Romans 11

This is a literal translation of an ancient Greek text. It has also been cross-posted on For more information on how to read this post and what everything means, see the relevant page on that site.

1[I] say therefore, God did not push away his people,some manuscripts: inheritance [did he]? Would that it not come to be; for also I am an Israelite, out of [the seed] of Abraham, of [the] tribe of Benjamin.a 2God did not push away his people,b whom [he] foreknew. Or do [you] not know in Elijah, what the writing says, how [he] meets with God against(concerning) Israel? 3“Lord, [they] killed your prophets, [they] razedThe etymology of this word evokes an image of tearing something to the ground and then digging up its foundation. your altars, and I alone was left remaining and [they] seek my life.”c 4But what does the decree(oracle / negotiation) say to him? [I]or [they] left seven thousand men for myself, whoever did not bend [the] knee to Baal.”d 5Therefore thus also in the now-time(present) a remnant has come about according to a choice of grace;e 6but if by grace,Because no verb is supplied, one must be assumed; we may think ἐκλογέω (choose, from ἐκλογὴν in v5) or καταλιμπάνω (leave behind, from κατέλιπον in v4); in either case, the usage is probably the instrumental dative (the dative of means), specifically as a standard of judgment. no longer out of works, for otherwise grace becomes grace no longer.some manuscripts add: for otherwise the work is no longer a work; others: but if out of works, [it] is no longer grace, for otherwise the work is no longer a workf 7What therefore? What Israel was seeking, [she] did not attain,here and elsewhere, (reach) but the choiceHere and in verses 5, 28, not those chosen, but the act of choosing attained [it];g but the remaining [ones] were petrified,(hardened) 8just as [it] has been written, “God gave to them a spirit of bewilderment, eyes not to see,here and in the next clause, as well as in verse 10, are articular infinitives of negative purpose ears not to hear, until the today-day.”h 9And David says, “Let their table become [on a particular occasion] a trap and a hunt and a snare(scandal) and a repayment to them, 10let their eyes be made dark not to seei and their back [be made] bent [down] through everything.”j

11[I] say therefore, [they] did not stumble in order to fall,ἵνα + subjunctive purpose clause [did they]? Would that it not come to be; but the salvation for their blunder [was given] to the peopleshere and throughout, (nations)k in order to provoke them to jealousy.articular infinitive of purpose with εἰςl 12But if their blunder [is the] wealth of [the] cosmos and their loss [is the] wealth of [the] peoples, how much more their fulfilment [is wealth].

13But [I] say to you, to the peoples: therefore, for as much as I am an apostle of peoples, [I] magnify my service, 14if in some way [I] shall provoke my flesh to jealousy, [I] will also save some oflit. out of them. 15For if their rejection [is the] reconciliation of the cosmos, what [is their] acquisition if not life out of [the] dead [ones]? 16And if the firstling [is] holy, also the [whole] mixture [is];m and if the root [is] holy, also the branches [are].

17But if some of the branches were completely broken off [on a particular occasion], but thou, being a wild olive, were graftedhere and throughout, lit. pricked / stuck in among them and, partaking of the root of the fattinesssome manuscripts: of the root; others: of the fattiness; others: of the root and of the fattiness [thou] came to beThis verb could go with any of the genitives (of-phrases) in this verse, just as “partaking” can; though I have rendered it the most sensible way in English, it can mean that by partaking of all these things, you become of them all. of the olive tree,n 18do not boast over the branches; but if [thou] boast, thou do not lift up the root, but the root [lifts] thee [up].o 19Therefore [thou] will say, “Branches were completely broken off in order that I may be grafted in.” 20Wonderful; [they] were completely broken off by [their] disbelief,here and throughout, (lack of faith) but thou have stood by [thy] belief.(faith) Do not be high-minded,lit. think high [things]p but fear;(be afraid) 21for if God did not spare the [ones who were] branches according to their nature,here and throughout, lit. origin neither will [he] spare thee, {not in any way}.some manuscripts omit these words; their presence is still disputed 22Behold, therefore, [the] goodnesshere and throughout, (kindness) and severity of God; on the one hand, severity upon the [ones] having fallen [on a particular occasion], but on the other, [the] goodness of God upon thee, if [thou] remain in the goodness;r otherwise thou also will be cut out.q 23But also those [men], if [they] do not remain in disbelief, [they] will be grafted in; for God is ablelit. powerful to graft them in again. 24For if thou were cut out of the wild olive, [the one] according to [thy] nature, and [thou] were grafted against [thy] nature into the garden olive, by how much more will these, the [ones] according to [their] nature, be grafted in the same olive tree.some manuscripts end this verse as a question

