Can you show me in Scripture . . . ?

I wrote last week about the doctrine of Mary’s divine maternity and its implications for her Immaculate Conception. In response, I received an email from a non-Catholic gentleman challenging me to “show him in Scripture where it says that Mary was Immaculately Conceived.” I really appreciate this kind of question because it gives me an opportunity to discuss foundational differences between Catholics and Protestants. The most important of these differences is not the Immaculate Conception. The most important difference is how we claim even to know what the Christian faith is.

search the scripture

My Protestant interlocutor assumed, without argument, that we know the Christian faith by deriving it immediately from the words of Scripture. It is a strange position to hold (though I once held it myself) both because the Christian faith predates the completed canon of Scripture and because Christ himself never instructed us to learn the Christian faith in this way. On the contrary, when Christ commanded that the faith be passed on to posterity he specifically enjoined apostolic authority and liturgical tradition as the proper modes of its transmission. (Matthew 28; Luke 22:19; Luke 10:16) He says not a word about relying on the Bible alone.

This makes it quite illegitimate to attempt to settle theological disputes by referencing the Scripture alone. In an effort to get my friend to see this I asked, “Would you try to ground Christian theology only in the book of Genesis?” “Not at all,” he replied, “I’d look at the whole Scripture.” “Exactly,” I said. “You can’t limit yourself to only one part of God’s word. You need all the data of revelation. Not just the Bible, but apostolic tradition as well.”

Not that the Bible is irrelevant. Scripture is God’s inspired Word. It is the Church’s primary text for theological reflection, for prayer, liturgy, worship, and moral instruction. But it is not a textbook, a constitution, or a user’s manual. There are many things it cannot do alone. It’s more like a love letter. Can you imagine trying to make sense of a relationship based only on a few occasional letters? Without the gestures, rituals, memories, and long history that give those letters a context? Who but a lover can know what to make of an elliptical phrase or an allusion? “I know what he meant here,” she might say. “It’s that time we were walking on the beach, and we both smiled at the seagull without speaking?” Who, but the lovers, could know such a thing?

Christ and his Church are the lovers. The prayers, liturgy, works, and sufferings of the lovers are the context. Dogmas are the memory. The apostles and their successors are the bearers of that memory. They alone can say, with authority, “This is what he means here.”

With this in mind, we can turn again to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Is this doctrine mentioned in Scripture? Of course! But obliquely, indirectly, by hints and allusion. In a way only a lover could know. The Fathers of the Church find the doctrine especially in Luke 1:28: “Hail! Full of Grace.” This is closely followed by Luke 1: 41 “Blessed are you among women.” Tradition also sees the doctrine implied in Genesis 3:15, 1 Corinthians 15, and Romans 5. “The woman” and “her seed” definitively crush the head of the serpent. Together, as “New Adam,” and “New Eve” they stand in antithesis to the first Adam and first Eve. But the first Adam and the first Eve were created in Original Justice. Therefore, the Second Eve also escapes the curse of original sin. (Only through the merits of her son, however.)

Mary QUV

As I write this, I can almost hear my friend object: “But you haven’t proven anything! None of those verses say anything about the Immaculate Conception!” But, again, I reject the premise. It is not the job of Sacred Scripture to teach or even to prove Christian doctrine. This job Christ entrusted to the Church. Scripture is a witness, an inspired testimony to the life of Christ and to the history of God’s people. It is enough to prove that the Church, in reflecting on the Scriptures, finds Mary Immaculate. And that is easy enough:

We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful. – Pope Pius IX, 1854, Ineffabilis Deus

16 thoughts on “Can you show me in Scripture . . . ?

  1. Paul

    Your clarification on the inclusion of tradition in doctrine the Immaculate conception makes some sense. Can you now explain the need for the doctrine of Virginity and Perpetual Virginity . I find the doctrine on virginity unnecessary and the perpetual virginity even more unnecessary.
    Can one be called a practicing Catholic if one is ambivalent to these teachings ?

    Reply
    1. David Anders Post author

      Hi Paul,

      Mary is a kind of eschatological icon – an image of the Church fully redeemed. Thus, she shares in the more perfect conformity of chastity and virginity that both Jesus and Paul commend. Her virginity is also a sign of her ecclesial maternity. She gives birth to a race of spiritual men, as Even gave birth to the physical.

      -David

      Reply
  2. Rachel Laughlin

    It’s tough to discuss these theological points when Calvinists are so ingrained with “sola scriptura.” I am in dialogue via email with a friend in another town. I am not trying to convert her because that is not my job, only to try explain our church. I have said the Bible – NT was not translated and assembled until 300+ years A.D.And, it was done at the direction of a Catholic pope, by a Catholic monk; And, it remained unchallenged until the 15th century. So, it is a Catholic book, rightly interpreted for those responsible for it. I always say, “It is as if the Iranians or North Koreans took our American Constitution, changed a few words around threw out some parts (as the protestants did with the apocrypha) and interpret it for their citizens in a manner pleasing to the leaders of these countries. That’s what the protestants have done.”

