Did Early Christians Believe in the Immaculate Conception?

As a follow up to the article, “Did Early Christians Believe in the Assumption?,” a similar question is asked in regards to Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception.

The Immaculate Conception is a dogma of the faith, stating that the Blessed Virgin Mary was conceived sinless in the womb of Her mother, Saint Anne. While this truth has been believed since the early times of the Church, it was not until December 8, 1854 that Pope Pius IX dogmatically decreed this truth. Thus ended the possibility of any faithful Catholic even slightly doubting this truth. All Catholics are required to believe in this dogma ‘firmly and constantly’ without exception. The decree of Pope Pius IX in Ineffabilis Deus reads in part:

“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.”

The Early Church on the Immaculate Conception

Although they may not have used the precise term “Immaculate Conception,” the early Church honored the Blessed Virgin Mary as sinless since Her conception.

For instance, St. Ephrem (306-373 A.D.), a Syrian Deacon and Doctor of the Church, wrote: “Thou and Thy mother are the only ones who are totally beautiful in every way. For in Thee, O Lord, there is no stain, and in Thy mother no stain.” (Note: The word ‘immaculate’ is another way of stating there is no stain of sin.)

Even earlier, in 235. A.D. Hippolytus (a most respected priest and theologian of Rome) wrote: “He was the ark formed of incorruptible wood. For by this is signified that His tabernacle was exempt from putridity and corruption.” Mary is prefigured by the ‘incorruptible’ wood which is an allusion to Her conception without sin and Her having never committed any personal sin. And Origen wrote in 244 A.D.: “This Virgin Mother of the Only-begotten of God, is called Mary, worthy of God, immaculate of the immaculate, one of the one.”

There are many other such instances, too numerous to recount here.[1] The dogmatic proclamation in 1854 by Pope Pius IX merely ended a debate that had arisen in the previous centuries – fueled often by the Protestants. In fact, December 8th became a Holy Day of Obligation in 1708 under Pope Clement XI, nearly 150 years before Pope Pius IX dogmatically and infallibly defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Earlier, in 1693 Pope Innocent XII raised this feast day to the rank of “Double of the Second Class” with an octave for the Universal Church. According to Father Wieser, in Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, the Greek Rite has kept this feast day as a holy day since 1166 and Spain has kept it as a public holy day since 1644.

Refuting the Claim ‘The Immaculate Conception Is Not in the Bible.’

First and foremost, not all that is true concerning the Catholic Faith is recorded in the Bible since the Bible is not the sole authority established by Christ. Sola Scriptura (Latin for “by Scripture alone”) is a false doctrine that claims Scripture is the sole basis of Divine Revelation. We, as Catholics, know that Scripture and the unwritten teachings of Jesus Christ as taught through His established Church are on the same level as the means of His Revelation among men.

As the book My Catholic Faith succinctly summarizes: “Divine Revelation comes down to us by two means: through Holy Scripture, written down under divine inspiration, and through Tradition, handed down orally from Apostolic times.” Look to 2 Thessalonians 2:14 if you have doubts when St. Paul writes: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you have learned, whether by word, or by our epistle.

That being said, no part of Holy Scripture contradicts the Immaculate Conception. On that point it is fundamental to dispute a common claim among some Protestants that Catholics are in opposition to Scripture on this matter. They quote Romans 3:23 which reads: “For all have sinned, and do need the glory of God.” However, this verse properly refers to the truth that, on account of Adam and Eve, our human nature has been wounded by Original Sin. It clearly does not mean that each and every person has committed a personal sin. First, we know Jesus Christ did not sin. Second, we know that babies and those without the use of sufficient reason do not sin.

