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CRI’s Attack on Mary: Part II

Read Part I here.

III The Immaculate Conception

CRI quotes Pope Pius IX in the official definition of the Immaculate Conception: “We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine, which holds 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, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”(Ineffabilis Deus (1854).) This definition of 1854 came after centuries of widespread Christian belief, meditation on Scripture, theological debate, liturgical development, and prayer.

In Luke 1:28, the angel Gabriel calls Mary kecharitomene, “graced,” “endowed with grace.” Jerome, in translating this Greek word, uses the Latin circumlocution gratis plena, “full of grace.” CRI accuses Jerome of mistranslation and tries to refute Karl Keating’s explanation of the original kecharitomene.(Elliott Miller, “The Mary of Roman Catholicism,” Christian Research Journal, Summer 1990, 14. The second part of Miller’s article appeared in the Fall 1990 issue. In these notes the two parts are referred to as Part 1 and Part 2.)

Keating writes: “This grace . . . is at once permanent and of a singular kind. The Greek indicates a perfection of grace. A perfection must be perfect not only intensively, but extensively. The grace Mary enjoyed must not only have been as ‘full’ or strong or complete as possible at any given time, but it must have extended over the whole of her life, from conception. That is, she must have been in a state of sanctifying grace from the first moment of her existence to have been called ‘full of grace’ or to have been filled with divine favor in a singular way. This is just what the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception holds.”(Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 269.)

CRI’s objection is brief and rests upon one text, Ephesians 1:6: “Keating is reading more into the participle kecharitomene (derived from the verb charitoo) than its scanty New Testament usage allows. charitoo is used of believers in Ephesians 1:6 without implying sinless perfection.”(Part 1, 14.) This is true, but CRI’s next statement is false: “There is hence nothing about Luke 1:28 that establishes the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception” [emphasis mine].(Ibid.)

The reason why the verb in Ephesians 1:6 does not imply sinless perfection, whereas the form of the same verb in Luke 1:28 does so imply, is this: The two verb forms use different stems. Every Greek verb has up to nine distinct stems, each expressing a different modality of the verb’s lexical meanings.(FH. W. Smyth, Greek Grammar (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), 108-109.) Ephesians 1:6 has the first aorist active indicative form, echaritosen, “he graced, bestowed grace.” This form, based on an aorist stem, expresses momentary action,(Blass and DeBrunner, Greek Grammar of the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), 166. ) action simply brought to pass.(Smyth, sec. 1852:c:1.) It cannot express or imply any fullness of bestowing because “the aorist tense . . . does not show . . . completion with permanent result.”(Ibid., sec. 1852:c, note.)

It’s Greek to CRI

Luke 1:28 has the perfect passive participle, kecharitomene. The perfect stem of a Greek verb denotes the “continuance of a completed action”;(Blass and DeBrunner, 175.) “completed action with permanent result is denoted by the perfect stem.”(Smyth, sec. 1852:b.) On morphological grounds, therefore, it is correct to paraphrase kecharitomene as “completely, perfectly, enduringly endowed with grace.” This becomes clearer when we examine other New Testament examples of verbs in the perfect tense:(The next three examples are taken from Blass and DeBrunner, 175-176.)

1. “He has defiled this sacred place” (Acts 21:28)–their entrance in the past produced defilement as a lasting effect.

2. “The son of the slave woman was born according to the flesh” (Gal. 4:23)–the perfect with reference to an Old Testament event can mean it retains its exemplary effect.

3. “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” 1 Cor. 9:1, Acts 22:15)–that Paul has seen the Lord is what establishes him permanently as an apostle.

Other examples I found:

1. “God spoke to Moses” (John 9:29)–the Pharisees hold that the Mosaic Law still and always holds.

2. “It is finished” (John 19:30)–the work of redemption culminating in the passion and death of Christ is complete and forever enduring .

3 “He rose on the third day” (1 Cor. 15:4)–unlike Lazarus who was raised from the dead but must die again, Christ rose to everlasting life.

4. “All things have been created through him and for him” (Col. 1:16)–all creation continually exists, upheld by God (this is the teaching of God’s universal providence and also the refutation of deism).

Here are examples, like kechari-tomene, of perfect participles in the New Testament:

1. “To the praise of his glorious grace, which he bestowed on us in his beloved“(Eph. 1:6)–Christ is perfectly, completely, endlessly loved by his Father.

2. “Blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42)–Christ is perfectly and endlessly blessed by God.

