Sunday, September 27, 2009

St. Thomas Aquinas on the Immaculate Conception

During my September 3 dialogue with Timothy George at Wheaton College, we briefly discussed St. Thomas Aquinas' denial of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, which later became a dogma of the Catholic Church. One of the points I made was that St. Thomas' understanding of Mary's holiness was far from the Protestant view. In fact, for St. Thomas, Mary was not conceived without original sin. It was, however, removed by God after she was conceived (technically, after she was "animated"). She was also the recipient of an abundance of grace so that she may be protected from all actual sin. So, St. Thomas' view, though not the view currently held by the Church as dogma, contained within it some of the same logic on which the Church's dogma is based. Here is St. Thomas from Summa Theologica, III, q. 27:

....The Church celebrates the feast of our Lady's Nativity. Now the Church does not celebrate feasts except of those who are holy. Therefore even in her birth the Blessed Virgin was holy. Therefore she was sanctified in the womb.

.... 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. But as Augustine, in his tractate on the Assumption of the Virgin, argues with reason, since her body was assumed into heaven, and yet Scripture does not relate this; so it may be reasonably argued that she was sanctified in the womb. For it is reasonable to believe that she, who brought forth "the Only-Begotten of the Father full of grace and truth," received greater privileges of grace than all others: hence we read (Luke 1:28) that the angel addressed her in the words: "Hail full of grace!"

Moreover, it is to be observed that it was granted, by way of privilege, to others, to be sanctified in the womb; for instance, to Jeremias, to whom it was said (Jeremiah 1:5): "Before thou camest forth out of the womb, I sanctified thee"; and again, to John the Baptist, of whom it is written (Luke 1:15): "He shall be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother's womb." It is therefore with reason that we believe theBlessed Virgin to have been sanctified before her birth from the womb.

.... Even in the Blessed Virgin, first was that which is natural, and afterwards that which is spiritual: for she was first conceived in the flesh, and afterwards sanctified in the spirit.

.... Augustine speaks according to the common law, by reason of which no one is regenerated by the sacraments, save those who are previously born. But God did not so limit His power to the law of the sacraments, but that He can bestow His grace, by special privilege, on some before they are born from the womb.

.... The Blessed Virgin was sanctified in the womb from original sin, as to the personal stain; but she was not freed from the guilt to which the whole nature is subject, so as to enter into Paradise otherwise than through the Sacrifice of Christ; the same also is to be said of the Holy Fathers who lived before Christ.

.... Original sin is transmitted through the origin, inasmuch as through the origin the human nature is transmitted, and original sin, properly speaking, affects the nature. And this takes place when the off-spring conceived is animated. Wherefore nothing hinders the offspring conceived from being sanctified after animation: for after this it remains in the mother's womb not for the purpose of receiving human nature, but for a certain perfecting of that which it has already received....

.... Augustine says (De Nat. et Grat. xxxvi): "In the matter of sin, it is my wish to exclude absolutely all questions concerning the holy Virgin Mary, on account of the honor due to Christ. For since she conceived and brought forth Him who most certainly was guilty of no sin, we know that an abundance of grace was given her that she might be in every way the conqueror of sin."

.... God so prepares and endows those, whom He chooses for some particular office, that they are rendered capable of fulfilling it, according to 2 Corinthians 3:6: "(Who) hath made us fit ministers of the New Testament." Now the Blessed Virgin was chosen by God to be His Mother. Therefore there can be no doubt that God, by His grace, made her worthy of that office, according to the words spoken to her by the angel (Luke 1:30-31): "Thou hast found grace with God: behold thou shalt conceive," etc. But she would not have been worthy to be the Mother of God, if she had ever sinned. First, because the honor of the parents reflects on the child, according to Proverbs 17:6: "The glory of children are their fathers": and consequently, on the other hand, the Mother's shame would have reflected on her Son. Secondly, because of the singular affinity between her and Christ, who took flesh from her: and it is written (2 Corinthians 6:15): "What concord hath Christ with Belial?" Thirdly, because of the singular manner in which the Son of God, who is the "Divine Wisdom" (1 Corinthians 1:24) dwelt in her, not only in her soul but in her womb. And it is written (Wisdom 1:4): "Wisdom will not enter into a malicious soul, nor dwell in a body subject to sins."


Rickson Menezes said...

Didn't know St. Thomas didn't agree with Immaculate Conception at first. It scares me for he has written well on everything. I am glad he resigned to the Authority of the Church. How difficult it is for theologians today to do that.

Surely wisdom is in Humility

helgothjb said...

His arguments are interesting. It does seem that there is no theological necessity for the Immaculate Conception, only for Mary to have been sanctified in the womb to the degree that all the effects of original sin were reversed. However, to give Mary greater glory, God allowed man to understand the Immaculate Conception, just not St. Thomas. I guess he wanted the Franciscans to be known for some scholarly work as well. But isn't that the point? Theology is a gift of grace. One cannot do theology except on their knees, as B XVI wrote when he was a Cardinal. What many theologians are doing today is therefor something other than theology. St. Thomas Aquinas' wisdom came more from prayer than from study, as did Dun Scotus'. Theology is primarily a work of cooperation with grace.

