I examine Scotus’ view of Mary’s birth free of “original sin”, God’s special grace to her on account of her Son and what He would do for all.
My preference to see Mary as an ordinary girl and mother, prone to sin like anyone else but given an extra-ordinary favour from God that makes her just and right to be the means of the Incarnation. But I find some of Scotus arguments interesting and having other implications for everyone.
Scotus and “the immaculate conception” of Mary
The Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, has a prominant place in Catholic and Franciscan theology and devotion. Francis of Assisi himself wrote of her that she was Mother of God, Ever Virgin, the palace and tabernacle of Christ, robe and handmaid. All of this he gained from Catholic and former Orthodox traditions. There had been discussions and debates in the church about how she had greater grace from God and discussions about her in relation to her own need, or not, to be covered by the salvation that Christ brought to the rest of humanity. Could she said to be free of sin, and if that was so how had it come about? What made her fit and worthy to be the Mother of God?
What Scotus wrote about the special “immaculate conception” and life of Mary later became part of Catholic doctrine but can be seen against the background of the other discussions about Mary and devotion to her.
A normal girl?
My original starting point and primary concern is an Anglican lay minister and non-Catholic is her normal humanity. I have also long held the view that the more she is elevated above other normal human mothers the more this detracts from the absolutely amazing event of the joining of God to human nature in her womb. If Mary is any different to other women in her moral status before God prior to Christ, then this seems to me to say that God cannot come into normal flesh and into the life of normal human being and use her as His vessel for glory and salvation.
To me, Mary must have beeen a person capable of failure and with potential failure of moral and spiritual character. I have long thought that it is in that light that Mary should be seen, however highly favoured she may have become as Thetokos , still a woman like other women who was no less prone to sin and could have sinned throughout her life and needing God’s grace and redemption as we all do. Even so I wanted to view Scotus elaboration of Mary’s spiritual status in a sympathetic but critical light as well as thinking of her in the view of her special role in history, giving birth into the world of the greatest Being that has existed in earth history.
Scotus’ question and answer
In Ordiantio 3, distinction 3. Scotus asks “Whether the Blessed Virgin was Conceived in Original Sin”.
I note that this whole argument pre-supposes the specific inherited Catholic concept of “original sin” as somehow contracted and passed on from a historical Adam. We may not be able to maintain such an argument in those terms today. I would for instance have a re-interpretation of sin based upon having a continued tendency towards self that is in some respects our human inheritance rather than some contamination from a semi-mythical figure or even previous humans in other respects. Yet we may want to retain some sense of past bad behaviour and our tendencies passed onto us, as well as our individual responsibility for our own spiritual state.
In his intial considerations about Mary and her status of sinfullness or grace, Scotus sets out some pros and cons related to the question. There was the very common argument from several sources that all people are sinners from being children of Adam who sinned first and therefore Mary must have been born with a status of sinner too. It was traditioanlly argued that being born from normal sexual union, with some implied lust in her parents, that this would also make her a sinner by descent that could only be cleansed by some latter grace. Having considered such former arguments Scotus sets out some reasons for rejection of that common opinion and attempts to prove that Mary was concieved without that Original Sin and all ist tendencies. He tries to do so in three ways.
1) In comparison to God to who He reconciles Mary and others
2) The comparison of the evil from which He liberates her
3) Comparison of the obligation to Mary who He reconciles to God
These are all relate to Christ as the Redeemer of all who has paid a price for all of us to liberate us from the stain and power of sin. The most perfect mediator (God in Christ) has the most perfect potential to be mediator between God and humanity. Because this is so, He could have acted most perfectly towards Mary in a most special way to reconcile her before He reconciles others on account of what she would be and do. If Christ has most perfectly reconciled us, He merited to take away Mary’s guilt even more so and did so first.
Scotus counters arguments that natural birth implies Mary’s sinful nature in conception and says this is not conclusive for Mary. As in another place Scotus says we are not sinners because we have inherited it. We are sinners because we do not control our own tendencies and actions. There would of course be a question here of our behaviour (good or bad) having some genetic component from our evolution. Psychologists and others could argue over that matter of inheritance and degrees of freedom of will. How much Mary would have been subject to sinfulness from her genetic inheritance is not something we can fully answer, but Scotus wants to make the case that any inherited effects she may have had to not count in the matter of God’s grace to her. God could remove any sin and sinful tendencies from her, if He wanted to. In the very first instance of her conception, God could have poured His grace into Mary and what He could do He did. This grace of deliverance and cleansing from sin first shown to Mary is what others recieve in baptism.
Scotus concedes that although Mary was conceived as a child of humanity before she was justified, and so would not have had grace, that does not mean she was deprived of grace thereafter. Christ and His Merits from what He would do for all others was like an open door for Mary for her blessedness. It would mean that if she had died before Christ’s passion she would still have been a recipient of this mediated grace and this would also apply to other holy fathers prior to Christ.
This argument implies her prior and special grace is on the basis of what Christ would do in redemption of all of us, and indeed for all other previous persons God chose to honour. It is a special grace from Christ applied backwards in time to her. It points to a specific character of grace and salvation brought by Christ that can be applied backwards in time to those who God loves as well as to all those who have lived after Christ’s redeeming event on the cross. It would cover all the pre-Christian servants of God in all times and places. If Mary is special in regard to her status and sinless it only because God has chosen to redeem her and sanctify her first before all others on account of what Christ would do in his earthy life.
In summary, Scotus wants to make a special argument that Mary received a special grace, from Christ given to her by virtue of being His mother. It is a special grace from Him that is done to her on account of what He would do. It shows a special divine and undeserved love that extends backwards in time to her that prevented her being a sinner and inheriting or contracting sin from either her parents or by the fact she is a daughter of Adam and would have been a sinner unless prevented by God.
There are many things that need to be considered about the life and spiritual status of Mary, the mother of Jesus. There is such a long devotional history to consider in Catholic and Orthodox theology and this is just a small part of it. It may be something to which I need to return to consider other aspects of traditions related to her.
Despite my initial comments on the matter of the “Immaculate Conception” that for me Mary must be a normal girl, prone to sin and failure as all people are, I find the comments of Scotus on Christ’s merits stretching back to her in time, giving her some special grace and favour an interesting thought. It is special in that it includes the idea of a special and first shown grace to her that works backwards in time as well as forwards after the historical situations of His life and death and resurrection.
Was Mary really so “justified” and sanctified before her birth? Was she really such holy and sinless person? Maybe we cannot be certain of the case. But the very idea of a first and special justification by grace from the Merits of Christ open up many avenues of thought about the extent of the grace of God before the incarnation and its backward and forward scope to other people quite apart from Mary herself. We may need also to consider more about what the meaning of “Grace” is. Is it just some unmerited favour in God’s sight or is it also related to an inner power at work that leads the person to more readily choosing the good and avoiding further sin?
I still not sure that I can think of Mary as concieved, born and always perfect, no more than we are, but given God’s favour and persistent forgiveness as we are. Yet maybe she was possibly covered with special love and justifying love and given an inner sanctity, not of her own, given to her in preparation to be the mother of Jesus and hence Mother of God. It maybe the case that what Christ would do for all, His redeeming love is given to Mary first as a special preparation for her and a fortaste of the love that comes and justifies and pays the price of all our sins. He dies for all but His merits in doing so are given to Mary first. In this case Mary is a symbol of all our redemption and freedom from sin. She may be the first of the Redeemed and a foretaste of all of our own personal redemption and salvation.