The Ecumenical Stain of Original Sin

Do Orthodoxy and Catholicism significantly disagree on original sin? Both agree that by his sin and disobedience Adam broke fellowship with God and introduced into the world chaos, disharmony, corruption, evil, and death. But Orthodoxy dissents from Catholicism, we are often told, at one crucial point: unlike the Catholic Church, Orthodoxy does not teach that the heirs of Adam inherit the guilt of Adam; rather they inherit mortality, which is understood as the “cause” of all subsequent human disobedience. Fr John Meyendorff elaborates:

Now, in Greek patristic thought, only this free, personal mind can commit sin and incur the concomitant “guilt”—a point made particularly clear by Maximus the Confessor in his distinction between “natural will” and “gnomic will.” Human nature as God’s creature always exercises its dynamic properties (which together constitute the “natural will”—a created dynamism) in accordance with the divine will, which creates it. But when the human person, or hypostasis, by rebelling against both God and nature misuses its freedom, it can distort the “natural will” and thus corrupt nature itself. It is able to do so because it possesses freedom, or “gnomic will,” which is capable of orienting man toward the good and of “imitating God” (”God alone is good by nature,” writes Maximus, “and only God’s imitator is good by his gnome“); it is also capable of sin because “our salvation depends on our will.” But sin is always a personal act and never an act of nature. Patriarch Photius even goes so far as to say, referring to Western doctrines, that the belief in a “sin of nature” is a heresy.

From these basic ideas about the personal character of sin, it is evident that the rebellion of Adam and Eve against God could be conceived only as their personal sin; there would be no place, then, in such an anthropology for the concept of inherited guilt, or for a “sin of nature,” although it admits that human nature incurs the consequences of Adam’s sin.

The Greek patristic understanding of man never denies the unity of mankind or replaces it with a radical individualism. The Pauline doctrine of the two Adams (”As in Adam all men die, so also in Christ all are brought to life” [1 Co 15:22]), as well as the Platonic concept of the ideal man, leads Gregory of Nyssa to understand Genesis 1:27—”God created man in His own image”—to refer to the creation of mankind as a whole. It is obvious, therefore, that the sin of Adam must also be related to all men, just as salvation brought by Christ is salvation for all mankind; but neither original sin nor salvation can be realized in an individual’s life without involving his personal and free responsibility.

The scriptural text, which played a decisive role in the polemics between Augustine and the Pelagians, is found in Romans 5:12 where Paul speaking of Adam writes, “As sin came into the world through one man and through sin and death, so death spreads to all men because all men have sinned [eph ho pantes hemarton].” In this passage there is a major issue of translation. The last four Greek words were translated in Latin as in quo omnes peccaverunt (”in whom [i.e., in Adam] all men have sinned”), and this translation was used in the West to justify the doctrine of guilt inherited from Adam and spread to his descendants. But such a meaning cannot be drawn from the original Greek—the text read, of course, by the Byzantines. The form eph ho—a contraction of epi with the relative pronoun ho—can be translated as “because,” a meaning accepted by most modern scholars of all confessional backgrounds. Such a translation renders Paul’s thought to mean that death, which is “the wages of sin” (Rm 6:23) for Adam, is also the punishment applied to those who, like him, sin. It presupposes a cosmic significance of the sin of Adam, but does not say that his descendants are “guilty” as he was, unless they also sin as he sinned.

A number of Byzantine authors, including Photius, understood the eph ho to mean “because” and saw nothing in the Pauline text beyond a moral similarity between Adam and other sinners, death being the normal retribution for sin. But there is also the consensus of the majority of Eastern Fathers, who interpret Romans 5:12 in close connection with 1 Corinthians 15:22—between Adam and his descendants there is a solidarity in death just as there is a solidarity in life between the risen Lord and the baptized. …

Mortality, or “corruption,” or simply death (understood in a personalized sense), has indeed been viewed since Christian antiquity as a cosmic disease, which holds humanity under its sway, both spiritually and physically, and is controlled by the one who is “the murderer from the beginning” (Jn 8:44). It is this death, which makes sin inevitable and in this sense “corrupts” nature. (Byzantine Theology, pp. 143-145)

Meyendorff reiterates this difference between East and West in his brief discussion of the Immaculate Conception. “Byzantine homiletic and hymnographical texts,” he writes, “often praise the Virgin as ‘fully prepared,’ ‘cleansed,’ and ’sanctified.’ But these texts are to be understood in the context of the doctrine of original sin which prevailed in the East: the inheritance from Adam was mortality, not guilt, and there was never any doubt among Byzantine theologians that Mary was indeed a mortal being” (p. 147). He even goes so far as to suggest that “the Mariological piety of the Byzantines would probably have led them to accept the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary as it has been defined in 1854, if only they shared the Western doctrine of original sin” (p. 148).

I distinctly remember reading Meyendorff’s discussion of original sin many years ago while I was still an Anglican and wondered whether he had accurately stated the Western understanding. I knew that I did not and had never understood original sin as a sharing in the guilt of Adam; but my knowledge of magisterial Roman Catholic teaching was limited at that time.  I would not explore the matter until many years later.  And the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was certainly well beyond my sympathies.  Of course Mary was a sinner—how could she not be?

Tracing the doctrine of original sin within the Latin tradition is well beyond my competence. Those who are interested in the topic might want to purchase or borrow Henri Rondet’s book Original Sin.  Rondet discusses at some length St Augustine’s construal of the Fall and its effects on humanity. For Augustine, he writes, “the most important consequence [of Adam’s sin] is sin itself. The children of Adam come into the world in a state of sin. To this sin of nature that they bring with them on being born, they add personal sins, so much so that of itself the human race, fallen from its primeval state, has no prospect other than hell” (pp. 120-121). Think massa damnata. It also seems to be the case that the Bishop of Hippo taught that human beings do share, in a mysterious way, in the personal guilt of Adam and are thus deserving of divine wrath and condemnation, even apart from their personal sins. On the basis of this inherited guilt, Augustine concluded that infants and small children who die without baptism are justly damned. The condition of original sin can only be cured by rebirth in the New Adam.

Rondet makes clear, however, that as influential as the Augustinian construal has been, Latin theologians have not been content to simply reiterate it. Significant modifications and corrections have been made over the centuries.

