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Semper Virgo: The Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

NOTE: Sources all across the board were used for this, from Modern Roman Catholic sources to Reformed Scholastic sources, to Patristic sources. They are Francis Turretin’s Institutes (Reformed Scholastic), Francis J. Hall’s Dogmatic Theology and Theological Outlines (Anglican Scholastic), St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (Medieval Scholastic), Joseph Pohle’s Mariology: A Dogmatic Treatise on the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God (Pre-Conciliar Roman Catholic Scholastic), Scott Hahn’s Hail Holy Queen (Modern Roman Catholic: Lay Level), and St. Jerome’s Treatise Against Helvidius (Church Father).

Introduction

The usual response someone will get when they affirm that the Blessed Virgin Mary is “Semper Virgo” that is, ever-virgin, is “that’s Catholic nonsense.” The assertion gets laughed down as a pagan/gnostic absurdity that only a die-hard Roman Catholic would even think to believe. Historically, this is not the case, as something which was believed “Quod Ubique, Semper, et Ab Omnibus” it was affirmed by the Early Reformed, Tyndale, Zwingli, Luther, Calvin, Beza, Perkins, Turretin, Bullinger, Cranmer, Vermigli, Whitaker, Guy de Bres, Andrewes, Gouge, and Ussher, just to name a few. In fact, it even made it into a few Reformed Confessional documents, such as the 2nd Helvetic Confession (the most widely received Reformed Confession) which calls her “Semper Virgo,” in chapter 11.

What then is going on here? Were they just dumb? Were they closet Papists who forgot to leave behind a few doctrines from across the Tiber? Clearly not, for, how could many of those who banned Easter and Christmas be liable to holding on dearly to Rome. What is actually going on here is that holding Mary as Semper Virgo is the Biblical, ancient, and Catholic faith, therefore we ought to believe it, even when not bound by official dogmatic statements of a magisterium as in Rome.

What is Semper Virgo?

The acceptance of Semper Virgo requires two affirmations. First, that the Blessed Virgin Mary was a Virgin antepartum, that is, before the birth of Christ. This is non-controversial amongst all Christians, as is affirmed in the Apostles’ Creed, “He was born of the Virgin Mary.” This is expressed explicitly in scripture. The second affirmation is that the Blessed Virgin Mary remained a virgin Post Partum, that is, that she remained in a state of virginity after the birth of Christ. This is controversial today, for it is rejected in large swaths of Protestantism, yet it has reached universally accepted status in the teaching of various ecumenical councils, and rejection of Post Partum was always anathematized by the Church Catholic. This teaching is not explicit in scripture, but may be implicitly found.

Now, there is a third aspect of the perpetual virginity, virginity In Partu, that is, that in the birth of our Lord the physical markers of virginity were not removed. In this, the birth of Our Lord was painless for the Blessed Virgin Mary. There is much disagreement about this now, and at the time of the Reformation, there was much disagreement. This doctrine arose later in the Patristic era, this doctrine is not found explicitly in scripture, and is argued by conjecture. Yet, we may say that this was ecumenically received in East and West within the undivided church. In the Reformation, it was almost completely rejected by the Reformed, accepted in part by the early Lutherans, and taught dogmatically by the Roman Church. This third aspect will play a small part in this article and will only be mentioned briefly.

Virginity In Partu

This doctrine (In Partu), as mentioned above, has a weaker tradition than the other two aspects of the doctrine of Semper Virgo, but, this does not mean that it ought to be rejected. For, the Church Catholic, in its reflection upon this doctrine, gradually came to expound this doctrine in its fullest sense, developing from the seed of earlier teaching into the full tree of dogmatic truth.

The earliest explicit example is found in St. Ambrose of Milan and the Synod of Milan led by him (390). St. Ambrose declared:

“Perversely they assert that she conceived as a virgin but was no longer a virgin when she brought forth [her Son] … But if men will not believe the teaching of the priests, let them believe the pronouncements of Christ, let them believe the Apostles’ Creed, which the Church has always guarded and continues to preserve.”

Both East and West came to accept and teach it conciliary in the pre-schism era, for example, a Western Synod, the Lateran Council (649) taught,

“If anyone does not properly and truly confess in accord with the holy Fathers, that the holy Mother of God and ever Virgin and immaculate Mary...incorruptibly bore [Him], her virginity remaining indestructible even after His birth, let him be anathema.”

