Immaculate Conception doctrine development

My Protestant friends are asking me to explain or provide them resources that the Catholic Church uses to justify this doctrine. My response is typically the implicit teachings of the Fathers and not the explicit proof from Scripture. Any helpful resources on this topic would be appreciated. My response typically has also included demonstrating other doctrines that developed over centuries that aren’t explicit within Scripture (homoousios Nicaea 325). If one accepts these other developments (Church’s interpretation of Scripture) then what criteria is used to justify the rejection of others. At any rate, any help would be welcome.

In the peace of Christ

The Gospel Truths were delivered as a package (Deposit of Faith), once for all, at the time of the Apostles. This doctrine doesn’t so much “develop” as it does get more affirmed as the saints reflect on it. This package was delivered under the form of Scripture and Liturgy, with the Liturgy being central. In the Liturgy, Mary has always been affirmed as all holy and on the Liturgical Calendar we have long celebrated Mary’s Nativity (along with Christ’s Nativity and John the Baptist’s Nativity). Thomas Aquinas points out that we normally celebrate the heroic deaths of the Saints - a holy ending to their lives - but in the case of celebrating a Nativity, a birth, this means that person was born holy.

Protestants don’t have a Deposit of Faith nor do they have Liturgy (or Liturgical Calendar), so they don’t really have doctrines. They see the Christian faith as something we all individually derive from scratch for ourselves, with each of us deciding what is and is not doctrine. But this is man-made religion, rather than religion delivered to us.

I don’t like the word “justify” in connection with any dogma. There’s no need to “justify” any of them. Just using the word implies that there is something wrong with the dogma, you see. :wink:

Having said that, a reasoned explanation is fine, and may prove helpful to your Protestant friend.

Unfortunately, if your Protestant friend is a sola scriptura believer, he may not be able to accept that many of the things we believe do not have to be explicitly in the Bible. After all, the Bible isn’t a theology text–it’s a witness to God’s work among men, especially in the Church–in the NT. It was never meant to be a proof-text for doctrines/dogmas. Therefore, expecting to find things we believe, explicitly stated in it, such as that which you cited, is pointless. At best, we can cite verses/passages that support doctrine/dogma, but biblical interpretation is more complex than merely finding a verse that suits.

I just read a very nice article written by Fr. Longnecker that may or may not give you some insights into explaining why Catholics hold the dogma of the IC: However, I wouldn’t expect your friend to read it and come away convinced of anything.

The IC, like all Marian doctrines/dogmas tells us more about Christ than it does about her. That might be the starting point you want to employ.

Mary’s IC is part and parcel of the Incarnation. It tells us a few things about Our Lord. In no particular order of importance:

  1. It tells us that he took flesh from a pure human being, meaning Satan could have no claim to him as being conceived of a sinful mother. Mary being the Second Eve who was to give birth, in Christ to all the redeemed.

  2. No, it wasn’t necessary for Ann to be immaculately conceived in order for Mary to have been. It was a singular grace of God done for Mary in anticipation of her being the Mother of God–the Theotokos/God-bearer.

  3. It was made possible by Christ’s redemptive death on the cross because his redemptive death has been offered to his Father within eternity–outside of time and not limited to the actual date on which it happened. Thank God it doesn’t have that limitation or none of us could be redeemed–nor the saints of the OT, who were likewise redeemed in Christ through their faith. St. Paul goes into this when he describes the faith of Abraham and others.

These are just a few of my thoughts on the issue. I hope some of them will be helpful to you. :slight_smile:

The best (and most authoritative) justifications for Church doctrines are their original promulgations.