So what does the Catholic Church presently teach about original sin? Fortunately for our purposes, the Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes several pages to a discussion of the creation and fall of man. It tells us that man was created in the image of God and “established in friendship with his Creator and in harmony with himself and with the creation around him” (§374). This state of friendship and harmony is called “original holiness and justice.” But man let trust die in his heart and disobeyed the command of God. He “preferred himself to God and by that very act scorned him. He chose himself over and against God, against the requirements of his creaturely status and therefore against his own good” (§398). Consequently, humanity immediately lost the grace of original holiness. The Catechism describes the consequences of this fall:

The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination. Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man. Because of man, creation is now subject “to its bondage to decay”. Finally, the consequence explicitly foretold for this disobedience will come true: man will “return to the ground”, for out of it he was taken. Death makes its entrance into human history. (§400)

All men are implicated in Adam’s sin, as St. Paul affirms: “By one man’s disobedience many (that is, all men) were made sinners”: “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.” The Apostle contrasts the universality of sin and death with the universality of salvation in Christ. “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men.” (§402)

So far so good. Is there anything in this presentation to which an Eastern Orthodox theologian would strongly object? One even notes the adoption by the Catechism of the Greek text for Rom 5:12: “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.” But the above passage strongly intimates mankind’s Adamic solidarity: “all men are implicated in Adam’s sin.” Perhaps here we finally arrive at the dreaded Augustinian assertion of inherited guilt.  The Catechism, however, decisively qualifies such an assertion:

Following St. Paul, the Church has always taught that the overwhelming misery which oppresses men and their inclination towards evil and death cannot be understood apart from their connection with Adam’s sin and the fact that he has transmitted to us a sin with which we are all born afflicted, a sin which is the “death of the soul.” Because of this certainty of faith, the Church baptizes for the remission of sins even tiny infants who have not committed personal sin.

How did the sin of Adam become the sin of all his descendants? The whole human race is in Adam “as one body of one man”. By this “unity of the human race” all men are implicated in Adam’s sin, as all are implicated in Christ’s justice. Still, the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand. But we do know by Revelation that Adam had received original holiness and justice not for himself alone, but for all human nature. By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state. It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called “sin” only in an analogical sense: it is a sin “contracted” and not “committed”—a state and not an act.

Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin—an inclination to evil that is called “concupiscence”. Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle. (§§403-405; emphasis mine)

The Catechism’s presentation of original sin is legitimately open to interpretation. It does not seek to resolve the differences between the various schools. The catechetical doctrine excludes the Pelagian reduction of original sin to “the influence of Adam’s fault to bad example,” on the one hand, and the Reformation exaggeration of original sin as the radical perversion of human nature and destruction of human freedom (§406), on the other. Between these two boundaries lies the mystery of human iniquity and the fall of man. In the tradition of St Thomas Aquinas, the Catechism identifies the essential character of original sin as the loss of original holiness and justice: man is born into a state of spiritual death. Not only is every human being born into a world dominated by oppression, violence, and hatred; but he is also born into a condition of profound alienation from his creator. The Holy Spirit does not indwell his soul, as originally intended by God. Fallen man is thus deprived of sanctifying grace. His nature is wounded. This is the sin bequeathed to humanity by Adam. This original sin is properly understood as a condition and state, not as personal act: it “does not have the character of a personal fault.” The Catholic Church thus agrees with Orthodox theologians who insist that no person may be deemed morally culpable for a sin he did not personally commit. Individuals are not condemned by God because of Adam’s disobedience. In the words of Pope Pius IX: “God in His supreme goodness and clemency, by no means allows anyone to be punished with eternal punishments who does not have the guilt of voluntary fault” (Quanto conficiamur moerore [1863]). All human beings enjoy solidarity with Adam and share in the consequences of his disobedience. All are born “in Adam.” But we do not inherit his personal guilt but only his corrupted nature and separation from the divine life. In one of his 1986 catechetical teachings, Pope John Paul II elaborated upon the “sin” of original sin:

Therefore original sin is transmitted by way of natural generation. This conviction of the Church is indicated also by the practice of infant baptism, to which the [Tridentine] conciliar decree refers. Newborn infants are incapable of committing personal sin, yet in accordance with the Church’s centuries-old tradition, they are baptized shortly after birth for the remission of sin. The decree states: “They are truly baptized for the remission of sin, so that what they contracted in generation may be cleansed by regeneration” (DS 1514).

In this context it is evident that original sin in Adam’s descendants does not have the character of personal guilt. It is the privation of sanctifying grace in a nature which has been diverted from its supernatural end through the fault of the first parents. It is a “sin of nature,” only analogically comparable to “personal sin.” In the state of original justice, before sin, sanctifying grace was like a supernatural “endowment” of human nature. The loss of grace is contained in the inner “logic” of sin, which is a rejection of the will of God, who bestows this gift. Sanctifying grace has ceased to constitute the supernatural enrichment of that nature which the first parents passed on to all their descendants in the state in which it existed when human generation began. Therefore man is conceived and born without sanctifying grace. It is precisely this “initial state” of man, linked to his origin, that constitutes the essence of original sin as a legacy (peccatum originale originatum, as it is usually called).

Latin theologians typically employ the terms sin, stain of sin, guilt, punishment, and penalty to describe the condition of fallen man. Following the ritual practice of the Church, they even speak of infants and small children being baptized for the “remission of their sins.” But the Catholic Church is clear that this usage is to be interpreted analogically not literally. The driving concern here is the universality of salvation in the New Adam and the necessity of Holy Baptism. Jesus is the savior of all humanity, infants and adults. All need to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit and incorporated into the glorified human nature of the eternal Son of God; all are summoned to the waters of baptism. Apart from this new act of grace, whether ministered sacramentally or extra-sacramentally, none can be saved.

Again I ask, Is there anything in this presentation to which an Eastern Orthodox theologian would strongly object? I acknowledge that the conceptuality of sanctifying grace, developed in the medieval West, is alien to Orthodox reflection.  Scholasticism’s concern was to explicate the impact of God’s gratuitous self-communication on the human being. But the Roman Catholic Church can hardly insist that the Eastern Church must think in scholastic categories.  Consider, for example, the presentation of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception by Fr Karl Rahner:

What is the meaning of the Immaculate Conception then? The Church’s teaching that is expressed in these words, simply states that the most blessed virgin Mother of God was adorned by God with sanctifying grace from the first instant of her existence, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ her son, that is, on account of the redemption effected by her son. Consequently she never knew that state which we call original sin, and which consists precisely in the lack of grace in mean caused in them by the sin of the first man at the beginning of human history. The Immaculate Conception of the blessed Virgin, therefore, consists simply in her having possessed the divine life of grace from the beginning of her existence, a life of grace that was given her (without her meriting it), by the prevenient grace of God, so that through this grace-filled beginning of her life, she might become the mother of the redeemer in the manner God had intended her to be for his own Son. For this reason she was enveloped from the beginning of her life in the redemptive and saving love of God. Such is, quite simply, the content of this doctrine which Pius IX in 1854 solemnly defined as a truth of the Catholic faith. (Mary, Mother of the Lord, pp. 43-44)

The Immaculate Conception means that Mary possessed grace from the beginning. What does it signify, though, to say that someone has sanctifying grace? This dry technical term of theology makes it sound as though some thing were meant. Yet ultimately sanctifying grace and its possession do not signify any thing, not even merely some sublime, mysterious condition of our souls, lying beyond the world of our personal experience and only believed in a remote, theoretical way. Sanctifying grace, fundamentally, means God himself, his communications to created spirits, the gift which is God himself. Grace is light, love, receptive access of a human being’s life as a spiritual person to the infinite expenses of the Godhead. Grace means freedom, strength, a pledge of eternal life, the predominant influence of the Holy Spirit in the depths of the soul, adoptive sonship and an eternal inheritance. (p. 48)

Like us, Mary is born into a sinful world and must engage in spiritual battle against Satan and the principalities and powers. Like us, Mary lives in a broken world filled with violence, sickness, and death. Like us, Mary is mortal and lives in the knowledge of her mortality. Yet she differs from us in one crucial respect: from the very first moment she came into existence in her mother’s womb, she was indwelt by the Holy Spirit and thus enjoyed intimate, enduring communion with God. It seems to me that Rahner’s interpretation of the Immaculate Conception is easily translated into the language of theosis.  In this sense, the blessed Virgin Mother was, by the grace of God, free from sin, original and actual. Do Orthodox Christians truly desire to deny this?

