The Virgin Mary – Immaculate Conception


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The Virgin Mary is important to Franciscan Theology and what the church has said about her needs to be considered. I start to explore certain of those traditions here.

First here I examine Scotus’ view of Mary’s birth that is free of “original sin”, It is about God’s special grace given to her on account of her Son and what He would do for all.

Secondly there are some notes about this from Bonaventure, the Orthodox Church and Richard Hooker

For me this is more properly related to a special and initial Justification of her by God to prepare her for her role as “God Bearer”. She is also the first in human history to be the recipient of New Being and New Humanity we are to have.

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 hada special and greater grace from God and discussions about her in relation to her need to be covered by the salvation that Christ brought to the rest of humanity. 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 as an Anglican lay minister and non-Catholic has been her normal humanity. I have 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 too 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 been a person capable of failure and with potential failure of moral and spiritual character.  She must as a free willed person be a woman like other women who was no less prone to sin and could have sinned even if just little ways throughout her life and needing God’s grace and redemption as we all do. Even so I view Scotus elaboration of Mary’s special spiritual status in a sympathetic but critical light, 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, a stain of moral failure and inhertited guilt. I would 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 must affirm some sense of inheritance 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, there is 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 its 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 on the cross for all of us to liberate us from the stain and power of sin over us. 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 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 therefore did so first.

Scotus counters arguments that natural birth implies Mary’s sinful nature in conception and says this is not conclusive for Mary. 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 some 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 do 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 (both forgiveness and divine assistance) into Mary and what God could do He did do, because it is the most perfect and right to do it if it can be done. This  grace of deliverance and cleansing from sin first shown to Mary is what others recieve in baptism.

This whole argument implies her prior and special graced life 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 on the cross 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 her vocation to be His mother. It is a special grace from Him that is done to her on account of what He would do in His earthly existence. 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.

I now consider some other views of her specialness in regards to her purity

Bonaventure – A pure Virgin

Bonaventure represents a typical Catholic Marian theology before Scotus. From his commentary on the Sentences of Lombard, in response to previous arguments in the Sentences and others authors that the flesh of the Blessed Virgin was sanctified before its animation by the Spirit, he denies it.  He writes that that the flesh of the Blessed Virgin was not sanctified before animation. Furthermore, Bonaventure asserted, in defence of his oppositional view, that no master of sacred theology had ever accepted the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. In this he concurs with others including Thomas Aquinas. Mary along with all others needed redemption by her own son. 

Even so, Bonaventure could still say of Mary that she had an innocence of life and that is the reason why she is announced as “full of grace”. Through her the “malediction of Eve” is taken away. Presumably this must be related to her bearing of Jesus. Her agreement to be the mother of the saviour starts to undo the disobedience of the original Eve. If we see Eve as mythically and existentially as us as evolved beings, the role of Mary in bearing the saviour starts to undo the wrongs in us. 

Bonaventure also writes that “By thee we have access to thy Son, O blessed among women, finder of grace, Mother of life, Mother of salvation.” However it should not be that Mary is a gate to access Jesus now, but only that she is the means of Christ coming to the world and we access to Him though His revelation and presence to us.  

Orthodox reference to her special status as Thetokos 

In “Mary in the Orthodox Tradition” Living with Mary Today Symposium, University of Dayton July 26-29, 2006 Virginia M. Kimball writes that when considering Mary, the mother of Christ, in Orthodoxy, one looks naturally and directly to the liturgical tradition. Liturgy not only includes prayers, hymns, antiphons, and biblical readings of the Divine Liturgy and liturgies of all feast days of the year, but also an iconographic tradition closely knit with the liturgical tradition. 

The experience of “knowing” Mary is primarily realized in the chanted prayer of the liturgy and in reverence for icons. The image of Mary in the Byzantine icon is always related to her motherhood and to the primal concept of the theological title “Theotokos,” bearer of God. She points to her Son showing the way. She embraces her Son, flesh to flesh, motherly care touching godly care in the icon called the Eleousa. She entreats her Son with out-stretched arms in prayer at the foot of the cross and often from the left side

Bishop Kallistos Ware stated he believed that Virgin Mary was “from the very beginning of her existence … filled with grace for the task which she had to fulfill.. But that she was given a fuller measure of grace at the Annunciation,” referring to the pouring out of the Holy Spirit to Mary at the moment of her response to the Angelic message.

The Christian East therefore sees a “continuity of sacred history” throughout the ages, putting the Mother of God in a line of humans who were seeking God in a prophetic and holy way, in a kind of growing closer and closer to the coming of salvation for humanity. Mary was “involved in the total solidarity of the human race, in our mutual responsibility” for the Fall.

So it is that Orthodox theology thinks of the young Hebrew woman Mary of Galilee as a human like any other human who was or has ever been born. Her all-holiness was not a privilege, but truly a free response to God’s call. She was filled with the Holy Spirit and answered a total “yes” to the call of God’s plan for salvation. The Theotokos came into the world embracing a beautiful “imago Dei,” and received a fullness of God’s grace at the Annunciation that prepared her for her task rather than anything given to her in  her mother’s womb. 

Richard Hooker – The Virgin Mary Was a Sinner 

Richard Hooker, a founding Anglican theologian gives what may be regarded as more Protestant view of Mary. In his “Learned Discourse on Justification.” there never was any mere natural man absolutely righteous in himself: that is to say, void of all unrighteousness, of all sin. Even Mary was not an exception. Quoting Eusebius Emissenus, who speaks of her, and to her, to this effect: 

“The mother of the Redeemer herself, otherwise than by redemption, is not loosed from the band of that ancient sin.” 

Therefore Christ paid a ransom for all even for her. 

My conclusion

The conclusion of all this is that even though Orthodox tradition could say that she was a “Pure Virgin” the Catholic theology of the Immaculate Conception stemming from such views like Duns Scotus is exceptional.  It is better to regard her as being specially graced by her own Son, albeit that this could include a special grace and justification given to her in her mother’s womb. In this was she the first among all people to receive the special grace that was to be manifest and made present for all by Christ in His Passion and Resurrection. She is simply the first of all of us to receive to grace and purification in the power of the Spirit.

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 a reasonable and profound argument. It is special in that it includes the idea of a special and first shown grace to her, that we will also recieve, that works backwards in time  as well as forwards after the historical situations of His life and death and resurrection.

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.

I still do not think of Mary as concieved, born and always perfect, no more than we are, but in need of and given God’s favour and persistent forgiveness as we are. Yet maybe she was 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. In that case what Christ would do for all, His redeeming love is given to Mary first as a special preparation for her and a foretaste 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 is the first of the Redeemed and a foretaste of all of our own personal redemption and salvation.

In this respect,  in the history of humanity she is the New Woman, the New person, given the first fruits of New Being, the New Humanity that Christ brought to the world. Paradoxically His New Humanity is given to her before His earthly life beings and accomplishes it. She is the first recipient in history of the New Being and New Order of Recreation.

Hail Mary, full of the Grace from Christ that makes us all new

Blessed beyond measure is the one you carried in your womb, who redeems us all, and re-creates us in His own image.

Hail Mary, first to be redeemed, by Him who you loved and cherished, baby and man.