25For [I] do not wish you to miss,(be ignorant of / not perceive) brothers, this mystery, in order that [you] may not be wise {among}some manuscripts use a different word to mean the same thing; others: with respect to yourselves,s because hardness from heritage comes about for Israel to the uttermost where the fulfilment of the peoples came int 26and thus all Israel will be saved,u just as [it] has been written, “The [one] rescuing will have come out of Zion, [he] will turn back impieties from Jacob. 27And this [is] the covenant from me for them, v that [I] take away their errors.”w 28On the one hand, according to the gospel [they are] hated throughhere and in the next clause, (because of) you, but on the other hand, according to the choice [they are] beloved through the fathers; 29for the graces and the calling of God [are] not to be repented of.(repentant) 30For just as you were disobedient to God then, but now [you] have been shown mercy for the disobedience of these [men], 31thus also these [men] now were disobedient for your mercy, in order that [they] themselves also may {now}some manuscripts: afterward; others omit; the presence of this word is disputed be shown mercy. 32For God enclosed all [men] into disobedience in order that [he] might show mercy to all [men].x

33O [the] depth of wealth of both wisdom and knowledge of God; how unexaminable [are] his judgments and inscrutable [are] his ways.y 34“For who knew [the] mind of [the] lord? Or who became his counselor?z 35Or who has prepaid him and will be repaid by him?”aa 36Because out of him and thorugh him and unto him [are] all [things];ab to him [be] the glory unto the ages, amen.

a I am an…tribe of Benjamin: cf. Philippians 3:5
b God did not…away his people: cf. I Samuel 12:22; Psalm 94:14
c verse 3: 1 Kings 19:10, 14
d [I] left seven…knee to Baal: 1 Kings 19:18
e verse 5: cf. Romans 9:27
f verse 6: cf. Galatians 3:18
g What Israel was…choice attained [it]: cf. Romans 9:31
h God gave to…until the today-day: Deuteronomy 29:4; Isaiah 29:10
i Let their table…not to see: cf. Psalm 69:22-23
j their back [be…[down] through everything: cf. Psalm 35:8
k the salvation for…to the peoples: cf. Acts 13:46
l in order to…them to jealousy: cf. Deuteronomy 32:21; Romans 10:19
m And if the…[whole] mixture [is]: cf. Numbers 15:17-21; Nehemiah 10:37; Ezekiel 44:30
n verse 17: cf. Ephesians 2:11-19
o thou do not…[lifts] thee [up]: cf. John 4:22
p Do not be high-minded: cf. Romans 12:16
q verse 22: cf. John 15:2, 4
r if [thou] remain…in the goodness: cf. Hebrews 3:14
s in order that…wise {among} yourselves: cf. Romans 12:16
t the fulfilment of…peoples came in: cf. Luke 21:24; John 10:16
u all Israel will be saved: cf. Matthew 23:39
v The one rescuing…me for them: Isaiah 59:20-21; cf. Psalm 14:7
w that [I] take…away their errors: cf. Isaiah 27:9; Jeremiah 31:33-34
x verse 32: cf. Galatians 3:22; I Timothy 2:4
y inscrutable [are] his ways: cf. Isaiah 45:15; 55:8
z verse 34: cf. Isaiah 40:13 (LXX); Job 15:8; Jeremiah 23:18; I Corinthians 2:16
aa verse 35: cf. Job 41:3
ab out of him…[are] all [things]: cf. I Corinthians 8:6

Swimming the Tiber 39: The Buffet Line

To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: the Amen, the witness–the [one] faithful and trustworthy–the beginning of the creation of God says these [things]:

[I] know thy works, that [thou] are neither cold nor hot. Would that [thou] were cold or hot! Thus, because [thou] are tepid and neither hot nor cold, [I] am about to spitlit. [I] must have spit; Jerome: [I] am beginning to spit thee out of my mouth. Because [thou] say that, “[I] am wealthy and [I] have been wealthy and [I] have no need,” and [thou] do not know that thou are the [one] suffering and piteous and a beggar and blind and naked, [I] advise for thee to buy from me a golden [thing] having been burned out of fire in order that [thou] may be wealthy and that [thou] may wrap white clothes [around yourself] and [that] the shame of thy nakedness may not be revealed, and [I advise for thee] to anoint thy eyes with clay in order that [thou] may see. As many as I love, [I] test and teach; be zealous, therefore, and repent. Behold, [I] have stood at the door and [I] knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, [I] will go in unto him and [I] will dineor make a meal with him and he himself [will dine] with me. The [one] conquering, [I] will give to him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat with my father on his throne. Let the [one] having ears hear what the spirit says to the churches.

– Revelation 3:14-22 (my translation)

To be tepid (or lukewarm) is to be neither here nor there; to sit on the fence; to pick and choose what we shall follow from the mouth of the Lord. Woe to the church in Laodicea, and to all who resemble them, who do not choose one side or the other–who warrant neither tenderness nor correction, but say to themselves that they have no need of anything! We should want to dine with him and he with us, but if we consider ourselves good enough, he must spit us out. What more would we let him do in our lives? How else can he grow us, strengthen us, empower us, if we say that we have enough?

I am reminded of the professor who introduced himself to his class by saying, “There are two kinds of students that I can do nothing with: those who already know everything, and those who think they do.”

The Catholic Church has a fairly significant problem in that her members do not always obey her. But this isn’t news and we already knew that. And many people reject the Church because so many people–so, so many–start political or moral comments with, “I’m Catholic, but…” It’s a flawed approach for the flawed people of the Church. We pay lip-service to the Church, like we’re strong adherents to her teaching, and then we spout off our own opinions.

