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E. Jerome Van Kuiken is an Associate Professor of Ministry and Christian Thought at Oklahoma Wesleyan University.

Did God force pregnancy on Mary of Nazareth? The Winter 2012 issue of Christian Scholar’s Review presented Jack Mulder Jr.’s argument that non-Catholic Christians risk this startling implication by not accepting the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which teaches that Mary was conceived without original sin.1 In 2014, CSR published an attempted rebuttal on biological grounds, which Mulder handily refuted in his accompanying response as irrelevant to his theological, philosophical, and ethical concerns.2 In this essay, I engage these concerns, critique both the rhetoric and substance of Mulder’s claims, and argue that Mary’s consent to bear Christ may be seen as sufficiently free apart from any hypothesis of her immaculate conception. Mulder also opines (but does not argue) that “most non-Catholic Christian theological traditions would not sacrifice anything essential (at least not obviously) by admitting this element of Marian piety.”3 My concluding postscript explains my contrary belief that in order to admit this Marian dogma, Protestants would have to sacrifice their essential commitment to sola scriptura. Nonetheless, the disagreements with Mulder which preoccupy this essay occur within a broader context of common ground regarding the Trinity, Christology, original sin, and sexual ethics.4

Mulder’s Argument

Mulder employs but greatly extends a claim put forth by Catholic theological luminaries Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope emeritus Benedict XVI).5 He sets forth his argument in five premises and a conclusion, which I quote in full:

  1. If God were to impregnate a woman, then God would do everything necessary to ensure that her decision in this regard would be as fully free as possible (failing which God would be a rapist).
  2. God wishes to impregnate the Virgin Mary for the salvation of the world.
  3. Hence, God wishes to obtain Mary’s fully free consent to bear God’s Son.
  4. The Virgin Mary’s inheritance of the scourge of original sin impedes the exercise of her fully free consent at the Annunciation.
  5. God has the power to remove this impediment.
  6. Therefore, God will choose to remove the impediment to Mary’s fully free consent, namely, the inherited scourge of original sin.6

Mulder explains that by “fully free consent” he means consent given without hesitation due to fear of negative consequences if one refuses consent. Such hesitation would introduce an element of coercion into one’s consent, and God, being perfectly good, wishes to avoid coercion. Original sin results in “disordered inclinations” to resist God’s will, causing just such hesitation even in regenerate persons. Thus if Mary is to give fully free consent to God’s will, she must be more than regenerate; she must be totally free from original sin and its disordered inclinations. Yet it would seem strangely ad hoc for God to grant her this freedom at or shortly before the Annunciation. The most natural time for God to render her immaculate would be upon her conception in her mother’s womb.7

On the Rhetoric of Divine Rape

Before engaging with the substance of Mulder’s argument, I must protest his decision to deploy repeatedly the rhetoric of rape as he presents his case.8 Given the prevalence of sexual assault against women, not least on college campuses,9 it seems insensitive for a male college professor to use a rape analogy to score a theological point.10 Language of divine rape possibly may have a place in pathos-driven poetry11 and prophecy,12 but not in a professional article. Such inflammatory language biases readers toward accepting or rejecting Mulder’s argument based on emotion rather than reason. It fogs over the middle ground between the extremes of the Immaculate Conception on one hand and divine “rape” on the other. Thus it is counterproductive to academic writing’s proper aim of promoting rational discourse.13

Mulder’s language of divine rape is doubly troublesome from an orthodox Christian perspective because it easily misrepresents God’s agency in the Incarnation. The primary definition of rape is “to force someone to have sex when he or she is unwilling.”14 While a longstanding view among Latter-day Saints has been that God the Father begot Jesus through sexual relations with Mary,15 orthodox Christians always have denied such a state of affairs.16 Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus betokened that God caused her to become pregnant apart from any sex act.17 Thus God’s role in her conceiving could no more be rape (if her consent was deficient) than it could be adultery (if her consent was robust).18 Yet this is the dilemma posed by Mulder’s sexualized language of God’s relationship to Mary.19 As a faithful Catholic, Mulder affirms Mary’s uncompromised virginity. He wishes to use rape as an analogy for divine coercion affecting another aspect of Mary’s sexuality: her womb. Given my objections above, I think it wiser to drop the loaded and misleading language of rape. The remainder of this essay will avoid such rhetoric while engaging with Mulder’s argument.

Unwanted Implications of Mulder’s Argument

Mulder’s premise 1 states: “If God were to impregnate a woman, then God would do everything necessary to ensure that her decision in this regard would be as fully free as possible” lest God be inappropriately coercive. In light of Mulder’s explanation that “fully free” consent requires freedom from original sin’s disordered inclinations, this premise carries unwanted implications. First, if taken as stated, it leads to one of two problematic conclusions: either every woman who becomes pregnant gives fully free consent to God and so is immaculately conceived, or else God inappropriately coerces every woman who becomes pregnant. For “to impregnate” means “to cause to become pregnant,” and Scripture credits God with causing multiple women to become pregnant (Gen. 4:1; 20:17–18; 21:1–2; 25:21; Judg. 13:1–24; Ruth 4:13; 1 Sam. 1:19–20; Luke 1:5–25), even ascribing gestation in general to God’s activity (Job 31:15; Ps. 139:13–16). As C. S. Lewis has commented regarding God’s role in Christ’s birth,

