Monday, September 28, 2009

Jesus' Human Nature, The Immaculate Conception of Mary, the Virgin Birth, and Original Sin: Reflections on Their Relationship to Each Other




From a dialogue on the CHNI forum. The probing questions of one participant (a convert to the Catholic faith) will be in blue.

* * * * *

As far as I know, it was not absolutely necessary for Mary to be sinless. If we speak strictly in terms of "necessity" (i.e., that it couldn't have been otherwise), then many things fall under the category of non-necessity: even the cross and the incarnation. God could have provided salvation for the human race in any number of conceivable ways. He could simply forgive a person upon their sincere repentance, etc.

I wrote about this very issue in one of my papers: Was Mary's Immaculate Conception Absolutely Necessary?

That said, Catholics believe that her sinlessness is extremely fitting and proper, by God's design, on the principle that the closer we get to God, the more holiness is present. That's how it will be in heaven, when God finally takes all sins away. Mary is a foreshadowing of the sinlessness that is to come for all who are saved (just as her Assumption was the "firstfruits" of the resurrection that Jesus made possible for all men), and she hearkens back to Adam and Eve before the Fall (hence her title of "Second Eve" from the fathers).

The Immaculate Conception is a return to the state of things for all human beings before the fall and rebellion against God by the human race. She is what God intended all human beings to be, if we would have simply cooperated and obeyed. So what better person to be freed from sin, than the Mother of God the Son, who bears God in her own womb?

That's altogether fitting, plausible, and believable. But it was not necessary in the nature of things.

As usual, the Church comes down in the sensible middle, between the extremes of a sinful Mary on the one hand and a necessarily immaculate Mary on the other. "Appropriate and fitting" is how the Church sees it.

* * *

In a sense Jesus was temporarily captive of Satan during His Passion. But God chooses what He will submit Himself to. It makes perfect sense that Mary was sinless. I'm not doubting that at all. It is a dogma of the faith. I was simply saying that it could have been done otherwise (it was not intrinsically necessary). God put Himself in contact with sin by deciding to take on flesh and become a Man.

I have a question about this. If Mary had not been saved through her immaculate conception, would she not, of necessity, communicated her sinful nature to Christ? Am I flawed in my reasoning here?

Jesus, being God, is impeccable: it is not possible for Him to have sinned. Therefore, He could not have been subject to transmission of original sin, even if Mary had not been immaculate.

Nor can God contradict Himself. God couldn't have rebelled against Himself. Therefore, Jesus could not have received original sin, which means a participation in the rebellion against God.

Everything you have written makes sense, I understand that of course the path God chose was most fitting, and I also understand that as God, Jesus could not sin. But what I am trying to get straightened out in my mind (because I have an ongoing discussion with Protastants about the role of Mary, and I don't want to present flawed reasoning) is : If all people are subject to original sin through the transmission of our human nature, and Jesus received His human nature from Mary at the moment of His conception, then Mary must have been without original sin at the time of His conception. Does that follow? Or, am I making too much of a distinction between His taking on human nature, and His receiving it from the Blessed Virgin?

I think what I really want to ask is: How do we know that Mary communicated her human nature to Jesus, as opposed to Him taking human nature and using her womb as a host (so to speak)? To me it seems obvious, she was his mother, therefore she communicated her nature as every other mother does, in addition, the Holy Spirit waited for her agreement before overshadowing her, indicating that this was a cooperation on her part. I am at a loss to show the necessity of Mary's cooperation, and therefore the neccesity of her sinlessness. I hope that makes it more clear.

Did Mary give her DNA to Jesus, or did he make his own, and then implant in her womb? Did she contribute a zygote? Or do we know? has the Church ever speculated in any concrete way about this? The reason the Immaculate Conception does work is that Jesus applied His own atonement to Mary's soul at her conception, so it was not a simple matter of making a pure body out of a contaminated body. However, Jesus could not have done that for Himself - if His sinlessness was contingent on His sacrifice on the Cross, then that sacrifice would not have been sufficient since He would need that sacrifice to be made sinless,

It's not contingent upon the cross, because of His impeccability: being God He has always existed and has doe so without sin or even the possibility of sin. God doesn't need to be saved, and to say that He saved Himself is nonsensical.

but He could (and did) apply that atonement to Mary's soul at the moment of conception which left her free to choose grace and communicate her own sinless nature to Him without relying on his own sacrifice to atone for himself.

Yes (setting aside the hypotheticals for a moment) everything of that nature came from Him in the first place. Thus, St. Anselm wrote in his classic, Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man):

    Anselm: Moreover, the virgin, from whom that man was taken of whom we are speaking, was of the number of those who were cleansed from their sins before his birth, and he was born of her in her purity.

