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.
But I prefer to see Mary as an ordinary girl, prone to sin like anyone else but given an extra-oridinary favour from God that makes her just and right to be the means of the Incarnation. A justified sinner by the merits of what Christ would do that stretches back in time to her.
Scotus and “the immaculate conception” of Mary
Among the things in Catholic theology Scotus is famous for it is his elaboration of the special birth of Mary in preparation for her role as the bearer of the Incarnate Son. His elaboration, often called “The Immaculate Conception”, has become an article of doctrine for the Roman Catholic Church. It can of course be viewed in the much wider light of other Catholic veneration of Mary as well as her title in the Orthodox Church traditions of “thetokos” (God bearer).
A normal girl?
My primary concern is an Anglican lay minister and non-Catholic is to view Scotus elaboration of Mary 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.
I take as a starting point her normal humanity and have a 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 a human womb. If Mary is any different to other women in her moral status before God 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.
A view of Mary’s special difference from others seems to me to go back to some ancient Greek idea that God cannot really have anything to do with flesh and divinity and that flesh cannot be mixed and joined. That to me is not gospel. Only if we accept God in normal flesh, in touch with normal flesh, capable of sinfulness can we really have God in the world dealing with our failure. Mary must be a person capable of failure and with potential failure of moral and spiritual character. 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.
Scotus’ question and answer
So then, turning to Scotus, in Ordiantio 3, distinction 3 he asks “Whether the Blessed Virgin was Conceived in Original Sin”. I note to start with that this whole argument pre-supposes the 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. I would for instance place an interpretation based upon having a tendency towards self that is in some respects out human inheritance rather than some contamination from a mythical figure or even previous humans in other respects.
First, as usual Scotus sets out some pros and cons of 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 hence Mary was born a sinner too. Also that being born from normal sexual union, with some implied lust in her parents would also make her a sinner by descent that could only be cleansed by some latter grace. Scotus sets out some reasons for rejection of the common opinion. Scotus attempts to prove it 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 relate to Christ as the redeemer of all and a prior grace from Christ given to her. The most perfect mediator (God in Christ) has the most perfect potential to be mediator between God and humanity. He could have acted most perfectly towards Mary in a most special way to reconcile her before others on account of what she would be and so. If Christ has most perfectly reconciled us, He merited to take away Mary’s guilt even more so.
Scotus counters arguments that natural birth implies Mary’s sinful nature in conception and says this is not conclusive for Mary. We are not sinners because we have inherited it, but by our own tendencies we do not control. 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 from her, if He wanted to, any contagion of sin that she may have had from her natural conception and birth. In the very first instance of her conception, God could have poured His grace into Mary as He does for any other person at their baptism.
Scotus concedes that although Mary was conceived as a child of humanity before she was justified, and would not have had grace, that does not mean she was deprived of grace thereafter. The doorway to her grace was indeed open to her by the merits of Christ that were foreseen. 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 for her as well as us, and indeed for all other previous persons God chose to honour. It is a prior grace from Christ applied backwards in time to her. It points to a specific character of the 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. The Christ event of salvation is complete for all times and places.
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 prior grace from Him on account fo what He would do and did do 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.
Despite my initial comments on this matter 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 prior grace to all people before Christ appeared on earth and redemption that works backwards in time as well as forwards after the historical situations of His life and death and resurrection. Was Mary “justified” before her birth? Who knows? But the very idea of a prior 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. I don’t regard her as ever after perfect, no more than we are, but given God’s favour and persistent foregiveness as we are.