In one of his homilies on the Annunciation of the Virgin, St Sophronius of Jerusalem envisions the Archangel Gabriel speaking the following words to the young maiden:

But no one was full of grace like you; no one was blessed like you; no one was sanctified like you; no one was magnified like you; no one was purified in advance like you; no one was enlightened like you; no one was illuminated like you; no one was exalted like you; no one brought God forward like you; no one became so rich in God’s gifts like you; no one received God’s grace like you; you exceed in every human excellence. (Quoted in John Panteleimon Manoussakis, For the Unity of All, p. 9)

If the Latin doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is reformulated in positive terms, as the assertion of Mary’s possession of the Holy Spirit from conception, does the doctrine then become acceptable to the East? And if Catholics and Orthodox can agree on the original and life-enduring purity of the Theotokos, do they not in fact essentially agree on original sin?

[This article was originally published on my old blog Pontifications in April 2007.  It has been significantly revised.]

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The Immaculate Conception and the Orthodox Church

by Father Lev Gillet

I. It is generally agreed, I think, that the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is one of the questions which make a clear and profound division between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Is this really the case? We shall try to examine quite objectively what Orthodox theological history has to teach us on this matter. Leaving aside the patristic period we shall start on our quest in the time of the Patriarch Photius.

II. It seems to me that three preliminary observations have to be made.

First, it is an undeniable fact that the great majority of the members of the Orthodox Church did not admit the dogma of the Immaculate Conception as it was defined by Pius IX in 1854.

Secondly, throughout the history of Orthodox theology, we find an unbroken line of theologians, of quite considerable authority, who have explicitly denied the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Among them I shall refer to Nicephorus Gallistus in the fourteenth century and Alexander Lebedev in the nineteenth, these two representing the extremities of a chain with many intermediary links. There is even an official document written against the Immaculate Conception: the letter of the Patriarch Anthimus VII, written in 1895; we shall come later to a discussion of its doctrinal value.

Thirdly, we recognize the fact that Latin theologians very often used inadequate arguments in their desire to prove that the Immaculate Conception belonged to the Byzantine theological tradition. They sometimes forced the sense of the poetic expressions to be found in the liturgy of Byzantium; at times they misinterpreted what were merely common Byzantine terms to describe Mary’s incomparable holiness, as a sign of belief in the Immaculate Conception; on other occasions they disregarded the fact that certain Byzantines had only a very vague idea of original sin. Speaking of the Theotokos, Orthodox writers multiplied expressions such as “all holy”, “all pure”, “immaculate”. This does not always mean that these writers believed in the Immaculate Conception. The vast majority – but not all – Orthodox theologians agreed that Mary was purified from original sin before the birth of Our Lord. By this, they usually mean that she was purified in her mother’s womb like John the Baptist. This “sanctification” is not the Immaculate Conception.

The question must be framed in precise theological terms. We do not want to know if Mary’s holiness surpasses all other holiness, or if Mary was sanctified in her mother’s womb. The question is: Was Mary, in the words of Pius IX, “preserved from all stain of original sin at the first moment of her conception” (in primo instanti suae conceptionis)? Is this doctrine foreign to the Orthodox tradition? Is it contrary to that tradition?

III. I shall begin by quoting several phrases which cannot be said with absolute certainty to imply a belief in the Immaculate Conception but in which it is quite possible to find traces of such a belief.

First of all – the patriarch Photius. In his first homily on the Annunciation, he says that Mary was sanctified ek Brephous. This is not an easy term to translate; the primary meaning of Brephos is that of a child in the embryonic state. Ek means origin or starting point. The phrase seems to me to mean not that Mary was sanctified in the embryonic state, that is to say, during her existence in her mother’s womb, but that she was sanctified from the moment of her existence as an embryo, from the very first moment of her formation – therefore – from the moment of her conception. (1)

A contemporary and opponent of Photius, the monk Theognostes, wrote in a homily for the feast of the Dormition, that Mary was conceived by “a sanctifying action”, ex arches – from the beginning. It seems to me that this ex arches exactly corresponds to the “in primo instanti“ of Roman theology. (2)

St Euthymes, patriarch of Constantinople (+917), in the course of a homily on the conception of St Anne (that is to say, on Mary’s conception by Anne and Joachim) said that it was on this very day (touto semerou) that the Father fashioned a tabernacle (Mary) for his Son, and that this tabernacle was “fully sanctified” (kathagiazei). There again we find the idea of Mary’s sanctification in primo instanti conceptionis. (3)

Let us now turn to more explicit evidence.

(St) Gregory Palamas, archbishop of Thessalonica and doctor of the hesychasm (+1360) in his 65 published Mariological homilies, developed an entirely original theory about her sanctification. On the one hand, Palamas does not use the formula “immaculate conception” because he believes that Mary was sanctified long before the “primus instans conceptionis“, and on the other, he states quite as categorically as any Roman theologian that Mary was never at any moment sullied by the stain of original sin. Palamas’ solution to the problem, of which as far as we know, he has been the sole supporter, is that God progressively purified all Mary’s ancestors, one after the other and each to a greater degree than his predecessor so that at the end, eis telos, Mary was able to grow, from a completely purified root, like a spotless stem “on the limits between created and uncreated”. (4)

The Emperor Manuel II Paleologus (+1425) also pronounced a homily on the Dormition. In it, he affirms in precise terms Mary’s sanctification in primo instanti. He says that Mary was full of grace “from the moment of her conception” and that as soon as she began to exist … there was no time when Jesus was not united to her”. We must note that Manuel was no mere amateur in theology. He had written at great length on the procession of the Holy Spirit and had taken part in doctrinal debates during his journeys in the West. One can, therefore, consider him as a qualified representative of the Byzantine theology of his time. (5)

George Scholarios (+1456), the last Patriarch of the Byzantine Empire, has also left us a homily on the Dormition and an explicit affirmation of the Immaculate Conception. He says that Mary was “all pure from the first moment of her existence” (gegne theion euthus). (6)

It is rather strange that the most precise Greek affirmation of the Immaculate Conception should come from the most anti-Latin, the most “Protestantizing” of the patriarchs of Constantinople, Cyril Lukaris (+1638). He too gave a sermon on the Dormition of Our Lady. He said that Mary “was wholly sanctified from the very first moment of her conception (ole egiasmene en aute te sullepsei) when her body was formed and when her soul was united to her body”; and further on he writes: “As for the Panaghia, who is there who does not know that she is pure and immaculate, that she was a spotless instrument, sanctified in her conception and her birth, as befits one who is to contain the One whom nothing can contain?” (7)

Gerasimo, patriarch of Alexandria (+1636), taught at the same time. according to the Chronicle of the Greek, Hypsilantis, that the Theotokos “was not subject to the sin of our first father” (ouk npekeito to propatopiko hamarte mati); and a manual of dogmatic theology of the same century, written by Nicholas Coursoulas (+1652) declared that “the soul of the Holy Virgin was made exempt from the stain of original sin from the first moment of its creation by God and union with the body.” (8)

I am not unaware that other voices were raised against the Immaculate Conception. Damascene the Studite, in the sixteenth century, Mitrophanes Cristopoulos, patriarch of Alexandria and Dosithes, patriarch of Jerusalem in the seventeenth century, all taught that Mary was sanctified only in her mother’s womb. Nicephorus Gallistus in the fourteenth century and the Hagiorite in the eighteenth century taught that Mary was purified from original sin on the day of the Annunciation. But the opinions that we have heard in favour of the Immaculate Conception are not less eminent or less well qualified.