    Boso: What you say would satisfy me, were it not that he ought to be pure of himself, whereas he appears to have his purity from his mother and not from himself.

    Anselm: Not so. But as the mother's purity, which he partakes, was only derived from him, he also was pure by and of himself.


The only other option I see is that He created His own human nature, and merely took up residence in Mary's womb, and I just don't buy that either. So, the question is: did Mary give Jesus His human nature, or not?

In pondering your question further, I believe I may have hit upon an answer:

Insofar as original sin is transmitted by DNA, ultimately indirectly, in the sense that the union of sperm and egg creates another person, and all persons are subject to original sin, this difficulty is overcome in Jesus, not by Mary's Immaculate Conception, but by the Virgin Birth.

Mary's egg (ovum), that she contributed to the process of the birth of Jesus; from which He did indeed receive her DNA, was not yet a person, since it is an egg, which is necessary to personhood as an immediate precursor, but not identical with it. If Jesus had been born of Joseph and Mary, then it would have been a non-miraculous process, and original sin would have (arguably) only been avoided by Joseph being immaculately conceived (having had original sin removed) and sinless, just as Mary was.

As it was, Joseph is taken out of the equation, since Mary became pregnant miraculously by means of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, if Mary's egg was not subject to original sin, since it was not a person, and only persons are subjected to that, and the Holy Spirit has no original sin (being God), then original sin would not have been transmitted to Jesus, by straightforward deduction from all of the above.

Conclusion: Mary's Immaculate Conception was not, strictly speaking, necessary for Jesus to be born sinless, without original sin, yet with human DNA and a human nature, whereas the Virgin Birth seems necessary in order to avoid "corruption" from physical human descent. There is such a thing as a human nature without sin and original sin, just as Adam and Eve possessed before the fall.

And this line of argument should be agreed to by any Protestant who denies neither original sin nor the Virgin Birth, since these are usually held by Protestants as well. It's a "general" argument that doesn't depend on prior Catholic dogma (the Immaculate Conception).

Dave, the question that your argument leaves me with is: If Mary had not been Immaculate, would Jesus have been able to receive His human nature from her?

Yes. My above reasoning accounts for this. This is one reason why we can say that the Immaculate Conception was not absolutely necessary in order to preserve Jesus from sin. It was extremely fitting and appropriate: Mary being the "ark of the New Covenant." Therefore God chose to do it that way. It makes perfect sense. And the Church in her Spirit-guided wisdom (after many centuries of pious reflection) has decided that this is a belief that all Catholics must hold.

But as for Jesus receiving His human nature (or, human qualities deriving from DNA: Jesus may very well have looked like Mary, just as any son might look like his mother) from Mary independently of whether she was immaculate and without original sin herself, that is "solved" by the miracle of the Virgin Birth.

10 comments:

CrimsonCatholic said...

FWIW, the patristic reason follows yours. Owing to the fact that Jesus took His human nature by a miraculous act of the Holy Spirit rather than the ordinary means, the transmission of original sin would not have been an issue regardless of Mary's original (or even actual) sin. Hence, the dogmatic affirmation of the Creed "by the power of the Holy Spirit, He was born of the Virgin Mary and became man" suffices to explicitly preclude any confusion of whether original sin could have been transmitted in the Incarnation. As interpreted by the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, it also makes clear that the human nature (and its concomitant frailties as a result of original sin, such as vulnerability to death) was taken from Mary; she is truly the Mother of God. Jesus was not created ex nihilo according to His humanity, even though the process by which He inherited His human nature from Mary was ineffably mysterious and miraculous.

Of course, as you pointed out, the Incarnation of God in a way that involves sin in any way would be a contradiction in terms, since God and sin are absolutely contrary to one another. But the creedal affirmation makes clear that there was no process involved in taking the human nature from Mary that would even require Jesus to be miraculously shielded from the transmission of original sin. Only natural begetting by the powers of the human nature (including artificial processes that make a defective use of these powers, like IVF) is subject to that difficulty.

Nelson said...