Michael McDonough said...

Immaculate Conception: "Mary was from the moment of her conception free from all stain of original sin: Man Unspoiled.

To give, perhaps, even greater force to the words Aquinas quotes from the de Natura et gratia of Augustine, one does well to read the sermons Augustine preached on the feast of Christmas over the years. His focus, Christ's two nativities, first from the Father without a mother from before all ages, then from His Mother without a (human) father, in time, gives one the very strong impression that he viewed Mary's being the Virgin, before, during, and after, her pregnancy, as being something very close to what the Church teaches in the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. She was Virgin (man), as we speak of a "virgin-forest": unspoiled.
[Cf. Sermones 184, 1; 186,1-2]

Orthodoxdj said...

I hope you read this, Frank. I am a mentee (is that a word?) of Bob and Gretchen Passantino. I am a big fan of your work, and I even met you years ago at Master's College at "The Conference on Faith and History". Small world.

Like you, I am drawn to the historical Church. However, I am not Catholic. I was raised Pentecostal, went through many changes, was Lutheran for a while, converted to Catholicism five years ago, but I have been Anglican now for a year. In fact, I intend to enter Anglican seminary soon.

I cannot say I hold to everything Anglicanism is and teaches. In reality I am more drawn to Orthodoxy, but that's another story. I understand your reasons for becoming Catholic, and I don't intend to argue with you about it. However, I do have objections to Catholicism, and it's possible you can answer them. I am by no means anti_catholic. I don't totally know what I am. I do believe there is a living Tradition that guides the Church. Beyond that, I don't know.

The Immaculate Conception of Mary is one of the doctrines I object to. I understand that if I accept the authority of Rome, then everything falls into place by faith, but that puts the cart before the horse for me because I don't accept the doctrine. Aside from the fact that I have not found the doctrine to be found in early Church history, I have a philosophical and theological problem with it. I am very anti-Calvinist. That is why I have a problem with this doctrine. It seems to operate within the same framework of Calvinism, namely that God can unilaterally make people free from sin. It also seems to be within the same framework of "total depravity". If it is the case that God can make any person without sin simply be decree, then why doesn't He do so for all people? Also, I have heard Catholics object to Calvinism on the grounds that God is not a rapist. I have also heard Catholics say that Mary had a real choice with regard to bearing Christ. If that is the case, then isn't it possible that Mary could have said no and also been immaculately conceived? Would God have needed a plan b? A plan c?

I think the problem the Catholic church faces is its overall framework. The definition of original sin gives rise to doctrines such as the IC of Mary and indulgences. I guess this is why I lean towards Orthodoxy.

Jae said...

Every blessing!

ORTHODOX: The Immaculate Conception of Mary is one of the doctrines I object to....Aside from the fact that I have not found the doctrine to be found in early Church history.

COMMENT:Immaculate Conception is the Scripture and Early Church Father's writings.


God instructed Moses to build a tabernacle surrounded by heavy curtains (cf. Ex. 25-27). Within the tabernacle he was to place an ark made of acacia wood covered with gold inside and out. Within the Ark of the Covenant was placed a golden jar holding the manna, Aaron's rod that budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant (cf. Heb. 9:4).

When the ark was completed, the glory cloud of the Lord (the Shekinah Glory,breathe) covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle (Ex. 40:34-35; Num. 9:18, 22). The verb for "to overshadow" and the metaphor of a cloud are used in the Bible to represent the presence and glory of God.

It's easy to miss the parallel between the Holy Spirit overshadowing the ark and the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary, between the Ark of the Old Covenant as the dwelling place of God and Mary as the new dwelling place of God.

Gold symbolizes royalty and purity.

God told Moses to put the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments inside the ark (Deut. 10:3-5). Hebrews 9:4 informs us that two additional items were placed in the Ark: "a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron's rod that budded."

Notice the amazing parallels:
In the ark was the law of God inscribed in stone; in Mary's womb was the Word of God in flesh.

In the ark was the urn of manna, the bread from heaven that kept God's people alive in the wilderness; in Mary's womb is the Bread of Life come down from heaven that brings eternal life.

In the ark was the rod of Aaron, the proof of true priesthood; in Mary's womb is the True Priest - Jesus Christ.

There are A LOT more parallels but because of space limitations I just indicated some.

Early Church fathers;

Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296-373) was the main defender of the deity of Christ against the second-century heretics. He wrote: "O noble Virgin, truly you are greater than any other greatness. For who is your equal in greatness, O dwelling place of God the Word? To whom among all creatures shall I compare you, O Virgin? You are greater than them all O [Ark of the] Covenant, clothed with purity instead of gold! You are the ark in which is found the golden vessel containing the true manna, that is, the flesh in which divinity resides" (Homily of the Papyrus of Turin).

