (Luke 1:2-3) for his accounts in Luke 1 and 2.
Jesus Never Denigrated His Natural Mother and First Spiritual Disciple but Always Included Other Christian Disciples with Her in His Spiritual Family Whenever People Called Attention to His Natural Mother, as in Luke 11:28
As the first Christian disciple, Mary is best known in the Bible precisely for “hearing the word of God and obeying it,” (cf Luke 1:38) so Jesus’ statement in response to the woman’s cry “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you,” “Blessed rather are those who hear the word and God and obey it” (Luke 11:28) includes Mary as a prime example and model along with all those who like her “hear the word of God and obey it.” Jesus here puts the emphasis on just why His mother Mary is blessed, and His statement is certainly not meant to contradict the word which Elizabeth prophesied while full of the Holy Spirit, that Mary is indeed “blessed among women” (Luke 1:41-45, see also 1:48). Jesus makes precisely the same point in Matthew 12:46-50, Mark 3:31-35, and Luke 8:19-21, which all relate the same incident of how Jesus, when told that his mother and brothers had come to see him but could not get through the crowd, said of the disciples around Him, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice” (Luke 8:21). This statement likewise does not denigrate Mary in any way, who is best known for heroically “hearing God’s word and putting it into practice,” but includes those who like Mary “hear and obey” together with her, emphasizing that all those who hear and obey become also members of Jesus’ family.
Being part of the spiritual family of Jesus (the Church) which anyone can join and which is meant to encompass all humanity (2 Peter 3:9) is far more important than being part of the natural, physical family of Jesus (which is limited), and so Jesus emphasizes this fact to His followers when they mention His natural family. Indeed, Mary became part of Jesus’ natural family (His mother) only because she first believed the word of God spoken to her by the Angel and obediently accepted it – she did not conceive Jesus physically in her womb, becoming physically related to Jesus as His mother, until after she had demonstrated heroic faith and obedience to the will of God (Luke 2:21, 1:38). Mary did not become Jesus’ natural, physical mother until after she had “conceived” Jesus in her heart, through faith, as all later disciples of Jesus will – becoming also Jesus’ “mother and brothers” (Luke 8:21), His family, through faith. So Mary is not excluded by “blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it” – she is most famous in all of history for doing precisely that! Her greatest claim to fame, the reason everybody knows who she is, is because she accepted and did the will of God – that she bear and raise the Son of God. So Jesus’ statements do not take anything away from Mary who is indeed “blessed among women” (Luke 1:42), whom “all generations” will indeed call “blessed” (Luke 1:48). They instead invite others to join Mary – the first Christian through her faith – in the family of God. Jesus is saying, “yes, blessed is the womb that bore me (my natural mother), as are all who like her do the will of God9. They are also part of my family, so they are also my ‘mother and brothers’.”
The Extent of Jesus’ Natural Family: the Universal Early Church Tradition of Mary as “Ever-Virgin,” Retained by the Major Protestant Reformers in Accordance with the Original Greek New Testament
Before continuing from this point about Jesus’ natural and spiritual families to show how in Catholic Mariology, Mary the first Christian, the first member of Jesus’ spiritual family as well as of His natural family, simply goes first to every place all Christians go, it is worth briefly discussing Jesus’ natural family, since there is some dispute between Protestant and Catholic/Orthodox Christians regarding the extent of Jesus’ natural family. It is the early and uniform Western and Eastern Christian tradition (carried on in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches today) that Mary is “Ever-Virgin,” that she had no children after the awesome and unique task of bodily bearing and giving birth to Jesus Christ, God Incarnate (the task that would make the Early Church see Mary as “the Ark of the New Covenant,” physically bearing the Presence of God as did the Old Covenant Ark, the New Testament writers themselves subtly but distinctly making this connection – see Volume II Chapter 5). Among other things this belief protects the Virgin Birth, since the unique Jesus cannot be regarded as simply one of several children of Joseph and Mary.
This universal belief of the Undivided Early Christian Church is evidenced in the same Early Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Christian Church which established the fundamental tenets of Christian belief against the many early heretics, and even the major Protestant Reformers like Luther and Calvin maintained this traditional Christian belief that Mary is “Ever-Virgin.” But since then, many Protestant Christians have disputed this belief, typically citing several Biblical references (like those above) to Jesus’ “brothers” or “sisters” – thinking (because they do not know Biblical Greek) that these verses “prove” that Jesus had brothers and sisters, other children of Mary (who technically could be only “half-brothers” and “half-sisters” of Jesus by Joseph, Jesus’ “foster father,” not actual full brothers and sisters). However, in the New Testament the Greek terms translated as “brothers” or “sisters” only necessarily mean “kinsmen” or “kinswomen,” including brothers and sisters or cousins (Jesus’ extended family relations through Mary or Joseph), and in some Biblical contexts these words cannot possibly mean actual, direct brother or sister. The Greek word translated “brother” is the masculine form of the word denoting kinship, adelphos, and the Greek word translated “sister” is the feminine form of the word denoting kinship, adelphe. While these Greek words are used in the Scriptures to denote all kinds of kinships (such as the spiritual kinship usually translated as “brothers and sisters in Christ”), the most common and primary meaning of adelphos is “brother or near kinsman.” The most common and primary meaning of adelphe is “sister or near kinswoman.” So these “brother and sister” verses, which are equally accurately translated as “kinsman or kinswoman” verses, offer no conclusive evidence either way, though the fact that Jesus gave Mary into John’s care is strongly suggestive that Mary had no other sons or daughters to take care of her in her old age, which supports the uniform early Christian tradition.
We must remember, in our modern society with its “nuclear family,” that for most of history extended families were the norm, and Israel was further formally organized into clans and tribes of family kinship (recorded in the many Old Testament genealogies). Mary and Joseph lost track of Jesus when He was twelve years old because they assumed He was in the family, clan caravan of relatives which had gone together to Jerusalem every year (Luke 2:41-44). They did not travel to Jerusalem as a modern nuclear family, but as an ancient clan of kinsmen and kinswomen (and some friends), which is why they could travel for a whole day and not know their son was not with them (which would never happen in a nuclear family). So the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus mentioned in the Scriptures, which are equally well translated as “kinsmen and kinswomen” of Jesus, are likely from among the same relatives of Mary and Joseph that they traveled with to Jerusalem every year, in the age of extended families.
