Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Can Mary's Sinlessness Be Defended?

Here is an argument, mostly directed toward Protestant Christians, in favor of the Catholic doctrine of the sinlessness of Mary.[1]

1. Grace is that by which God applies the Saving power of Jesus's sacrifice. (Scriptural supports include Eph. 2:8, "For by Grace you have been saved..." and Rom. 6:14, "sin will have no dominion over you, since you are ...under Grace.")

2. Mary was "full of Grace" [kecharitomene]. (According to the declaration of the angel Gabriel, as recorded in Lk. 1:28.)

3. Therefore, Mary was full of that by which God applies the Saving power of Jesus's sacrifice. (From 1 and 2.)

4. To be "full" of something is to be unable to accommodate any more of whatever that something is. (This just seems to me to be the primary meaning of the word "full.")

5. Therefore, Mary's being "full of Grace" is for her to have been unable to accommodate any more Grace. (From 2 and 4.)

6. If she had lacked Grace at any time, then she would have been able to accommodate more Grace. (Admittedly, this is the least obvious premise. However, I think that it is plausible. Although, with something like water, a bucket's being full-today does not prevent it's having been empty yesterday, in the case of God's Grace, things are arguably different. God is able to view and consider our lives in toto - from their beginnings. It is reasonable to think that if Mary had lacked Grace at any time, then she wouldn't really have been "full" with it.)

7. Therefore, Mary did not lack grace at any time. (From 5 and 6 by modus tollens.)

8. Therefore, Mary did not lack the the Saving power of Jesus's sacrifice at any time. (By 1 and 7.)

9. If Mary did not, at any time, lack the Saving power of Jesus's sacrifice, then Mary was never separated from God by sin.

10. Therefore, Mary was never separated from God by sin. (From 8 and 9, by modus ponens.)

11. Any person never separated from God by sin is sinless. (From the definition of the "sin.")

12. Therefore, Mary is sinless.

Here is an objection.

If it was requisite that Jesus's parents, God the Father and Mary, be without sin, then it should be requisite that Mary's parents, Joachim and Ann, be without sin.

One way of cashing this out would be as follows. Call this Argument A.

13. If a person, S, is born without sin, then S's parents are sinless.

14. Mary was born without sin.

15. Therefore, Mary's parents were sinless.

There is a confusion, here, rooted in an ambiguity contained in the idea of sinlessness.

On the one hand, someone might think that the Catholic claim is that Mary's freedom from Original Sin was not owed to anything but to her own Good nature. Let us call this the idea that Mary was "necessarily free" from Original Sin.

As far as I can tell, this is not, nor has it ever been, the Catholic claim.

For on the other hand, Catholics answer that Mary's freedom from Original Sin was owed to God's Grace. On this view, the Catholic view, Mary was "contingently free" from Original Sin.

This is no mere verbal jousting. If the claim were indeed that Mary owed God nothing in virtue of her freedom from Original Sin, then the notion that Mary "had no need for a savior" would be obviously true.

On the actual claim, Mary owed her preservation from Original Sin to God. Thus, Mary certainly did need - and had - a savior.

At least one reason to think that Argument A is a failure can be gleaned from this distinction. A person, S, is "necessarily-sinless" if S's sinlessness is essential and could not be otherwise. Moreover, if S *is* necessarily-sinless, then S does not need a savior. If, on the other hand, S is "contingently-sinless," then S's sinlessness could have been otherwise.

Taking these distinctions into account, we could formulate Argument B:

16. If a person, S, is necessarily born without sin, then S's parents are sinless.

17. Jesus was necessarily born without sin.

18. Therefore, Jesus's parents (Mary and God the Father) were sinless.

But Argument B is not extended to Mary. Consider Argument C:

16. If a person, S, is necessarily born without sin, then S's parents are sinless.

19. Mary was necessarily born without sin.

20. Therefore, Mary's parents (Joachim and Ann) were sinless.

Argument C is unsound - by Catholic lights - since premise 7. is false.

It is not the case that "Mary was necessarily born without sin." Mary was contingently born without sin. Her sinlessness was entirely at the Grace and pleasure of God. Jesus's sinlessness was essential. As the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, his paternity conferred sinlessness to Him. But since, again by Catholic lights, Mary was contingently-sinless, Jesus's maternity also conferred sinlessness to Him.

Hence, Jesus was necessarily-sinless because both of his parents were sinless. His thus being essentially sinless secured His status as savior who did not need saving Himself.

Still, Mary's sinlessness arguably, partially secured Jesus's sinlessness. Although, as has been stated, Mary's sinlessness was neither due to her own nature nor to anything that she had accomplished. Mary was, in other words, saved as the rest of us are: "...by grace ...through faith - and this is not from [herself], it [was] the gift of God - not by works, so that [she cannot] boast". (Ephesians 2:8-9, NIV.)