Romans 3:23 uses the English word “all” as a translation of the Greek word “πας [pas],” which was not the definitive absolute that “all” sometimes means today. Such a broad usage of the English term “all” in a generalsense is also seen in Matthew 3:5-6 and Luke 2:1, to name a few other instances where it clearly does not mean an “absolute all without any possible exception.” For example, Matthew 3:5-6 states: Then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea, and all the country about Jordan: And were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins. We certainly do not think that the entire region – literally everyone – went to the Jordan River, including those that did not believe in the faith. Rather, this is a manner of speaking which means a great majority went out, not everyone who lived in Judea and the country about the Jordan without exception.[2]

It is necessary to reiterate that not everything is recorded in Scripture. As another example, the Scriptures do not mention the account of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s birth. So, does that mean that She was not born? Of course not!

Where Is the Immaculate Conception in the Bible?

In order to properly understand Scripture, we must read with the mind of the Church and under the guidance the Holy Ghost, Who is the ultimate inerrant author of the Bible. In her tradition, the Church has taught that the following passages, amongst many others, are references to Our Lady being Immaculate:

“I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head.” (Genesis 3:15)

“And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” (Luke 1:28)

“Thou art all fair, O my love, and there is not a spot in thee.” (Canticle of Canticles 4:7)

“The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his ways, before he made anything from the beginning. I was set up from eternity, and of old before the earth was made. The depths were not as yet, and I was already conceived.” (Proverbs 8:22-24)

Even Early Protestants Believed in the Immaculate Conception!

Let’s not forget that Martin Luther, the man who began the Lutheran Church and did unfathomable harm to the Church founded by Christ, still held a great devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, including belief in the Immaculate Conception: “It is a sweet and pious belief that the infusion of Mary’s soul was effected without original sin; so that in the very infusion of her soul she was also purified from original sin and adorned with God’s gifts, receiving a pure soul infused by God; thus from the first moment she began to live she was free from all sin.”

Additional Resources

For those who wish to reflect more upon the Immaculate Conception, we strongly recommend the following talks by Father Couture: God Insists Upon Immaculate (video / podcast) and Paying the Price for the Immaculate Conception (video / podcast). Father McDonald also spoke on How Mary Could Be Conceived Without Sin (video / podcast) in an ‘Ask Father’ video; and Fr. Michael Rodríguez addressed this great mystery in his sermon, The Priest Is Called to Holiness (video / podcast).

Conclusion

Like the early Christians, we too believe that our Blessed Mother needed a Savior. And our Lord Jesus Christ chose to save Her by applying in advance the merits He would merit on the Cross. Jesus Christ, Who is God Himself and outside of time, can surely do such things, and those who would claim otherwise blaspheme the power of God.[3]


ENDNOTES:

[1] A reader interested in this topic could get from the St. Vincent Ferrer Foundation a series of five talks on The Immaculate Conception by David Rodríguez. A few good resource books on this subject are Mary and the Fathers of the Church by Luigi Gambero (Ignatius, 1991), The Life of Mary as Seen by the Mystics by Raphael Brown (TAN, 1991), and Mary, Mother of the Savior by Fr. Garrigou Legrange.

[2] Remember, when the Church teaches men must follow the literal meaning of Scripture, that does not mean a “literal meaning” which men chose to give the words which they currently use in their translated editions. Rather, it means we must abide by the literal meaning which the sacred author of the text intended to convey by writing this passage. The Church’s Magisterium, basing itself on Sacred Tradition, is the authority which clarifies any such matters of interpreting the ‘literal meaning’ of Sacred Scripture.

[3] The Catechism of St. Pius X:

42 Q. How is it possible for original sin to be transmitted to all men?

  1. Original sin is transmitted to all men because God, having conferred sanctifying grace and other supernatural gifts on the human race in Adam, on the condition that Adam should not disobey Him; and Adam having disobeyed, as head and father of the human race, rendered human nature rebellious against God. And hence, human nature is transmitted to all the descendants of Adam in a state of rebellion against God, and deprived of divine grace and other gifts.

43 Q. Do all men contract original sin?

  1. Yes, all men contract original sin, with the exception of the Blessed Virgin, who was preserved from it by a singular privilege of God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour.
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