Listen to the choir of New College, Oxford sing "Ave Cujus Conceptio" by Nicholas Ludford. Music details HERE.
The Blessed Virgin Mary was the means by which the Word of God took human
nature, and therefore has a necessary place in the definition of the doctrine
of the Incarnation.
Although the definition of the Council of Ephesus was not made to promote her honour, but to defend the Divine Nature of her Son, it certainly had the effect of greatly increasing public devotion to her.
Romanist theologians devote a large section of their dogmatic treatises
Orthodox theologians also think it very important, and the Orthodox delegation at the Edinburgh Conference of 1937 insisted on introducing it among the subjects before the Conference as having an important bearing on the reunion of Christendom.
The divines and poets of the Church of England since the Reformation have
not shared the common dislike of the bestowal of special honour on the Lord's
Thus George Herbert writes:
How well her name an ARMY doth present
In whom the Lord of Hosts did pitch His tent:
I would present
My vows to thee most gladly, blessed Maid
And Mother of my God, in my distress.
and Bishop Ken:
Heaven with triumphant songs her entrance graced;
Next to Himself her Son His Mother placed;
And here below, now she's of Heaven possessed,
All generations are to call her blest.
English Hymnal, No 217.
And William Wordsworth:
Our tainted nature's solitary boast.
How far this devotion can be carried without any departure from Anglican principles can be seen in that extraordinary book The Female Glory, by Anthony Stafford, a lay follower of Archbishop Laud.
The Anglican churches maintain the fundamental principle that nothing may
be taught as necessary to salvation but that which may be found in or proved
by Holy Scripture.
According to this principle there are two dogmas,
and only two,
which refer to the Blessed Virgin Mary;
and these two are binding on all members of the Church.
They are the dogma of the Virgin Birth,
that at the time of our Lord's birth His mother was a Virgin,
and He had no earthly father;
and the dogma that the Blessed Virgin is rightly called Theot?os,
accepted by the Council of Ephesus.
The first is based on the Gospels, St.Matt.1.20 and St. Luke 1.35;
the evidence for it will be given (in pp 108-115 of original book).
The second is a necessary deduction from St. John 1.14.
We accept it, not merely because the Council of Ephesus defined it, still less because Pope Celestine confirmed that definition, but because the whole Church has decided that the Council of Ephesus was right, and that what it defined had always been the belief of the Church.
["Mother of our Lord and God Jesus Christ" (1549 Prayer Book). Convocation and Parliament in 1570 forbade teaching contrary to the first four Councils. See also p. 86, note, and compare George Herbert's line above, p. 71.]
The love and reverence given by all Christians, until the Reformation, to
our Lord's Mother have been of the highest spiritual and moral value.
They have inspired the ideal of chivalry towards all women.
They have supported the teaching of St. Paul that in Christ men and women are equal.
They have strengthened, as perhaps nothing else could have done, personal purity and the ideal of the Christian home.
They are one of the most precious parts of Christian tradition, and the sects that have cast them away have suffered immeasurable loss.
On the other hand, our duty to believe nothing which cannot be shown to
be true requires us to reject various beliefs about our Lord's Mother which
have become very widely spread.
The Anglican Communion is especially bound by this obligation
because it professes to teach nothing as necessary to salvation
but what can be proved from Scripture,
and because it has freed itself from the burden of medieval tradition
while retaining all dogmas that are really Scriptural and Catholic.
There is, I fear, no doubt that the worship of the Mother-Goddess, which was the popular religion of most of the Mediterranean countries in heathen times, was transferred to the Blessed Virgin.
This in itself was a great improvement, for it is clearly better to worship Blessed Mary than to worship Isis or Demeter.
But many of the ideas, which have gathered round the cult of Blessed Mary, belong to the Mother-Goddess rather than to the Hebrew maiden of the Gospels.
We know nothing whatever about the Blessed Virgin but what is told us in
the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.
[The woman clothed with the sun in Rev.12 is probably not the Blessed Virgin, but the Church of the Old Covenant.]
None of the legends about her has any historical value.
The oldest of them come from apocryphal gospels,
some of them written with a heretical purpose,
which no one regards as furnishing historical evidence on any other subject.
For instance, the well-known story of the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, commemorated by both the Greeks and Latins and portrayed in the gorgeous pictures of Tintoretto and Titian, is incredible, for it shows complete ignorance of the customs and outlook of the Jews.
The Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Virgin, the belief that she was
not only a virgin at the time of our Lord's birth, but continued to be a
virgin for the rest of her life, so that her marriage with St. Joseph was
only nominal, is a very ancient and almost universally held tradition.
[Tertullian seems to be the only exception.]
The Church has always felt it highly unsuitable that the Mother of the Eternal Word should have had any other children.