In any case, Mary prayed with the Church from its beginning (Acts 1:14) and lived with John the Apostle (John 19:27) and thus she lived on the cutting edge of the New Church’s ministry, so she must have been well known in the very Early Church and she was most likely Luke’s primary interview source for his accounts of Luke 1 and 2. So a tradition concerning the extent of Mary’s direct children passed on in the Early Church which is so early and so uniform (and entirely consistent with the Bible in its original Greek) should not be ignored and is very likely to be correct.
In Catholic Mariology Mary the First Christian Simply Goes Before Us to Every Place All Christians Go
So Mary is a model for us who like her are Christian disciples, and as the first Christian disciple she goes before us to every place we go. Catholic doctrine simply makes Mary the first Christian saved by Jesus, the first purified, and the first glorified and crowned, as all Christians will be purified, glorified and crowned in Heaven. In Catholic Christian belief, Mary in Heaven is ontologically no different from any glorified Christian in Heaven. She exists like we will, no different than any other glorified human being, though she does have a role in the family of Christians which comes from God’s role for her in Salvation History, from her role in the Incarnation of God the Son in Jesus Christ – that fundamental Christian truth that Jesus got His fully Divine nature from His fully Divine Father, God, and His fully human nature from His fully human mother, Mary. She is truly His mother, and the source of His true humanity. Jesus’ true humanity is the bridge between Mankind and God through which we are saved, through which we are joined to Jesus the New Adam’s obedient humanity as members of His Body, severing our destructive connection with Fallen Adam’s disobedient humanity. Even Protestants have noted that “if she did not believe, she would not have conceived” since God would not force Himself upon an unwilling vessel, which would be a kind of rape (Luke 2:21 confirms she did not conceive until after she believed and embraced God’s will revealed by the angel). Her willing participation in God’s plan of salvation made the earliest Church10 see her as the “New Eve” who participated willingly in the redemption God would bring about through her son the “New Adam” Jesus Christ, as the first Eve had willingly participated in the disobedience of the first Adam. “Mary’s obedience untied the knot of Eve’s disobedience” was a very early saying in the Church, both the disobedience and the obedience being secondary and supportive, since it is through Adam that all die, and through Christ (the New Adam) that all are made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22). But this support of Mary’s human obedience, willingly providing a true humanity for God the Son, was necessary. Thus the Early Church also proclaimed, “Death through Eve, Life through Mary” and we owe Mary gratitude for her humble, submissive obedience to God’s will (“may it be to me as you have said,” – Luke 1:38) by which God the Son was able to take a human nature which would be crucified in order to achieve our salvation.
But more than this, how can we take Jesus as our brother, and His Father as our Father (how can we mysteriously be Jesus’ very Body, as Paul says) if we do not take His mother as our mother – as Jesus told His beloved disciple at the Cross (representing all His beloved disciples) to do? (John 19:25-27). So Catholic (and Orthodox) Christians treat our brother Jesus’ mother as our own, because we are undisputedly adopted into His family!
Again, Catholic doctrine simply makes Mary the first Christian saved by Jesus, the first purified, and the first glorified and crowned, as all Christians will be in Heaven. Catholic theology is very clear that this is all the doctrines (now dogmas) of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary mean.
The Immaculate Conception Means Mary is the First Christian Saved and Purified by Jesus
The Immaculate Conception is the most difficult of the Catholic Marian doctrines for the average person to truly understand. This is mainly because the doctrine is closely bound with the Incarnation, the central mystery of Christianity that God came in human flesh. But the difficulty is also in part because the doctrine requires we who are bound by time to think about time from the perspective of the timeless God who created the Universe of what physicists call space-time and is not bound by time as we are. To understand the Immaculate Conception we must take the time to think about Time from God’s perspective and then think about the fundamental Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, think of just how God the Eternal Son, Second Person of the Eternal Holy Trinity, could have stepped out of Eternity and into Time in the Person of Jesus Christ the God-man in a way which enabled humanity to be saved by His life and death and resurrection. When we do this, we find that the Immaculate Conception is the most logical and meaningful way to account for the Mystery of the Incarnation, and that all alternatives to the Immaculate Conception are not near so logical and sensible. This is partly why it is Protestant Christians, who reject the Immaculate Conception and almost all Catholic Mariology, who are also the major group of Christians most likely to reject the Incarnation, becoming “doctrinally liberal” or unorthodox Christians. It is perhaps not surprising then that the Catholic Church has recently (in 1854) made this ancient Christian doctrine an essential dogma of Catholic Christian faith – as a necessary logical consequence of the Incarnation of God the Eternal Word in the Person of Jesus Christ, and one which defends the common fundamental Christian doctrine of the Incarnation from such heretical denial.
Based on my own past experience as a Conservative, Evangelical Protestant Christian seeking to understand the Catholic Church’s doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, I think that Conservative Protestant Christian readers who solidly believe in the Incarnation (at least for now)11 will be intrigued by the Catholic Mariology below but will likely not be able to fully accept it right away, even though I am confident they do not have a better understanding of the Incarnation. It is just too big a change in one’s accustomed ways of thinking to process it and come to accept it except with time. But the important thing for Protestant readers to remember is that whether you agree or disagree with the Catholic theological analysis of the Incarnation that results in the secondary doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as a necessary logical consequence of the Incarnation, the “bottom line” of what the Immaculate Conception means is that Mary is the first Christian saved and purified by Jesus Christ as all Christians one day will be. Therefore this doctrine does not contradict any essential Christian belief and it should not be very offensive to Protestant Christians even if they continue to disagree with it. It is a matter over which Catholic and Protestant Christians can “agree to disagree” and not let it be a barrier to a Christian unity of love (which most effectively witnesses Jesus in the world) even while we remain in our different Christian churches.
