Thursday, May 12, 2016

Did the Virgin Mary Live Without Sin? Some Comments from St. Augustine

What did St. Augustine believe about the idea that Mary was sinless?

There now remains our fourth point . . . Whether the man who never has had sin or is to have it, not merely is now living as one of the sons of men, but even could ever have existed at any time, or will yet in time to come exist?  Now it is altogether most certain that such a man neither does now live, nor has lived, nor ever will live, except the one only Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus.  ("On the Merits and Remission of Sins, and On the Baptism of Infants," found in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 1st Series, Vol. V: Saint Augustine: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, (1887); Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, reprinted 1987], 57-58) 
This being the case, ever since the time, when by one man sin thus entered into this world and death by sin, and so it passed through to all men, up to the end of this carnal generation and perishing world, the children of which beget and are begotten, there never has existed, or ever will exist, a human being of whom, placed in this life of ours, it could be said that he had no sin at all, with the exception of the one Mediator, who reconciles us to our Maker through the forgiveness of sins.  (Ibid., 63) 
As for what they say, that some men, by the use of their reason, have lived, and do live, in this world without sin, we should wish that it were true, we should strive to make it true, we should pray that it be true; but, at the same time, we should confess that it is not yet true.  For to those who wish and strive and worthily pray for this result, whatever sins remain in them are daily remitted because we sincerely pray, "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."  Whosoever shall deny that this prayer is in this life necessary for every righteous man who knows and does the will of God, except the one Saint of saints, greatly errs, and is utterly incapable of pleasing Him whom he praises.  Moreover, if he supposes himself to be such a character, "he deceives himself, and the truth is not in him,"--for no other reason than that he thinks what is false.  (Ibid., 78 [footnotes removed]) 
Have such just men, while living by faith, no need to say: "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors?"  And do they prove this to be wrong which is written, "In Thy sight shall no man living be justified?" and this: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us?" and, "There is no man that sinneth not;" and again, "There is not on the earth a righteous man, who doeth good and sinneth not" (for both these statements are expressed in the general future sense,--"sinneth not," "will not sin,"--not in the past time, "has not sinned")?--and all other places of this purport contained in the Holy Scripture?  Since, however, these passages cannot possibly be false, it plainly follows, to my mind, that whatever be the quality or extent of the righteousness which we may definitely ascribe to the present life, there is not a man living in it who is absolutely free from all sin; . . ."  ("On the Spirit and the Letter," Ibid., 113 [footnotes removed]) 
But there is clearly much acuteness in the question put by our author, "How must we suppose that those holy men quitted this life,--with sin, or without sin?"  For if we answer, "With sin," condemnation will be supposed to have been their destiny, which it is shocking to imagine; but if it be said that they departed this life "without sin,"then it would be a proof that man had been without sin in his present life, at all events, when death was approaching.  But, with all his acuteness, he overlooks the circumstance that even righteous persons not without good reason offer up this prayer:  "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors;" and that the Lord Christ, after explaining the prayer in His teaching, most truly added: "For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your Father will also forgive you your trespasses."  Here, indeed, we have the daily incense, so to speak, of the Spirit, which is offered to God on the altar of the heart, which we are bidden "to lift up,"--implying that, even if we cannot live here without sin, we may yet die without sin, when in merciful forgiveness the sin is blotted out which is committed in ignorance or infirmity.  ("On Nature and Grace," Ibid., 135 [footnotes removed]) 
Now, whether there ever has been, or is, or ever can be, a man living so righteous a life in this world as to have no sin at all, may be an open question among true and pious Christians; but whoever doubts the possibility of this sinless state after this present life; is foolish.  For my own part, indeed, I am unwilling to dispute the point even as respects this life.  For although that passage seems to me to be incapable of bearing any doubtful sense, wherein it is written, "In thy sight shall no man living be justified" (and so of similar passages), yet I could wish it were possible to show either that such quotations were capable of bearing a better signification, or that a perfect and plenary righteousness, to which it were impossible for any accession to be made, had been realized at some former time in some one whilst passing through this life in the flesh, or was now being realized, or would be hereafter.  They, however, are in a great majority, who, while not doubting that to the last day of their life it will be needful to them to resort to the prayer which they can so truthfully utter, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us," still trust that in Christ and His promises they possess a true, certain, and unfailing hope.  There is, however, no method whereby any persons arrive at absolute perfection, or whereby any man makes the slightest progress to true and godly righteousness, but the assisting grace of our crucified Saviour Christ, and the gift of His Spirit; and whosoever shall deny this cannot rightly, I almost think, be reckoned in the number of any kind of Christians at all.  (Ibid., 145-146)
His opponents adduced the passage, “All have sinned,” and he met their statement founded on this with the remark that “the apostle was manifestly speaking of the then existing generation, that is, the Jews and the Gentiles;” but surely the passage which I have quoted, “By one man sin entered the world, and death by sin, and so death passed upon all men; in which all have sinned,” embraces in its terms the generations both of old and of modern times, both ourselves and our posterity.  He adduces also this passage, whence he would prove that we ought not to understand all without exception, when “all” is used:—“As by the offence of one,” he says, “upon all men to condemnation, even so by the righteousness of One, upon all men unto justification of life.”  “There can be no doubt,” he says, “that not all men are sanctified by the righteousness of Christ, but only those who are willing to obey Him, and have been cleansed in the washing of His baptism.”  Well, but he does not prove what he wants by this quotation.  For as the clause, “By the offence of one, upon all men to condemnation,” is so worded that not one is omitted in its sense, so in the corresponding clause, “By the righteousness of One, upon all men unto justification of life,” no one is omitted in its sense,—not, indeed, because all men have faith and are washed in His baptism, but because no man is justified unless he believes in Christ and is cleansed by His baptism.  The term “all” is therefore used in a way which shows that no one whatever can be supposed able to be saved by any other means than through Christ Himself.  For if in a city there be appointed but one instructor, we are most correct in saying: That man teaches all in that place; not meaning, indeed, that all who live in the city take lessons of him, but that no one is instructed unless taught by him.  In like manner no one is justified unless Christ has justified him.  (Ibid., 137-138 [footnotes removed])
Now even Job himself is not silent respecting his own sins; and your friend [Pelagius], of course, is justly of opinion that humility must not by any means "be put on the side of falsehood."  Whatever confession, therefore, Job makes, inasmuch as he is a true worshipper of God, he undoubtedly makes it in truth.  Hilary, likewise, while expounding that passage of the psalm in which it is written, "Thou hast despised all those who turn aside from Thy commandments," says: "If God were to despise sinners, He would despise indeed all men, because no man is without sin; but it is those who turn away from Him, whom they call apostates, that He despises."  You observe his statement: it is not to the effect that no man was without sin, as if he spoke of the past; but no man is without sin; and on this point, as I have already remarked, I have no contention with him.  (Ibid., 147 [footnotes removed]) 
Let us, then, see that third point, which in these men is not less shocking to every member of Christ and to His whole body,--that they contend that there are in this life, or that there have been, righteous men having absolutely no sin.  In which presumption they most manifestly contradict the Lord's Prayer, wherein, with truthful heart and with daily words, all the members of Christ cry aloud, "Forgive us our debts."  ("Against Two Letters of the Pelagians," Ibid., 429 [footnotes removed])

