Tuesday, December 18, 2007

John the Baptist and original sin

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In our college bible study last week, the question came up about whether John the Baptist (like Mary) was also immaculately conceived, or somehow free from original sin. I went looking, and Jimmy Akin was very helpful. As he notes in response to a question as to whether John the Baptist was born without original sin:

This is not something that the Catholic Church teaches, but it is what may be called a pious and probable belief among Catholics.

The reason is that in Luke 1:13-15, when an angel prophecies the birth of John the Baptist, he says: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer is heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth; for he will be great before the Lord, and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb.”

It is commonly understood that the Holy Spirit does not fill those who are still in a state of original sin. As Catholics use the term, "original sin" refers to the privation of the sanctifying grace which unites us with God. A soul filled with the Holy Spirit seems unquestionably to be united with God and thus not deprived of sanctifying grace. Hence, it has not original sin as the term is commonly used among Catholics, just as every person who has been baptized or otherwise justified has not original sin as Catholics use the term.

(N.B., Protestants have a different and more expansive definition of the term "original sin," which includes the corrupt nature we inherit from Adam and which remains with us after we are justified. Consequently, it would sound very improbable to them that any person in this life does not have original sin, but this is because of the way the term is used in their circles, not because of a substantive theological difference.)

(N.B.B., If it is granted that John the Baptist was freed from original sin before birth, it does not follow that he was immaculate, as was the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is firstly because he may have been freed of original sin after his conception and before birth, whereas Mary was preserved from her conception from contracting original sin. And it secondly is because Mary was not only free of original sin, as is posited in the case of John the Baptist, but also utterly free of the stain of original sin, which includes more than just the deprivation of sanctifying grace. It also includes, for example, the later tendency to sin--concupiscence--to which we are subject in this life.)

That was very helpful. I found a similar, but far simpler reference to the idea in the 1917 Encyclopedia of Catholicism on New Advent:

Now during the sixth month, the Annunciation had taken place, and, as Mary had heard from the angel the fact of her cousin's conceiving, she went "with haste" to congratulate her. "And it came to pass, that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant" -- filled, like the mother, with the Holy Ghost -- "leaped for joy in her womb", as if to acknowledge the presence of his Lord. Then was accomplished the prophetic utterance of the angel that the child should "be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother's womb". Now as the presence of any sin whatever is incompatible with the indwelling of the Holy Ghost in the soul, it follows that at this moment John was cleansed from the stain of original sin.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church also has a little more useful information:

According to tradition (Origen, Ambrose, Jerome, and Leo the Great) John the Baptist was endowed with pre-natal grace at the time of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Luke 1:41). Consequently the Feast of his Nativity . . . was regarded as of a greater solemnity than that of his death.

It may be that the idea has fallen by the wayside in recent decades, for I noticed that this opinion is not mentioned in John Hardon’s Pocket Catholic Dictionary, Richard McBrien’s Encyclopedia of Catholicism, nor in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. As Jimmy Akin points out, part of it has to do with where you start, i.e., with your definition of original sin. In the traditional Catholic definition of original sin (the privation of sanctifying grace) the idea that John the Baptist was "cleansed" of original sin when he was filled with the Holy Spirit makes sense. It is essentially what we would mean by the term "baptism of desire."

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