Wednesday, October 22, 2003

The Immaculate Conception as the Decisive Confutation of Pelagianism

from Pattern of Redemption: The theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar by Edward T. Oakes, SJ

..."Answer," then, is quintessentially feminine, and this is why it was so "fitting," as Thomas Aquinas says, that the consent to the incarnation come from a woman.[7] Moreover, not only was Mary predestined to be the Mother of the Savior, whose consent to the incarnation would inaugurate the drama of our redemption, she would do so entirely by the power of the grace of God.[8] Only this realization, enshrined in the infallibly defined dogma of the Immaculate Conception, can preserve the essential feature of our theodramatic redemption: that God has in his infinite freedom decided to save us in a way that respects our finite freedom but which also demands his infinite power of grace to fulfill:

In the course of unfolding these implications, two difficulties were encountered that have occupied theology right up to medieval and modern times. The first arose from the realization that God's action in reconciling the world to himself in the Cross of Christ is exclusively his initiative; there is no original "collaboration" between God and the creature. But as we have already said, the creature's "femininity" possesses an original, God-given, active fruitfulness; it was essential, therefore, if God's Word willed to become incarnate in the womb of a woman, to elicit the latter's agreement and obedient consent... God could not violate his creature's freedom. But where did the grace that made this consent possible come from--a consent that is adequate and therefore unlimited--if not from the work of reconciliation itself, that is, from the Cross? (And the Cross is rendered possible only through Mary's consent.) Here we have a circle--in which the effect is the cause of the cause--that has taken centuries to appreciate and formulate, resulting in the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and the exact reasoning behind it.[9]

Many of the objections of Protestantism to the so-called "innovations" of Roman Catholicism, its "departures" from the truths set forth in Scripture, would vanish with a proper understanding of this circular movement of understanding. Marian dogmas naturally flow from theological reflection on the few(but crucial!) scenes in which Mary appears: above all, the Annunciation, the wedding at Cana, her presence at the foot of the Cross, and her fellowship with the apostles and disciples on Penecost Sunday. These scenes, coupled with a basic reflection on the meaning of Mary's motherhood of the Savior, lead naturally to the unfolding of all the doctrines of mariology.


[7]"Non enim invite tantum beneficium praestari debebat" (De Veritate, q 12, art. 10, ad 6): "For it was not right that so great a benefit be granted without consent." Although Thomas Aquinas also denied the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, I think Protestants do not sufficiently realize how much a denial of this doctrine contradicts their own views on the necessity for prevenient grace if one is to give assent to God: far from glorifying the creature at the expense of God's grace, this doctrine is a witness to the overarching and ever-present necessity for God's grace.

[8]Which is why the patristic and medieval theologians liked to contrast her free and conscience consent with Adam's sleep: "The Virgin was not visited by sleep(like Adam) but by an angel sent by God... to make known to her this great mystery.... Moreover, God wished not only that she should know of this but also that she should cooperate so that he could give his Mother the greatest privilege of honor and grace." (William of Newburgh, Explanatio sacri Epithalamii in Matrem Sponsi, text ed by JC Gorman

[9] von Balthasar. Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, vol 3, 296-297.
It is in this tangle of an effect being the cause of the cause that Aquinas went astray; but if as part of the logic, the Cross itself is made possible only through Mary's consent(which is clearly the case), then the heretical implications of a denial of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception should be obvious: for it makes our salvation dependent on the power of one human creature, Mary, to say Yes to God on her own power. Denial of this dogma therefore not only leads to Pelagianism, but even makes the whole drama of salvation hinge on a human work! Denial of the Immaculate Conception, then, is the very apogee of the Pelagian heresy!

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