Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Surrejoinder to Clayvessel

Continuation of a discussion from Michael Hoffman's weblog, http://revisionistreview.blogspot.com/2015/12/merry-christmas-mary.html


Dear Clayvessel, I am, by temperament and by training, used to long and sometimes (even often!) tedious arguments. It’s easy for me to forget that not everyone shares these traits.

My text-length is not an attempt to "win" by attrition. My efforts were primarily and sincerely centered on defending my Catholic belief against your claim that "If [Mary] had no sin, she had no need for a savior."

This concern of yours is simply not a tenet of Catholic Mariology. Nor, I respectfully suggest, is it communicated by any of the 30,102 verses in the Protestant Bible. It is simply based upon the deliverances of the "human reasoning" of various non-Catholics (and, in some circles, it has become something of a non-Catholic tradition).

I am sensitive to the worry that the relevant Catholic doctrine renders Mary such that she wouldn't need a savior. What I have personally come to believe is that Mary's need for a savior is grounded in the contingency of her sinlessness, granted to her at the Grace and pleasure of God - and not the outgrowth of any essentially good nature, as Jesus's sinlessess is.

This resolution is attractive to me because the distinction between contingency and necessity is not ad hoc and because I can find no biblical datum that causes me disquiet. I submit that your interesting (albeit enthymematic) argument that if "it was ...required that [Jesus's] mother be without sin[,] then the same requirement becomes necessary for her mother, and her mother, etc" is effectively blocked with this distinction.

Now you speak of burden of proof. It is not entirely clear to me where the "burden of proof" lies, in this case. But since burden of proof might be thought to attach to positive assertions or predications (i.e., to assertions that say things like "S is f") as opposed to negative assertions (such as "S is not-f"), "Mary is sinless" would indeed need evidence in its support.

One trouble with Catholic-Protestant dialogue is brought into sharp focus, here. What standard of evidence shall we use? Non-Catholics (chiefly, Protestants) either expressly affirm or implicitly adopt an evidential stricture known as "sola scriptura." This "formal principle of the Protestant Reformation" essentially limits allowable evidence to, as you put it, "Scriptural supports." Your request that I "support [my] stance ...with any verses you can find" seems to be an endorsement of sola scriptura.

Catholics do not endorse sola scriptura (at least, not on what is sometimes called its formal reading). Given the idea that positive assertions stand in need of justification, those who explicitly affirm or operationally assume sola scriptura - which asserts that "only Bible verses are allowable evidence" - also bear a burden of proof. What is the argument for sola scriptura?

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It is clear that Catholics have a more expansive set of evidence than do Protestants. Catholics nowhere deny that the Bible is God's Word. But I, for one, do deny that "the Bible is God's Word" is an identity statement. I think that it is a predication. The notion that the definite description "the Bible" and "the Word of God" are coextensive is not anywhere clearly expressed in the aforementioned 30,102 verses.

Is it the case, then, that Catholics and non-Catholics can never have any evidence in common? It depends, in part, on what "Scriptural support" comes to. Let me take a moment to try to get clearer on what that phrase plausibly involves - and does not involve.

On a narrow construal, one might require a "prooftext." As Hoffman has just noted, though, most - but not all - Protestants affirm the doctrine of the Trinity. There is no "prooftext" for this in the narrow sense of some passage that says "God is Triune." But there are certainly "Scriptural supports" in the broader sense of passages that: (a.) do not contradict the notion, and (b.) serve as premises from which the Trinity can be inferred. From this consideration (and others like it), I am impressed that "prooftexting" cannot be relied upon to provide "Scriptural supports" for all the doctrines that Christians affirm to be true.

Hence, I understand "Sciptural support" in a broader sense. For the sake of defending the Catholic belief, I will suggest a "Scriptural support," in a broad sense, for the doctrine of Mary's sinlessness. By "broad sense," I mean that I will state what I take to be biblical truths as premises of an argument, the conclusion of which will be (at least close to) the doctrine of Mary's sinlessness. (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.)

Sketched *very roughly*, a broad defense might look like this.

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.)

(End 2/3)


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.)

However, in its basic form, the doctrine of Mary's sinlessness just is the declaration that Mary was saved - by Grace - from the moment of her bith.

I have to add that "Mary sinned" is also a positive assertion and, by this standard, would also place a burden of proof on its asserter. What is your evidence that Mary sinned? Here you have given verses such as those well-known passages in Romans indicating that "all have sinned." (E.g., 3:23 and 5:12.)

The problem, here, is straightforward.

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

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

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

Obviously, 11. is unacceptable. As you point out, we have good reason - from other Bible passages such as 2 Corinthians 5:21, Hebrews 4:15 and so on - to think that the word "all" in passages like Romans 3:23 (et alia) really does not mean "each and every human without exception."

Catholics simply believe that we have good reason to think that Mary is an exception also. Mary is not 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 caved from the moment of her birth).

Why is the New Testament not more explicit about this? I should say that there is a fairly straightforward reason. 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, I am a Catholic because 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.

Still, for me anyway, no Catholic "convinced" me of this so long as I still believed in sola scriptura. So I understand your hesitation and can only recommend to you that you pray and think about the doctrine of sola scriptura.

All the best to you, Clayvessel.


Matthew J. Bell

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