And, indeed, "boastfulness" is nearly as far from the character of the Virgin Mary as could be conceived. This is why Mary exclaimed: "[M]y spirit rejoices in God my Savior" (Luke 1:47, NIV), and why, henceforth, "all generations will call [Mary] blessed" (Luke 1:48, NIV.)

There is no impropriety in reporting that Mary was saved by God's Grace. It is simply that in her case, the saving Grace was given to her at conception, preserving her from the stain of Original Sin, whereas in our cases, the grace comes after our births.

But there is another objection.

Some Protestants immediately object on the ground that verses such as Romans 3:23 and Romans 5:12 (and so on) imply that Mary sinned.

The problem, here, is straightforward.

21. All [humans] have sinned. (Romans 3:23.)

22. Mary was human. (Self-evident.)

23. Therefore, Mary sinned. (From 21 and 22.)

To see at least one problem with this, consider a parallel argument.

21. All [humans] have sinned. (Romans 3:23.)

24. Jesus was fully human. (From Christian theology.)

25. Therefore, Jesus sinned. (From 9 and 10.)

Obviously, 25. is unacceptable to any Protestant. What can be said about this? What could a Protestant say?

One first-pass reply surely would be for the Protestant to point out that we have good reason, from other Bible passages in the Bible (such as 2 Corinthians 5:21, Hebrews 4:15, etc.) to think that the word "all" in passages like Romans 3:23 (et alia) really does not mean "each and every human without exception."

A principle might be asserted such that: "All" means "each and every, unless we have good Scriptural grounds thinking it does not." In the case of Jesus, the Protestant would surely hold, we have good Scriptural grounds for thinking that it does not.

Actually, this need not be construed as making an "exception." One way to view it is in terms of what philosophers call a "restricted domain." A common example goes like this. If I tell John: "Put all the beer into the refrigerator," I probably should not best be understood as telling John to get all of the beer that there is. Probably, I mean something more like all of the beer that I have in the shopping bags, or all of the beer that there is on my table. The point is, most likely, I am using the quantifier "all" in a restricted sense.

Surely it is plausible to think that Saint Paul is using the word "all" similarly in Romans. On this reading, Paul means (something like) "For all of my readers have sinned."

Of course, we could also hold that Paul did indeed imply an exception. Whereas Protestants may believe that Paul meant "For all have sinned except Jesus," Catholics may hold that Paul meant "For all have sinned except the New Adam [Jesus] and the New Eve [Mary]."

Protestants justify their reading by appealing to Scriptural counter-evidence. Catholics simply believe that, in addition to having good ground to make an exception for Jesus, we also have good reason make an exception for Mary.

This does not place Mary on the "same level" as Jesus. As I argued previously, Jesus's sinlessness was essential to him, whereas Mary's was (on the Catholic view) contingent. Jesus was the savior. Mary was saved by Grace (it's just that she was so saved from the moment of her birth).

Finally, Protestants might say: "Yes, but in Jesus's case, the New Testament is more explicit about this exception; Mary's 'exceptional' status must be inferred."

As far as I can tell, to address this worry, Catholics merely need to do two things. Number one, they need to provide a good reason why the the New Testament is not more explicit about Mary's sinlessness. This does not seem too difficult to do. There appears to be a fairly straightforward reason close at hand. The New Testament is primarily about Jesus (in the Gospels) and about Jesus's Church (from Acts onward). Therefore, we receive the most information in the New Testament regarding Jesus and the Church.

However, as a Catholic, I do not believe that the New Testament is entirely silent about Mary's sinlessness. I believe that the New Testament's clear references to Mary as the "highly favored daughter" who is "full of Grace" and who will, by all future Christians, be called "blessed" are best-explained by the doctrine that Mary was sinless.

This leads to number two, Catholics must provide a good reason to think that Mary was sinless. But this good reason has already been set forth. It can be coherently argued from the Biblical datum of Luke 1:28 that Mary's having been "full of Grace" implies her sinlessness.

In order to rebut this, Protestants must find some fault with the argument that was given in its favor. Short of this, Catholics seem to me to be quite within their rational rights to hold that Mary was indeed sinless, as the Church has believed since ancient times.


[1] This argument is not due to me, but has been adapted and expanded by me from David Armstrong, The Catholic Verses, Manchester, N.H.: Sophia Inst. Press, 2004, pp. 181ff.


