You Cannot Argue with This

Nor does it redound to the great intellectual tradition.

It is Father Dwight’s conversion narrative about the Immaculate Conception. He concedes that it is not an ancient dogma and that Thomas Aquinas “didn’t believe it.” But when an overweight priest told him, “We believe in the Immaculate Conception because the pope tells us to. Pass the fried chicken,” Longenecker knew his interlocutor was right.

Still, he needed to own the Immaculate Conception. Here is how he had a really, really personal relationship with Jesus:

I was traveling in Normandy in France. I wandered into Bayeaux Cathedral. As in most of the medieval cathedrals there were lots of little side chapels. I was pretty much the only person in the cathedral. I stopped in a little chapel and saw the finger bone of St Thérèse who had lived just down the road in Lisieux.

Then I stopped in another chapel and knelt to pray. I don’t know what I prayed — maybe the Rosary. I don’t know. I was caught up in prayer for some time. Then I walked out of the cathedral and the morning sun was bright and clear in the plaza outside, and I suddenly realized that I believed in the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Then I also remembered who the little chapel was dedicated to in which I was praying. It was St. Bernadette — to whom the Blessed Virgin appeared and confided, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

I no longer simply understood the dogma and the logic of it, but I saw the beauty of it and the wonder of the simple girl of Nazareth becoming the second Eve. As I realized I believed in the Immaculate Conception I also suddenly became more aware, in a deeper way — a way very difficult to articulate — of the reality and historical concreteness of the incarnation itself.

Suddenly Jesus Christ — Son of God and Son of Mary — was more real than he ever was before, and I also grasped why the Church requires this belief and does not allow it to remain a pious option.

It is because the Church wants us, through the Marian dogmas, to be introduced to Christ in a more real and powerful way.

Could this be the explanation for evangelical conversions to Rome? Too little doctrine, too much experience?

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Jesus Only Christianity

Since a new set of interlocutors has emerged of late I am going to persist with a contrast between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism that seems to be fairly crucial for considering the Reformation — namely, what to do about Mary. May seems to the month of our Lord’s mother, hence a number of posts at National Catholic Register (see what EWTN did there?) about Mary. To contrast the liturgical and national calendars, please keep in mind that for Americans May is Asian Pacific Heritage Month.)

Mark Shea persists with a defense of Mary’s immaculate conception and concludes that the church arrived at a two-fold doctrine of salvation (and we’re not even talking about God’s covenant with Jews — though since Mary was Jewish, I guess we are):

Jesus saves from sin in two ways just as a doctor saves from sickness in two ways: cure and prevention. Mary was prevented from contracting original sin in the moment of her conception by a singular act of grace through Christ. In her, we see, not the absence of Christ’s saving grace, but its fullest expression. Hence, she is “full of grace” and praises “God my savior” (Luke 1:47).

For confessional Protestants, that seems like a stretch since we believe in only one mediator between God and man. This implies that some persons can have a different relationship with God. If one has a unique relationship with God, why not a lot more? Why didn’t God simply reboot after Adam’s sin and “prevent” Cain and Abel from sinning?

Meanwhile, Dwight Longenecker tries to explain why Mary as Mediatrix or Co-Redemptrix is not an offense but affirms the sole mediation of Christ:

Once we have recognized that Mary suffered with Jesus we should take a moment to try to understand the depth of that identification with her son. Remember she is linked with her son like no other Mother and her son is like no other Son. How often have we seen and experienced the deep identification between a mother and her child? The child suffers at school. Mama bear steps in for she has suffered too. The child experiences hardship and tears. The mother’s heart is broken too. Only when we understand the depth of Mary’s suffering and the depth of her unique identification with her son will we begin to understand the Catholic doctrines of Co-Redeemer and Mediatrix.

We should be clear that we are not saying that Jesus’ work of redemption on the cross was in some way insufficient. Neither is his work as mediator between God and Man inadequate. We acknowledge that his redemptive suffering on the cross was full and final and totally sufficient. We acknowledge that he is the only saving mediator between God and Man. So what do we mean with these titles for Mary?