Because Luke 1:28 uses the perfect participle kecharitomene to describe Mary, CRI is wrong to say there is nothing in this verse to establish the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. One word of one Bible verse does not prove the doctrine, but kecharitomene proves the harmony of the doctrine with Scripture.

Did Jerome Goof?

CRI, you will remember, accuses Jerome of mistranslating kecharitomene with gratis plena, “full of grace.” This is not nitpicking on CRI’s part, and for two reasons: The phrase “full of grace” has guided many centuries of Catholic theological thought since Jerome, and some modern Catholic writers are of the opinion that gratis plena is a mistranslation. Against these Catholics and CRI I contend that gratis plena is not a mistranslation. It is an extremely happy phrase, as close to the Greek as Latin can come and much to be preferred to modern efforts to improve it: “favored one” (NAB [1986], RSV), “highly favored” (NIV), and the monstrosity, “highly favored daughter” (NAB [1970]).

Latin, when compared to Greek, seems to be an extremely awkward language. It is word-poor and has suffered considerable form-erosion. Specifically here, Latin has no verb that means what charitoo does in Greek.

But using the resources that Latin does have, Jerome expresses the root meaning of charitoo by the Latin noun gratis (“grace,” “favor”) and the amplitude and completeness of the Greek perfect tense by the Latin adjective plena (“full”). The Latin phrase does not well connote permanent condition, as the Greek perfect participle does.

Catholics are not alone in this reading of kecharitomene. In his Personal Prayer Book (1522), Luther wrote, “She is full of grace, proclaimed to be entirely without sin. . . . God’s grace fills her with everything good and makes her devoid of all evil. . . . God is with her, meaning that all she did or left undone is divine and the action of God in her. Moreover, God guarded and protected her from all that might be hurtful to her.”(Jaroslav Pelikan, ed., Luther’s Works (St. Louis: Concordia), vol. 43, 40.)

Max Thurian, while still Protestant, wrote, “In regard to the Marian doctrine of the Reformers, we have already seen how unanimous they are in all that concerns Mary’s holiness and perpetual virginity. Whatever the theological position which we may hold today in regard to the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary, . . . these two Catholic dogmas were accepted by certain Reformers, not of course in their present form, but certainly in the form that was current in their day.”(Max Thurian, Mary, Mother of All Christians (New York: Herder and Herder, 1964), 197.)

Given this Premise . . .

CRI says, “By virtue of his divine nature and his virgin birth (through which God, rather than a son of Adam, was his Father), Christ dwelt among us as One free from sin. . . .”(Part 1, 14.) The implication is that Christ is sinless partly because he had no human father, no (sinful) son of Adam in his lineage. Given this premise one might think CRI should conclude that the Immaculate Conception is necessary: How could he be untouched by sin who would draw his human nature from a sinful mother? But this would be bad theology. The true reason for Christ’s freedom from sin is the hypostatic union, which he shares with no other human being. Christ unites two natures, the divine and the human, in one divine Person.

It is this union which makes him, in CRI’s words, “the only human who perfectly represents the holy character of the Father,”(Ibid.) “the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being” (Heb. 1:3), “for in him dwells the whole fullness of the Deity bodily” (Col. 2:9). The hypostatic union anoints Jesus as our unique Messiah and Savior, our prophet, king, and priest, for the fullness of deity, which dwells in Jesus, dwells there for us: “Of his fullness we have all received” (John 1:16); “you share in this fullness in him, who is the head” (Col. 2:10).

Thurian wrote, before his conversion to the Catholic faith, “In Christ the Beloved . . . we are filled with the grace of God. . . . Mary, thus receiving the title of ‘full of grace,’ is at the same time placed in a privileged relationship of sharing in his fullness of grace, which is found in the Beloved, and united with all Christians, who can also find in Christ this same fullness. However, Mary receives this state as a title: That is to say, she becomes, as it were, a living and sure sign of this fullness of grace, which has its origin only in Christ himself.”(Thurian, 21.)

In conclusion CRI quotes Romans 11:32, “God has imprisoned all in disobedience that he might have mercy on all,” and avers that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception violates this “basic biblical principle.” In fact, we are told: “To suggest that even one other person besides Christ was born [sic] without sin is to diminish the tremendous significance of the Incarnation.”(Part 1, 14.) Aside from the fact that CRI forgets about Adam and Eve, who were created sinless and lived the first part of their lives sinlessly (Gen. 1:31), CRI’s argument does not follow, for two reasons.

