Development of the Immaculate Conception

Our Lady of Fatima, pray for usDevelopment of the Immaculate Conception


For a FULL ARTICLE on the Theology and History of the Immaculate Conception

One of the most discussed doctrines in Catholic-Protestant dialogues is the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. By this dogma, we mean that at the very instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the omnipotent God, in consideration of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary was preserved free from all stain of original sin (defined 1854 by Pope Pius IX in Ineffabilis Deus). This dogma can be explained from the standpoint of the development of doctrine. Just as the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, and the canon of Scripture have developed, so too has the Immaculate Conception. 

Aidan Carr and Germain Williams explain:

"The seed can, in a propitious climate, produce its fruit, and this climate is sometimes created by the rise of heresies which can alone be refuted by a firm declaration of the Church; sometimes it is created by controversies among theologians; or again by a development of a special piety on the part of the Church's faithful. In all these instances it must be held that the Holy Spirit is at work, guiding and enlightening the teaching function of the Church. There is never a change in doctrine. There are advances in the same line of truth." (Mariology edited by Juniper Carol, volume 1, page 345)

Some ask the question, "Why did it take so long for the Immaculate Conception to be defined?" The answer is again, development. Before something can be defined, it must have a firm foundation to stand on. For example, the dogma of the Mother of God (Theotokos) developed in the early Church and was finally defined at the Council of Ephesus in the fifth century, 431 AD. However, before that takes place, the Church needed to know and define that Jesus Christ was a Divine Person, God (which took place at the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century, 325 AD).

So too in order for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception to be defined, the concepts of original sin and grace needed to develop first. In speaking of development, theologians distinguish three stages in the progressive awareness of a revealed truth. The first stage is implicit acceptance; the second is the period of discussion and controversy in which the precise meaning of doctrine is clarified; and finally, there is the solemn definition (Carol, ibid 19). The first stage of the dogma is the tranquil acceptance of the unique graces and privileges of Mary being the Mother of God, ever-virgin, all-holy, and as the New Eve (ibid.). The second stage is the controversy with Bernard's opposition to the feast of the Conception of Mary. The solemn definition is the encyclical Ineffabilis Deus by Pope Pius IX.

Period of Implicit Faith

There wasn't much discussion about Mary during apostolic times. This was because Christendom was under Hellenistic culture which boasted some of feminine deity. Patristics scholar Luigi Gambero states:

"In announcing the Gospel to people whose mentality was conditioned by belief in a cult of this kind of feminine deity, there was a risk that placing stress on the figure of Mary might provoke ambiguous or even erroneous interpretations of her person and her role in relation to Christ. Hence, the Church of that time preferred not to make her one of the usual themes of her evangelical preaching." (Mary and the Fathers of the Church by Luigi Gambero, page 28)

However, in the second century, we have Fathers and apologists like Justin Martyr and Irenaeus making a statement of implicit faith in the Immaculate Conception: the Eve and Mary parallel (Mary as the Second or New Eve). St. Justin Martyr was the first to make that parallelism (Dialogue with Trypho, 100 c. 150 AD) and St. Irenaeus (c. 180 AD) was influenced by him, stating:

"By disobeying, Eve became the cause of death for herself and for the whole human race. In the same way Mary, though she also had a husband, was still a virgin, and by obeying, she became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race..." (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3:22 c. 180 AD, translation by William Jurgens)

Carr/Williams comment:

"St. Irenaeus would seem to interpret the high holiness of the Virgin as contrasted to Eve's betrayal into the snares of the serpent: the complete conformity of the all-pure Mary to the will of God effectively untied the knot of sin introduced by Eve. This contrast would be imperfect and its chief characters would be inadequately in opposition if Mary had herself been stained by sin." (Carol, 1:347)

Another implication of the dogma are the titles "most pure"; "inviolate"; "unstained"; "unspotted"; "blameless"; "entirely immune from sin"; "blessed above all"; "most innocent" (Tractatus de peccato originali et de Immaculato Beatae Virginis Deiparae Conceptu by Dominicus Palmieri, SJ, page 244).

