Wednesday, May 2, 2012

“Is the question of the Immaculate Conception about God?”

Our concluding question was the focus of my reading. I shall offer an attempt to think of the urgency that ties into Christ’s very role and function, but further as case study of a theology of “fittingness.”

Both Conrad and Scotus refer us back to Anselm. I propose that Anselm presents a nice starting-place for the Christological basis for Mary’s immaculacy.

In Anselm’s classic work Cur Deus Homo he presented a reasoned argument for why God became human, so as to satisfy both God’s justice and mercy. Christ, the God-Man, is the only possible candidate because, only a human can pay the debt of human death, because only a God-Man can pay the debts of others, since all other human are subject to original sin and have their own debt to face.

In the dialogue of the work, Boso (the student) asked:

“How did God produce a man without sin out of the human race, which is totally permeated with sin? This was like producing unleavened bread out of leavened dough. For granted that [the conception of Christ] was untainted and devoid of [corruption], the Virgin from whom he was taken was conceived ‘amid iniquities…’” (II.16; trans. Fairweather, in Major Works (ed) Evans, Davies, p337)

The force of Boso’s question is this: For Christ to be able to mediate, he must be human but wholly without stain of sin. If Christ took flesh from one whose flesh was stained with original sin, then Christ would be implicated in original sin and so be unable to mediate.

Anselm has no doubt that Christ was “completely without sin.” But this can only obtain if Christ was not produced out of sinful flesh (“Moreover, this cannot be so if he has not been produced without sin out of sinful matter.” Ibid.) Thus, Anselm saw it necessary that Mary be wholly purified, body and soul in order to bear the redeemer. Anselm concluded, the “Virgin from whom [the Redeemer came] was one of those who, before his birth, were cleansed of sins through [the Redeemer], and he was received from her in the state of cleanness which was hers.” (II.16p340)

Let us note that even Anselm saw that Mary’s cleanness was the gift from the Redeemer and so in no way excluded her from the work of the Redeemer: “[Christ’s] mother’s cleanness, whereby he is clean, would not have existed, if it had not come from him, and so he was clean on his own account and by his own agency.” (Ibid.) Christ purified Mary so that Christ would be a pure Redeemer.

I take this to be the underlying issue at stake in dealing with Mary’s purity. However, the question is more difficult when we get specific. As I only learned this week, the debate between the immaculists and the ‘maculists’ was not whether Mary lived in original sin or not. All were agreed that Mary was born without original sin, that she lived without any actual (voluntary) sin, mortal or venial. The question was whether Mary was conceived purely or conceived in original sin, had it for a time, and was purified in utero, and so born pure. Is Christology really at stake in this debate?

I propose that Christology is not, in fact, the primary issue between the maculists and the immaculists. Rather, I want to highlight the theological way or sense of “fittingness,” convenientia.

But before dealing with convenientia, I must deal with Scotus’ apparent attempt to make the immaculate conception Christological, on the grounds that a perfect mediator would prevent someone from contracting the sin: “Therefore, Christ does not placate the Trinity most perfectly for the fault contracted by the children of Adam unless he does prevent someone from possessing such a fault.” (Q.2.I;p43) As Oberman highlighted, Gregory of Rimini objected that Scotus’ argument as to the most perfect mediation has no reason why it should be limited to Mary and not extend to all of us (although Scotus did restrict it, I do not see an argument for it: “but only in regard to his [Christ’s] mother.” (Q.2; p43)

Whether or not one accepts Scotus’ argument of the more perfect mediator or Rimini’s critique, Scotus did not think he proved the immaculate conception by that argument. Rather, his arguments and refutations serve to make the immaculate conception fitting.

Scotus gives us the possibilities: 1) Mary was never in original sin; 2) Mary was in sin for an instant; 3) Mary was purified after a period of time in the womb. Notably, Scotus did not decide the question: “Which of these three possibilities happened, God knows.”(Q.2.II;p55) However, he gave a principle that would favor the immaculacy: “it seems probable that what is more excellent should be attributed to Mary (videtur probabile quod excellentius est, attribuere Mariae).” (Ibid.)

Scotus’ move here exhibits a recognition of a kind of theological supposition or inference, here according to the ‘more excellent.’ We find roots of this thinking also in Anselm, who, dealt in more detail on the virginal conception of Christ in On the Virgin Conception and Original Sin, a sort of sequel to Cur Deus Homo. Anselm acknowledged here that it is not necessary that Christ be born of a sinless mother, but

“it was fitting that the conception of [Christ] should be of a pure mother. Indeed it was fitting that that Virgin should shine with a purity which was only exceeded by God’s own son because it was to her that [the Father gave his only Son, eternally begotten] so that in nature he should be at the same time the Son of God and of the Virgin.” (Conception 18)

The appeals to fittingness or what is excellent, which I take to be similar lines of thought, function by opening a way to decide questions of which we have little or no information. Biblical and extra-Biblical texts tell us precious little about Christ’s conception and appear to make no mention of the mode of Mary’s conception. On this account, the fact of the matter is impossible for us to tell (“God knows.” Pace Gregory of Rimini, who thought Rom. 5.19 does provide the principle to decide what the event must have been.) Can one make an argument that it was necessary for God to have Mary immaculately  conceived? Can one make an argument that it was impossible? Apparently not; God’s omnipotence and absolute freedom preclude (most) arguments that God must or that God cannot.

