I recently had a delightful conversation with a wonderful woman of the Protestant tradition. Although our discussion wasn’t focused on faith, it ended up turning in that direction – how could it not, with her dedicated faith and my Ph.D. in biblical studies? She told me that she had been raised as a Catholic, but in her adulthood became Protestant because she had come to believe that the Catholic Church was, in her words, “not Bible-based, not Christ-based.” This is a common perception among our Protestant brothers and sisters – and unfortunately a not-unfounded one, since it is still the case today that Catholics “in the pews” are largely ignorant of the Scriptures and choose to focus more on Mass attendance. This is changing; but the change is a bit slow.
As our talk was winding down, my new friend approached the subject of Mary, another common point of contention between Protestants and Catholics. One of the things she said was that “Mary was a sinner.”
Now at this point I had a ton of things to say in respectful response; but as we were both pressed for time I simply said “Well, what we think about Mary depends completely on what we think about Christ,” and had to leave it at that and hope for a future opportunity to chat more about this interesting claim.
Because it is actually a great point to bring up. After all, the Catholic Church itself teaches two things:
- Human nature is fallen and is not only subject to sin, but is guaranteed to sin.
- Mary, mother of Jesus, was entirely human. She was not divine; nor did she possess two natures, human and divine, and does her Son.
One would think, logically, that it would follow from these premises that Mary, as strictly human, would indeed be “a sinner,” as my Protestant friend stated. Is the Catholic Church’s teaching on Mary’s sinlessness therefore illogical, inconsistent, hypocritical? Are we cherry-picking?
It’s a question well worth addressing, and I’ve thought about it a great deal since this conversation. I’d like to share my thoughts and conclusions here.
1. We know that Jesus Christ is the divine Presence, the Word of God incarnate. John 1:14 (my favorite verse in all of Scripture) tells us this. In fact, one of the major themes of John’s Gospel – if not the major theme – is the presentation of Jesus as the Temple, the Dwelling of the Glory (another word for the divine Presence).
In ancient Israel, the Glory was connected to the people and the land. Since the temple sat upon the land, and elements of the land, such as water, wine, grain, and grass-fed animals were used in its worship, the state of the land affected the purity of the temple. If the people failed, for whatever reason, to satisfactorily purge their ritual or moral impurities, the pollution of those impurities would build up within the land, creating a kind of invisible “waxy buildup” of impurity. This would then transfer to the temple, polluting the very dwelling of God. Indeed, this was the purpose of the Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”) rituals: to cleanse the sanctuary and the land of impurities that had not been properly atoned for over the past year. Only in this way could the Presence of God be expected to continue dwelling among Israel – otherwise, the Presence would depart.
The Prophet Ezekiel spells this out for us. From his place of exile in Babylon in the 6th century B.C., Ezekiel is granted a vision of the “utterly detestable things” occurring in the temple in Jerusalem – idolatry, abandonment of the God of Israel for the worship of pagan gods, their images set up throughout the temple and painted on its walls (Ez. 8:1-16). God tells the prophet that these things “will drive me far from my sanctuary” (8:6); and indeed that is precisely what happens. In Ez. 9:3; 10:3-4, 18-20; 11:22-23, we read of the gradual departure of the Glory – the divine Presence of God – out of the Holy of Holies, away from the temple. The pollution of sin caused the Glory to withdraw. God’s Presence, utterly pure, cannot abide within an impure dwelling.
Now, taking this Scripture, we can apply it to the Person of Christ in the following way:
a. If Christ if the divine Glory/Presence (Jn. 1:1, 14); and
b. if the Glory/Presence cannot dwell where there is impurity caused by human sin (Ezekiel passages cited above); then it follows that
c. Christ, as the Glory/Presence, cannot dwell where there is impurity cause by sin.
So far, so logical. Now on to point 2.
