The Immaculate Conception and the Orthodox Church
Posted on 1 September 2015 by Fr Aidan Kimel in Eclectic Orthodoxy
by Father Lev Gillet
I. It is generally agreed, I think, that the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is one of the questions which make a clear and profound division between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Is this really the case? We shall try to examine quite objectively what Orthodox theological history has to teach us on this matter. Leaving aside the patristic period we shall start on our quest in the time of the Patriarch Photius.
II. It seems to me that three preliminary observations have to be made.
First, it is an undeniable fact that the great majority of the members of the Orthodox Church did not admit the dogma of the Immaculate Conception as it was defined by Pius IX in 1854.
Secondly, throughout the history of Orthodox theology, we find an unbroken line of theologians, of quite considerable authority, who have explicitly denied the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Among them I shall refer to Nicephorus Gallistus in the fourteenth century and Alexander Lebedev in the nineteenth, these two representing the extremities of a chain with many intermediary links. There is even an official document written against the Immaculate Conception: the letter of the Patriarch Anthimus VII, written in 1895; we shall come later to a discussion of its doctrinal value.
Thirdly, we recognize the fact that Latin theologians very often used inadequate arguments in their desire to prove that the Immaculate Conception belonged to the Byzantine theological tradition. They sometimes forced the sense of the poetic expressions to be found in the liturgy of Byzantium; at times they misinterpreted what were merely common Byzantine terms to describe Mary’s incomparable holiness, as a sign of belief in the Immaculate Conception; on other occasions they disregarded the fact that certain Byzantines had only a very vague idea of original sin. Speaking of the Theotokos, Orthodox writers multiplied expressions such as “all holy”, “all pure”, “immaculate”. This does not always mean that these writers believed in the Immaculate Conception. The vast majority – but not all – Orthodox theologians agreed that Mary was purified from original sin before the birth of Our Lord. By this, they usually mean that she was purified in her mother’s womb like John the Baptist. This “sanctification” is not the Immaculate Conception.
The question must be framed in precise theological terms. We do not want to know if Mary’s holiness surpasses all other holiness, or if Mary was sanctified in her mother’s womb. The question is: Was Mary, in the words of Pius IX, “preserved from all stain of original sin at the first moment of her conception” (in primo instanti suae conceptionis)? Is this doctrine foreign to the Orthodox tradition? Is it contrary to that tradition?
III. I shall begin by quoting several phrases which cannot be said with absolute certainty to imply a belief in the Immaculate Conception but in which it is quite possible to find traces of such a belief.
First of all – the patriarch Photius. In his first homily on the Annunciation, he says that Mary was sanctified ek Brephous. This is not an easy term to translate; the primary meaning of Brephos is that of a child in the embryonic state. Ek means origin or starting point. The phrase seems to me to mean not that Mary was sanctified in the embryonic state, that is to say, during her existence in her mother’s womb, but that she was sanctified from the moment of her existence as an embryo, from the very first moment of her formation – therefore – from the moment of her conception. (1)
A contemporary and opponent of Photius, the monk Theognostes, wrote in a homily for the feast of the Dormition, that Mary was conceived by “a sanctifying action”, ex arches – from the beginning. It seems to me that this ex arches exactly corresponds to the “in primo instanti“ of Roman theology. (2)
St Euthymes, patriarch of Constantinople (+917), in the course of a homily on the conception of St Anne (that is to say, on Mary’s conception by Anne and Joachim) said that it was on this very day (touto semerou) that the Father fashioned a tabernacle (Mary) for his Son, and that this tabernacle was “fully sanctified” (kathagiazei). There again we find the idea of Mary’s sanctification in primo instanti conceptionis. (3)
Let us now turn to more explicit evidence.
