Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Catholicism 101 Series: The Immaculate Conception

Today is the feast day of The Immaculate Conception. Contrary to a popular error the Immaculate Conception must not be confused with the Incarnation of Jesus, the conception of our Lord. As Catholics we hold the belief that Mary was free from any hereditary (original) or personal sin. We believe that Mary was conceived without original sin. Unlike Mary we were all conceived with original sin, the sin of Adam. Why would perfect Holiness condescend to be contained in a sinful vessel? How could that be? In Genesis 3:15 God tells the serpent that "I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed". What is implied in the above passage is that Mary was always the enemy of Satan and she was never under his power - always his enemy unconquered. And, eventually through her son she conquered him.

Luke 1:28 - And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.

The phrase “full of grace”, or, in its other traditional rendering, “highly favored,” is a translation of the Greek κεχαριτωμένη (kecharitomene).

Dave Armstrong argues the biblical case for the Immaculate Conception very well. He also references some fair-minded Protestant perspectives on the matter.

Dave says:

The great Baptist Greek scholar A.T. Robertson exhibits a Protestant perspective, but is objective and fair-minded, in commenting on this verse as follows:

"Highly favoured" (kecharitomene). Perfect passive participle of charitoo and means endowed with grace (charis), enriched with grace as in Ephesians. 1:6, . . . The Vulgate gratiae plena "is right, if it means 'full of grace which thou hast received'; wrong, if it means 'full of grace which thou hast to bestow'" (Plummer).

(Robertson, II, 13)
Kecharitomene has to do with God’s grace, as it is derived from the Greek root, charis (literally, "grace"). Thus, in the KJV, charis is translated "grace" 129 out of the 150 times that it appears. Greek scholar Marvin Vincent noted that even Wycliffe and Tyndale (no enthusiastic supporters of the Catholic Church) both rendered kecharitomene in Luke 1:28 as "full of grace" and that the literal meaning was "endued with grace" (Vincent, I, 259).

Likewise, well-known Protestant linguist W.E. Vine, defines it as "to endue with Divine favour or grace" (Vine, II, 171). All these men (except Wycliffe, who probably would have been, had he lived in the 16th century or after it) are Protestants, and so cannot be accused of Catholic translation bias. Even a severe critic of Catholicism like James White can’t avoid the fact that kecharitomene (however translated) cannot be divorced from the notion of grace, and stated that the term referred to "divine favor, that is, God’s grace" (White, 201).

The Catholic argument hinges upon the meaning of kecharitomene. For Mary this signifies a state granted to her, in which she enjoys an extraordinary fullness of grace. Charis often refers to a power or ability which God grants in order to overcome sin (and this is how we interpret Luke 1:28). This sense is a biblical one, as Greek scholar Gerhard Kittel points out:

Grace is the basis of justification and is also manifested in it ([Rom.] 5:20-21). Hence grace is in some sense a state (5:2), although one is always called into it (Gal. 1:6), and it is always a gift on which one has no claim. Grace is sufficient (1 Cor. 1:29) . . . The work of grace in overcoming sin displays its power (Rom. 5:20-21) . . .

               (Kittel, 1304-1305)

Protestant linguist W.E. Vine concurs that charis can mean "a state of grace, e.g., Rom. 5:2; 1 Pet. 5:12; 2 Pet. 3:18" (Vine, II, 170). One can construct a strong biblical argument from analogy, for Mary's sinlessness. For St. Paul, grace (charis) is the antithesis and "conqueror" of sin (emphases added in the following verses):

Romans 6:14: "For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace." (cf. Rom 5:17,20-21, 2 Cor 1:12, 2 Timothy 1:9)
We are saved by grace, and grace alone:

Ephesians 2:8-10: "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God - not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." (cf. Acts 15:11, Rom 3:24, 11:5, Eph 2:5, Titus 2:11, 3:7, 1 Pet 1:10)
Thus, the biblical argument outlined above proceeds as follows:

1. Grace saves us.
          2. Grace gives us the power to be holy and righteous and without sin.

Therefore, for a person to be full of grace is both to be saved and to be completely, exceptionally holy. It's a "zero-sum game": the more grace one has, the less sin. One might look at grace as water, and sin as the air in an empty glass (us). When you pour in the water (grace), the sin (air) is displaced. A full glass of water, therefore, contains no air (see also, similar zero-sum game concepts in 1 John 1:7,9; 3:6,9; 5:18). To be full of grace is to be devoid of sin. Thus we might re-apply the above two propositions:

1. To be full of the grace that saves is surely to be saved.

2. To be full of the grace that gives us the power to be holy, righteous, and without sin is to be fully without sin, by that same grace.
A deductive, biblical argument for the Immaculate Conception, with premises derived directly from Scripture, might look like this:

1. The Bible teaches that we are saved by God's grace.
          2. To be "full of" God's grace, then, is to be saved.

3. Therefore, Mary is saved (Luke 1:28).
          4. The Bible teaches that we need God's grace to live a holy life, free from sin.

