Immaculate Conception

Mary of Wisconsin, Champion

The lady clad in white who appeared to Bernadette at Lourdes said, "I am the Immaculate Conception." (Our Lady of Lourdes). Rome's current teaching on this point was first devised by John Duns Scotus in the thirteenth century and was proclaimed as dogma in the nineteenth century. Though Augustine and Thomas Aquinas did not believe in this doctrine, no one now can be saved without believing it. This teaching claims that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was without sin, either actual sin of her own or original sin passed on from Adam, having been conceived free of the taint of  this otherwise universal human inheritance:

"We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance 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. Hence, if anyone shall dare — which God forbid! — to think otherwise than as has been defined by us, let him know and understand that he is condemned by his own judgment; that he has suffered shipwreck in the faith; that he has separated from the unity of the Church; and that, furthermore, by his own action he incurs the penalties established by law if he should dare to express in words or writing or by any other outward means the errors he thinks in his heart." (Ineffabilis Deus, Pope Pius IX, December 8, 1854).

What saith the scriptures?

All Have Sinned

The Bible says that all have sinned; "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God. . ." (Romans 3:23), yet Roman Catholics claim that Mary was without sin. Not only did she herself never err in thought, word or deed, but her very conception was free from any taint of original sin.

The Bible knows nothing of the supposed sinlessness of Mary:

"When they sin against You (for there is no one who does not sin), and You become angry with them and deliver them to the enemy, and they take them captive to the land of the enemy, far or near;..." (1 Kings 8:46, 2 Chronicles 6:36).

Only one human being was ever without sin, and that's not Mary, but her son. Believers should blush to say such things about Mary, who never boasted that she was sinless, but said ". . .my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant." (Luke 1:47-48). Mary knew she had a Savior, because she was a sinner saved by God's grace.

"What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. As it is written: 'There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one...'Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God...For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God..." (Romans 3:9-23).
"But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe." (Galatians 3:22).


As Thomas Aquinas pointed out, the unbiblical teaching of the 'immaculate conception' detracts from Christ's dignity as Savior of all mankind:

  • “Likewise, if Mary had been conceived without original sin, she would not have had to be redeemed by Christ, and so Christ would not be the universal redeemer of men, which detracts from His dignity.”
  • (Thomas Aquinas, Compendium of Theology, Part 1, Chapter 224).

As Thomas realized, this novel teaching left Mary, a creature, without need of a Redeemer:

  • “If the soul of the Blessed Virgin had never incurred the stain of original sin, this would be derogatory to the dignity of Christ, by reason of His being the universal Savior of all. Consequently after Christ, who, as the universal Savior of all, needed not to be saved, the purity of the Blessed Virgin holds the highest place. For Christ did not contract original sin in any way whatever, but was holy in His very Conception, according to Luke 1:35: “The Holy which shall be born of thee, shall be called the Son of God.” But the Blessed Virgin did indeed contract original sin, but was cleansed therefrom before her birth from the womb.”
  • (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Third Part, Question 27, A(2)-RO(2) ).

Though Thomas condemned the doctrine of the immaculate conception, he did himself subscribe to the idea of Mary's cleansing from sin in the womb, citing the examples of John the Baptist and Jeremiah, two individuals not known to be without sin. As will be seen, there is no Biblical basis for this idea of cleansing in the womb.

Thomas cites Augustine as authority for Mary's participation in original sin: “Consequently, though the parents of the Blessed Virgin were cleansed from original sin, nevertheless she contracted original sin, since she was conceived by way of fleshly concupiscence and the intercourse of man and woman: for Augustine says (De Nup. et Concup. i): 'All flesh born of carnal intercourse is sinful.'” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Third Part, Question 27, A(2).)

Thomas is aware that none of these teachings: immaculate conception, cleansing in the womb, cleansing upon assent to Gabriel,— is Bible teaching: "I answer that, Nothing is handed down in the canonical Scriptures concerning the sanctification of the Blessed Mary as to her being sanctified in the womb; indeed, they do not even mention her birth." (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, A(1).) Where there is neither Biblical guidance nor any teaching by the early writers, the Roman Church had not hesitated to strike out on its own path. Exalted ideas about Mary advanced first along the low road, of apocryphal literature and gnostic heresy, became entrenched in the popular imagination, and then were allowed in through the front door, as this most non-conservative of churches is prone to do. In the case of the immaculate conception, it is not the gnostics who are to blame, but Thomas' rival medieval scholastics:

"This development continued in the Middle Ages. . .While the older Church Fathers had still spoken of Mary's moral faults, she now began to be credited with perfect sinlessness and the doctrine of her sanctity even before birth, as a result of her preservation from original sin, began to be taught expressly here and there in the West from the twelfth century onwards. . .Scholasticism attempted a conceptual clarification of Mary's position in salvation history in relation to original sin (Duns Scotus 1308)." (Hans Kung, On Being a Christian, pp. 460-461).


