Sunday, 1 January 2017

Reflections on the Immaculate Conception of Mary

By the pastor Leonardo De Chirico

January 1st, 2017

On December 8th  each year, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is celebrated. On this occasion the Roman Catholic Church contemplates the belief that Mary was preserved from original sin. This view had been part of Roman Catholic teaching and devotional practices for centuries, but it was not until 1854 that the Immaculate Conception was officially  promulgated by Pope Pius as a dogma, i.e. a binding and un-reformable belief of the Church. Here is the precise wording of this dogma:

“We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which asserts that the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin is a doctrine revealed by God and, for this reason, must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful”.

In spite of the bold and conclusive language (declaring, defining, asserting), Protestants find it difficult to come to terms with this Marian dogma. This is due to not finding even a hint of evidence for this belief in the Bible. “How can such a view be elevated to dogmatic status if the Word of God is at best silent on it?” they ask. So it is always interesting to listen to the way in which Roman Catholic theology argues for the Immaculate Conception of Mary by trying to relate it to Scriptural teaching.

Marian Solemnity

The last occasion for this was given by Pope Francis on December 8th. He spoke twice on the topic. The first was to a public audience in St. Peter’s square. He later spoke at a Marian prayer gathering in Piazza di Spagna, where a lofty statue of Mary towers above the space and where at the climax of the ceremony it is crowned with flowers. The Papal invocations to Mary appealed to her “immaculate heart” to learn how to love, to her “immaculate hands” to learn how to caress, to her “immaculate feet” to learn how to take the first step.

The special Marian day of the Pope also included a visit to the Roman Basilica of St. Mary Major to venerate the ancient “Salus Popoli Romani” (health or salvation of the Roman people) icon of Mary. The Pope travels to the basilica before and after every international trip he takes in order to entrust the voyage to the care and intercession of Mary, typically with flowers in hand. This is to say that we are not confronted with a marginal belief, nor with a peripheral practice. Both the dogma and the devotions attached to it are encapsulated at the very core of the Pope’s spirituality.

No Space For Sin?

In his speech, the Pope argued that “Jesus didn’t come as an adult, already strong and full grown, but decided to follow the exact same path of the human being, doing everything in exactly the same way “except for one thing: sin.” Because of this, “he chose Mary, the only creature without sin, immaculate,” he said, noting that when the angel refers to Mary with the title “Full of Grace,” it means that from the beginning there was “no space for sin” inside of her. “Also we, when we turn to her, we recognize this beauty: we invoke her as ‘full of grace,’ without the shadow of evil.”

It appears that the biblical reference the Pope recalls is Luke 1:28, where Mary is addressed by the angel Gabriel as a “favored” one. The Vulgate, the late fourth-century Latin version of the Bible, translates this expression as “gratia plena” (full of grace), thus opening up all sorts of misconceptions, as if Mary possessed the fullness of grace in herself. This translation has been taken as implying that she was so full of grace that she must have been conceived without original sin. However, there is no hint in the text about the fact that Mary is “full” of grace and therefore “void” of sin. Being “favored” indicates that she is an unworthy recipient of God’s grace, just as the rest of us. This is further reinforced by the fact that Mary calls God her “Savior” (Luke 1:47), indicating that she thinks of herself as needing God’s salvation, just as the rest of us. There is nothing intrinsic in her apart from the divine favor and His presence with her. It seems, therefore, that a strong argument for the Immaculate Conception of Mary is based on a faulty translation of the passage, leading to an implausible doctrine impinging on anthropology and soteriology, i.e. something belonging to the core of the biblical Gospel.

The fact that the Roman Catholic Church is fully committed to the Immaculate Conception of Mary still represents a serious question mark for all those who want to ground their faith in what the Bible teaches. Evidently Rome is not based on Scripture alone but is on a trajectory in which devotions and traditions can have the final say above (and contrary to) the Bible.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Three wrong ways to read your Bible

Last week I posted a few ideas about how to study your Bible. I hope the post was encouraging as you think about how you will study God’s Word in 2016. This week my goal is not encouragement, but warning. I want to warn you about three wrong ways to read your Bible.