Newsflash, America: The Catholic Church isn’t Democrat. She isn’t Republican. She isn’t Libertarian. She isn’t from the Green Party. She isn’t a capitalist. She isn’t a Communist. She isn’t deeply into mercantilism or monarchies. And more than likely, she doesn’t teach what you personally believe; you’re not her mouthpiece, and neither am I.

And that’s okay. As long as we acknowledge it. Because that’s the way it should be. You and I don’t speak for the Catholic Church–nor should we. She isn’t a democracy at all. We don’t elect representative bishops who then elect a representative pope who makes representative changes to doctrine. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen is quoted as having said in 1953, “Moral principles do not depend on a majority vote. Wrong is wrong, even if everybody is wrong. Right is right, even if nobody is right.”1 The Catholic Church does not bend to the times; she does not “catch up to modern society.” She has a top-down hierarchy, with God at the head, and his timeless teachings on faith and morals do not change to suit the whims of whatever our culture has dreamed up for today.

So how do people disagree with the Church? Well, if you look long enough, you’ll find someone who disagrees with her (yet still claims to be a part of her or even represent her) in every single aspect of her teaching. The most common, probably, are related to the morality of one’s sexual life: “How dare a bunch of old men tell me how to spend my time in private and what to do with my own body?” etc. Almost as common is the morality of economics: “I don’t appreciate the Church telling me to give my money to poor people; it’s charitable of me to give them advice, to pay my taxes, to make sure taxes are cut for companies that might try to employ them,” etc. Or the morality of ecology: “I bet the Church agrees with me that using up this forest for my paper factory is just good stewardship,” etc.

But it always, always comes down to this: someone holds an opinion that they deem more important or more accurate than the teaching of the Holy Catholic Church established by Christ himself. Either the Church is wrong (and should therefore change to match my opinion), or she is simply not my highest priority. Both positions rely heavily on the superiority of self; “I have evaluated the scientific evidence and therefore I deem this behavior moral”; “I believe with all my heart that this behavior is okay, so it doesn’t matter what those old fogeys preach from their ivory tower”; etc. The final arbiter of every decision is not God, but Man–and me in particular. It is Protestantism hidden inside Catholicism, the Enlightenment wrapped in revelation.

But why do people do this? Why call yourself Catholic and then prove by word and deed that you disagree with the Church so vehemently? These are the arguments I’ve seen, followed by my counterpoints:

  1. It’s perfectly normal to ask questions. It’s fine to have doubts. I don’t think anyone should have blind faith, or believe in something without testing it out.
  2. The Church is slow. It will catch up eventually.
  3. I’m following my conscience.
  4. I adhere to Church teaching in so many other ways; it’s unreasonable to expect people to adhere to all of it. No one does that.

In response:

  1. It is perfectly normal to ask questions and have doubts. I wish I could be more like those with the spiritual gift of faith, never needing to question why, but I feel obligated to trust my own reason the most, so I must work through every doctrine, every proclamation, until I understand the teachings of the Church. But this doubting must be done with an eye toward agreement, not schism. We work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2), a sense that is informed by a holy fear of God’s wrath (Hebrews 12:21) and power (Mark 5:33). If we fail, or fall short, and we choose to stay that way, we are not merely “in disagreement,” but we are in schism, and what stands at stake is not polite conversation at the dinner table but our immortal souls.
  2. This suggests that you are moving in an inevitable direction, but not all schisms are that way. Is the Church about to catch up with Henry VIII? This “divorces should be allowed” thing has been going on at least that long, and the Church still hasn’t “caught up.” Maybe we’re close to Martin Luther–a declaration that members of religious orders should be allowed to abandon their vows should be right around the corner. Perhaps we’re close to catching up with Pelagius and about to say that original sin isn’t a thing; you know, because we’re all basically good and capable of being moral on our own. Maybe we’re about to catch up to Arius and say that there was a time when the Son was not. Any day now.
  3. Well, at least you’re not defying your conscience. But that doesn’t mean you’re always right. (See the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 1783-1794.)
  4. The saints did that. Many of the faithful do exactly that. Adhering to one teaching does not absolve you of the responsibility to adhere to the rest; you cannot say, “I believe in the eternal nature of the Son, so I’m allowed to believe in modalism.” Faithfulness is not a balancing act of orthodoxies and heresies, but a strict adherence to orthodoxy.

I think the most basic reason for this disagreement is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Church works. It’s typical of Americans because we cling to this notion that democracy is the best of all possible governance, but the Catholic Church does not rise up from the people and their opinions. Rather, it was handed down to us by God himself, in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, through his chosen apostles and most especially Peter. The Catholic Church teaches the Word of God, not the word of Man. But many who were baptized Catholic make no effort to accept this framework.