The same belief is seen in the east, for example, St. John of Damascus writes,

"For He who was of the Father, yet without mother, was born of woman without a father's co-operation. And so far as He was born of woman, His birth was in accordance with the laws of parturition, while so far as He had no father, His birth was above the nature of generation: and in that it was at the usual time (for He was born on the completion of the ninth month when the tenth was just beginning), His birth was in accordance with the laws of parturition, while in that it was painless it was above the laws of generation. For, as pleasure did not precede it, pain did not follow it, according to the prophet who says, Before she travailed, she brought forth, and again, before her pain came she was delivered of a man-child. Isaiah 66:7...just as He who was conceived kept her who conceived still virgin, in like manner also He who was born preserved her virginity intact, only passing through her and keeping her closed...For it was not impossible for Him to have come by this gate, without injuring her seal in anyway.”

Arguably, this is also taught at the ecumenical level when it is said at the Council of Ephesus (431),

"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...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,"

and some teach that the Sixth Ecumenical Council also taught this when it affirmed Mary’s virginity “before, during, and after” birth.

This can arguably be found at an implicit level in the prophecy of Isaiah, “behold a Virgin shall conceive and bear a Son.” For, it does not only say that the Blessed Virgin Mary qua virgin conceives, but also that the Blessed Virgin Mary qua virgin bears a Son.

Further, we can argue based on the fittingness of the truth, as St. Thomas Aquinas does. First, Christ is the Word of God, by its very nature a word both is conceived and comes forth from the mind without corrupting the mind, therefore it is fitting that the body of the Word of God should both be conceived and come forth from the Blessed Virgin Mary without corrupting her. Second, the purpose of the coming of Christ is for the taking away of corruption, therefore it is unfitting for him to bring corruption, as St. Augustine said, “It was not right that He who came to heal corruption, should by His advent violate integrity." Third, Christ as a perfect man “honor[ed] [his] father and mother” par excellence, therefore Christ did not lessen the honor of His mother, therefore she remains a virgin In Partu.

Objections

Although in a qualified sense In Partu can be accepted by the Reformed, as Turretin says,

“It did not consist in this—that Christ was born from a closed womb—but that she was a virgin untouched by man.” The argument is over those physical marks of virginity and over pain suffered in giving birth.”

First, it is argued that “she cannot be said to have brought forth without pain...since she was not without sin, she ought to endure the punishment of sin also in this particular and primeval lot of mothers.” It is true that all women under sin suffer pain in childbearing, as is stated in Genesis 3, but there is disagreement over whether the Blessed Virgin Mary was A. Kept free from all sin original and actual, B. Sanctified from all sin at a certain point in her life (usually the annunciation), or C. sinful. In option A or B, this objection does not stand, it only stands in option C.

Second, it is argued that “Scripture expressly states the contrary (Lk. 2:22, 23, when it applies to Christ the passage “Every male that openeth the womb,” Ex. 13:2).” To the contrary, “opening the womb” is an idiomatic phrase that expresses the idea of giving birth. As St. Thomas Aquinas says “ the opening here spoken of does not imply the unlocking of the enclosure of virginal purity; but the mere coming forth of the infant from the maternal womb.”

Third, it is argued from, “the nature of the thing itself (not allowing of this penetration and the existence of two bodies in one place).” Although naturally, this would follow, miraculously it is possible. For example, one could argue that from the nature of density and gravity that Christ’s walking on water was impossible, but this is clearly not so, we rightly regard those things which are “impossible” as miraculous. As St. Augustine writes, "To the substance of a body in which was the Godhead closed doors were no obstacle. For truly He had power to enter in by doors not open, in Whose Birth His Mother's virginity remained inviolate."

Virginity Post Partum: Introduction

Now, let's look at the evidence for the belief that Mary stayed a virgin the remainder of her life after the birth of Christ. If we look in scripture there is no explicit statement to the effect that “Mary remained a virgin for a remainder of her life,” but, as we will see, it is implicit in scripture. The early church accepted and taught that Mary was Semper Virgo, there is not much disagreement there. This quote from St. Jerome is striking (attesting to how truly ancient this view is),

"Might I not array against you the whole series of ancient writers? Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenæus, Justin Martyr, and many other apostolic and eloquent men, who against Ebion, Theodotus of Byzantium, and Valentinus, held these same views, and wrote volumes replete with wisdom. If you had ever read what they wrote, you would be a wiser man. But I think it better to reply briefly to each point than to linger any longer and extend my book to an undue length."