No more than Thomas did Augustine believe that Mary was conceived without taint of original sin, or that any conceived except as was the Lord could be in such a state:

  • “Our new heretics, my dearest son Valerius, who maintain that infants born in the flesh have no need of that medicine of Christ whereby sins are healed, are constantly affirming, in their excessive hatred of us, that we condemn marriage and that divine procedure by which God creates human beings by means of men and women, inasmuch as we assert that they who are born of such a union contract that original sin of which the apostle says, 'By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for in him all sinned;' and because we do not deny, that of whatever kind of parents they are born, they are still under the devil's dominion, unless they be born again in Christ, and by His grace be removed from the power of darkness and translated into His kingdom, who willed not to be born from the same union of the two sexes. Because, then, we affirm this doctrine, which is contained in the oldest and unvarying rule of the catholic faith, these propounders of the novel and perverse dogma, who assert that there is no sin in infants to be washed away in the laver of regeneration, in their unbelief or ignorance calumniate us, as if we condemned marriage, and as if we asserted to be the devil's work what is God's own work— the human being which is born of marriage. Nor do they reflect that the good of marriage is no more impeachable on account of the original evil which is derived therefrom, than the evil of adultery and fornication is excusable on account of the natural good which is born of them.”
  • (Augustine, On Marriage and Concupiscence, Chapter 1).

  • “The same holy man [Ambrose] also, in his Exposition of Isaiah, speaking of Christ, says: “Therefore as man He was tried in all things, and in the likeness of men He endured all things; but as born of the Spirit, He was free from sin. For every man is a liar, and no one but God alone is without sin. It is therefore an observed and settled fact, that no man born of a man and a woman, that is, by means of their bodily union, is seen to be free from sin. Whosoever, indeed, is free from sin, is free also from a conception and birth of this kind.” Moreover, when expounding the Gospel according to Luke, he says: “It was no cohabitation with a husband which opened the secrets of the Virgin’s womb; rather was it the Holy Ghost which infused immaculate seed into her unviolated womb. For the Lord Jesus alone of those who are born of woman is holy, inasmuch as He experienced not the contact of earthly corruption, by reason of the novelty of His immaculate birth; nay, He repelled it by His heavenly majesty.”
  • (Augustine, A Treatise on the Grace of Christ, and on Original Sin, Book 2, Chapter 47, PNF, Philip Schaff, Volume 5, p. 658).

  • “Have such just men, while living by faith, no need to say: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors?” And do they prove this to be wrong which is written, “In Thy sight shall no man living be justified?” and this: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us?” and, “There is no man that sinneth not;” and again, “There is not on the earth a righteous man, who doeth good and sinneth not” (for both these statements are expressed in a general future sense, — “sinneth not,” “will not sin,” — not in the past time, “has not sinned”)? — and all other places of this purport contained in the Holy Scripture? Since, however, these passages cannot possibly be false, it plainly follows, to my mind, that whatever be the quality or extent of the righteousness which we may definitely ascribe to the present life, there is not a man living in it who is absolutely free from all sin; and that it is necessary for every one to give, that it may be given to him; and to forgive, that it may be forgiven him; and whatever righteousness he has, not to presume that he has it of himself, but from the grace of God, who justifies him, and still to go on hungering and thirsting for righteousness from Him who is the living bread, and with whom is the fountain of life; who works in His saints, whilst laboring amidst temptation in this life, their justification in such manner that He may still have somewhat to impart to them liberally when they ask, and something mercifully to forgive them when they confess.”
  • (Augustine, A Treatise on the Spirit and the Letter, Chapter 65, PNF, Philip Schaff, Volume 5, pp. 358-359).

  • “Whosoever, then, supposes that any man or any men (except the one Mediator between God and man) have ever lived, or are yet living in this present state, who have not wanted, and do not want, forgiveness of sins, he opposes Holy Scripture, wherein it is said by the apostle: 'By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.' [Rom. v. 12]”
  • (Augustine, On Man's Perfection in Righteousness, Chapter XXI (44), p. 354, 'The Anti-Pelagian Works of Saint Augustine').

  • “He only was born without sin whom His virgin mother conceived without the embrace of a husband,—not by the concupiscence of the flesh, but by the chaste submission of her mind. She alone was able to give birth to One who should heal our wound, who brought forth the germ of a pure offspring without the wound of sin.”
  • (Aurelius Augustine, A Treatise on the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins, and the Baptism of Infants, Book 1, Chapter LVII (44), p. 57, 'The Anti-Pelagian Works of Saint Augustine').

  • “It is this: Whether the man who has never sinned at all, or never can sin, is not only now living as one of the sons of men, but also could ever have existed at any time, or will yet in time to come exist? Now it is altogether most certain that such a man neither does now live, nor has lived, nor ever will live, except the one only Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus. . .whereas the question now proposed in this fourth place is, Whether there be among the sons of men, or could possibly ever have been, or yet ever could be, a man who has not indeed emerged out of sin and attained to perfect holiness, but has never, at any time whatever, been under the bondage of sin? If, therefore, the remarks are true which we have made at so great length concerning infants, there neither is, has been, nor will be, among the sons of men any man, except the one Mediator, in whom there accrues to us that propitiation and justification through which we have reconciliation with God, by putting an end to the enmity produced by our sins.”
  • (Aurelius Augustine, A Treatise on the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins, and the Baptism of Infants, Book I1, Chapter XXXIV, pp. 105-106, 'The Anti-Pelagian Works of Saint Augustine').

