What Is the Immaculate Conception? Is It the Same as the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth? How Did the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception Develop in Roman Catholic Theology?

Paul Tambrino, EdD, PhD

Ask Augustine with Dr. Paul Tambrino


Ask Augustine is a weekly column where professor/author Dr. Paul Tambrino discusses various theological questions with wit, clarity and substance.

Question #61 – What Is the Immaculate Conception? Is It the Same as the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth? How Did the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception Develop in Roman Catholic Theology?

The doctrines of the Virgin Birth and the Immaculate Conception are entirely different.

Although the term Virgin Birth does not occur in the Bible, this doctrine is held by both Roman Catholics and Protestants alike and is founded on biblical passages in Matthew 1:18, 22-25, Luke 1:34-35 and the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14.“The doctrines of the Virgin Birth and the Immaculate Conception are entirely different.”

This doctrine refers to the fact that Jesus was miraculously begotten of God and born of a virgin mother.

The Immaculate Conception, on the other hand, is uniquely a doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church and does not concern the birth of Jesus but rather concerns the birth of the Virgin Mary by her mother, whose name is not given in the Bible, but which traditionally was Anna.

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception holds that the Virgin Mary, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, was preserved exempt and immaculate from all stain of original sin.

All other descendants of Adam, with the exception of Jesus, have been born with original sin on their souls.

Historically, there appears to be little in early church writings regarding Mary’s holiness and the state of Mary’s soul at the moment of her conception. “The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception holds that the Virgin Mary, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, was preserved exempt and immaculate from all stain of original sin.”

Very little seems to have been written about Mary’s holiness from the close of the apostolic age to the Council of Nicaea.

In fact, this appeared to be an era unfavorable to the thesis of Mary’s sinlessness. Tertullian specifically emphasized the principle that only Christ was without sin.

Then a turning point came around 377 with the publication of Ambrose’s three books On Virginity.

Ambrose wrote that Mary was not only a virgin in body, but in mind as well. She was the unattainable model of all virtues, and had lived them all to perfection.

There was no shadow of the smallest imperfection that marred his image of her.

In his sermon on Psalm 118, Ambrose stated that Mary was a virgin free by grace from all stained of sin. “Ambrose wrote that Mary was not only a virgin in body, but in mind as well. She was the unattainable model of all virtues, and had lived them all to perfection.”

This statement by Ambrose was frequently invoked by all defenders of the Immaculate Conception.

In 415 Augustine confronted Pelagius on the issue of Mary’s personal holiness, for freedom from actual sin.

Augustine argued that only Mary was free from sin, and man’s sinlessness was a triumph, not of nature, but grace and its foundation was the divine Maternity.

Augustine’s statement has been deemed by Roman Catholic theologians as one which conveyed Augustine’s conviction of the incompatibility of actual sin with the divine and became a landmark in the development of the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine of Mary’s sinlessness.

Many thought it impossible to reconcile freedom from original sin with the fact that Mary was born of human parents through natural generation.

Some were against it merely because they misunderstood it to refer to the active conception, namely Mary’s generation by her parents.

Others considered an immaculate conception incompatible with the universality of the redemption of Christ. “Many thought it impossible to reconcile freedom from original sin with the fact that Mary was born of human parents through natural generation.”

While notable scholastics like St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Albert, St. Bernard, St. Bede, and St. Bonaventura were against the belief in a sinless conception, it was the Oxford Franciscan, John Duns Scotus (1265 or 1274 to 1308) who turned the tide with his assertion that Mary was saved from the stain of original sin by the “prevenient grace of the Savior that, as it were, cleansed her soul before actual conception in anticipation of the conception of Christ.”

By the middle of the 15th century, liturgical celebrations of the Immaculate Conception were widely spread, but there still had been no official approval on the part of Rome’s magisterium (teachings given by the General Councils in union with the Pope). “Pope Sixtus IV was the first to officially encourage the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.”

A dogmatic decision on Mary’s freedom from original sin was proposed at the Council of Basel in 1439, but it was declared invalid because the Council had fallen under the excommunication of Pope Eugene IV.

Pope Sixtus IV was the first to officially encourage the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

His constitution, Cum praecelsa of 1477, approved as an indulgence the feast of the Conception of the Immaculate Virgin.

Then in 1622, Pope Gregory XV extended Sixtus IV’s pronouncements to a prohibition of all private writings and sermons against the Immaculate Conception.

But it remained for Pope Pius IX to take the final step and in 1848 he named a commission of theologians to study two questions.

Could the Immaculate Conception be defined as dogma? Was such a definition opportune?

The replies from the bishops were over 90 percent favorable (specifically 546 were in favor yet 57 bishops opposed) and on December 8, 1854 Pope Pius IX settled once and for all Romans Catholics the dispute about Mary’s privilege.

In stating that God revealed the doctrine it became a part of the original Deposit of the Faith for all Roman Catholics by the authority of God Himself.

In this document Pope Pius IX presented several arguments in the development of belief in the sinless conception of Mary.

He cited the traditional interpretation of Sacred Scripture, especially of the Protoevangelium in Genesis 3:15, the greetings of Gabriel and Elizabeth in Luke 1:28 and 42, the evidence of Roman Catholic liturgy, and the proximate preparation when with one voice clergy and faithful entreated the Pope to define with his supreme judgment the Immaculate Conception.

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Image Credit

Plaquette van koper met émail met voorstelling van de Geboorte van Christus en de aanbidding door de herders., Jean-Baptiste Nouailher (I) (attributed to), c. 1725 – c. 1775. BK-KOG-234. The Rijksmuseum. http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.50432.

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