When the heretics Bonosus, Helvidius, and Jovinian fought against the doctrine in the 4th century, pointing back to the (schismatic) Tertullian as their source, they were quickly condemned as heretics by the Church Catholic. The doctrine reached ecumenical status at the Council of Ephesus (431), is inserted into the creed of the fifth ecumenical council, and is also taught authoritatively by the sixth ecumenical council. There was little disagreement on this issue until the post-reformation era.

In Scripture

There are several implicit and typological examples that can be brought forth in defense of this truth. First, Ezekiel, typologically referring to the Blessed Virgin Mary states “this gate [Mary] shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it; because the Lord the God of Israel [Jesus] hath entered in by it.” St. Augustine comments on this passage,

"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 goeth out by it'—except that the Holy Ghost shall impregnate her, 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?"

Second, as St. Augustine points out when the angel tells Mary of her conception of Jesus, she responds “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” St. Augustine comments here that “Had she intended to know man, she would not have been amazed. Her amazement is a sign of the vow [of virginity].” Many from a protestant background are confused about how this follows, “Of course she was shocked, they were just engaged!”

It's clear from the text that they weren't “just engaged” as we would think of (there was no such thing at the time), but they were in fact already married at the time of the events of the annunciation. First, when St. Joseph discovers the pregnancy, he plans to ἀπολῦσαι her. This is (in such a context) always translated as “divorce,” referring to the severing of the marital bond, not the breaking up of an engagement. Second, throughout the narrative by both the angel and the evangelist Mary is referred to as Joseph's “wife,” i.e. “Mary your wife.” Third, the fact that they travel together to Bethlehem as a family to enroll. In this case, they are obviously married, yet they are still described as “betrothed.” Clearly, it is more than engagement. It is impossible to get around the fact that the couple is married without a serious impact to certain ethical conclusions (such as the fact that an “engaged” couple is cohabitating as is clear from the narrative).

At the time of the annunciation, St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary (in the normal course of events) would have already consummated the marriage and would have a normal sexual relationship, but Mary says “how can this be?” It is clear that the married couple had not yet had sexual relations (which everyone agrees to), but her surprise at the very idea reveals something deeper. She wasn't planning on having sexual relations. For, let’s say you went up to a newly married woman at the reception of her wedding and prophesied that she would be having a child, she wouldn't bat an eye, but if she asked “how can this be!” There would need to be questions asked. Even upon the average protestant supposition that they were engaged the conclusion still follows because if you prophesied to an engaged woman a few months away from her wedding that she will be pregnant, she also wouldn't have a response of surprise.

The Fathers taught, as is clear from the biblical text, that this surprise reveals a vow of chastity, that the Blessed Virgin Mary vowed not to have sexual relations, and thus from this we can deduce that she kept this vow even through her pregnancy, leading us to believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary.

Third, it is implicit in the handing over of the Blessed Virgin Mary to St. John. For, at Jesus’ crucifixion he tells His mother “woman, behold your son” and St. John “son, behold your mother.” On the supposition that Mary had a bunch of other kids, this would make absolutely no sense. For, it was during the time of the Passover, therefore these “other sons” would be in Jerusalem and would be disposed to helping their mother out after their brother just got killed, yet Jesus feels the need to hand her over to St. John to be cared for. What this indicates is that these other sons did not exist, because Jesus was her only son, St. Joseph had died, therefore she was handed over to St. John.

From Fittingness

First, it is fitting that as Christ is the perfect and Only-Begotten Son of God the Father, so too is He is perfect and Only-Begotten Son of Mary.

Second, it is unfitting that the shrine of the Holy Ghost, where He formed the humanity of Christ should be desecrated by another.

Third, it would be derogatory to the holiness of the Mother of God. For, God miraculously preserved her virginity, while also miraculously gifting her a Son, it would be ungrateful for her to forfeit what was miraculously preserved in her and would show discontent.

Fourth, it would also be derogatory to the holiness of St. Joseph. For, this assumes that St. Joseph would violate her when he knew, by a revelation from heaven, that her virginity had been miraculously preserved.

Fifth, as Turretin writes “Thus it is probable that the womb in which our Savior received the auspices of life (whence he entered into this world, as from a temple) was so consecrated and sanctified by so great a guest that she always remained untouched by man.”

Objections

The first objection is found in Matthew 1:18, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.” The argument is thus: The text says “before they came together,” “came together” is in reference to sexual intercourse, therefore, after the birth of Christ, Joseph and Mary had sexual intercourse.

