Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Article 15: What to do with Anabaptists and the Immaculate Conception


The purpose of these 39 articles in 39 days leading up to Pentecost has largely been a flight of fancy for me personally. I find I tend to blog more when I have a series of things on which to comment. I got the idea from the Anglican Communion Facebook page, though I have read virtually none of their commentaries. As such, these articles have not been nearly as in depth in terms of research as maybe they should have been. I have largely just been "shooting from the hip," as it were. 


I actually had to do a bit of research on today's article to refresh myself as to why this Article appears here. Most of the articles on doctrine were reactions or clarifications of existing Reformation era theological controversies. Today's article seems a little anti-climatic doctrinally speaking, after the Puritanical love fest found in the previous few articles. It is fairly theologically benign in nature. 


XV. Of Christ alone without Sin
Christ in the truth of our nature was made like unto us in all things, sin only except, from which he was clearly void, both in his flesh, and in his spirit. He came to be the Lamb without spot, who, by sacrifice of himself once made, should take away the sins of the world, and sin, as Saint ,John saith, was not in him. But all we the rest, although baptized, and born again in Christ, yet offend in many things; and if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.


While some of the Articles of Religion are clearly directed at answering Roman Catholic theological premises, many are also veiled reactions against the radical Reformers known as Anabaptist. This article, in a polite Anglican way, tries to take out two birds with one stone.

Anabaptists, of course, were an interesting and diverse lot from which came many threads of Christianity, ranging from Hutterites (many of whom are found in South Dakota) to Mennonite to Amish to Churches of the Brethren. Anabaptists are not to be confused with Baptists, which is a whole different branch of Christianity entirely. The term comes from the Greek word ανα (again, twice) and βαπτιζω (baptize), thus "re-baptizers." The Anabaptists were notorious for "re-baptizing" those who had been baptized as infants and were prone to taking a literal interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. This made many Anabaptists enemies of the State because they would refuse to take oaths or be in the military or even participate in civil government, preferring instead to create Utopian enclaves along the lines of the Book of Acts where early Christians held everything in common. Some Anabaptists went so far as to proclaim that in following this literal interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, they had attained a sinless condition here on earth. This Article of Religion challenges any such notion, going back to the fairly orthodox (i.e. anti-Pelagian) Christian view that says only Christ was without sin and therefore we cannot save ourselves through works.

Also in the background of this article is the Catholic teaching on the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. This is another one of those cases of Christians talking past one another. Rome was not particularly good at explaining the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception until well into the 1800s. The history of the doctrine is somewhat convoluted.

The notion of the Conception of Mary was a church Feast as early as the 5th Century. The specific concept of the Immaculate Conception goes back at least as far as the Scholastic period on the Middle Ages. Duns Scotus in his theology touched on it, and the Franciscans adopted it very early on. St. Bernard of Clairvaux was critical of it. Thomas Aquinas was somewhat critical of it, though this writings on the issue have been shown recently to be somewhat ambiguous over time.

At the time of the Reformation, the Catholic Church was not of one particular mind on the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. In fact, some were highly against the idea. Cardinal Cajetan, well known to students of the history of Luther, wrote a well known letter to Pope Leo X labeling the doctrine as false and novel. The two camps seemed to be those saying that no one was born apart from Original Sin and those who believed that Mary was born completely apart from the stain of sin, so that Jesus might be born sinless.

The Council of Trent touched on it briefly,not without some internal debate that was quite heated. When the Council of Trent finalized the Tridentine Mass revisions in 1570. The revisions of the Council of Trent included a revision of the Church Calendar which renamed the Feast of the Nativity of Mary to the Feast of the Conception of Mary, though the term 'Immaculate' was notoriously absent from the new name of the Feast. The Council basically dropped back and punted the issue to the Pope, who suggested a middle course.

The Rise of the Jesuits, who held the doctrine in extremely high regard, gradually began to sway the opinion of Catholics in favor of the doctrine in the next few centuries. Finally, Pope Pius IX by Papal bull on December 9, 1854, declared the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception to be a matter of faith. Surprisingly by that period, there was virtually no negative response to the Papal bull on the issue. The dogma was defined in accordance with the conditions of papal infallibility, which would be defined in 1870 by the First Vatican Council.

Now, in fairness, what exactly is the Immaculate Conception? Many Protestants at the time of Reformation thought that the notions of the Immaculate Conception of Mary made her sin free and therefore in no need of a redeemer. This is only partly correct. Ironically, the Catholic Church teaches the Predestination of Mary (See the official Catechism here). I think by the modern Catechism definition, the Puritanical Reformers might actually have agreed with it.

The papal definition of the dogma declares with absolute certainty and authority that Mary possessed sanctifying grace from the first instant of her existence and was free from the lack of grace caused by the original sin at the beginning of human history. In other words, Mary was born free from original guilt due to God's grace. The Catholic Church is very clear in its official teachings, however, that Mary's salvation was won by her son Jesus Christ through his passion, death, and resurrection and was not due to her own merits.

The objection is also raised that if Mary were without sin, she would be equal to God. In the beginning, God created Adam, Eve, and the angels without sin, but none were equal to God. Most of the angels never sinned, and all souls in heaven are without sin. This does not detract from the glory of God, but manifests it by the work he has done in sanctifying his creation. Sinning does not make one human. On the contrary, it is when man is without sin that he is most fully what God intends him to be. One might also look at it from the idea that a baby is without sin until later in life. In the same way, Mary, by this doctrine, is kept free of sin by God's grace her whole life as a baby is when an infant.

I do have a special place in my heart for Mary, and I, being a good Anglo-catholic, often say the Rosary. Some Episcopalians I know are horrified at this wanton act of Popery. This notion of the Immaculate Conception is one of those few doctrines promulgated by the Catholic Church on Mary that I am somewhat ambivalent about. I completely understand that Protestant objections. Some days I come close to finding them persuasive, but most days I do not because whether she sinned or not, Mary still needed a redeemer, so therefore I find the Protestant arguments moot. The original Papal bull did proclaim the issue a matter of Faith, and "faith is the evidence of things not seen." I think my knee jerk reaction against the idea is not so much the doctrine itself but that is was proclaimed by Papal bull as infallible and was not a truth revealed to the whole church by an Ecumenical council. I am still working out my thinking on that.

I certainly agree with the sentiments of this Article of Religion. I do believe all of us do continue to "offend in many ways, and if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves..." And as I usually say, charity begins at home. Worry about your own sins before worrying about whether Mary sinned or not. We all need redeeming, and that's the whole point.

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