Okay, but why doesn’t this happen so much elsewhere? Why do I meet more Catholics who cling to their own opinions over the Church than, say, Baptists or Pentecostals? Well, the main issue here is how the label gets applied. If you’re baptized Catholic, you’re Catholic; that’s a lifelong sacrament with lifelong grace. The label doesn’t get removed without excommunication–and in many cases, an excommunication is appropriate to people teaching heterodox views, but it’s out of vogue to excommunicate people. Protestant labels like “Methodist” or “Baptist” are chosen by the individual and self-applied for as long as they are appropriate; if a person’s faith changes, they change labels or drop them altogether. Even so, Protestant churches are full of people who only attend because they feel obligated, but who hold no shared opinions with the rest of the congregation; they’re just less likely to use the labels. Catholics are so attached to that label of Catholicism that I would not be surprised to hear someone say, “I’m Catholic, but I don’t think God exists.” This is the origin of the phrase cultural Catholicism–to be Catholic becomes so ingrained in people that they forget what it actually means. Instead, they take it on as a sort of ethnic identity; no one would bat an eye if I said, “I’m a white guy, but I don’t think God exists.”

You may have noticed that I have been careful not to use the phrase suggested by my post title, the derogatory term “cafeteria Catholics.” In part, this is because some are now championing the term because they think it makes them greater saints to defy where the Church is “wrong.” (Of course, if the Church could be wrong, she wouldn’t be the Church.) It’s also not a charitable term; most people to whom it applies really are following their consciences. But our consciences are imperfect, because we are imperfect. We should follow the Church precisely because God has given her to us for this grace, to have her at the ready to correct our concupiscence and cure us of our sin. The true danger of “cafeteria Catholicism” is not teaching error–the Church can survive that, as she has well proved–but it is the trivialization of sin and schism.

I have no doubt the Church will weather the storm as she always does, but not every soul aboard will be saved. Let us strive always to join the crew, obey the captain, and follow the will of God; every time we veer off-course, we risk losing more souls–especially our own.

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1 I’m not saying Abp. Sheen didn’t say this, because it’s certainly in keeping with what he has said, and he has said the “wrong is wrong” and “right is right” bit in multiple places. But the most specific any source gets for this quote is the year 1953, which was certainly a full year for which I was not present, much less Catholic. It’s possible he said this during a homily or a speech that was not recorded, and someone noted down the words as being particular poignant (for that they are). But these words in this phrasing do not seem to appear in printed or recorded material that I can find, so I’m being as honest as possible about the source.

Swimming the Tiber 29: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

As a term, “the bodily assumption of Mary” is probably the second most confusing Marian doctrine. (The first most confusing is “the Immaculate Conception,” and that’s mostly because people think that it refers to Jesus’ conception instead of Mary’s.) Certainly, when I first encountered it, I didn’t have a clue what it meant. Once I learned about it, though, I actually had less trouble accepting it than most Marian doctrines.

In short, the Assumption refers to when Mary’s body was taken up into Heaven at the end of her life on earth. The main point of contention for this doctrine (even within the Catholic Church) is whether this event occurred before or after she died. There’s precedent for the former, but the Church has yet to rule definitively on which case applies to Mary.

Perhaps she is like Enoch and Elijah. Enoch appears most prominently in a genealogy in Genesis 5, where person after person is recorded as having died–except Enoch. Enoch, we are told, “walked with God; and he was not, for God took him” (Genesis 5:24, NRSVCE). The author of Hebrews reminds us, “By faith Enoch was transposed in order that he might not see death, and [he] was not being found because God transposed him; for before the transposition [it] has been testified that [he] has been well-pleasing to God” (Hebrews 11:5, my translation). Elijah is taken up in a chariot of fire (hence the song and, by way of that song, the title of this post) in 2 Kings 2:11: “As they were going along and talking, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire and horses of fire which separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind to heaven” (NRSVCE).

But perhaps Mary is different; perhaps, like her beloved Son, she saw death, one final pain for the woman who suffered more than any other (not because no other woman has lost a child, but because no other woman has watched the death of, all at once, her Child and her God). And after her dormition (“falling asleep”), God took her up to be with her Son then. This brings to mind the death and burial of Moses; Deuteronomy 34 tells us that God buried him in the land of Moab, but his exact burial place was never known to the Israelites. What God chooses to do with someone’s body is up to him, naturally.

So why would Mary be taken bodily up to Heaven? Well, this recalls her status as the new Eve, which we talked about two weeks ago. Christ was the firstborn from the dead (Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5), the first to be resurrected fully in the glory of God, the first fruits of the new Creation (1 Corinthians 15:20-23)–as Adam was the first time around. Mary is the first woman of the new Creation, fulfilling her status as the new Eve and as mother of the Church through her Son.

Besides that, look again at Hebrews 11:5 and recall what we talked about last week–for who (except Jesus) can be more pleasing to God than Mary? Indeed, she is “graced” by God and he is with her (Luke 1:28). If Enoch was taken up because he was pleasing to God, how much more should Mary be taken up for the same reason?

I am now going to diverge off-topic briefly and talk about the moment at which all of these Marian doctrines fell into place for me–because it wasn’t an intellectual conversion, and if you’re at all like I was, then all of my talk up to this point doesn’t convince you one whit (even if you have trouble dismissing the arguments themselves).