For what He did once without a human father, He does always even when He uses a human father as His instrument. For the human father in ordinary generation is only a carrier, sometimes an unwilling carrier, always the last in a long line of carriers, of life that comes from the supreme life.20

To avoid concluding that all mothers are either immaculately conceived or divinely coerced, premise 1 should be reworded to fit Mulder’s intended meaning: “If God were to impregnate a woman directly (that is, absent a human father’s agency), then God would do everything necessary to ensure that her decision in this regard would be as fully free as possible.”21

This revision, though, raises a question: why should a woman’s fully free consent matter more to God when directly impregnating a woman than when not? In the case of ordinary pregnancies, one may reply with a version of the free will defense: humans make their own choices, with effects on themselves and others, while God upholds the laws of reproduction governing those effects. Yet at times God miraculously causes a barren couple to reproduce and announces it via angelic visitation. Such is the case with Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 17:15–18:15; 21:1–7), Samson’s parents (Judg. 13), Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5–25), and, in Catholic tradition, the Virgin Mary’s parents: Joachim and Anna (Prot. Jas. 1–4).22 These cases marked by miracles and heavenly visits have parallels to the Annunciation and, as with Mary, God should be strongly motivated to secure consent as fully free as possible from the women miraculously impregnated, as well as from their husbands, since in such cases God is no longer merely upholding the laws of reproduction but is intervening specially (albeit not directly as in Mary’s case) to cause pregnancy. I grant that, before God’s intervention, these couples all desired a child, and unlike Mary they received their hearts’ desire without the threat of scandal which she faced for her prenuptial pregnancy. Nevertheless, Mulder’s view of disordered inclinations still requires that they would have struggled with inner resistance to God’s revealed will simply by virtue of being persons with disordered inclinations to whom God revealed that will.23 Thus Mulder’s logic suggests that an all-good God who wants a fully free consent must make these couples immaculate in order to avoid being coercive.24

Nor need we shrink from applying Mulder’s dilemma of immaculate conception or divine coercion to cases beyond childbirth. Suppose, for instance, that one wished to argue that Abraham was immaculately conceived. Consider the following parody of Mulder’s argument:

  1. If God were to ask a man to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering, then God would do everything necessary to ensure that the man’s decision in this regard would be as fully free as possible (failing which God would be inappropriately coercive).
  2. God wishes to ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as part of God’s plan for the salvation of the world.
  3. Hence, God wishes to obtain Abraham’s fully free consent to sacrifice his son.
  4. Abraham’s inheritance of the scourge of original sin impedes the exercise of his fully free consent upon receiving God’s request.
  5. God has the power to remove this impediment.
  6. Therefore, God will choose to remove the impediment to Abraham’s fully free consent, namely, the inherited scourge of original sin.

Mulder reasons that the Virgin Mary’s impregnation with God the Son by God the Father is so unique in its level of human cooperation that it is only fitting that she be granted a unique freedom from original sin.25 But Abraham’s case is also unique in the level of cooperation involved: nowhere else in Scripture does God ask a follower to sacrifice a child as a burnt offering; in fact, God legislates against it (Lev. 18:21; 20:1–5; Deut. 12:31; 18:9–10). One may offer further arguments for Abraham’s freedom from disordered inclinations, which for Mulder implies an immaculate conception. First, Gen. 22 records no hesitation by Abraham about God’s request, no angst at its alleged immorality as in Kierkegaard’s fictionalized portrait,26 not even any questioning like Mary’s. If Catholic interpreters discern in Mary’s spoken yes to God a wholehearted quality which excludes original sin,27 then Abraham’s enacted yes should disclose a similar immaculate state. Secondly, Abraham needed even greater faith than Mary, and so required more grace-enabled freedom from original sin than she, for he stood at the start of Israel’s history as the forefather of faith (Rom. 4). She, by contrast, was his descendant in both body and faith, able to benefit by hindsight from the whole history of divine dealings with Israel, as expressed in her Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55).28 Thirdly, Abraham needed greater faith, hence greater grace and freedom from disordered inclinations, for Mary was called to something natural and joyful (give birth to a child of promise), while he was called to something unnatural and dreadful (kill a child of promise). Fourthly, Abraham’s gift of his “only son, whom [he] love[d]” (Gen. 22:2)29 in sacrifice foreshadowed God’s gift of the “only Son” (John 3:16; 1 John 4:9) “whom [God] love[d]” (Mark 1:11 and parallels) in sacrifice.30 If it is fitting that the mother of the sinless divine Son be sinless herself, then it is fitting that the man who typifies the sinless divine Father be sinless himself. Abraham’s failures of faith (such as his lying about Sarah and lying with Hagar) may be explained away just as Mary’s failures have been.31 Indeed, one may cite Jewish and early Christian traditions to defend Abraham’s sinlessness: the Second Temple Jewish text Jubilees 23:10 teaches that “Abraham was perfect in all his deeds with the Lord, and well-pleasing in righteousness all the days of his life.”32 Likewise Clement of Rome, a contemporary of the apostles and reckoned as an early pope in later Catholicism, writes of how Abraham was among those who “perfectly served” God (1 Clem. 9:2; 10:1–7).33