Hi Dave,

I am Catholic and believe in the Immaculate Conception as you do . However I think your reasoning about Mary’s egg not being corrupted by original sin because it is not yet a human being is flawed slightly. I may be wrong and if I am please correct me. At the fall of humanity all of nature was adversely affected by Original sin. So corruption runs through all things in our universe including all of humanity. I am not saying that we are totally corrupt only that corruption runs though us. To my understanding of it Jesus saves not only humanity but all of nature as well. On the last day all will be made new again. A new Heaven and a New Earth. ( heaven not being the abode of God, but the heavens as in universe.)
That being the case Mary’s egg would have been subject to that same universal corruption that everything suffers from. Her Immaculate Conception would have insured that the egg from which Jesus obtained his humanity would not have been subject to that corruption. Thus his humanity would have been incorrupt from the very start. Jesus is still a part of the same human nature that he saves because Mary is totally human in every way. Her Immaculate Conception does not take her out of this human race. So every part of her is totally human including the egg from which Jesus became a living human being.
I am not saying that God could not have accomplished salvation in any other way.. God is open to as many ways as he wants, however the way he chose was through Mary. Jesus is God. God has never been associated with sin or corruption. He has never put Himself in contact with sin or corruption in the sense that he could be associated with it. ( at least not to my knowledge). He does associate with humanity but in an indirect way, through the sinlessness of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.
Mary was totally human in every way. She relies on God ( Jesus) for her salvation the same as we all do by the possession of Christ within us. She possessed Christ in the most intimate way ever possible. Her Immaculate Conception itself was the very Grace of God that saves. The Son of God Himself saving her through all of eternity. His Grace, His saving action, her Immaculate Conception, His humanity. His gift of salvation to us all.
Could he have done otherwise yes of course. Did he, no...

Nelson

CrimsonCatholic said...

At the fall of humanity all of nature was adversely affected by Original sin. So corruption runs through all things in our universe including all of humanity. I am not saying that we are totally corrupt only that corruption runs though us. To my understanding of it Jesus saves not only humanity but all of nature as well.

I think you're confusing the possibility of corruption with actual corruption. Original sin is a condition of deprivation of the presence of God on account of Adam's actual sin that renders man vulnerable to corruption as a consequence, and creation itself, over which man is master, is also therefore vulnerable to misuse and its resulting meaninglessness. But that vulnerability to corruption is not the same thing as actual corruption. Otherwise, by making Himself amenable to death, Jesus would have been making Himself subject to corruption. St. Maximus the Confessor makes this distinction between corruptibility and corruption, and it seems to me that his point is necessarily sound, so I think you have taken the concept of original sin too far in extending it to actual corruption.

Dan Marcum said...

It is an interesting viewpoint, but I side with your interlocutor's original suggestion: let's suppose that original sin WOULD have been transmitted to Christ unless Mary was preserved from it; then your counter-argument only proves that Mary must have been immaculately conceived. For you said, "Jesus, being God, is impeccable: it is not possible for Him to have sinned. Therefore, He could not have been subject to transmission of original sin..." But work out the argument: 1. If Jesus is impeccable, He cannot have received a sin nature (by definition).
2. Jesus received His nature from Mary (cf. Hebrews 2:14)
3. Therefore Mary did not have a sin nature (which means the same thing as, Mary was immaculately conceived).

I wrote about this at my website: http://completelybiblical.blogspot.com/2009/07/mary-was-never-sinner.html#Incarnation

Dave Armstrong said...

Hi Nelson,

Thanks very nmuch for your question.

I may be wrong and if I am please correct me. At the fall of humanity all of nature was adversely affected by Original sin. So corruption runs through all things in our universe including all of humanity. I am not saying that we are totally corrupt only that corruption runs though us. To my understanding of it Jesus saves not only humanity but all of nature as well. On the last day all will be made new again. A new Heaven and a New Earth. ( heaven not being the abode of God, but the heavens as in universe.)

Yes, but (following Jonathan's reasoning), the fall of nature is different in kind from the fall of man. A tree or a rock or a bear or a fish has not rebelled against God. Only man did that. Nature was changed for the worse, but it didn't rebel, and wasn't at fault. It couldn't be because it wasn't made in God's image. That's the difference.

Thus, whatever is not man is not subject to original sin as man is. If my fingernail falls off, it is not a "sinner" fingernail, etc. It makes sense to refer only to men in that way.

Likewise, the female egg, or ovum, no matter how important it is as a precursor to personhood, is not yet a person, and so does not partake of original sin in the way that persons do; therefore, it cannot transmit it to a person. The Virgin Birth overcame that problem.

That being the case Mary’s egg would have been subject to that same universal corruption that everything suffers from. Her Immaculate Conception would have insured that the egg from which Jesus obtained his humanity would not have been subject to that corruption.

But I think this doesn't follow, for the reasons I gave. I submit that there is a false premise involved in this reasoning.

Thus his humanity would have been incorrupt from the very start.

It was because He was God, Who is impeccable, and because even His human nature was not received in the fashion that all the rest of us received personhood. It was a miraculous conception.

Jesus is still a part of the same human nature that he saves because Mary is totally human in every way.

