St John the Wonderworker and the Heresy of the Immaculate Conception

A7F386CF-955F-4A4A-B334-CE3041127524The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, solemnly defined by Pope Pius IX in 1854, is regularly cited by Orthodox theologians and apologists as an insuper­able barrier to the reunion of the Orthodox and Cath­olic Churches. According to St John of Shanghai and San Francisco, the doctrine represents a heretical depar­ture from the faith received by the Church: “None of the anci­ent Holy Fat­hers say that God in mira­culous fashion puri­fied the Vir­gin Mary while yet in the womb; and many directly indi­cate that the Vir­gin Mary, just as all men, endu­red a battle with sin­ful­ness, but was victo­rious over temp­ta­tions and was saved by Her Divine Son.” In contrast, he quotes these words of a 19th century Catholic bishop, Jean-Baptiste Balou of Bruges: “In three respects—as Daughter, as Mother, and as Spouse of God—the Holy Virgin is exalted to a certain equality with the Father, to a certain superi­ority over the Son, to a certain nearness to the Holy Spirit.” The Roman Church, he believes, has so exalted the Blessed Virgin that she has virtually become a fourth member of the Trinity: “Thus the Roman church, in its stri­vings to exalt the Most Holy Vir­gin, is going on the path of com­plete dei­fi­ca­tion of Her.”

John advances five objections to the Latin dogma:

  1.  “The teaching of the complete sinlessness of the Mother of God does not correspond to Sacred Scripture, where there is repeatedly mentioned the sinlessness of the One Mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ (I Tim. 2:5); and in Him is no sin (John 3:5); Who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth (I Peter 2:22); One that hath been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin (Heb. 4:15); Him Who knew no sin, He made to be sin on our behalf (II Cor. 5:21).”
  2. “This teaching contradicts also Sacred Tradition, which is contained in numerous Patristic writings, where there is mentioned the exalted sanctity of the Virgin Mary from Her very birth, as well as Her cleansing by the Spirit at Her conception of Christ, but not at Her own conception by Anna.”
  3. “The teaching that the Mother of God was purified before Her birth, so that from Her might be born the Pure Christ, is meaningless; because if the Pure Christ could be born only if the Virgin might be born pure, it would be necessary that Her parents also should be pure of original sin, and they again would have to be born of purified parents, and going further in this way, one would have to come to the conclusion that Christ could not have become incarnate unless all His ancestors in the flesh, right up to Adam inclusive, had been purified beforehand of original sin. But then there would not have been any need for the very Incarnation of Christ, since Christ came down to earth in order to annihilate sin.”
  4. “The teaching that the Mother of God was preserved from original sin, as likewise the teaching that She was preserved by God’s grace from personal sins, makes God unmerciful and unjust; because if God could preserve Mary from sin and purify Her before Her birth, then why does He not purify other men before their birth, but rather leaves them in sin?”
  5. “This teaching, which seemingly has the aim of exalting the Mother of God, in reality completely denies all Her virtues. After all, if Mary, even in the womb of Her mother, when She could not even desire anything either good or evil, was preserved by God’s grace from every impurity, and then by that grace was preserved from sin even after Her birth, then in what does Her merit consist? If She could have been placed in the state of being unable to sin, and did not sin, then for what did God glorify Her? If She, without any effort, and without having any kind of impulses to sin, remained pure, then why is She crowned more than everyone else. There is no victory without an adversary.”

In one form or another, the above objections to the Immaculate Conception doctrine are now commonplace in Orthodox apologetics. Roman Catholic theologians might question whether John has accurately stated the Latin doctrine, and they no doubt have answers at hand to the above objections—but that is by the by. What is important is modern Ortho­doxy’s almost unanimous rejection of the Immaculate Conception. Reunion with Rome is thus impossible, until it repents of its heresy.