What we mean is that she participates in the full, final, sufficient and unique work of Christ on the cross for the salvation of the world. She walks beside him and through his work she joins in that work. It is like Christ’s love and sacrifice is a fast flowing river, but Mary swims in the current of that river. Her work is dependent on his work. Her participation and co-operation could not happen without his work going before and enabling all that she does.

But again the question arises, why single out Mary? Aren’t all believers united to Christ? Don’t we all swim in the current of his work? And wouldn’t it be fair to say after a reading of the New Testament that the apostles (and prophets before them) participated much more directly in Christ’s work than Mary (who is on the sidelines for most narratives)? Why not at least call Peter a Co-Redemptrix? He is after all the original Vicar of Christ. And why appeal to a special relationship between mother and child when Christ himself said that his followers bore a special relationship to himself in ways that were closer than blood relations (“Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.’ But he answered them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it'” [Luke 8:19-21].)

The point here though has less to do with some of the questions that Longenecker and Shea raise (even as they try to answer objections). It is instead this: what would Christianity lose if Mary was not understood the way these apologists conceive her? Would Christianity be somehow deficient without the immaculate conception or Mary as co-redemptrix?

Simplicity is not always a good thing. But one way of reading the Reformation is as an effort to remove the clutter that had accumulated after a millennium of passing on the faith. Anyone who has changed residences knows the unenviable task of deciding what to do with the basement. Reformers did just that with the western church in the sixteenth century. Some might argue that they donated too many boxes with useful items to United European Charities, Inc. But if Longenecker really does affirm that Christ’s work was sufficient in and of itself (along with Christ’s Spirit, of course), why the attachment to Mary? What does her uniqueness profit the gospel or the Christian religion more generally?

And if Protestantism is really about trying to exalt the work of Christ — and doesn’t mind stepping on traditions that get in the way of seeing Christ’s sufficiency — why would it generate the hostility that it did from Rome?

The Gospel According to Mark

No Mary immaculately conceived, no gospel:

In light of the Incarnation, it is profoundly mistaken to think that humanity is necessarily or naturally sinful. It isn’t. Sin is normal, but never natural. Nature is not corrupt; corruption is corrupt. Sin is precisely what is contrary to our human nature. It is damage to nature, not nature itself, which constitutes sin. Thus, sin (which we all inherit in Adam) is always a warping and a deformation of our nature. In Christian understanding, nature is essentially good since it and grace (not sin) have the same author: God. Grace does not build on sin. It heals sin, eradicates sin, repairs the effects of sin, forgives sin. When that process is complete (as it shall be for the saints in heaven) those saints shall no longer be afflicted by sin in any way. That would be impossible if sin and humanness were identical.

Very well then, if there is nothing intrinsically impossible with the idea of sinless humanness in heaven for people who don’t happen to be Jesus, there is also nothing intrinsically impossible with Mary is being preserved from sin right here on earth by the same God who gets people to heaven. It is true that, apart from the authority of the church, there is no way we could know this about Mary. But then again, apart from the authority of the church, there is no way we would know that the Holy Spirit is God either. All that means is that Scripture is intended to be read in light of the full teaching of the church. When we do, we find that to deny the sinlessness of Mary on the mere ground that she’s human and therefore must be sinful has the surprising effect of messing up our understanding of the Incarnation.

And there is an understandable reason for that. Mary is the source of the Incarnation. Christianity is not merely a religion of the word. It is a relationship with the Word made flesh. But the Word gets his flesh from somewhere. All Christians believe in the blood of Christ shed on the cross. But God the Son, in his divine nature, had no blood to shed till the received it in purity from his mother. No Mary, no Incarnation; no Incarnation, no death on the cross; no death on the cross, no resurrection; no resurrection, no salvation for the world. Get rid of Mary and you don’t get a purified faith: you get nothing. That is the consequence of overlooking this often neglected truth.

