Most Christians, both Catholic and Protestant alike, share certain presuppositions relative to the nature of sin and its damaging effects on our relationship with God. Conversely, there is a disconnect between Catholics and Protestants when it comes to the Catholic belief that Mary was conceived and born without the stain of Original Sin, otherwise known as the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.
While it appears that the gap between the two opposing sides of this controversy is insurmountable, it must be noted that the presuppositions held in common actually provide the foundational principles that can build a bridge between the two.
Before we explore what these presuppositions are – and how they can be applied in a manner that reconciles two seemingly disparate perspectives – we must first define the nature of the controversy itself.
Nothing short of outright explicit Biblical evidence will convince many hard-core Fundamentalists of the veracity of the Immaculate Conception. For such people only direct and plain Scriptural support will suffice to convince them – particularly for any doctrine that is distinctively Catholic.
Many Protestants, however, will easily recognize that not everything they hold to is explicitly taught in the Bible.
These people, correctly, understand that the Bible indirectly and implicitly supports many other concepts such as the Triune God (three divine persons with one nature), the Hypostatic Union (Christ is one person who is both fully human and fully divine), and numerous other ubiquitous orthodox Christian beliefs. Such concepts must be carefully gleaned from Scripture and deduced since they are not explicitly stated as such within the Bible itself. Ironically, of course, many of the same hard-core Fundamentalists who would reject the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception because it is not explicitly taught in Scripture are also the first people who will jump to the defense of the implicitly taught doctrine that God is One Deity, but Three Divine Persons.
This essay is directed toward people who recognize that an implicit Eternal Truth is just as true as an explicit one even though something that is only implied, and not explicit, frequently requires the utilization of deductive reasoning and long periods of reflection before one can recognize a doctrine’s genuine orthodoxy. That is precisely why several implied Trinitarian and Christological definitions, such as the terms Hypostatic Union and Trinity, took centuries for the Church to formulate. That is also why the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception took centuries before it was formally dogmatized by the Catholic Church.
So, aside from the supposed difficulty regarding a lack of Biblical explicitness on the topic, a couple of common objections from Protestants come to the fore, the first of which is this:
Objection #1 – If Mary at the time of her conception was free of original sin then wouldn’t her parents also have to be free from original sin and likewise her parent’s parents have to be free of it and so on…?
It is only natural that this objection comes up from time to time. Why? Because it is, on the surface anyway, a very logical question given the set of presuppositions that a majority of Christians commonly bring to the table.
What are some of these typical Christian presuppositions?
First and foremost is the presupposition that Original Sin exists and keeps us separated from God unless, and until, it is somehow removed from our very nature.
Secondly is the common belief that all humans inherit Original Sin from their parents and will, likewise, pass this along to their children. Most Christians believe this.
To be fair it must be noted that there are some Christian sects that do not admit to the existence of Original Sin, but all agree that mankind is inclined to sin nonetheless (assuming one has attained the faculty of reason through age and/or natural ability). It is not within the scope of this essay to explore all of the variables, but for those Christians of the majority opinion, that is to say those who recognize that the human condition is inherently flawed as a result of Adam’s sin, this essay will attempt to draw upon those common presuppositions.
Therefore it is only logical to conclude – given the two above presuppositions – that a person who is “fallen” due to Original Sin MUST have inherited this state from likewise “fallen” parents…
…a person who would be conceived without Original Sin (as Catholics claim with regard to Mary), and therefore not under a state of fallen-ness, must have inherited this un-fallen nature from their own parents. Therefore, if one is consistent, the parents MUST also likewise be “un-fallen” too. The word “MUST” is, of course, the key word that we will be exploring.
Let’s note – before we get too far ahead of ourselves – what Original Sin is and what it is not. The orthodox view of “Original Sin” is that it is distinct from “actual sin” in that the doctrine speaks to Original Sin’s damaging effects on our nature and not to the personal guilt for the sins we have actually committed. Original Sin is often confused with Original “Guilt.” Simply stated, we are not guilty of Original Sin.
And what, exactly, is “Original Sin”? Please consider that when God created Adam and Eve He did so without our “original” parents having any sort of sin within them naturally. They were created as God intended for us to be: free of sin and filled with the light of grace. After all, it wasn’t until AFTER their first sin that they became fallen. This is a theological point that all Christians agree on.
When Adam and Eve, due to their own willful actions, sinned against God everything changed for themselves – and for us. Instead of having a nature filled with grace, their disobedience caused their nature to be changed into one that lacked the fullness of grace. In other words, rather than having a nature that was filled with the LIGHT of God’s grace, they “threw away” and rejected God’s Will for them (God Willed them to be as He created them: filled with grace) and therefore the grace – the LIGHT that filled their souls – left them. What remained was a nature that was fallen and incomplete.
Instead of God’s Light filling their nature entirely (as He originally created them) a DARK SPOT filled the void and entered their nature. This “dark spot” – lacking God’s Light – meant that their wills were weakened, their intellect was darkened, their appetites were disordered, and they were, therefore inclined to sin. In Latin the word for “dark spot” is macula.