The "brethren of the Lord" treated Him as a younger rather than as an elder brother (St. Mark 3.31: St. John 7.3), and it was to St. John, her nephew,
[Salome, his mother, was the Blessed Virgin's sister. St. Mark 15.41; St. John 19.25. Westcott and Bernard support this deduction.]
that our Lord entrusted His Mother, which would have been strange if she had had sons of her own (St. John 19.26).
For this reason it seems highly probable that the tradition of the Church is true, that our Lord was the only son of His Mother, and that His "brethren" were the sons of St. Joseph by a former wife.
But the historical evidence for the Perpetual Virginity is not sufficient for us to be able to regard it as a dogma.
We cannot say: "It must have been so, therefore it was so";
belief must be based on positive evidence.
(Medieval writers added further elaborations, expressed by the well-known lines, "Forth He came as light through glass", with which we need not concern ourselves here.)
The legend of the "Assumption" is part of a fourth-century romance,
which related how the Blessed Virgin died in the presence of the Apostles,
and was restored to life and carried up into heaven.
There is no real evidence for the truth of this story, though it became generally accepted.
No doubt God could have assumed the Blessed Virgin alive into heaven, but we have no reason for believing that He did.
It is sometimes argued that since Enoch and Elijah were assumed alive into heaven, our Lord's Mother must have been assumed also, or else she would have received less honour than they did.
Neither premise of this argument is sound.
We must not presuppose that God must have acted in a particular way.
"It must have been so, therefore it was so" implies that we know more of God's purposes and methods than we do.
Besides, Enoch is a legendary person who only appears in a genealogy in Genesis, and the story of the translation of Elijah in II Kings 2, though a magnificent piece of literature, must be regarded as legend rather than history.
We do not know when or by whom it was written, and the collection of stories to which it belongs is more like the medieval Lives of the Saints than any other part of the Bible.
If it be said that belief in a beautiful legend does no harm,
we reply, first, that to believe anything for which there is no evidence always does harm by weakening our power to distinguish truth from error;
second, that to treat the Assumption of our Lady as if it were as certain as the Ascension of our Lord is to run the gravest risk of leading people to think that the Ascension of our Lord, for which the evidence is sufficient, is as legendary as the Assumption of our Lady.
The Assumption has never been made a dogma anywhere (though suggestions have often been made that it should be raised to a dogma by the Pope), but no member of the Roman Communion could deny it openly without "insolent temerity".
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was proclaimed as a dogma by
Pope Pius IX in 1854.
This doctrine is sometimes confused by ignorant people with the Virgin Birth from which it must be carefully distinguished.
The dogma of the Virgin Birth is the belief that our Lord was born of a Virgin, which is taught in the Gospels, asserted in the Creeds, and accepted by all orthodox Christians.
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception is the belief that our Lord's Mother was without sin, original or actual, from the first moment of her existence,
which is unknown to Scripture and to the Fathers,
and is a medieval speculation not older than the eleventh century.
As we shall see later, St. Paul taught that man is born with a defect in his spiritual nature.
This defect was called by later theologians "original sin".
St. Augustine went further and taught that it was not merely a defect, but actual guilt due to the act of conception in fallen man, which could not take place without sin.
All the Latin theologians of the Middle Ages accepted this teaching.
Some of them argued that our Lord's Mother could not have been separated from Him by guilt even for a moment, and that therefore she must have been excluded by a special Divine privilege from the guilt with which everyone else (except, of course, her Divine Son) is conceived and born.
Here again we observe the argument "it must have been so, therefore it was so".
Men could not have known such a fact by any ordinary evidence but only by
There is no trace of any such teaching in the New Testament.
On the contrary, St. Paul says,
All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:16).
The Fathers knew of no such doctrine.
They all teach that our Lord alone was without sin.
St. John Chrysostom (with other Fathers) even says that Blessed Mary sinned when she interfered at the marriage of Cana so as to deserve rebuke (St. John 2.3).
Whatever we may think of his interpretation, it at least shows that he did not know of any belief that the Blessed Virgin was sinless, still less that she was immaculately conceived.
St. Augustine, when teaching the sinfulness of mankind, refuses out of reverence to include the Lord's Mother.
He does not say that she was sinless, but he refuses to discuss the question.
It is a pity that his example has not been universally followed.
Medieval divines held that the Blessed Virgin was free from actual sin (in spite of the complete absence of evidence), but the belief that she was immaculate when conceived and therefore free also from original sin, was hotly disputed.
It was a novelty in the time of St. Bernard who condemned it as a "scandal",
and St. Thomas Aquinas also denied it,
though maintained by his rival, Duns Scotus.
The Dominicans, following their master St. Thomas, opposed it,
while the Franciscans supported it.
The former appealed to the visions of St. Catherine of Siena,
the latter to those of St. Birgitta of Sweden.
