The Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God in Both East and West

by Alex Roman, Ph.D.

The dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, proclaimed by Rome as an article of the Catholic faith in the 19th century, has long been an additional point of disagreement between East and West on the subject of Mariology or the theological study of the role of Mary. In what way is this so and what are the possibilities for overcoming the difficulties here?

The Roman Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception itself affirms that the Mother of God, from the moment of her Conception in the womb of St Anne, was preserved free of the “stain of Original Sin.” In other words, she who was called to assume the great role in salvation history as the Mother of the Divine Word Incarnate and the Ark of the New Covenant was prevented from contracting the sin of Adam.

The foundation of this definition is and always has been the resolution of the issue of: a) the fact that all have fallen in Adam and: b) how can the Mother of Christ, from whose very flesh the Son of God fashioned a Body for Himself by which we are saved and sanctified, ever be said to have been a subject of sin?

St Augustine of Hippo himself, when commenting on Original Sin, affirmed that the Mother of God must always be excluded from any such consideration to begin with. But it was only later with the Blessed John Duns Scotus, the Franciscan theologian, that the theological reasoning behind this view was worked out: The Virgin Mary was preserved free from Original Sin because the FUTURE merits of Christ’s passion and death were applied to her at her conception.

By the seventh century, the Byzantine East was celebrating the feast of the Conception of Saint Anne. This festival was first adopted in the West by the English Church from whence it soon spread elsewhere. It is still to be found in the calendar of the Anglican Church.

The West, however, was divided on whether the Mother of God could be said to have been conceived without Original Sin. St Thomas Aquinas and others, in fact, replied to this question in the negative and one could be a Latin Catholic in good standing while denying the Immaculate Conception.

However, even before the Immaculate Conception was proclaimed as a binding dogma on all Catholics by Rome, there was strong, local devotion to it throughout the Catholic world centuries before. Religious associations organized to honour the Immaculate Conception abounded in the Middle Ages and later. They wore a medal similar to the Miraculous Medal of more recent times, invoked the Virgin as the “Immaculate Mother” and even took the “bloody vow” or a vow to defend to the death her Immaculate Conception. Even some Catholic empires proclaimed the Immaculate Conception as a dogma to be held by all their faithful subjects. We know that the Spanish Empire did so and anyone who was a subject of the Spanish king was obliged to accept the Immaculate Conception. The Church, built by the Spaniards, in New Orleans, Louisiana is a mute testimony to the local proclamation of this dogma by the Spanish Church.

The Immaculate Conception also came to be reverenced in Orthodox countries, especially during the height of the Baroque period in the Kyivan Church and also by Greeks, as Father John Meyendorff has shown. The Ukrainian Saint Demetrius of Rostov, for example, belonged to an Orthodox Brotherhood of the Immaculate Conception (for which he was called before an Orthodox Synod to give account). St Demetrius and others of his day prayed the rosary, recited the Hail Mary at the turn of each hour, the Little Office of the Virgin Mary and even the Psalter of the Mother of God composed by St Bonaventure. His “Easternized” prayer in honour of the Sorrows of the Mother of God survives in many Orthodox prayerbooks today as the “Tale of the Five Prayers!”

The rosary known as the “rule of prayer of the Mother of God” was likewise prayed throughout by Orthodox Christians, especially by St Seraphim of Sarov whose main icon of the Mother of God was actually a Western picture of Our Lady of the Annunciation, known today as “Our Lady, Joy of all Joys” and is among the most popular icons of the Theotokos in Russia.

The Kyivan Orthodox Brotherhoods of the Immaculate Conception likewise took the bloody vow and produced Western-style depictions of Our Lady of Grace and their invocation was, “Most Immaculate Theotokos, save us!” This was a play on the “Panaghia” or “All-Holy” invocation to the Virgin Mary that is a refrain in so many liturgical services: “All Holy Theotokos, save us!”