The Immaculate Conception is all about understanding the Incarnation of God the Eternal Son, Second Person of the Holy Trinity, in Jesus Christ, son of Mary. But because the Immaculate Conception has a logical consequence for Mary which many Protestants have heard about which at first seems shocking, the first reaction of Protestant Christians is to reject it summarily as being wrong, even heretical, without thinking through why they think it must be wrong. Though the next several sections which deal with the Immaculate Conception may be challenging material for some, it is important to Christian unity that readers (Protestant and Catholic) take the time to think through what is presented, so that at least they can understand the basics of the logic of the Immaculate Conception and how it fits the central Christian mystery of the Incarnation. In this way Protestant readers should at least see clearly that this doctrine, correct or not, is not a heresy which contradicts any fundamental Christian belief, as Protestant Christians usually fear it is, and Catholic readers who already accept this doctrine in faith will have their faith in the Incarnation and the Immaculate Conception deepened and will be enabled to share this faith more effectively with non-Catholic Christians.
We must begin by thinking about time from God’s Eternal perspective. While people commonly confuse Eternity with “infinite time,” a proper theological definition of Eternity, which is included in some dictionaries as the theological meaning, is “timelessness.” Many theologians (Protestant and Catholic) speak of the “Eternal Now” of God, wherein every moment of time is Now to the Eternal God. While created human beings progress from one moment’s “now” to the next moment which they subsequently experience as “now,” the Creator God simultaneously inhabits each moment of time as “now.” This of course is why prophetic predictions are easy for God – the future moment predicted (at what to us bound by time is an earlier time) is already now to God who is not bound by time. Even science supports Eternity as timelessness, since modern physics speaks of time and space as different dimensions of one thing, which physicists call “space-time.” So Time is part of the created order of the physical universe which physicists study, and the Creator God who is above or transcendent to His created universe is above time or beyond time. God is not limited nor bound by time as we are. There is no time with God, but “a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Peter 3:8).
How does this help explain the Immaculate Conception? Jesus on the Cross won for humanity the Saving Grace necessary for fallen human beings to overcome the calamity of the Original Sin we inherited from Adam,12 enabling us to choose to serve God instead of self, enabling us to accept what God has done and be saved. So how could people who lived before Christ respond positively to God and be saved? Catholic theology understands that the Old Testament saints were also saved by Jesus because God from all Eternity (outside of time) applied the Grace of Jesus’ Cross to them in the point in time they lived before Jesus’ sacrifice, drawing them to Himself and enabling them to overcome their fallen human nature enough to respond to God and choose to serve God (a few of them, like Enoch and Elijah, served God so well that they were bodily assumed into Heaven – 2 Kings 2:10-12, Genesis 5:24, Hebrews 11:513). Similarly, Mary is saved by Jesus her son like everyone else is saved only through Jesus, but in a unique manner because of her unique role in God’s plan of Salvation: God from all Eternity (outside of time) applies the saving grace Jesus won for all on the Cross to Mary at the moment (in time) of her otherwise normal conception, preventing her from inheriting the stain of Adam’s Original Sin, such that Jesus truly saves her but she is saved as one who is prevented from falling into a pit is saved from the pit, not as one who is pulled out of the pit is saved from the pit. This unique manner of salvation (preservative redemption) is understood as necessary to God’s plan from Eternity (outside of time) because of the unique role which Mary had in God’s plan for salvation, where she had to provide a truly human nature for God the Eternal Son in order for Him to become true man, so that His death would save true men, but the human nature she had to donate to Him had to be a sinless human nature so that her son could be a sinless true human being as well as truly God. Thus Mary is the first disciple of Jesus both saved and purified from all stain of Original Sin, as all Christians saved by Jesus will be purified completely of sin (see 1 Corinthians 3:10-15) before they enter Heaven where “nothing impure will ever enter” (Revelation 21:27).
The Assumption (or Dormition) means Mary is the First Christian Glorified Body and Soul in Heaven by Jesus
The Assumption is Logically Necessitated by the Immaculate Conception
The doctrine of Mary’s bodily assumption into Heaven (which has Old Testament precedent in Enoch and Elijah, cited above) is the substance of a very old tradition passed down in the Church, East and West. Since Mary lived with John and so was active and well-known in the Early Church, it is possible the tradition originates in witnesses of this event, but in any case it is theologically necessitated by the Immaculate Conception, since bodily death and corruption, the wages of sin (Romans 6:23), would have no hold upon her and when she entered Heaven she was glorified body and soul, as all Christians will be glorified in both body and soul in Heaven at the Final Resurrection. It is a good theological speculation that since God created mankind to be with Him in Heaven, not simply to wander the garden, if initially sinless Adam and Even had not sinned, they also would not have been subject to death as we know it (the wages of sin) but would have eventually also experienced some kind of bodily assumption in transfer from this world to the next world of God’s Glory, and thus Mary’s assumption is simply a restoration of God’s initial plan for humanity, brought about by her “preservative redemption” by God in Eternity through the future Cross of Jesus her son.
The Immaculate Conception is Logically Necessitated by the Incarnation
It is the conclusion of the Immaculate Conception doctrine that in the unique process of “preservative redemption” which prepares her for her unique role in the Incarnation that Mary is conceived sinless (restored at the moment of her conception to the condition in which Adam and Eve were created) that is at first shocking and unacceptable to Protestant Christians. But they have not thought through their objection. Even simple logic applied to Divine Revelation supports the Catholic conclusion regarding the Immaculate Conception, illustrated by this logical syllogism:
Jesus’ fully human nature was sinless;
Jesus got his fully human nature from his fully human mother, Mary;
therefore Mary’s fully human nature was sinless.
The Catholic theological analysis preserves the common fundamentals of Christian faith shared by Protestants while accepting the logical conclusion. And nothing could be more anti-Biblical than to rashly assert, as Protestants often do without thinking, that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (God making Mary sinless so that she could impart a sinless humanity to her son Jesus) means that Catholics are somehow “deifying” Mary, attributing a unique aspect of Divinity to Mary. Sinlessness was an attribute of Jesus’ humanity, but sinlessness cannot be an attribute unique to Divinity because the Bible presents us with three entire categories of created (non-Divine) beings who are sinless:
1. Pre-Fallen Man (Adam and Eve before they sinned);
2. the Angels who did not participate in Satan’s rebellion;
3. and purified, glorified humanity in Heaven with God.