The Principle of Sufficient Freedom (and Objections to It)

Despite the arguments above, I do not hold to Abraham’s or any other human’s immaculate conception save Christ’s alone.34 Between the horns of Mulder’s dilemma—fully free consent due to immaculate conception versus the triumph of divine coercion—lies consent which is sufficiently free. Mulder himself recognizes the category of sufficient freedom when, in another article, he studies whether a man named Shimp should be legally obliged to donate bone marrow to McFall, a dying patient. If the law makes no demand on Shimp, his choice to help McFall is fully free consent. If the law authorizes Shimp to be detained and “‘strapped down’ to extract bone marrow” against his will, coercion has trumped consent. Mulder proposes that the law not force Shimp to part with his marrow but penalize him if he refuses to donate it to the dying McFall.35 If Shimp decides to aid McFall after considering the legal repercussions of withholding aid, then, in Mulder’s judgment, Shimp’s choice is still sufficiently free. We may apply this judgment to all the recipients of celestial revelations named earlier, from Abraham to Samson’s parents to Mary: to each, God makes an announcement containing both promise and command.36 Implicit in each announcement is a threat of penalty if the recipients were to rebel.37 So long as they understand, even largely subconsciously, the reality of this threat, their consent is, like Shimp’s, not fully free but sufficiently free.

In his Marian article, Mulder entertains this possibility in Mary’s case but dismisses it as inappropriate on several grounds. First, a Mary with merely sufficient freedom would place the Incarnation in jeopardy: when confronted with the Annunciation, her disordered desires due to original sin might get the better of her and she might refuse God. Only an immaculate will can be trusted to choose reliably what is truly good, God’s will.38 In response, it seems to me that this issue is hardly unique to Mary’s case; once again, one could make a parody argument using Abraham or any number of biblical characters whom God elected to address. On a traditional Christian view of divine providence, God’s plan is never at risk despite the decisions of multitudes of humans afflicted with disordered desires.39 An Open Theist, however, may find this argument more compelling—even to the point of hypothesizing that God would have rendered immaculate more than one first-century Jewish woman in order to increase the odds that one of them would accept the Annunciation.40

Secondly, Mulder objects that the unique character of Jesus’ conception demanded uniquely free consent on Mary’s part: “Nowhere else in the Christian story is anyone directly impregnated by God. God needs an extraordinary sort of consent to match his extraordinary agency and offer.”41 In response, let us analyze just what Mary would have understood the Annunciation to have meant. She received the promise of a son, which any Jewish maiden in the biblical world would desire quite naturally. She learned that this son would be the heir to David’s old kingdom and, like earlier members of David’s dynasty, be called God’s son (Luke 1:32–33; see also 2 Sam. 7:12–16).42 Such a messianic hope, couched in nationalistic terms, animated many first-century Jews with much fervor.43 She was told that her child would be conceived miraculously, like her relative Elizabeth’s baby (Luke 1:35–36), and the angel’s encouragement that “nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37) may have reminded her of God’s similar assurance to Abraham and Sarah concerning Isaac’s miraculous birth (Gen. 18:13–14). The parallels between the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55) and Hannah’s Song (1 Sam. 2:1–10) indicate that Mary thought of her miraculous pregnancy as similar to Hannah’s, as well, despite Mary’s virginal conception. Finally, Mary would have understood that she was called to do something potentially scandalous—although this thought may not have crossed her mind in the confusion and excitement of the Annunciation itself, but only later (see, for example, Matt. 1:18–19). Yet she also would have grown up with the stories of heroic women who risked scandal to act righteously, such as Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Jael, Abigail, Esther, and Judith.44 If neither these women nor those miraculously impregnated nor Jews desiring a messiah nor betrothed girls anticipating children needed to be immaculate in order to believe, then I see no necessity for Mary to be immaculate in order to consent in faith to God, despite her unique calling.

Thirdly, Mulder appeals to the metaphor of Mary as God’s “spouse” and to an analogy between the Annunciation and a marriage proposal in order to underscore why Mary’s consent must be fully free:

As those of us who have been reared in a modern western context of courtship, proposal, and marriage know, very few people upon offering marriage to a potential spouse, seriously hope for the person to say in response, “could I have some time to think?” We tend to think that consent, spontaneously and joyfully rendered, is the more appropriate response. … Here is one question that signals an inappropriate relationship: “What will so-and-so (or my family, or so-and-so’s family) do to me if I refuse?”45

The first line of the above quote bares the flaw in Mulder’s analogy: it is specific to a time and culture far removed from Mary’s first-century Palestinian milieu. That ancient setting lacked the norms of individual autonomy and nuclear family which Mulder’s analogy presupposes. Instead, extended families lived together under a patriarchal head. Typically marriages were arranged (sometimes when the future marriage partners were still children), girls became eligible for marriage at age twelve, the marriage proposal was addressed to a woman’s male guardian rather than to her, and although she had some right to refuse a prospective match, she certainly had to consider the repercussions within the extended family in which she was embedded.46 Mulder’s marriage proposal analogy simply is unsuited to Mary’s actual context.

