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Doctrines and Morals…

Theological Significance of the Virginity of Mary


Francis 'Kunle Adedara 


The Virginity of Mary, the Mother of the Lord Jesus Christ, is spoken of in different ways, according to the different perspectives from which it is considered.  The term “Virgin Birth” is ordinarily used to designate the miraculous conception of Christ in the womb of Mary apart from the procreative power of the marital act.  But in this regard, it is more precisely called “virginal conception”.  According to the traditional formula, the total mystery of Mary’s virginity has been contemplated in three principal aspects, namely, ante partum, that is, virginal conception, in or durante partu, that is, her virginal parturition which maintains that her virginity remained intact while giving birth to Christ, and post partum, in other words, that she remained a virgin throughout her entire life, and it is the basis for the doctrine of perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  The virgin birth is taught by all the creeds of Christendom, and as such is an article of faith and basic norm of Christian orthodoxy.  As an article of faith, it has deep theological significance for how we understand and articulate what we believe about the Incarnation of the only Begotten Son of God, his life, mission and work of redemption.  And like any mystery of our faith, this too is intelligible.  One of the objectives of this essay is therefore to advance theological explanations for why we believe in the Virginity of Mary.

Virginal Conception

The New Testament basis for the traditional Christian faith concerning the virginity of Mary in conceiving Christ is found in Mt 1:18-25 and Lk 1:26-28.  Both evangelists were primarily interested in its Christological significance, since the virginal conception emphasizes the central mystery of Christian faith that Christ has only one Father in heaven, and so is true God, while having one mother on earth, and so is true Man.  The witness to belief in the virginial conception among the Fathers of the Church is as early as the Apostolic Father, St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred in AD 110.  The patristic testimony to it is constant, which reflects not only the teaching of the Church but the belief of all the faithful.  There seems to be no doubt that the evangelists Matthew and Luke and the Fathers of the Church understood the virginal conception literally, that is, as an historical fact or reality with a profound Christological meaning.  For them it was not just as a theologoumenon or Christologoumenon, that is, it was not as purely a symbol that is not also factual.  The virginal conception is also called “pneumatological conception” because this mystery was recorded as taking place through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Therefore, those who argue in favour of finding its traditional teaching and belief in the infancy narratives raise the question of where the evangelists obtained the idea if it were not from God’s revealing word.  They assert that there is no basis for holding that it originated with the pagan myths of parthenogenesis which were quite different from the pneumatological conception.

Virginal Parturition

That Mary remained a virgin in giving birth to Christ is indicated in the infancy narrative of Matthew (1:25).  This is significant for his purpose since he sees in her the fulfilment of the ancient prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 that the “Virgin” will both conceive and bear the child.  Generally speaking, the Fathers of the Western Church taught this aspect of Mary’s virginity in terms of a preservation of her bodily integrity and her exemption from experiencing the ordinary pangs of childbirth.  The Eastern Fathers emphasized Mary’s experience of joy and freedom from pain in giving birth to Christ.  St. Augustine sums up the patristic witness that developed during his time by simply stating: “She conceives and is a virgin; she gives birth and is a virgin.[1]”  Pope St. Leo the Great taught in a letter to Flavian in AD 449, in preparation for the Council of Chalcedon: “… she [Mary] brought him forth without the loss of virginity, even as she conceived him without its loss… [Jesus Christ was] born from the Virgin’s womb because it was a miraculous birth…”[2]  Whatever theological discussion is to be had on this matter, we must not, as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith cautioned (on July 27, 1960), discuss the question on a biological level instead of the theological level.

Perpetual Virginity

Although the Fathers and theologians of the Middle Ages, including Martin Luther, used Ezek 44:2 (the “gate” of Mary’s womb shall remain shut since the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered it) as the biblical basis for Mary’s perpetual virginity, there is certainly no clear reference to the doctrine in Sacred Scripture.  In the Tradition, the teaching that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life became prominent during the latter part of the fourth century, but considerable testimony had been given it for some time before, for example, by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Hilary of Poitiers, and Basil the Great.  The usage of the threefold formula, ante, durante (in), post, became standard with Augustine.  In its Marian teaching, Vatican II makes use of the liturgical expression found in Eucharistic Prayer 1, “of the glorious ever Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus Christ our Lord and God”[3], which continually confirms the Catholic Tradition of doctrine and faith in the matter.  However, there were those who believed that Mary had vowed to remain a virgin her entire life at a very early age prior to the Annunciation.  Nevertheless, the Church has never proposed this as a matter of divine faith.  It appears much more likely that her commitment of perpetual virginity came about as a result of total consecration to her Son and his mission.