You see, the way I was raised put Mary in a very negative light, not so much for what she did, but for what Southern Baptists used her to represent in the Catholic Church. Because Catholics, as we all knew back then, are idolatrous and polytheistic and worship people and things that are not God. And Mary became this symbol of that; any devotion to Mary, any positive thought about Mary, was shunned in the churches I grew up in.

Now, maybe it wasn’t entirely intentional, and maybe no one intended to paint Mary as a bad person, but it was the little ways in which we ascribed importance to passages or interpreted words or made assumptions. I mean, there were people who associated the woman of Revelation 12 (obviously the mother of Jesus when read sensibly) with the whore of Babylon in Revelation 17 (obviously not the same person). We read Luke 2 every Christmas, but I don’t recall ever reading Luke 1 in Advent. Jesus’ calling his mother “woman” was not seen as praising or relating back to Genesis 3, but was called condescension or disdain (as in, “Woman, make me a sandwich!” or, “Woman, get out of my sight!”).

So as I learned about Catholicism, Mary was the last piece of the puzzle. I had read de Sales’ “Catholic Controversy,” which made no mention of Mary (because the early Reformers were perfectly happy to venerate Mary), and almost every other question had been answered to my satisfaction, but I resented Mary, and I refused to accept Catholic doctrine about her.

I was going to a men’s group at the time, and it was there that a fellow named Robert Tunmire, himself a convert, talked about the time he finally came to terms with Mary. He was visiting a parish (I forget where, unfortunately), where there was one of those enormous statues of Mary that just rankles you as a Protestant. And for one reason or another, he ended up in there alone with this statue. And standing there in that room, he prayed (not to the statue, of course), “Mary, if you’ve got something to say to me, say it.” And he received the words of what I have since come to call the Tunmire prayer, because I still pray it often: “You should pray, ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, help me to look upon all your daughters with the purity of your love for me.'”

Those words were powerful for Robert, and as I sat in that men’s group for another hour, they worked powerfully on me. Because it never occurred to me that Mary loves me–not just me as one among many humans on earth, but me personally. She sits enthroned in heaven as the queen mother, and she always does whatever Christ tells her to do (John 2:5), and he tells us more than anything to love–so surely she loves us, and prays for our well-being and the salvation of our souls. Which means that, all this time that I had resented Mary and treated her poorly, she loved me and prayed for me. It broke my heart, and on my way home that morning, I repented of my ill will and finally saw Mary in the glory of God, the way he intended.

This post concludes our in-depth examination of the Marian doctrines of the Church, which very nearly puts us in the home stretch for this series. Before long, we’ll examine historical and social issues around the Church, personal practice of Church doctrines, and a couple more differences between Church teaching and what I used to believe that I haven’t touched on yet. But next week, we’ll be looking at where we go when we die, and what the Church teaches about that.

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Swimming the Tiber 28: For All Have Sinned

For [there] is not a distinction, for all [men] erred [on a particular occasion] and are behind the glory of God, being justified as a gift by his grace through the ransoming in Christ Jesus; which God set out as propitiatory through faith in his blood unto a demonstration of his justice, on account of the dismissal of the failures(errors/faults/sins) that came before, in the forbearancelit. holding-back of God, towards the demonstration of his justice in the present time, in order that he may be just and justifying the [one who lives] out of faith in Jesus.

– Romans 3:22-26 (my translation, simplified)

I have simplified my translation of the above passage because, frankly, rendering it like the original Greek may be informative, but it’s also confusing. My aim here is to clarify, not obfuscate.

Before I started looking closely at Catholicism, I had never heard this doctrine about Mary, but it’s possible some of you have. In addition to being born without original sin, remaining virginal throughout her entire life, being the worthy queen mother of the King of Creation, and indeed being the very Mother of God, Catholic doctrine holds that Mary never committed personal sin in the course of her life.

Like me, you are probably quick to reply with Romans 3:23 above or Ecclesiastes 7:20 or Psalm 143:2 or Galatians 3:22. “Scripture clearly indicates that all have sinned!”

Well, let me ask this: Did Jesus sin?

Before you answer, remember your Christology. Jesus is fully God, yes, but he is also fully man, meaning that if statements about “all men” are absolute and without exception, then he is included. But of course Jesus did not sin, despite being tempted in every way just as we are (Hebrews 4:15).

Now that we have established the prime exception, let’s look at the secondary one. Ecclesiastes 7:20 can be safely cleared, first, because it was true when it was written, and because the phrase “on earth” (like “under the sun” elsewhere in Ecclesiastes) reinforces that such things are impossible without God. Psalm 143:2, likewise, was true at the time, and in that psalm, David is asking the Lord to do exactly as Paul says in Romans 3. Galatians 3:22 depends on the verse immediately before it, which frames the statement in terms of the law: “Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law.” (NRSVCE) This is the context in which all are imprisoned under the power of sin: exactly what Paul says in Romans 3:19-20.

So let’s focus on the Romans passage, since it seems to be the hinge on which this whole question swings. Like classic exegetes, let’s look at each phrase to determine the meaning of the whole. Before we do, it may be beneficial for you to refresh yourself on the concepts of soteriology, which I discussed at length early in this series.