Therefore, in a stark contrast, a soul that overflows with the fullness of God’s Light – as God originally created Adam and Eve – a soul without a dark spot – is called immaculate.
Since our original parents, Adam and Eve, became the original sinners, and hence were no longer immaculate, they were the first humans to have acquired a fallen nature due to sin and it is this fallen nature that we all inherit. Thus it is called “Original Sin.”
Therefore we are not “guilty” of original sin (in the same sense that we are guilty of actual sin when we commit it), rather we inherit it as part of our nature. It is precisely because we have a fallen nature (with all of its attributes such as our disordered appetites) that we commit actual sin. And those sins – the actual sins – are sins that we are personally guilty of.
Again, these are presuppositions held in common by a great majority of Christians on both sides of the Catholic/Protestant divide.
So now this begs a very serious question. We, as Christians, presuppose that the “macula” – the dark spot that inclines us to commit sin – is something that keeps us separate from God.
How, then, can we restore our nature so that God’s Light (grace) fills our nature and thus enables us to maintain a RIGHT relationship with God?
The answer, simply, is that there is NOTHING that WE can do. We are incapable of restoring our own nature.
But, with God, nothing is impossible.
While WE cannot restore our fallen nature and fill the void with Light – God CAN. And God DOES. He does this through the saving work of Christ on the Cross. This is also a commonly held Christian presupposition. Thus, once we are joined to Christ through faith we are then born again into His Life of Grace. When we die-to-self and commit our lives to Christ, the Holy Spirit acts to remove Original Sin (by indwelling us with God’s Light and Grace) so that we can forever become children of God and part of the New Covenantal family.
Even though Original Sin has been removed from the nature of Christians (i.e., those joined by grace to the New Covenant) we are still inclined to sin because we still suffer from the effects of Original Sin. The theological concept which explains this mysterious phenomenon is called “concupiscence.” The lingering effects of Original Sin can damage us by continuing to incline us to sin even after the indwelling of God’s Grace has eliminated the macula within us. This can happen for the simple reason that, while our having joined the New Covenant through grace DOES mend our state and our natural standing with God, it DOES NOT erase our past. Therefore, due to the nature we inherited at birth (from Adam), we came to have personal inherent “knowledge” of sin even though we, as regenerated Christians, no longer remain fallen. Even though our “right” relationship with God is repaired when we are born again into the New Covenant we still, in a very mysterious sense, “know” sin and are therefore inclined toward its illicit pleasure.
What is meant by the term “born again”? Many Christians, including Catholics, believe that this “regeneration” happens during Baptism, while other Christians believe that the term “born again” refers exclusively to when a person first comes to faith, especially within the context of a charismatic epiphany. Regardless of which camp one belongs to, all Christians agree that there is a moment when a Christian is born again into the New Covenant. And while Original Sin itself is vanquished forever for those who are born again, concupiscence and its knowledge of sin, and its inclination toward sin, rolls merrily along.
All Christians, at least those who adhere to the doctrine of Original Sin, agree that we are saved from our fallen nature by God alone and not through anything that a human can do for themselves. Most Christians, especially those who do not deny the existence Original Sin, reject the beliefs of Pelagians (an early heretical sect) who taught that we humans can somehow affect our own salvation through our own efforts outside of God’s grace.
And that brings us back to the original question at hand. Since it is the intervening work, and free gift, of the Holy Spirit whereby we are restored to Light and “saved” from the dark spot – the macula – of our fallen nature, we can see that it would not be necessary for Mary’s parents to have been likewise “immaculate” themselves at the time of Mary’s conception.
And just as each of us receive this gift of divine intervention regardless of the state our parents happen to be in (and therefore a pagan, for example, can become an adopted son or daughter of the New Covenant even if their parents remain unregenerated pagans), so too Mary’s reception of her gift was not dependent on the state of her parents.
It is certainly true that many Christians, both Catholic and some Protestants alike, believe that their children can become part of the Covenantal Family of God based on the faith of the parents (which is why many Christians baptize infants and why non-Christian Jews circumcise baby boys at the age of eight days), but the thing to be grasped here is that it is NOT us who repair our own fallen states, but rather it is the work of the Holy Spirit – not ourselves – who affects this restoration. This restorative intervention by the Holy Spirit applies to all humans whether the Immaculate Conception really happened or not. Thus, to answer Objection #1, Mary’s parents did not have to be immaculate for her to have been made immaculate via the actions of the Spirit.
Rather, as Catholicism teaches, Mary was “saved” from inheriting a “dark spot” from her parents by the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit at her conception in anticipation of her unique role in Salvation History as the “flesh-giver” and bearer of Incarnate Redeemer of the world.
So just as all saved Christians receive the gift of the intervention of the Holy Spirit with regard to the “cure” for their former fallen-ness, so too Mary received this gift.