Some of the icons themselves came to be venerated as Orthodox miraculous icons, as Professor Poselianin shows in his magnum opus, “Bogomater” (”The Immaculate Mother” as one example, although a copy of this icon is not included).

The website of the Orthodox Church in America likewise affirms that the icon for the feast of the Conception of St Anne in Orthodoxy depicts the Mother of God very much as the Western picture of Our Lady of Grace, with hands stretched downwards and standing on a globe etc.

Despite the acceptance of this doctrine in certain Orthodox circles, the fact remains that the doctrine itself was not acceptable to the Eastern Churches. Very often, Roman Catholic commentators have attacked Orthodoxy for refusing to accept this doctrine for, otherwise, this must mean that Orthodox Christians believe the unspeakable–that the Mother of God was conceived in and contracted Original Sin.

The crux of the matter here lies, however, not in a disagreement over Mary’s total sinlessness and holiness from her Conception.

In fact, the East does indeed affirm Mary’s All-holiness in its liturgical tradition. The liturgical celebration, and that from early times, of the Conception of St Anne ALREADY means that the Mother of God was a saint at her Conception and was sanctified by the Spirit as the Temple of the Most Holy Trinity–only feasts of saints may be celebrated, after all!

(The same holds true for John the Baptist, whose Conception is ALSO celebrated in the calendar of the Orthodox Church.)

So both East and West already affirm Mary to be All-Holy and Ever-Immaculate.

What is the problem then?

The problem is in the thorny issue of Original Sin and the way in which it has been understood in the West, taking its cue, as it does, from Saint Augustine. For the Christian East, Original Sin does not totally ravage human nature. Adam’s personal sin resulted in death for all his descendants, the experience of concupiscence and the darkening of the mind that makes us subject to temptation etc. So if Mary died, then she had indeed been subject to the effects of Original Sin, i.e., she could not be said to have been conceived without it.

But by her great sanctification at her Conception and at other times in her life (Annunciation, Pentecost, Dormition/Assumption) God deemed to bestow on His Temple, the Ark of the New Covenant, the fullness of His Gifts of Grace. And so, the effects of Original Sin, while not completely taken away from Mary, were mitigated in an exemplary way. Thus, she suffered no pain when she gave birth to Christ and her passing into eternal life was but a gentle falling asleep (or “Dormition”). Furthermore, she was taken in body and soul to Heaven by Her Son as her body was not to experience corruption. And she continues to grow in holiness in heaven as holiness is a dynamic, rather than static, thing.

So, for the East, when the West affirmed that the Mother of God was conceived without Original Sin, this implied that she did not die–something the East had always believed as its liturgical tradition (”lex orandi, lex credendi”) bore out.

But today the West understands the “stain of Original Sin” in a way that would be compatible with the view of the East. Perhaps this was all a misunderstanding that was artificially maintained across centuries by ill-will on both sides–who can know for sure. And the West does not deny that the Mother of God was under the effects of Original Sin, even though her great holiness mitigated greatly her experience of these. Ultimately, a mutual agreement on this issue would centre on the matter of a common and clear definition concerning Original Sin. It would also have to be based on whether Rome’s definition of the Immaculate Conception, rooted in a form of Augustinianism as it is, cannot be adapted to a more ecumenical perspective that would be open to Eastern theological/patristic viewpoints.

Certainly, there could be no question that the East would ever need to adopt the IC dogma, given the fact that the matter of the All-holiness of the Mother of God was never a point of disagreement in the East and that the dogma itself is the product of a purely Western theological paradigm.

Apart from the dogmas of the Divine Maternity and Perpetual Virginity of the Mother of God, as defined by the Councils, the East prefers to keep all else concerning the Virgin Mary as part of its own intense, inner liturgical piety towards her. As the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom sings of Mary:

“Having commemorated our Most Holy, Most Pure, Most Blessed and Glorious Sovereign Mother of God and Every-Virgin Mary, with all the Saints, let us give offer ourselves and one another unto Christ our God!”

[This article was originally published on my now defunct Pontifications blog on 15 September 2004. I’m delighted I was able to find it through the Wayback Machine. I wish to again thank Dr Roman, with whom I lost touch a good while back, for writing this article for my blog.]

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11 Responses to The Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God in Both East and West

  1. Charles Twombly says:

    My knowledge of this subject borders on pathetic, but my interest in high and of long-standing.

    First, I recall a sentence or two from dear Henry Chadwick in his EARLY CHURCH in which he offers the thought that the increasing exaltation of Mary as intercessor, etc, was in part a response to the well-intended effort to exalt her Son ever higher to protect him from the subtle dangers of “Arianism.” When he was placed firmly in the Trinity as of “one being” with the Father, there was a tendency to leave his humanity behind. To emphasize over-much his role as sole mediator (the “man” Christ Jesus) might encourage the thought that he’s in a junior position in relation to God. For Chadwick, it seems, the unintended consequence was to make Christ more and more remote: Jesus the “friend of sinners” who, as one of us, lives to make intercession for us at the right hand of the Father is now “too important and preoccupied with more important things” (I deliberately exaggerate), leaving a vacuum which popular piety was quick to fill with Jesus’ tender mother.

    Second, I’ve dabbled with the idea of the Theotokos’s/BVM’s role in preserving her Son from inherited guilt. Jesus may have had only one human parent, but Mary’s fallen state (if it existed) may not have bypassed transmitting a “real” humanity complete with fallenness. This is clearly more of a Western problem than an Eastern one. Both East and West teach that fallenness is inherited; but only in the West (RC and classical Protestantism) is the notion that “guilt” is likewise passed on. Westerners tend to answer “yes” when (to adapt a “spiritual”) the question is asked, “Were you there when Eve and Adam ate the fruit?” Yep, “we” were there (in the loins of our ancient ancestors as it were–a la Hebrews and tithes to Melchisedec). Fr John Meyendorff had another claim: he insisted (as had the East generally) that the West based some of its claims on a mistranslation of Romans 5:12 (Augustine’s the bad boy here) in which the Latin (‘Gus’s Greek was pathetic if it existed at all) made Paul say that both death and guilt were inherited. If that’s the case, then Jesus can’t possibly inherit a fallen humanity and Mary requires a very special miracle to do the same (even if it’s retroactive).

    But as Thos Torrance (following Cyril and Nazianzus and other ancient voices and more modern ones like J McLeod Campbell, Edward Irving, his mentor HR MacIntosh, and others) had argued, Jesus not only was born with a (guilt-free) fallen human nature but absolutely had to if the perfect sacrifice he offered on the cross was not a human nature that was “immaculate” from day one, but was rather “our” nature transfigured and sanctified by his life of perfect obedience. The humanity Christ offers up to the Father was one that was “assumed” (with tendencies toward giving into temptation, etc) in order to be “healed” (Greg Naz). “What has not been assumed cannot be healed,” as Greg and others argued against Appolinarius. No assumption of our fallenness, no healing. This “healing” is the dimension that’s often left out in the West because so much stress in placed on “forgiveness of sins” without the accompanying “release” or defeat of the powers of sin and death that we live with. (We need a “double cure:” both from sin’s “guilt” and from it’s power”—Rock of Ages, first verse.) Jesus heals us from the “inside” as it were. No suggestion, though, that human nature as a whole is automatically transformed for one and all–sort of the FD Maurice notion that everyone is now saved: some know it and others don’t (at least not yet). No, we are saved by Christ’s sanctified humanity but only after we receive it (sacramentally and by faith–yes, faith: John Damascene is clear on this).