  • For there is not a distinction. Jews and Greeks are on equal footing. Knowing the law of Moses does not help you. Sacrificing at the temple in Jerusalem does not help you. The justice of God is available to all equally, and its necessity is obvious to all.
  • For all [men] erred. “All” is masculine, but collective. All men are all people. Everyone commits discrete acts of sin (presumably, excepting any exceptions, like Jesus). The aorist is used here, though a translation in the perfect sounds more natural (“all have sinned”) and is frequently used instead. The tense provides that sense of discrete acts, which is what clearly distinguishes this from original sin.
  • And are behind the glory of God. This is often translated “fall short,” but I retained a more literal translation because it recalls Romans 3:9, not to mention 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 and 2 Timothy 4:7. The point is that, though we try to win, we lose the race when we run it alone.
  • Being justified as a gift by his grace through the ransoming in Christ Jesus. Our justification is a gift by the grace of God (see the rest of Psalm 143). We are released from the bindings of sin because God freely gives this to us, specifically through the atonement of Jesus’ death on the cross.
  • Which God set out as propitiatory. God gives his grace, our justification, to reconcile us to himself.
  • Through faith in his blood unto a demonstration of his justice, on account of the dismissal of the failures that came before, in the forbearance of God. In short, faith grants us access to this justification, because the blood of Christ acquits us of sin at God’s discretion. This we already know from our examination of soteriology.
  • Towards the demonstration of his justice in the present time, in order that he may be just and justifying the [one who lives] out of faith in Jesus. This brings to mind verses like Psalm 71:10-13, where enemies of God’s people claim that he has abandoned them, but he proves himself and brings glory to his holy name. Note also that God is justifying the one out of faith, that is, the one who lives from faith or comes from faith; this suggests that he is justified not merely who assents, but he whose life reflects his faith.

Consider also that, when Jesus forgives sin, he makes a request of us: “Sin no more” (see John 5:14; 8:10-11).

We already know that God has given Mary a special grace to escape original sin. This passage in Romans suggests that it is God’s grace which frees us also from personal sin and makes it possible for us to obey the Lord and “sin no more.” We also know that Jesus’ atonement is retroactive (that is, it applies to the saints and holy ones who lived and died before Jesus did, such as the patriarchs–see Hebrews 11).

There should be no danger, then, in saying that God, by his discretion, could give Mary the grace not only to escape original sin, but also to resist temptation and avoid personal sin throughout her life.

“But why?” you may say. I certainly did. I argued, “Well, fine, maybe it’s possible, but what purpose could there possibly be in doing this?”

Well, remember what we’ve been talking about these past few weeks. Mary is, first of all, a vessel for the Lord God Almighty; should not such a vessel be holy and pure in God’s sight? But more than that, Mary is Jesus’ own mother, and Jesus never sinned–so we know he obeyed the commandment to honor his father and mother. What greater honor could he do her than to free her first from the shackles of sin in which we have all been enslaved?

Next week, we have one final topic about Mary before we move on; it should be less controversial than these, if for no other reason than it’s not unique to Mary. Look forward to an examination of the bodily assumption of Mary!

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Swimming the Tiber 26: How Will This Be?

And the angelhere and throughout, (messenger / envoy) said to her, “Fear not, Mary, for [thou] found [on a particular occasion] grace(favor) besidehere and throughout, (before / with / in the presence of) God. And behold, [thou] will conceive in [thy] belly and [thou] will bring forth a son and [thou] will call his name Jesus. This [man] will be great and will be called [the]1 son of [the] highest [one] and the lord God(God, as lord,) will give to him the throne of his father David, and [he] will be king(rule) over the household of Jacob unto the ages and of his kingdom [there] will not be an end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since [I] do not know a man?” And having answered, the angel said to her, “A holy spirit will come upon thee and a power of [the] highest will overshadow thee; wherefore also the holy [one] being brought forth2 3 will be called [the] son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, also herself has conceived a son in her old age and this is the sixth month for the [one] called barren; because no word will be powerless4 beside God.” And Mary said, “Behold the slave of [the] lord; may [it] come to be for me according to thy word.” And the angel departed from her.

– Luke 1:30-38 (my translation, emphasis added)

In my experience, most Protestants don’t think often of this passage; without any devotion to Mary, evangelical/Baptist communities don’t ascribe much importance to it. Sure, it mentions a few crucial details about fulfilling prophecies and such (Jesus was born of a virgin), but its details don’t come up very often.

It doesn’t help that interpretation often interferes between the text and the English translation in most Bibles. The passage I have made bold above, being the second most important quote from Mary in the passage, is often translated, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” or, “How can this be, since I have not known/lain with a man?” The former is passable, but I think cleverly evades the point; the latter is outright fabrication because the tense is objectively and purposefully wrong.

There are a lot of comments available in the above passage, most of which are interesting, but beside the point–but I left out my especially nerdy commentary on the bold text because I wanted to make sure you saw it. First, let’s look at the easy part: “a man.” Even bad translations of this passage get this part right, and the meaning is obvious: Mary does not know (Biblically) any man. She knows no man. This is indefinite specifically because no particular individual is mentioned (nor any particular class, since it is a singular noun). It is the generic noun “man.” She doesn’t know man. It’s not that she doesn’t know the man; she doesn’t know any man.