He had a human nature, but He was a Divine Person. He had likeness to us in everything but sin. He doesn't have to identify with our sinfulness in order to save us, because a sinful, fallen state is not intrinsic to man. It is a corruption. Adam and Eve before the fall represented the essence of mankind: the way God intended for it to be, BUT for the fall.

Her Immaculate Conception does not take her out of this human race.

Of course not. It merely makes her like Eve. Hence the fathers called her the new Eve or second Eve.

So every part of her is totally human including the egg from which Jesus became a living human being.
I am not saying that God could not have accomplished salvation in any other way.. God is open to as many ways as he wants, however the way he chose was through Mary. Jesus is God. God has never been associated with sin or corruption. He has never put Himself in contact with sin or corruption in the sense that he could be associated with it. ( at least not to my knowledge). He does associate with humanity but in an indirect way, through the sinlessness of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Mary was totally human in every way. She relies on God ( Jesus) for her salvation the same as we all do by the possession of Christ within us. She possessed Christ in the most intimate way ever possible. Her Immaculate Conception itself was the very Grace of God that saves. The Son of God Himself saving her through all of eternity. His Grace, His saving action, her Immaculate Conception, His humanity. His gift of salvation to us all. Could he have done otherwise yes of course. Did he, no...


I don't disagree with any of these latter words and think they are eloquently stated.

Dave Armstrong said...

Hi Dan,

Another interesting and stimulating comment. Thanks.

1. If Jesus is impeccable, He cannot have received a sin nature (by definition).

Correct. But that is an independent argument from the current one being critiqued. It itself is really two arguments in one: impeccability and the larger consideration of Jesus being the Creator, not the created, who rebelled against the Creator. By nature, He could not possibly have received original sin, because He never participated in the fall (and the Bible says that in Adam, we ALL fell; in a sense we were there, too). He didn't rebel against Himself (as I stated in my post).

So it is impossible for Jesus to be subject to original sin on those two grounds before we get to the human nature and "physical transmission" question.

2. Jesus received His nature from Mary (cf. Hebrews 2:14)

Human nature, yes. But a human nature is not intrinsically a sin nature (if you are implying that). That is only true after the fall. He didn't receive original sin through the process of reproduction because His birth was miraculous: the result of a sinless Holy Spirit, Who is God, and a "morally neutral" ovum, which would be so whether Mary was in fact Immaculate or not (which was my central point). Original sin was thus not involved at all. The whole reasoning works completely apart from the question of Mary's Immaculate Conception, in this way.

3. Therefore Mary did not have a sin nature (which means the same thing as, Mary was immaculately conceived).

That doesn't follow, for the reasons given above. You have overlooked the fact that the intrinsic nature of the Virgin Birth renders Mary's own moral state irrelevant. We believe she was immaculate, and that this was completely proper and appropriate, but it was not necessary in order for Jesus to be born and to avoid sin (actual and original).

I'll take a look at your post now.

Dave Armstrong said...

I read your post. I think the reasoning fails because it is overcome by the Virgin Birth.

Your reasoning would work if Joseph had been Jesus' biological father. Then it would be a case of two human beings procreating and passing on original sin. In that case, both Joseph and Mary would have had to be immaculate and your argument would hold, I think.

But the Holy Spirit was involved in the process, so that this was not a conception after the usual manner.

But I would introduce a fourth argument: original sin is about more than just biology. It is a spiritual thing. I've already made the arguments from impeccability and God not being able to rebel against Himself. so I question (though this is speculation) whether Jesus could have "inherited" original sin even if His birth had been an entirely natural one.

Jesus was not "in" Adam (i.e., fallen with the rest of humanity):

1 Corinthians 15:22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive." (RSV)

He wasn't part of the fall, and I don't think that mere biology could make Him part of it, because the fall is a spiritual thing, not physical. It's only connected with biology at all insofar as this is the way new human beings are generated, and each human being partakes of the fall, as part of corporate humanity.

But Jesus is different because He is God. Obviously, if He was "in" Adam and fell, then He wouldn't have been able to be juxtaposed against him in this verse, and be the cause of salvation from sin and he fall.

So He is a special case from the outset. I think these considerations are relatively far more important than the intricacies of reproduction and all the speculative fine points we are all putting on that.

Dave Armstrong said...

Perhaps another argument could be made, too. Just thinking out loud:

If Mary's Immaculate Conception were absolutely necessary in order for Jesus to be without sin, then that would mean that God was necessarily dependent on one of His creatures for some characteristic that He possesses.

But this is impossible. God (even an incarnate God) cannot be necessarily dependent on His own creatures, because part of the nature of God is to be entirely self-sufficient.