More fundamentally, the metaphor of Mary as God’s “spouse” requires evaluation. True, she shares in the bridal character of Israel (for example, Ezek. 16; Hos. 1–3) and the church (Eph. 5:22–33; Rev. 19:7–9), yet none of the rest of their members is immaculately conceived. Are we then to conclude that God has had, in Mulder’s words, “an inappropriate relationship” with every Jew and Christian but Mary? Nor should the nuptial metaphor be the only one with which to interpret Mary’s role. At the Annunciation, for instance, she self-identified not as God’s spouse but as God’s servant (Luke 1:38). Overemphasis on spousal language can distort one’s views of God and the divine-human relationship through sexualization47 or romantic sentimentalization.

Fourthly, Mulder asks how God could be “content” with Mary’s consent if it were tainted by disordered desires.48 This question quickly expands: it applies not only to Mary’s consent but to that given by any member of God’s people, and it lands us in the mysteries of theodicy and divine providence. Suffice it to say that I agree with Mulder that, when dealing with Mary, God wishes to obtain as free a consent as possible. In the following section, I explore five ways of achieving this goal without appealing to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. By avoiding the ascription to Mary of a singular privilege of sinlessness denied to the rest of us, these five alternate routes remain open not only to her but to all God’s people.

Alternatives to Immaculate Conception

The first alternative is to propose that God, who mercifully “remembers that we are dust” (Ps. 103:14), accommodates the desire for our free consent to the conditions under which God encounters us. Thus “as free a consent as possible,” as Mulder puts it, would mean “as free a consent as possible within the present age.” Grace enables consent which is sufficiently free though not perfectly free. Thus Abraham and the full cast of Heb. 11 pleased God by offering the yes of faith, though none of their yeses were immaculate. On this view, the Annunciation is a model for Christians’ regeneration: although a sinner, Mary hears and believes the gospel, receives the Word into her inner being, and experiences a new creation as Christ is formed within her.49 Mulder objects that it would seem ad hoc for Mary to be “redeemed just in time for and just for the purpose of rendering her free consent,”50 but one could see it equally as a case of perfect timing on the part of divine wisdom and power (see for example Eccl. 3:1, 11, 17; Gal. 4:4–5).

A second alternative is to postulate that God requires fully free consent and has provided Christ to give it on our behalf by his once-for-all incarnation and atonement and his perpetual priestly intercession. Our imperfect consent is united to his perfect consent and so satisfies God’s desire.51 Thus Mary’s consent to God was no more immaculate than is any other member’s in the collective Bride of Christ, yet Christ’s own pure yes to become incarnate made her yes pure in God’s sight.

A third alternative is to theorize that God’s tolerance of Mary’s imperfect consent at the Annunciation was in view of her fully free, immaculate consent in her final, glorified state. Depending on one’s model of the relationship among God, God’s knowledge, and time, this divine “view” may be God’s timeless knowledge of the whole of Mary’s existence and life-act of response; God’s temporally indexed, certain foreknowledge of her future state; or God’s tensed and probabilistic anticipation of her final perfection.52 Regardless of the God-knowledge-time model employed, the point remains that God’s approval of Mary’s consent may be understood as eschatologically rather than protologically conditioned.53

A fourth alternative is to grant that God’s people struggle with rebellious inclinations throughout their lives but insist that this struggle need not be present in one’s every decision. God’s grace in one’s life may enable moments of pure submission to God and fully free, unhesitant consent to the divine will even if one often experiences the clash between God’s will and one’s own disordered desires.54 Perhaps we see one such occasion of wholehearted devotion to God when many of the generally recalcitrant Israelites freely contributed materials for the tabernacle, to the point that Moses had to curtail their generosity (Exod. 35:4–9, 20–29; 36:2–7). Mary’s compliance at the Annunciation may be a further instance of the same possibility.

The fifth alternative is to embrace the possibility that in this life, by God’s sanctifying grace, one may come to experience a habitually wholehearted love of God and neighbor, so that one’s default response to God’s will is an unhesitant yes. This was John Wesley’s doctrine of “Christian perfection,” which overlaps with Thomas Aquinas’ same doctrine.55 Mulder notes an affinity between the two but worries that Wesley erringly envisioned an end to disordered inclinations and venial sins.56 Wesley did teach that the infusion of divine love purifies Christians’ desires from positive inclinations to rebel; yet he affirmed that all Christians remain subject to Fall-consequent weaknesses of mind and body, which lead to faults in thought, word, and deed. Such faults require to be atoned for by Christ’s self-sacrifice. Hence even Christians who are “perfected in love” must pray continually for the forgiveness of their unintentional trespasses.57 If Mary had attained to such a state of “perfection” by the time of Gabriel’s visit, she could offer a fully free consent without being always or utterly sinless.

Concluding Scientific Postscript58

In drawing to a conclusion, I want to touch on a deeper implication for Protestants of accepting the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. As quoted at the beginning of this essay, Mulder believes that “most non-Catholic Christian theological traditions would not sacrifice anything essential (at least not obviously) by admitting this element of Marian piety.”59 On the contrary, I fear that to accept this dogma for the reasons given by Mulder and earlier proponents would be to crack the very foundation of Protestant theological methodology.