It was after the Bull of Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, of 8 December, 1854, that the greater part of the Greek Church seems to have turned against belief in the Immaculate Conception. Yet, in 1855, the Athenian professor, Christopher Damalas, was able to declare: “We have always held and always taught this doctrine. This point is too sacred to give rise to quarrels and it has no need of a deputation from Rome”. (9)

But it was not until 1896 that we find an official text classing the Immaculate Conception among the differences between Rome and the Orthodox East. This text is the synodal letter written by the Oecumenical Patriarch, Anthimes VII, in reply to the encyclical Piaeclara Gratulationis addressed by Leo XIII to the people of the Eastern Churches. Moreover, from the Orthodox point of view, the Constantinopolitan document has only a very limited doctrinal importance. Although it should be read with respect and attention, yet it possesses none of the marks of infallibility, nor does ecclesiastical discipline impose belief in its teachings as a matter of conscience, and it leaves the ground quite clear for theological and historical discussions on this point.

IV. Let us now consider more closely the attitude of the Russian Church towards the question of the Immaculate Conception.

Every Russian theological student knows that St Dmitri, metropolitan of Rostov (17th century), supported the Latin ”theory of the epiklesis” (10); but young Russians are inclined to consider the case of Dmitri as a regrettable exception, an anomaly. If they knew the history of Russian theology a little better they would know that from the middle ages to the seventeenth century the Russian Church has, as a whole, accepted belief in the Immaculate Conception. (11)

The Academy of Kiev, with Peter Moghila, Stephen Gavorsky and many others, taught the Immaculate Conception in terms of Latin theology. A confraternity of the Immaculate Conception was established at Polotsk in 1651. The Orthodox members of the confraternity promised to honour the Immaculate Conception of Mary all the days of their life. The Council of Moscow of 1666 approved Simeon Polotsky’s book called The Rod of Direction, in which he said: “Mary was exempt from original sin from the moment of her conception”. (12)

All this cannot be explained as the work of Polish Latinising influence. We have seen that much was written on the same lines in the Greek East. When as a result of other Greek influences, attacks were launched in Moscow against the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, a protest was made by the Old Believers – a sect separated from the official Church by reason of its faithfulness to certain ancient rites. Again in 1841, the Old Believers said in an official declaration that “Mary has had no share in original sin”. (13) To all those who know how deeply the Old Believers are attached to the most ancient beliefs and traditions, their testimony has a very special significance. In 1848, the “Dogmatic Theology” of the Archimandrite Antony Amphitheatroff, approved by the Holy Synod as a manual for seminaries, reproduced Palamas’ curious theory of the progressive purification of the Virgin’s ancestors, a theory which has already been mentioned and which proclaims Mary’s exemption from original sin. Finally, we should notice that the Roman definition of 1854 was not attacked by the most representative theologians of the time, Metropolitan Philaretes of Moscow and Macarius Boulgakov.

It was in 1881 that the first important writing appeared in Russian literature in opposition to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. It was written by Professor A. Lebedev of Moscow who held the view that the Virgin was completely purified from original sin at Golgotha. (14) In 1884, the Holy Synod included the question of the Immaculate Conception in the programme of “polemical”, that is to say, anti-Latin theology. Ever since then, official Russian theology has been unanimously opposed to the Immaculate Conception.

This attitude of the Russians has been strengthened by a frequent confusion of Mary’s immaculate conception with the virgin birth of Christ. This confusion is to be found not only among ignorant people, but also among many theologians and bishops. In 1898, Bishop Augustine, author of a “Fundamental Theology”, translated “immaculate conception” by “conception sine semine“. More recently still, Metropolitan Anthony then Archbishop of Volkynia, wrote against the “impious heresy of the immaculate and virginal conception of the Most Holy Mother of God by Joachim and Anne.” It was a theologian of the Old Believers, A. Morozov, who had to point out to the archbishop that he did not know what he was talking about. (15)

V. There are three principal causes which provide an explanation for the opposition with which the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has been met in the Orthodox Church.

First and foremost, there is the mistrust felt a priori by many Orthodox about any doctrine defined by Rome since the separation of East and West. That, of course, is primarily a psychological reason.

There is also the fear of formulating a doctrine which might not seem to have sufficient foundation in Holy Scripture and the patristic tradition. We have left the patristic age outside the bounds of our discussion, limiting ourselves to the Orthodox theology of Byzantium: but it seems that (from St Andrew of Crete to St Theodore the Studite) much evidence can be produced from Greek sources in favour of the Immaculate Conception.

Finally there is the fear of restricting the redemptive work of Christ. Once you have exempted Mary from original sin, have you not exempted her from the effects of her Son’s redemption? Is it not possible for a single exception to destroy the whole economy of salvation? The Orthodox theologians who think on these lines have not given careful enough consideration, or indeed any at all, to the fact that according to Pius IX’s definition, Mary was only exempt from original sin in view of the merits of Christ: ”intuitu meritorum Christi Jesu Salvatoris humani generis“. Therefore, Christ’s redemptive action was operative in Mary’s case although in a quite different way from that of the rest of mankind.

We will add this, too. Orthodox theology has always insisted on the beauty of human nature in its integrity before the fall. Now it is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception which alone can justify this ‘humanism’. It is only in Mary conceived without sin, that human nature has reached its fulfilment and actualized all its possibilities. Mary is the one and only success of the human race. It is through her and in her that humanity has escaped total failure and has offered to the divine a point of entry into the human. Mary, said Metropolitan George of Nicomedia (19th century) “was the magnificent first fruit offered by human nature to the Creator.” (16) “She is”, said Nicholas Cabasilas (14th century), “truly the first man, the first and only being to have manifested in herself the fullness of human nature.” (17)

VI. Let us draw our conclusions:

1. The Immaculate Conception of Mary is not a defined dogma in the Orthodox Church.

2. One can say that since the first part of the nineteenth century the majority of Orthodox believers and theologians have taken their stand against this doctrine.

3. Nevertheless. it is impossible to say that from the Orthodox point of view the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception constitutes a heresy; for canonically it has never been defined as such by an oecumenical council and in fact it has never met with the disapproval of a universal and unchanging consensus of opinion.