We also have St. Hippolytus insisting that Mary needed to be perfectly innocent because of the supreme sanctity of Him whom she begot. He compares the Messiah to an ark of incorruptible wood, formed from the stainless stock of Mary who gave to Him humanity and who knew no corruption herself. His soul, according to Hippolytus, was derived from hers; she too, must have been immaculate (Apud Theoderetum, in dialogo Eranistes, PG 10, 610). Since these are important matters to discuss, we need to take a closer look at the Eastern and Western thought on Mary.

Eastern Patristic Thought

The Eastern Church, starting with St. Justin Martyr, saw Mary as the cause of salvation, at least in a sense that she gave birth to the Savior: the source of life because she is Mother of Life (Mariology, volume 2 edited by Juniper Carol, page 126).

Also, the adjective "holy" is prefixed to "Virgin." Hippolytus, who was Greek in origin, mentality and language (Quasten, Patrology volume 2, page 163 cited in Carol) states,

"God the Word descended into the holy Virgin Mary..." (St. Hippolytus, Contra Noetum, cap. 17; PG 10, 825).

The words "holy" and "Virgin" were synonyms in Eastern thought. They thought of Mary as chaste, pure, and holy because of her virginity and mostly, her fiat (her "Yes" to God). As Eastern theologian Fr. Georges Florovsky said:

"She is the Virgin. Now virginity is not simply a bodily status or a physical feature as such. Above all it is a spiritual and inner attitude, and apart from that a bodily status would be altogether meaningless. The title of Ever-Virgin means surely much more than merely a "physiological" statement. It does not refer only to the Virgin Birth. It does not imply only an exclusion of any later marital intercourse (which would be utterly inconceivable if we really believe in the Virgin Birth and in the Divinity of Jesus). It excludes first of all any "erotic" involvement, any sensual and selfish desires or passions, any dissipation of the heart and mind. The bodily integrity or incorruption is but an outward sign of the internal purity. The main point is precisely the purity of the heart, that indispensable condition of "seeing God."...Her soul was governed by God only, it was supremely attached to him." ("The Ever-Virgin Mother of God" in The Mother of God, edited by E. L. Mascall (London: Dacre Press, 1949), pp. 51-63, also in Volume 3: Creation and Redemption from the Collected works of Fr. Georges Florovsky)

As Origen says,

"I consider it to be in conformity with reason that, with regard to the purity which consists in chastity, Jesus was the first among men, while Mary was first among women." (Origen, Commentary on Matthew 10, 17)

He also adds elsewhere,

"Every incorrupt and virgin soul, having conceived by the Holy Spirit in order to give birth to the will of the Father, is a mother of Jesus." (Origen, Fragments on Matthew 281, quoted in Gambero, 76).

Origen however, taught that Mary was not holy from the beginning, and that she was scandalized and had vanity within her (Homily on Luke 17, 6-7). But this was because he was speaking in the Greek context of sanctification. Origen, faithful to the more ancient Alexandrian tradition, tends to emphasize the Virgin's holiness and virtues, always in the context of her condition as one still making progress (Gambero, 78).

However, Origen still believed that Mary was all-holy (Homily 7 in Lucam) and she was holy before the Annunciation (Homily 6 in Lucam). While reading Origen, we must also keep in mind that the East did not have the developed concept of original sin and grace (as seen later, for example in St. Augustine), and thus, this affected his teaching. However, it did not keep Origen from saying Mary was a symbol of Christian life (above).

The dogma developed more after the Council of Nicaea. We have St. Athanasius of Alexandria in the 4th century saying,

"He (Christ) took it (His body) from a pure and unstained Virgin, who had not known man." (On the Incarnation of the Word 8)

Athanasius also believed that Mary is a model of perfection. He states,

"The Holy Scriptures, which instructs us, and the life of Mary, Mother of God, suffice as an ideal of perfection and the form of the heavenly life." (De Virginitate, 255)

