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Immaculate Conception

In 1854 Pius IX in the papal bull Ineffabilis Deus stated that “from the first moment of her conception, the Blessed Virgin Mary was, by the singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of Mankind, kept free from all stain of Original Sin.” This dogma is based on a particular view of conception. It is believed that a person is truly conceived when the soul is created and infused into the body. At the moment of her animation Mary was given sanctifying grace which excluded her from the stain of original sin. Mary was redeemed at conception by Christ in anticipation of His atoning death. At the same time the state of original sanctity, innocence, and justice was conferred upon her. Thus Mary was sinless from the moment of her conception, although this did not exempt her from sorrow, sickness, and death, consequent upon Adam's sin.

No direct or categorical proof of the dogma can be brought forward from Holy Scripture, though basis is sought in such texts as Genesis 3:15; Psalm 45:12ff.; Luke 1:28, 41, 48. This basis is strengthened by the designation of Mary as the “new Eve” by the Christian Fathers such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Augustine exempted the Virgin Mary from actual but not original sin. Thomas Aquinas argued against Augustine because he believed that Mary's conception was a natural one and in every natural conception original sin is transmitted. The Council of Basle in 1439 affirmed that the belief was in accordance with the Catholic faith, with reason, and with Holy Scripture. The universities followed the lead of the Sorbonne which in 1449 required its candidates to make an oath to defend the dogma. The Franciscans, Carmelites, and especially the Jesuits were staunch defenders of it.

As early as the seventh century a Feast of the Conception of Mary originated in the monasteries of Palestine. In 1476 Sixtus IV approved the feast with its own mass and office, and adopted it for the Roman Church. In 1708 Clement XI imposed it on the whole Western Church. “Immaculate” was added to the title after its promulgation in 1854. Since 1854 Eastern Orthodox theologians have rejected the doctrine as detracting from the merits of Mary's actual sinlessness. Protestants have always rejected this dogma since it appears to have no direct scriptural basis.

IMMACULATE CONCEPTION. (See also Mary, Mary, Mother of Jesus.) In Roman Catholic doctrine, the belief that “the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin” (Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, December 8, 1854).

Meaning of the doctrine.

Although a full explanation of the theology of the Immaculate Conception belongs elsewhere (see bibliography), a brief discussion of the meaning of the doctrine is in order. Karl Rahner typifies the newer Catholic tendency to put the doctrine in the broader context of God’s grace in Christ: (a) The dogma of the Immaculate Conception demonstrates God’s concern with the beginning of each person’s life; (b) It manifests the love of God which surrounds all life (“Now if that is true for one, it is true for all”); (c) It is also a rich promise that God will be faithful after life’s beginning; (d) It means that in a unique way Mary received sanctifying grace, i.e. “the gift which is God himself,” from the beginning of her life; (e) It shows that God calls individuals and not just mankind in general to perform special tasks and prepares them in advance to become what they are in Christ. Rahner sees the Immaculate Conception as one facet of Mary’s unique predestination and as “the most radical and most blessed mode of redemption” (211).

Common misunderstandings.

Catholic theologians frequently mention that many laymen, even Catholics, have seriously distorted views of this doctrine. (a) It is not to be confused with the virginal conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb (although admittedly most Mariology is strikingly parallel to most Christology); Catholic theologians point out that Mary was conceived in the usual way (unlike Jesus), but without contracting original sin; (b) It does not imply that Mary’s coming into existence was in any way different physically from that of other human beings; therefore the Immaculate Conception of Mary in no way suggests preservation from any supposed defilement through the marital relations of her parents; (c) It is not based on any future merits of Mary, but is solely based on the redemptive death of Jesus; (d) It is not based primarily on sanctifying grace but more on Mary’s unique predestination to be the mother of the Savior.

Alleged Biblical support.

Catholic scholars readily admit that there is no direct reference anywhere in the NT to Mary’s conception. O’Meara is even willing to say, “If the Scriptures contain explicitly all of revelation then the dogma of 1854 is an absurd innovation” (65), and to speak of the doctrine as “the first of those Marian beliefs which seem so foreign to the gospel and seem to be lacking even in the Fathers” (60). This does not mean, of course, that most Catholic scholars are now willing to conclude that the doctrine is an innovation or in any way contrary to the primitive kerygma. Following the lead of Pope Pius IX in Ineffabilis Deus, they see implicit and undeveloped references to the belief in at least three passages of Scripture: (a) Genesis 3:15, the famous Proto-Evangelium, is seen as a reference to Mary’s crushing the power of Satan over human nature since Adam’s fall through the birth of her Son. As O’Connor admits, however, “this text by itself would hardly suffice to make the doctrine known” (378). It is based on the Lat. Vul. tr. of the second half of the v.; “She shall crush your head.” Catholics therefore agree that the verse can no longer be quoted in support of the doctrine; (b) Luke 1:28 is used to argue that if Mary were truly “full of grace” she must have been born with it. Catholic exegetes admit, however, that the Gr. κεχαριτωμένη indicates only that Mary was highly favored by God without indicating the extent of that favor; (c) Matthew 1 and Luke 1 and 2 emphasize Mary’s exceptional holiness. “It is clear that only a flawless holiness would be in any way proportionate to the sacredness of her office” (O’Connor, 379). But even this deductive argument is the result of further centuries of development. Some theologia ns have therefore toyed with the idea that the doctrine may have belonged to the non-recorded oral traditions of the apostles, but most Catholics today agree that historical evidence does not seem to support such a conclusion.