4. There does exist a continuous line of eminent Orthodox authorities who have taught the Immaculate Conception.

5. Therefore the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has every right to its existence in the Orthodox Church as an opinion of a school or as a personal theologoumenon based on a tradition worthy of respect.

6. It follows therefore that the Roman definition of 1854 does not constitute an obstacle to the reunion of the Eastern and Western Churches.

7. It is my own view that not only does the Immaculate Conception not contradict any Orthodox dogma but that it is a necessary and logical development of the whole of Orthodox belief. (18)

Regina sine labe concepta, ora pro nobis.


1. Photius, homil. I in Annunt., in the collection of St. Aristarchis, Photiou logoi kai homiliai, Constantinople 1901, t. II, p. 236.

2. Theognostes, hom. in fest. Dormitionis, Greek Cod. 763 of the Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris, fol. 8. v.

3. Euthemius, hom. in concept. S. Annae, Cod. laudianus 69 of the Bodleian Library, fol. 122-126.

4. Photius, In Praesentat. Deiparae, in the collection of Sophoclis Grigoriou tou Palama homiliai kb’, Athens 1861.

5. Manuel Paleologus, orat. in Dormit., Vatic. graecus 1619. A Latin translation is to be found in Migne P.G. t. CLVI, 91-108.

6. Scholarios, hom. in Dormit., Greek Cod. 1294 of the Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris, fol. 139 v.

7. Lukaris, hom. in Dormit., Cod. 263 of the Metochion of the Holy Sepulchre in Constantinople, fol. 612-613, and hom. in Nativ., Cod. 39 of the Metochion, fol. 93.

8. Hypsilantis, Ta meta ten alosin, Constantinople, 1870, p. 131. Coursoulas, Sunopsis ten ieras Theologias, Zante, 1862, vol. I, pp. 336-342.

9. Quoted by Frederic George Lee, in The Sinless Conception of the Mother of God, London 1891, p. 58.

10. See Chiliapkin, St Dmitri of Rostov and his times (Russian), in the Zapiski of the Faculty of history and philology of the University of St. Petersberg, t. XXIV, 1891, especially pp. 190-193.

11. See J. Gagarin, L’Eglise russe et L’immaculee conception, Paris 1876.

12. See Makary Bulgakov, History of the Russian Church (Russian) 1890, t. XII, p. 681. On the Polotsk brotherhood, see the article by Golubiev, in the Trudv of the Academy of Kiev, November 1904, pp. 164-167.

13. See N. Subbotin, History of the hierarchy of Bielo-Krinitza (Russian), Moscow, 1874, t. I, p. xlii of the Preface.

14. An article by M. Jugie, “Le dogme de l’immaculee conception d’apres un theologien russe,” in Echos d’Orient, 1920, t. XX, p. 22, gives an analysis of Lebedev’s monography.

15. Letter of Archbishop Anthony of Volhynia to the Old Believers, in the organ of the Russian Holy Synod, The Ecclesiastical News of 10 March 1912, p. 399. Morozov’s reply is contained in the same periodical on 14 July 1912, pp. 1142-1150.

16. Hom. III in Praesentat., Migne P.G. t. C, col. 1444.

17. Hom. in Nativ. B. Mariae, Greek Cod. 1213 of the Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris, fol. 3, r.

18. On the whole subject see M. Jugie, “De immaculata Deiparae conceptione a byzantinis scriptoribus post schisma consummatum edocta”, in Acta II conventus Velehradensis, Prague 1910; and article “Immaculee Conception,” in Dictionnaire de theologie catholique, Paris 1922, t. VII, col. 894-975. This last article by Jugie gives a complete bibliography of the subject. Much will also be found in P. de Meester, “Le dogme de l’immaculee conception et la doctrine de l’Eglise grecque”: 5 articles published in the Revue de l’Orient chretien, Paris, 1904-1905.

(From Chrysostom, Vol. VI, No. 5 [Spring 1983]: 151-159)

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Searching for Our Human Face: Dreaming the Depths

by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.

Recall Desmond’s invocation of a primal reality that precedes our striving efforts. The passio essendi is given at once, but within that giving, there are two aspects that may be distinguished. There is the immensity of the soul and there is, borrowing from Theresa of Avila, what one might call the secret of the interior castle. Begin with the soul. There have been interesting studies done upon the Hebrew words for soul (Jean Borella is worth a glance), as well as attempts to delineate Greek thinking on the subject. There is a debate upon whether the idea of an immortal soul is Greek or biblical. There are many such things that could be of interest. Whether one believes in the soul or not, it remains an indicator of what is precious about us and also of what escapes conceptual capture. Here, I will only remark that despite the use of rather famous analogies such as the charioteer who must manage a pair of mismatched horses, one wild, one noble, Plato’s most wise teaching on the soul is revealed through misdirection.

In The Republic, Socrates allows his youthful interlocuters to spend the night attempting to build the ideal city in words by seeking to find the blueprint in the structure of the soul. He assents readily enough to various provisional sketches, though all these easy victories are rather facetious. This is a work which begins with a putative exiling of the poets from the ideal polis, but ends with a mythic vision of justice in the afterlife. What Plato suggests is that the soul cannot be approached through attempts to pin it down to determinate categories. Rather, it requires metaphor and image to gropingly approach what is inherently beyond univocal fixation and summary comprehension. Socrates implies that the soul evades our attempts to master it through logic and definition. (This argument is made better and more fully in Jacob Howland’s The Republic: The Odyssey of Philosophy.)

There is a degree to which this is relatively uncontroversial. One need not concur with particular interpretations Freud and Jung gave to their empirical observations to recognize that they had rediscovered a depth dimension obscured by Enlightenment rationalism. Freud himself remained trapped in the most conventional nineteenth century materialism. Modern people are apt to acknowledge the subconscious, but then to interpret it as nothing more than a product of chemicals, of hormonal balances or imbalances, i.e., to reduce a complex reality to correlative physical states. For example, a study was done in which scans showed certain areas of the brain were activated when a person experienced a mystical episode. It was suggested, with a bit of condescending generosity, that believers in God were not so much crazy (one could legitimately have such episodes) as subject to a category error. They mistook a brain state for a divine being. It could happen to anyone, really. Well, there is certainly a category error. This is still a story told by Taylor’s buffered self. In a therapeutic age, people are happy to discuss the soul as a means to psychological well-feeling, even as a way to throw a swash of spiritual veneer over our efforts at building community out of an autonomy that eschews metaphysical relations as fictive pretexts aimed at limiting individual liberty. Alternatively, the collective mentality will resist the uniqueness of the soul, but occasionally invoke it as a rhetorical acid to expose the vapid materialism of bourgeois pretensions.

Yet in all this, the anxiety for control elicits blindness. In sleep, a little death, comes the opportunity for release and child-like trust. This is one of the messages of George MacDonald’s Lilith. In dreaming, the suppressed energies of the soul play in the fields of Morpheus. The rationalist will attempt to set clear warning signs of the danger. A dream may be an undigested bit of beef, a fragment of underdone potato, but it cannot be an eruption from metaphysical depths with cognitive value beyond perhaps a rough connection to the preoccupations of one’s surface consciousness. The world of dreams, however, is elementally powerful; not simply a weather of psychic realities, but an entire universe of logos bearing images that counteracts the petty machinations of ideology, as well as the tendency to sclerosis in the empirical ego.