Use a devotion book in place of your Bible. 

It’s shocking to me that one of the most common questions I am asked as a passtor is this: “Can you recommend a good devotion book?” My response usually involves a combination of biting my tongue, encouraging people to read the Bible itself, and recommending a few trustworthy resources. Unfortunately, many people bypass the Treasure itself and settle for another person’s description of the Treasure. Many people settle for a discussion about God’s Word when they could have God’s Word. My advice: don’t settle. Devotion books are fine, and there are some trustworthy resources available. Nevertheless, don’t let a devotion book take the place of God’s Word.

Randomly open to a different passage each day. 

I doubt many people set out to read the Bible with this being their stated plan. However, from talking to church members over the years, I know many folks don’t have a plan at all. The result? They just sort of flip and drift around the Bible, reading verses here and verses there, never making connections to the overarching story of the Bible. Here’s the bottom line. No plan is a bad plan because your reading will become random and directionless.

Read the Bible faithfully, but don’t spend time in prayer … OR … Spend all your devotion time praying, but don’t read the Bible.

A few months back Rainer Publishing released my first published book, Pray Better. In that book I focus on prayer, but time and time again I talk about the importance of reading the Bible. That emphasis on Bible reading in no way minimizes the importance of prayer. It does, however, serve as a reminder that God speaks to us in the Bible and we respond through prayer. You know as well as I do that one sided conversations aren’t real conversations. So if you’re going to spend time alone with God, don’t do all the talking, and don’t just sit silently. Allow God to speak to you in his Word, then respond appropriately in prayer.
These are three mistakes I’ve seen people make when it comes to reading the Bible. What other mistakes have you seen? What other mistakes have you made? I’d love to hear from you.

Landon Coleman


Thursday, 22 December 2016

Liberals admit "We don't get religion"

The editor of The New York Times editor said: “We don’t get religion. We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives” as it becomes clear that the US election was probably won because a tiny percent of Christians who had previously voted for Obama, voting for Trump. This may have been on the basis that Hillary Clinton was going to outlaw and marginalise traditional Christianity.

Serious papers need to employ more literate journalists. They need fewer writers who:

admire status, ego and supermen;
see all religions as the same;
have no idea that it is scripture and doctrine that steers true believers, not bigotry. 

Liberals talks about ‘religious bigots’. The religious are not ‘bigoted’ : they are obedient to church doctrine and/or scripture. Such myopia does not only affect left wing journalists and editors. Most politicians, diplomats and policymakers cannot see the invisible influence of religion in politics, nations, cultures and people’s lives. They have no understanding of the drivers behind religious extremism (influenced by the interpretation of certain religious texts).

Worse still, religious illiteracy affects liberal Christian leaders. You only have to hear liberal clergy ventilating their doubts to know that they have no idea of what faith is. Their tea lady probably understands faith ten times better than they do (and knows how to practice it). They are blind guides.

In the view of some traditional Catholics, Pope Francis has been overturning or ignoring Catholic doctrine. Perhaps he not realise that he is up against the agreed views of the visible and invisible Catholic Church over centuries (whether right or wrong)?

Doctrine, a vast body of knowledge: it is not bigotry. it is the labour of centuries, the result, in of much discussion over Scriptural texts or traditions subjected to learned scholarship - whether its results are still under development, or definitely God’s Truth.

We urgently need to promote more fully educated people as editors, leaders, politicians and policymakers (and even as church leaders) who understand these doctrines and understand Man as a spiritual being, not just an economic and political unit.

The secular must understand that Christianity is not a comforting message but is a massive subject in tis own right, with its own inner harmony and divine rationality. It cannot be changed or deconstructed by modernity or politics or by one person's views.

Posted by Alison Judith Bailey