We also have the Greek Epiphanius and Ephraem in the Syriac speaking Church that lend us fresh insight into Mary's sanctity. St. Epiphanius speaks of Mary's womb as prepared for God as a temple and dwelling-place for the Lord's Incarnation (Panarion, haer. 79, n. 3). She was also "graced in every way" (ibid. 78, n. 24). He also calls her the holy vessel in which the Lord was carried:

"Whoever honors the Lord also honors the holy vessel; who instead dishonors the holy vessel also dishonors his Master. Mary herself is that holy Virgin, that is, the holy vessel." (Haer, 78, 21; PG 42, 733A)

However, Epiphanius had to be careful of his language. He did not want to put further emphasis on her holiness since there was the heresy of the Collyridians who actually worshipped Mary. Anymore emphasis might make it imply as if Mary was a goddess. But he was clear that Mary still ought to be honored, but not adored (Panarion haer 79, n.7).

We also have St. Ephraem's witness which is more striking. He insisted that the Cherubim are not her equal in holiness, the Seraphim must yield to her loveliness, and the legions of angels are inferior to her purity (Hymni de beata Maria, 13, nn. 5-6). He also praised Mary saying:

"Only you Jesus and your Mother are more beautiful than everything. For on you, O Lord, there is no mark; neither any stain in your Mother." (Carnina Nisibena 27, 8).

The stain is sin, and stainlessness is sinlessness; and so the text excludes from the Mother of God and from her Son all taint of sin, whatever it may be -- consequently, even original sin (Carol, 2:131).

Incipient Explicit Faith

The next period of development is the incipient explicit faith which dates from the Council of Ephesus to the eleventh century. The Council of Ephesus declared and defined Mary as the Mother of God. After this council, the teaching of the Immaculate Conception became more explicit. The well-established 'all-holy' quality of the Mother of Christ, formulated and developed with such amplitude in earlier times, and assuredly emphasized between the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Ephesus, offered abundant material for the conclusion that Mary was conceived in grace (Carol, 1:352).

However, there are some Eastern Fathers that claimed that Mary had personal faults such as vanity (i.e. Origen, Basil, John Chrysostom). Also, there were many writings that said that Christ alone was free from sin. Does this invalidate the Immaculate Conception? Not if one reads the Eastern Fathers in their context. Catholic apologist Mark Bonocore writes,

'What's more, while the Greek Church liked to say that this "rebuke" was in response to a "maternal vanity" on the part of Mary, it is very important to keep in mind that this kind of "vanity" was not seen as a venial sin by the Greek Fathers, since these Greek Fathers did not have a concept of venial sin or concupiscence rooted in original sin, because this theology (an aspect of Latin theology) was not yet worked out by St. Augustine during his struggles against the Pelagians.'

This means when the Fathers say that Mary had personal faults, it just means that she lacked divinity. This is why many Church Fathers claimed that Christ alone was without sin because He in His Person, since He is God, cannot sin and man is natively sinful because he is man. However, there is one point in which the Fathers left a middle ground for, and that is, the possibility of sinlessness through grace. It has been claimed that Cyril of Alexandria for example, believed that Mary had personal faults (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma by Ludwig Ott, p. 203). Though this is true, he still believed that Mary was uncommonly holy (Adversus Nestorii blasphemies, lib. 1, cap. I). And the belief that Mary did contact original sin and was delivered of its stain only at the moment of the Annunciation never gained any measure of wide acceptance among the better authors (Carol, 1:352).

Theodotus, Bishop of Ancrya says:

'In place of Eve, an instrument of death, is chosen a Virgin, most pleasing to God and full of His grace, as an instrument of life. A Virgin included in woman's sex, but without a share in woman's fault. A Virgin innocent; immaculate; free from all guilt; spotless; undefiled; holy in spirit and body; a lily among thorns.' (Homily 6 in S. Deiparam, No. II, PG 77, 1427 A.)

He also spoke of Mary as being consecrated to the Creator before the Nativity (Homily 6, II; PO 19, 329). We can see a more developed knowledge of the Eve-Mary parallel from the quote above. Proclus of Constantinople makes a similar praise:

'He came forth from her without any flaw, who made her for Himself without any stain.' (Oratio I de Laudibus S. Mariae, PG, 65, 683 B.)   ....'Mary is the heavenly orb of a new creation, in whom the Sun of justice, ever shining, has vanished from her entire soul all the night of sin.' (Ibid, Oratio 6, PG 68, 758 A.)