    Reply
  3. Barry

    ” It is not the job of Sacred Scripture to teach or even to prove Christian doctrine. This job Christ entrusted to the Church. ”

    Sir, may I ask where you derive the authority to make such a claim? If from the church, where did her authority come from? If from the Bible than, based on your comment we can reject your entire premise as the doctrine of the church was derived from the Bible, which, according to you doesn’t teach, or even prove doctrine.Your statement demands that your church has no authoritative foundation since the entire church was formed from Biblical doctrine. Your authority becomes self- authenticating..

    Reply
    1. David Anders Post author

      Hi Barry,

      thanks for commenting. There are a few different answers to your question.

      First, We need to distinguish different senses in which Scripture can be an authority.
      It could be an authoritative source of information (whether as an historical document, or as inspired writing), second, it could be the final, regulative principle of Christian faith and Practice (as Protestants hold). I suppose one could propose other forms of authority, as well.

      Catholics have no difficulty acknowledging the authority of Scripture in the first sense. In fact, they teach it as dogmatic fact. What we deny is that Scripture functions as an authority in the second sense.

      Consider an analogy:

      I might read a man’s diary and learn therein that he contracted a civil marriage with a certain woman on a certain date. I might also learn that he signed a prenuptial agreement regulating the affairs of that civil marriage.

      The diary is an accurate and reliable witness to the existence of such a prenuptial agreement. The agreement is the rule and measure of the relationship. The diary is the source of my knowledge of such an agreement. Just because I learned about the agreement from the diary would not make the diary more authoritative over the marriage. The diary is authoritative in a way the prenup is not (namely, as an historical source). The prenup is authoritative in a different sense – as rule and measure of the civil marriage.

      Something similar holds true regarding Scripture and the Church. Scripture is an historical witness to the life and teaching of Jesus. In it, we find that Christ founded a Church to which he gave the power of binding and loosing.

      Second, Scripture is not our only source of information about the Church and its foundation. We also have the writings of the Church fathers, early canons, liturgies, iconography, archeology, secular sources, and the Church’s own memory, and her testimony about herself. Now, you may or may not call those sources into question, but to say that we only have the witness of Scripture is just not historically accurate.

      Thanks again,

      David

      Reply
  4. Barry

    Thanks for taking the time to respond, David.. I appreciate it.

    The confusion lies with the presupposition that the Catholic church derives its origin from Peter as described in Mathew. If the Bible is not recognized as the authority(word of God) than how can you so dogmatically hold to scripture as proof of the origin of the Catholic church? Simply saying so does not make it true.
    Thankfully, we have the word of the living God to establish Truth to which all doctrine can be tested.

    Regards,

    Barry

    Reply
  5. David Anders Post author

    Hi Barry,

    There are a couple of things to disentangle here.
    First, let’s address your question:
    “If the Bible is not recognized as the authority(word of God) than how can you so dogmatically hold to scripture as proof of the origin of the Catholic church?”

    Very easily. It is not necessary for me to admit the inspiration of Scripture in order for me to consult it as an historical source. To illustrate (again), most Protestants deny the inspiration of 1 & 2 Maccabees. But none that I know of deny that Maccabees recounts true, historical events. Nor do they deny that Maccabees is at least a faithful witness to the faith of the human author. So unless you propose good reasons to doubt the historical authenticity of the Gospels (and there are good, positive reasons to trust them), I don’t see why a Catholic or anyone else should not cite them as evidence concerning the faith of the earliest Christians or the teaching of Christ.

    Secondly, as I already mentioned, Scripture is not the only source of the Catholic Church’s teaching concerning itself.

    Third, let me address your statement: “The confusion lies with the presupposition that the Catholic church derives its origin from Peter as described in Mathew.”

    This is not a presupposition. It is a conclusion based upon the testimony of the earliest Christians. Even the early critics of the Papacy did not call into question the Petrine origin of the See of Rome.

    But I don’t think you have grasped the central difficulty with Sola Scriptura. Most definitions I know of of the doctrine would concede the following:
    “All articles of faith must be established by the witness of the 66 book Protestant canon of Scripture.” Or some formulation similar to that.

    Now, given that definition, can we say that Sola Scriptura is an article of faith? Is the doctrine itself established by the witness of the 66 book Protestant canon of Scripture?
    If not, then Sola Scriptura cannot be an article of faith – on pain of self-contradiction.
    And yet, there is nowhere in the Protestant Canon where the nature and authority of the Protestant Canon is spelled out.
    You can only arrive at the Protestant Canon by appeal to extra-Scriptural tradition, or by claims to Spiritual illumination.