The only recourse (beside silence) is probability. Hence, we have Scotus’ argument from probability. Now what intrigues me about the argument from probability is that something is judged probable insofar as it is fitting or excellent. Both Anselm and Scotus argue fittingness on account of some relationship to Christ, so in this way the arguments are still implicated in Christology (Anselm: fitting for Virgin to be pure because of the Father’s love for Son; Scotus: fitting because Christ’s perfect mediatorship).

To wrap up, let me first of all state, that I am very sympathetic to argumentation from convenientia: it presents a very attractive vision of a cosmos, intricately and providentially ordered. It seems to presuppose an underlying rectitude (or rightness) and a wholeness between the divine and created order. I think recognition and a place for conveniens arguments is a theological good.

For this reason, I am a bit troubled by the objection against conveniens arguments: A thing is not anymore likely or probable simply because it is better or fitting. For example, an objection to the immaculate conception argument (of Anselm and of Scotus) is “Just because it is better or fitting, does not make it so.” You may reason that event A is better on certain grounds, but it does not bear on whether event A happened.

Secondly, in his analysis of Gabriel Biel’s Mariology, Oberman set up a compelling critique of certain theological rules governing Mary-talk (the ‘superlative’, the ‘comparative’ and the ‘similitude’ rules; 304-307). Working out such rules, especially in his homilies, leads Biel to certain unattractive Marian developments, such as “lift[ing] the Virgin Mary out of history and making her so nearly coeternal with the Father that she, though not fully concreatrix and thus still subordinate to the Father, becomes his assistant at creation (317-318).” Secondly, Oberman finds that roles of corredemptrix and mediatrix “introduce unadulterated docetic elements into Biel’s conception of Christ (319).” Since Biel was not a single errant theologian, but “represents on most points an emerging late medieval piety (317),” such results should give us pause to reflect on the propriety or the limits such arguments from the fitting.



  1. This was by RJP.

    Also, this is awesome:

  2. Touché! Okay, now I'm not sure. I still think that the argument about Mary's conception as Duns Scotus presents it has to do about God, but I take your point about the problem of arguing from convenientia. Why should that which is more excellent be therefore more probable? I am persuaded when Anselm uses the argument, but confess after reading your discussion that I am not now sure why. What I do know is that you have put your finger beautifully (if unintentionally) on the problem (as the reformers will see it) with late medieval Mary-talk: in their view, it wasn't fitting to talk of Mary in this way. But does that mean, therefore, that it was wrong--assuming, that is, that we no longer argue on the basis of whether something was fitting, but only whether it was true? Or have I convoluted the logic once again?


  3. RJP: This is a really good post. I like very much your “fittingness”/“excellence” insight, and there are resonances here with 20th-century semiotic/linguistic philosophy (. . . as my eyes passed over a book this week on Scotus in C.S. Peirce). Of course, as you point out with your statement, “You may reason that event A is better on certain grounds, but it does not bear on whether event A happened,” there are real potential problems with this. And, in fact, this is precisely the objection raised against Anselm in the history of philosophy. I think your recommendation that “such results should give us pause” is a point well taken.

    For example, I think that one could argue that Nestorius was making an argument based on these principles of “fittingness”/“excellence”* (i.e., if God *really* becomes flesh, corruptible, then by definition He ceases to be God. Thus, it would be more logically or definitionally “fitting” or “excellent” not to make such an assertion about God), and Nestorius “lost.”

    Nice post.

    *Though admittedly, in my rendering Cyril and company were also making their argument based on "fitting" or "excellence."

  4. I appreciate the way you have framed the question of convenientia against probability, since I find myself similarly sympathetic to arguments of "fittingness" on matters of my personal theology. However, I found Duns Scotus' noncommittal conclusion on the Immaculate Conception profoundly unsatisfying (especially after his lengthy arguments in support of each side), and his apparent argument for its Christological underpinnings even less so. As we have discussed in class, if Jesus were merely born from the union of two perfect beings completely unadulterated by human flesh, he would have no part in our salvation and his passion would be meaningless. It seems to me that the very attempt to claim that Mary was free from the mark of sin throughout her whole existence comes dangerously close to liberating her from the human condition; thus her role in lending Jesus the humanity necessary to save us would be nullified. I find myself much more in the camp of Gregory of Rimini on this one.

    Still, if Christology is not the primary issue behind the controversy, then why does it matter whether or not Mary was conceived immaculately? That is to say, the purity or impurity of Mary's birth would not be of any consequence if the question of Jesus' birth from her human body were not at stake. Like so many other issues we have addressed in class regarding Marian devotion, this question of Mary's sinless nature is only relevant—and indeed, only even raised—when we ponder the conditions of Christ's incarnation. Therefore, albeit on a fundamentally different basis than Duns Scotus, I must conclude that the entire discussion of Mary's conception is predisposed to be inherently Christological.

    P.S. That "Award-Winning" Duns Scotus movie looks amazing. Class screening?