When you hear about the doctrine of The Immaculate Conception your initial reaction is to assume that it has something to do with the birth of Christ but this is not the case. The Immaculate Conception is actually about the birth of Mary. This doctrine holds that Mary was conceived without original sin and subsequently led a sinless life. It is this idea that Tim Staples goes after Matt Dula with next.
I had originally hoped to get into some of the Marian doctrines during the series of posts reviewing Dr. Scott Hahn’s lecture on The Virgin Mary Revealed Through Scripture. Dr. Hahn didn’t discuss much by way of doctrine so, in the end, it wasn’t entirely relevant to those posts. While Tim Staples addresses the Immaculate Conception directly, the discussion is rather light and therefore doesn’t get into it extensively. Of course, many of these doctrines could easily take up a series of posts individually but, for the sake of this review, I’ve endeavored to limit the discussion to what Tim brings up in the audio.
The Loaded Question
While getting into this topic, Tim brings up several Scriptures: Romans 3:10, Romans 3:23 and 1 John 1:8-9. All of these deal with the issue that all have sinned. This is what Tim brings up to Matt in his next argument regarding the Immaculate Conception. At the 49:42 mark he says:
I even got a little boldness back, I said ‘Matt, you mean to tell me, you gonna tell me Mary is without sin? How can the Bible make it any more plain? All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God!’ And then, I’m thinking in my mind please don’t give me an answer! … And sure enough, Matt comes back and he says … ‘Okay Tim, yeah I understand what you’re saying there, all have sinned, yeah. But let me ask you this, if you’re gonna say that all have sinned, if that verse means, in a literal, absolute sense, all have sinned … if you’re gonna take that in an absolute sense, we’ve got a problem here, Tim, cause, if it says all and then it says if any man says he has no sin, he is a liar and the truth’s not in him, was Jesus fully man?’ [Tim:] ‘Yeah…’ [Matt:] ‘But was He fully man or what was He, 50% … 25% man?’ [Tim:] ‘He was fully man.’ [Matt:] ‘Oh so Jesus sinned then, right?’ [Tim:] ‘No.’ [Matt:] ‘Oh so there are exceptions, then, aren’t there?'[Emphasis in recording]
What happened in this discussion is easy to miss. When Matt asks if Jesus was fully man and Tim replies yes he actually fell into a trap. Matt had asked a loaded question. A loaded question is an informal fallacy which presumes information that may or may not be correct. The way the question is worded will only allow for a particular answer, forcing the respondent to answer in a manner that admits the presupposition. The classic example is the question ‘Have you stopped beating your wife yet?’ The way the question is worded allows only for a yes or no response and either response admits guilt.
The way out of this is to either call the questioner out on the fallacy or answer the question in a manner that corrects the presuppositions. The question ‘Was Jesus fully man?’ is invalid because Christian theology holds that Christ is fully God and fully man and never, at any time, one or the other. This is called the Hypostatic Union, a theological term used to describe how the person of Jesus Christ subsists in two natures, man and the divine. I’m sure Tim would never deny this as it is a doctrine held by Catholicism, and yet without the clarification he is opening himself up to heresy.
I don’t fault Tim on this, nor do I think Matt realized what he was doing with the question. You really have to pay close attention when involved in discussions like this and even at that many people aren’t quite sure how to handle it. A good example, however, is in the movie My Cousin Vinny where D.A. Jim Trotter is determining whether Mona Lisa Vito is an acceptable witness by asking her a question in order to validate her expertise in the subject; the question happens to be a loaded question. Mona Lisa Vito doesn’t attempt to answer, instead she calls the question bunk (edited here):
D.A. Jim Trotter: Now, uh, Ms. Vito, being an expert on general automotive knowledge, can you tell me… what would the correct ignition timing be on a 1955 Bel Air Chevrolet, with a 327 cubic-inch engine and a four-barrel carburetor?
Mona Lisa Vito: It’s a bunk question.