God the Son’s saving sacrifice applied from all Eternity prevents Mary from inheriting the stain of Original Sin, so that while on Earth she was in the Pre-Fallen state of humanity, and after her Assumption into Heaven she was and is in the glorified state of humanity. So there is no issue at all of this doctrine in any way “deifying” Mary.
I realize that Protestant Christian readers are trained to strongly resist any suggestion that Mary was sinless in her life on Earth (as I used to when I was Protestant), but I encourage them to reflect deeply and prayerfully on the Mystery of the Incarnation of God the Son in Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, which happened through Mary’s Virgin Birth – a mystery which all conservative, orthodox Protestant Christians say they believe – and upon the above rationale for the Immaculate Conception which comes purely from deep reflection upon this same fundamental Christian truth, reasoning begun by the earliest Christians who fought the early heretics (see below). If their reflection is honest, Protestants should at least be able to see how the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is consistent with all fundamental Christian truth and therefore, correct or not, the doctrine does not represent a heresy, as Protestant/Evangelical Christians typically fear.
Certainly Protestant readers will not be able to counter my above very Biblical argument that sinlessness is not a characteristic unique to deity and therefore this doctrine does not in any way deify Mary, which means it should not be very offensive to Protestant Christians even if they do not agree with it – it should not be a stumbling block to Protestant and Catholic Christians loving each other as brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus “so that the world may believe” when it sees the love of Christians “one for another.” We can at least “agree to disagree.”
However, some Protestant Christians will still hold that the doctrine cannot be true because the Bible says (in Romans 3:23 and 5:12) that all have sinned. But to insist that these Scriptures preclude the possibility of the Immaculate Conception is to misunderstand the common human use of language, especially the common human use of extreme words like all and never.
First of all, when the Bible says “all have sinned,” all what? All created beings? No, the angels didn’t. All humans? No, since Christ was fully human and He did not sin. I grant that “all humans” is the sense of the text, but clearly Christ is an exception, yet he is not mentioned. The Scripture does not say that “all humans except Jesus with his fully human nature have sinned.” This simply follows the common human use of the word “all” in language. When the word “all” is used in human language, there are almost always exceptions, but to list them would take away the power of the statement and diminish the point. Thus, as a general rule, when you are making a strong point in normal language use you just don’t list the exceptions. And this is valid, since usually the exceptions do not really affect the main point of the “all” statement for the intended listener, who usually does not fall under the exceptions. “All” is rarely a precise word. Think about when you use the word “all.” Most of the time you will be able to think of exceptions to your own statement, and if you cannot, ask somebody else – they likely can! And if a national survey shows that 99.99% of the population favours a certain change in legislation, and in arguing to the government as to why they should make the change a representative says, “everybody wants it,” they are not being inaccurate by not mentioning the exception of the 0.01% who did not favor the change. They are simply using the extreme word “everybody” in the common way. Since there is at least one human exception to the Scriptural statement that “all have sinned” in Jesus, it is certainly not impossible that Paul could have written “All except Jesus and Mary have sinned,” but to do so would have diminished the power of his statement for his readers, none of whom were Jesus or Mary, so he did not bother to mention the exceptions.
Protestant instincts will likely still motivate Protestant Christians to try to reject the logic of the Immaculate Conception and try to find other theological theories to account for the Incarnation, but I do not think they can find any that fit the fundamental Christian truth of the Incarnation near as well.
Note that if Protestant Christians want to argue that the Immaculate Conception of Mary in preparation for her role as Mother of God the Son Made Man for our redemption did not happen, and they speculate instead that Mary’s womb, stained with sin, bore an immaculate, sinless human child in the fully human (as well as Divine) Jesus through a special action of the Holy Spirit which overshadowed her, a special action preserving Jesus’ true humanity from inheriting the stain of Original Sin from Mary His true mother, then this means that Jesus in His true humanity had to be “saved” from Original Sin before He could be truly human but also free from the curse Himself so that He could pay the debt of sin for others. This means that sin had a claim on Jesus, that Jesus, as a truly, fully human being, would have inherited the stain of Original Sin from Mary His mother were it not for some special preservative redemptive action, some kind of saving grace being applied to Jesus’ human nature at the moment He was conceived in Mary’s stained womb. This means that the Savior needed to be saved! Clearly, it is far more appropriate and fitting that the Immaculate Conception happened to Mary and not Jesus, because this means that Jesus’ human line was already purified in Mary His mother, who did need to be saved because she was generated from fallen humanity, sin had a claim on her and she would have inherited the stain of Original Sin from her parents (traditionally Joachim and Anne), were it not for the special redeeming, saving grace from Christ’s Cross, always before God in Eternity, which God applied to her at the moment of her conception in order for Jesus to save her in special manner so that Jesus the God-Man could be the pure and spotless lamb without any tie to sin whatsoever. This Catholic way sin never had any claim on Jesus which would require Jesus the New Adam, the new Head of (redeemed) humanity, to be saved by some special application of saving grace to His true humanity.
Further, any foolish attempt to escape the logic of the Immaculate Conception by arguing that Mary as His mother was not in fact the source of Jesus’ humanity (Jesus inheriting His Divine nature from His Divine father and inheriting His human nature from his human mother), is to propose that God created Jesus’ human body and nature in Mary’s womb without using anything of her. But this would mean that Jesus is a totally new creation – totally separate from the First Creation He came to save. In this case He is not truly one of us, therefore He cannot truly be the bridge between God and us, for He is no part of that Creation which He came to save (this is basically the Muslim belief in Mary’s Virgin Birth, see footnote 1414). In contrast, the doctrine that Mary was conceived sinless by God’s Grace (so that this characteristic of her particular human nature could be passed on to her Son so that His human nature would not be in sinful opposition with His divine nature inherited from His Divine Father) does not take away from Jesus in His humanness being truly one of us, being truly part of the First Creation He came to redeem as the bridge between God and humanity. Being sinless does not make Jesus fail to be one of us in the First Creation, because sinlessness is a natural characteristic of this first human creation. We had it once in the Garden of Eden, and we can have it again when we are perfected in Heaven.