At base, the rationale underlying this Marian dogma is aesthetic. By this claim I do not mean that the dogma is based on feeling rather than reasoning or that it is insusceptible to logical analysis. What I mean by an aesthetic rationale is a justification of ideas’ truth-value which primarily uses aesthetic criteria such as intellectual symmetry and richness of meaning rather than prioritizing hard evidence. An aesthetic reasoner seeks to arrive at truth by asking, “What is the most fitting, meaningful, or perfect state of affairs which one may conceive?” Faith in the Immaculate Conception rests on the rationale that to be thoroughly sinless throughout life is especially befitting the dignity of the mother of the incarnate God.60 The terms “befitting” and “dignity” express the aesthetic values of symmetry and richness of meaning, respectively.

Scientific reasoning for generations of premodern Christians was predominantly aesthetic reasoning. In hermeneutics, traditionally the science of biblical interpretation, the allegorical method reigned. The plain-sense meaning of the text was merely the basement floor of a treasure house of intricately interconnected symbolic meanings. Premodern Christians applied the same interpretive method to the world around them,61 doing what passed for natural science by cataloguing and correlating the symbolic values of animals and elements, plants and planets in a grand system which had God at its apex. Natural science thus meshed with the “queen of the sciences,” theology.62

It was in this milieu that the aesthetic logic of the Immaculate Conception emerged. Its precedent appears in the second-century apocryphal Protevangelium of James, whose account of a spotless Mary’s miraculous conception informed a feast established in its honor. In defense of this feast, the twelfth-century theologian Eadmer first advocated the Immaculate Conception, arguing that God would surely wish to give the Mother of God, she who is higher than the sinless angels, such a gift. In the next century, Duns Scotus gave the doctrine its mature formulation: it is fitting that Christ would grant his mother the greatest possible salvation, which is preservation from sin at conception.63 Such aesthetic reasoning has survived in modern Catholic Mariology, with Mulder’s case that it uniquely befits Mary to give a fully free, sinless consent as the latest version of the argument from fittingness. Supporting earlier versions of this argument are appeals to tradition and papal infallibility, both of which undergirded the official definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854.64

Protestantism began in the 16th century with a methodological revolt against aesthetic reasoning. Not only did the Reformers affirm that only doctrines with solid biblical warrant were authoritative65 (sola scriptura or the “Scripture principle”); they also rejected allegory, insisting that biblical warrant for doctrines was to be founded strictly on the text’s “literal” sense (the sensus literalis). This hermeneutical approach to the “book of scripture” soon was applied to the “book of nature” as well, resulting in the birth of empirical science and the dismantling of Ptolemaic cosmology.66 Hence there is a fundamental affinity between the Protestant theological method and the modern scientific method.

How does this affinity relate to the Immaculate Conception? For Protestants generally, this dogma fails the test of the Scripture principle (as interpreted in light of the sensus literalis).67 This failure cannot be overcome by justifications via aesthetic reasoning, tradition, and institutional authority. These three standards repeatedly have proven wrong in the history of natural science.68 The same is true, Protestants feel, in the science of God, theology.69 When Einstein first developed his theory of general relativity, it predicted an expanding universe, a model out of step with his aesthetic sensibilities and with cosmology from Aristotle to his own day. Einstein adjusted his original equations by inserting a “cosmological constant” to deny the expansion. Later discoveries proved that the universe really is expanding, and Einstein rued his adjustment as his “greatest blunder” scientifically.70 To insert the dogma of the Immaculate Conception into Protestant theology for similar reasons would be a similar blunder.

This essay has weighed Mulder’s argument for the Immaculate Conception as needful for Mary’s fully free consent and found it wanting. I have countered that Mary need only render sufficiently free consent. I also have outlined five alternatives whereby, without having been immaculately conceived, Mary—and we ourselves—may offer consent which satisfies God. Finally, I have cautioned that Protestants may accept the Immaculate Conception for Mulder’s and other proponents’ reasons only at the price of abandoning the Protestant theological method. In my judgment, this cost is too high to pay to purchase Mary’s full freedom of consent.71

Cite this article
E. Jerome Van Kuiken, “Why Protestant Christians Should Not Believe in Mary’s Immaculate Conception: A Response to Mulder”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 46:3 , 233-248