  • “He, therefore, alone having become man, but still continuing to be God, never had any sin, nor did He assume a flesh of sin, although born of His mother's sinful flesh [de materna carne peccati, though there are several textual variants]. For what He then took of flesh, He either cleansed in order to take it, or cleansed by taking it.”
  • (Aurelius Augustine, A Treatise on the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins, and the Baptism of Infants, Book I1, Chapter XXXVIII, p. 111, 'The Anti-Pelagian Works of Saint Augustine').

  • “This being the case, ever since the time when by one man sin thus entered into this world and death by sin, and so it passed through to all men, up to the end of this carnal generation and perishing world, the children of which beget and are begotten, there never has existed, nor ever will exist, a human being of whom, placed in this life of ours, it could be said that he had no sin at all, with the exception of the one Mediator, who reconciles us to our Maker through the forgiveness of sins.”
  • (Augustine, A Treatise on the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins and on the Baptism of Infants, Book 2, Chapter 47, PNF, Philip Schaff, Volume 5, p. 250).

According to Augustine, "they who are born of such a union contract that original sin. . ." But Mary was born of such a union; hers was not a virgin birth. On the question of Mary, as far as concerns the Roman Catholic Church, Pelagius won out in the end. One must wonder what Ambrose and Augustine would make of the youngsters produced through in vitro fertilization, who are not the result of any specific sex act, but are sinners like the rest of us. Regardless of the merits of their argument it precludes the immaculate conception of Mary. On the other side Roman Catholics quote a passage in which Augustine declines an opportunity to talk about Mary and sin.

Cast the First Stone

And Jesus went unto mount Olivet. And early in the morning he came again into the temple: and all the people came to him. And sitting down he taught them. And the scribes and Pharisees bring unto him a woman taken in adultery: and they set her in the midst, and said to him: Master, this woman was even now taken in adultery. Now Moses in the law commanded us to stone such a one. But what sayest thou? And this they said tempting him, that they might accuse him. But Jesus bowing himself down, wrote with his finger on the ground. When therefore they continued asking him, he lifted up himself and said to them: He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. He does not say, 'the Law of Moses is rescinded, the penalty is cancelled,' He only requires sinless stone-throwers. At this, a matron stomps forward, picks up a huge rock, and heaves it. Jesus says, "You know, Mom, you can be a real pain sometimes."

Cyprian on Tradition


Roman Catholics find this doctrine taught in the Bible. Where? In that Mary is called blessed and highly favored:

“And having come in, the angel said to her, 'Rejoice, highly favored one [κεχαριτωμένη], the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!'” (Luke 1:28).

According to Roman Catholic authors such as Karl Keating, 'kecharitomene' can only mean 'immaculately conceived:' "The newer translations leave out something the Greek conveys, something the older translation conveys, which is that this grace (and the core of the word kecharitomene is charis, after all) is at once permanent and of a singular kind. The Greek indicates a perfection of grace. . .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." (Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, p. 269). Authors of this stripe make a similarly sweeping interpretation of 'blessed:'

“Then she spoke out with a loud voice and said, 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!'” (Luke 1:42).

It is difficult however for these phrases to bear the weight being placed upon them. A similar phrase to 'highly favored' or 'full of grace' is used of Stephen in the Catholic Douay-Rheims version, "And Stephen, full of grace and fortitude, did great wonders and signs among the people." (Acts 6:8, Douay-Rheims). The same word as occurs in Luke 1:28 is used, in a different tense, of all believers in Ephesians 1:5-6, ". . .having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, 6to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted [εχαρίτωσεν] in the Beloved." He gave us His grace also; yet no one has ever suggested we were all immaculately conceived.

What can "blessed" mean but 'immaculately conceived?' But others are also called "blessed," such as Jael, in Judges 5:24: “Most blessed among women is Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite; blessed is she among women in tents.” Yet no one ever suggested Jael was immaculately conceived. Mary herself explains why, and more to the point when, she is called blessed: "For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed." (Luke 1:48).

Saved by Faith

Anselm points out that the Virgin Mary was saved by faith:

  • “Finally, the virgin herself, who was made pure by faith in him, so that he might be born of her, even she, I say, never believed that he was to die, save of his own choice. For she knew the words of the prophet, who said of him: 'He was offered of his own will.' Therefore, since her faith was well founded, it must necessarily turn out as she believed. And, if it perplexes you to have me say that it is necessary, remember that the reality of the virgin's faith was not the cause of his dying by his own free will; but, because this was destined to take place, therefore her faith was real.”
  • (Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, Chapter XVIII(a)).