Discernment is needed. There is a hieratic order of dreams. Pavel Florensky distinguished between ordinary psychic mishmash (dreams of night) and those which came from higher dimensions, the oneric semiotic of dawn. These high dreams bring revelation of deep reality.

Nothing is more real or more objective than dreams. But there are many narrow-minded people who admit only Zola’s brand of reality. How dumb the world is, so dumb it makes you cry, but … never forget it can be saved by infinite Mercy. (Georges Bernanos, quoted in Hans Urs von Balthasar, Bernanos, p. 125)

Perhaps a human being is far more exotic than the shrewd little domesticated animal full of spite and a need to pass on a genetic trace that Darwin has left us to imagine. “Man is the key to the mystery of knowledge and existence. He is the enigmatic being which, though a part of nature, cannot be explained in terms of nature and through which alone it is possible to penetrate into the heart of being” (Nicholae Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man, p. 11). Anyway, I would tie this to wonder and to childhood. I assert that the most ordinary, boring slob is a façade for an overwhelming nature full of thunder and galaxies, however occluded. I bring back R. A. Lafferty’s Epikt, a philosophical computer who sees:

I found something which I did not quite understand; something which I can only call “balloons.” What were they? … All the children trailed a multitude of varicolored balloons as if on invisible strings about them. I have reason to believe that the balloons also are invisible to human eyes … It seemed at first that each of these child balloons represented a previous life on some other plain. I am violently opposed to the idea of reincarnation, as would be any intelligent machine that had assimilated all the literature on the subject; yet these were more than typical idea-balloons. I know, of course, that all children are born Platonists (full of innate forms and ideas), and do not become Aristotelians until they have reached the age of reason. And there was something of these Platonic forms and types in the balloons, but there was much else. Adolescents and adults have futures: small children have only pasts, which they will slough off all too soon. They have memory, even the most grubby of them, of things that are not entirely grubby, not entirely of this world. … every balloon of every child (and some children have dozens) is a world remembered. (I use the word “world” loosely; I use the word “remembered” loosely.) (Arrive at Easterwine)

There are depths to the soul compared to which the Grand Canyon is but the meanest ditch. Our surface, finite ego is limited, and false if treated as definitive. Mystics from every tradition have some experience of this mystery. The Buddhist koan is a riddling attempt to express this inexpressible reality. Though, seemingly, many people never have this experience. Or if it is more common, it is lost due to distraction, inattentiveness, and the lack of a wisdom tradition that would give some guidance upon how to interpret it and how to proceed. More often than not, the individual feels trapped, restless, bored. Now the buffered self is a prison. Rather than infinite depths, the individual is repetitive, dull, annoying; more generously, affable, perhaps lovable, but after a while, long or short, predictable. The language of infinity seems ill-suited. Life itself becomes a monotonous string of bad infinity, one damn thing after another. One even becomes tired of oneself, humiliated by weakness, failure, a loneliness that can be exacerbated by social bonds that are incapable of assuaging an enigmatic wound. It is easy to become misanthropic, disgusted with the vulgar banality and vicious cruelty of the human race.


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Jerry Walls: Repenting of Hell

Western Christians have long believed that the fate of the individual soul is sealed at death. Roman Catholics point to 2nd millennium dogmatic statements that assert, or at least imply, the irreversibility of the particular judgment (see the Catholic Encyclopedia). The Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear:

1021 Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ. The New Testament speaks of judgment primarily in its aspect of the final encounter with Christ in his second coming, but also repeatedly affirms that each will be rewarded immediately after death in accordance with his works and faith. The parable of the poor man Lazarus and the words of Christ on the cross to the good thief, as well as other New Testament texts speak of a final destiny of the soul—a destiny which can be different for some and for others.

1022 Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven—through a purification or immediately,—or immediate and everlasting damnation.

Protestants appeal to various biblical verses that appear to support the eschatological finality of the particular judgment.  Hebrews 9:27-28 is a popular text: “And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” Only until fairly recently have Protestant Christians begun to seriously entertain postmortem possibilities for redemption.

In contrast, Eastern Orthodoxy has been historically more restrained in its dogmatic pronouncements on the particular judgment, apparently willing to tolerate some measure of diversity. Like their Catholic and Protestant counterparts, though, most Orthodox theologians have believed that a change of personal will is impossible after death. On the Greek Orthodox of America website, for example, we find the following statement:

Now we face the question: What happens immediately after a person dies? Is there immediate judgment? Do we just sleep until the Second Coming of Jesus? What lies ahead for us the moment after we die? The Orthodox Church teaches that immediately after death a person is judged. He or she experiences a foretaste of the punishment or reward that will be received in its entirety at the Second Coming of Jesus. … Can there be anything like repentance after we die? The Orthodox Church teaches that the state of the soul at the Particular Judgment (immediately after death) is fixed and unchangeable, that is, there can be no moral improvement or repentance beyond the grave. The place for such improvement is in this life.

The wicked are eternally frozen in their hostility toward God; they have irrevocably exercised their fundamental option and are thus beyond even the help of their Creator (see “Is repentance possible after death?” and “Phantasmagoric Passion“). It might be argued that the liturgical prayers of the Church suggest otherwise, but that is a topic for another article.

As a Methodist believer, Jerry Walls does not consider himself bound to the dogmatic teaching of either the Roman Catholic or Orthodox Church. Scripture is the supreme authority, and he is not persuaded that it clearly excludes the possibility of postmortem repentance. If God truly wills the salvation of all, then there may be grounds for hope: “The same God whose mercy is such that he welcomes sincere repentance in the last moment of life is the God who would rejoice at the sincere repentance of a sinner after death” (Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, p. 205). As we have seen, Walls vigorously maintains the possibility of eternal self-exclusion from the communion of the Holy Trinity, yet he is equally emphatic that God provides optimal salvific grace to every human being. He thus refuses to arbitrarily restrict God’s search for sinners to this life alone.  On what grounds, he asks, do we dogmatically declare that omnipotent Love cannot find a way into the hearts of at least some of the damned?

But to speak this way, the traditionalist objects, opens the door to universal salvation! “What would be so bad about that?” Walls replies. “And should not those who have been given much grace and opportunity be the first to wish the same for others?” (pp. 208-209). For Walls, the doctrine of eternal salvation is a contingent truth. He teaches it on the basis of the authority of Holy Scripture. But, he goes on to say, “I would be delighted if one of the things I have given the most energy defending in my career turned out to be false” (p. 209). How odd that so many Christians enthusiastically embrace the rhetoric of optimal grace and the boundless mercy of God yet draw back from their enthusiasm “when the logic of these claims leads to postmortem repentance” (p. 210). Like the Pharisees they are scandalized by the extravagant love of the Lord. I am reminded of a passage from That Man is You by Fr Louis Evely:

In one of his plays, Jean Anouilh describes the last judgment as he sees it.

The good are densely clustered at the gate of heaven, eager to march in, sure of their reserved seats, keyed up and bursting with impatience.