First, Mary is not by her own power, virtue, or merit sinless. It was not her merits but those of her Son which were applied to her at her conception. The primacy and necessity of the Incarnation and Christ’s fullness are not diminished by Mary’s Immaculate Conception, because more than any other human being, she received of his fullness (John 1:16).

Second, as a child of Adam and Eve, Mary shares our fallen condition de jure. But de facto she was rescued from it at her conception. All was grace, but in her grace was preventive medicine. For us it is therapeutic, healing the actual damage of sin. CRI’s proof texts (disproof texts?) do not disprove the Immaculate Conception.(The texts are Ecclesiastes 7:20, Galatians 3:22, Romans 3:23, 5:12, 11:32.)

Mary’s perfect fullness of grace was in God’s plan necessary to what the Protestant theologian de Satge calls “the awesome demands of her particular motherhood, without detaching that perfection from the grace that came by her Son.”(John de Satge, Down to Earth: The New Protestant Vision of the Virgin Mary (Consortium, 1976), 73.)

IV The Assumption

On November 1, 1950, Pope Pius XII defined the doctrine of the Assumption in these words: “We pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.”(Munificentissimus Deus, 44.)

“Revealed dogma” here means “a fact contained within the deposit of revelation given to us by God, now solemnly proposed by the Pope to be believed as such by all the faithful.(Lawrence P. Everett, “Mary’s Death and Bodily Assumption” in J. Carol, Mariology, vol. 2, 461.)

Mary is the first disciple, the pattern and type in faith and obedience of all the rest, Mother and first member of the Church. In her Assumption we see the pledge, the first fruits of our own glorious destiny. We celebrate, in the fact of her Assumption, her personal privilege and our promised glory. The mystery of the Assumption is a mystery of and for the whole Church.

“In the most holy Virgin, the Church has already reached that perfection whereby she exists without spot or wrinkle” (Eph. 5:27).(Lumen Gentium, 65.) “We think that she, who has preceded the Church by her faith, she who preceded the Church in union with Christ, she who was there with Christ for the birth of the sacramental and hierarchical Church, preceded it also in its eternal destiny.”(M.-J. Nicholas, “Protestants, Catholics, and Mary,” Marian Studies 90 (March 1962), 7.)


Many writers have noted the absence of historical record for the Assumption of Mary. Explicit historical and, indeed, liturgical testimony for the belief is lacking before the Syriac “transitus” fragment at the end of the fifth century and the Coptic liturgy, brought to the West by Cassian in the mid-sixth century.

There are also the imaginative tales called the “apocrypha.” CRI says, “Since there was no authentic information [about the life and death of Mary], imagination ran wild creating legends.”(Part 1, 14., quoting Victor Buksbazen, Miriam the Virgin of Nazareth (Philadelphia: Spearhead Press, 1963), 196.) “[T]here is nothing of any historical value in such apoc-ryphal works.”(Part 1, 15, quoting Karl Rahner, Mary, Mother of the Lord (London: Anthony Clarke Books, 1963), 16.) “[The apocrypha] are filled with fantastic, absurd miracles, were written in poor taste, and contain bad theology. Yet historians recognize them to be the source from which the doctrine of Mary’s assumption arose.”(Part 1, 15.)

Here I must blow the whistle. “Historians” who venture to engage in theology are straying from their field. Historians as such are not competent to make theological judgments. The Assumption is a theological datum and must be proved or disproved on theological, not historical grounds. The availability of historical evidence or the absence of it is strictly irrelevant to this discussion. Still more irrelevant, therefore, is the historical uselessness of the apocrypha. Pope Pius XII made no mention of the apocrypha in his definition of the Assumption. The doctrine and its definition do not rest on them.

The only interest of the apocrypha is that “they witness a popular belief among the faithful [of the fifth century] in the Assumption.”(Everett, 483.) The apocrypha grew from this belief, not the belief from the apocrypha. The Anglican scholar Thomas Mozley writes, “The belief was never founded on that story. The story was founded on the belief. The belief, which was universal, required a definite shape, and that shape at length it found.”(Thomas Mozley, Reminiscences of Oriel College and the Oxford Movement (London: Farnborough, Gregg, 1969), vol. 2, 368.)