It should be no surprise that Mary was saved as are all the saints, by faith. But modern Roman Catholics do not believe this. They believe she was cleansed and purified by divine fiat prior to any act of faith of her part, not, as Anselm says, in consequence of her trust or confidence: ". . .and that the virgin from whom that man should be born might be pure, through confidence in the certainty of this. . ." (Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, Chapter XVII), either foreseen or known in retrospect.

There is no Protestant reformer less beloved by the Roman Catholics than John Calvin. His system, they say, makes human beings into soulless robots, without freedom. This they say because John Calvin believed the elect were saved by divine fiat, not predicated upon foreknowledge of their faith or any other personal characteristic. Roman Catholic critics of his view, held by many even today, say that since man is made in the image of God, he must participate in God's freedom. Whatever the merits of their case against John Calvin, they have failed to notice that they say, about Mary, just what John Calvin said of the elect. In their system, she was saved by divine fiat, before she could ever formulate any belief or initiate any act of will, at her very conception. Yet they do not say Mary is a robot; indeed they say they are very fond of her.

To return to Anselm's 'Cur Deus Homo,' Boso explicitly denies the immaculate conception:

"First, then, how does God, from a sinful substance, that is, of human species, which was wholly tainted by sin, take a man without sin, as an unleavened lump from that which is leavened? For, though the conception of this man be pure, and free from the sin of fleshly gratification, yet the virgin herself, from whom he sprang, was conceived in iniquity, and in sin did her mother bear her, since she herself sinned in Adam, in whom all men sinned." (Anselm, 'Cur Deus Homo,' Chapter XVI).

Anselm himself wants to stress Mary's faith, which can hardly have been operative prior to her conception. He wants her to be purified of sin, but situates this cleansing prior to Jesus' birth, not her own birth: "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." (Anselm, 'Cur Deus Homo,' Chapter XVI).

Some proponents of the Immaculate Conception want to make Anselm into a precursor of this doctrine, yet he is certainly an unwilling one. His system requires the Savior to be taken from fallen humanity, which owed the debt, not a new parallel creation of different lineage.

Fathers Know Best

The early church writers recapitulate the Bible teaching that all men are sinners, save only one, the sinless Jesus:

  • “For we tell some part of what is written concerning His loving-kindness to men, but how much He forgave the Angels we know not: for them also He forgives, since One alone is without sin, even Jesus who purgeth our sins. And of them we have said enough.”
  • (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, Lecture 2, Section 10).

  • “Now, O you, my children, our Instructor is like His Father God, whose son He is, sinless, blameless, and with a soul devoid of passion; God in the form of man, stainless, the minister of His Father’s will, the Word who is God, who is in the Father, who is at the Father’s right hand, and with the form of God is God. . .He is wholly free from human passions; wherefore also He alone is judge, because He alone is sinless.
  • (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 1, Chapter 2).

  • “But He welcomes the repentance of the sinner — loving repentance — which follows sins. For this Word of whom we speak alone is sinless. For to sin is natural and common to all.
  • (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 3, Chapter 12)

  • “For no one man is free from sin, excepting Him that was made man for us; since it is written: 'No man is pure from filthiness; no, not though he be but one day old.' Upon which account the lives and conduct of the ancient holy men and patriarchs are described; not that we may reproach them from our reading, but that we ourselves may repent, and have hope that we also shall obtain forgiveness. . .For it is written: “Who can boast that he has a clean heart? and who dare affirm that he is pure from sin?” No man, therefore, is without sin.”
  • (Apostolic Constitutions, Book 2, Section 3, Chapter XVIII, p. 799 ECF 0.07).

  • “For after that you had crucified Him, the only blameless and righteous Man, — through whose stripes those who approach the Father by Him are healed,. . .
  • (Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho, 17).

  • “Now, we know that he did not go to the river because He stood in need of baptism, or of the descent of the Spirit like a dove; even as He submitted to be born and to be crucified, not because He needed such things, but because of the human race, which from Adam had fallen under the power of death and the guile of the serpent, and each one of which had committed personal transgression.”
  • (Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho, 88).

  • “For the whole human race will be found to be under a curse. For it is written in the law of Moses, ‘Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them.’ And no one has accurately done all, nor will you venture to deny this; but some more and some less than others have observed the ordinances enjoined.”
  • (Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho, 95).

  • “While if by those 'who were without sin' he means such as have never at any time sinned, — for he made no distinction in his statement, — we reply that it is impossible for a man thus to be without sin. And this we say, excepting, of course, the man understood to be in Christ Jesus, who 'did no sin.'”
  • (Origen, Contra Celsus, 3:62).

  • “But as he asserts that 'the Mosaic narrative most impiously represents God as in a state of weakness from the very commencement (of things), and as unable to gain over (to obedience) even one single man whom He Himself had formed,' we say in answer that the objection is much the same as if one were to find fault with the existence of evil, which God has not been able to prevent even in the case of a single individual, so that one man might be found from the very beginning of things who was born into the world untainted by sin. . .For “in Adam” (as the Scripture says) “all die,” and were condemned in the likeness of Adam’s transgression, the word of God asserting this not so much of one particular individual as of the whole human race. For in the connected series of statements which appears to apply as to one particular individual, the curse pronounced upon Adam is regarded as common to all (the members of the race), and what was spoken with reference to the woman is spoken of every woman without exception.”
  • (Origen, Contra Celsus, 4:40).