(St) Gregory Palamas, archbishop of Thessalonica and doctor of the hesychasm (+1360) in his 65 published Mariological homilies, developed an entirely original theory about her sanctification. On the one hand, Palamas does not use the formula “immaculate conception” because he believes that Mary was sanctified long before the “primus instans conceptionis“, and on the other, he states quite as categorically as any Roman theologian that Mary was never at any moment sullied by the stain of original sin. Palamas’ solution to the problem, of which as far as we know, he has been the sole supporter, is that God progressively purified all Mary’s ancestors, one after the other and each to a greater degree than his predecessor so that at the end, eis telos, Mary was able to grow, from a completely purified root, like a spotless stem “on the limits between created and uncreated”. (4)
The Emperor Manuel II Paleologus (+1425) also pronounced a homily on the Dormition. In it, he affirms in precise terms Mary’s sanctification in primo instanti. He says that Mary was full of grace “from the moment of her conception” and that as soon as she began to exist … there was no time when Jesus was not united to her”. We must note that Manuel was no mere amateur in theology. He had written at great length on the procession of the Holy Spirit and had taken part in doctrinal debates during his journeys in the West. One can, therefore, consider him as a qualified representative of the Byzantine theology of his time. (5)
George Scholarios (+1456), the last Patriarch of the Byzantine Empire, has also left us a homily on the Dormition and an explicit affirmation of the Immaculate Conception. He says that Mary was “all pure from the first moment of her existence” (gegne theion euthus). (6)
It is rather strange that the most precise Greek affirmation of the Immaculate Conception should come from the most anti-Latin, the most “Protestantizing” of the patriarchs of Constantinople, Cyril Lukaris (+1638). He too gave a sermon on the Dormition of Our Lady. He said that Mary “was wholly sanctified from the very first moment of her conception (ole egiasmene en aute te sullepsei) when her body was formed and when her soul was united to her body”; and further on he writes: “As for the Panaghia, who is there who does not know that she is pure and immaculate, that she was a spotless instrument, sanctified in her conception and her birth, as befits one who is to contain the One whom nothing can contain?” (7)
Gerasimo, patriarch of Alexandria (+1636), taught at the same time. according to the Chronicle of the Greek, Hypsilantis, that the Theotokos “was not subject to the sin of our first father” (ouk npekeito to propatopiko hamarte mati); and a manual of dogmatic theology of the same century, written by Nicholas Coursoulas (+1652) declared that “the soul of the Holy Virgin was made exempt from the stain of original sin from the first moment of its creation by God and union with the body.” (8)
I am not unaware that other voices were raised against the Immaculate Conception. Damascene the Studite, in the sixteenth century, Mitrophanes Cristopoulos, patriarch of Alexandria and Dosithes, patriarch of Jerusalem in the seventeenth century, all taught that Mary was sanctified only in her mother’s womb. Nicephorus Gallistus in the fourteenth century and the Hagiorite in the eighteenth century taught that Mary was purified from original sin on the day of the Annunciation. But the opinions that we have heard in favour of the Immaculate Conception are not less eminent or less well qualified.
It was after the Bull of Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, of 8 December, 1854, that the greater part of the Greek Church seems to have turned against belief in the Immaculate Conception. Yet, in 1855, the Athenian professor, Christopher Damalas, was able to declare: “We have always held and always taught this doctrine. This point is too sacred to give rise to quarrels and it has no need of a deputation from Rome”. (9)
But it was not until 1896 that we find an official text classing the Immaculate Conception among the differences between Rome and the Orthodox East. This text is the synodal letter written by the Oecumenical Patriarch, Anthimes VII, in reply to the encyclical Piaeclara Gratulationis addressed by Leo XIII to the people of the Eastern Churches. Moreover, from the Orthodox point of view, the Constantinopolitan document has only a very limited doctrinal importance. Although it should be read with respect and attention, yet it possesses none of the marks of infallibility, nor does ecclesiastical discipline impose belief in its teachings as a matter of conscience, and it leaves the ground quite clear for theological and historical discussions on this point.
IV. Let us now consider more closely the attitude of the Russian Church towards the question of the Immaculate Conception.
Every Russian theological student knows that St Dmitri, metropolitan of Rostov (17th century), supported the Latin ”theory of the epiklesis” (10); but young Russians are inclined to consider the case of Dmitri as a regrettable exception, an anomaly. If they knew the history of Russian theology a little better they would know that from the middle ages to the seventeenth century the Russian Church has, as a whole, accepted belief in the Immaculate Conception. (11)
The Academy of Kiev, with Peter Moghila, Stephen Gavorsky and many others, taught the Immaculate Conception in terms of Latin theology. A confraternity of the Immaculate Conception was established at Polotsk in 1651. The Orthodox members of the confraternity promised to honour the Immaculate Conception of Mary all the days of their life. The Council of Moscow of 1666 approved Simeon Polotsky’s book called The Rod of Direction, in which he said: “Mary was exempt from original sin from the moment of her conception”. (12)
All this cannot be explained as the work of Polish Latinising influence. We have seen that much was written on the same lines in the Greek East. When as a result of other Greek influences, attacks were launched in Moscow against the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, a protest was made by the Old Believers – a sect separated from the official Church by reason of its faithfulness to certain ancient rites. Again in 1841, the Old Believers said in an official declaration that “Mary has had no share in original sin”. (13) To all those who know how deeply the Old Believers are attached to the most ancient beliefs and traditions, their testimony has a very special significance. In 1848, the “Dogmatic Theology” of the Archimandrite Antony Amphitheatroff, approved by the Holy Synod as a manual for seminaries, reproduced Palamas’ curious theory of the progressive purification of the Virgin’s ancestors, a theory which has already been mentioned and which proclaims Mary’s exemption from original sin. Finally, we should notice that the Roman definition of 1854 was not attacked by the most representative theologians of the time, Metropolitan Philaretes of Moscow and Macarius Boulgakov.