It would seem from the above that Augustine did not believe that the Virgin Mary lived without sin in her life.  He seems pretty clear in the conviction that no man except Christ has ever lived without sin.

But, see the following:

He [Pelagius] then enumerates those "who not only lived without sin, but are described as having led holy lives,--Abel, Enoch, Melchizedek, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joshua the son of Nun, Phinehas, Samuel, Nathan, Elijah, Joseph, Elisha, Micaiah, Daniel, Hananiah, Azariah, Mishael, Mordecai, Simeon, Joseph to whom the Virgin Mary was espoused, John."  And he adds the names of some women,--"Deborah, Anna the mother of Samuel, Judith, Esther, the other Anna, daughter of Phanuel, Elisabeth, and also the mother of our Lord and Saviour, for of her," he says, "we must needs allow that her piety had no sin in it."  We must except the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom I wish to raise no question when it touches the subject of sins, out of honour to the Lord; for from Him we know what abundance of grace for overcoming sin in every particular was conferred upon her who had the merit to conceive and bear Him who undoubtedly had no sin.  ("On Nature and Grace," Ibid., 135 [footnotes removed])

We would have drawn a false conclusion, then, if we affirmed from the previous quotations that Augustine rejected the idea that the Virgin Mary was free from sin.  It turns out he exempted her from his absolute statements on the subject.  She was "full of grace."

For an account of what the Catholic idea of the sinlessness of Mary really means, see here.  (Hint:  It doesn't mean that Mary is a goddess, or that she didn't need Christ's redemption.)  For more on some other aspects of the role of Mary in Catholic Tradition, see here and here.

Published on the feast of Sts. Nereus and Achilleus

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