  • “Thus some men are very bad, and some very good; but yet the souls of all form but one genus: even in the worst there is something good, and in the best there is something bad. For God alone is without sin; and the only man without sin is Christ, since Christ is also God.”
  • (Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul, Chapter 41).

Only Jesus is without sin. All of humanity were given over to sin at the time of the incarnation. These authors are unaware of any exception for Mary.

That Jesus is sinless is taught in scripture: “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: 'Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth;' who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed.” (1 Peter 2:21-24). That Mary is sinless is nowhere so much as hinted at. There is a creeping tendency in Catholicism for her to take on His attributes, and this is yet another instance. The God-man was sinless: "For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin." (Hebrews 4:15); so must Mary also be, or she is less than He is. She is Mediatrix; why? Because He is Mediator. He is a King, so must she be a Queen. Some call her Co-Redemptrix; why? Because He is Redeemer. There's an old song, 'Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better,' which Mary's devotees seem to be humming to themselves. It is striking that Gregory Nazianzus and Ambrose see sinlessness as an attribute of God, not of the creature:

  • “Let us be assured that to do no wrong is really superhuman, and belongs to God alone.”

  • (Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 16:15).

  • “God is known by these marks: either that He is without sin; or that He forgives sin; or that He is not a creature but the Creator; or that He does not give but receives worship. So, then, no one is without sin except God alone, for no one is without sin except God. Also, no one forgives sins except God alone, for it is also written: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And one cannot be the Creator of all except he be not a creature, and he who is not a creature is without doubt God; for it is written: 'They worshipped the creature rather than the Creator, Who is God blessed for ever.'”

  • (Ambrose, On the Holy Spirit, Book III, Chapter 18, 132-133).

When the earlier authors see a need for a cleansing or purifying of Mary to make her womb a fit vessel for the Lord, they situate this cleansing at the time of the incarnation, upon her consent to the angel. This work the Holy Spirit did in overshadowing her:

  • "So then, after the assent of the holy Virgin, the Holy Spirit descended on her, according to the word of the Lord which the angel spoke, purifying her, and granting her power to receive the divinity of the Word, and likewise power to bring forth."
  • (John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 3, Chapter 2).

  • “Conscious of her virginity, she is distressed at this hard thing; the Angel explains to her the mighty working of God, saying, The Holy Ghost shall come from above into thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee. The Holy Ghost, descending from above, hallowed the Virgin’s womb, and breathing therein (for The Spirit bloweth where it listeth), mingled Himself with the fleshly nature of man, and annexed by force and might that foreign domain.”
  • (Hilary, On the Trinity, Book 2:26).

  • “But he says, The Holy Ghost shall came upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: wherefore also the holy thing which is to be born shall be called the Son of God. Immaculate and undefiled was His generation: for where the Holy Spirit breathes, there all pollution is taken away: undefiled from the Virgin was the incarnate generation of the Only-begotten.”
  • (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, Lecture 12, Section 32).

  • “This is the Holy Ghost, who came upon the Holy Virgin Mary; for since He who was conceived was Christ the Only-begotten, the power of the Highest overshadowed her, and the Holy Ghost came upon her, and sanctified her, that she might be able to receive Him, by whom all things were made. But I have no need of many words to teach thee that generation was without defilement or taint, for thou hast learned it. It is Gabriel who says to her, I am the herald of what shall be done, but have no part in the work. Though an Archangel, I know my place; and though I joyfully bid thee All hail, yet holy thou shalt bring forth, is not of any grace of mine. The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee; therefore also that Holy Thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.”
  • (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, Lecture 17, Section 6).

The gospel reader fails to notice that Jesus avoids physical contact with 'sinners,' whether those ceremonially unclean or those of immoral life. He touched lepers and did not scold the woman with an issue of blood who touched Him; he sought out sinners, because it is not the healthy who need a physician but the sick. Nevertheless this idea was to grow in later years, that Jesus cannot have been in the womb of a sinner, and the most strange and unscriptural consequences flow from this line of thought.

It is not only the early church writers who are innocent of any knowledge of the immaculate conception, but also bishops of Rome such as Leo the Great:

  • “And therefore in the general ruin of the entire human race there was but one remedy in the secret of the Divine plan which could succor the fallen, and that was that one of the sons of Adam should be born free and innocent of original transgression, to prevail for the rest both by His example and His merits. Still further, because this was not permitted by natural generation, and because there could be no offspring from our faulty stock without seed, of which the Scripture saith, “Who can make a clean thing conceived of an unclean seed? is it not Thou who art alone?” David’s LORD was made David’s Son, and from the fruit of the promised branch sprang. One without fault, the twofold nature coming together into one Person, that by one and the same conception and birth might spring our LORD Jesus Christ, in Whom was present both true Godhead for the performance of mighty works and true Manhood for the endurance of sufferings.”
  • (Leo the Great, Sermon 28:3).

