Evangelical Protestants, along with believing Catholics, embrace the Biblical doctrine of the corporeality (i.e., fleshly substance) of the Incarnation (cf. John 1:14; 1 John 1:1, 4:2, etc.). However, since the evangelical profession of the mystery of the Incarnation is uninformed by Tradition, it is susceptible to errors besides the anti-corporeal heresy of the Docetists that compelled the Apostle John to forcefully emphasize Christ's fleshliness. In particular, there is a strain of evangelical Christology that is vague or even questioning of theauthentic humanity of the Incarnation. This strain is typically manifested by the denial of Christ's genuine descent from Adam along with all mankind.
To confess Jesus as the Christ literally "come in the flesh" while implying that His humanity was only apparent is akin to the assertion of the Docetists: that Christ's physical being was only an appearance! Christ's genuine humanity is an essential Christological doctrine expounded and defended by the Church since her earliest days. According to ancient Christian teaching, Jesus' Divinely initiated conception in Mary's womb in no way adulterated His humanity. Specifically, the orthodoxy of the early Church was that Christ's flesh (i.e., His human body) was derived solely from Mary's flesh, making Christ a true descendant of Adam along with the rest of mankind (see Appendix). The point in question is how Christ avoided inheriting the fallen Adamic nature common to humanity while being fully (but not merely) a true descendant of Adam. This paper attempts to show that the Immaculate Conception of Jesus' mother Mary is a thoroughly satisfactory explanation for the sinless humanity of Jesus Christ in terms of theology and biology. Before addressing this, it is important to lay the biblical and biological foundation for Christ's authentic humanity, which many believing evangelicals seemingly question.
In erroneously identifying (i.e., equating) humanity with sin, an evangelical explanation of Christ's sinlessness is that He "bypassed" descent from Adam through His virgin conception. But to in any way assert or imply that Christ's flesh -- His conceived body with a rational soul infused by God -- is not truly derived from His human ancestors through His mother is to contradict His authentic humanity. In the oft-repeated phrase "after their [its] kind" in Genesis 1, we understand God's ordination that all living creatures inherit their natures exclusively from their forebears (cf. 1 Cor 15:39). The truth of these Scriptures is confirmed by modern scientific insights into genetic heredity. God's ordination of exclusive descent indicates that if the flesh of Jesus Christ was formed outside the race of Adam, then Christ cannot rightly be called human. If Christ is humanoid (i.e., human-like) rather than authentically human, then the integrity of Scriptures teaching the significance of Jesus Christ as the true "Son of David" is undermined.
A humanoid Christ invalidates the Incarnation as the genuine and final fulfillment of the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants. God's explicit promise to Abraham was that his seed would bless the nations of the earth (Gen 22:18). Christ must be understood to have truly descended from Abraham, or the covenant is not genuinely fulfilled (cf. Gal 3:16). Regarding the Davidic covenant, the angel Gabriel announces that Mary's Child is the heir to the ancestral throne of His father David (Luke 1:32). The truly hereditary basis for Christ's claim to David's throne is clearly seen in the covenant: "I will raise up your seed [i.e., descendant] after you, who will come forth from your bowels, and I will establish his kingdom" (2 Samuel 7:12). Jesus identifies Himself as the root and the offspring of David, thus describing Himself as the human fulfillment of the Messianic covenant (Rev 22:16). If Christ's fleshly nature is not paternally descended from Abraham through the Davidic line, then the Scriptures that unequivocally declare the man Jesus Christ as the absolute and final fulfillment of God's covenant with His servants are discredited.
The prophecy concerning the "seed of the woman" (Gen 3:15) foretells Jesus' Virgin Birth without denying His fully human heredity. As an explanation for Jesus' sinlessness, some evangelicals interpret the "seed of the woman" as indicating that Jesus is not a true descendant of Adam in being conceived without male "seed" (i.e., sperm), as if original sin were transmitted via fathers alone rather than via fathers and mothers. However, according to God's ordination of exclusive descent, Jesus' genuine humanity necessitates true descent from Adam. To deny Jesus' descent from Adam is to deny the genuine fulfillment of the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants through the Incarnation. Clearly, the word "seed" in the context of Gen 3:15 refers to a person descended from Eve (and thus from Adam), yet of virginal maternity (cf Gal 3:16; 2 Sam 7:12; Is 7:14). If Jesus did not fully partake of our flesh and blood as taught in Hebrews 2:14-17, then His roles as our empathetic High Priest (Heb 2:17, 18), the Second Adam (Rom 5:14-19; 1 Cor 15:22) and our elder Brother under the Father (Jn 20:17; Rom 8:29; Heb 2:11, 12) are discredited. If the Scriptures declaring Christ's genuine identification with humanity cannot be taken at face value, then how shall we believe their declaration of Christ as our Savior?