  1. Catholic Indulgence For Complexity, Sublimity, Requires Curbing Upon Ockham's Razor

    This argument about Mary's sinlessness is ok for strict logic, but not for basic Christian philosophy which is that humans are sinners, necessarily, by nature, as they're creatures of will and willfulness, hence subject to HUBRIS, etc., all of this being determined in accord w. God's will. So though Mary might be "full of grace," it doesn't mean she's necessarily sinless.

    And Catholics aren't wise to be pushing this perfect sinlessness and general worship or idolization of Mary. It's okay to tolerate ur arguments regarding Mary, but not to pushing it on Protestants who are already sick and tired of such as "Vatican" homosexuality and Jesuit conspiracy w. communists, masons, etc.

    For the core of Christianity must ultimately be conceded which is that rational philosophy founded in objectivity and determinism (strict cause-effect, no perfectly "free" will), opposing Pharisaic subjectivism, hubris, and Pelagian heresy, pretending to "good-evil."

    For Christian militance, foundation of the civil military effort, practical purpose of "church," requires strictest reason and rationality in the effort to combat satanism, Pharisaism, hubris, and moralism, esp. afore-mentioned Pelagianism.

    Thus Catholicity, that universality, requires simplicity, hence that Christ is truth (Gosp. JOHN 14:6), hence the Aristotelian objective nature of reality, foundation of such truth, etc.

    So Mary's putative sinlessness could and should be optional at best for Catholics and Christians, not obligatory--as a lot of otherwise irrelevant stuff seems to be for Catholics which Protestants righteously resent and reject. But these differences ought not, must not, and should not lead to fatal divisiveness, defeating the military purpose.

    For the satanic enemy is in our midst, raging and ravaging, and it's necessary to rally Christian soldiers and the Church militant; the spider-weaving and logic-chopping needs be broken off for most urgent emphasis upon basic principle(s), like the existence of TRUTH (= Christ), hence the objective, determinist reality and removal for pretext of "good-evil" Pharisaism.

    For if humans are "equal," then one aspect of that regards sin and removal of Pelagianist pretext for "good" which is hubristic, Pharisaic, and hence anti-Christ and dis-honest, thus inimical and defeating that basic core of Christian virtue and principle.

  2. Thank you for your comments, apsterian. Let me address what I take to be the two primary objections that you raised against portions of my presentation.

    Firstly, you begin by invoking Ockham's Razor. Ockham's Razor is sometimes formulated in different ways. I'll mention two of them. Wikipedia gets us going: "Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected."

    Suppose we think of Protestantism and Catholicism as sets of "competing hypotheses." Call the former set "PS" and the latter "CS." It might then appear that your thought is this: However many assumptions are in PS, CS seems to have at least one more, namely, the doctrine of Mary's sinlessness. But Ockham's Razor states that "[a]mong competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected." Therefore, PS "should be selected."

    Whatever the "size" (cardinality) of PS and CS, the argument that I gave began with two premises that I take to belong to PS. Recall that premise 1. is simply a summary of data related by Bible verses such as Ephesians 2:8 and Romans 6:14. Similarly, premise 2. is simply an allusion to Luke 1:28. Every other premise (with the possible exception of 6.) is merely gleaned from common language usage (as with the premise that defined the word "full") or an entailment of previous premises. Given this, I should say that there has been no demonstrated difference in the number of relevant "assumptions" between CS and PS. Every premise that I employed is arguably a part of PS. In other words, I deny that I have run afoul of Ockham's Razor on this interpretation of that principle.

    One could construe my argument this way: Mary's sinlessness follows from Protestant assumptions; or, Mary's sinlessness is a sound inference from Biblical data (to which, presumably, Protestants are committed).

    Let me consider another construal of Ockham's Razor. Protestant philosopher William Lane Craig articulates Ockham's Razor as a warning against "multiplying causes beyond necessity."

    Under this interpretation, I am only guilty of violating the principle if it can be shown that Mary's sinlessness is not “necessary.”[*] However, I gave an argument that, while Mary is herself sinless only contingently, her sinlessness is itself needed (i.e., is metaphysically necessary) to secure Jesus's necessary sinlessness. See again statements 16-18, above.

    I conclude, therefore, that nothing I have argued conflicts with Ockham's Razor on either of two of its most common formulations.

  3. You give a second objection, according to which you seem to argue as follows.

    A. "[H]umans are sinners, necessarily, by nature...".
    B. Mary was human.
    C. Therefore, Mary was a sinner, necessarily, by nature.

    But *are* human beings "sinners, necessarily, by nature..."?

    For any "nature," a property that is essential (or necessary) for that nature is one that, if it is lacked, disqualifies an entity from possessing that nature. If a property is necessary for being human, then an entity lacking that property cannot count as human.