Well, fair enough, you say. That seems straightforward.

Then let’s look at the harder part, the part that Protestant translators avoid translating accurately: “[I] do not know.” This is in the present tense. As I said above, it is bad translating to render it in the perfect tense (an action in the past–or in this case, a lack of action in the past–with an effect on the present, emphasizing the current state of affairs). Translating this as the perfect relegates it to the past quite naturally; if she has not known a man, then she may yet know a man. It implies a malleable state–this thing has not happened, but it can.

The present tense isn’t like that. Where the perfect tense refers to past events with an effect on the present, the present tense does the opposite: it refers to events happening right now. Now, obviously, she’s not in the process of knowing a man, which the angel can plainly see, so that’s not what she’s saying. The present tense here indicates imperfective aspect in the primary sequence. That means that it refers to habitual or ongoing action in the present or future. As I just said, ongoing is ruled out because she wouldn’t need to mention it (like the dad joke where someone asks, “What are you doing?” and the answer is, “Talking to you”–it’s funny because it’s unnecessary and obvious). The alternative is habitual action–it’s not that she hasn’t yet known a man, it’s that she doesn’t do that kind of thing. She’s not a virgin just because she isn’t married, but because she has chosen to be a virgin.

Of course, you’re free to disagree. I’m sure more than one Greek-literate person out there is yelling at their computer screen, “No, it’s because she’s habitually virtuous up to that point!” That’s fair, I guess, although I maintain that the perfect tense would suit that meaning… perfectly. ( YEEEAAAHHH!)

But consider that this also explains why she asks “how” this can happen. She’s not woefully uneducated; she surely understands the logistics. And the angel’s word is prophetic (you will conceive), so if she were about to enter a normal marriage to Joseph, this doesn’t seem like a complex question. Compare this to Zachariah’s confusion in Luke 1:18 or Sarah’s in Genesis 18:12. The main difference here is that Mary is asking not because pregnancy is technically impossible (she is not barren), but because of her vow to remain celibate before God. The question is not doubting God’s power, but trying to reconcile her duty to her vow and her wish to accept the word of the angel.

If you’re still wondering what I’m talking about, it’s this: the Catholic Church teaches the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, which is to say, there was no point in Mary’s life during which she was not a virgin.

If you’re like I was, you’re saying, “Wait, what? Why? What about Jesus’ brothers? What about Joseph?”

Legitimate questions, all. First, I’ll repeat myself: It is a doctrine of the Catholic Church that Mary remained virginal her entire life.

As for the why, you’re bound to get a few mixed responses on that. The quickest answer is always, “Because that’s the way God wanted it,” which is pretty unsatisfying, let me tell you. Another reason is to maintain the purity and virtue of Mary (recall my post on the virtue of virginity?) as the holy vessel through which God Himself entered the world. (You may recall that some earlier vessels for God required absolute reverence–Exodus 3:1-6; 2 Samuel 6:6-7.)

Tradition is pretty strong on this point, generally speaking. St. Augustine, considered by many historically-minded Protestants to be one of the “good ones,” points to the east gate in Ezekiel’s vision as a type of Mary:

Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east; and it was shut. The Lord said to me: This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut. Only the prince, because he is a prince, may sit in it to eat food before the Lord; he shall enter by way of the vestibule of the gate, and shall go out by the same way.

– Ezekiel 44:1-3 (NRSVCE)

Reading that in the context that Augustine did, it doesn’t seem to mean anything but the perpetual virginity of Mary.

An early (second century) document called the Protoevangelium of James (though not canonical) points to the ancient status of this teaching. The story goes like this: Mary’s parents devoted her as a child to the Lord (in the manner of Samuel, in 1 Samuel 1:11, and of the women serving in the temple of the Lord, who, though meant to be virginal, were defiled by Eli’s sons in 1 Samuel 2:22, and also in the manner of Anna in Luke 2:36-38). Eventually, it became necessary that Mary be married, in order to protect her virginity, and so Joseph (according to the Protoevangelium, a widower with children from his first marriage) was chosen for the job. Not all of those details are part of the doctrine, but the story was intended to explain confusion about that relationship in particular.

For the first few centuries of church history, the “brothers” of Jesus were considered step-brothers (the children of Joseph’s first marriage). St. Jerome (a strong proponent of Mary’s virginity and virginity in general) suggested that, because of a Jewish idiom of the time, the term could also refer to Jesus’ cousins.

This latter use is reinforced via a particular reading of the Gospels. In Mark 6:3, we see that the list of Jesus’ brothers includes “James and Joses and Simon and Judas.” In Mark 15:40, we see that a certain Mary, the mother of James and Joses, was at the crucifixion. In John 19:25, we see that Jesus’ mother Mary, and also Mary’s sister Mary (not even the Romans, who numbered their children, gave two living children the exact same name, so “cousin” makes sense here, too), and Mary Magdalene were present at the crucifixion. A syncretic reading of the two passages suggests that Mary, the wife of Clopas, is the same Mary, the mother of James and Joses. Of course, those were all common names, so that James and Joses might not be the same James and Joses mentioned nine chapters earlier, but Mark did have a tendency to name-drop (cf. Alexander and Rufus in Mark 15:21).