Per the evangelical notion in question, St. Paul's teaching on Christ's "likeness to sinful flesh" (Rom 8:3) is interpreted to mean that Christ was human-like (i.e., humanoid). Based on Scriptural testimony concerning the genuine and totally sinless humanity of Christ, His "likeness" to our flesh indicates that He really shared in our flesh (i.e., our humanity) without sharing in its sinfulness. Tertullian taught this interpretation in his treatise The Flesh of Christ (circa 210 A.D.):
We maintain, however, that what has been laid aside in Christ is not the flesh of sin, but the sin of flesh: not the material thing, but its state; not the substance, but the flaw; ... And although elsewhere [Paul] says that Christ was "in the likeness of sinful flesh [Rom 8:3]," he does not mean that He took upon Himself the likeness of flesh ... but he wishes it to be understood that the likeness is to flesh that sinned, because the flesh of Christ, which committed no sin itself, was the same kind as that in which there was sin, though not to be equated with it in regard to vice. From this we affirm that the flesh of Christ is the same as that which in man is prone to sin, but in which Him sin has been laid aside. Christ has flesh without sin, which men can only have with sin.
To stumble at the doctrine that Christ was fully human and totally sinless is to forget that humanity and sinfulness are not identical. To believe that sinfulness is the essence of fallen humanity is to implicitly perceive the Fall as having "re-created" an entirely different species from that "very good" race created by God in His image (cf. Gen 1:26, 27, 31). If sin defines the nature of humanity, then our hope of true conformity to the image of God in Christ as human beings is in vain (cf. Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18). Original sin is the corruption of how man lives in relation to others, primarily God, not the re-creation of what man is. Christ the Second Adam reveals and reestablishes man's purpose as God's true children (cf. Gen 1:26, 28; Ps 8:5-8; 1 Pet 2:9; Rev 1:5, 6; 5:9, 10). The question then is not if sinless humanity is feasible, which is established by the creation of sinless man and the redemption of sinful man. The question is how the eternal Word-made-flesh truly descended from Adam without inheriting the spiritually fatal congenital defect, original sin.
Before addressing this question, it is helpful to make two observations: first, there can be no question that the man Jesus Christ was ever in need of salvation, from His conception onward. If Jesus' sinlessness was based on thegrace of redemption rather than on the grace of union between His human and Divine natures, then the doctrine of Christ as the uniquely qualified Savior of mankind is nullified since any redeemed person could have atoned for us. (In fact, a heresy popular in the "Word Faith" movement is that each believer "is as much an incarnation of God" as Jesus, who was the first man "saved through faith in the Word"). Second, the means by which the Son became the Incarnate Head of the Church should exemplify the mystery of His Body (cf. Ephesians 1-3).
With these observations in mind, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is an entirely satisfactory explanation of Christ's inherited and sinless humanity. This doctrine asserts that Mary's conception was initiated in the ordinary biological manner, but that God byfiat applied Christ's foreseen redeeming grace to Mary at the moment of her conception to spare her from any stain of original sin [cf. CCC 490-493]. God did this to prepare a sanctified human vessel for transmitting and bearing the sinless humanity of the Incarnate Word [cf. CCC 490-493]. The doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception is in accord with the observations made above. First, the Immaculate Conception provided a fitting (although not at all necessary) means for Jesus to inherit a sinless human nature, apart from any grace of redemption, which uniquely qualified Him as God's spotless Lamb. Second, in the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth, we see Mary as the supreme type of the Church: she is totally a creature of grace, and only by grace was she worthy, willing and able to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in humanity's salvation through Jesus Christ. The Immaculate Conception exemplifies the sole resource of the Church, God's regenerative grace in His Son through the Holy Spirit; and Mary's cooperation exemplifies the sole mission of the Church, the manifestation of God through His Son by the Holy Spirit.
The offense of evangelicals at the doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception is rooted in misperceptions common within and without the Church. The Immaculate Conception emphasizes God's overriding sovereignty in the salvation of man. Evangelicals, who typically insist that a conscious profession of faith in Jesus Christ is absolutely prerequisite to receiving God's grace, balk at Mary's lack of opportunity to "call upon the name of the Lord" at her conception. However, Adam was created with God's grace without his permission (Gen 2:7). Neither did John the Baptist ask to be filled with the Spirit in Elizabeth's womb
(Luke 1:15). If the Immaculate Conception is exceptional in that God's grace is totally unasked, it is by no means unique in that respect according to Scripture.