The Immaculate Conception is Ineffabilis Deus

Sacred Scripture says that the Virgin Mary was the recipient of divine grace/favor prior to the angel Gabriel’s visit, when he announced that she was to be the mother of Jesus. That is the meaning of the word Greek word *kecharitomene * in Luke 1:28, [female highly favored [by God] at some indefinite time in the past. The Catholic Church has simply come to understand the nature of that divine favor mentioned in Luke 1:28 and when the Virgin Mary received it, namely, the Virgin Mary was immaculately conceived, i.e., she was preserved from all stain of Original Sin when she was conceived in her mother’s womb. This is supported by what is said in Genesis 3:15 about the enmity that God would put between the serpent (Satan) and the woman (the Virgin Mary), whose son (Jesus Christ) would crush the head of the serpent (Satan).

My Episcopal friends very much have both Liturgy and a Liturgical Calendar. Lutherans very much have the doctrine of “justification by faith,” and those same Episcopal friends would tell you that they do in fact have doctrinal statements as well. Whether we believe such to be correct is another issue.

Mary – Full of Grace (kecharitomene)

When discussing the Immaculate Conception, an implicit reference may be found in the angel’s greeting to Mary. The angel Gabriel said, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). The phrase “full of grace” is a translation of the Greek word kecharitomene. It therefore expresses a characteristic quality of Mary.

The traditional translation, “full of grace,” is better than the one found in many recent versions of the New Testament, which give something along the lines of “highly favored daughter.” Mary was indeed a highly favored daughter of God, but the Greek implies more than that (and it never mentions the word for “daughter”). The grace given to Mary is at once permanent and of a unique kind.* Kecharitomene* is a perfect passive participle of charitoo, meaning “to fill or endow with grace.” Since this term is in the perfect tense, it indicates that Mary was graced in the past but with continuing effects in the present. So, the grace Mary enjoyed was not a result of the angel’s visit. In fact, Catholics hold, it extended over the whole of her life, from conception onward. She was in a state of sanctifying grace from the first moment of her existence.

Additionally, the angel’s greeting, “Hail, Full of Grace” suggests that “Full of Grace” is being used as a title and not as a mere description. This is analogous to the Roman greeting, “Hail, Caesar” said to someone whose name was “Julius” and whose title was “Caesar”. The angel did not say, “Hail, Mary, full of grace”; this is part of OUR prayer in the rosary.

From this passage, we can find clear support for the Church’s teaching that Mary was preserved from all stain of original sin and was herself full of grace from the moment that she was immaculately conceived in her mother’s womb by a singular gift of God.

To expand on this, Greek works differently than English. Subject, object, possessive are determined by word order and other cues in English. In Greek, they are determined by a “case” ending. There is a subject, possessive, direct object, and indirect object case. But there is also a vocative case. This is used for titles. Lord! Master! Etc… When using that to address someone. The “full of grace,” kecharitomene, is in the vocative case. It is being used as a title. That reading is not just a Catholic interpretation, but comes straight from Greek grammar rules.

Hi Randy,
What would you say to one who is skeptical regarding the “Full of Grace” passage being used to support the preservation from original sin belief within the CC. The typical response I get is that making that connection is anachronistic.

Right, and in Rev 12 we see the blessed Mother being chased by Satan but he is unsuccessful. I’m sure the Church would argue that this was because she didn’t fall into sin, thanks to God, of course.

Considering that skeptics of the Evangelical kind are anachronistic in how they see biblical events, I’d say it’s ironic. They are the ones who insist that everything they believe must be explicitly stated in the Bible, but considering the Annunciation had already happened well before Luke wrote his Gospel, the words had already been spoken. The people of God at that time, as now, believed what the Church told them via the preaching and teaching of the Apostles, not by reading it in any kind of writings. So, they really have no right to object. They are putting the cart before the horse, as it were.

As for secular skeptics, the answer is that the Church doesn’t hunt for verses to support her teachings in order to prove them to anyone. The verses support the teaching, but Luke did not recorded for that reason, but to simply tell us what happened. Understanding the meaning of Gabriel’s words is for the Church to determine since Christ gave her that right and duty in all matters of faith and morals.

Totally agree, the irony isn’t easy for them to see however. They seem to imply that after the protection from error and inspiration of the NT authors by the Spirit that all subsequent teaching if not explicit within Scripture isn’t worth believing. Those that are more open to the development of doctrine however still tell me they don’t see this teaching in the early Church.