  • "For as justice was everywhere failing and the whole world was given over to vanity and wickedness, if the Divine Power had not deferred its judgment, the whole of mankind would have received the sentence of damnation. But wrath was changed to forgiveness, and, that the greatness of the Grace to be displayed might be the more conspicuous, it pleased God, to apply the mystery of remission to the abolishing of men’s sins at a time when no one could boast of his own merits."
  • (Leo the Great, Sermon 32:1).

Leo also subscribed to the idea of the Holy Spirit's purifying Mary when He overshadowed her: "For the earth of human flesh, which in the first transgressor, was cursed, in this Offspring of the Blessed Virgin only produced a seed that was blessed and free from the fault of its stock. And each one is a partaker of this spiritual origin in regeneration; and to every one when he is re-born, the water of baptism is like the Virgin’s womb; for the same Holy Spirit fills the font, Who filled the Virgin, that the sin, which that sacred conception overthrew, may be taken away by this mystical washing." (Leo the Great, Sermon 24:3). Leo does not hesitate to ascribe 'fault' to Mary: "The LORD assumed His mother’s nature without her faultiness: nor in the LORD Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin’s womb, does the wonderfulness of His birth make His nature unlike ours." (Leo the Great, Letters, Letter 28 to Flavian, (Tome), Section IV.)

Everyone is familiar with the 'Catholic Answers' defense of the Catholic faith: 'The Catholic Church has believed the same things for 2,000 years.' This idea is unconvincing enough when applied to other Roman doctrines such as transubstantiation or papal infallibility, which are not early church doctrines. The doctrine of the immaculate conception is the reductio ad absurdum of this argument. The idea that Mary was conceived without sin was unknown in the earliest era, then was condemned as heresy upon its first introduction. How long were the orthodox able to hold the line on this heresy? Two hundred years?:

  • “And we have also learnt that the poison of the Pelagian heresy again springs up among you; we, therefore, exhort you, that you put away from your thoughts all such venomous and superstitious wickedness. For you cannot be ignorant how that execrable heresy has been condemned; for it has not only been abolished these two hundred years, but it is also daily condemned by us and buried under our perpetual ban; and we exhort you not to rake up the ashes of those whose weapons have been burnt. . .And in the first place, it is blasphemous folly to say that man is without sin, which none can be, but only the one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, Who was conceived and born without sin; for all other men, being born in original sin, are known to bear the mark of Adam's transgression, even whilst they are without actual sin, according to the saying of the prophet, 'For behold, I was conceived in iniquity; and in sin did my mother give birth to me.'”
  • (Bede's Ecclesiasical History, Book 2, Chapter XIX).

Even longer! Not until John Duns Scotus mounted a defense of the immaculate conception in the Middle Ages did this idea become respectable, and even then it met with fierce resistance. In the mid-nineteenth century, Pope Pius IX flipped it from heresy to orthodoxy. That's 2,000 years of something, but not the same thing.


There are consequences which follow if things are as modern Roman Catholics say. As we have already seen, Mary had better not have been within hearing distance when the Lord adjudicated the case of the woman taken in adultery. Moreover, Mary's prayer must have been the prayer of the Pharisee, "God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are. . ." (Luke 18:10). Could she fail to thank God for what He had done for her? But this prayer is not pleasing to God, because "every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted." (Luke 18:14). If Mary reported the plain facts about herself, she would run afoul of scripture,

"If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. . .If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us." (1 John 1:8-10).

She could not repent, so her Son's preaching just bounces off her: "From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 4:17). Did she listen anyway, but say, 'He's talking about those other people,' or did other people's problems not interest her? Why are none of these strange things never heard in scripture? Did Jesus and the apostles never consider Mary's unique case, alone among human-kind? Did they fail to notice she could not say 'Amen' to their prayers and sermons? Or was her case the same as ours?


Is there any biographical evidence in scripture touching upon the first point of this doctrine, that Mary was sinless? Certainly Mary, the mother of the Lord, believed in her Son; she was numbered among those in the upper room: "These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren." (Acts 1:14). Prior to the resurrection, the Lord's brothers did not believe: "For neither did his brethren believe in him." (John 7:5). One would like to think these are the family members who had earlier wanted Him committed: "But when His own people heard about this, they went out to lay hold of Him, for they said, 'He is out of His mind.'" (Mark 3:21).

But her track record is not perfect. On the morning of the resurrection, Mary went to Jesus' tomb. Why did she go there? She did not go there to greet her risen Lord, though Jesus had said He would rise on the third day. She went there to perfume a dead body: "Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him. Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen." (Mark 16:1-2); "Then they returned and prepared spices and fragrant oils. And they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment." (Luke 23:56).

Though admittedly this is not a sin on a level with strapping a toddler into a car seat and rolling the car into a lake, nevertheless unbelief is sin: ". . .for whatever is not from faith is sin." (Romans 14:23).