Proclus also spoke of Mary as the ark of the Lord (Homily 5, 3; PG 65, 720 B). Hesychius of Jerusalem agrees with the consensus of the Fathers when he extolled the incorruptibility, immortality, immunity from concupiscence, impeccability, triumph over Satan, and the co-redemptive mission of the Mother of God (Oratio 39 in Sanctissimae Deiparae Annuntiationem, PG 85, 426).

From the sixth century, we have Anastasius I declare the privilege of the Immaculate Conception (Oratio 3 de Incarnatione, No. 6, PG 89, 1338). We also have Severus of Antioch who states:

'She…formed part of the human race, and was of the same essence as we, although she was pure from all taint and immaculate.' (Hom. Cathedralis 67)

Romanos the Melodist, whom the Byzantine Church proclaims as the cantor of the mysteries of Christ, and Mary says of Mary:

'…the tribes of Israel heard that Anna had conceived the immaculate one.' (On the Birth of Mary 4)

By the seventh century the doctrine of Mary's freedom from original sin had become well elaborated that there was no controversy on the substance of the teaching (Carol, 1:354). Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, describes Mary as:

'holy, immaculate in soul and body, entirely free from every contagion.' (Epistola Synodica ad Sergium, PG 87 (3), 3159; 3162)

He also speaks of the grace that no one has received besides her (Orat in Deiparae Annunt 25, PG 87, 3246-3247).

At the time of the eighth century, we have Andrew of Crete saying that the Redeemer was born from a pure and entirely Immaculate Virgin (Hom. in Dorm. Deipara). He also says:

'It was right, then, that the admirable Joachim and his spouse, Anna, inspired by divine thoughts, did obtain for her as the fruit of their prayer; her, I say, the queen of nature, the firstfruits of our race, whose birthday we celebrate, whose swaddling clothes we honor, and whom we venerate as the source of the restoration of our fallen race.' (Homily 3 on Mary's Nativity, PG 97, 860 B-C)

Firstfruits of the human race in this text means that she is the first creature who received the gift of salvation (Gambero, 393). He then explains more fully:

'This is Mary the Theotokos, the common refuge of all Christians, the first to be liberated from the original fall of our first parents.' (Homily 4 on Mary's Nativity, PG 97, 880 C)

We also have John Damascene who called Mary:

'the most holy daughter of Joachim and Anne, hidden from the fiery dart of Satan, dwelling in a bridal chamber of the spirit, preserved without stain as the Spouse and Mother of God.' (Homilia I in Nativitatem Beatae Virginis Mariae, No. 3, PG 96, 675)

At the time of the ninth century, the Eastern Church's belief in the Immaculate Conception has numerous support, if not universal consent. Tarasius of Constantinople for example, speaks of Mary as being predestined from the creation of the world and chosen from among all generations that she might be the immaculate domicile of the Word and the immaculate oblation of human nature (In SS. Deiparae Praesentationem, PG 98, 1498; 1482; 1490). Joseph of Hymnographus describes Mary as wholly and entirely without stain (Mariale PG 105, 983). Gregorius Nicomediensis exempts Mary from all stain of sin and from the consequences of the fall of Adam (Oratio 7 in Sanctissimae Deiparae ingressum in templum, PG 100, 1454; 1443).

In the tenth century, Euthymius of Constantinople with Petrus of Argo said that Mary was liberated from the infection of original sin from her conception in the womb of St. Anne (Oratio in conceptionem S. Annae, PG 104, 1351; 1359). Joannes Geometra wrote that Mary was a new creation who was the supreme work of God (Hymnus 2 and 3 in Beatissimam Dei Genetricem, PG 106, 858; 862).

We have a lot to thank to the Eastern Church for developing this doctrine. They had great devotion to Mary, specifically shown in their beautiful Liturgies. While this was going on, there were also Western Fathers that expressed their belief in the Immaculate Conception.

To Be Continued....


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