As yes, the antiquarian argument. Sigh! As if everything was revealed in all its detail to the early Church. If that were the case the councils that declared the nature of the Trinity and of Christ ought to be set aside, as well. It’s because the IC a Marian teaching that it is contended, and that’s all there is to that. Some people have a knee-jerk reaction to anything to do with Mary–as if she were some kind of spoiler of “pure Christianity.” I’d like to remind such people that without Mary’s fiat there wouldn’t have been any Christianity. God continues to work through Mary and the Saints in aiding us to salvation. She’s an integral part of our lives. I think we owe her a few Aves at the very least, don’t you? :wink:

When we say that a glass is full of water, then by that we mean that it contains nothing else. If it contains both water and CountryTime Lemonade mix, then we would say that the glass was full of lemonade - not water.

If Mary was sinless, then she was “full of grace”; there was nothing of sin within her. If she had committed personal sins or if she had inherited the sin of Adam like the rest of us, then she would not be “full of grace” alone.

Recalling our Lord’s dealing with the Baptism of John, using His own method, you could say “Show me where our Lord established the bible as the sole rule of faith, and I will answer your question.”

Alternatively, does your friend believe in original sin? If so, then he alleges that Christ is a sinner, as our Lord’s human nature would have inherited Mary’s original sin - if she had any. Have him explain how Christ somehow emerged sinless from the sinful womb (which he believes in), using only the scriptures. “He’s the Lord” or “Just because” cannot be acceptable, as he is then engaging in the exact behavior of which he accuses the Catholic Church.

With respect to the development of doctrine, Rev. James T. O’ Connor has this example to provide in his commentary on a work by Bishop Vincent Ferrer Gasser: “of a man who enters a room paved with an intricate and beautiful mosaic floor.” What I have added in parenthesis are the remarks of St. Luke and the Patristic Church Fathers in the first millennium, culminating in the dogmatic declaration of Pope Pius lX. To continue: “He might first notice the brightly coloured blue fish at one end of the mosaic. He remarks upon it, stating that it is both blue and beautiful (“full of grace”). He then proceeds to take into his vision other aspects of the mosaic, commenting on each in turn (“made of purity, immaculate, without any stain, innocent, spotless, free of all defect, innocent, unsullied, holy, inviolate, like a lily among thorns, untouched, like a cherubim, radiant, lofty, and sublime”). Finally, he steps back to get an overall view of the entire piece, noticing when he does so that each individual piece, while being all that he saw and commented on originally, takes on a different perspective when seen in conjunction with the entire masterpiece (“preserved free from the stain of original sin”). So it happens, in a way, when the Church expresses the truths committed to her. Each of the infallible truths that she infallibly teaches remains true as originally seen, but the perspective can change as more and more of the truth is seen, and this greater perspective enables her to express the truth with greater clarity and in a more developed manner without in any way losing the insight and truth first glimpsed (“full of grace”). Even the Church, of course, will never get the full perspective (of the artist?) until we all see God Himself face to face. In that vision every truth the Church has ever taught infallibly will be seen in its full significance, having lost nothing of its own meaning, but rather having taken on new depths of intelligibility and beauty when faith gives place to sight.” (cf. John 16:12-13).

The Gift of Infallibility, Bishop Vincent Ferrer Gasser (Ignatius Press)

It’s interesting that Rev. O’Connor says that we can’t ever get the full perspective of the entire masterpiece of God even when gazing upon the full mosaic work. And this being so even with the Holy Spirit guiding the Church in all truth. I can imagine countless people at the Louvre gazing upon Da Vinci’s mysterious Mona Lisa trying to fathom the thoughts of the artist and the significance of the character in his portrait which is fully known only by him. The viewers can try all they want to interpret what the artist thought about the woman he painted and even try to penetrate her facial expression and bearing to understand what kind of person she was, but they will never know. Only the artist himself would know, since it was he who recreated her as he desired her to be, Her pose and facial expression were fixed to his liking. She sat still and smiled as the artist wanted her to. The Mona Lisa we see is Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, a creation of his mind and aesthetic sense. Her smile represented the kind of woman he idealized she should be. No doubt, the viewers at the Louvre will form their own understanding of her by scrutinizing all her facial details and bodily posture, but they’ll never see the Mona Lisa that Da Vinci envisioned in his mind. All they have is her enigmatic smile. And they’ll never see the artist face to face to disclose to them the full significance of it to him.