Conclusion: Theological Significance of Mary’s Virginity

Regardless of how we might resolve the source of our faith in this matter, what is really important here is the manner in which God chose to “send his Son in the fullness of time.”  “We know what God has done not only from the text of the Bible, taken in isolation, but from the Bible as read, interpreted, and understood by the living Church, guided by the Holy Spirit.  Catholic belief in the Virgin Birth rests not on the Scriptures alone, but on the constant and consistent faith of the Church.”[4]  The faith is theologically intelligible.  Four theological explanations can be offered as to why it is fitting that Christ should be born of a virgin.[5]  First, in order to maintain the dignity of the Father Who sent Him.  For since Christ is the true and natural Son of God, it was not fitting that He should have another father than God; lest the dignity belonging to God be transferred to another.  Secondly, as befitting the property of the Son of God himself, since flesh was so assumed by the Word of God, as to be the flesh of the Word of God, it was fitting that it also should be conceived without corruption of the mother.  Thirdly, concerning the dignity of Christ’s humanity, since it was not possible in a nature already corrupt for flesh to be born from sexual intercourse without incurring the infection of original sin, Augustine argues that in the marriage between Joseph and Mary nuptial intercourse was lacking.  And fourthly, on account of the very end of the Incarnation of Christ, which was that men might be born again as sons of God, “not of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn 1:13), that is, of the power of God, of this fact, Christ’s conception must therefore appear as exemplar.

Concerning whether Mary was a virgin in giving birth to Christ, in a sermon of the Council of Ephesus, it was said: “After giving birth, nature knows not a virgin: but grace enhances her fruitfulness, and effects her motherhood, while in no way does it injure her virginity.”  Thus, she was a virgin also in giving birth to Christ.  Some theological explanations can be given for why Mary remained a virgin in giving birth to Jesus.[6]  First, because this was in keeping with a property of Him whose Birth is in question, for He is the Word of God.  For the word is not only conceived in the mind without corruption, but also proceeds from the mind without corruption.  Thus, in order to show that body to be the body of the very Word of God, it was fitting that it should be born of a virgin incorrupt.  In the same sermon of the Council of Ephesus we read: “Whosoever brings forth mere flesh, ceases to be a virgin.  But since she gave birth to the Word made flesh, God safeguarded her virginity so as to manifest his Word, by which Word He thus manifested Himself: for neither does our word, when brought forth, corrupt the mind; nor does God, the substantial Word, deigning to be born, destroy virginity.”  Secondly, it is fitting that Mary remain a virgin in giving birth to Christ as regards the effect of Christ’s Incarnation: since he came for this purpose, that he might take away our corruption.  Therefore, it is unfitting that in his birth he should corrupt his Mother’s virginity.  Thus, Augustine says in a sermon on the Nativity of our Lord: “It was not right that He who came to heal corruption, should by His advent violate integrity.”  And thirdly, it was fitting that He who commanded us to honour our father and mother should not in His Birth lessen the honour due to His Mother.

Concerning Mary’s perpetual virginity, the reference to the text of Ezekiel is apt: “This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it; because the Lord the God of Israel has entered in by it” (44:2).  Expounding these words, Augustine says in a sermon: “What means this closed gate in the House of the Lord, except that Mary is to be ever inviolate?  What does it mean that “no man shall pass through it,” save that Joseph shall not know her?  And what is this – “The Lord alone enters in and goes out by it,” except that she shall conceive of the Holy Spirit, and that the Lord of angels shall be born of her?  And what means this – “it shall be shut for evermore,” but that Mary is a virgin before His Birth, a virgin in His Birth, and a virgin after His Birth?”[7]  (Ante partum, durante partu, post partum).   

[1] PL 38, 1319

[2] DS 291, 294

[3] Cf. LG 52

[4] Pastoral Letter of the American Bishops, Behold Your Mother: Woman of Faith, n. 44

[5] See ST III, q. 28, a. 1

[6] See ST III, q. 28, a. 2

[7] De Annunt. Dom. iii


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