J. Carol writes, “As historical accounts . . . [the apocrypha] are valueless. But theologically . . . they evidence the first unequivocal solutions to the problem of Mary’s destiny. The solutions . . . disclose a genuinely Christian insight: It was not fitting that the body of Mary should see corruption. More importantly, the solution is given, incorruption is postulated, on theological lines: The principles of solution are the divine maternity, Mary’s unimpaired virginity, her unrivaled holiness.”(J. Carol, Mariology, vol. 2, 145-146.)

The “Fittingness” Argument

CRI attacks: “The actual basis for the doctrine of the Assumption is a form of logic often employed in Catholic theology . . . God can do all things; it is proper that it should be so (e.g., that Mary should be assumed); therefore, God did it.”(Part 1, 15.) This is the “argument from fittingness,” to which CRI objects, alleging that theologians who use it assume they know what is proper to God, whereas God’s thoughts and ways are not the those of man (Is. 55:8-9).

The argument from fittingness has an honorable pedigree, which should be respected. The argument is implicit in the Bible itself. Look at Hebrews 2:10 and 7:26, for example. Furthermore, the argument is properly used, not as a substantive proof of a doctrine, but as a supportive suasion to a doctrine already proved. Fittingness is not invented by theologians. It comes to light by the working of the Holy Spirit in the Church, guiding it into the whole truth.

“The Church [sees] the Assumption . . . implicitly contained within the complete notion of the divine maternity. ‘The Church sees it there, not as the result of a logical deduction, still less as mere fittingness, but as one element of that miracle of miracles which God willed his Mother to be. The Church sees it with a supernatural insight imparted by the divine Spirit who dwells within her.'”(Everett, 475. )

“When the Church defines a truth, it does not canonize human logic. It defines because, under the guidance of the Spirit of truth, it discerns the truth. . . . It supposes a supernatural illumination proceeding from faith, grace, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, a supernatural insight enabling the believer to discern, in fellowship with the Church, the implications of revelation proposed to him by the magisterium.”(Cyril Vollert, A Theology of Mary (New York: Herder and Herder, 1965), 233-234.)

Did Jesus Break his Promise?

Catholics accept the teachings of the magisterium because we believe in Jesus Christ and in the great promises he made to us about the work the Holy Spirit does in the Church: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name, he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you” John 14:26); “When he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth” (John 16:13). Without qualification, Jesus promised that the gates of hell would never prevail against his Church (Matt. 16:18), a divine promise that has failed if the Church has ever fallen or could fall into error in Christian doctrine. To think that Jesus could not, did not, or never intended to make good on these promises, that he left his Church to fall into any error whatever of doctrine or morality, is to question his power, his goodness, his truthfulness, and ultimately his divinity.

Paul teaches that the Church of the living God is the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Tim. 3:15). He teaches that the relation of Christ to his Church is that of bridegroom to bride (Eph. 5:23-32). This teaching is true, and the Scripture cannot be broken: “The Church is subordinate to Christ” (v. 24)–not was or may be or ought to have been–but is. “Christ nourishes and cherishes the Church as his own flesh” (v. 29). Christ and the Church are one. Genesis 2:24, “the two of them become one flesh,” used of man and wife in their marriage covenant, finds its ultimate meaning and fulfillment in the union between Christ and his Church. This “great mystery” (v. 32) is precisely the marriage covenant between Christ and his Church.

There are some who accuse the Catholic Church of apostasy from Christ and his teachings. It is he and his teachings that refute that charge. It is profoundly unbiblical to suggest that at some point in the third or fourth century or whenever (opponents are vague on their calendar of events) Christ the bridegroom divorced his Church-bride on grounds of infidelity (from which he had promised to preserve her), lived a bachelor for about 1200 years, and then married more than 22,000 denominations.(Martin Marty of the University of Chicago Divinity School gives this number in U.S. News and World Report, March 4, 1991, 51.)

The Holy Spirit has been given to us and abides in us. God’s gifts are irrevocable. “It is not that the word of God has failed . . . for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 9:6, 11:29). At this point, the infallibility of revelation meets the infallibility of the teaching Church, both guaranteed by the same Spirit: “The Holy Spirit, who revealed in the apostles, ever afterwards assists in the Church, that the Church may remember the truth in entirety, penetrate it deeply, and teach it alone.”(Vollert, 227-228.)