D.A. Jim Trotter: Does that mean that you can’t answer it?
Mona Lisa Vito: It’s a bunk question, it’s impossible to answer.
D.A. Jim Trotter: Impossible because you don’t know the answer!
Mona Lisa Vito: Nobody could answer that question!
D.A. Jim Trotter: Your Honor, I move to disqualify Ms. Vito as a “expert witness”!
Judge Chamberlain Haller: Can you answer the question?
Mona Lisa Vito: No, it is a trick question!
Judge Chamberlain Haller: Why is it a trick question?
Vinny Gambini: [to Bill] Watch this.
Mona Lisa Vito: ‘Cause Chevy didn’t make a 327 in ’55, the 327 didn’t come out till ’62. And it wasn’t offered in the Bel Air with a four-barrel carb till ’64. However, in 1964, the correct ignition timing would be four degrees before top-dead-center.
D.A. Jim Trotter: Well… um… she’s acceptable, Your Honor.
All Have Sinned
In the midst of this discussion the issue of the context surrounding the word all comes up. Tim’s answer has wrongly created an exception to the rule that all have sinned and Matt corners him on it as indicated by the last question in the quote above. It’s a matter of whether the statement that all have sinned is absolute and global in scale. At the 51:25 mark Tim continues:
The word all is not meant to be interpreted as all in an absolute sense. This is common in sacred Scripture. For example, in Matthew chapter 3 verse 5, John the Baptist is baptizing in the river Jordan and what does it say? All of Jordan and Judea and the surrounding countries came out to be baptized by John. Do you think all of those countries came out there that day? He couldn’t kerplunk ’em that fast. … You see the word all … can mean a large number or a particular group and so forth and it’s used all over the Bible like that. … He got me thinking, are there more exceptions to Romans 3? … Of course there are, what about a baby in the womb? Has he committed a personal sin? … No. How about the severely retarded, how much sinning have they done? None. How about a 2 year old baby? None. And so forth. So there’s lots of exceptions then!
The question as to how the word all should be applied in this sense is certainly valid but the examples are poor. Pointing to a child in the womb, a two year old baby or someone who is severely retarded and claiming that they are an exception isn’t entirely accurate since the issues Paul deals with in Romans 3 have to do with accountability, as Paul mentions in Romans 3:19. In order to be accountable one must be able to understand or reason. To state a 2 year old child doesn’t sin is incorrect – just ask any parent. The question isn’t whether they are the exception to the rule and unable to sin, but rather, whether they have reached an ability to understand that they are accountable to God, that they are without excuse as Romans 1:18 states. In that case, Paul makes it plainly clear in Romans 3 that all have sinned on a global scale, both Jew and Greek (any non-Jew in this context) and if he wasn’t clear enough, he quotes Psalm 14:1-3 which only puts greater emphasis in that there is none who does good, no not one. As the Holman New Testament Commentary notes on Romans 3:23 states:
In light of Paul’s present tense fall short in 3:23, and in light of his just-concluded recitations of the actual sins of Jews and Gentiles, it seems that the all have sinned in 3:23 is a picture of mankind’s sinful characteristics. The 5:12 “all sinned,” on the other hand, seems to be a picture of mankind’s inherited character as a sinner. In other words, by 5:12 Paul will have said that as descendants of Adam, mankind is a sinner and proves it by sinning. All of which causes him to fall short of the glory of God.
We sin because we are sinners. That doesn’t change in either of the examples and so they aren’t exceptions. What changes is our level of accountability which is going to be determined by our ability to understand our state before a holy and righteous God. The idea of an age of accountability is one that is frequently debated amongst theologians but is only implied in Scripture. People often ask what the ‘age of accountability’ is, but because Scripture never gives an affirmative answer, we shouldn’t attempt to either. It is likely on an individual basis.
