Church Fathers Who Denied the Immaculate Conception

Recently I had the privilege of participating in a discussion with some Catholic brothers over at the Reason and Theology channel on our respective views of the virgin Mary. Thank you, Michael, Erik, and William for having me! For anyone interested, we are talking again on February 9.

I thought it might be useful to compile some of the quotes I referenced that I regard as countervailing data among the church fathers with respect to the third Marian dogma, the immaculate conception of Mary. That way those following the debate can look them up for themselves.

I know there is disagreement on whether Origen and Tertullian are actually church fathers. I think it is difficult to sustain that Origen, in particular, was not a church father, but whatever view on takes on this, it is really irrelevant. Both were significant Christian voices whose views are reflective of broader beliefs throughout the early church. We are after historical evidence of what the early Christians actually believed—say, in the 2nd century, or early 3rd century. (Hence the Protoevangelium of James comes up in discussion of the perpetual virginity of Mary, despite the fact that it is an apocryphal text officially condemned by Pope Innocent I in 405). Origen and Tertullian are relevant to this historical question, however we classify them.

1. Origen, commenting on Luke 2:35, and specifically Simeon’s statement that a sword will pierce Mary’s heart:

“What ought we to think? That while the apostles were scandalized, the Mother of the Lord was immune from scandal? If she had experienced scandal during the Lord’s Passion, Jesus did not die for her sins. But if all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, but are justified by his grace and redeemed,” then Mary too was scandalized by this moment. This is what Simeon is prophesying about…. Your soul will be pierced by the sword of unbelief and will be wounded by the sword point of doubt” (Homilies on Luke, 17.6-7).

2. Tertullian references certain flaws of Mary in his discussion of the unbelief of Jesus’ family (“not even his brothers believed in him” [John 7:5]) and Jesus’ question in Matthew 12:48: “What are mother and brothers to me?” He affirms, over and against Apelles and Marcion, Jesus’ genuine nativity, but has no hesitation in including Mary along with his brothers as unbelieving and the object of his rebukes: “when denying one’s parents in indignation, one does not deny their existence, but censures their faults.” Evidently Tertullian is not aware that this is a controversial opinion. He even goes so far as to see Mary as a symbol of the unbelieving synagogue that rejected Christ: “in the abjured mother there is a figure of the synagogue, as well as of the Jews in the unbelieving brethren” (On the Flesh of Christ, chapter 7.)

3. Like Origen, Basil interpreted the sword of Luke 2:35 as the sword of doubt, linking Mary with the disciples in receiving healing and confirmation in faith after Jesus’ resurrection:

“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 you yourself, who hast been taught from on high the things concerning the Lord, shall 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” (Basil, Letter 260.9).

The earlier context makes it clear that this is not a blameless doubt, for Basil is linking Mary with the other disciples in their “rising and falling” in doubt at the offense of the cross, which Basil interprets as the “sign” of which Simeon speaks (see Letter 260.6-9).

4. There are numerous passages in John Chrysostom where he indicates a moral fault in Mary. His comments on Mary’s vainglory in John 2, and Jesus’ rebuke to her, are well-known. Also relevant is his comment on Matthew 12:46-49, where John portrays Mary with a vainglorious desire to have power over her son:

“And this He said, not as being ashamed of His mother, nor denying her that bare Him; for if He had been ashamed of her, He would not have passed through that womb; but as declaring that she has no advantage from this, unless she do all that is required to be done. For in fact that which she had essayed to do, was of superfluous vanity; in that she wanted to show the people that she has power and authority over her Son, imagining not as yet anything great concerning Him; whence also her unseasonable approach” (Homilies in Matthew, Homily 44.3).

John proceeds to compare this occasion to Jesus’ rebuke of Mary in John 2, describing the effect of Jesus’ words to his mother as intended to “heal her vainglory.”

5. Hilary of Poitiers, once again on Luke 2:35, interprets Simeon’s words as a judgment upon Mary: “if this virgin, made capable of conceiving God, will encounter the severity of this judgment, who will dare to escape?” (Tractatus in Ps. 118).

There are other examples we could give (just this morning I discovered a strong statement by Fulgentius of Ruspe as late as the 6th century that Mary was “conceived in iniquity in accordance with human practice” [Epistula 17.13]). And even among theologians who affirm Mary’s sinlessness, many do not affirm the immaculate conception. Augustine would fall into this camp (e.g., he speaks of Mary being “derived from the propagation of sin” in Genesi Ad Litteram 10.18.32).