Tell your friends that without the entire mosaic floor and all its individual pieces and fine details which we Catholics have looked at, they’ll never grasp the full significance of the mystery of Mary. If we can’t, even with an overall view of God’s masterpiece, taking in all the details in conjunction with each other, they never will by looking only at the one blue and beautiful piece which is there in their Bibles in Luke 1:28. Nor will they discover that even any mystery exists without the guidance of the Holy Spirit, relying solely on their own fallible reasoning and private judgments; the Spirit of truth draws the Church that was founded by Christ into the mystery of the mind of God who recreated Mary the way He wanted her to be.


Well, do you believe Mary’s parents had original sin? If Mary could have been preserved by God from original sin despite being born to parents with original sin, then wouldn’t it be possible that Jesus could have been born of someone who had original sin? I don’t think that that argument works.

I think this is why Augustine teaches about Original Sin as coming from Adam through the father.

“Chapter 47 [XLI.]— Sentences from Ambrose in Favour of Original Sin.

For every man is a liar, and no one but God alone is without sin. It is therefore an observed and settled fact, that no man born of a man and a woman, that is, by means of their bodily union, is seen to be free from sin. Whosoever, indeed, is free from sin, is free also from a conception and birth of this kind. Moreover, when expounding the Gospel according to Luke, he says: It was no cohabitation with a husband which opened the secrets of the Virgin’s womb; rather was it the Holy Ghost which infused immaculate seed into her unviolated womb. For the Lord Jesus alone of those who are born of woman is holy, inasmuch as He experienced not the contact of earthly corruption, by reason of the novelty of His immaculate birth; nay, He repelled it by His heavenly majesty.”
On the Grace of Christ, and on Original Sin (Book II)

Maybe I am getting mixed up with something else I read, but I think Augustine (and Ambrose) believed it was the father’s contribution/seed that passed on Original Sin and Jesus was exempt because His father was God. I may be wrong or misunderstanding this.

Another question I was wondering lately. How did Mary and her family know she was free of Original Sin? That terminology wasn’t around for a few hundred years after she was born. Were they aware during her time on earth that she was immaculately conceived? How did they explain it? Or is this something only apparent in hindsight centuries later that wasn’t known to those around at that time?

Why must everything have to be known at the time? Is this not Gnostic? What about Abraham’s parents? Did they know that he would be the father of many nations? Moses’ parents? Why does it matter? With God, we are on a need to know basis, or else Christ would have taken flesh in Genesis. What I am saying is that, from the bible as sole rule of faith, Jesus must have sinful flesh. How else to perceive this? Sin comes from sin. However, our Lord did not establish the bible as sole rule.

An aside: Studying and quoting Augustine, why aren’t you Catholic as Augustine is?

Mary and her family were Jews, so they would have believed that all people enter the world free of sin with an innocent and pure soul that’s untainted by sin. Sin enters the world for each individual and tarnishes their souls only on occasion when they choose to commit personal sins. So, I suppose they believed that everyone is immaculately conceived, but according to their notion of sin. The Christian concept of original sin holds no place in Judaism, though there were a few rabbis in Talmudic times who taught that death is a punishment for Adam’s sin, which reminds us what Paul has to say in his Epistle to the Romans 5:12. I believe the idea of original sin as it has evolved in Christianity originated with Paul and not with any of the Twelve, including Peter. But our chief shepherd would have had to approve of Paul’s idea before he could annunciate it to the churches. Many Protestants mistakenly believe that all the essential Christian doctrines were definitively formulated by the Apostles and their appointed associates by the time of their deaths and preserved in sacred Scripture. And so, they refuse to believe in Mary’s Immaculate Conception and Assumption because these events “aren’t in the Bible” - at least not explicitly, is the Catholic rejoinder.