    Either way, the doctrine is self-refuting.

    Thanks,

    David

    Reply
  6. Barry

    David,

    “Third, let me address your statement: “The confusion lies with the presupposition that the Catholic church derives its origin from Peter as described in Mathew.”

    This is not a presupposition. It is a conclusion based upon the testimony of the earliest Christians. Even the early critics of the Papacy did not call into question the Petrine origin of the See of Rome.”

    The presupposition is that the account is doctrinally true and the conclusion is drawn on that premise.

    If we are unable to reach an agreement on a position as foundational as the authority of scripture then any discussion beyond that becomes circular. I did not realize the Catholic church does not recognize scriptural authority as absolute. I’m perplexed to learn that the word of God is apparently not absolutely authoritative in Godly doctrine.

    This is the point in the conversation where I must make a decision on whether or not to continue and I don’t see it being fruitful.

    In Christ,

    Barry

    Reply
  7. David Anders Post author

    Hi Barry,

    I do not presuppose that the testimony of the earliest Christians is true. I conclude that it is true based on the weight of the evidence.

    Regarding the “absolute authority of Scripture:” Catholics believe Scripture is “absolutely authoritative” in the role which God has assigned it. You would not, I presume, consider Scripture to be “absolutely authoritative” as a manual on software design. That is not its job. Likewise, I do not consider Scripture to be “absolutely authoritative” as a theology textbook or manual for Church government. That is not its job. I do consider it to be “absolutely authoritative” as a witness to the life and teaching of Jesus, to the history of the early Church, and the witness of the apostles and prophets. It is also an “absolutely authoritative” source for moral instruction, wisdom, theological reflection, etc. etc. But it is NOT the rule established by God to govern the Church or to test every doctrine. To assert otherwise is to contravene the witness of Scripture concerning itself.

    -David

    Reply
  8. David Anders Post author

    Barry,

    A Question. You wrote:
    “If we are unable to reach an agreement on a position as foundational as the authority of scripture then any discussion beyond that becomes circular. ”

    Do you believe that the case for the unique and final authority of Scripture is circular? Do you think that your own belief system is circular? If not, then you ought to be able to spell out the reasons why and we can discuss them. We are not condemned to circularity unless you hold your own position to be circular and unverifiable.

    Reply
  9. Barry

    David,

    This conversation has been on my mind for the past few days. I want to be fair and honest with you and that begs clarity.

    It is impossible to reach any doctrinal conclusion if our doctrinal authorities differ- and they are diametrically opposed. The foundational authority is MORE important than the doctrine itself as the doctrine itself relies upon its authority for Truth. We can not consult administrative law to solve constitutional matters. Administrative authority must submit to constitutional authority.
    A strict constitutionalists compares all laws against the constitution and does not recognize the administrative definition of constitutional law that is penned to be self-supporting.
    Catholic apologists simply claim apostolic succession/ council/Catholic dogma/tradition to doctrinal differences and the discussion becomes circular. I do not recognize the Catholic church equal to scriptural, godly authority on doctrine, so using the Catholic church as an authority on such matters renders the conversation fruitless.

    In Christ,

    Barry

    Reply
    1. David Anders Post author

      Hi Barry,

      I agree that theological authority is at the heart of the disagreement between Protestants and Catholics. However, I don’t think that this makes dialogue impossible. Why can’t we discuss the reasons we hold to this or that authority? Or the reasons we reject some construal of theological authority?

      In answer to your question, of course I believe Scripture is the infallible word of God. That is Catholic dogma. What I reject is a particular construal of scriptural authority – the view that God intends Scripture to be a final and sufficient rule for regulating the life and faith of Christians. The reason I reject that view is that this view (sola scriptura) has nowhere been revealed by divine authority. It is a purely human invention.

      Why do you view Scripture as a final and sufficient rule for regulating the life and faith of Christians?

      -David

      Reply
  10. Robert

    Dr Anders,

    Which books would you recommend if one wanted to study Catholic Mariology, with a focus on biblical and historical evidences for dogmas such as the Assumption and perpetual virginity? Thanks.

    Reply
  11. Julio

    Hi Barry!

    I do believe that the Bible is the infallible word of God because the Catholic Church said so.
    The Church teaches that her Bible is indeed the inspired Word of God. The only way you have of knowing that is to take the word of the Catholic Church. But the BIBLE does not make that claim. THE CHURCH — the pillar and ground of the Truth — MAKES THE CLAIM THAT HER SCRIPTURES ARE ABSOLUTE TRUTH. That claim applies to the original autographs, written under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Copies and translations do not enjoy the same claim. And wrongful interpretations some 16 to 21 centuries later mislead believers and do great harm to the Church that wrote the NT. May God have mercy on you.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *