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)
Can we get a reliable Orthodox definition of the term, “theologoumenon”? It seems to have the sense of a theological opinion not required to be believed as dogma by all the faithful, but which is found to be within the allowable/possible range of interpretations of Scripture and/or the tradition of the Church held by faithful representatives of Orthodox faith.
That sounds right to me, Karen.
Thank you so much for this. Although I do not tend to approach Faith on the basis of theological argument, it pains me to see the Church divided.
As a RC, I have no interest in being “right” but I have a strong interest in the Church being again completely unified in Christ. Perhaps in reading such things as this, we can begin to realize that our “differences” consist in much less than we thought, freeing us to go about the work of praying and living the Gospel together.
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I’m surprised at the presence of supporters of the doctrine within Orthodoxy. One requires a particular view of original sin and human nature in order to conceive of the need for an immaculate conception, a view of ‘original sin’ I understood Orthodoxy did not share with the West. So my question is, Can we get a reliable Orthodox definition of ‘original sin’?
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Tom, I will be reviewing soon an essay by Fr Panteleimon Manoussakis on the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, included in his book For the Unity of All. I suspect that some of your questions will be addressed in that soon-to-be-written blog, as well as in another article on original sin that I will be publishing this week.
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I await enlightenment. 😛
While you are awaiting your enlightenment, meditate on this beloved Orthodox Hymn to the Theotokos:
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The meat of the dogma says this: “ab omni originalis culpae labe praeservatam immunem.” It speaks not of ‘peccatum originale’ but ‘culpa originalis,’ i.e. original fault/guilt/defect. It speaks of being immune from every ‘labes’ (“stain/blemish/dishonor”) of that original fault. The sense here, it seems to me, is that of inherited guilt, a positive defect against which Mary has been inoculated. Now, if original sin is not to be considered a “stain” on the soul but merely a privation of immortality, this has major ramifications for such things as the Dormition/Assumption. By her immaculate conception, was Mary immortal, was she truly like the original Eve in Paradise prior to the fall? Does this explain why Pius XII left the dogma of the Assumption in 1950 so vague and utterly meaningless?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, apart from talk of inherited guilt, says: “Adam and Eve transmitted to their descendants human nature wounded by their own first sin and hence deprived of original holiness and justice; this deprivation is called ‘original sin.’ As a result of original sin, human nature is weakened in its powers, subject to ignorance, suffering and the domination of death, and inclined to sin (this inclination is called ‘concupiscence’)” (CCC 417-18).
So, the immaculate conception dogma says nothing positive, only that she was preserved from the labes of original culpa. It doesn’t speak of her being All-Holy or Immaculate or more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim. Are we then to assume that the Theotokos is, having been preserved from the “stain” of the wounded nature of Adam, full of original holiness and justice, not weakened in the powers of human nature, not subject to ignorance, not suffering, and not subject to death or inclined to sin at all? If we take the CCC’s definition of what original sin and its consequences are and apply that to what Mary was preserved from, I think therein lies the problem.
You raise an important question: What is this culpa originalis? No definition is offered in Ineffabilis Deus. Obviously Pope Pius IX presupposes some understanding of the term, but he does not dogmatize his understanding. Whatever culpa originalis is, the Virgin Mary has never shared in it.
Does the Council of Trent offer a dogmatically definition of culpa originalis? Not that I recall, but it’s been many years since I last read and studied Tridentine Decree on Original Sin. I do, however, have a fairly good idea how (many) contemporary Catholic theologians interpret the term—but more on that in the next article.
Unfortunately, Fr Lev doesn’t bring us much clarity on this question in his article. I judge that to be a serious weakness in his presentation.
Yet another push for rapprochement with the Catholics.
I pray that the Orthodox Church never ceases to “push” for rapprochement with the Roman Catholic Church. Fr Lev was a remarkable priest. He lived his life working for the reunion of the Orthodox Church and the Roman Church: http://goo.gl/RbpGH9.
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Well I seriously hope this doesn’t turn into a desiccated intellectual slugfest. How tragically ironic is the Blessed Virgin’s divisiveness! She certainly seems to be more of an “offense” today than her son. But there’s quite a spectrum available even to outliers from the ancient traditions, from the Puritan quaking in his boots at the specter of “Mariolatry” to C G Jung writing Pius XII to congratulate him on the dogma of the Assumption, which the great psychologist interpreted as transforming the Trinity into a (more complete, as he thought) quaternity and finally divinizing femininity.
Intellectually, I’m interested in the relation between Mariology and Sophiology. Spiritually, I haven’t got much, only love for and devotion to the Mother of God, and the sure knowledge that without her I would never have become a Christian and probably couldn’t remain one. More generally, I’m afraid that without a robust and revitalized Marian spirituality, the West will never know a “new evangelization.”
Jonathan, are you acquainted with Bulgakov’s The Burning Bush?
Acquainted, yes — in passing. I read it too quickly a couple of years ago. Need to read it again. I know Bulgakov had a complex and changing attitude to western Mariology. At one point he seems to have been very impressed by the west’s Mary, but then something changed for him, and the upshot seems to have been his sophiology, which I do not come anywhere near understanding in its depth. Like I said, need to pick up The Burning Bush again; and I’ve not yet had the leisure to really crack the bigger books of his major trilogy. For some reason, Bulgakov is exceptionally slow going for me, despite how well he’s been served by Boris Jakim and other translators. But his work would be just about the most stimulating place to examine the congruence of Mary and Sophia, wouldn’t he?
Wish I knew more about Mary in the east, something positive rather than just the usual iterations of “She’s not immaculate, you fools!” I have found somewhat enlightening anthropologist Juliet du Boulay’s brilliant book Cosmos, Life and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village (Denise Harvey, 2009).
Google this 2007 talk by Kallistos Ware, Metropolitan of Diokleia: ‘Beyond all holiness’: St Nicholas Cabasilas on the Mother of God.
Not immaculate conception; an intriguing Marian doctrine of justification.
Unfortunately, when I Google that title, it comes up as inaccessible from my server. Seems to be a .pdf file on a private server or something. Would you care to summarize, Bowman?
Fortunately, Karen, I have featured Met Kallistos’s article here on EO: https://goo.gl/kmUWWG
Karen, it’s in an earlier post on Fr Aidan’s blog, here:
For your consideration: https://books.google.com/books?id=D-GxAwAAQBAJ&pg=PR16&dq=immaculate+conception&hl=en&sa=X&ei=AcSHVJ-iDcmjNtKIgugB&ved=0CD4Q6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=immaculate%20conception&f=false
I would like to second the suggested book in Vito’s link. Fr. Kappes seems to have widely read and meditated in the early Greek Father (Sts. Gregory the Theologian and John of Damascus in particular). He eventually treats Sts. Gregory Palamas and Mark of Ephesus (and the Palamite tradition) and provides a very interesting insight into their teaching concerning the B.V.M. He finds that Imm. Conc. is not the least alien to Eastern thought but quite a natural fit for it. In the conclusion of his book Fr. Kappes writes:
“Out of the conclusions of this study, one may draw the inference that past historians of theology have unwittingly narrated chronicles far too insubstantial and delicate to bear the weight of the truth of the prokathartheisa; namely, that the Greek Fathers – in the line of Nazianzen until the introduction of Byzantine Thomism in the 14th century – never vacillated about the all-immaculate status of the B.V.M., from the first moment of her existence until her glorious assumption into heaven.”
Kappes, “The Immaculate Conception,” p. 196-7.
It is well worth reading.
Whatever the early Eastern Fathers thought, can any genuinely Eastern understanding of being preserved from ancestral sin (as the inheritance of corruption and death) have the same meaning as being preserved *from the guilt* of original sin? This, it seems to me, is where the difference in understanding of the RC dogma vis-a-vis early classical catholic Christian tradition in the East may be significant. Also, ought we not factor in the strong Western influence on the development and/or expression of Russian Orthodox theology in the 18th and 19th centuries (and even earlier with the collapse of Byzantium) in determining the meaning and weight we ought to give to theological opinions of the RO articulated during this period?
What does “genuinely Eastern” mean?
I think what I mean is the divergent understanding between Eastern Fathers following the view of the Fall where Adam and Eve were seen more as innocent adolescents and rather naive, but not as fully mature perfected humans as those following Augustine’s view have seen it. (Perhaps someone can help me out here – I can’t remember which Father — perhaps St. Irenaeus? –articulated the first view.) My understanding is Eastern Fathers like the Cappadocians followed that first understanding preferring the term “ancestral” sin, whereas St. Augustine about the same period had an understanding of the prelapsarian state as much more exalted and the Fall as much more of a betrayal from mature understanding, and thus more fully culpable and the West has tended to follow Augustine in this. I did read the article, which seems to deal more with the second millennium where, as I noted, there was more influence from the West on the Orthodox, especially with the fall of Byzantium.
I wonder if you read the entire article.
It might be worth pointing out that in the history of the Christian religion there is a bottom-up or “grass roots” element to dogma which “professional” theologians sometimes downplay. For example, the Marian dogmas promulgated in the Roman Church in the 19th and 20th centuries seem to be the result of a massive popular surge in Marian spirituality during that time. There are many possible explanations for that spiritual phenomenon, from the sociological to the divine, but one explanation that no one would advance is that peasant children in Portugal and France were reading up on their Duns Scotus.
The popular basis for dogma works well for what we might call, lacking a better term, religious conservatives — When it’s going their way, for instance when Eastern Orthodox want to deny the union with Rome that was achieved at the Council of Florence, on the grounds that it was rejected by the Greeks back home in Constantinople. It works less well when it goes against the conservative strain, such as we see at present in the RC foment over Cardinal Kasper and the German faction that wants to grant communion to divorced and remarried Catholics, or the thousand times per day that someone points out that most Catholics (in the West) use birth control so Humanae Vitae is wrong, etc etc. Nowadays you hear Catholics talk ominously about schism within the Roman Church.
In what does schism actually consist?
Jonathan, you don’t see Cardinal Kaspar and the German faction as “top down” theologizing? Am I misunderstanding your final paragraph on that?
Anyone’s thoughts on his view in the link above would be appreciated. The Patriarch did the foreword to Fr. Panteleimon’s book linked above so may be his thought on this issue has evolved.
Thanks for bringing our attention to this interview, Maximus. I discovered it through a Google search a couple of days ago and plan to cite it as a good example of mainstream Orthodox opinion on the topic. Fr Panteleimon takes a different view, as we shall see.
I purchased the book on Kindle. I never read those types of works but I’m trying to understand perspectives other than my own. May God illumine our darkness through the prayers of His Most Pure Mother.
Excellent. If you can, please take a look at Fr Panteleimon’s first article. When I post my blog next week, do let me know if I have gotten him wrong at any point.
Not trying to refute or debate but how do you read these quotes?
St. Athanasius the Great:
Many for instance have been made holy and clean from all sin; nay, Jeremiah was hallowed even from the womb, and John, while yet in the womb, leapt for joy at the voice of Mary Bearer of God; nevertheless ‘death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression’ (Rom. 5:14) and thus man remained mortal and corruptible as before, liable to the affections proper to their nature. (Four Discourses Against the Arians, Discourse 3.33)
St. Germanos of Constantinople
How could the dissolution of the body have reduced you to dust and ashes, since you, through the Incarnation of your Son, have freed man from the corruption of death? Thus you separated yourself from earthly things, so that the mystery of the tremendous Incarnation might truly be confirmed. Indeed, you endured being removed from temporal things, so that it would be believed that the God born of you was also a complete man, the Son of a true Mother, and that His Mother herself was subjected to the laws of necessity. This was the consequence of a divine decision and of the norms that govern the proper seasons of life. (Homily 1 On the Dormition, PG 98, 345 C-D)
Doesn’t the Dormition prove that the sinless Theotokos was still liable to death and subject to the laws of necessity upon fallen humanity? If not, the Roman Pope was being theologically consistent to be ambiguous about if she actually died, wasn’t he?
Maximus, I sure don’t question Mary’s mortality, etc.
But why does she possess mortality if she was conceived without sin, guilt, corruption, etc.? Our tradition is that Christ possesses the blameless passions and dies because He wills to do so on our behalf. But my main question is why would the Theotokos be under any necessity to die if she possessed pre-lapsarian nature?
Maximus, I am not an advocate of a specific RC understanding of the Immaculate Conception, so cannot even begin to offer a response to your good questions. But Fr Christian Kappes has left a comment over at the original sin thread. Please submit these questions to him. I’m curious to see how he might response to them. 🙂
However, let me say this one thing. I am extremely skeptical about mythological speculation about the prelapsarian human condition. It seems to me that many of the Fathers (spanning from the Cappadocians to Augustine to Maximus) went far beyond exegesis of the story Adam & Eve into what can only be called creative conjecture. Hence I am skeptical of easy, one-dimensional answers to the mystery of evil and death.
What I believe, with the Eastern and Western Fathers (there are, of course exceptions), is that the Virgin Mary did not commit sin in the entirety of her life. How, then, might we explain that? I certainly do not believe that it was because she worked harder at her asceticism than anyone ever has, either before or since, nor will it do to invoke synergism (of course she cooperated with divine grace, but so do all the saints).
Have you had the opportunity to read the Marian homilies of St Gregory of Palamas. If not, I recommend them strongly. And fortunately they are available in paperback in an affordable volume: Mary the Mother of God. Gregory, I think, would have been horrified at any suggestion that Mary might have sinned at any point of her life. I suspect that if we all (Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant) would read these homilies, then the debate on the Immaculate Conception would pale into relative insignificance.
I correspond with him on academia, I’ll ask him!
Maximus, don’t just ask him privately. Invite him to share his response with us here! 🙂
Reading it for the second time presently.
Gregory Palamas’ view as described here is a lot like what I have believed for a while without knowing he believed it first. I do think that the whole point of the O.T. economy was to produce Mary, the only person who was fit to bear Christ. (It can hardly be justified otherwise.)
Fr. Aiden, you mentioned the objection that if Mary had no need of justification then Jesus didn’t justify everyone. That one, to me, pales beside the objection that if Mary had no need of justification *because of a unilateral sovereign action on God’s part, independent of who she was* then there was no need for Jesus to justify *anyone* through his death. God could have unilaterally healed us all in the same way he did Mary, and Adam’s sin need have wounded no one but himself. In essence the whole redemptive drama then becomes mere theatrics, as far as I can see.
In short, I conclude that if she was the only one immaculately conceived, then she was the only one who *could* be immaculately conceived, because it is unthinkable that God would have withheld that grace from anyone capable/worthy of receiving it. This leaves me with the conclusion that her selection is based on *who she is.* However, if who she is were concerned at the moment of conception, before she had done anything, then who she is was composed at that moment entirely of the gift of herself she received through her parents and not of any choice of her own.
This does not trouble me because for every one of us, who we are is inseparable from our family, parentage, and ancestry. Therefore this doctrinal question cannot be answered without due consideration of Mary’s family.
Without taking into consideration the *continuity in being* between human beings, especially between each person and his or her family, there can be no understanding of ancestral/original sin (the basic human problem) or of the need for any kind of immaculate conception. After all, the need for immaculate conception isn’t just based on what seems “fit” for Christ’s honor. Deeply, the need for it based on the fact that Christ’s human personality needed to be formed by this woman, and could not be corrupted in the process.
*Conception is family.*
I say all this as a woman. After all, bearing children is our department, and we mothers know how the children that come out of us are formed from us, not just bodily, but in every detectable dimension of their personalities. (They receive other influences as they go on.)
As those of us who understand the science of correct thinking realize, one needs a complete set of premises in order to reach an accurate conclusion. It seems to me as if the set of premises with which a lot of people are working on this question is incomplete. It does not take into account the process by which we are formed and the primacy of family within the process. It seems to speaks as if persons are fully discrete points beginning absolutely at one place, moving down a line of time and event, and ending (or not) in utter ontological solitude.
In a related note, I think widespread/enforced clerical celibacy is one of the worst things that have ever happened to the church. It deprives the highest levels of church government and often, thought, from the vital feminine understanding. Nor is it as if the masculine were rational and the feminine unrational. Both men and women are whole-minded only when the mirror of their minds accurately reflect reality both in structure and content; that is, when their reason and affections (and intentions) both flow from an integrated prior point in the psyche where consciousness is one. Rather, the two complementary qualities of masculinity and femininity make each utterly irreplaceable to the other because they do not correspond to any other qualities in nature.
How ironic it would be if only the masculine viewpoint were addressed to the solution of this most feminine of all theological problems! (On the other hand, the chivalrous devotion of these men to our holy lady is endearing and the mind of the church would be unspeakably deprived without it.)
Finally, just a question. Can anyone who knows Palamas tell me whether some of his thinking seems to foreshadow any of the work of modern psychology? This is what I would expect of someone who could come up with such an idea. But then he may have reached it simply because it was the only possible explanation that comprehended all the data he saw.
My point about the feminine viewpoint is that we (especially when we are mothers, but also sometimes just from having the equipment) have a unique vantage point on questions of relatedness. And this is a question of relatedness.
Thank you for bringing that up about the Palamite perspective of Mary’s purification, AR. I was having thoughts pretty much along the same line and that was in the back of my mind when I made my admission of feeling a need for a coherent metaphysics of the mystery of the interaction between the Divine will and the human in our salvation in the comments thread under the follow-up post on this topic. But you have now rendered my further comment happily unnecessary and have added so much more! 🙂
Oh how nice! Well, I haven’t gotten that far yet. Like Fr. Aiden is today, I’m usually stuck with my phone now that we have moved to the country and there’s no cheap internet.
Hi, guys. No power here, so having to type this comment on my cell phone. Everyone seems to be under the impression that I am advocating a doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. I am not. I am exploring.
I was going through my files this evening and found the following passage from RC theologian Bernard Leeming:
More stuff for us to consider.
Another items from my files, this time from The Feasts of the Lord by Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos::
From Fr. Christiaan:
Thanks for fielding this question. I reproduce (I.) for you another person who just wrote me on some similar points. Then, (II.) I will try to give you some points to consider in your research.
(I.) I wish I could go more into incorruptibility but I have not finished studying this issue. What is clear so far to me is the following:
(1.) Cyril Jerus.-Ambrose-Damascene all equate eucharistic flesh as “flesh of the Virgin/Mary”. What are then the implications from “incorruptibility”?
(2.) Marian typology has the womb-tomb inseparably linked. What issues from the womb is what issues from the tomb. Incorruptibility is a large part of this.
(3.) As the Life of the Virgin exemplified, Mary’s flesh is called “incorruptible”, as it is universally described when separated from the soul at the dormition. What makes flesh incorruptible in Mary, if she has guilt/sin in any sense and is thus subject to death? Does death imply corruption definitionally?
At any rate, you might enjoy the dormition homilies of John Damascene. I seem to remember one where he supposes that Mary died in order to properly follow her Son’s example. IF my memory serves, this would then place the Franciscan explanation of why Mary died (to imitate Jesus) at the fore and place questions related to sin as a remote unlikelihood.
(II.) Athanasius and Germanus:
(A.) Athanasius: My first thoughts are to recall that the Dormition traditions were unwritten and -to a great extent- unknown. The first witness to Dormition traditions seems to be Epiphansius of Salamis, who -more or less- is contemporary with Athanasius. Still, he seems to have uncovered precious little. Secondly, I think it safe to say that all Byzantines (as in Damascene’s pege gnoseos) are comfortable with man’s definition as “mortal.” The question for me is whether or not man is mortal in virtue of being a combination of matter and form (inherently unstable and prone to dissolution by virtue of the elements and soul combination), or whether or not man is principally called mortal (prone to death; subject to death) because of sin. The first is saying that constitutionally all men (including Adam and Christ) are “liable” or are “potentially” able to die. In the second instance, the question is, do all people/certain people die as a result of an intervening condition? In the case of Christ, I consider it universal or uncontroversial that Jesus doesn’t actually die because sin entered the world. Most Fathers who comment on Jesus as extraordinary, do so because he is not born of human “seed” and so is exempt from “death,” “sin,” etc. If this is an inexorable rule, then it would naturally mean that Mary is subject to death, being that she is born of “seed” and not directly from the Father. The problem arises -for me- that the question is not asked in the first 5-6 centuries. It only becomes a possible point of interest after the dormition traditions exist (so far as I know). Thereafter, the question is answered (as in Damascene) that Mary’s flesh is “incorruptible” and is capable of sanctifying the waters of baptism as Christ did at the Jordan! This suggests that the quality of humanity that we are dealing with is not that under consideration in Romans. In the end, we must figure out (to which I do not have an answer until I study the question) if there is a patristic vein or wholesale answer to the following: Is there a symbiosis between “incorruptible flesh” and “total moral and physical purity”? Does one imply the other? If so, which implies the other?
(B.) Germanus -good quote!- seems to suggest that the Incarnation is the determining fact, in virtue of which, Mary is incorruptible. I am far enough along to see -however- that Germanus’ predecessors hold that Mary’s flesh is incorruptible in her identity, that is not the result of physical birth (hardly a cause of incorruption!), but that Mary’s virgin birth signifies the incorruption already possessed. However, the last 2 lines of Germanus are fascinating. I would need to take a look at the Greek (which I do not have on hand) and check it for his sources. The circumlocution suggests that Germanus may tread lightly on proposing the “cause” of death. I do agree that he seemingly alludes to “necessity”. Then again, a “divine decision” suggests a positive act of the will that was not divinely necessitated for Mary, but was chosen for some ulterior reason, i.e., to conform her to the norms of world that has “seasons”. Does this mean the seasonless world would have been without times of growth and death in our fallen world? At any rate, I think your point might be even stronger if you can secure his sources (if there are any) and if you show what these phraseologies typically mean in Greek (which I do not know).
I think that my own limited study so far suggests that there is ambiguity about whether or not Mary dies from some sort of relation (in whatever respect) to sin. It looks to me -post-dormition- that Mary is more puzzling to theologians. It is not clear why she had to die.
Incidently, the Dominicans usually favor Mary being immortal (and thus not historically dying), though they denied the Immaculate Conception as a whole for about 600 yrs. The Franciscans held for Mary’s death rather consistently, but that she naturally died in order to imitate what is ought, i.e., to follow Jesus’ example. The 1950 declaration of Pope Pius XII rings of Germanus’ ambiguity. He simply says something along the lines of “after her earthly sojourn.” So, Pius XII does not weigh in as to whether or not she even died or whether she had to die. This is still a disputed question in Catholicism.
Here is my (somewhat lengthy) reply to Fr. Christiaan:
Again, this is not to debate but to spark further reflection and questions. Here are some thoughts on corruption, it’s distinctions and its association with sin.
St. John Damascene:
“The word corruption (phthora) has two meanings. It signifies all human sufferings, such as hunger, thirst, weariness, the piercing with nails, death, that is, the separation of soul and body, and so forth. In this sense we say that our Lord’s body was subject to corruption. For He voluntarily accepted all these things. But corruption means also the complete dissolution of the body into its constituents elements, and it’s utter disappearance, which is spoken of by many preferably as destruction. The body of our Lord did not experience this form of corruption, as the Prophet David says, “For You will not leave My soul in Hades, neither will You suffer Your Holy One to see corruption (Ps. 16:10)”. Ex. Exp. 3:28 (PG 94:1097B-1100A), NPNF-2, Vol. 9, p. 72.
Same subject in the analysis of scholar R.P. Casey:
“For…the vast majority of Orthodox theologians, the statement that Christ’s body was phthartos was only a necessary corollary to the doctrine that He was in all points homoousios imin. For them phthora consisted of the natural human weaknesses, such as hunger, thirst, pain, and death, to which human nature had been subject since the fall and from which, by assuming a complete human nature, Christ redeemed us. For Julian [of Halicarnassus] phthora had a quite different sense. In his view Adam’s fall had the result not only of weakening and corrupting the human nature in which his descendants shared, but also of transmitting to it the taint of guilt and blame of which this corruption is the outward visible sign. In human nature the natural accompaniment of phthora is sin, and to say that Christ’s body was phthartos was the equivalent attributing to Him also a genuine share in the sin of Adam.”
St. Athanasius said that man is by nature mortal, inasmuch as he is made by what is not; but by reason of his likeness to Him that is…he would stay his natural corruption, and remain incorrupt (On the Incarnation, 4-5). We all agree that anything created is mutable and thus ontologically subject to corruption; St. Maximus said that this corruption is not “culpable” in the SVS translation of his works.
I really can’t fathom how the Theotokos could crush the heads of the dragons in the Jordan in lieu of St. Gregory Palamas’ statement:
“If He had been conceived from seed, He would not have been a new man, nor sinless, nor the Savior of sinners… If the conception of God had been from seed, He would not have been a new man, or the author of new life that will never grow old. If He were from the old stock and inherited it’s sin, He would not have been able to bear within Himself the fullness of the incorruptible Godhead or to make His flesh an inexhaustible source of sanctification, able to wash away even the defilement of our First Parents by its abundant power, and sufficient to sanctify all who came after them.” (Homily 14.5)
I’m just afraid that if we go too far it will be like the Theotokos is Christ before Christ and that she just humbly stepped aside and allowed Him to work salvation when she could have. As a matter of fact, He did not give birth to a divine Person, so she could even be said to do greater works than He did in a certain sense. But we know that it’s the Logos, in Who’s image we are made, the Person in Whom Adam originated and thus only He is capable summing up humanity as its common father; only He can recast our nature anew in Himself and bind the strong man.
Lastly, what do you think about the early Dormition teaching that the Theotokos feared the demons at her repose? Excerpted from Daley’s “Mary’s Dormition and Christian Dying”:
“One early retelling of this unified narrative of Mary’s Dormition is contained in a sermon preached by Theodosius, the influential anti-Chalcedonian patriarch of Alexandria from 535, in the year of his death, 566/567. Although the sermon now exists only in Coptic, it was probably delivered in Greek, and the author claims as his source for the Dormition story a manuscript from Jerusalem, which he had consulted in the library of St. Mark in Alexandria. After a considerable introduction extolling Mary’s many virtues, Theodosios presents a brief narrative of her life, followed by an extended retelling of the story of her death. Here the emphasis, as he begins, is clearly on Mary’s terror at her approaching end; in a dream, she encounters Jesus, who warns her that her death is near, and she is immediately filled with dread. For the just as well as the sinner, she says, death is a journey across a vast sea of fire; she continues:
‘…what shall I say about the separation of soul from body? Oh, that moment is full of fear and terror! We are told that two powers accompany the soul: one light, the other hideous shadow, full of disgusting and fearful shapes. If the soul is just, it is led toward them with compassion and well-meaning encouragement, and one realizes that one is at peace with one’s creator. But if the soul is sinful, those [spirits] who belong to the light withdraw, and those who belong to darkness approach with anger, striking the soul, darting suddenly at it, beating it, grinding their teeth, pouring out flames of fire from their mouths on the face of the soul’. ”
Click to access dp55ch05.pdf
Another response by Fr. Christiaan Kappes:
Your first 3 paragraphs are an excellent summation. We see that Mary would not be corruptible in the sense of guilt-bearing and attaching sin to elements a la Damascene. Also, she would be “corruptible” in Damascene’s sense of Jesus being corruptible. Supposing that your excellent selection is exhaustive for Damascene’s discussion, Mary would -as yet- be incorruptible (within the context of the pege gnoseos, and Damascenian Homilies). You statement from Athanasius is equally a propos. In the end, however, the question remains as to whether Mary’s incorruptibility stems from some sort of preservations from whatever privations/curses that were imputed to Adam and his lineage. The question is definitively answered in Palamas (not necessarily all of Eastern Tradition) where Palamas surmises a gradual purification of the physical lineage mentioned in Luke. The terminus of the purification is shown by the “root of sin” from the demon being all but extinguished in Zechariah and Elizabeth, which produces the all-holy John. However, Mary’s seed (Damascene’s all-holy sperm of Joachim) means that she is the terminus for total purification of Adam’s lineage to make the 100 percent contribution of real flesh to the flesh of Jesus. In this sense, Palamites are viscerally wed to some sort of physically immaculate conception (though they categorically reject Augustinian traducianism -Save Macarius Makres and Scholarius). Damascene is certainly easily the source of this synthetic doctrine. The question remains, however, if this is true of the totality of the Greek patristic tradition. I do not know Andrew of Crete and several others…so I do not have an answer on this. I do agree with you that Palamas’ logic for why Christ is exempt from any of Adam’s heritage -if applied as the singular solution for exempting- cannot justify immaculatist Marian claims. I have not thought of this before, but it may be that Palamas is making a categorical universal for “exemption from sin”. If that were the case then, I would argue, he is simply internally inconsistent since there is -for me- no doubt that he is the strongest immaculatist in the Byzantine tradition of the prepurified Mary. Still, it is my recollection that -given the fact that Mary is not from a miraculous conception- he then searches for some alternative to justify his position on Mary as having an absolutely perfect human nature. The effect is to ingeniously use Augustine’s De trinitate and weave the root-sin-virus-human race ideas into a narrative. I go over this thoroughly in my Swedish conference from 2015.
Your misgivings about Mary’s role before the Incarnation are not naive in the least. Schoolmen too struggled with this. The universal fact in the 8th century Marian homilies and 14-16th century homilies that I have read, however, is that Mary was in every moral and grace filled sense worth from her tenderest years until the Incarnation. Our job is to explain how she can have such supernatural rewards and laudatory actions deserving awards if she is purely under the old Law and its presumption of impurity. Maximus (life of the Virgin) rather follows Origen’s exegesis (which is fairly common) that Mary was simply beyond the Law since she not only did not have blood, or opening of the womb (thus requiring purification) but that it is implied that this is a symbol of Mary’s life. True enough that Origen throws a monkey wrench into this by supposing Mary’s torments on the cross went beyond temptation to some form of quasi-culpable doubt, but the patristic reception of Mary’s exemption from the Mosaic Law tended to be a theological principle for talking about her privileges (although Chrysostom might be a notable exception -I am no expert on his Mariology, which I have so far found to be Antiochene and somewhat “low”).
Again, thanks for the Daley article. I had downloaded it but failed to make time to read it. I think the topos of the pain of the body leaving the soul is familiar in monastic literature (mentioned in the Philokalia). However, this natural “horror” is harmonious with traditional reads of Christ’s fear at Gethsemene in the Garden. One might suspect that this is the point of departure for modeling certain forms of presenting the fear of death. Secondly, whether Aristotelian or neo-Platonic, there should be a natural repugnance of the human soul (if it is the entelechy of the body) to be “forced out” by corruptions or hostile forms that destroy the material composite of the body. Lastly, since I am a systematic theology, I would arrange topoi or loci by their ranks. A decision, for example, of an ecumenical council is the highest topos or authority. This might be followed by a consensus of saintly doctors and fathers within a lesser topical council, and so forth. What we find in Daley’s excellent study is an indiscriminate list of historical witnesses, of whom are neither councils, consensus of several authorities, nor even texts that were generally admitted by synaxaria, or other liturgical books. In some case -the lowest topos- even ecclesiastical historians never mention these fragmentary attestations to Marian lore. In the end, I would systematically rank the authorities and only consider myself obliged to go with consensus from either Synods of Fathers. This is in fact the method of Mark of Ephesus, which will soon be exposes for its reasonableness in the upcoming contribution for Jan 2016.
Thank you for this article!
Some (probably very ignorant) related questions:
How unusual – in Western or Eastern – perspective is the Grave nimis of Sixtus IV in so explicitly and emphatically keeping the question open?
Did it receive a lot of explicit Orthodox attention?
Presumably it is unusual – and reprehensible – (if not unfamiliar by 1483) in Orthodox eyes in keeping it open “because the matter has not yet been decided by the Roman Church and the Apostolic See”.
Fr. Lev Gillet says, “It follows therefore that the Roman definition of 1854 does not constitute an obstacle to the reunion of the Eastern and Western Churches.” Wasn’t/isn’t the sudden announcement in Ineffabilis Deus of not only a solution but “this doctrine [as being] revealed by Almighty God and therefore […] to be firmly and steadfastly believed by all” see by the Orthodox as a radical obstacle?