Was Mary in Need of the Atonement?
by Robert M. Zins, Th.M.
Patrick Madrid, writing in This Rock magazine, a Roman Catholic apologetic journal (December 1991), attempts to justify the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary by appealing to the Scriptures. The dogma he defends is the decree of Pope Pius the IX (Ineffabilis Deus, 1854) given to us in its essence by Madrid:
"Mary, from the first instance of her conception, by singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the savior of the human race, was preserved from all stain of original sin." (This Rock, pg.9)
Mr. Madrid suspects that the Christian challenge to the Romish Immaculate Conception of Mary will be three pronged. First, he thinks that some will argue only God can be sinless. He thinks some will attempt to eliminate the possibility of Mary being sinless because they think only God can be sinless. This 'straw man' he quickly consumes in hopes of gaining momentum for the more serious objections.
We agree with Madrid. The elect of God in heaven as well as the elect angelic host are sinless. We seriously question whether any Christian would argue the impossibility of Mary's sinlessness by saying only God can be sinless. Mr. Madrid need not lecture the Christian world on the future sinlessness of God's elect or the current sinlessness of God's elect angels. We are aware that it is a non sequitur to claim that Mary could not have been sinless because God only is sinless. Putting this aside, prongs two and three are the meat of the matter and deserve careful attention.
In prong two, Madrid focuses his attention on how he would answer one biblical proof that might disprove the Immaculate Conception. His problem verse is Luke 1:47 where Mary says, "My spirit rejoices in God my Savior." Madrid knows he must deal with this verse. Christians believe Mary was like other members of the human race, i.e., tainted with original sin and guilty. She was in need of Christ's atoning work on the cross. Madrid agrees only that Mary needed a savior to prevent her from sinning. The Romish contention is that Mary did not need a savior from her actual sins because she did not have any!
Madrid believes that Jesus was Mary's savior because He blocked her from contracting Adam's sin and preserved her from sinning. He argues that Mary needed to be saved only from "contracting" sin. In this sense salvation is said to be "anticipatory" e.g., before the contraction of original sin. This preemptive salvation is said to be especially and only for Mary. With a slight turn of the pen the Catholic theologian trys to redefine salvation to mean saved from ever contracting sin and preserved from ever committing sin. We would point out that there is no biblical justification to be found for this definition of salvation. When deliverance from sin is defined by the word "salvation" in the New Testament, it is at all times referencing Jesus "...who will save His people apo ton hamartion auton (away from their sins)."(Matt. 1:21) There is no biblical provision for such a preŽmptive salvation.
Furthermore, salvation is earned by Jesus Christ. To say that Mary was preŽmptively 'saved' is to say there was no need of a substitutionary atonement for her. This puts Catholic theologians on the horns of a dilemma. If Mary was saved before she ever sinned, then in what sense did Christ have to die for her? If she was kept from becoming dirtied with original sin then what need was there of a guilt offering or sin offering for Mary? Catholic theologians teach that the very purpose for which Christ died cannot be applicable to Mary. Mary never needed redemption or reconciliation; according to Catholic thinking, Mary was never not reconciled!
According to Madrid, Christ was not Mary's savior in any biblical sense of the term "salvation". Yet he must do something with the clear text of Scripture which says, "my spirit rejoices in God my savior." To get around this he says Christ was Mary's savior because He stopped her from being born in sin and also preserved her from ever sinning!
We pause and ask for one shred of biblical proof that Mary was "kept" from both original sin and actual sinning by God. We search the Bible in vain to find even a hint of preŽmptive salvation. The only salvation spoken of in Scripture is an actual salvation from the penalty and power of sin. It is pure fabrication to impose another meaning to the word "salvation". It is entirely arbitrary to fantasize that God must have kept Mary from actually sinning.
We have it on Scriptural authority that Christ died for the "ungodly" (Rom. 5:6). What will it be for Mary? If she was never ungodly then in what meaningful way did Christ die for her? If she needed a savior, then in what meaningful way was she without sin?
The only way around this is to adopt a new definition of salvation for Mary. Thus, Madrid imports a new and novel brew of Catholic tea to the text of Luke 1:47. He invites us to sip. We think not! We would rather appeal to the sure word of God's inspired text: Romans 3:10-12;23 and Romans 5:12-21. These texts and others speak clearly that all, including Mary, have sinned and equally bear the guilt of Adam's sin.
Since these passages testify directly to the impossibility (with the exception of the Son of God) of being born without sin, we are anxious to engage Rome on their significance. This brings us to the 3rd prong of our argument against Madrid, i.e., the exegesis of Romans.