2. If Christ cannot abide in an impure dwelling, as we have established through Scripture, then how could He abide within the body of a sinner? If Christ is the Glory/Presence, it would make no sense for the womb in which He developed to be polluted by sin. Holiness cannot dwell with impurity. Scripture itself establishes this. The Word made flesh (Jn. 1:14) would, according to God’s own Word and the precedent established by God’s dealings with His covenant people Israel, need a totally pure vessel in which to dwell. Therefore:
a. If Christ is the divine Glory/Presence, and
b. if the Glory/Presence must dwell in absolute purity, in a dwelling unpolluted by sin, then it follows that
c. Christ would need a vessel unpolluted by sin in which to take on human flesh.
The only logical thing that we can say, therefore, is that the mother of Christ, being the dwelling in which the divine Glory/Presence/Word dwells while taking human flesh, is a dwelling unpolluted by sin. Therefore, Mary had to have been sinless.
3. The original Greek in which the New Testament was written bears this out. In Koine Greek, the Greek in which the Gospels were originally composed, there is a verb form called the perfect tense. Now bear with me; this isn’t a grammar lesson but understanding the original language is important for our discussion here. The perfect tense in Koine Greek is used when referring to a present state of being that’s the result of a past event. For example, if I were to ask “What is the state of the prisoner,” and the jailer would reply “The prisoner is free,” that would mean that the prisoner’s status is now free, as a result of having been set free by a past action of reprieve, parole, etc.
Let’s take a look at Lk. 1:28, when the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will be the mother of the Messiah. Gabriel says, “Hail, highly favored (or “full of grace”)!” The phrase translated into English as “highly favored” or “full of grace” is in the perfect tense – meaning that Mary’s being full of grace is the result of a past action or event. The sense is that Mary has been “filled with grace” or “favored” by some action in the past. In the context of the announcement of her motherhood of the Messiah, what could this mean but a past action of God in preparing Mary as a pure vessel, unpolluted by sin, to house the divine Glory/Presence within her?
Mary’s sinlessness was not due to herself, or to anything within her own nature or abilities. It was strictly an act of God’s grace, sometimes called the “anticipated merits” of the atoning death of Mary’s own divine Son.
So we see how everything the Catholic Church says about Mary has everything to do with the nature and identity of Christ.
Interestingly, many Protestants and Catholics alike aren’t aware that even some fathers of the Protestant Reformation believed and taught that Mary was sinless:
Martin Luther: “God has formed the soul and body of the Virgin Mary full of the Holy Spirit, so that she is without all sins, for she has conceived and borne the Lord Jesus.” (D. Martin Luthers Werke, Kritische Gesamtausgabe, 61 vols., (Weimar: Verlag Hermann Böhlaus Nochfolger, 1883-1983), 52:39.) “Mother Mary, like us, was born in sin of sinful parents, but the Holy Spirit covered her, sanctified and purified her so that this child was born of flesh and blood, but not with sinful flesh and blood. The Holy Spirit permitted the Virgin Mary to remain a true, natural human being of flesh and blood, just as we. However, he warded off sin from her flesh and blood so that she became the mother of a pure child, not poisoned by sin as we are. For in that moment when she conceived, she was a holy mother filled with the Holy Spirit and her fruit is a holy pure fruit, at once God and truly man, in one person.” (Luther (1996), p. 291). (“Luther’s Marian Theology,” Wikipedia.com, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luther%27s_Marian_theology#cite_note-17.)
Ulrich Zwingli also believed that Mary had to have been sinless in order for Christ to dwell within her, and that this was due entirely to an action of God in Christ. See http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davearmstrong/2015/11/zwinglis-belief-in-marys-sinlessness-2.html.
If Mary housed the divine Glory/Presence, then she is appropriately called the “Ark of the Covenant” and the “tabernacle.” If we believe that Christ was just another prophet, or a great teacher like Plato or Socrates, then sure, we can believe that Mary was polluted by sin. But if we believe that Christ is the Word, Glory, and Presence of God, then it makes no sense for us, holding this conviction, to say that Mary was a sinner.
Did she need God’s grace? Yes! Of course she did. Her preservation from sin was a mighty favor of God. So we see that Mary’s sinlessness redounds to God’s power and glory, not to her own.
The nature of Jesus Christ demands that His mother be kept from the pollution of sin so that He, the Glory/Presence of God, can dwell within her.