For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
I’m going to indulge in a little scholastic speculation in this post concerning a medieval problem which the contemporary Marian dogmas currently taught by Rome are supposed to be the solved. In articulating the alternative Protestant solutions to the medieval problem, I hope to be able to develop at the same time a distinctive Protestant Mariology and how we should understand the title of the “Mother of the Lord”.
The Medieval Problem of the “Sinful Flesh” of the Virgin Mary
We need to understand that the Roman Marian dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the doctrine that the Virgin Mary was sinless were pronounced against a long and contentious Mariological discussion. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception states that the Virgin Mary was conceived without any original sin and remained in that state of sanctifying grace throughout her entire life, thus, she is, for all intents and purposes, completely sinless. It would not be necessary to get into the exact technical details of the medieval question which surrounds the “necessity” of the “purity” of the Virgin Mary, which involves very complicated questions of the nature of conception, sexual intercourse, transmission of Original Sin, concupiscence, etc.
Rather we can reduce the question very simply this way: If Mary’s flesh and bodily nature was sinful and corrupted by original sin, how is it possible for Jesus to be taken from the same “sinful flesh” of Mary and also be sinless? To put it in slightly more modern terms, let’s say Mary’s DNA and genetic material has been corrupted by Original Sin (that is, her flesh by nature has been fundamentally corrupted by original sin), how can Jesus take on the DNA and genetic material of Mary in his incarnation without at the same time sharing in the DNA and genetic material’s fallen state and sinful corruption?
The Solution of the “Pure” Virgin
From this problem arose the solution that the Virgin Mary was perfectly sanctified even before she was born, that Christ might take on her flesh without sin, and she continued to remain without sin, being perfectly sanctified, all her life. However, there was considerable debate amongst the medieval theologians as to whether the Virgin Mary was sanctified from the womb, or whether she was even sinless right from her own conception, thus never incurring the stain even of Original Sin in the first place. St Thomas Aquinas and the Dominicans would maintain that, although the Virgin Mary was perfectly sanctified from the womb, she was conceived with Original Sin which was only later purged while she was in the womb. On the other hand, the Franciscans, the Blessed John Duns Scotus being the key representative, insisted that she was “immaculately conceived” without the stain of original sin right from the very start. Of course, we know that eventually the Pope would intervene into the debate to declare that the Franciscans were right.
The key problem with this solution is that it inevitably collapses into an infinite regress, a point already noted by St Bernard of Clairvaux when he wrote the following objections to the introduction of the Festival of the Immaculate Conception:
I am frightened now, seeing that certain of you have desired to change the condition of important matters, introducing a new festival unknown to the Church, unapproved by reason, unjustified by ancient tradition. Are we really more learned and more pious than our fathers? You will say, ‘One must glorify the Mother of God as much as Possible.’ This is true; but the glorification given to the Queen of Heaven demands discernment. This Royal Virgin does not have need of false glorifications, possessing as She does true crowns of glory and signs of dignity… People say that one must revere the conception which preceded the glorious birth-giving; for if the conception had not preceded, the birth-giving also would not have been glorious. But what would one say if anyone for the same reason should demand the same kind of veneration of the father and mother of Holy Mary? One might equally demand the same for Her grandparents and great-grandparents, to infinity… She cannot in any way justify a novelty invented in spite of the teaching of the Church, a novelty which is the mother of imprudence, the sister of unbelief, and the daughter of lightmindedness
-Bernard of Clairvaux, Epistle 174, in The Letters of St Bernard of Clairvaux (Sutton, 1998)
Thus, if the only way for Christ to remain “pure”, while taking on the flesh of the Virgin, is for the Virgin to also be “pure” from conception, why should not the argument be extended to the Virgin Mary herself, that she could not be free from sin without her parents themselves being free from sin, and so on and so forth? But if it were possible for Mary to be conceived without the stain of Original Sin without her parents being also without sin, why should not this possibility be extended to Christ himself, who could also be conceived pure by the Holy Ghost, of the Virgin Mary, without needing his mother to be free from sin? Why should we not stop the infinite regress of the need for purity at the conception of Christ himself when we could stop it at the conception of the Virgin Mary?