There are other points of contention for this issue. Many Catholics point to John 19:25-27 as evidence in favor of Mary’s virginity. After all, if Jesus were the eldest, and Mary had other sons, he should pass off responsibility for her to one of his brothers, but instead he chooses the beloved disciple (the apostle John, according to tradition). That he chose John as his replacement suggests that he had no brothers to choose. (The counter-argument, of course, is that he was not on good terms with his brothers, or perhaps simply that none of his brothers attended the crucifixion. This is reinforced by Matthew 12:46-50–see also Mark 3:31-35; Luke 8:19-21–and John 7:1-10. It’s a fair point, so these arguments balance out, in my estimation.)

Consider also that in Luke 2:41-52, there is no mention of siblings at a time when siblings should be appropriate to the story. Consider that the behavior of the “brothers” toward Jesus are like that of older relatives (see John 7 again, and Mark 3:21), but would not have been appropriate to younger siblings.

In response to the so-called linguistic arguments against Mary’s perpetual virginity–that “until” in Matthew 1:25 implies a change in behavior, or that “first-born” implies that a “second-born” must have existed, I have little to say, because I remain flabbergasted that I also used these arguments in the past.

The words “until” and “till”–in English, in Greek (ἕως), or in Hebrew–do not strictly require a change in behavior after the time described. If I say, “He did not write another word until he died,” did he start writing again after death? The point of the word is to describe a span of time (from point A to point B) during which a certain fact was true. If nothing states that things changed afterward (and nothing in Scripture does), then we cannot assume Mary and Joseph began to have sexual relations after the birth of Jesus on the basis of this word alone.

This supposition about “first-born” implying the existence of a “second-born” is utter nonsense. If a woman bears only one child, that child is her first-born (because no child has been born from her before that one). In the same way, if I drive a motorcycle tomorrow, that will be my first time driving a motorcycle, even if I never drive one again; or if I were called upon to coach the Green Bay Packers, I would coach my first professional football game, and then I would never coach another–but the one I coached would be no less my first.

One final point to address: “What about Joseph?” For a long time, this was a sticking point for me. It was unfair, said I, even unconscionable that Joseph should be married to a beautiful young woman and be forbidden from intercourse with her. Withholding sex can even be grounds for an annulment in some cases, suggesting that one or both parties did not comprehend marriage before entering into it. But recall again my post on the virtue of virginity, and recognize that any family containing the only-begotten Son of God is going to be holy, set apart, and dedicated to purity and devotion to God. In that context, it’s important to recognize that Joseph knew what he was getting into (even if he were not an old widower, Mary’s vow of celibacy would have been specified up front, not a surprise for the wedding night).

Consider also the words of Sts. Augustine and Jerome:

Thus Christ, about to be born from a virgin, who–before [she] knew who had been about to be born from her–had resolved to remain a virgin, [Christ] preferred to approve holy virginity, [rather] than to command [it]. And thus also in the woman herself, in whom he accepted the form of a slave, [he] wanted virginity to be freely chosen.

– Augustine, De Sancta Virginitate 4 (my translation)

You say that Mary did not remain a virgin: I assert to you more that Joseph himself was a virgin on account of Mary, in order that a virgin son was born out of a virgin union. For if fornication does not befall a holy man, and [it] is not written that he had another wife: but to Mary, whom [he] was reckoned to have [as wife], [he] was a more capable guardian than husband: [it] remains that he who merited to be called the father of the Lord stayed a virgin with Mary.

– Jerome, De Perpetua Virginitate Beatae Mariae
Adversus Helvidium
19 (21) (my translation)

All that to say, St. Joseph is even more saintly than I thought. Hardly a rip-off, especially when you get to raise the Son of God, teaching him your trade and getting to know him intimately as only a father can, all while living alongside the greatest of the saints, Jesus’ own mother, Mary.

But just how great is Mary? Let’s dig deeper next week, when we talk about the Catholic doctrine that, in order to prepare a holy vessel worthy of himself, God ensured that she would be born without the stain of original sin.

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Back to the passage
1 Whether the definite article is implied here or not is not clear. Because this (as in verse 35 below) is a predicate (that is, the same construction as the subject, but only describing the subject, not working as one), the definite article is omitted even when it would otherwise be included specifically to denote this as the predicate. Including the article would either make it the subject or indicate that no new information was being provided. The former makes no sense, and Mary’s reaction to this suggests that the latter use would be inappropriate (this is new information to her). You a perfectly free to translate this as indefinite (“[he] will be called [a] son,” etc.), but there is no reason to weigh that interpretation more heavily than the one I have rendered.
2 This phrase is neuter, probably agreeing with the implied τέκνον, “child.”
3 Some manuscripts insert: from you; others: in you
4 Literally every word will not be powerless; there is also a good chance this is a Hebraism rendered in Greek, where ῥῆμα–here and in the next verse rendered “word”–means “the matter at hand” or “the subject of which I am speaking.”