What the apostles themselves comprehensively thought about Mary’s standing with God, we can never know. But I’m sure they owned they hadn’t yet grasped all the implications and its full significance. And what they did understand was that Jesus had sent the Paraclete to guide the Church in “all” truth. In other words, the Spirit would help the Church to develop in knowledge of the divine mysteries over a span of time (John 16:12-13). For this reason, our Lord founded his Church through which the wisdom of God in all its mystery can be better known and more fully understood as time goes on. (Ephesians 3:10-11). In his First Letter to Timothy, Paul affirms what he means to say to the Ephesians: “the Church is the pillar and foundation of the truth” (3:15). And by “Church” he meant that which was instituted at his time: one, visible, hierarchical corporate body, which we don’t have in Protestantism with all its countless, autonomous denominational churches with no one Spirit guiding them since apostolic time. A great chasm of time separates the Protestant churches from the day Christ’s one apostolic Church was born on Pentecost Sunday. And the Bible, which was compiled three centuries after the Church’s birth, having proceeded from sacred Tradition, evidently serves as a poor bridge to cross that great divide. Jesus ensured that no bridge should ever have to be constructed so that the Church’s unity of faith would be preserved through all future generations of the faithful. And he did this by having the apostles appoint able men who would succeed them in their divine office and carry on their ministry after they are gone. Paul writes to Timothy, who has been appointed bishop: “What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2, 2:2). These commissioned men Paul speaks of have been ordained by the apostles and sealed with the Holy Spirit as a guaranty to teach the truth that has been handed down to them and placed in their custody. (2 Corinthians 1:21-22). Indeed, the apostle calls his ministry an “office” which presupposes there are successors to it (Colossians 1:25).

The Bible cannot serve as the final rule of faith, because not all the material in it is presented in an explicit and definitive way. The Bible is materially sufficient, but formally insufficient. For us to know what God has revealed, we must turn to the Church which Christ founded on Peter and the Apostles. And we must turn our gaze upon the sacred Tradition of the Church which belongs to the deposit of faith together with sacred Scripture. God’s unwritten word - that which is declared by the Holy Spirit to the Church - clarifies what is meant in God’s written word that has followed. Protestants deny the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist by transubstantiation because they don’t see this in the NT. And because it isn’t explicitly there, the dogma must be false. However, if we look to Tradition, we’ll see that it is there and has always belonged to the deposit of faith from the beginning, and taught by the divinely constituted teaching office of the Church. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, was a disciple of the apostle John (See Chapter 6 of his gospel.), and this is what he has written c .A.D. 110: “They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again” (Epistle to Smyrnaeans, 7,1). The word “Eucharist” isn’t in the Bible, but it’s there in Tradition. We can say the same thing about Mary’s Immaculate Conception. The word isn’t written down in Scripture, but this divine truth has been declared by the Holy Spirit to the Church: “Thou alone and thy Mother are in all things fair, there is no flaw in thee and no stain in thy Mother.” [Ephraem, Nisibene Hymns, 27:8 (A.D. 370)] Thus, we mustn’t ask ourselves what Mary or the apostles might have known or fully understood after Christ’s ascension into heaven, or even after Pentecost, because we can never know. All we can know is what the Church has gradually understood and taught in the course of time under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as she matures in the knowledge of God and His mighty deeds.



(quote edited for space)

It sounds like you are saying that in the first few centuries of Christianity there was no understanding of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, but this was a later revelation that came centuries later. Who first received this revelation from God? Is it known? Did an angel make an appearance to Anne and communicate with her? Or is the report of an angel that interceded and prevented Original Sin from being attributed to Mary something that was received as part of the new revelation in future centuries?

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