Another foolish attempt to avoid accepting the Immaculate Conception which has been suggested by a few is that Original Sin is passed on from generation to generation through fathers, and since Jesus had no human father, He did not inherit the stain of Original Sin. But this is fraught with problems because it makes the bizarre suggestion that the spiritual disease of sin human beings suffer from has a physical source since it is passed on from fathers only in human generation while mothers who have it from their own fathers do not pass it on to their offspring. This gender distinction makes it part of the physical process of human generation, since maleness and femaleness are distinctions of the physical order. Reflecting on this idea quickly shows how ludicrous it is. If that is how Original Sin is passed on – from the father only through physical generation – then it is subject to the scientific laws of genetics. So where in the human genome passed on in human sperm only should we expect to find Original Sin? What does the DNA sequence in sperm that encodes Original Sin look like? Can we find it and correct it to effect our salvation, and no longer have to bother with seeking religious truth? Clearly, this is ridiculous. Moreover, this idea also fails to truly recognize the human Mary as the source of Jesus’ human nature. If Jesus is human at all, and part of the human Creation He came to save at all (which He must be or we cannot be saved by His obedience unto death), then He must have received His humanity from Mary who passed it on to him as all mothers pass on their humanity to their offspring. And if the Immaculate Conception did not happen, then Mary only had a sinful human nature to pass on to her offspring, Jesus, and we are back to having to consider the unacceptable idea that Jesus in His humanity needed to be saved from inheriting Original Sin when He inherited His humanity from Mary.
Kecharitomene, the Remarkable Greek Title with Which the Angel Addresses Mary, Implies the Immaculate Conception
The Catholic understanding of Mary’s “immaculate conception” is in fact strongly implied by the very word with which the Angel Gabriel addresses Mary, Kecharitomene (Κεχαριτωμενη), in the original Greek of Luke 1:28. Ke-chari-tomene grammatically is the past, perfect participle of charis, which is translated into English as grace or favor, more commonly grace. The grammar of this word shows that this grace or favor which resides with Mary is something she already had – in the past, before Gabriel greeted her, she was already graced or favored, and she was already completely or perfectly graced or favored. So Kecharitomene in Luke 1:28 means that before Mary hears Gabriel’s message and believes it and conceives Jesus in her womb, she is already, in the past, completely or perfectly favored or graced by God, and therefore the word is usually translated as “highly favored one” or “full of grace,” in an attempt to translate the full grammatical sense of the Greek word. The Catholic theology of the Immaculate Conception makes the most sense out of why the Angel Gabriel would address Mary in terms equivalent to “greetings, Fully Graced (one),” as if it were a title – she is a human being already, completely graced by God, through the future merits of her son Jesus which are constantly before God in all Eternity, in preparation for her unique role as the unstained channel from which God the Son will take on human nature.
The Early Christians Who Defended the True Faith Against the Arian Heretics Believed in the Immaculate Conception
Certainly the Early Church, in its loving reflection upon the Scriptures, never felt that referring to Mary as immaculate or sinless contradicted the Scriptures. Indeed, having worked through the Arian crisis in the Early Church, the early Christians had no concerns that these early Marian beliefs attributed anything remotely Divine to Mary, and in fact the Marian beliefs guarded the Divinity of Christ from the Arian and other heretics by clarifying the doctrine of the Incarnation, by clearly asserting that mysteriously Mary’s human son Jesus is also God.
The only sense in which the Early Church ever referred to Mary as “divine” was in the generic Biblical sense wherein all Christians are “partakers of the Divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) because of the Divine Life of Grace that God shares with us, ministered by the indwelling Divine Holy Spirit of adoption which makes us members of God’s Divine Family. Many Early Church Fathers, especially in the East, thus referred to the “deification” or “divinization” of all Christians, understood as living most fully the life of God’s Grace, as we will when perfected in Heaven, our wills no longer ever sinfully contrary to the will of the indwelling Divine Holy Spirit. This is the only orthodox way to understand the Bible when it says, “I said, ‘You are gods, And all of you are sons of the Most High’ ” (Psalm 82:6 NASB), which Jesus Himself quotes to emphasize it: “Jesus answered, “It is written in your law that God said, ‘I said, you are gods.’ This Scripture called those people gods who received God’s message, and Scripture is always true” (John 10:34-35 NCV). The Early Church Fathers actually used this understanding of the “deification” of all Christians against the Arian heretics who denied Jesus’ divinity, for how could mankind be “divinized” through Christ, coming to “share in the Divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), becoming part of the Divine Family of God, if Christ were not Divine, as the Arian heretics claimed He was not?
The Arian heretics had attributed far grander titles and powers and roles in God’s plan to Jesus than even today’s highly developed Catholic Mariology attributes to Mary, recognizing Jesus as God’s very first creation through whom (as an instrument) God had created everything else and redeemed everything else, yet the Arian heretics still denied that Jesus was fully nor even truly God. So the Early Church had no fear that the far lesser, supportive roles and titles which Catholic Christians still attribute to Mary in any way inappropriately deified her.
The Greatest Theologians of the Undivided Early Church, Including Saint Augustine, Believed in the Immaculate Conception of Mary
Even Saint Augustine, the greatest theologian of the Early Western Church, who actually coined the phrase “Original Sin” (a term not in the Bible)15 and developed the theology and doctrine of Original Sin (as well as the doctrine of Grace), admitted to the heretic Pelagius (who denied Original Sin) that Mary was the one exception to his doctrine of Original Sin because of her unique relationship with Christ (her intimate involvement with God’s saving plan in Christ), though he had not yet worked out the theology above which relates the “Mary exception” to the general rule. In other words, as long as there has been a clear and well-developed doctrine of Original Sin in the Church, Mary has been an exception to it because of her intimate participation in the saving mystery of the Incarnation of God in Christ Jesus her son.
So while the phrase “the Immaculate Conception” did not come into common Catholic usage until recent centuries, the essence of the doctrine was commonly believed in the Undivided Early Church, even by its greatest theologians who did the most to protect the true faith from the many various early heresies. Saint Augustine, the greatest and most prolific Early Christian theologian in the West, accepted the essence of the doctrine (making Mary an exception to his doctrine of Original Sin), and Saint John Chrysostom, the greatest and most prolific Early Christian theologian in the East, also repeatedly refers to Mary in terms translated as “most pure,” “most holy, most pure,” “all-holy” or “immaculate” in the Byzantine Christian liturgy which bears his name (still sung weekly by most Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians). The Undivided Early Church of East and West, united against all the many heretics which challenged the true, orthodox Christian faith, not yet having a fully developed doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, still commonly expressed their belief that the human vessel God used to make His Eternal Son human was herself made pure, holy, sinless, immaculate, through God’s Grace.