5. To be "full of" God's grace is thus to be so holy that one is sinless.
          6. Therefore, Mary is holy and sinless.

7. The essence of the Immaculate Conception is sinlessness.
          8. Therefore, the Immaculate Conception, in its essence, can be directly deduced from Scripture.

The only way out of the logic would be to deny one of the two premises, and hold either that grace does not save or that grace is not that power which enables one to be sinless and holy. It is highly unlikely that any Evangelical Protestant would take such a position, so the argument is a very strong one, because it proceeds upon their own premises.

Then, Dave Armstrong answers this charge by Eric Svendsen:

. . . charitoo . . . occurs in the same participial form in Sir. 18:17 with no theological significance. It also occurs in Eph. 1:6 where it is applied to all believers . . . Are we to conclude on this basis that all believers are without original sin?

          (Svendsen, 129)

Ephesians 1:5-6 reads, "He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved."

Svendsen thinks this defeats the Catholic exegesis at Luke 1:28, but the variant of charitoo (grace) here is different (echaritosen). According to Marvin Vincent, a well-known Protestant linguist and expert on biblical Greek, the meaning is:

. . . not "endued us with grace," nor "made us worthy of love," but, as "grace - which he freely bestowed."

           (Vincent, III, 365)

Vincent indicates different meanings for the word grace in Luke 1:28 and Ephesians 1:6. He holds to "endued with grace" as the meaning in Luke 1:28, so he expressly contrasts the meaning here with that passage. A.T. Robertson also defines the word in the same fashion, as "he freely bestowed" (Robertson, IV, 518).

As for the grace bestowed here on all believers being parallel to the fullness of grace bestowed upon the Blessed Virgin Mary, this simply cannot logically be the case, once proper exegesis is undertaken. Apart from the different meanings of the specific word used, as shown, grace is possessed in different measure by different believers, as seen elsewhere in Scripture:

2 Peter 3:18: "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen."

Ephesians 4:7: "But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ's gift." (cf. Acts 4:33, Rom 5:20, 6:1, James 4:6, 1 Pet 5:5, 2 Peter 1:2)
The "freely bestowed" grace of Ephesians 1:6, then, cannot possibly be considered the equivalent of that "fullness of grace" applied to Mary in Luke 1:28 because it refers to a huge group of people, with different gifts and various levels of grace bestowed, as the verses just cited show. Svendsen's argument is as fallacious as the following analogy:

Suppose a group of Christian baseball players - some of the greatest and the least talented alike - prayed to God before a game:

"He destined us in love to be his ballplayers through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious gift of athletic ability and talents which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved."

Obviously, God granted the talents and abilities of each ballplayer, in the sense of being Creator and source of all good things. But are these talents given in equal measure? Of course not (see especially Ephesians 4:7). Likewise, grace is given in different measure to believers. Therefore, Svendsen's argument that Ephesians 1:6 is a direct parallel to Luke 1:28 collapses. The mass of Christian believers as a whole possess neither the same degree of grace nor of sanctity, and everyone knows this, from experience and revelation alike.

But Mary (as an individual person) was addressed in an extraordinary fashion by a title that, biblically, means the one so addressed is particularly exemplified by the characteristics of the title. Mary was "full of grace"; kecharitomene here takes on the significance of a noun. No attempt to downplay or diminish the significance of this will succeed. The meaning is all too clear.

So, from Dave Armstrong’s excellent biblical arguments we can conclude that there is both solid logical reasoning and an exegetical basis for belief in Mary’s sinlessness, in her Immaculate Conception.

Here is a lovely instrumental piece by Loreena McKennit which uses the word kecharitomene as a title:

Here is a chant from the Greek liturgy:

Crossposted at Tu ne cede malis sed contra audentior ito

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