All at once, a rumor starts spreading:

“It seems He’s going to forgive those others, too!”

For a minute, everybody’s dumbfounded.

They look at one another in disbelief, gasping and sputtering,

“After all the trouble I went through!”

“If only I’d known this …”

“I just cannot get over it!”

Exasperated, they work themselves into a fury and start cursing God; and at that very instant they’re damned.

That was the final judgment, you see. They judged themselves, excommunicated themselves. (pp. 92-93)

C. S. Lewis famously wrote that “the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” Yet it is the crucified and risen Lord who holds the keys to those doors. Dr Walls concludes his reflections with these encouraging words: “The God whose mercy endures forever is a God we may never hope tires of putting his keys in the lock and bidding those within to leave it behind, naming it purgatory as they turn their faces toward the gate of heaven” (p. 211).

(Return to first article)

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Theological Alphabet

by Charles Twombly

If I were theological,
I would go for Barth;
When choosing theologians,
I’d do a la carte.
I’m often alphabetical,
Which leaves out Zizioulas.
Why Aulen gets bypassed by me
Resembles how God chooses.

Posted in Humor | 3 Comments

Searching for Our Human Face: Liturgy of the Wilderness

by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.

To many modern people, the difference between one god and another is literally nominal. At one time, people believed in Zeus and Odin. It is mere historical accident that today some proclaim Allah or the monotheism of Judaism. As for the confused notions surrounding the Trinity in Christianity, well, it usually amounts to a practical subordinationism; but no matter, theological quibbles about unreal entities are nugatory … and so on. The idea that theological differences could actually pertain to reality is so exotic that it never threatens the urbane slumbering of the enlightened. Because of this, most people do not make the effort to think deeply about God. Among religious people, devotional sentiments are indifferent to, or openly hostile towards intellectual efforts to speak about God. Often, a kind of Biblical positivism assumes that there is no need to struggle. The answers to human questioning are rendered manifest in Scripture with a self-evidence that fits egalitarian criteria. This certitude is frequently linked to contempt for speculation, despite Paul’s declaration that even after the Incarnation, we see in a mirror darkly.

Anyway, some such hiatus between theological acumen and supposed practical spirituality helps explain the generally poor quality of Christian thought. There are exceptions and there is certainly hunger on the part of people for wisdom beyond pious platitudes. But Wisdom makes demands contrary to modern proclivities. As Catherine Pickstock points out in After Writing, the old Latin rite was wiser in its circling, it’s cagey repetition, it’s dancing perambulation that approached the divine through half-steps and reversals. Cheap, instrumental reason is efficient. It wants “the bottom line,” will not tarry with a truth long enough for a secret to be borne upon a still, small breeze. Nominalism partakes in this preference for a univocal sameness devoid of complex rituals of loving approach. Just as sex without courtship loses the revelatory power of fleshly union, so does the modern grasp at the real miss the dramatic interpretive nexus that gives to nature a message bearing power. “I see in the expectation of immediacy the nominalist drive to draw all things into simple, that is, unmediated identity” (Kenneth Schmitz, The Recovery of Wonder, p. 108).

In The Lost World of Genesis One, John H. Walton effectively demonstrates the underlying liturgical subtext in which the creation story is told. It is not so much that elemental actors are called forth from nothing, as an extant pool of potentially dramatic figures remains indeterminate until summoned by the divine voice to play a particular role. The naming is functional and sacerdotal all at once. This reading of Hebraic consciousness is consistent with much of the ancient world. The temple recapitulates the heavens and the earth, whilst the universe is itself a cosmic temple. The “it is good” of Genesis anticipates an order of praise. The beginning of Genesis inaugurates preparations for celebratory existence. In this respect, I would argue that Genesis is less a completed creation than the initiation of a seminal process, or, if you like, it’s longer historical narrative evinces a protology oriented towards eschatology. (Cf. Warren Gage’s The Gospel of Genesis.)

The movement towards eschatology is far from simple. Mark S. Smith presents a highly complex reading of Israelite religious experience in The Memoirs of God. Here, a mélange of diverse theological interpretation, sometimes polytheist in nature, slowly builds into the familiar Old Testament corpus. I am aware of counter-histories; defense of an original pristine monotheism followed by derogation. The weight of contemporary scholarship is against it. I am still fond of the traditionalist bias in these matters. The claim that much in nineteenth century historical criticism (and by implication, current historical criticism) is beset by epistemological assumptions that systematically distort and rule out traditional readings seems valid to me. Though even acknowledging all that, there is still too much merit in the work of historians to dismiss all their scholarship with such summary objections.

Even if one were to grant a hypothetical golden age of pure monotheism, the biblical record, when parsed with a keen eye for multiple palimpsests, indicates a varied, cross-purposed, and competitive experience that is taken up into the warp and woof of scriptural tapestry. Take for instance that obscure episode in Exodus 4:24-26 that follows directly after God has commissioned Moses to lead Israel from bondage in Egypt. Without explanation, we are told that the Lord meets Moses in a lodging place on the way and seeks to kill him. Then Zipporah takes a flint and cuts off the foreskin of Gershom, Moses’ son, and touches the feet of her husband, declaring, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” This action mollifies the murderous intentions of the God. I am reminded of Dostoevsky, whose epilepsy induced prolonged periods of hypergraphia. He would write many versions of his long novels. Traces of past versions would haunt the final text, ghosts of renounced possibilities lending a dangerous dynamism to the received rendition, as if a discarded narrative might win free and alter the rest of the story.

Thus, a more complex, conjectural, perhaps uncomfortable indeterminacy must be endured, though this is all rather superficial. More deeply, the Spirit guides us beyond source conundrums regarding historical provenance, or, better, faith embraces history, but discerns and explores a truth that transcends positivist historiography. The latter lacks the wit to read the symbols (Léon Bloy!) Indeed, it doesn’t know that there are symbols. The experience of revelation does not traduce into a simple univocal truth as a certain kind of fundamentalist/traditionalist imagines. Prophets touch borders, cross boundaries, but enigmas remain. Revelation is the opposite of the reduction of divine mystery to a set of decontextualized propositional truths.

Consider, for example, the message of Ezra and Nehemiah, as expounded in Mary Douglas’s In the Wilderness. (Now, I know a certain sort will swiftly rule her out as practicing sociology, not proper theological exegesis. I say, live with her thought a while. Allow yourself to be challenged, before you preemptively silence her.) What Douglass discovers is not a single story of evident piety confronted by worldly backsliding, but two competing theological narratives. On the one side, pious rectitude desires a homogenous purity that is threatened by the acceptance of Canaanite brides. This is the story embedded in Ezra and Nehemiah. Exiles return to find a Jewish remnant that has married into the surrounding culture. Isn’t this the message of Solomon and his wives spread thin and introduced into the populace at large? But this is only one side. Douglas discerns a different stance cleverly deployed in the book of Numbers. Rather than holy zeal, the returnees exhibit a hard-hearted xenophobia. Are they not forgetting the lesson of Rahab? The former ideology may be inclined to forget that the mission of Israel was not centripetal, but for the salvation of nations . . .