According to the doctrine of total depravity, evangelicals also misperceive fallen humanity as essentially sinful. However, the Fall is the alteration of the state of man, not of his essence. Man, who was created by God to be sinless and to transmit sinlessness via procreation, fell from sinlessness (i.e., from grace) without being "re-created" in the Fall. The Immaculate Conception of Mary leading to the Virgin Birth of Jesus is the restoration once for all of God's plan to donate His grace via procreation. Thus God is glorified for His unmeritted faithfulness towards mankind.
Lastly, evangelicals demand (with more than a little inconsistency) that doctrines be Scripturally explicit. However, the definition of the Canon of Scripture is perhaps more dependent on the Tradition of the Church for support than is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is derived from Christological doctrines which have a strong Scriptural basis, while there is no Scriptural basis for defining the Canon of Scripture. I.e., Tradition alone defines the Canon of Scripture, a tremendous irony given the refutation of Tradition signified by "Sola Scriptura!" Thus evangelicals who challenge the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as unbiblical must consider the basis for their belief that they possess an infallible Canon of Scripture.
Antipathy towards the Catholic Church should not prevent evangelicals from accepting a perfectly orthodox explanation of the Incarnation. Evangelicals must be helped to recognize that their most deeply held beliefs in Scripture as " inerrant and inspired," in the Trinity as "Three-in-One," and in the Incarnation as "true God, true Man," are an inheritance from the same process of doctrinal development that defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. This dogma is in full accord with both historically orthodox biblical theology and established principles of modern genetic science. Regarding concerns about "Mariolatry," abuse is no excuse to discard sound doctrine. However, evangelical charges of Catholic idolatry towards Mary (i.e., "Mariolatry") should not be founded merely on external observations or personal prejudices. Bigotry preempts humility, which is prerequisite to both spiritual discernment and charity.
Following are excerpts from the writings of early Church Fathers recognized by Protestant and Catholic theologians alike. It is important to note that the latest of these writings precede the "legalization" of Christianity in the Roman Empire (circa A.D. 315) by a century. Therefore, there can be no argument that these teachings were "invented" by the "Church of Rome." The source is "The Faith of the Early Fathers, Volume 1," by William A. Jurgens (
italics added for emphasis).
I give glory to Jesus Christ, the God who made you wise; for I have observed that you are set in faith unshakable, ... firmly believing in regard to our Lord that He is truly of the family of David according to the flesh [Rom 1:3] ...
(Letter to the Smyrnaeans, St. Ignatius of Antioch, circa A.D. 110)
The Word Himself, born of ... a Virgin, received in birth the recapitulation of Adam, thereby recapitulating Adam in Himself.
(Against Heresies by St. Irenaeus, inter A.D 180/199)
"Because by a man came death, by a man also comes resurrection [1 Cor 15:21]." ... And if we are all made to live in Christ as we were made to die in Adam, then, as in the flesh we were made to die in Adam, so also in the flesh are we made to live in Christ. Otherwise, if the coming to life in Christ were not to take place in that same substance in which we die in Adam, the parallel were imperfect.
(Against Marcion by Tertullian, inter A.D. 207 - 212)
Christ bore human nature in order to be man's salvation -- to restore, of course, that which had been lost. ... let this be said to all those who do not think that our flesh was in Christ, because He was not conceived through the seed of man, - let them remember that Adam himself was made of this flesh without the seed of man. As the earth was converted into this flesh without the seed of man, so also was the Word of God able to pass into the material of the flesh without the agency of that seed. ... And again ... why is Christ called Adam by the Apostle, if as man He was not of that earthly origin?
(The Flesh of Christ by Tertullian, inter A.D. 208/212)
Let us believe ... that God the Word came down from heaven into the holy Virgin Mary ... taking flesh from her ... and thus becoming all that man is except in regard to sin. ... As the Word He had from the Father what is heavenly, just as from the old Adam he had what is earthly, having become incarnate through the Virgin. ... For He was made man, not in appearance nor in seeming, but in truth.
(Against the Heresy of a Certain Noetus by St. Hippolytus, inter A.D. 200/210)
We know that the Word took on flesh from a Virgin, thereby putting on the old man in a new way. ... We know that this Man was made from that of which we are made ...
(Against All Heresies by Tertullian, post A.D. 222)
© 1998 THE WOMAN'S SEED: THE HUMANITY OF THE SON OF MAN...By Kyle Reise Eleison . This text may be downloaded or printed out for private reading, but it may not be uploaded to another Internet site or published, electronically or otherwise, without express written permission from the author.