Hail, Full of Grace
All of this leads us to the idea that Mary was conceived without original sin and lived a sinless life. The reasoning goes something like this: The Bible says all have sinned, but Jesus was fully-man and did not sin, therefore there are exceptions. If there is one exception, there could be other exceptions which brings us to the possibility that Mary is an exception too. But as I’ve already pointed out, Jesus wasn’t an exception because Jesus is fully God and fully man. You cannot separate the two.
But if these premises were to hold, the next logical question is a matter of where we can find Mary’s sinless state in Scripture. At the 52:35 Tim continues:
… [Quoting Matt] ‘Let’s turn to Luke chapter 1’. We have an awesome, awesome verse. And you know this story. The angel Gabriel comes down to a 15 year old girl and says…? Now the angel didn’t say ‘Hail Mary’ … he said ‘Hail, full of grace!’ Now listen, here’s what’s important. When you look at that text … an angel is approaching a 15 year old girl. Now in Scripture, when an angel comes into the presence of a human being, what happens? Human beings have the tendency to do weird things. … like fall on their faces, why? Because an angel has a superior nature to ours. If an angel, in fact, were to appear, right here, right now, remember this folks, apart from a particular grace of God, you and I could not discern whether it’s Jesus, an angel or the devil apart from grace, a particular grace that God gives us. This is why St. Paul can say if I or an angel from Heaven preach to you any other Gospel, reject it.
I’m not entirely sure of how this is being reasoned. Catholic interpretations allow for a lot of eisegesis in Luke 1:28. The greeting of Χαῖρε (chaire, hail, in this sense) can be used to link back to Zephaniah 3:14 and Zechariah 9:9 where the use of χαίρω (chairo, rejoice) is used in the LXX. In those arguments Mary becomes a fulfillment, or a type of the daughter of Zion or Jerusalem. While I do see merit in that reasoning the focus should never be taken away from the prophecy that Mary was to give birth to the Messiah.
The question is one of worthiness on Mary’s part. There is no indication that Mary was highly favored or full of grace based on anything she did or didn’t do or that she can subsequently bestow grace and there is simply no reason to suggest that this greeting indicates she was sinless. Tim’s points about humans doing weird things when angels appear and that only by a particular grace that God gives us would we be able to discern that it is even an angel seems to stem from the Vulgate translation of the verse. Noted in the New International Greek Testament Commentary, Marshall writes:
The Vulgate rendering, gratia plena, is open to misinterpretation by suggesting that grace is a substance with which one may be filled, and hence that Mary is a bestower of grace. S. Lyonnet* saw a connection between this verse and Jdg. 5:24 where Jael is described as ‘most blessed’ (εὐλογηθείη; cf. Ps. 45:2 (44:3); Dn. 9:23), but this is far fetched. … The greeting conveys the message ὁ κύριος μετὰ σοῦ. This is an OT greeting (Jdg. 6:12; Ru. 2:14), meant as a statement rather than a wish (ἐστίν is to be supplied). It prepares the recipient for divine service with the assurance ‘The Lord will help you’ (H. Gressmann). It does not, therefore, indicate the moment of conception (as in Sib. 8:459–472, in NTA II, 740), a thought excluded by the future tenses in 1:35.
At any rate, the idea that humans do strange things when greeted by angels is not absolute in Scripture. In Genesis 18 Abraham was greeted by two angels and God Himself. His reaction was one of giving immediate respect and honor. I do not deny that we wouldn’t be able to discern an angelic being apart from God’s help but this has nothing to do with our sinful state. We know some specific sins of Abraham since the chapters cataloging his life tell us about them.
Because of the faulty reasoning used to come to the conclusion that there are exceptions to the teaching of Scripture that all have sinned we can dismiss the notion that there are exceptions. I don’t believe we can rely on that in any meaningful sense to then point to Mary and say she could be an exception. Even if it were the case there is simply no good biblical basis for determining that Mary was unstained by original sin and subsequently led a sinless life. To get to that conclusion from reading Luke 1:28 is nothing but eisegesis and seems to be based on somewhat poor translational choices instead of the greater catalog of biblical and extra-biblical material.
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