Perhaps what is most striking about these various statements is the lack of controversy they provoked. If belief in Mary’s immaculate conception was common in the early church, why did no one rise up censure Origen or Basil or John? This, combined with the absence of clear support for the immaculate conception in the first or second century (it possibly begins in the third, but is still very scant then), suggests that this dogma is an accretion, rather than a development of the apostolic deposit.

10 Comments

  1. Carlos Ramirez Treviño

    Great response, Gavin. My thoughts: Whether it was common for men at that time to address their mothers as “Woman”, I do not know. But the quote in John 2:4, is revealing. Not only does Jesus address His mother as just another person, inconsequential of her personal relationship to Jesus, He points out that He, Jesus, has a mission of which she is totally ignorant. The rebuke is clear: “Don’t press me! Don’t anticipate or accelerate the date of the real Marriage.”

    By referring to Mary as “Woman”, rather than Mother, Jesus relegates her to as insignificant a status as the rest of her gender. She is just simply another woman. She is indisputably deprived of any special consideration as the Mother of the incarnate God.

    The account in John 2 seems to reference and looks forward to John 19:26 at the Last Supper. At the Wedding in Canaan, Jesus initiated His Mission by drinking of the 1st Cup of the Seder. He would later drink of the 3rd Cup of Suffering at the Last Supper, before His Crucifixion and Resurrection. But the Wedding we all look forward to, the drinking of the 4th Cup, will be at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb of God.

    By His rebuke and categorization of Mary as just another common, sinful individual, indistinct from everyone else, Jesus was telling the rest of the world, and more specifically the Jews of that time, that it was not yet time to celebrate His assumption of the Kingdom of God, Revelation 19-22.

    In like manner, Jesus addressed the Woman at the Well in John 4. “Woman,” Jesus called to her, “give me to drink!” “Woman!” There was no special status assigned to her. Jesus didn’t even identify her by name.

    Mary is of course, a very significant figure in the life of Christ, the Church and history. But even as Jesus hung on the Cross, He commissioned John to take care of His mother, and once again referred to her as, “Woman”. Jesus was no longer the son of Mary. He was the suffering Messiah afflicted for the iniquity that corrupted all of creation. “Woman, your son [John].” I would add, “I am no longer your son. I am your God and Savior.”

    My comments are not meant to demean the status of Mary as the Mother of Jesus. She is very significant. But there is no certifiable account for the Immaculate Conception.

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    1. Joseph Devine

      No offense, but I think you are really reading a whole lot into our Lord’s use of “Woman” without considering what the word meant when He said it. More than that, you’re adding on something that He certainly did not say, which is exactly what Protestants often accuse Catholics of. What’s more revealing to me in John 2:4 is that our Lord actually does what His mother asks, which makes clear that the miracle is not contrary to His mission or will. And His words to Mary from the Cross shouldn’t be interpreted as demeaning, but loving, as our Lord entrusts His mother to another to be cared for.

      I’m not really an expert on this subject, however, so all I can do is refer you to this video here, a friendly discussion between a Protestant and two Catholics which goes through several of these verses: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q4tYV6j_k1g

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, Gavin, for writing this up. Do you have the context of the Hilary quote or an online source with it that you can post?

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    1. hey John, I don’t have any links to it online. You’d have to look it up in his homilies in the Psalms. Hope this helps.

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      1. Ok, thanks for the reply. If you were at least able to give the paragraph or a few sentences before and after, that would be helpful as well. I don’t own a hard copy of his stuff. But no worries if not. Peace, John

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  3. David Sanabria

    Greetings Gavin,

    Thank you for compiling the info.

    Could you provide a citation to back the claim that the Protoevangelium of James (PEJ) was officially condemned by Pope Innocent I in 405 C.E. I personally find the the PEJ to be very gnostic flavored and a semi denial of the incarnation. Post-resurrection Jesus, I think, is a different situation since the His body would have been redeemed to a glorified (or deified, per Eastern Orthodox theology) state and clothed in incorruptibility, but I guess anyone can hide behind vagueness.

    Lastly, I’ve only been able to find two English translations of Clement of Alexandria’s quote touching on this topic:

    1) Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, or Miscellanies: Book VII, Chapter XVI, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II (pg. 551)
    “But, as appears, many even down to our own time regard Mary, on account of the birth of her child, as having been in the puerperal state, although she was not. For some say that, after she brought forth, she was found, when examined, to be a virgin [cf. Protoevangelium of James]. Now such to us are the Scriptures of the Lord, which gave birth to the truth and continue virgin, in the concealment of the mysteries of the truth. ‘And she brought forth, and yet brought not forth,’ [Ezekiel 44:2] says the Scripture; as having conceived of herself, and not from conjunction. Wherefore the Scriptures have conceived to Gnostics; but the heresies, not having learned them, dismissed them as not having conceived.”