The instinct of the Early Church about Mary’s sinlessness (only because of her son Jesus), later called her Immaculate Conception, resulted also in an instinctual early understanding of Mary’s role as Mediatrix of all graces, as a special function of the mediation of the entire Body of Christ – but we will return to this later.
The Early Church Adopted the Term Theokotos or “Mother of God” for Mary (In Close Paraphrase of Luke 1:43) Specifically to Defend the True Divinity of Christ Her Son Against the Heretics
A year after the death of Saint Augustine, at the 431 AD 3rd Ecumenical Council, at Ephesus, the Greek term Theokotos (God-bearer or Mother of God), which had been previously applied by Christians to Mary16 since in the Bible Elizabeth, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, calls Mary “the mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:41-43), was officially adopted into Church use specifically to guard the doctrine of the true Incarnation of God the Son in Jesus the God-man. The Nestorian heretics the Council was called to defend the true faith against, as well as modern seculars, Muslims and Mormons, all agree that Mary was the mother of the human Jesus – but all deny that the human Jesus is also God in the Mystery of the Incarnation of God in Christ Jesus. Calling Mary “Mother of God” in close paraphrase of Luke 1:43 affirms the central saving truth of the Incarnation of God in Jesus through Mary’s Virgin Birth.17
Conclusion: Catholic Marian Doctrine Indeed Flows Directly from the Church’s Reflection upon the Incarnation of God the Son in Jesus Christ
In conclusion of this chapter, I believe it is amply demonstrated that indeed Catholic Marian theology, doctrine and dogma in general is a direct result of lovingly reflecting upon and unpacking the full meaning and consequences of the fundamental Christian doctrine of the Incarnation (enfleshment) of God in Jesus Christ (and the historical result of the Early Church defending this essential Christian truth against the early Christian heretics). Thus Protestant Christian readers, even if they continue to disagree with the Catholic Marian doctrines, at the very least should be well convinced by now that the Catholic Christian doctrines about Mary have been formulated by early and later Catholic Christian theologians with great attention to the common fundamentals of both Catholic and Protestant Christianity. It should ease Protestant concerns to know that Catholic Christians understand the Marian doctrines (which underlie all Catholic Marian devotions) in ways which are deliberately careful to not compromise the fundamentals of Christian faith, all of which are shared by Catholic and (conservative, not necessarily by liberal) Protestant Christians (Protestant Christians having taken the fundamentals of Catholic Christian faith with them when they left the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church in the 16th Century). Especially since the Catholic Marian doctrines have specifically helped prevent the Catholic Church from ever doubting or denying the true Incarnation (enfleshment) of the Divine Eternal Son of God in Jesus the God-Man, while the oldest and most established Protestant “mainline” churches regularly and with increasing frequency are “losing their grip” on such basic fundamentals of Christian faith (and morality), Protestant Christian readers should by now see that all of the Catholic Marian doctrines (and Church-approved devotions based on them) at the very least are not properly barriers to Catholic and (conservative/ Evangelical) Protestant Christians recognizing each other as Christian brothers and sisters and working together as such “so that the world may believe” (John 17:21,23) – at most these disagreements are things which we can contend with each other over as loving brothers in Christ Jesus, to increase our mutual understanding of each other as fellow members of the Body of Christ the Church. In the next chapters we will explore further this Body to which we all belong and just what we learn about it by considering Mary, the mother of Jesus whose Body we are, and what considering the “profound mystery” (Ephesians 5:32) of the Church as the Bride and Body of Christ tells us about Mary, the first Christian, the first human member of that Body of Christ the Church which is united to Christ as a Body to its Head.
© 2005, 2009 Peter William John Baptiste SFO
1Galatians 3:19 explicitly, and in fact essentially every Biblical reference to angels in both Testaments is an example of their mediation between God and men! If this passage was meant to make Christ the exclusive mediator, angels would literally have nothing to do.
2I here follow the 451 AD 4th Ecumenical Council (at Chalcedon) which, in rejection of the Monophysite heresy, defined Jesus as consubstantial (of the same substance) with the Father with respect to His divinity, and consubstantial with us with respect to his humanity. This was the Ecumenical Council from which the clearly articulated doctrine of Jesus as “fully God and fully Man” came.
3Jesus is God’s Son “made of a woman” (Galatians 4:4 KJV) so that we humans could be adopted into God’s family (Galatians 4:5).
4See Luke 2:21 (the angel came “before [Jesus] had been conceived”) – and the future tense in the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38). Mary did not conceive Jesus in her womb until after she willfully embraced God’s plan for her.
