Mary—Fully Human, or Nearly Divine?
|By: Dr. Norman Geisler; ©1999|
|Dr. Geisler examines some of the passages used by those who think Mary deserves special honor and worship. Is their position biblical?|
(excerpted from When Cultists Ask, Baker, 1997)
- 1 LUKE 1:28—Does Mary being “full of grace” prove that she was immaculately conceived, as Roman Catholics say?
- 2 LUKE 1:28b—Does the fact that Mary was “full of grace” prove that she lived a sinless life, as Roman Catholics claim?
- 3 LUKE 1:42—Does the fact that Mary was called “Blessed” show that she was immaculately conceived?
- 4 LUKE 1:42, 48—Do these verses show that Mary should be venerated above all creatures, as Roman Catholics claim?
LUKE 1:28—Does Mary being “full of grace” prove that she was immaculately conceived, as Roman Catholics say?
On December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX, in the Bull “Ineffabilis,” pronounced infallibly the following doctrine to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful: “The Most Holy Virgin Mary was in the first moment of her conception, by a unique gift of grace and privilege of Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ the Redeemer of mankind, preserved free from all stain of original sin” (Ott, 1960, 199). Ott argues that “the expression ‘full of grace’ [Luke 1:28]… in the angel’s salutation, represents the proper name, and must on this account express a characteristic quality of Mary… . However, it is perfect only if it be perfect not only intensively but also extensively, that is, if it extends over her whole life, beginning with her entry into the world” (Ibid., 200).
CORRECTING THE MISINTERPRETATION
Nothing in this verse justifies a belief in the Immaculate conception of Mary.
It is by no means necessary to take the phrase “full of grace” as a proper name. Even contemporary Catholic versions of the Bible do not translate it as a proper name (for example, the New American Bible). It could refer simply to Mary’s state of being as a recipient of God’s favor.
Even if it were a proper name and referred to Mary’s essential character, it is not necessary to take it extensively all the way back to her birth. The only way one could conclude this is by factors beyond the biblical text itself (which does not teach the Immaculate Conception). Of course, Catholics believe that tradition fills in what the Scriptures do not declare. But if this is so, then why appeal to Scripture for support. Why not just admit what many contemporary Catholics are reluctant to acknowledge, that this teaching is not found in Scripture but was only added centuries later by tradition.
Even if it were taken extensively to Mary’s beginning, it does not of necessity mean an immaculate conception. It could simply refer to God’s grace being upon her life from conception. But that was true of others, including Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1) and John the Baptist (Luke 1), who were not immaculately conceived. Elliott Miller and Kenneth Samples note in The Cult of the Virgin, the Greek term for “full of grace” is charito. But “charito is used of believers in Ephesians 1:6 without implying sinless perfection. So again there is hence nothing about Luke 1:28 that establishes the doctrine of the immaculate conception. That Mary was uniquely favored to be the mother of her Lord is the only necessary inference” (Miller and Samples, 34). One must appeal to traditions outside the Bible, and late ones at that, to find support for this Catholic dogma.
LUKE 1:28b—Does the fact that Mary was “full of grace” prove that she lived a sinless life, as Roman Catholics claim?
According to Roman Catholic teaching, “Mary’s sinlessness may be deduced from the text: Luke 1, 28: ‘Hail, full of grace!’ since personal moral defects are irreconcilable with fullness of grace” (Ott, 1960).
CORRECTING THE MISINTERPRETATION
The Catholic argument that because Mary was “full of grace” at the annunciation she was sinless during her entire life cannot be sustained. The phrase “full of grace” is an inaccurate rendering based on the Latin Vulgate that has been corrected by the modern Catholic Bible, the New American Bible translation. The NAB translates it simply as “favored one.” The Vulgate’s misleading rendering became the basis for the idea that grace extended throughout Mary’s life. But even if accurate, taken in context, the salutation of the angel is only a reference to Mary’s state at that moment, not to her entire life. It does not affirm that she was always full of grace but only that she was full of grace in her selection by God at that time for this singular honor.
The grace given to Mary was not only limited in time but limited in function. The grace she received was for the task of being the mother of the Messiah. Nothing indicates that the purpose of this grace was to prevent her from any sin.
The stress on fullness of grace is misleading, since even Catholic scholars admit that Mary was in need of redemption. But why is this so if she was not a sinner? Ott says clearly of Mary that “she herself required redemption and was redeemed by Christ” (Ibid., 212). It is biblically unfounded to suggest that she was merely prevented from inheriting all this rather than being actually delivered from it. Nor does the Bible support the sinlessness of Mary. To the contrary, it affirms her sinfulness. Speaking as a sinner, Mary said, “My spirit rejoices in God my savior (Luke 1:46 NIV). Contrary to Duns Scotus’s solution that Mary was prevented from needing to be saved from sin, she confessed her present need (after her conception) of a Savior. Indeed, she even presented an offering to the Jewish priest arising out of her sinful condition (Luke 2:22) which was required in the Old Testament (Lev. 12:2). This would not have been necessary if she were sinless.