Well, isn’t it profoundly correct to think of humanity as necessarily sinful in the light of THE FALL? Why would the Son of God become incarnate if not to redeem sinners. Plus, I was under the impression that sin a violation of God’s law. Eating a piece of fruit is natural, after all.

Post-fall, sinless humans occupying heaven is impossible without grace and forgiveness. Using the possibility of sinless humans going to heaven as the grounds for Mary’s sinfulness seems like a real groin-tearing stretch.

And if Mary needs to be sinless to bear Christ, then what about Mary’s mother needing to be sinless to bear Mary? And what about Mary’s grandmother to bear Mary’s mother? You see where this is going — thanks to the fall, which you don’t apparently see.

But if you insist that we would not have Christianity without Mary, then why did Anselm (a saint by both your and my standards) instead of writing Cur Deus Homo not write Why Mary Conceived without Sin? (Sorry my Latin is rusty.)

One last question: how much theology do you possibly need to be ignorant of to find your apologetics compelling? (So many Marks, so little time.)

Wow!

The Callers have not been forthcoming about the nature of the Immaculate Conception, but Jimmy Akin is:

1. Who does the Immaculate Conception refer to?
There’s a popular idea that it refers to Jesus’ conception by the Virgin Mary.
It doesn’t.
Instead, it refers to the special way in which the Virgin Mary herself was conceived.
This conception was not virginal. (That is, she had a human father as well as a human mother.) But it was special and unique in another way. . . .

2. What is the Immaculate Conception?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it this way:

490 To become the mother of the Saviour, Mary “was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role.” The angel Gabriel at the moment of the annunciation salutes her as “full of grace”. In fact, in order for Mary to be able to give the free assent of her faith to the announcement of her vocation, it was necessary that she be wholly borne by God’s grace.
491 Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, “full of grace” through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854:

The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.

3. Does this mean Mary never sinned?
Yes. Because of the way redemption was applied to Mary at the moment of her conception, she not only was protected from contracting original sin but also personal sin. The Catechism explains:
493 The Fathers of the Eastern tradition call the Mother of God “the All-Holy” (Panagia), and celebrate her as “free from any stain of sin, as though fashioned by the Holy Spirit and formed as a new creature”. By the grace of God Mary remained free of every personal sin her whole life long. “Let it be done to me according to your word. . .”

4. Does this mean Mary didn’t need Jesus to die on the Cross for her?
No. What we’ve already quoted states that Mary was immaculately conceived as part of her being “full of grace” and thus “redeemed from the moment of her conception” by “a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race.”
The Catechism goes on to state:

492 The “splendour of an entirely unique holiness” by which Mary is “enriched from the first instant of her conception” comes wholly from Christ: she is “redeemed, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son”. The Father blessed Mary more than any other created person “in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” and chose her “in Christ before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before him in love”.

508 From among the descendants of Eve, God chose the Virgin Mary to be the mother of his Son. “Full of grace”, Mary is “the most excellent fruit of redemption” (SC 103): from the first instant of her conception, she was totally preserved from the stain of original sin and she remained pure from all personal sin throughout her life.

What is particularly stunning is Akin’s assertion that Jesus did not die for Mary. This doesn’t make Makes sense, of course, since Akins believes Mary was a Wesleyan her whole life. But if If God could do that for the mother of Jesus, die for her sinless conception, birth, life, and death, why not for his earthly father so that Joseph (also immaculately conceived) and Mary could function like the original Adam and Eve and conceive the man who would bruise the serpent’s head? On the surface, Eve had no reason to think that the promised Messiah in Gen. 3:15 would have the Holy Spirit as his father.

The Immaculate Conception is a remarkable doctrine. Aside from its merits as an account of Mary’s blessedness, it reveals the wide latitude that tradition gives to the Roman Catholic magisterium. If Jason and the Callers are going to call Reformed Protestants to communion or if Bryan is ever going to appeal to logic again, they have some ‘splainin’ to do.