Yet as we saw with Fr Lev Gillet’s article, in the first-half of the second millennium many Byzantine theologians and preachers not only spoke of the prenatal sanctification of the Theotokos in ways that seemingly approximate the Immaculate Conception; but they exalted her so highly as would make many modern Orthodox squirm in their pews (if they have them). In his article St John ironically invokes Western sources (Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas) to support his condemnation of the Immaculate Conception, yet he does not cite Eastern authorities, much less formal denunciations, from the same period. Why is that? It was not because Byzantium was unacquainted with the Latin proposal.

And so we ask: Must the Eastern Church condemn the Latin doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as heretical? Might it enshrine a truth that the Eastern Church must affirm, once it is detached from the Latin teaching on original sin? Perhaps, just perhaps, an Orthodox construal of the doctrine is possible.

(6 September 2015; rev.)

(Go to “Mary Prokathartheisa”)

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13 Responses to St John the Wonderworker and the Heresy of the Immaculate Conception

  1. Alicia Gossman-Steeves says:

    I wonder why the Church insists that Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Christ? I have no trouble believing that she went on to become a mother of other children. Scripture does mention Jesus’ brothers and sisters (Matthew 13: 54 – 58, Mark 6: 1 – 5, Luke 8: 19 – 21, etc.), yet the Church insists that she remained a virgin and that perhaps Joseph had children from another wife. But what is wrong with being a mother? Why couldn’t Mary have had other children? Are virgins more holy? More dedicated to God? I realize that Paul talks about remaining single in order to devote oneself to the kingdom, but raising children to follow God also benefits the kingdom. Maybe you could shed some light on this.

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    • Ben says:

      An excellent book which covers this topic – the ever-virginity of Mary, from a biblical perspective is a book called Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary by Brant Pitre who is coming from the Catholic perspective. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, it definitely answers the question and provides all the biblical typology which applies to Mary, – the scriptural support of Mary remaining a virgin is in my opinion overwhelming, Pitre’s book is very eye opening and was very helpful for me in understanding the christian tradition of the veneration of Mary.

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  2. Robert Fortuin says:

    Alicia,

    A terribly short answer on a complex topic: While there’s nothing wrong with being a mother (yes, Mary is a mother!), there is credible and numerous evidence from very early accounts that she did remain a virgin, and this is further supported by scriptural passages (e.g. OT prophecies).

    But in a wider sense your question (a valid question, don’t get me wrong) is an inquiry into the nature and place of tradition.

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  3. Steven says:

    The Immaculate Conception is a casualty of ecclesiastical wars and not a small bit of arrogance on both sides of this issue. Perhaps this is a shallow solution, but if we put on our post-liberal thinking caps it’s not difficult to reach the conclusion that both sides believe Mary avoided sin by God’s grace, that her purity and truly unique relationship with God was necessary to the plan of salvation…thereby leaving us in a position where Orthodox and Catholics are articulating the fundamentally same truth with different languages and ‘rules of grammar’ internal to each language. Maybe that solution is a little too simple and therefore shallow, or maybe it’s so obvious we think it can’t possibly be right.

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    • George Matthew Hesson says:

      I agree with you on that.
      Our Lady Herself, uses the language of the people, and performs different actions through out the different Apolstolic Churches that communicate Her Motherly love, and the love of our God to those particular Churches in particular ways. These could be considered abstract and foreign to those outside of that particular tradition.
      Our Lady appeared to a woman in Egypt, and physically cut out the lady’s cancer! This is unheard of in any of the Roman Catholic apparitions of Saint Mary The Mother Of God.
      She appears to Saint Bernadette as The Immaculate Conception. I lived in Lourdes France were this apportion took place. The title Immaculate Conception had been in use for decades, maybe even centuries prior to this apparition in this part of Europe by the Latin Church.
      There are possibly Byzantine apparitions of The Theotokos that are particular to the Greek and Russian traditions that one may find peculiar out side of that tradition.
      I find it interesting that An Angel Of God appeared to a monk, maybe somewhere on Mont Athos, and The Angel wrote with his finger into a piece of stone, the second half of the Byzantine Prayer to Our Lady, ” MORE HONORABLE THAN THE CHERUBIM AND MORE GLORIOUS BEYOND COMPARE THAN THE SERAPHIM, WHO WITHOUT DEFILEMENT YOU GAVE BIRTH THE GOD THE WORD, TRUE THEOTOKOS WE MAGNIFY YOU.
      To me this is the Byzantine formula, using Byzantine language, given to us by the Angel fo God to express the Immaculateness of Our Lady, SaInt Mary The Panagia.