On the contrary, St. Jerome writes,

"Although this particle 'before' often indicates a subsequent event, yet we must observe that it not infrequently points merely to some thing previously in the mind: nor is there need that what was in the mind take place eventually, since something may occur to prevent its happening. Thus if a man say: 'Before I dined in the port, I set sail,' we do not understand him to have dined in port after he set sail: but that his mind was set on dining in port." What is really being said here is that there was a point in which they were going to “come together,” but before this could occur “she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.”

The point of the text is that the “come together” never happened because of the miraculous intervention of the conception of Christ. It is as if I said “before St. Thomas Aquinas finished the Summa Theologica he died,” I am not saying that after he died he finished the Summa, what I am saying is that something interfered with him finishing, just as there was an interference with “come together,” namely the conception of Christ.

Another explanation is that “came together” is not in reference to sexual intercourse, but is idiomatic of them coming to live together. Although this is a more remote possability, it is a desirable reading in that it does not imply that Our Lady had plans to have sexual relations with St. Joseph and were interfered.

The second objection is from the nature of marriage. The argument is thus: Joseph and Mary were married, marriage is consummated by sexual intercourse, therefore in order for Joseph and Mary to be married they would have to consummate it by sexual intercourse.

On the contrary, this cannot be so. For, they are referred to as “espoused,” Joseph is referred to as “her [Mary’s] husband,” and Mary is said by the angel to Joseph to be “thy wife” all before the birth of Christ. Since we know explicitly in the text that Mary remained a virgin until birth, therefore the marriage was truly constituted (as witnessed by the evangelist and by an angel) even before any supposed sexual intercourse on the objectors part. Further, as St. Augustine writes “The Mother of God is called (Joseph's) wife from the first promise of her espousals, whom he had not known nor ever was to know by carnal intercourse.” For, the efficient cause of a marriage is not sexual intercourse (which is not of the esse but of the bene esse of a marriage) but is the mutual consent to marry as is seen in the vows. In the words of Turretin,

“Although copulation had not taken place in that marriage, it did not cease to be true and ratified (although unconsummated) for not intercourse, but consent makes marriage. Therefore it was perfect as to form (to wit, undivided conjunction of life and unviolated faith), but not as to end (to wit, the procreation of children, although it was not deficient as to the raising of the offspring).”

The third objection is from Matthew 1:25, “And [Joseph] knew her [Mary] not until she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name Jesus.” The argument is thus: The passages says Joseph did not have sexual intercourse with Mary until the birth of Christ, until implies that the act ceases once the “until” is reached, therefore the act of “not knowing her” cease at the birth of Christ, therefore Mary and Joseph had sexual intercourse after the birth of Christ.

On the contrary, “until” can be used in two senses. In the first sense, it does indicate that the act does occur after the “until,” for example in Galatians 3:19, it is said "Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the seed should come to whom the promise was made.” In this sense, it surely does indicate a definite time in which the act occurs, the law was in effect before the “until,” and then was not in effect after.

However, “until” can be used in a second sense, in which the act occurs both before and after the “until,” without any definite reference to the act ceasing, such as in Psalm 110:1, “THE LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.” (Also see: Gen. 28:15; Pss. 122:2; 110:1; Mt. 28:20) This sense of the word clearly does not refer to a ceasing of the action after the “until,” but clearly highlights the existence of the act before the “until,” without making a definite statement about the ceasing of the act. In this case clearly the ‘until” is indefinite because we know that Christ does not stop sitting at the right hand of God once his enemies are his footstool, but this passage highlights the current sitting down of Christ. So also, the passage quoted clearly highlights the fact of Mary’s virginity before the birth of Christ, and this is clearly the chief reference of the passage, it makes no definite statement about the continuity or discontinuity of the state of virginity.

The fourth argument is from the title “firstborn” given to Christ. The argument is thus: The Gospels title Christ the “first-born,” a “first-born” implies more children than one, therefore she had other children and is not a virgin.

On the contrary, the minor premise, that “a ‘first-born’ implies more children than one” is untrue. For, “first-born” only tells us that the child born is born first, not necessarily that he is followed by others. This is seen in the laws of “first-fruits,” for, the firstborn children had to be dedicated unto the Lord, it would be impossible to tell whether they were to have siblings or not because they were dedicated to the Lord within a month, therefore Christ could truly be called “first-born” and be an only child.

The fifth argument is from Jesus’ brothers listed in multiple places. The argument is thus: Jesus is said to have brothers, brothers are from the same parents, Mary was Jesus’ only earthly parent, therefore Mary had other children, therefore she is not a perpetual virgin.