Once I saw at a yard sale a plaque that said, 'Fear is when you believe in evil more than you believe in God.' Since as a bon mot that lacks a certain snap, crackle and pop, I did not buy it, but you must admit the writer has a point. Fear is, perhaps not itself sinful, but somewhat indicative of lack of faith: "But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was. Then the angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.'" (Luke 1:29-30). Of what was she afraid? We can understand why Peter feared to follow Jesus: "When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord." (Luke 5:8). Of what is the sinless Mary afraid?

Many of the early church writers heard a rebuke in Jesus' reply to His mother's request at the marriage of Cana:

  • “Verse 4. “Woman, what have I to do with thee? Mine hour is not yet come.”

    “To prove that He greatly respected His mother, hear Luke relate how He was “subject to” His parents (Luke 2:51), and our own Evangelist declare how He had forethought for her at the very season of the Crucifixion. For where parents cause no impediment or hindrance in things belonging to God, it is our bounden duty to give way to them, and there is great danger in not doing so; but when they require anything unseasonably, and cause hindrance in any spiritual matter, it is unsafe to obey. And therefore He answered thus in this place, and again elsewhere, “Who is My mother, and who are My brethren?” (Matthew 12:48), because they did not yet think rightly of Him; and she, because she had borne Him, claimed, according to the custom of other mothers, to direct Him in all things, when she ought to have reverenced and worshipped Him. This then was the reason why He answered as He did on that occasion. For consider what a thing it was, that when all the people high and low were standing round Him, when the multitude was intent on hearing Him, and His doctrine had begun to be set forth, she should come into the midst and take Him away from the work of exhortation, and converse with Him apart, and not even endure to come within, but draw Him outside merely to herself. This is why He said, “Who is My mother and My brethren?”. . .

    “It was then from this motive that He said in this place, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” and also for another reason not less pressing. What was that? It was, that His miracles might not be suspected. The request ought to have come from those who needed, not from His mother. . . And so this was a reason why He rebuked her on that occasion, saying, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” instructing her for the future not to do the like; because, though He was careful to honor His mother, yet He cared much more for the salvation of her soul, and for the doing good to the many, for which He took upon Him the flesh.”
  • (John Chrysostom, Homily 21, Homiles on the Gospel of John).

Why was Jesus concerned "for the salvation of her soul," if this question had been settled at the time of her conception? Claiming too much for oneself on the strength of relation is, again, not the kind of thing we put people in the penitentiary for, but as John points out, the Lord thought it worthy of rebuke. Mary was not sinless; it is futile to argue at what point she took on this privilege, when she never had it.

Tertullian, discussing Jesus' refusal to interrupt His sermon and go outside to see His mother and brothers, accuses Mary of unbelief:

  • “But there is some ground for thinking that Christ’s answer denies His mother and brethren for the present, as even Apelles might learn. “The Lord’s brethren had not yet believed in Him.” So is it contained in the Gospel which was published before Marcion’s time; whilst there is at the same time a want of evidence of His mother’s adherence to Him, although the Marthas and the other Marys were in constant attendance on Him. In this very passage indeed, their unbelief is evident. Jesus was teaching the way of life, preaching the kingdom of God and actively engaged in healing infirmities of body and soul; but all the while, whilst strangers were intent on Him, His very nearest relatives were absent. By and by they turn up, and keep outside; but they do not go in, because, forsooth, they set small store on that which was doing within; nor do they even wait, as if they had something which they could contribute more necessary than that which He was so earnestly doing; but they prefer to interrupt Him, and wish to call Him away from His great work. . .And did not Christ, whilst preaching and manifesting God, fulfilling the law and the prophets, and scattering the darkness of the long preceding age, justly employ this same form of words, in order to strike the unbelief of those who stood outside, or to shake off the importunity of those who would call Him away from His work? . . .When denying one’s parents in indignation, one does not deny their existence, but censures their faults. . .How strange, then, would it certainly have been, if, while he was teaching others not to esteem mother, or father, or brothers, as highly as the word of God, He were Himself to leave the word of God as soon as His mother and brethren were announced to Him! He denied His parents, then, in the sense in which He has taught us to deny ours — for God’s work.”
  • (Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ, Chapter 7).

The passage is, "While He was still talking to the multitudes, behold, His mother and brothers stood outside, seeking to speak with Him. Then one said to Him, “Look, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, seeking to speak with You.” But He answered and said to the one who told Him, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, 'Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.'” (Matthew 12:46-50, Mark 3:33, Luke 8:21). Tertullian's accusation is harsh and excessive; people who interrupt a pastor's sermon to bring to bring up some extraneous matter are not necessarily unbelievers. The Lord's brothers were, at that stage, known unbelievers; Mary was not. However it is certain Tertullian is not onboard the modern Catholic Marian bus; how could she be both an unbeliever and also without sin?