LUKE 1:42—Does the fact that Mary was called “Blessed” show that she was immaculately conceived?
Luke 1:42 is offered by Catholics in defense of the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary. They claim that when Elizabeth said, “Blessed are you among women,” the “blessing of God which rests upon Mary is made parallel to the blessing of God which rests upon Christ in His humanity. This parallelism suggests that Mary, just like Christ, was from the beginning of her existence, free from all sin” (Ott, 1960, 201).
CORRECTING THE MISINTERPRETATION
Ott’s reasoning that this blessing is parallel to the one on Christ is far-fetched. It grasps for straws in the lack of biblical evidence for a Catholic dogma proclaimed so many years after the events themselves. The passage nowhere sets a parallel between Mary and Christ. It simply says that Mary, the bearer of our Lord, was given grace for her task.
Even if the parallel could somehow be made, an immaculate conception would not necessarily follow from it. Jesus was conceived of a virgin. Mary was not so conceived; she had two natural parents. By Ott’s illogic, one could make Mary a redeemer for our sins, something that some Catholics have sought to do and others approach in their extreme veneration of Mary. The church, however, has not officially proclaimed such a heresy.
Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest Catholic theologians of all time, declared that the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary is impossible (Aquinas, Summa Theologica 3,27, 2), since Mary, like all other humans except Christ, inherited a sin nature from Adam (cf. Rom. 5:12)
LUKE 1:42, 48—Do these verses show that Mary should be venerated above all creatures, as Roman Catholics claim?
According to the teaching of the Catholic church, “Mary, the Mother of God, is entitled to the Cult of Hyperdulia” (Ott, 1960, 215). This means that Mary may be venerated and honored on a level higher than that of other creatures, whether angels or saints. However, “this [veneration due to Mary] is substantially less than the cultus latriae (or adoration) which is due to God alone, but is higher than the cultus duliae (or veneration) due to angels and to the other saints.
The Scriptural source of the special veneration due to the Mother of God is to be found in Luke 1. Verse 28 says: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee,” in the praise of Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Ghost. Verse 42 adds: “Blessed are thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” The prophetic words of the Mother of God are found in verse 48: “For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed” (Ibid., 215).
CORRECTING THE MISINTERPRETATION
Nothing in these verses supports the conclusion that Mary should be venerated above all creatures and below God.
The texts say nothing about veneration or prayers to Mary.They simply call Mary “blessed” of God, which she truly was. However, contrary to Catholic practice, Mary was not blessed above all women but simply was the most blessed among all women. Even in the Catholic Bible it reads, “Most blessed are you among [not above] women” (Luke 1:42). This is not a distinction without a difference. It is a strange logic to argue that being the most blessed among women makes her worthy of more honor than any other women. Eve was the mother of all humanity (Gen. 3 20), a distinctive honor held by no other person including Mary, and yet she is not venerated by Catholics in accord with her blessed status.
Further, even great sinners that are forgiven are highly blessed but need not be most highly esteemed because of that fact (see, for example, 1 Cor. 15:9; 1 Tim. 1:15). Abraham was called the Father of the faithful, yet he lied about his wife (Gen. 20:1-18). It was said of David that his heart was fully devoted to the LORD his God (1 Kings 11:4), yet he committed adultery and murder (2 Sam. 11).
There is not a single instance in the New Testament where any veneration was given to Mary. When the Magi came to the manger at the Nativity to visit the Christ child, the Bible declares that they worshiped him, not her (Matt. 2:11).
In addition, bowing down in veneration before any creature, even angels (cf. Col. 2:18; Rev. 22:8-9), is forbidden in Scripture. The Bible makes it clear that we are not to make any “images” of any creature or even to “bow down” to them in an act of religious devotion (Exod. 20:4-5). To call Mary “Queen of Heaven,” knowing that this phrase was borrowed directly from an old pagan idolatrous cult condemned in the Bible (cf. Jer. 7:18), only invites the charge of mariolatry. And mariolatry is idolatry.
In addition, despite theological distinctions to the contrary, in practice many Catholics do not distinguish between the veneration given to Mary and that given to Christ.
There is clearly a difference, both in theory and in practice, in the way Catholics honor other human beings and the way they venerate Mary. Consider the following book, Novena Prayers in Honor of our Mother of Perpetual Help, with the Catholic imprimatur (and nihil obstat declaration) on it, which guarantees that there is nothing heretical in it (published by Sisters of St. Basil, 1968, 16, 19):
- Come to my aid, dearest Mother, for I recommend myself to thee. In thy hands I place my eternal salvation, and to thee I entrust my soul. Count me among thy most devoted servants; take me under thy protection, and it is enough for me. For, if thou protect me, dear Mother, I fear nothing: not from my sins, because thou wilt obtain for me the pardon of them; nor from the devils, because thou art more powerful than all hell together; not even from Jesus, my judge, because by one prayer from thee, He will be appeased.