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      • Patrick Halferty says:

        Last evening I was reading The Mountain of Silence that relates an incident in the life of Elder Paisios (Mount Athos), in which St. Ephemia (sp?), John the Evangelist, and The Virgin Mary appeared to him in his hermitage.

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    • Grant says:

      I suspect as in so many of the breaks between the ancient Churches misunderstandings of language and how they are understood internally within their liturgical and confessional bounds by those within in by those without play a significant part (as such lack of understandings played in the breaks characterizing the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Assyrian Church of the East).

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  4. mercifullayman says:

    This topic makes me think back to when I first began dabbling into the waters of Orthodoxy, and catechesis. I remember the Priest who I met with answering all of these same questions. I always thought the way he handled it for us young pups in the Faith well. He told me that while dogma is there and serves a distinctive purpose, that there are also questions that would arise in which there would be Fathers who would agree with how you felt as well. This applied to everything from Evolution to this very question. He saw some issues as not relating to the salvific power of the Cross, for which all must ultimately bend. There is some facets that are negotiable, and there are some that are not.

    The fact of the matter is that we ultimately defer to tradition on this, and one that is logically cohesive. However, to admit that we really don’t KNOW would also be honest. We’re just working with the best explanation we have, given the traditions and understandings that have been passed from ages back. Greek is ambiguous but workable, we pull some of the tradition from Apocrypha (which the PJ gets a lot of details about Jewish culture wrong but starts the whole convo off), and the witness of a large portion of church fathers from the late 3rd century on. So we have two avenues to go down:

    1. This idea (no other children, cousin/step relation) was always known by the Church because of the live witness of those around being so close to the original time/apostles/disciples to know that He had no other siblings and exactly how they were related.

    or

    2. A focus on explaining the reality of the virgin birth and a true Mariology developed over time into the 3rd and 4th centuries, which would help account for certain assertions in Christology at the time. These statements come around the same time the Church is trying to figure out exactly how to explain Christ dogmatically and philosophically.

    I’d argue also, that some of the idea is rooted so much in who supported specific versions of the story too. People like the Arians supported a true blood kinship, whereas the ultimate Orthodox position didn’t. Tertullian didn’t and even went so far as to list specific instances of sin she dealt with, but then he got hammered by Jerome. Origen seems to admit there are two positions but that those who think “rightly” agree with him. Eusebius of Caesarea quotes Hegesippus who claimed that Judas (another brother of Jesus) had grandchildren who were brought before Domitian and he termed them “kindred of the Lord the grandsons of Judas, who according to the flesh was called his brother.” Using a term according to the flesh kind of implies actual kinship as half siblings. There are countless arguments on the subject, but the through line has seemed to hold over the centuries.

    There are rabbit trails that lead a thousand directions and have forever. I just feel more secure in the explanation of the Church. Seems more logically structured and coherent, and bolsters the claims that we all buy as the truth of the Faith.

    I do think there is a balance that could be found with her having other children though. I think, especially in popular culture, people want her to have had other children because it makes her more “real.” Oftentimes, she comes off as a mother, but not a real mother per se. She’s almost this otherworldly entity who seems so mythic as truly understandable. It’s not too hard to see how quickly her status became something that became so exalted some would question, as the East has rightly done, her status almost on the same level as the Godhead in certain ways of talking about her. That what will rub some people the wrong way but it’s true. As in all things, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. We grasp for our heroes to be like us, to struggle like us, and what we sometimes forget is that the encounter of the Divine, especially on the level in which she encountered it, would be so life altering…she couldn’t behave in any other fashion…and I’m ok with that view as well.

