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.
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.)
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