Patristic materials.

Explicit evidence from the Early Church Fathers is lacking, and it is acknowledged that Mary’s Immaculate Conception was not an explicit part of the faith until somewhere between the 7th and 12th centuries at the very earliest, although a precise date when the belief actually was held as a matter of faith is avowedly impossible to determine. Historically the belief evolved out of “an obscure yet powerful impulse of Christian hearts to attribute to [Mary] the greatest holiness and glory compatible with her status as a creature” (O’Connor, 379). Among Fathers cited in connection with the dogma are the following: (a) Origen, who sharply attacks those who hold that Mary is sinless. In his Homily XVII on Luke, Origen says that Mary must have committed at least one sin for her to be redeemed by Christ; (b) Ambrose, who is cited as a supporter of the belief that Mary was free from the stain of sin; (c) Augustine, who in a famous but ambiguous passage in De Nature et gratia (On Nature and Grace) says, “Concerning the Virgin I wish to raise no question when it touches the subject of sin, out of honor to the Lord, for from him we know what abundance of grace to overcome sin in every way was conferred upon her who undoubtedly had no sin” (quoted in O’Meara, 62). Other references suggest that Augustine was thinking only about actual sin, not original sin. Some have suggested that in a time when Pelagianism was denying the full reality of original sin, Augustine was reluctant to support their position even implicitly by affirming Mary’s preservation from original sin; (d) Nestorius is held to imply that Mary was free from sin; (e) Andrew of Crete and John of Damascus in the 7th and early 8th centuries mention that Mary’s perfect sinlessness is implied in the title “Theotokos.”

Some later developments.

(a) A feast in honor of Mary’s conception begins in the 7th century and spreads widely in the centuries following; (b) Anselm in 1099 says, “It was fitting that she be clothed with a purity so splendid that none greater under God could be conceived” (De conceptu virginali 18); (c) In the E the belief actually disappears after a decline in emphasis, so that in 1854 the Orthodox charge the Roman Catholic Church with innovation in doctrine; (d) In England in the 12th century the monk Eadmer defends both the feast and Mary’s sinless conception; (e) In the W it was opposed by some of the greatest theologians of the Middle Ages, including Bernard of Clairvaux, Albert the Great, Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas; (f) Franciscans supported the doctrine, and their position eventually grew in influence until its official definition in 1854; (g) Luther’s view seems to have vacillated. Until 1527 he accepts Mary’s complete sinlessness. In a sermon he preached in 1527, however, he first states that Mary’s body had original sin like anyone else’s, but that her soul was infused into her body without contracting original sin, and in the years following he explicitly affirms the belief that Mary had sinned. Yet in 1544 he seems to revert to his earlier position: “God has formed the soul and body of the Virgin Mary full of the Holy Spirit, so that she is without all sin” (cf. O’Meara, 117).


Protestants do not in any way deny God’s favor to Mary. Nor do they necessarily deny that God favored her in a unique way. But they do insist that the doctrine cannot be accepted as historical fact simply on the basis of centuries of pious reflection and in the absence of any historical data. All that can be legitimately affirmed is that Mary’s “immaculate conception” expresses symbolically and kerygmatically the conviction that Mary’s life was holy in an unusual way as a result of her closeness to Jesus Christ. From a purely historical perspective Protestants sense the importance of a healthy agnosticism as to the nature of Mary’s conception. Some Catholics too say they do not have the slightest idea of what the dogma means (McKenzie, 1).

Certainly from a purely Biblical perspective Protestants and Catholics are in accord on the conclusion that there are no explicit and only tangentially implicit references at best to the Immaculate Conception in the Bible. The doctrine, they agree, owes more to Christian piety than to Scripture or history. The Protestant Christian agrees most wholeheartedly that “Catholics and Protestants both must learn to listen to what the Bible says of Mary. If this is done, a greater similarity will be attained in their theologies of Mary and in their total theological approach” (O’Meara, 347).


“Immaculate Conception,” SHERK 5 (1909), 455-457; J. Turmel, “Immaculate Conception,” HERE, 7 (1912?), 165-167; W. H. C. Frend, “Immaculate Conception,” Modern Churchman, 44 (1954), 107-119; D. Moody, “Miraculous Conception,” Review and Expositor, 51 (1954), 495-507; C. Journet, “Scripture and the Immaculate Conception: A Problem in the Evolution of Dogma,” in E. D. O’Connor (ed.), The Dogma of the Immaculate Conception (1958); M. M. Bourke, “The Literary Genus of Mt 1-2,” CBQ, 22 (1960), 160-175; K. Rahner, Theological Investigations, 1 (1961), 201-213; H. S. Box, “The Immaculate Conception,” in E. L. Mascall and H. S. Box, The Blessed Virgin Mary (1963), esp. 77; Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible (1963), 1463-1472; K. Rahner, Mary, Mother of the Lord (1963); B. F. Meyer, “But Mary Kept All These Things,” CBQ, 26 (1964), 31-49; T. O’Meara, Mary in Protestant and Catholic Theology (1966); E. D. O’Connor, “Immaculate Conception,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 7 (1967), 378-382; J. L. McKenzie, “Hans Küng on Infallibility: This Tiger Is Not Discreet,” National Catholic Reporter, 7:21 (March 26, 1971), 1, as quoted in Calvin J. Eichhorst, “Demythologizing the Papacy: A Prophetic Inquiry,” Dialog, 10 (Autumn, 1971), 273.