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.