The Jesuits succeeded the Franciscans as the great supporters of this doctrine.
By means of their influence it spread throughout the Roman Communion,
and the opposition to it died away.
In 1848 Pope Pius IX, who had been driven from Rome by the republicans under Mazzini and was in exile at Gaeta, vowed that if the Blessed Virgin would restore him to his throne, he would make her immaculate conception a dogma.
On his return to Rome he fulfilled his vow, and on December 8, 1854, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was made a dogma necessary to salvation in the Roman Communion.
When the Infallibility of the Pope was decreed by the Vatican Council in 1870,
a famous French preacher exclaimed,
Pius has said to Mary, Thou art immaculate!
Mary has replied to Pius, Thou art infallible!
Though the Mother of God is constantly spoken of in the Eastern Orthodox
service books as pure and immaculate, the Orthodox Church condemns the dogma
of the Immaculate Conception as heretical.
The English Church keeps the feast of the Conception on December 8 (though Bishop Frere wished to remove it from the calendar), but teaches that Christ alone was without sin (Article 15), though without any direct reference to the Immaculate Conception.
The unedifying history of this question will be found in great detail in
Pusey's Second Eirenicon.
It only needs to be said that the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is contrary to Holy Scripture and to the universal teaching of the whole ancient Church, and of the whole modern Church outside the Roman Communion;
that there is no evidence whatever for its truth;
that it does not support the doctrines of the Christian faith, but if regarded as a dogma, weakens them since the strength of a chain is its weakest link;
and that unless we accept the teaching of St. Augustine on original guilt, which is not supported by Scripture or the teaching of the Greek Fathers, and for that reason is extremely difficult to accept, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is not so much untrue as meaningless. Original sin is a defect of the will, and we do not know that an unborn child has got a will.
Besides these beliefs which are dogmatic, or almost dogmatic, in the Roman
Communion, there is an immense mass of widely held opinions about the Blessed
for instance, that as our Lord is the Head of the Church, our Lady is the Neck, so that prayers to Him must go through her (a belief specially commended by Pope Pius X in his letter to the Society of the Rosary;
[The only reasonable objection to the use of the Rosary is that it makes the legendary Assumption and Coronation of our Lady equal to the great mysteries of the Faith. The conversion of the nations and the return of Christ in glory might well take their place.])
that the Mother of God can command her Divine Son to do her bidding;
that whereas He is the King of justice, she is the Queen of mercy, and is therefore more willing to hear our prayers than He is;
and other ideas still more extravagant.
It is a relief to turn from these fantasies to a belief that, though not
found in Holy Scripture and therefore not a dogma, can be traced to the Apostolic
Fathers, and seems to be a legitimate deduction from the teaching of the
When the angel announced to Blessed Mary
the honour that God was about to bestow on her,
she was not forced to accept it.
Her will was free, and she might have refused it.
But by the words,
Behold the handmaid of the Lord;
be it unto me according to thy word,
she accepted the offer
and thereby became the means through which the Word became Man
and the redemption of the world was effected.
She is therefore called the Second Eve, for as according to the story in Genesis, Adam's fall, which led to the ruin of mankind, was caused by Eve,
so the Incarnation of our Lord, the Second Adam (Rom. 5.19; I Cor.15.45),
was brought about by the obedience of Blessed Mary.
In this sense, and in this sense only, she may be called our Co-Redemptrix.
This is the reason for the special honour and love given to the Lord's Mother
by all Christian churches.
She is everywhere regarded as the first of saints,
[This is recognized by the English Church in the Prayer of Consecration in the 1549 Prayer Book, and in the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed (1928).]
and the most honoured of all human beings because nearest to her Son.
"O blessed Mary," said Bishop Hall, "he cannot honour thee too much who does not deify thee."
Devotion to Blessed Mary is more properly expressed in poetry than in dogma.
What shall we call thee, O highly favoured one?
exclaims a Greek liturgical hymn:
The sky; for thou didst make the Sun of righteousness to rise.
A garden (παράδειδον); for thou didst cause to shoot forth the Flower of incorruption.
Maiden; for thou didst remain uncorrupt.
Holy Mother; for thou heldest in thy holy arms the Son, the God of all.
Canon Stuckey Coles, in his well known hymn, places the Mother of God exactly in the position assigned to her by orthodox belief:
Praise, O Mary, praise the Father:
Praise thy Saviour and thy Son;
Praise the everlasting Spirit
Who hath made thee Ark and Throne.
O'er all creatures high exalted,
Lowly praise the Three in One.
English Hymnal, No.218.
Note The common Latin devotion, "Hail, Mary, full of grace",
What the Angel Gabriel said to her was,
Hail, thou that art highly favoured (κεχαριτωμένη),
which is not the same as "full of grace" (gratia plena).