On the contrary, this argument is destroyed by attacking the two minor premises, “brothers are from the same parents” and “Mary was Jesus’ only earthly parent.” The first minor premise can be dispelled in two ways.

First, the word “brothers” in scripture, as St. Jerome points out, is used in four senses,

“those who are united by being of the same parents, of the same nation, of the same family, by common affection."

As Turretin says

“It is common in Scripture not only for one’s own and full brothers by nature to be designated by this name, but also blood relatives and cousins (as Abraham and Lot, Jacob and Laban). Thus James and Joses, Simon and Judas are called brothers of Christ (Mt. 13:55) by a relation of blood. For Mary (who is called their mother by Matthew and Mark) is called by John the sister of the Lord’s mother. However what is said in Jn. 7:5 that “neither did his brethren believe in him” must be understood of more remote blood relations.”

Only one of these senses would possibly allow for the conclusion drawn.

Second, even if it is used in the sense of “those who are united by being of the same parents,” it still does not require that Mary be not a perpetual virgin, for, it is possible for those sons of Joseph to be referred to as Jesus’ brothers. But, the second minor premise “Mary was Jesus’ only earthly parent” is leveled against this interpretation. This is not true, for Joseph is understood to be Jesus’ earthly father even if he is not his biological father, as is seen from the frequent reference of Joseph as his father and the genealogical lines in the beginning of the gospels.

The fifth argument is against the idea that Mary took a vow of virginity. Turretin argues thus,

“These words are falsely wrested to a vow of which there is not the slightest trace. They are only those of one wondering on account of the novelty and greatness of the thing and inquiring about the mode. For it could not but be wonderful to a virgin that immediate conception and birth should be foretold, no mention being made of the consummation of marriage or of her spouse Joseph, just as if they were already married (while she herself was conscious of her virginity and knew as yet no husband).”

On the contrary, this conclusion from Turretin may be attacked on two points. First, about his theory that Mary was just “inquiring about the mode. For it could not but be wonderful to a virgin that immediate conception and birth should be foretold.” This makes no sense. There is no indication in the text of anything extraordinary about the mode of conception and birth of the child, Mary couldn't and didn't know about the mode yet. The Blessed Virgin Mary had read the Old Testament and read of such things happening before, such as in the case of Samson’s mom and numerous other women without any extraordinary means.

It is rational to think that she assumed that such a conception and birth would happen by the normal course of nature, yet she said “how can this be?” Then she explains herself, not pointing to the extraordinary conception or the great prophecies about the son she will bear, but she points to the fact that “I know not a man?” The only consistent explanation of this passage is that she took a vow of virginity.

Second, in vain does Turretin point to the fact that “no mention being made of the consummation of marriage or of her spouse Joseph” to show that Mary was marveling over the extraordinary mode of conception. Turretin truly flips this passage on its head. For, neither is there mention of the extraordinary mode of conception until after she makes the statement “how can this be?” Why would Mary be surprised that no mention is “made of the consummation of marriage or of her spouse Joseph?” It seems like an obvious assumption that Mary would make, Mary would not have the unspoken assumption of a Virgin birth (something never heard of). Why would Mary’s mind instantly reach the conclusion that a virginal birth would happen?

If a female friend announced to you that she was pregnant would you marvel in awe because “no mention is made of the consummation of marriage or of her spouse.” Of course not! The normal mode of conception and birth is assumed even when not explicitly mentioned. There is no reason textually to assume that Mary would have known or assumed that there would be an extraordinary mode of conception or of birth. This is a poor and inconsistent reading of the text.

Conclusion

In conclusion, “Siricius and Bede indignantly charge the opponents of this dogma with ‘perfidy;’ Gennadius accuses them of ‘blasphemy,’ St. Ambrose of ‘sacrilege,’ St. Jerome of ‘impiety,’ and St. Epiphanius of ‘a rashness exceeding all bounds.’ St. Basil declares: ‘Those who love Christ will not brook the assertion that the Mother of God ever ceased to be a virgin.’” Our fathers in the faith held this to be an important doctrine, so should we. They did not have the mindset that this was a secondary doctrine to be trifled with, joked about, or rejected, rather this was something to be believed as a token of respect towards the Mother of God. There was the clear recognition in their mind that honor and respect were to be paid towards the Mother of God, just as Christ “honor[ed] his Father and mother,” so also should we. If not out of honor and love for our Lady, it should be believed out of fear, for one who defames our Lady defames the mother of God the Son, the spouse of God the Spirit, and the daughter of God the Father. Think about that.




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