The main difference between Mary and the rest of us Christians, according to Catholicism, is that her gift was received at her conception in anticipation of the New Covenant and her special role as mother of the Incarnate Redeemer, whereas the rest of us receive this gift through joining the New Covenant family as made possible by the saving work (on the Cross) of Our Redeemer – Jesus Christ.
This last point is, of course, where Christians differ in opinion. Protestants do not agree that Mary was saved from Original Sin at her conception in anticipation of her role as Flesh-giver of the Incarnate Savior.
Now…all this being said…
Let’s take this topic to the next logical step. The next question from many people is this:
Objection #2 – If the Holy Spirit can intervene to prevent someone from inheriting this dark spot and a fallen nature why, then, would the Spirit choose to intervene at Mary’s conception instead of at Christ’s conception? If the Spirit had intervened at Christ’s conception, then Mary could have had a fallen nature and thus the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception would be rendered moot.
Given that all Christians agree with regard to how one inherits one’s parents’ fallen nature, and given that Christ did not have a fallen nature even though He was fully human (as well as being fully divine) – having acquired human flesh and a human nature from Mary – then it naturally follows that an intervention from the Holy Spirit would have had to occur somewhere along the line or else Jesus would have inherited a fallen nature.
Why, then, did this intervention happen prior to Jesus’ conception (according to Catholicism) instead of when He was conceived in Mary’s womb?
That is a good and fair question.
Let’s first of all note that God chose to redeem the world through the Incarnation of His Son. God could have chosen any number of ways to restore our fallen nature without necessarily sending His Son down to us and taking on flesh. He could have Redeemed Adam and Eve right then and there in the Garden of Eden in the blink of an eye (as easily as flipping a light switch – zap) and then we, as inheritors of their nature, would have inherited a nature free of any dark spots.
But God didn’t do that. Instead, He chose to en-flesh His Son to affect our salvation.
For why else would He take on human flesh and a human nature if not to Redeem us by it? Thus Christ is THE REDEMER and SAVIOR. This is the premier and ultimate Christian presupposition regarding the Incarnation. Prayerfully think about that.
Just as Christian presuppositions with regard to Original Sin provided the solution to answer the first objection, other Christian presuppositions with regard to the Incarnation can answer the second objection.
And so, the very Flesh that Redeems us – the Flesh of Christ – is truly and fully human. And where did Jesus receive that Flesh? He received it from His mother – Mary.
Therefore, if He inherited His flesh and human nature from a human mother and IF His nature is NOT fallen then it raises some considerations of its own.
How so? If we humans inherit the nature of our parents, and if Christ did not have a fallen nature, then one of two possible scenarios presents itself:
Scenario #1 is that Christ – our Redeemer and Savior – inherited from His mother a pristine human nature which was not fallen. Her nature was “saved” from fallen-ness prior to Christ’s conception. In this scenario it is Mary who is the object of prior salvation. This is the Catholic view.
Scenario #2 is that Mary was fallen at the time of Christ’s conception, but that Christ was prevented from (i.e., “saved” from) inheriting her fallen-ness through the intervention of the Holy Spirit. In this scenario it is Christ who is the object of the immediate saving work of the Spirit. This is the Protestant view even if few Protestants ever think of it in these terms.
In both scenarios we have the necessity of a “saving” intervention by the Holy Spirit.
But, in scenario #2 we can see a great difficulty arising. Why? Because for Jesus to have been “saved” from inheriting Original Sin that means that Our Savior would have needed a savior AND Our Redeemer would have needed a redeemer and THAT is something that Scripture never points to and that, in reality, is an utter impossibility. For Christ Himself is “THE SAVIOR” and He is “THE REDEEMER”.
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Here the hard-core Fundamentalist who requires an explicit Biblical mandate is at total loss when asked to supply the slightest Scriptural reference to Jesus needing to be saved or redeemed at any time during the Incarnated earthly life of the Messiah.
Therefore, the only logical and consistent possibility is that Jesus inherited a human nature that existed exactly as Adam and Eve’s nature once existed – filled with the light of Grace – devoid of a dark spot – a nature that was made IMMACULATE through the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit. Thus, Mary has a Savior even though Jesus does not since He is the Savior.
The Christian presuppositions that naturally flow out of the doctrines of Original Sin and the Incarnation provide the foundational principles that can bridge the gap between those who reject the possibility of the Immaculate Conception and those who accept it as an orthodox Eternal Truth that is implicitly supported by Scripture.
And now, viewed from this perspective, we can see why it was that the Angel Gabriel said to Mary at the Annunciation, “Hail, Full of Grace” for she was, indeed, filled with God’s Light. And it was this fullness of a grace-filled human nature that Jesus – our Redeemer and Savior – inherited from His mother.
By Robert Klaus
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Note: While content aims to align with Catholic teachings, any inconsistencies or errors are unintended. For precise understanding, always refer to authoritative sources like the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Always double-check any quotes for word-for-word accuracy with the Bible or the Catechism of the Catholic Church.