  1. Jack Mulder Jr., “Why More Christians Should Believe in Mary’s Immaculate Conception,” Christian Scholar’s Review 41.2 (2012): 117–134. Material from this article appears in Jack Mulder Jr., What Does It Mean to be Catholic? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 117–118.
  2. R. Gary Chiang and Evelyn M. White, “A Theologically Based Biological Challenge to the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary,” CSR 43.3 (2014): 241–260; Jack Mulder Jr., “A Response to Chiang and White on the Immaculate Conception,” CSR 43.3 (2014):261–265.
  3. Mulder, “Why,” 117; see 119: “[M]y goal in this paper is not to manufacture Catholics.”
  4. On the latter, see Jack Mulder Jr., “Let’s Rethink Roe v. Wade—And Overturn It,” American Journal of Bioethics 10.12 (2010): 65–66, accessed June 19, 2014 at: Ebscohost.
  5. Mulder, “Why,” 117, 118 n. 1, 119–120 n. 9.
  6. Ibid., 117–118.
  7. Mulder, “Why,” 122–131; “Response,” 264–265.
  8. Mulder, “Why,” 117, 123, 133; “Response,” 262, What Does It Mean, 117.
  9. For example, the nationally-publicized case of “Emily Doe”: see Halee Gray Scott, “The Stanford Rape Victim Said the Words I Couldn’t,” Her.meneutics (June 8, 2016), accessed June 14, 2016 at:
  10. To his credit, Mulder has spoken for Take Back the Night, according to page 6 of his CV, accessed May 26, 2014 at:
  11. As in John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14’s “Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.” For a feminist critique and partial rehabilitation of Donne’s sonnet, see Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 271, 296–299.
  12. Jeremiah accuses God of manipulating him (Jer. 20:7) and uses a term which may connote rape, according to Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 360, 362. Intriguingly, Jeremiah was also sanctified in utero (Jer. 1:4–5), leading Athanasius and others to teach that the prophet had been “made holy and clean from all sin” (Athanasius, Against the Arians 3.33 [NPNF2 4:411; cf. n. 2]). One could imagine a theological scenario in which Jeremiah stands to be gored by both horns of Mulder’s immaculate conception-or-divine rape dilemma.
  13. For the same reasons (including those to follow), I object to the line, “Forced love is rape; and God is not a divine rapist” in Norman L. Geisler and Ronald M. Brooks, When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook of Christian Evidences (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 73. Geisler’s more recent variations on this line avoid rape rhetoric: see his “Tough Questions about God” in Who Made God?: And Answers to Over 100 Other Tough Questions of Faith, gen. eds. Ravi Zacharias and Norman Geisler (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 30 (but see also 36); Norman L. Geisler, Chosen But Free: A Balanced View of God’s Sovereignty and Free Will, 3rd ed. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010), 68, 99, 105.
  14. “Rape,” Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary, accessed June 18, 2014 at: http://dictionary. dictionary/american-english/rape?q=rape. Compare the legal definition of rape found at
  15. Bill McKeever and Aaron Shafovaloff, “Redefining the Virgin Birth: Mormonism on the Natural Conception of Jesus,” accessed June 20, 2014 at: See also Terry L. Givens, Wrestling the Angel, Volume 1, The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 123, 346 n. 44. In responding to Mulder, Chiang and White inadvertently imply such a view in their line, “Mary may have objected to a physical relationship with a man prior to being wed, but she would not have objected to a physical relationship with God in order to bear the Messiah” (259).
  16. See for example Justin Martyr, First Apology 21–22, 25, 33 (ANF 1:170–71, 174); C. E. B. Cranfield, “Some Reflections on the Subject of the Virgin Birth,” SJT 41.2 (1988): 177–189, especially 181–182, accessed June 20, 2014 at:
  17. In replying to atheists’ accusations that God raped Mary, Karen Swallow Prior, “‘Let It Be’: Mary’s Radical Declaration of Consent,” The Atlantic (December 24, 2012), accessed June 20, 2016 at:, unfortunately fails to mention this point and uses consensual sexual relations between humans as her refutation of the rape charge, thus play-ing into the hands of her interlocutors’ mythological model of God’s relationship to Mary.
  18. C. S. Lewis, “Miracles,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper, in The Collected Works of C. S. Lewis (New York: Inspirational Press, 1996), 317, describes a “vulgar anti-God paper” claiming that “Christians believe in a God who committed adultery with the wife of a Jewish carpenter.” As a betrothed woman, Mary was legally counted as Joseph’s wife: see R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 50–52.
  19. On a conciliatory note: Helen Roseveare, He Gave Us a Valley (Leicester, UK: IVP, 1976), 37–38, recounts how she, a Protestant rape victim, comforted a nun who also had been raped, telling her that she had no more sinned against her vow of chastity by suffering rape than the Virgin Mary had sinned when she suffered her neighbors’ accusations of adultery. However much we dispute about the Blessed Mother, we all may learn from her.
  20. Lewis, 317. (Here Lewis is replying to the previously footnoted “divine adulterer” charge.)
  21. In answering an objection, Mulder gives his language the required precision when he writes, “Nowhere else in the Christian story is anyone directly impregnated by God” (“Why,” 133).
  22. Though not in the New Testament, the second-century Protevangelium of James heavily influenced later Marian traditions. See Alain Blancy and Maurice Jourjon and the Dombes Group, Mary in the Plan of God and in the Communion of Saints, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2002), 25–26; Tim Perry, Mary for Evangelicals: Toward an Understanding of the Mother of Our Lord (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006), 126–128; Sarah Jane Boss, “The Development of the Doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception” in Mary: The Complete Resource, ed. Sarah Jane Boss (London: Continuum, 2007), 208.