John Chrysostom, discussing the same incident, takes a milder line, though one still critical of Mary: ". . .but today we learn in addition another thing, that even to have born Christ in the womb, and to have brought forth that marvelous birth, hath no profit, if there be not virtue." (John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew, Homily 44:1). The virtue that is lacking is humility; he accuses her of "superfluous vanity:" "For in fact that which she had essayed to do, was of superfluous vanity; in that she wanted to show the people that she hath power and authority over her Son, imagining not as yet anything great concerning Him; whence also her unseasonable approach. . .Whence it is clear, that nothing but vainglory led them to do this. . ." (John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew, Homily 44:1). John sees the Lord's refusal to go outside, not as a rebuff, but as healing medicine for the disease, which is vain-glory: "But now He doth not so, out of care for her, and for His brethren. I mean, because their regard for Him was as towards a mere man, and they were vainglorious, He casts out the disease, not insulting, but correcting them." (John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew, Homily 44:1). Jesus' purpose was "not with intent to drive them to perplexity, but to deliver them from the most tyrannical passion and to lead them on by little and little to the right idea concerning Himself, and to convince her that He was not her Son only, but also her Lord: so wilt thou perceive that the reproof is in the highest degree both becoming Him and profitable to her, and withal having in it much gentleness." (John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew, Homily 44). Why a sinless person might require reproof, either harsh or gentle, cannot be explained. John did not think she was sinless.

Simeon prophesied to Mary that a sword would pierce her soul:

“Then Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, 'Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.'” (Luke 2:34-35).

Some of the early writers are not hesitant to see in this prophecy a dark night of the soul for Mary:

  • “9. By a sword is meant the word which tries and judges our thoughts, which pierces even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of our thoughts. Now every soul in the hour of the Passion was subjected, as it were, to a kind of searching. According to the word of the Lord it is said, “All ye shall be offended because of me.” Simeon therefore prophesies about Mary herself, that when standing by the cross, and beholding what is being done, and hearing the voices, after the witness of Gabriel, after her secret knowledge of the divine conception, after the great exhibition of miracles, she shall feel about her soul a mighty tempest. The Lord was bound to taste of death for every man — to become a propitiation for the world and to justify all men by His own blood. Even thou thyself, who hast been taught from on high the things concerning the Lord, shalt be reached by some doubt. This is the sword. “That the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” He indicates that after the offense at the Cross of Christ a certain swift healing shall come from the Lord to the disciples and to Mary herself, confirming their heart in faith in Him. In the same way we saw Peter, after he had been offended, holding more firmly to his faith in Christ. What was human in him was proved unsound, that the power of the Lord might be shown.”
  • (Basil, Letter 260:9).

There is no need for "healing" if there is no wound. On the modern Catholic view, Mary alone among the redeemed in heaven cannot sing, 'Amazing Grace,' because having no experience nor recollection of sin, she has no experience of grace. But as Basil realized, she can join in the chorus.

John and Jeremiah

Thomas Aquinas, who did not believe in the Immaculate Conception of Mary, gave John the Baptist and Jeremiah the Old Testament prophet as examples of those miraculously cleansed in the womb. He thought something similar might be true of Mary. Scripture is silent; yet it is worth noting that neither of these men was either immaculately conceived or sinless. John the Baptist was filled in his mother's womb with the Holy Ghost:

"He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb." (Luke 1:15).

This remarkable fact ought to color Christians' ideas about abortion. Though atheists and unbelievers remain unmoved at this revelation, no believer can fail to see that if John, a fetus, was filled with God's spirit, then he is one of us, not a thing.

Right to Life

The prophet Jeremiah was also sanctified and called in the womb:

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5).

Likewise, Paul was separated by God for service before he was born:

"But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus." (Galatians 1:15-17).

The assumption that God would naturally want to make it impossible for those He calls for service to sin, finds no support in scripture. Paul, set apart from the womb, says, "This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief." (1 Timothy 1:15).

Purity Code

The Law of Moses includes a purity code specifying cleansing procedures for various types of uncleanness, including that contracted through childbirth.

“Now when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, 'Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the LORD'), and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, 'A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.'” (Luke 2:22-23).

The defilements addressed by the purity code do not involve moral turpitude. Indeed they need not involve intent; a passer-by who inadvertently touches an unmarked tomb, perhaps one beautified past its intended use, will contract impurity: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness." (Matthew 23:27).

While the purity code is not directly about sin, in the end it is all about sin. It is because of man's fall that these fire-walls need to be set up between God and man, so that man can be protected against God's holiness. Death defiles; death is in consequence of Adam's fall. Blood defiles, because blood is the life. "But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat." (Genesis 9:4). If Mary is in the condition that they say, without any participation in original sin, then why is she observing the holiness code in Luke 2?

Concerns about defilement have a long history and led to grave distortions in Christian teaching. In fact some of the Roman Catholic doctrines here discussed migrated into the fold from outside. Blood defiles, so certain imaginations cannot process God-made-man smothered in blood and fluid. Unable to imagine, they re-imagined, and wrote nativity gospels with baby Jesus appearing in a flash of light, alongside His still-virgin mother, physically intact, sitting over yonder. This solves the problem, but somehow or other Mary's post-partum physical virginity has found its way into Roman Catholic doctrine:


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