By: Fr. Glenn Spencer
(This essay began as a personal letter to a friend who is a Roman Catholic theologian, and for that reason I have maintained the conversational tone with him as an interlocutor. Albeit I have removed his name.)
I want to ask you about the Roman Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception to the end that I might better understand our differences on this issue. But let me begin by saying that I, speaking for myself as an Anglo Catholic priest, absolutely believe Mary to be Theotokos, and I would affirm that she is sinless, or very nearly so, in the sense of having not committed actual sin. Furthermore, I affirm her bodily Assumption, as I think most Anglo Catholic priests would, though most of us would affirm it from the perspective of her Dormition.
I also affirm her ever-virginity though not from a view that would insinuate that sexual activity within Holy Matrimony is in itself less than holy and an accommodation to second-tier Catholics. So I think with regard to her ever-virginity most Anglo Catholics would affirm it while still trying to understand it — in her particular case, in terms of eschewing the good for the best or demonstrating that what most people would consider essential to human flourishing and happiness (an active sex life) in fact is not essential — our Lady was fully human and happy without an active sexual life. I agree with you that the charge of Docetism concerning the Virginal Conception of Christ should at least give us pause and not be simply brushed aside, but I also think Ray Brown is right that theology played less a role in this matter than the belief that is was an event in the life of the BVM and Jesus. In other words history and biography preceded theology. And since my early years at Duke, I have depended upon our Lady’s (and other saints') intercessions for me and for those I love and care for, and I will continue to do so.
The problem for me, as an Anglo Catholic, begins with the definition of the Immaculate Conception of our Lady to mean, “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 Saviour 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.” That is a quote as I’m sure you know from the ex cathedra of Pius IX and the troubling phrases are “in the first instance of her conception,” and “to be preserved from all stain of original sin.”
Like I said, the problem is not that she did not commit actual sin, but that she did not share in the wounds that humanity incurred through the fall — in the ex cathedra the wounds are referred to as “stains.” It is puzzling to me to see how this dogma provides satisfying answers to hard theological questions, and as a matter of fact it seems to me that it ends up creating way more problems than it solves. In my opinion, two of the most troubling problems of dogma of the Immaculate Conception follow:
First, I realize that some theologians have spoken, as you point out, of how the Immaculate Conception and the Virginal Conception protect the Savior from the primal “dislocation from God,” which I take to mean that the dogmas protect the Word of the Father from separation from God which would result from the Incarnation of fallen humanity being assumed into the life of the Word. But that is hardly a scriptural argument since nothing remotely close to that notion, that the Word may be separated from the Father through assuming sinful humanity, is found in the New Testament. In fact, Paul in Romans 8:3 seems to be going in the opposite direction: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh…” I think it is fair to say that there is no evidence in the New Testament that the early Church felt a need to protect the Savior from sin in any form, but there is plenty of evidence that sin had no sustainability in the presence of our Lord and it (sin as concretized in the four wounds of the fall) was incapable of harming or making the Savior in some manner personally sinful and unclean. Luke’s story of the woman with the issue of blood is an example of a person living with our broken human condition that was taken to be unclean and thus excluded from temple or synagogue worship. If the woman with the issue of blood had touched Peter, then Peter would have been made unclean. But Jesus was not made unclean by physical contact with her, and as you know the flow of blood was immediately healed because the wounds and damage done to humanity through the fall cannot sustain existence in the presence of Christ. That is what happens when uncleanness or impurity or sin makes contact with Jesus — it cannot survive a christological instantiation of God. I think that is the overarching take on the Savior and sin in the New Testament and the early Fathers. I also think it is fair to wonder just how much of a Savior our Lord would be if he needed protecting from original sin at his conception? (I don’t mean protecting the child Jesus from sinful people & sinful acts or natural dangers. Safeguarding him from evil men drives the Gospel story of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, and the anxiety of both Mary and Joseph occasioned on leaving the boy Jesus back in Jerusalem through a lack of attentiveness is an event all parents can understand. But my concern is not with that sort of sin, an act, but with the wounds of the fall upon the whole human family — what is typically called original sin.) I think with regard to original sin, God is invincible, and it is sin, as in the wounds of the fall, that cannot survive his presence.
Secondly, another concern about the Immaculate Conception and maybe the most serious one, is that it turns the sacramental constitution of the Church upside down. Two representatives of early Christian thinking on salvation in which the Incarnation effects salvation (one might even say organically saves) are these generally representative quotes from Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus.
Athanasius wrote to a Bishop Adelphius, “For he (Christ) has become man, that he might deify you in himself, and he has been born of a woman, and begotten of a Virgin, in order to transfer to himself our erring generation, and that we may become henceforth a holy race, and ‘partakers of the Divine Nature,’ as blessed Peter wrote.”
Gregory of Nazianzus, in a letter addressing the Apollinarian heresy wrote, “For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole.” I realize that Gregory is arguing that whole humanity, full human nature, must have been assumed in the Incarnation, but note that it is assumed for the purpose of healing that which is assumed. Athanasius is making the same point when he says that the Word became flesh, “in order to transfer to himself our erring generation.” From this point-of-view if it is pristine human nature assumed from our Lady who “was preserved free from all stain of original sin,” then we are not saved by the Incarnation because our humanity in its condition of fallenness was not assumed, and that throws off the entire sacramental constitution of the Church. That which is assumed is saved, healed, restored, and perfected while that which is not assumed is not saved, healed, restored, and perfected. I think one might even argue that it would be more likely that Arius would have argued for the Immaculate Conception since he believed that the Logos was a creature and as a creature needed protection “from the primal dislocation from God.”
But the early Fathers seem to understand our salvation to have been effected by the Incarnation in a kind of organic manner in which narratively speaking at the moment of the hypostatic union the Logos received from our Lady our true & full nature along with what is called in the West original sin, which is experienced in the instantiations of the four wounds of the fall: ignorance, malice, weakness, and concupiscence. The wounds of the fall that the Logos received from our Lady did no harm to God, but in fact, in like manner in which the woman with the issue of blood was healed, our salvation was effected by the hypostatic union itself — at the moment of union the Incarnation, “by a singular grace,” healed our received humanity of all the wounds of the Fall so that we can say Christ was made like us in every manner with the exception of sin or, in other words, that he was “preserved from all stain of original sin.” When we are baptized, we are ingrafted into the healed, perfected humanity of our Lord, and we begin participating in his one human and divine life, and we feed upon that life in the Blessed Sacrament.
It seems to me that if the BVM “was preserved free from all stain of original sin,” then our wounded humanity was not healed by the Incarnation, and that raises another question: “If the Incarnation did not heal the wounds of the fall, because an already perfected not wounded humanity was assumed, what was the Incarnation’s purpose?” Was it to provide a perfect human sacrifice along the lines of penal substitution? It is true that some form of penal substitution has been part of our theological narrative for centuries, but it is not close to being the oldest narrative of atonement. I’ve raised what for me are two of the biggest theological questions with regard to the Immaculate Conception, (1) that our Incarnate Lord needed protection from sin at the Incarnation, and (2) that the Patristic understanding of atonement through the Incarnation (what is assumed is saved, what is not assumed is not saved) is swept away in favor of some form of penal substitution.