How CRI Begs the Question

CRI moves on: “The [Catholic] church’s first error was to regard its tradition as equal in authority to the Word of God. The second and potentially lethal error is to ‘absolutize’ the church’s interpretation of both.”(Part 1, 15.) Here the article begs this question: Is the Word of God synonymous and coterminous with written Scripture, as found in the books of the Old and New Testaments? Is Scripture alone (sola scriptura) the Word of God and the repository of all his revelation? No, it is not. The revealed Word of God is contained in both Scripture and oral Tradition.

Writing to the Thessalonians, Paul says: “He has also called you through our gospel to possess the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours” (2 Thess. 2:14-15). Here the apostle equates his gospel, i.e., the Word of God that he has taught, with traditions.

Then he distinguishes and divides these traditions into two: oral statement (oral Tradition) and letter (written Tradition), the latter of which in time would come to be recognized by the Church as sacred Scripture. CRI’s error is to reject this Bible teaching, which witnesses to the equal dignity of oral and written Tradition.

Furthermore, in an important way, oral tradition holds the primacy. The earliest Christians until about A.D. 51 had none of the books of the New Testament, for none had yet been written. Of course, they had the Old Testament, but the whole message of Jesus and about Jesus was preserved as oral Tradition. The Church, then as now, regarded this Tradition as “equal in authority to the Word of God.” Its Tradition about Jesus at that time was the New Covenant Word of God.

When New Testament Scripture was finally formed, it had to be recognized as such by the Church. This took considerable time. Nowhere in the written books of Scripture do we read the titles of the inspired books. Scripture does not provide its own canon–the Church did that, following its oral Tradition.

Nowhere in any book of the Old or the New Testament is the principle sola scriptura (Scripture as the only source of revelation) to be found. This principle was invented centuries later and so falls under the stricture of Galatians 1:6-10. It must be rejected if one wishes to follow the teachings of the Bible.

Who Is the “Absolutizer”?

CRI has rebuked the Church for “absolutizing” both Scripture and Tradition by defining doctrine, particularly the doctrine of Mary’s Assumption. Now, fair is fair. If the Church in its earliest days absolutized its interpretations, which were the interpretations of its official teachers, the apostles, then it can and in fact it must do so today.

There is an important distinction to be made here, though: The deposit of revelation was complete upon the death of the last apostle. The Church from that day proposes no new doctrine, but only works out the implications of the revelation entrusted to the apostles–and there must be implications for thinking people. The Church is thus the scribe instructed in the kingdom of heaven, like the head of a household who brings forth from his storeroom both the new and the old (Matt. 13:52).

From the very beginning, the Church, by its teaching authority, residing in the apostles and their successors, developed the implications of its doctrine and absolutized its oral Tradition. (Remember that at the beginning, from the first Pentecost, the Church had only oral Tradition about Jesus and his teaching.)

Read the tenth, eleventh, and fifteenth chapters of Acts. In 10:9-16 Peter received a vision in which God revoked the Jewish kosher food laws. Shocked and doubtful, Peter pondered the vision. He became the type and figure of the Church’s magisterium as it ponders the meaning of revelation. Peter then received a delegation of Gentiles, sent to beg him to come and visit the centurion Cornelius, a Gentile, in his home (vv. 17-23).

Why did he go with them, though it was “unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile” (v. 28)? He went because “God has shown me that I should not call any person profane or unclean” (v. 28). Peter here has engaged in the development of doctrine. His vision had to do with animals. By his apostolic authority Peter drew forth the vision’s implication that no person is unclean.

Later in Jerusalem, the Christians of the Judaizing faction confronted and rebuked Peter (11:2-3). He explained what had happened and so silenced them. As the events in Acts 10 and 11 were going on, everything was done orally. Writing it all down under divine inspiration, as Luke later did, did not increase its validity. Oral and written Tradition are equally valid, then as now. Acts 10 and 11 show that it is unbiblical to deny this.

Acts 15 is a nice mix of oral and written tradition: James quotes Old Testament Scripture (Amos 9:11-12), and the apostles and presbyters (the magisterium) write a letter, now a part of the New Testament, thanks to Luke and God’s inspiration. There is plenty of discussion (oral Tradition), which Luke wove later into his narrative, thus making it written Tradition or Scripture.

CRI Is Correct on One Point . . .

CRI misconstrues the facts and draws erroneous conclusions. Yet I agree with CRI on at least one point: What the Catholic Church does is lethal–not “lethal error,” as CRI says, but lethal truth. The exercise of the Church’s infallible mission slays the errors of sola scriptura, of private interpretation, and of general doctrinal muddleheadedness.

Read Part III here.


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