    Well, I’ve now rambled all over the place, pretending to know things I probably don’t, all the while leaving the Mother of God sitting under a tree wondering how a conversation that started out with her wandered away in this direction or that. Maybe someone with patience will re-read my words and find something worth discussing, something that adds to the wonderful essay Al has posted. I would only add that the Greek fathers and the East to this day offer a plausible rationale for avoiding the Immaculate Conception. A whole soteriology falls apart if we go that way–or does it?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Torrance’s view raises some interesting questions, doesn’t it? What, for TFT, is “fallen human nature”?

      Charles, as you are our resident Damascene scholar, what does St John say about this question? Did the eternal Son assume a fallen human nature?

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      • Charles Twombly says:

        A little ambiguous. JD can talk about Jesus’ sinlessness (he’d better!) in ways that make it sound like Jesus’ human nature is unfallen but then talk “not assumed/not healed” language as if Jesus took on a nature that needed healing/sanctifying/transforming. For me, Greg the Nazarene’s priceless phrase necessarily entails “fallenness.” Maybe Fr Andrew has a better grip on this than I do, Aidan. (As for TFT, it would seem that a “fallen human nature” for him–as for irving, McLeod Campbell, MackIntosh, and some others–necessarily doesn’t entail inherited guilt. A propensity to sin, yes; actually “being born guilty,” no. Again, Habets, Molnar, Fergusson, and others could speak to this better than I can. I’m a true amateur in a double sense! I’m passionate about Torrance and company; at the same time, I’m a bit of a dabbler.)

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      • Maximus says:

        St. Cyril of Alexandria:

        [I]t was necessary that the Word of God should be incarnated for the salvation of us who are on this earth. This was so he could make his own that human flesh which was subject to corruption and sick with its desires, and destroy corruption within it since he is Life and Life-giver, bringing its innate sensual impulses to order. This was how the sin that lay within it was to be put to death… From the time that human flesh became the personal flesh of the Word it has ceased to be subject to corruption, and since he who dwelt within it, and revealed it as his very own, knew no sin being God, as I have already said, it has also ceased to be sick with its desires. First Letter to Succensus, ¶9; McGuckin, 356.

        St. Maximus the Confessor:

        [T]hose who say that there is a γνώμη in Christ . . . are maintaining that he is a mere man, deliberating in a manner like us, having ignorance, doubt and opposition . . . . Because of this, then, the gnomic will is fitly ascribed to us, being a mode of use (τρόπος χρήσεως), and not a principle of nature (λόγος φύσεως) . . . . But the humanity of Christ does not simply subsist in a manner similar to us, but divinely, for he who appeared in the flesh for our sakes was God. It is thus not possible to say that Christ had a gnomic will. Disputatio, PG 91:308C-309A; Farrell, 31-32. Cf. Bathrellos, Byzantine Christ, 157.

        St. John Damascene:

        You assumed, O Master, the entire Adam before His transgression, free from sin. (Homily 1, On the Dormition)

        IOW, Christ purified and deified His humanity when He assumed it. He took o the blameless passions and death willingly, not out of necessity as one liable to corruption. If one is interested in a thorough treatment (600+ pgs!) of the subject of Christ’s “fallen nature”, purchase the outstanding book “Jesus Fallen?” by Fr. Emmanuel Hatzidakis (GOA). TFT and other’s similar assertions are addressed.

        http://www.orthodoxwitness.org/jesus-fallen-the-human-nature-of-christ-examined-from-an-eastern-orthodox-perspective

        http://www.orthodoxwitness.org/did-christ-have-a-fallen-human-nature-part-1-of-8/

        http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2014/02/book-review-jesus-fallen.html

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  2. Maximus says:

    Fr. Florovsky also agrees with the article: Ioasaf Krokovskii (d. 1718), reformer, or even second founder, of the Kievan school… At Kiev, he taught theology according to Aquinas and centered his devotional life — as was characteristic of the Baroque era — on the praise of the Blessed Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. It was under his rectorship that the student “congregations” of the Kiev Academy known as Marian Sodalities arose, in which members had to dedicate their lives “to the Virgin Mary, conceived without original sin” (“Virgini Mariae sine labe originali conceptae”) and take an oath to preach and defend against heretics that “Mary was not only without actual sin, venal or mortal, but also free from original sin,” although adding that “those who regard her as conceived in original sin are not to be classed as heretics.” Krokovskii’s acceptance of the Immaculate Conception and his propagation of the doctrine at Kiev was no more than the consolidation of a tradition that for some time in the seventeenth century had been forming among various representatives of Kievan theology, including St. Dimitrii of Rostov. And in this realm, too, it was but an imitation or borrowing from Roman thought and practice. The growing idea of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary was intellectually linked with an evolving trend in the interpretation of Original Sin, but, more profoundly, it was rooted in a specific psychology and attitude developing historically within the bosom of the western Baroque. The veneration of Panagia and Theotokos by the Orthodox is by no means the same. It is grounded in a spiritual soil of an altogether different kind. (Ways of Russian Theology)

    In his paper “The Sinlessness of the Mother of God in St. Nicholas Cabasilas” Orthodox Theologian Christopher Veniamin states, “…[T]hough certainly describable as ‘supranatural’ and even as ‘divine’ (cf. the troparion of the 8th Ode, Second Canon by Basil the Monk, Feast of the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple), yet the Holy Virgin’s birth is not described…as ‘virginal’ or ‘maidenly’. And this certainly seems to be in keeping with the earlier Patristic consensus, summed up in the words of St. John Damascene’s rhetorical exclamation: ‘O loins of Joachim most blessed, out of which came blameless seed’ (On the Nativity of the Theotokos PG 96, 664B.), and ‘Thou (sc. the Mother of God) from us (sc. Adam and Eve) hast inherited a corruptible body’ (On the Dormition of the Theotokos, ibid., 733C).”

    The author also asserts: “The essential issue in the whole question of the sinlessness of the Mother of God must be the preservation of the uniqueness of Christ’s sinlessness. Christ’s salvific work would be debased or even nullified if we were to accept that someone else also fulfills the conditions of His sinlessness; if we were to accept, that is, that the Ever-Virgin was born free from original sin… the secondary issue here is the determination of the exact moment at which divine grace began to act upon the Holy Virgin so as to cleanse and strengthen her, and it is largely on this point that Cabasilas presents a somewhat peculiar line of thought. And while some of his phrases and certain shifts of emphasis could be construed as resembling the opinions of the thirteenth century Scholastics, and even, at times, as diverging from Cabasilas’ immediate predecessors, such a view would not take into account sufficiently the fact his theological presuppositions belong to a fundamentally different world. Indeed, the diversity of opinion in the Patristic tradition is not necessarily mutually exclusive on the question of the Holy Virgin’s sinlessness and purity, as the work of Cabasilas’ contemporary, St. Gregory Palamas, clearly shows, with whom Cabasilas has much in common.” And in closing, Veniamin succinctly concludes, “It has been suggested that Cabasilas ‘overemphasizes’ and ‘over-extols’ the Mother of God, so as to result in a general exaltation of her person and the role she played in our salvation. But surely, this is nothing more than the effusion of Cabasilas’ profound veneration of the Most Holy Mother of God. What is certainly beyond dispute, however, is the fact that nowhere in the theology of St. Nicholas Cabasilas is the immaculate conception accepted, mentioned or inferred.” (The Orthodox Understanding of Salvation: “Theosis” in Scripture and Tradition, pp. 52, 58-59) Veniamin’s testimony is particularly weighty since he is the translator and editor of the English translation of the homilies on Mary the Mother of God.

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    • elijahmaria says:

      There is nothing in the formal apostolic constitution of the Catholic Church that indicates that the Immaculate Conception is any kind of necessity rather they have this to say explicitly; “Above all creatures did God so loved her that truly in her was the Father well pleased with singular delight. Therefore, far above all the angels and all the saints so wondrously did God endow her with the abundance of all heavenly gifts poured from the treasury of his divinity that this mother, ever absolutely free of all stain of sin, all fair and perfect, would possess that fullness of holy innocence and sanctity than which, under God, one cannot even imagine anything greater, and which, outside of God, no mind can succeed in comprehending fully. ” Again the understanding is that the “stain” or “blemish” of the original sin is that which is placed upon the soul at the moment of each conception, resulting in the occlusion of the intellect, a weakening of the will and a clouding of the memory. That human nature itself is wounded, so the Catholic Church also attests but the Mother of God was born with a fully post-lapsarian human nature attested to by the fact that she dies. The preservation for the Mother of God was to the effects that wounding would have on her soul.

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      • elijahmaria says:

        The idea that the formal teaching of the Immaculate Conception clearly indicates that it is not with reference to the material part of the Virgin Mother’s human nature but to the spiritual part, to her soul can easily be attested to by the following from Ineffabilis Deus: “So at the instance and request of the bishops mentioned above, with the chapters of the churches, and of King Philip and his kingdoms, we renew the Constitutions and Decrees issued by the Roman Pontiffs, our predecessors, especially Sixtus IV,[8] Paul V,[9] and Gregory XV,[10] in favor of the doctrine ****asserting that the soul of the Blessed Virgin, in its creation and infusion into the body, was endowed with the grace of the Holy Spirit and preserved from original sin; and also in favor of the feast and veneration of the conception of the Virgin Mother of God, which, as is manifest, was instituted in keeping with that pious belief. So we command this feast to be observed under the censures and penalties contained in the same Constitutions****.”

        Because this teaching refers in particular to the spiritual aspects of the Virgin mother and not to the material aspects of her nature, much of the discussion here is of the various theological opinions offered across the centuries and not to the teaching itself. These are of interest, of course, but ought to be referenced as speculative and not dogmatic or doctrinal.

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  3. John Clare says:

    The Latinizing tendencies of the Kiev school in the 17th century can be seen as part of the same process that set up the Ukrainian (Uniate) Catholic church, i.e. absorbing Eastern Orthodoxy into Western Catholic Christendom. The Eastern Church has preferred to avoid the Western tendency to define dogma too closely, based on the Latin inheritance of Roman law, so it is content to assert Mary’s sinlessness without deciding how this was created. The real question is of course why is Mary’s sinlessness necessary at all, seeing that the Gospels do not support it.

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    • I would be interested in which Gospels you find not supporting it? I was always under the impression that by Lk 1-2 making Mary into the Tent of Moses, Ark of the Covenant, and locus of divine presence, this exaggerated Mary’s holiness. She becomes place where the theophanies of Israel dry shod at the Red See occurs, she becomes at Lk 1:35 the place where the Isaiah 6 trisagion in realized. I am not aware of her being called sinful elsewhere. Mary -so far as I know- was “purified” with Jesus (= they were purified) in the Temple in Luke’s Gospel. The Fathers saw that whatever purification means for Jesus it clearly is not from impurity or sin. Hence, by extension (since it is they-autôn = genitive) both of them shared in the same graces and glories that made their natures perfect, or as St. Nicholas Cabasilas (Homily on the Bday of Mary) interprets Mary: “The first man” (= pro typical nature for all humans before and after since she brought about Jesus’ all-pure nature). Just my thoughts.
      in X
      CWK

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  4. bob k says:

    Around 25 years ago I wondered at the very awkward “tale of the five prayers” in my 1962 Jordanville book. The late Nina Seco put it together and I asked her how THAT got in there? She laughed and said it wasn’t Orthodox. When the book was being assembled someone shoved it in her hand and told her it had to be included. She objected that it was weird stuff but was overruled. I think it mercifully was dropped in newer versions.

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