What we expect here is some insightful exegesis from Madrid. What we get is a wave of the hand! The Roman Catholic answer to Romans 3:10-12;23 and Romans 5:12-21 is, incredibly, as follows:
"Common sense tells us whole groups of people are exempt from Paul's statement that `all have sinned.' Aborted infants cannot sin, nor can children or severely retarded people." (pg. 10)
To counterbalance our appeal to Scripture, Madrid offers "common sense" theology! How great a mist in the pews from such a small cloud in the pulpit! It is ironic that he would appeal to common sense after earlier declaring boldly that "Marian doctrines" are found to be "through prayer and Scripture study ...indeed biblical" (pg. 9, emphasis added)
In his common sense theology Madrid thinks that Paul cannot have in mind "everyone" when he asserts in Romans 5:12, "as through one man sin entered into the world and through sin death, so also to all men death passed, because all sinned." Madrid thinks to do so would be to take the passage in a "crassly and literal and universal sense..." (pg. 10)
Early on in Madrid's article he is content to promote a special indulgence to Mary. He wants us to believe Mary did not fit the depravity passages that indict all mankind under sin. She has been exempted! How? God simply did it! Now Madrid throws in his philosophy about others. He says others are born without sin. This is to soften the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary.
For now we will dispense with the wildly outrageous statement that "young children cannot sin," and get to the point. Madrid thinks children in the womb cannot sin and thus are not guilty. But wait, what about Adam? Evidently, Madrid has no use for the idea that children in the womb are guilty of sinning in Adam. This appears to be his argument. But we fear that Madrid has run afoul even of his own religion on this point. The Council of Trent specifically implicates infants in the sin of Adam. Even Madrid must realize that Rome baptizes her babies in order to remove the guilt of original sin. Or will Madrid stand against his own religion with his common sense theology? Listen to Trent:
"The holy council declares first, that for a correct and clear understanding of the doctrine of justification, it is necessary that each one recognize and confess that since all men had lost innocence in the prevarication of Adam, having become unclean and, as the Apostle says, by nature children of wrath, as has been set forth in the decree on original sin, they were so far the servants of sin and under the power of the devil and of death, that not only Gentiles by the force of nature, but not even the Jews by the very letter of the law of Moses, were able to be liberated or to rise therefrom, though free will, weakened as it was in its powers and downward bent, was by no means extinguished in them." (Council of Trent, 6th Session)
While it is true that infants in the womb do not sin, it is the biblical record that infants are conceived in a state of sin. Older Catholic doctrines state this clearly. The common sense theology of Madrid with such declarations as, "whole groups are exempt from Paul's statement that all have sinned," is not so common even among Romanist thinkers. It certainly carries no weight of responsible biblical interpretation.
For the record, we do not find infant involvement with the sin of Adam to be satisfactorily dealt with by Catholic theologians. Neither do we find their remedy of sacramental baptism to reflect the teachings of Scripture. But the point we are making here is that even Roman Catholics have a doctrine of original sin which extends to infants! It is useless for Madrid to say that some groups are exempt and thus set the stage for a total life exemption of Mary. With the exception of Mary, Rome admits to no exceptions as evidenced by their sacramental baptism for all infants.
Biblically, there are no exceptions in Romans 5:12-21. Paul is crystal clear in his analogy that Adam was the Federal head of his race. The clause "because all sinned" is a reference to a solidarity relationship between Adam and all mankind, including Mary! Hence, it is in Romans 5:19 where we find Paul very straight forward:
"For as through one man's disobedience the many were constituted (kathistemi) sinners..."
Madrid is quite right. If certain groups are exempt from the "all have sinned" rubric, then it could possibly clear the way for an easier acceptance of the Immaculate Conception. But the honest exegete is constrained by the very force of the texts considered to conclude that no one, not even Mary, is excluded from the need of being saved out of their own sin as well as the sin of Adam. It is the worst sort of biblical exposition for Madrid to wave a hand at the analogy expressed by Paul in Romans 5. Madrid glibly asserts, "he was writing to adults in our state of life" (pg. 10). What manner of exegesis arrives at this conclusion? Sadly for Madrid, his understanding of mankind's sinfulness leads him into immense errors. His zeal to protect his wrong view of Mary leads him to violation and distortion of biblical passages. It appears his definitions and common sense theology even flies in the face of his own religious dogma!
In essence, the modern Catholic theologian can only dream of something called a preŽmptive salvation for Mary. It is utter fantasy! A cursory analysis of Romans 5 defies any safe haven of the "exempt." It awaits a future article to show the shallowness of Catholic exegesis on Romans 5. Modern Catholic theologians find themselves on slippery terrain as they attempt to encompass within the framework of biblical theology the Pope's decree of the Immaculate Conception. Their fantasies and imaginations are put to the test as they try to align this decree with the biblical data. But to no avail! Each new effort serves to corrupt and destroy the integrity of other clear passages. Their folly is evident.
We would remind the readers that this type of evasive exposition comes from the same people who insist that Christ transubstantiated Himself into a piece of bread at the last supper. We marvel at the literalism of the Romanist when it comes to "this is my body" and how quickly he deserts it when it comes to "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," or "My spirit rejoices in God my Savior."