    If premise A. is correct, then it is necessary to be a sinner, in this sense, in order to count as a human.

    One problem with this, from the point of view of historic Christianity, is that if it is correct, then Jesus could not have been a human unless he was a sinner also.

    A. "[H]umans are sinners, necessarily, by nature...".
    D. Jesus was [truly] human.
    E. Therefore, Jesus was a sinner, necessarily, by nature.

    According to received Christology - whether Protestant or Catholic - E. is false. Jesus was sinless.

    But E. follows from A. and D. Therefore, either A. or D. must be rejected. If we are to hold that Jesus was truly human, then we must reject A.

    Here I’ll follow philosopher Thomas Morris and distinguish between *common human properties* and *necessary human properties*.

    Consider "being born on the earth." It seems that every human who has ever lived has had this property. But is it *necessary* for being human? Imagine a couple giving birth to a child on Mars. Would that child not be human because she did not have the property - which every other human who had ever lived before had - of "being born on the earth"? I suggest that the answer is "no."

    This shows that some properties can be exemplified by all entities with a particular nature without being *necessary* for that nature.

    Christians have held that Jesus was human even though he did not exemplify the property "being a sinner." If this is possible, then "being a sinner" cannot be necessary for being human.

    It is obvious that "being a sinner" is *common* property for human beings to have. But if there can be found a single, bona fide human who did not exemplify it, then it is not a necessary property for human-ness. All Christians agree that Jesus was a bona fide human who lacked the property "being a sinner." It follows, then, that "being a sinner" is not necessary for being human. It is possible to exist without it.

    Catholics just think that we have two exceptions: Jesus, who was necessarily sinless; and Mary, who was contingently sinless.


    1. Military Necessity Must Prevail, Hence Simplicity

      Yes, I think there's a difficulty here for theology, perhaps, possibly. But to heed and get to the philosophic/theologic core of the literature, we should remember the basic inspiration, Christ = truth, (Gosp. JOHN 14:6) which then upholds the Aristotelian, objective, hence deterministic reality, necessary criterion/premise for such truth (= Christ).

      Christ vs. Pharisees is parallel to Aristotle vs. Plato. Objective vs. subjective; reason vs. mysticism.

      So to follow fm this, human is willful, hence subject to HUBRIS, sinful and requiring grace fm God--and this brings up huge problem for Christ, though not Mary. "Sinful" may mean "mortal" sin, so it could hold that Mary and Christ were "sinless" in that way. For HOW could Christ, who's God, be hubristic or needing grace?--impossible, inconceivable.

      But Christ may have committed venial sin for his enthusiastic beating and whipping of the money-changers at the Temple--IF it was "enthusiastic."

      For that basic philosophic/theologic CORE to Christianity (Christ = truth) is what's most important and must be preserved and given precedence--thus Mary being sinless can easily be conceded, but it doesn't require too intensive defense as it runs-up against determinism (absolute cause-effect).

      Problem for Christianity is in times of peace it tends to get elaborate and complex, thus engendering confusion, thus breeding dis-unity, which isn't necessarily bad--except in times of urgency as present, satanism raging and ravaging openly as we see now in hip-hop music and other places too (professional wrestling, for example, of all places).

      Another problem is the "Vatican" (and Jesuits) pretending they're the Church, or that they must be upheld for any reason or purpose--they're just a bunch of corrupt homosexuals and perverts who ought to be dealt with in summary fashion.

      Thus the sort of extended logical sort of reasoning as presented here for Mary's "necessary" sinlessness is questionable and dangerous. For humanity is necessarily sinful, as I note and (I trust) St.s Paul and Augustine affirm. For military purposes, simplicity is best, easiest.

  4. [*] Of course, I am arguing that Mary's sinlessness is necessary in a metaphysical sense.

    The word "necessary" is ambiguous and you may mean something else by it.

    For example, you may be saying that the doctrine of Mary's sinlessness is not "necessary for theology." (This also strikes me as ambiguous. On the one hand, it might well be understood metaphysically. In this case, I just deny it. I think that Mary's sinlessness *is* necessary in this sense.)

    I think perhaps what you have in mind in something like this. It's not obvious to you that, in order to have a satisfying set of Christian beliefs, a person must believe that Mary was sinless.

    This, of course, I would admit. Many streams of Protestantism have persisted for hundreds of years without endorsing Mary's sinlessness. I don't think that a person cannot be "satisfied" with a form of Christian that denies Mary's sinlessness. I just think that a person who denies Mary's sinlessness is incorrect on at least that point.

    As a practical matter, as you say, Christians of all stripes should band together for the purpose of fighting our common enemies - whether ideological or otherwise.

    Merry Sixth Day of Christmas :-)