Two Protestant Solutions to the Problem of the “Sinful Flesh” of Mary
In order to avoid the infinite regress, we have to nip the problem in the bud and stop the regress right from the very start, with the conception of Christ himself, and illustrate how it is possible for Christ to be conceived of the “sinful” Virgin Mary without sin. To that end, I shall propose two solutions, one moderate, the other more extreme.
The moderate solution would roughly go like this: At the Annunciation of the Lord, the Angel Gabriel sanctifies the womb of the Virgin Mary by his words of blessing, (“Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women… Luke 1:28), and thus perfects the ovum in her womb by repairing it from the corruption of original sin and restoring it from its fallen state, ready for the Holy Ghost to overshadow her and incarnate the divine Word in union with this sanctified and perfected ovum. Thus, this solution does not require the Virgin Mary herself to be free from sin, whether original or actual, for what needs to be sanctified is simply her ovum with its DNA and genetic material, etc, and it be restored from its corrupt state, etc. And of course, it is not necessary that the sanctification of the ovum occurs at the moment of the Annunciation, it could occur any time, even at the moment of the Holy Ghost overshadowing, but whatever it is, the main point of the moderate solution is simply that it is sufficient simply for the ovum of the Virgin Mary to be sanctified and consecrated.
Thus, this solution assumes that despite the corruption and sinfulness of the Virgin Mary, there remains the possibility or form of a “pure” children of Mary, without the stain or corruption of sin, and by the special grace of God, he is able to sanctify and perfect the Mary’s ovum which contains her fallen genetic material and restore it to a pure prelapsarian form, fit for the incarnation of the Son of God. But this assumption is not unreasonable as it is the very same assumption which is employed for the Virgin Mary herself.
But it could be objected that is is simply not possible for a woman, whose flesh and being is fundamentally corrupted and shot through and through by both original and actual sin, to be able to produce an ovum containing her fallen and corrupted genetic material which can be sanctified by God, even by a divine miracle. To make such a fundamentally fallen and corrupted ovum perfect, it would have to be so dramatically altered that it would for all intents and purposes, simply cease to be the Virgin Mary’s ovum.
We could maintain that by definition of a divine miracle, anything is possible (all things are possible with God after all), and there is nothing self-contradictory or evidently absurd about a ovum perfected by a divine miracle. But, for the sake of argument, let us humour this objection. This brings me to my other more “extreme” solution. God can simply create by a divine fiat a wholly new zygote into the Virgin Mary’s womb, whereby the divine Word became incarnate at the same moment God creates the zygote joint to the Son. Thus, Christ would be a literal “New Adam” for his very physical being was created by a new creational fiat of God as Adam was. One of the most obvious objections to this solution is simply that Christ would not be the Son of Adam, Abraham, or David and not the heir of all the divine promises and covenants made with them. But this argument can be dismissed simply by noting that the Gospel of St Matthew traces the genealogy of Christ through Joseph even though obviously Joseph contributed no “fleshy” part to Christ’s conception. Thus, it is sufficient for Christ to be born of Mary and her husband Joseph to be their legal Son, and thereby legally heir to all the benefits and promises of the line of Joseph all the way to David to Abraham and Adam. He does not have to be derived from flesh of Mary or Joseph to be their Son.
Another objection maybe that if Christ’s humanity was created by a divine fiat, perfect and complete, and not derived from the flesh of Mary, then it cannot be said that He is the Saviour of Adam’s race since he isn’t derived from the stock or descendants of Adam. We can reply that it is sufficient for Christ to be human without needing him to be derived from the pre-existing human lineage, that is, you don’t have to be conceived from the human race to be human, God could directly create a human being by a divine fiat without needing to make one out of the present human stock. After all, he was of the likeness of sinful flesh, but he doesn’t have to actually be of the sinful flesh.
Mother of the Lord: According to the Flesh or Obedience?