Who is this Bloy?
Yes, Bloy!
Ah, a vagabond, a scoundrel, a prophet. This is Bloy:

There is no human being on earth capable of declaring with certitude who he is. No one knows what he has come into this world to do, what his acts correspond to, his sentiments, his ideas, or what his real name is, his enduring Name in the register of Light … History is an immense liturgical text where iotas and dots are worth no less than the entire verse or chapters, but the importance of one and the other is indeterminable, and profoundly hidden.

A saint may indeed have a profound experience of God. This is partly what it means to be a saint. Nonetheless, a saint is not metaphysically closer to God than other men. That they often see further and better and more clearly does not automatically mean that their dictums overrule our own experience and our own obligation to seek the truth. Often, what passes for humility before saintly precedent is sloth, and dullness, and a desire for perplexity to be dealt with by others. Gregory of Nyssa, who is prescient when it comes to elucidating a dynamic eternity, also believed that resurrected bodies would be perfect spheres. Some patristics imagined all would be resurrected as males because woman was a deficient male. You may have that heaven, by the way … When there is a dispute between Isaac of Nineveh and other saints over the nature of hell, a Traditionalist may attempt to exorcize some of Isaac’s teaching or contextualize it so that conflict is minimized or fundamental disagreement denied. Such attempts are more evasive than compelling. What is one to do with it? Many fall back on the weight of tradition as guiding light. One should not blithely dismiss such with jejune disdain. Neither should one assume that truth is simply a matter of consensus, even when that consensus is construed as a kind of “holy plebiscite.” Remember it was once Athanasius against the world.

It is not really a matter of numbers, but of insight.

Back to Mark S. Smith: the point is it doesn’t really matter if there was or was not a primordial monotheism so far as the biblical text is concerned, for the text is undoubtedly a message of monotheism that bears the marks and traces of a struggle to articulate God. While the sacred history may appear otherwise, it was never simply a case of adherence to or rejection of a clearly manifest divine reality. We falsify human experience when we turn scriptural witness into a simplistic morality tale in which the Good was evident and obviously understood and therefore easily affirmed or culpably rejected. Consider Job. Set in the far, pre-Abrahamic past, it is obviously a late, post-exilic work of Jewish wisdom literature. Why set it in the distant past? Probably many reasons, but here is one—to subtly say what could not be overtly stated.

Who are Job’s counselors? Perhaps the pious epigone of the authors of Judges, those whose sense of justice unproblematically discerned divine pleasure and displeasure in earthly fortunes. The writer of Job sensed that not only was such summary clarity false, but that the correlative assumptions about God were implicated in the consciousness that could make such judgments. God was more mysterious, much more ungraspable than a form of traditional piety assumed. And yet, Job itself is insufficient. The sublime mystery of Creation was overwhelming, true, but there was a deeper, more intimate truth that awaited Christ and the Cross, where Job is more fully answered.

(Go to “Dreaming the Depths”)

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Jerry Walls: The Purgatory of Ebenezer Scrooge

Let’s try a thought experiment: upon reading this sentence, you experience a massive heart attack and die (God forbid!); but because you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, you awaken into the dazzling presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (glory to God!). You are in heaven! At that moment you discover that you have been delivered from all of your hatreds, lusts, vices, pettiness, and disordered desires. You are filled with a passionate love for every human being, including your mean-spirited supervisor at work. You love everyone, you forgive everyone, you rejoice in everyone. You deeply regret all the injuries you have afflicted on others. Perhaps most surprisingly, you find that you actually love your God, not out of obligation but freely and spontaneously. You are truly a new creation!

Would you recognize yourself?

Would your mother recognize you?

Would you be you?

The problem is this: the greater the change, the greater the discontinuity between your earthly self and your eschatological self, the greater will be your difficulty in grasping the unity of the two. Jerry Walls puts it like this:

Simply put, the only way I can know who I am in the present is by knowing my past as well. In particular, I must understand the connection between my past and my present. How did my present grow or develop out of my past? If I cannot answer this, I do not really know who I am now. …

Here is where purgatory comes in. Most of us are not perfect now, nor will be when we die, but we will be perfect in heaven. So what we need is an account of how such imperfect people can be transformed in a way that preserves their identity. Such change must be gradual enough and intelligible enough that continuity is maintained with our past as we grow toward perfection and actually achieve it. (Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, p. 133)

Walls elaborates upon this problem of identity by a brief re-telling of the story of Ebenezer Scrooge but omitting the visits by the ghost of Jacob Marley and the three spirits of Christmas. Scrooge awakens on Christmas morning an utterly changed man. Miraculously, inexplicably, he desires to shower gifts upon Bob Cratchett and his family and to visit his nephew for Christmas dinner. Walls suggests that Scrooge would be utterly bewildered by his transformation:

But even more to the point, Scrooge himself is utterly baffled at his own thoughts and behavior. He remembers his actions and attitudes of the previous day, and indeed, many similar thoughts and actions over the past several years. As he reflects on these memories, he cannot fathom what has happened to him so that he now thinks and feels so radically different than he did just the day before. “Who am I?” he asks himself with true bewilderment, looking in the mirror as he dresses for Christmas dinner.

Now it is obvious that to alter the story in this way totally destroys its integrity. Such dramatic change would leave readers as bewildered as it would Scrooge and his maid. The power and beauty of the story is due to the account of how Scrooge undergoes his radical transformation. The reason the story appeals to us is that it makes not only dramatic but psychological and moral sense of how the most despised man in town “became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew.” … The point is that if he woke up radically different from the way he was the night before, with no sense of continuity, no realistic sense of how that happened, he would not even know himself. He would face a serious identity crisis.

The point for emphasis here is that Dickens’ account of Scrooge’s initial transformation is presented as a process. Indeed, Scrooge gets a tour of his whole life, including his future yet to come. He gets to see how he had “become” the sort of man that he was and how his life would end up if he did not change. He has the chance to review the crucial choices he made by which he came to love money more than people. … As he revisits these crucial episodes, he begins to see things in a completely different light; as a result, his hard heart begins to soften. (pp. 135-136)

Charles Dickens portrays Scrooge’s metamorphosis not as a magical event but as a process by which Scrooge is enabled to reassess his life in the light of everything he has learned about himself and those with whom he shared a history. His conversion thus makes narrative and personal sense: “Dickens presents Scrooge’s transformation as the result of a deep repentance that goes all the way to the roots of who he is and how he has become the person that he is” (p. 137).

Thought experiments like this do not prove anything, but they do have suggestive value. Scrooge would have preferred a condensed encounter with the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come (“Couldn’t I take ’em all at once, and have it over, Jacob?”); but his repentance required the temporal process of three distinct visitations. In his book Purgatory: The Logic of Transformation (which I highly recommend), Walls avers that the story of Scrooge “can be taken as a narrative argument that moral and character transformation cannot happen all at once, but happens incrementally and progressively as truth is discovered, acknowledged, and elicits the appropriate change in attitude, values, and behavior” (p. 121).

Perhaps ole Ebenezer has something to teach us about how God will perfect us in his kingdom.

(Go to “Repenting of Hell”)

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