    Regardless, the Theotokos is one who we should admire fully for her courage and faithfulness. Regardless of if there was just Christ or more children, she is the mother to us all. The “Second Eve” by who the world was saved where the first Eve introduced sin and death.

    On a side note:
    Does anyone else find it fascinating that people are really looking at the conversation on the Cross where Jesus gives her away in John. Seems like so many people are trying to pinpoint exactly who he was talking to, and the traditional narratives are being really examined. I’ve seen everything from John per tradition, to Lazarus, to James the Younger (to justify the kinship theory here is an interesting idea…and he would be the only “brother” to really take ownership of the Faith early on.) Anywho, just a thought.

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  5. mary says:

    I’m glad to see this conversation taking place. As someone who secretly claims to be both Catholic and Orthodox, I really don’t see the problem. And think what a scandal it would create in today’s world if a schism was healed rather than a new one created!

    I don’t know about anyone else but I was a sinner before I knew it. What I mean was that I engaged in “naughty” behaviors as a child and only knew that it was “sin” when I became old enough to understand the concept. Regardless of how we try to describe original sin, I don’t think it is hard to see that in one sense, all people are born good (in the image and likeness of God) but at the same time immediately plunged into a broken humanity that impacts our behavior before we are old enough to even understand what we are choosing.

    If we believe that Mary was without sin (as she was), it could only have been by the grace of God, i.e. it wasn’t by sheer effort on her part. This should not be taken to mean, however, that she had no virtue or that it would have been impossible for her to sin. She had to cooperate with grace and say “yes” to what was asked of her. This was the greatest act of her personal holiness because she was not required to do so. Exactly when this extraordinary grace was imparted to her is something we cannot know – nor does it really matter.

    As an aside, it is interesting to note that it has been said that Jesus could not have sinned. Although fully human, he never relinquished being fully God. And God cannot sin. I have also read the opinion that he could not have said “no” to the crucifixion for the same reason. While I understand the logic behind this, it seems that it would have rendered insignificant his 40 days in the desert being tempted or his agony in the garden.

    I don’t know what is true regarding Jesus but we know that Mary, unlike Jesus, was not God and therefore sin was fully possible. And while she received a special grace, everyone is offered special graces that will enable to them to live out God’s unique plan for them. While the grace given to Mary was extraordinary, so was the suffering she bore as a result.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Colt says:

    Recently I found out about the Gospel of Hebrews and how a couple Church Fathers used it to defend the gospels. In the Gospel of Hebrews it describes the Holy Spirit as Jesus’s Mother. I guess that concept wasn’t too outlandish for them since they decide to use that book for their defenses. It would certainly downplay Mary like Joseph has been. But in RC Joseph surpassed John the Baptist in holiness around 1100ad. In Eastern Iconography Joseph isn’t ever close to the Theotokos. That still has me scratching my head. Apparently saints are jockeying for holiness up there.

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  7. p myshkin says:

    St Paul speaks of the new Adam leaving us free, I think, to agree w/many of the Fathers, St Irenaeus the first of many, that Mary is the new Eve. Eve, who was created sinless was nonetheless able to sin, O Happy Fault, so to say the Immaculate Conception would leave Our Lady incapable of sin doesn’t necessarily follow; furthermore, as she is the new Eve, it is fitting that she be conceived w/out sin, for the new Adam and new Eve are greater in every way than the first parents. I don’t for a moment demand that my admittedly silly attempt at saying all this is irrefutable, just that I think it is not against reason to agree w/Bl John Duns Scotus that Her Immaculate Conception is fitting.

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