Mary was an instrument used in the Incarnation, but in no way was she a necessary instrument insofar as God "needs" something from her that He doesn't already have.

God is impeccable by nature. Jesus is God, and thus He is also impeccable in His Divine Nature, and this characteristic cannot include the possibility of being dependent for its existence on whether or not Mary was sinless or immaculate (without original sin).

Therefore, by these facts, Mary's immaculate conception was not intrinsically necessary in order for Jesus to be impeccable and without original sin.

Dave Armstrong said...

Here's yet another argument, building upon my preceding ones:

Original sin presides in the soul, and a soul is a direct creation by God in each individual; thus distinct from our physical generation from procreation.

This removes the question of original sin from direct causation with regard to procreation. Hence, The Catholic Encyclopedia ("Immaculate Conception") states:

"The term conception does not mean the active or generative conception by her parents. Her body was formed in the womb of the mother, and the father had the usual share in its formation. The question does not concern the immaculateness of the generative activity of her parents. Neither does it concern the passive conception absolutely and simply (conceptio seminis carnis, inchoata), which, according to the order of nature, precedes the infusion of the rational soul. The person is truly conceived when the soul is created and infused into the body. Mary was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin at the first moment of her animation, and sanctifying grace was given to her before sin could have taken effect in her soul.

"The formal active essence of original sin was not removed from her soul, as it is removed from others by baptism; it was excluded, it never was in her soul. Simultaneously with the exclusion of sin. The state of original sanctity, innocence, and justice, as opposed to original sin, was conferred upon her, by which gift every stain and fault, all depraved emotions, passions, and debilities, essentially pertaining to original sin, were excluded. But she was not made exempt from the temporal penalties of Adam — from sorrow, bodily infirmities, and death."

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07674d.htm

Just as the Immaculate Conception does not concern Mary's parents, as it was a direct of God in her soul from the beginning, likewise, Jesus' Birth and His nature does not in all respects concern His human mother, Mary, insofar as He is free from all sin. God did a miraculous act in Mary's conception, and He did another in Jesus' birth, since it came about supernaturally and not naturally.

But Jesus could never possibly have sin in His soul (impeccability). Mary's inevitable inheritance of original sin was removed by God.

Jesus not only DID not have sin, but could not POSSIBLY have had sin in His soul. That's why He could not possibly have received it in any circumstance. God didn't have to remove it or the possibility of it by any means (including making Mary immaculate) because it was impossible to be prevented, since it was never possible from the outset.

Therefore, again, the Immaculate Conception was by no means necessary for this to be the case, It already intrinsically was the case: Jesus being God. It all goes back to that.

Dave Armstrong said...

Another argument I have assumed throughout is the language used by the magisterium, of the Immaculate Conception being "fitting." This is in contradistinction to the use of the word "necessary" -- if indeed the latter were the case. In other words, if it were necessary, then it seems to me that "necessary" would appear where in fact, "fitting" does. "Fitting" is not the sort of thing that could not be anything other than what it is. "Fitting" means good, sensible, etc., but not "necessary."

Hence, Pius IX, in the very declaration where the Immaculate Conception was declared to be de fide dogma, in 1854:

"And indeed it was wholly fitting that so wonderful a mother should be ever resplendent with the glory of most sublime holiness and so completely free from all taint of original sin that she would triumph utterly over the ancient serpent."

And:

"For it was certainly not fitting that this vessel of election should be wounded by the common injuries, since she, differing so much from the others, had only nature in common with them, not sin. In fact, it was quite fitting that, as the Only-Begotten has a Father in heaven, whom the Seraphim extol as thrice holy, so he should have a Mother on earth who would never be without the splendor of holiness."

(Ineffabilis Deus)

http://www.ewtn.com/LIBRARY/PAPALDOC/P9INEFF.htm

The same language was used in the definition of the Assumption in 1950.

Pope Pius XII wrote in his encyclical Fulgens Corona, in 1953:

"13. And again, if we consider the matter with attention, and especially if we consider the burning and sweet love which Almighty God without doubt had, and has, for the mother of His only begotten Son, for what reason can we even think that she was, even for the briefest moment of time, subject to sin and destitute of divine grace. Almighty God could certainly, by virtue of the merits of the Redeemer, bestow on her this singular privilege; that therefore He did not do so, we cannot even suppose. It was fitting that Jesus Christ should have such a mother as would be worthy of Him as far as possible; and she would not have been worthy, if, contaminated by the hereditary stain even for the first moment only of her conception, she had been subject to the abominable power of Satan."

http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xii/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_08091953_fulgens-corona_en.html