  23. “Every self-interested person who is adequately informed should do God’s will and delight in it. But the person with disordered inclinations, like Milton’s Satan, is inclined to reign in the misery of hell rather than serve in the bliss of heaven.” (Mulder, “Response,” 265)
  24. See, for example, medieval thinkers Ramón Llull and Bridget of Sweden, whose “accounts suggest that the exemption from Adam’s sin which applies to Mary is partially extended to her parents, and this seems to support an anxiety about the immaculate conception which was expressed by some of the doctrine’s later opponents, to wit, that it was the thin edge of the wedge. After all, if there is even one exception to the law of original sin, then already it is not universal, and who knows how far this undermining of the doctrine of humanity’s inherent wickedness might not go?” (Boss, 216.)
  25. Mulder, “Why,” 120, 130, 133.
  26. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, in Fear and Trembling and The Sickness unto Death, trans. Walter Lowrie (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1941, 1954). Kierkegaard falsely assumes that Abraham saw child sacrifice as murder. But “Abraham’s compliant acquiescence, as much as it reflects the power of his faith, also suggests that human sacrifice is familiar to his conceptual worldview. However saddened he may have been, he is not dumbfounded by the macabre or peculiar nature of Yahweh’s demand. It was culturally logical, despite being emotionally harsh, and only baffling in light of the covenant promises.” (John H. Walton, Genesis, NIV Application Commentary [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001], 510) Kierkegaard anachronistically reads post-Exodus ethics into Genesis 22. Compare Mulder, “Is Abraham a Hero? The Natural Law and a Problem in Fear and Trembling” in his Kierkegaard and the Catholic Tradition: Conflict and Dialogue (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2010), 37–66. On Fear and Trembling’s view of the command to sacrifice Isaac as a “teleological suspension of the ethical,” Mulder notes that “the ethical” means “publicly available social morality” (47). Given Walton’s portrait of the ancient Near East’s actual public morality, it would be more accurate to speak of God’s command as a “teleological permission of the ethical.”
  27. In addition to the sources cited in Mulder, “Why,” 117, 118 n. 1, 119–120 n. 9, see Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope emeritus Benedict XVI), Daughter Zion: Meditations on the Church’s Marian Belief (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1983), 25–27, 70.
  28. For Old Testament allusions in the Magnificat, see Perry, 77–78.
  29. All Scripture quotations ESV.
  30. For a sampling of the church fathers’ Christological interpretation of the sacrifice of Isaac, see Mark Sheridan, ed., Genesis 12-50, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Old Testament 2 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002), 101–116.
  31. “[T]he affirmation of Mary’s holiness in the early centuries did not preclude the occasional acknowledgement that she had some faults (for example, her difficulty in believing the angel at the Annunciation, her untimely intervention at Cana, or even her presence at the cross).” Such allowances ended in later Catholicism (Blancy and Jourjon, 98–99). Church fathers willing to fault Mary include Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Basil of Caesarea, and John Chrysostom, cited in Perry, 133, 136, 141, 152, 154, respectively; and Cyril of Alexandria, cited in Blancy and Jourjon, 154 n. 40.
  32. The Book of Jubilees, accessed July 30, 2015 at: 23.htm. Compare Sir 44:19–21.
  33. Michael W. Holmes, ed. and trans., The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 34–35, 57. On the tendency in the classical world to idealize the patriarchs, see Michael Graves, The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 32–37.
  34. In light of the current debate over whether or not Christ assumed a fallen human nature (a debate of which Mulder, “Why,” 119, is aware), let me clarify my meaning: at the moment of conception, the humanity assumed by Christ was cleansed from original sin; thus his human nature was rendered immaculate at conception. See Evert J. Van Kuiken, “The Relationship of the Fall to Christ’s Humanity: Patristic Theology as an Arbiter of the Modern Debate” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Manchester, 2013), forthcoming as E. Jerome Van Kuiken, Christ’s Humanity in Current and Ancient Controversy: Fallen or Not? (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017).
  35. Mulder, “Let’s Rethink,” 65.
  36. According to Heb. 11:17–19, the command to sacrifice Isaac contained an implicit promise of his resurrection.
  37. See, for example, Mulder, “Why,” 134. Jer. 18:9–10 confirms this point: “And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it.”
  38. Mulder, “Why,” 130–131; yet he allows that even an immaculate person could fall into sin (131, 134), so immaculate conception would only increase the likelihood of obedience, not infallibly guarantee it.
  39. Thomas P. Flint, “Divine Providence,” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology, eds. Thomas P. Flint and Michael C. Rea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 262–285.
  40. As suggested by Mulder, “Why,” 130.
  41. Ibid.,133.
  42. We must beware of anachronistically thinking that Mary would have understood herself to be bearing the Second Person of the Trinity, even though in fact that is whom she bore.
  43. Mulder, “Why,” 124, seriously understates the matter when he says that the opportunity to bear the Messiah “might make the promise on offer a bit more appealing” to Mary.
  44. Note that Matthew includes the first three of these names in his genealogy of Jesus (1:3, 5), perhaps in order to blunt the “scandal” of Mary’s irregular pregnancy (1:16, 18–19). While modern readers may tend to agree with fourth-century tradition in viewing these women as sinners, first-century Jews honored them as righteous (Perry, 49–54).
  45. Mulder, “Why,” 126; see also 130; What Does It Mean, 118.