5When I was a devout Evangelical Protestant Christian seeking to best understand the Trinitarian God I loved, from Evangelical sources including my Church leaders, I was only able to find helpful but ultimately superficial insight regarding the “three-in-one” aspect of the great mystery of the Trinity. “Understanding the Trinity” consisted of noting that one finger has three parts or segments; one plant has three parts (roots, stem, leaves); a juicy cherry pie in the pan can be sliced into three pieces but underneath the crust it is still one gooey mass – and the three Persons in the one God are like that. This is helpful but it really does not say much about the essence of God the Holy Trinity that we may know and love our God all the more, that we may enter more deeply into the Mystery of who God is and be all the more transformed by that experience. When I became a Catholic Christian, I found that the Catholic Church (which had the accumulated wisdom of 2000 years of Christian reflection upon the mystery of the Trinity which the much younger Protestant churches had largely cut themselves off from when they left the Catholic Church) had far greater and deeper and more wonderful insights into the nature of God the Holy Trinity. Such as: God is Love – and therefore God is a Trinity, since Love always has three elements (a lover, a beloved, and the bond of love which binds them) – God is Love, in its deepest essence, and therefore God must exist as a Trinity of Love! Also (which should be obvious), God in Himself is a Trinitarian Family, since God is Father (parenthood), Son (childhood) and Holy Spirit (the Bond of Love which binds family together). It is a fairly common insight that love is the essence of family – but this is because human families are made in the “image of God” the Trinitarian Family of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and God is love! While my adult research into the Trinity as an Evangelical Christian even at Bible College did not give me much more than the above “God is three yet one like a juicy cherry pie cut into three but one underneath,” as a Catholic Christian I came across a children’s picture book which was loaded with much deeper insights into the Trinity, including “This Trinity, these three persons in one God, teaches us how to be a Church. The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father. The Spirit is the love that binds the Father and the Son. Now that we are baptized into the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we are invited to be so filled with the Spirit of love that we become one with the Father and the Son, and with each other. Thus, the Trinity is not only a mystery in which we believe; it is also a family of love that we enter when we are baptized.” (Quoted from The Holy Trinity by Rev. Jude Winkler, OFM Conv., a St. Joseph Picture Book published by the Catholic Book Publishing Co., © 1999). Catholic children can know this much about the Trinity; in my Catholic Masters-level theological studies I was given a magnificent theological foundation from which I came to understand that the entirety of the Bible and the Christian faith can be understood as flowing naturally and logically from who God is as a Trinity of Love. A solid understanding of the Trinity explains everything God has done from Creation to Incarnation to Redemption as what God would naturally do because of who God is. See my book-length essay Love Unbounded: Tracing Salvation History from the Eternal Trinity to the New Covenant Church – Using Family Theology to Answer the Question How and Why Does Jesus’ Death Save Us? (also see Volume I’s Chapter 4 on Family Theology). I am deeply grateful to my Evangelical Protestant upbringing for introducing me to Jesus and teaching me to love God (who is a Trinity) with great passion, a passion that some Catholic Christians lack, but I needed to come back to the Christian tradition Protestant Christianity left behind in order to enter most deeply into the traditional fundamentals of Christianity I still believed in as a Protestant.
6Fundamentalist and Evangelical Protestant personal devotions also typically reflect this simplistic and unnuanced equation of Jesus with God. Typically they relate to Jesus as God, but not usually as fully human, truly “one of us” as well. While they will speak very quickly about having “a personal relationship with Jesus,” they rarely speak of a loving relationship with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit as well, or the Trinity together, except perhaps in occasional guest lectures on “the Father Heart of God” or on charismatic renewal, which still do not balance out the predominant focus on the individual’s relationship with Jesus – to the neglect of the other two persons of the Divine Trinity, to the exclusion of the community of the redeemed, and they avoid like the plague any thoughts of how their union with Jesus as a member of His Body and as an adopted child of His Father might relate them to Mary His mother and the other human saints in Heaven. This individualistic focus can be as bad as an effective “Jesus and me and to hell with thee” perspective, and it at least deprives many Protestants of any real sense of belonging to God’s Family. They have a “personal relationship with Jesus” but they do not care to know anything about nor to get to know His mother and brother and sisters whom He loves so much – they do not really want to be part of His Family but just to be on honeymoon forever with Jesus. What does it say about a loving personal relationship when you have no interest in getting to know and being a part of your lover’s family?
7There are several variations on the Rosary meditation, where some other short prayers are added, and there is a German variation I like of naming the current Mystery of the 20 after the name “Jesus” is spoken in the middle of the “Hail Mary” prayer (e.g., “Jesus, Presented in the Temple,” “Jesus, baptized in the Jordan,” “Jesus, Crowned with Thorns,” “Jesus, Ascended into Heaven”). But all the variations involve reciting the Apostle’s Creed and rhythmically praying the Lord’s Prayer (the Our Father), the “Glory Be,” and the “Hail Mary,” while meditating upon these 20 Mysteries of the Incarnation of God the Son in Jesus Christ. Protestant Christians are over-sensitive to the “vain (meaningless) repetitions” in prayer which the Bible indicates are to be avoided, and so they are typically critical of the fact the Rosary involves repetition of formula prayers – failing to understand that repetitions can only be “vain” or meaningless if one is not attending to their meaning. Should I stop repeatedly telling my wife and children “I love you” because that is only “vain repetition”? Even when I do speak these words out of habit, I am reminded of their very significant meaning, and so my repetition of the words is not vain. The habit reinforces the love! Now indeed, it is possible for an immature Christian to pray the Rosary in a rote way, failing to attend to the meaning of the words and failing to meditate upon the Mysteries, and thus engage in truly “vain repetition” – but it is far more dangerous to Christian faith to never pray formula prayers which remind one of the fundamentals of Christian faith, which is one of the most effective ways of “drilling into your children” (Deuteronomy 6:7) the truths God has revealed. It can reasonably be argued that if Protestant Christians habitually engaged in ritual formulas prayers (Family Traditions of God’s Family the Church!) like the Sign of the Cross wherein Christians (since ancient times!) invoke “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” when opening and closing formal times of prayer, not near so many mainline Protestant Christians today would be doubting or denying the primary Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity! The only repetitions of loving words which are “vain” or meaningless – in a marriage or a prayer life – are those which are uttered without love or without any attention at all to the words. Anyone who prays the Rosary in such a way will not pray the Rosary for very long. They will either be drawn into the treasures of the Rosary – a more intimate and loving knowledge of God the Son Incarnate, Jesus Christ – or they will cease to pray the Rosary.
8It is important here to distinguish between “liberal” and “nominal” Christians. The only Catholic Christians who fail to worship Jesus as God are those most extreme of “cultural Catholics” who fail to practice their Catholicism at all – those nominal or “in-name-only” Catholic Christians who have adopted so many of the secular culture’s ideas that they have stopped or nearly stopped all of their religious commitment and practice. Such nominalism is not a distinctly Catholic problem, for all Protestant Christian churches and non-Christian religious groups in our highly secularized culture have the same problem with many “nominal” or non-practicing members. Virtually everyone who is an at all active Catholic Christian who participates in the life of their church will never deny the Divinity of Jesus.
In contrast, millions upon millions of the Protestant Christians who fail to worship Jesus as God (or who have become unsure if they should worship Jesus as God), in the oldest and largest Protestant “mainline” denominations, are practicing Protestant Christians who go to church every Sunday and are actively involved in their Protestant faith communities. Such “doctrinal liberalism” is a distinctly Protestant problem.