    2) Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies: Book VII, Chapter XVI, Sections 93-94 (pg. 164-167, Gr. on opposite page); Translated by Fenton John Anthony Hort & Joseph B. Mayor
    “But, just as most people even now believe, as it seems, that Mary ceased to be a virgin through the birth of her child, though this was not really the case — for some say that she was found by the midwife to be a virgin after her delivery [cf. Protoevangelium of James]; — so we find it to be with the Lord’s Scriptures, which bring forth the truth and yet remain virgins, hiding within them the mysteries of the truth. ‘She has brought forth and has not brought forth’ [cf. Ezekiel 44:2 & Tert. De Carne Christi 23] , says the Scripture, speaking as of one who had conceived of herself and not from another. Wherefore the Scriptures are pregnant to the gnostics, but the heresies, not having examined them, dismiss them as barren.”

    They both agree that some in the church believed that Mary was perpetually a virgin (persuaded by the PEJ) and others did not, but the two translations give a different impression as to whether Clement agreed. The ANF strikes me to say be saying that Clement did not agree and the translation by Hort & Mayor strike me as saying that he did agree.

    You can find a scanned copy of Hort & Mayors’ trasnalaiton in the link below, with the Greek on the opposite page. If you know how to read Greek (Koine or Classical) could you shine light on the translation and what it implies regarding Clement’s position?

    https://archive.org/details/clementalexandr01hortgoog/page/n6/mode/2up

    Either way this quotation and Origin’s (below) show that the perpetual virginity doctrine was not a catholic doctrine and thus most likely not an Apostolic one. Also, even if both Clement and Origen thought that Mary was perpetually a virgin it wouldn’t be too surprising since Origen was a student of Clement and both from Alexandria and the same school.

    Origen (253 a.d.), Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Book X, Chapter 17
    “But some say, basing it on a tradition in the Gospel according to Peter, as it is entitled, or ‘The Book of James,’ [i.e. PEJ] that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary. Now those who say so wish to preserve the honour of Mary in virginity to the end, so that that body of hers which was appointed to minister to the Word which said, ‘The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee’ [Luke 1:35], might not know intercourse with a man after that the Holy Ghost came into her and the power from on high overshadowed her.”

    The last thing I wanted to bring up is that while Tertullian did join the Montanist sect, which certainly had theological or spiritual abuses, they did not technically have wrong theology. In addition part of their abuse was a strict ascetism which viewed sex as intrinsically bad and demanded abstinence from it’s members. So for Tertullian to have argued that Mary was not a perpetual virgin goes against the currents of Montanism. Plus it wasn’t until late in his life that he joined the sect. Plus On the Flesh of Christ (De Carne Christi) is assumed to have been written (aprox. 211) prior to his conversion to Montanism.

    I got a lot of this info from the following source:
    http://www.tertullian.org/chronology.htm

    I hope this help you as this discussion continues. I did not find the RC apologist’s argument persuasive.

    Regards,

    David

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    1. Good comment, David! Great Clement quotes. Yeah, it’s funny how some Catholic apologists use Tertullian and Origen when they want, and then disregard them when they need!

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    2. Joseph Devine

      I’m sorry, but I don’t see how this shows that Origen rejects the perpetual virginity of Mary. He notes the fact that some believe in the doctrine, and explains their basis for it. He doesn’t support or oppose it, unless I am misreading what he is saying

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      1. Joseph Devine

        I think I misread your comment actually David, my apologies. You weren’t saying that Origen rejects the perpetual virginity, you were saying that his and Tertullian’s writings prove that it was not catholic or Apostolic doctrine. I don’t think either quote proves that either, but my mistake.

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  4. Joseph Devine

    “There are other examples we could give (just this morning I discovered a strong statement by Fulgentius of Ruspe as late as the 6th century that Mary was “conceived in iniquity in accordance with human practice” [Epistula 17.13]). And even among theologians who affirm Mary’s sinlessness, many do not affirm the immaculate conception. Augustine would fall into this camp (e.g., he speaks of Mary being “derived from the propagation of sin” in Genesi Ad Litteram 10.18.32).”

    I don’t see how these two quotes necessarily contradict the Immaculate Conception. Being “conceived in iniquity” or “derived from the propagation of sin” may simply be a reference to the sexual act itself between Mary’s parents, which to Augustine and those influenced by him was sinful because of concupiscence. If understood in that way, it doesn’t exclude the possibility that by a special grace, Mary was preserved from the transmission of original sin.

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