  46. David W. Chapman, “Marriage and Family in Second Temple Judaism,” in Marriage and Family in the Biblical World, ed. Ken M. Campbell (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2003), 186–187, 204–205, 231–232.
  47. Sarah Jane Boss, Mary, New Century Theology (London: Continuum, 2003), 61–63. See also my related critique of Mulder’s rape rhetoric near the beginning of this essay.
  48. Mulder, “Why,” 130.
  49. The parallel between the Virgin Birth and Christian regeneration may go back to John 1:12–14; see Cranfield, 179. The same parallel may be drawn via allusion to the Virgin Birth in Jas. 1:18, 21, whose author traditionally has been seen as Jesus’ “brother”—hence a son, stepson, nephew, or cousin of Mary, depending on one’s view of Jesus’ family.
  50. Mulder, “Why,” 125.
  51. For one articulation of this view, see Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 2nd ed. (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1992), 73–89.
  52. For primers on the God-knowledge-time debate, see James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy, eds., Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views and Gregory E. Ganssle, ed., God & Time: Four Views (both Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001).
  53. See, for example, R. Michael Allen, The Christ’s Faith: A Dogmatic Account (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 130: In the Catholic view, “immediate glorification marks the life of … [Christ’s] Mother. Overly realized eschatology may lead to the need for the immaculate conception.”
  54. So allow broadly Reformed theologian Donald G. Bloesch, Jesus Christ: Savior and Lord, Christian Foundations (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1997), 183 and, it appears, Lutheran theologian Gerhard O. Forde, “The Lutheran View” and Reformed theologian Sinclair B. Ferguson, “A Reformed Response [to the Wesleyan view]” in Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification, ed. Donald L. Alexander (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1988), 30 and 126, respectively. See also Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, in which the Christian life includes seasons of spiritual rest and delight as well as struggle.
  55. Paul M. Bassett and William M. Greathouse, Exploring Christian Holiness, Vol. 2: The Historical Development (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill, 1985), 128–148; Edgardo A. Colón-Emeric, Wesley, Aquinas and Christian Perfection: An Ecumenical Dialogue (Waco, TX: Baylor, 2009); T. A. Noble, Holy Trinity: Holy People: The Theology of Christian Perfecting, Didsbury Lecture Series (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013), 64–66.
  56. Mulder, “Why,” 129, including n. 45.
  57. John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection,; for excerpts and expositions of which, see Bassett and Greathouse, 203–235; Noble, ch. 4. Readers with Reformed commitments may wish to explore the relationship between Wesley’s and Calvin’s doctrines of sanctification presented by Geoffrey Wainwright, “Perfect Salvation in the Teaching of Wesley and Calvin,” which forms ch. 8 of his Methodists in Dialogue (Nashville, TN: Kingswood, 1995).
  58. Compare Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript.
  59. Mulder, “Why,” 117.
  60. Note the recurrence of language of appropriateness, fittingness, and “match” in Mulder, “Why,” 120, 122, 126, 131, 133. See also Mulder, What Does It Mean, 116: “At bottom, all of these reasons [for belief in the Immaculate Conception] have something to do with Mary’s dignity as ‘Mother of God.’”
  61. Peter Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge: Cam- bridge University Press, 1998), chs. 1–2.
  62. For an accessible tour of the medieval Ptolemaic universe, see C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964).
  63. Blancy and Jourjon, 24–28; Perry, 187–203; Boss, “Development,” 207–212. Only by its maternal favoritism does Scotus’ view dodge universalism, for arguably the greatest possible salvation would be the preservation of all humanity from sin at conception.
  64. Blancy and Jourjon, 131; William J. Abraham, “Foreword,” in Perry, 12.
  65. See, for example, the Lutheran Formula of Concord, epitome I; the Reformed Belgic Confession, art. VII and Westminster Confession of Faith, ch. I; the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles, art. VI.
  66. Harrison, chs. 3–6. Even if one disagrees with Harrison’s claim of a causal connection from Protestantism to modern science, my main contention will stand so long as some sort of connection is allowed. For a complementary account of the theological contributions of the Reformation to the development of modern science, see Thomas F. Torrance, Theological Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 57–87.
  67. Bloesch, 107–120 (he notes Luther’s inconsistency on the subject on 240 n. 110); Blancy and Jourjon, 95–109, 125–126; Perry, 291–295. But see Ratzinger’s response to this claim in Daughter Zion, 67–68.
  68. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); James W. McAllister, Beauty and Revolution in Science (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996).
  69. For two accounts of theology as science, see Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology I (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), chs. 1–2; Torrance, Theological Science. Hodge’s epistemology is common-sense realism while Torrance’s is critical realism, but both concur that a scientific approach is one which exposes the rationality inherent in the subject matter.
  70. Michael White and John Gribbin, Einstein: A Life in Science (New York: Plume, 1993), 134–140 (Einstein quote from 135); Larry Whitham, By Design: Science and the Search for God (San Francisco: Encounter, 2003), 44, 57–73.
  71. I wish to thank several formal and informal reviewers, both Catholic and Protestant, of this essay’s earlier drafts. Their feedback was invaluable.

E. Jerome Van Kuiken

Oklahoma Wesleyan University
E. Jerome Van Kuiken (PhD, University of Manchester) is Professor of Christian Thought at Oklahoma Wesleyan University in Bartlesville, OK and a contributor to Theology and Tolkien vol. 1 (Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, forthcoming).