Updated: Apr 6
By Luke Lancaster
Scripture and Tradition are how Catholics arrive at an understanding of all supernatural truths. One of these truths that is particularly contested by non-Catholics is that Mary is all-holy or "Immaculately Conceived." This spiritual belief states that Mary was preserved from all sin: both original and personal. She was set aside by God to be used as the perfect instrument of Christ's presence into the world. There are allusions to this teaching in Scripture (implicitly), but is only understood through the explicating lens of Tradition.
Now, let's remember our articles on the idea of development. With certain teachings passed on by the bishops from the earliest centuries, the understanding of those teachings developed upon further reflection. The teaching of the Immaculate Conception of Mary developed from a kind of "seedling" form. First Christians understood Mary's immense holiness and purity, then this moved to her being so holy and pure that she committed no personal sins, then finally this moved to the point that she was preserved even of original sin.
This understanding of Mary being immensely holy and pure is due to the association between her and the Ark of the Covenant. See a video of this here. The Ark was overlaid with gold and dwelled inside the golden Holy of Holies in King Solomon's Temple. God's presence dwelled there, and the high priest could enter once a year. In fact, the room was so sacred, that sometimes the priests would die while ministering so close to God Himself (Lev. 10:1-2)! Or if somebody touched the Ark of the Covenant, they died (2 Sam. 6:7)!
From the earliest days of the Church, Mary was seen as a type of the Ark of the Covenant. This was because she alone was overshadowed by God's presence - and to the point of giving birth to God Himself - Jesus. If Mary was associated with this holy object, then it is rather understandable why this understanding of Mary being "Immaculately Conceived" developed.
See below the pattern of development:
St. Hippolytus (c. 170-235) was a priest in Rome and a follower of St. Irenaeus, who was a follower of St. Polycarp, who was a follower of St. John the apostle. He wrote: "At that time, then, the Saviour appeared and showed His own body to the world, (born) of the Virgin, who was the ark overlaid with pure gold, with the Word [Jesus] within [the ark] and the Holy Spirit without; so that the truth is demonstrated, and the ark made manifest" (On Daniel - Second Fragment - para. 6).
Mary was the "ark overlaid with pure gold," who contained Jesus Christ within her, and "manifested" Him to the world.
"But the Lord was without sin, made of imperishable wood, as regards His humanity; that is, of the virgin and the Holy Ghost inwardly, and outwardly of the word of God, like an ark overlaid with purest gold" (Fragment - On Psalm 22 or 23).
Jesus received His humanity from Mary, and she was "like an ark overlaid with purest gold."
Mary is "holy" but how holy? The next quote says that she is "all-holy," although the writing is disputed: "For as to a virgin bearing, this we have known only in the case of the all-holy Virgin, who bore the Saviour verily clothed in flesh" (On the End of the World, para. 22).
Origen of Alexandria (c. 184-254) was a renowned priest and teacher of Christianity in Alexandria, Egypt and is considered the father of biblical exegesis for his immense Scripture commentaries. He must have loved St. Hippolytus, for he traveled to Rome to hear him speak. He frequently called Mary "all-holy" according to Patristics scholar Luigi Gambrero.
Origen wrote: “This Virgin Mother of the Only Begotten of God, is called Mary, worthy of God, immaculate of the immaculate, one of the one" (Homily 1).
Mary is "immaculate of the immaculate"? Doesn't this emphasis on her holiness sound immense?
St. Gregory of Pontus (or St. Gregory the Wonder Worker) (c. 213-270) was a disciple of Origen in Alexandria. He wrote: “Let us chant the melody that has been taught us by the inspired harp of David, and say, ‘Arise, O Lord, into thy rest; thou, and the ark of thy sanctuary.’ For the Holy Virgin is in truth an ark, wrought with gold both within and without, that has received the whole treasury of the sanctuary” (Homily #1 on the Annunciation to the Holy Virgin Mary).
"Hail, thou that art highly favoured! For in your arms the Creator of all things shall be carried. And she was perplexed by this word; for she was inexperienced in all the addresses of men, and welcomed quiet, as the mother of prudence and purity; (yet) being a pure, and immaculate, and stainless image herself, she shrank not in terror from the angelic apparition, like most of the prophets, as indeed true virginity has a kind of affinity and equality with the angels" (Homily #2 on the Annunciation to the Holy Virgin Mary).
The oldest prayer to Mary (c. 250-280) said, "Beneath your compassion, We take refuge, O Mother of God: do not despise our petitions in time of trouble: but rescue us from dangers, only pure, only blessed one" (Sub Tuum Praesidium, John Rylands papyrus 470, held at the University of Manchester).
St. Ephrem (c. 306-373) wrote: "You alone and your Mother are more beautiful than any others; For there is no blemish in you, nor any stains upon your mother. Who of my children can compare in beauty to these?" (The Nisibene Hymns, #27, para. 8).
St. Ambrose (c. 339-397) wrote: "Come, then, and search out Your sheep, not through Your servants or hired men, but do it Yourself. Lift me up bodily and in the flesh, which is fallen in Adam. Lift me up not from Sara but from Mary, a Virgin not only undefiled but a Virgin whom grace has made inviolate, free of every stain of sin" (Commentary on Psalm 118, #22, para. 30).
St. Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 293-373) defended the doctrine that Christ was truly God in the flesh against the heretic Arius. He was a famous bishop of the Christians living in Alexandria and wrote, "O noble Virgin, truly you are greater than any other greatness, O dwelling place of God the Word. To whom among all creatures shall I compare you, O Virgin? You are greater than them all. O [ark of the] Covenant, clothed with purity instead of gold! You are the ark in which is found the golden vessel containing the true manna, that is, the flesh in which divinity resides...If I say that the angels and archangels are great - but you are greater than them all, for the angels and archangels serve with trembling the One who dwells in your womb, and they dare not speak in his presence, while you speak to him freely" (Homily of the Papyrus of Turin).
St. Augustine (c. 354-430) was a bishop in Hippo, Africa and a friend of St. Ambrose. He became immensely well-known and was referred to by every Christian after him due to his voluminous theological wit. He wrote: “Having excepted the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom, on account of the honor of the Lord, I wish to have absolutely no question when treating of sins—for how do we know what abundance of grace for the total overcoming of sin was conferred upon her, who merited to conceive and bear him in whom there was no sin?—so, I say, with the exception of the Virgin, if we could have gathered together all those holy men and women, when they were living here, and had asked them whether they were without sin, what do we suppose would have been their answer?” (Nature and Grace chapter 42).
Dr. Lugwig Ott wrote: "The Latin Patristic authors unanimously teach the doctrine of the sinlessness of Mary." The Greek Patristic authors emphasized that Mary was "all-holy."
Blessed Pope Pius IX declared in c. 1854 that Mary was free from all stain of sin: both original and personal (https://www.papalencyclicals.net/pius09/p9ineff.htm).
As we have seen, this Catholic doctrine did not come out of leftfield! It had a distinct train of thought, moving from Mary's purity, to her absolute purity. It was not totally and completely understood by people like St. Paul and St. Peter. Rather, as the very nature of development occurs, a greater understanding of the Divine Revelation - once for all delivered for the saints - continues to occur.