9This reading is more clear in some translations. The King James Bible says “Yea (Yes)” before the “rather,” and the New King James says “More than that, blessed are. . .” – both indicating Jesus’ agreement with the statement about his mother, and that he is simply expanding upon it to include all who do God’s will.
10 Represented particularly by Saint Irenaeus, who learned from the Apostle John (who lived with Mary!) through John’s immediate disciple Saint Polycarp. Irenaeus was the “Hammer of Heretics” who almost single-handedly put an end to the Gnostic heresy John had battled with his famous work “Against Heresies.”
11I add this “for now” because every currently liberal or unorthodox Protestant denomination (or congregation) which questions, doubts, or denies essential common Christian doctrines used to be a conservative, fundamentally orthodox Protestant Christian denomination which affirmed them. I myself was raised in a very large Protestant denomination which was orthodox when I was growing up but became liberal and unorthodox (at which time my family became Evangelical in order to preserve our belief in the common Christian fundamentals). The Fundamentalist and Evangelical movements in Protestantism were both early 20th Century reactions to the great liberalization of the oldest and largest, most established Protestant “mainline” denominations, which makes Protestant Fundamentalists and Evangelicals much more likely to remain fundamentally orthodox, but these movements failed to identify the root cause of Protestant Christians “losing their grip” on the common Christian fundamentals, in a major doctrine from the Protestant Reformation which was never part of early orthodox Christianity (though the early Arian heretics believed something close to it). As long as Evangelicals continue to affirm this classic Protestant doctrine, they are still vulnerable in the long run to the liberalism and unorthodoxy which has already claimed whole Protestant congregations and denominations but has never and can never affect the irrevocable dogmas of the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches (which are mostly the common fundamentals of orthodox Christianity!). I myself have known some Evangelical Protestants, including a former roommate of mine, who showed early signs of the liberalization which has already devastated the mainline Protestant churches. See my book Sola Scriptura? What Scripture Alone Testifies Concerning the Church as the Body of Christ Expressing Himself in Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium: The Biblical Basis for the Early Church’s Formal Repudiation of Heretics, Which Is the Biblical Basis for Refuting Modern Doctrinally Liberal Christianity Which Likewise Rejects or Doubts Traditional Christian Faith and Morality. Also see the last section of Volume II Chapter 2.
12This common terminology for the sinful condition of human beings born fallen from God’s Grace would be better described as the calamity of the consequences for those descended from Adam (and Eve) of Adam (and Eve)’s Original Sin. The descendants of Adam (and Eve) are born lacking what they were created with but lost through sin, which Jesus Christ “the New Adam” restores to humanity in order to save it from sin. To explore exactly what was lost by Adam and restored by the new Adam (the indwelling Holy Spirit of supernatural adoption into God’s Family) see my book-length essay Love Unbounded: Tracing Salvation History from the Eternal Trinity to the New Covenant Church – Using Family Theology to Answer the Question How and Why Does Jesus’ Death Save Us?
13 These bodily assumptions prefigure and give precedent for that of Mary, although they must be considered theologically distinct from Mary’s assumption, which is logically necessitated by the Immaculate Conception, which is logically necessitated by the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.
14This bad argument to escape the logic of the Immaculate Conception is in fact closer to Muslim belief. The Koran, the Muslim Holy Book, declares that Allah (God) miraculously created Jesus in the womb of Mary without a human father (a new creation) because God can create whatever He likes whenever He likes – but Muslims of course do not see this miraculous newly created human child as also Divine nor as the Savior of humanity who bridges the gap between the fallen First Creation and the Creator God. The New Creation the Bible speaks of begins not with a newly created human body for Jesus in the womb of Mary, but with the Resurrected and Glorified human body of Jesus – which is a transformed version of His earthly body of the First Creation, still bearing its scars of crucifixion. It is significant that the Early Church ceased to gather to worship on the 7th Day (Saturday) Sabbath (which marked the First Creation, consecrated on the 7th Day of the week) but observed instead what they called an “8th Day” (Sunday) celebration which superceded the 7th Day Sabbath, which marked the day of the week the New Creation began (on Easter Sunday) in the Resurrected Body of Jesus Christ. The spirits of us redeemed by Christ also become “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17, Galatians 6:15), still awaiting “the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23) at the Final Resurrection. The New Creation begun on Easter Sunday will culminate in the future redemption of the entirety of the First Creation in the Final Resurrection and the New Heavens and New Earth (Romans 8:18-25, 2 Peter 3:13, Revelation 21:1).
15The Western theological term “Original Sin” – not used so much in the Christian East – refers to the consequences for humanity descended from Adam (and Eve) of Adam (and Eve) ‘s Original Sin of disobedience to God.
16Notably in the 250 AD sub tuum prayer, around a particularly fierce time of Roman persecution of the Church. Mary also appears in Christian art in the Catacombs where Christians met to avoid persecution during the earliest days of the primitive, heroic Early Church.
17As a fascinating aside: “Mother of my Lord” is how Luke translated into Greek whatever Elizabeth called Mary in the Aramaic spoken in Palestine at the time, a variant of Hebrew. It is very possible, even likely, that Elizabeth actually used the Hebrew word Gebirah, literally “Great Lady,” the title of the Davidic Queens, who were all the Mothers of the reigning Davidic King (not the wives). “Mother of my Lord (the King)” would certainly be an equivalent expression to the Hebrew Gebirah. Elizabeth, as a Jew, knew that if her cousin Mary was mother of the promised Messianic Davidic King, the descendent of David who God promised would rule forever, that made her cousin Mary the Gebirah, the Queen, the “Mother of my Lord (the King).” And in fact the messianic prophecies are about Jesus and Mary, the King and Queen of the promised Messianic Davidic Kingdom. Mary is the prophesied sign of Isaiah 7:14 “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin [Mary] will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” John, who lived with Mary (John 19:27), uses similar language to describe the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies in Revelation 12: “A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman [Mary] clothed with the sun …” (verse 1) who gives birth to a son (verse 5) who is clearly Mary’s son Jesus. See more on this in Volume II Chapter 5.