Gregory the Wonder Worker (c. 213-c. 270) wrote: "Let us chant the melody that has been taught us by the inspired harp of David, and say, 'Arise, O Lord, into thy rest; thou, and the ark of thy sanctuary.' For the Holy Virgin is in truth an ark, wrought with gold both within and without, that has received the whole treasury of the sanctuary" (Homily on the Annunciation to the Holy Virgin Mary).

The early Christians taught the same thing that the Catholic Church teaches today about Mary, including her being the Ark of the New Covenant.


If you have a chance to make your own mother, what would you like her to be ? The best of course. If God could make the first Eve, immaculately conceived why not more to His real Mom?(with God anything is possible, right?)

This is just a nutshell, further reading will lead you to deeper understanding of Mary in her relation with Jesus. Just google these Titles of Mary.

To Christ thru Mary,


Orthodoxdj said...

Thank you for the response. I am still unconvinced. Again, if I accepted the papacy, then all of this comes together. I do not. Neither do most Christians. That doesn't make it true or false, but it does bear witness to something important. An ancient maxim of the church is "always, everywhere, and by all." The unique claims of the Catholic church, and by that I do not simply mean the elements that separate it from Protestantism, but the elements that distinguish it from Eastern Orthodoxy are precisely the elements that are not found in either Scripture or the early Church. To be clear, I do not disagree in any way with the quotations you gave. The early Church very clearly ascribed many titles to Mary, including Theotokos. The IC doctrine/dogma comes much later. The problem I have with your approach is that your presupposition that the IC is true will naturally lead you to view the quotations you gave as proof of your claim. I concede that if your claim (that the IC was believed early on) is true, then the quotations make sense. However, those quotations do not necessitate the IC dogma in order to be understood. Therefore, it seems to me to be circular reasoning. If I can find the unique claims of Catholicism to be present in early Church history, then I can probably be lead to believe in all of the doctrines. It is because the unique claims of RC are not found in early Church history that I do not hold to RC.

To be very clear, in the early Church-even in the New Testament-I see bishops, priests, deacons, sacraments, Holy Tradition, apostolic succession, and liturgy. I even see that Peter was uniquely called by Christ to be the "rock". I do not see, however, the Papacy, the IC, and indulgences.

John Thayer Jensen said...

From Orthodoxdj:

Again, if I accepted the papacy, then all of this comes together. I do not. Neither do most Christians.

I'm a bit surprised at this claim (not the claim that 'Orthodoxdj' doesn't accept the papacy, but that most Christians don't). I had thought there were more Catholics than all other Christians put together. Isn't that so?


Jae said...

Hey John and Orthodoxdj,

Every blessing to you!

To John: you are truly right, brother, if you combine all the Orthodoxs (whether from Russia, Greece, Slavic nations) and add all the protestant denominations they are about half of what the Catholics today.

To Orthodoxdj: Thanks for the reply, I totally get you, brother. So, it boils down to Authority.

If you believe to what Jesus had said from day one that "He will guide His Church into ALL TRUTHS until the end of time", then we shouldn't have a problem.

Jesus said ALL, not one or two or three but ALL Truth.

I find it very logical that IF Christian Faith (doctrine) is indeed a REVEALED TRUTH, which men must believe under pain of eternal loss, the gift of infallibility was necessary to the Church. Could she err at all, she might err in ANY POINT. The flock would have NO guarantee of the truth of ANY doctrine.

This promise of God is not based on a person (pope) but God's the One Who guarantees.

Therefore, all the doctrines proclaimed and declared by the Successor of Peter (ex-cathedra)together with all the Bishops are free from errors.

If we are going to base our decision just on the Bible and Early Church Fathers' writings then how are we going to deal with issues not even mentioned in these sources likes: cloning, stem-cell, hybrid-cloning, artificial contraception, in-vitro, genetic manipulation and a lot more daunting life issues presented by the secular world. These issues are very important to christians because they deal with LIFE itself and the Author of Life is no other than God Himself.

There MUST be a way that Jesus left us so we would know with certainty His Will on these issues alone. It must be with His Divine Authority...and I believe it is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Ps. I could give you a lot of Patristic Father's writings about the primacy of the Pope if you would like.

Again, God Bless.

Jae said...


The IC doctrine is I think is a not presupposition but is implicitly written in the NT and Patristic Father's.

If you look closely at the writings of Sts. Athanasius and Gregory and the words they used -

1. "clothed with PURITY instead of gold",

How could one call it PURE when there exist even a slightest blemish?

2. "wrought with Gold both WITHIN and WITHOUT, that has received the WHOLE Treasury of the Sanctuary".

How could one received the WHOLE Treasury of the Sanctuary, if it is NOT FULL, parts missing or with a blemish? WHOLE: means-everything, all, the FULLNESS.

When the Archangel Gabriel greeted Mary and saluted her with a NEW NAME which is, "Hail, FULL of Grace".

If you have a glass of water up to the brim so to speak - that is what we call FULL. There is NO room for anything. So, therefore even a sin can't exist or occupy any space in Mary's Conception because she is FULL OF GRACE.