This upcoming Wednesday, December 8, the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary is observed by Roman Catholics. What is this celebration and what is its significance?
Briefly, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is that Mary was preserved from any taint of original sin and never committed actual sin in her life, as she didn’t have a sin nature. Though this doctrine, in varying degrees, can be found throughout the church’s history, it wasn’t officially declared a dogma by the Catholic Church (something that a person must believe in order to be saved) until the late 19th century.
The doctrine of Christ having been born of a virgin shouldn’t be confused, as it often is, with the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. All Christians believe that Christ was born of a virgin, but the Immaculate Conception, which teaches that Mary herself was born without the corruption of original sin, is a doctrine rejected by Protestants and Orthodox, and only accepted by Catholics. Eastern Orthodox Christians believe Mary, throughout her life, refrained from sin, but they do not believe she was born without a sin nature—she basically just chose never to yield to it. Furthermore, the Orthodox wouldn’t approve of the dogma being imposed on the church without the entire church’s approval. As it was, the Pope, by himself, decreed this doctrine “ex cathedra.”
There is an implication that Mary, in order to give birth to a sinless Messiah, would’ve had to have been sinless herself. But this argument breaks down. Using that logic, if Mary was born without sin, wouldn’t her parents have had to be sinless themselves? And so on. In describing her in such terms, Protestants do no disservice to the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the Luke 1, she herself called God her “Savior”, implying her own need for forgiveness of sin.
Contrary to misconception, Protestants don’t have (or at least shouldn’t have) a “low” view of Mary. Presbyterians, for example, do not object to her being called the “mother of God”, or as Orthodox would say, Theotokos (i.e. God-bearer). The phrase “mother of God” wasn’t drafted by the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) to sanction undue veneration of Mary. Instead, it was used to highlight that the fruit of Mary’s womb, though man, was true God as well. Hence, it’s accurate to call her the mother of God.
At Christmas, we should be especially grateful for the role that Mary played in the Nativity story. However, we want to make sure that we’re seeing Mary for who she really was and are not substituting our own ideas for the real thing. Referencing the Magnificat, Martin Luther said, “Don’t think about all the honors people have heaped on Mary. These people don’t see they are drowning out Mary’s own words in this passage. Their eloquent words make the mother of God sound like a liar and diminish God’s grace. To the degree that they say she earned or deserved what God did for her, they lower the value of God’s kindness.”
* For a full rundown of Advent events coming up this month at Jackson’s Briarwood Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), click here.