It is not really necessary for us to choose between the moderate or extreme solution. It is sufficiently simply to note that there are these possibilities of having a sinless incarnation without needing to make Mary sinless. So let us simply move on to a slightly different topic. What is the ground for the honour paid to the Virgin Mary? Why is she honoured with the title “Mother of the Lord”? Or called blessed? Is it because Christ the Lord is taken from her flesh? Or is it because of something else? Now, if we take the more “extreme” solution, then obviously the Virgin Mary is not the Mother of God according to the flesh, since according to the “extreme” solution, Christ isn’t derived from her flesh anyway.
Suppose we look at this passage from the Gospels,
And stretching out his hand towards his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
If indeed “whoever does the will” of Christ’s Father in heaven is his “brother and sister and mother”, then here we have an alternative way of accounting for the divine Motherhood of the Virgin Mary. We do not need to appeal to the fact that Christ was of the flesh of Mary to account for Mary’s Motherhood, we simply need to point to her fiat where she submits to the divine will saying, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” (Luke 1:38) Thus, the Virgin Mary is the Mother of Christ, not according to the flesh, but according to obedience, whereby she submits to the divine will as proclaimed by the angel Gabriel concerning her bearing the Son of God, and readily and willing received and obeyed the Word. In this, every other woman who likewise submits to the will of God and obeys his Word likewise partakes of that same divine Motherhood which the Virgin Mary was long ago honoured when she first obeyed the will of the Father concerning Christ.
St Augustine develops this argument at greater length and with greater clarity in his work Of Holy Virginity. To quote the relevant passage:
It is written in the Gospel, of the mother and brethren of Christ, that is, His kindred after the flesh, that, when word had been brought to Him, and they were standing without, because they could not come to Him by reason of the crowd, He made answer, Who is My mother? Or who are My brethren? And stretching forth His Hand over His disciples, He says, These are My brethren: and whosoever shall have done the will of My Father, that man is to Me brother, and mother, and sister. What else teaching us, than to prefer to kindred after the flesh, our descent after the Spirit: and that men are not blessed for this reason, that they are united by nearness of flesh unto just and holy men, but that, by obeying and following, they cleave unto their doctrine and conduct. Therefore Mary is more blessed in receiving the faith of Christ, than in conceiving the flesh of Christ. For to a certain one who said, Blessed is the womb, which bare You, He Himself made answer, Yea, rather, blessed are they who hear the Word of God, and keep it. Lastly, to His brethren, that is, His kindred after the flesh, who believed not in Him, what profit was there in that being of kin? Thus also her nearness as a Mother would have been of no profit to Mary, had she not borne Christ in her heart after a more blessed manner than in her flesh.
-Of Holy Virginity
Conclusion: The Virgin Mary as the Example of Obedience
I think this post has gone long enough and so I will end here by simply noting that a Protestant Mariology (such as it is), would not focus upon metaphysical mumbo-jumbo concerning the purity of her flesh or how she partakes of the substance and person of Christ, etc. Rather a Protestant would emphasise the good works and obedience of the Virgin Mary to the divine will, rather than the “metaphysics” of Mary, as the reason for the many honours for which she is rightly given, and that also this obedience is also commended to us for our imitation with as the means whereby not only her, but all of us, may partake of the honour and glory of being part of the “family” of Christ, as brothers, sisters and mothers of Christ. As Augustine would put it, her fiat is more important than her flesh.
Thus seeing the many honours and laudations which God have given and crowned the Virgin Mary for having given her fiat and obedience to the divine will, the chief of which is the great title the “Mother of the Lord”, likewise ought we be encouraged and exhorted to submit and obey the divine will and commandment, looking forward to the great reward and honour which all who obey the will of God may eagerly expect: Praise and approval before all the world from the divine Word, the Son of God, the Son of Mary himself, who honoured his Mother before he was born with a permanent place in the Scriptures, the Magnificat, whereby “from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed” (Luke 1:48), well into eternity. And with that I leave you with this prayer from the 1549 Book of Common Prayer,
And here we do give unto thee most high praise, and hearty thanks, for the wonderful grace and virtue, declared in all thy saints, from the beginning of the world: And chiefly in the glorious and most blessed virgin Mary, mother of thy Son Jesu Christ our Lord and God, and in the holy Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles and Martyrs, whose examples (O Lord) and steadfastness in thy faith, and keeping thy holy commandments, grant us to follow.