It was in 1881 that the first important writing appeared in Russian literature in opposition to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. It was written by Professor A. Lebedev of Moscow who held the view that the Virgin was completely purified from original sin at Golgotha. (14) In 1884, the Holy Synod included the question of the Immaculate Conception in the programme of “polemical”, that is to say, anti-Latin theology. Ever since then, official Russian theology has been unanimously opposed to the Immaculate Conception.
This attitude of the Russians has been strengthened by a frequent confusion of Mary’s immaculate conception with the virgin birth of Christ. This confusion is to be found not only among ignorant people, but also among many theologians and bishops. In 1898, Bishop Augustine, author of a “Fundamental Theology”, translated “immaculate conception” by “conception sine semine“. More recently still, Metropolitan Anthony then Archbishop of Volkynia, wrote against the “impious heresy of the immaculate and virginal conception of the Most Holy Mother of God by Joachim and Anne.” It was a theologian of the Old Believers, A. Morozov, who had to point out to the archbishop that he did not know what he was talking about. (15)
V. There are three principal causes which provide an explanation for the opposition with which the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has been met in the Orthodox Church.
First and foremost, there is the mistrust felt a priori by many Orthodox about any doctrine defined by Rome since the separation of East and West. That, of course, is primarily a psychological reason.
There is also the fear of formulating a doctrine which might not seem to have sufficient foundation in Holy Scripture and the patristic tradition. We have left the patristic age outside the bounds of our discussion, limiting ourselves to the Orthodox theology of Byzantium: but it seems that (from St Andrew of Crete to St Theodore the Studite) much evidence can be produced from Greek sources in favour of the Immaculate Conception.
Finally there is the fear of restricting the redemptive work of Christ. Once you have exempted Mary from original sin, have you not exempted her from the effects of her Son’s redemption? Is it not possible for a single exception to destroy the whole economy of salvation? The Orthodox theologians who think on these lines have not given careful enough consideration, or indeed any at all, to the fact that according to Pius IX’s definition, Mary was only exempt from original sin in view of the merits of Christ: ”intuitu meritorum Christi Jesu Salvatoris humani generis“. Therefore, Christ’s redemptive action was operative in Mary’s case although in a quite different way from that of the rest of mankind.
We will add this, too. Orthodox theology has always insisted on the beauty of human nature in its integrity before the fall. Now it is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception which alone can justify this ‘humanism’. It is only in Mary conceived without sin, that human nature has reached its fulfilment and actualized all its possibilities. Mary is the one and only success of the human race. It is through her and in her that humanity has escaped total failure and has offered to the divine a point of entry into the human. Mary, said Metropolitan George of Nicomedia (19th century) “was the magnificent first fruit offered by human nature to the Creator.” (16) “She is”, said Nicholas Cabasilas (14th century), “truly the first man, the first and only being to have manifested in herself the fullness of human nature.” (17)
VI. Let us draw our conclusions:
1. The Immaculate Conception of Mary is not a defined dogma in the Orthodox Church.
2. One can say that since the first part of the nineteenth century the majority of Orthodox believers and theologians have taken their stand against this doctrine.
3. Nevertheless. it is impossible to say that from the Orthodox point of view the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception constitutes a heresy; for canonically it has never been defined as such by an oecumenical council and in fact, it has never met with the disapproval of a universal and unchanging consensus of opinion.
4. There does exist a continuous line of eminent Orthodox authorities who have taught the Immaculate Conception.
5. Therefore the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has every right to its existence in the Orthodox Church as an opinion of a school or as a personal theologoumenon based on a tradition worthy of respect.
6. It follows therefore that the Roman definition of 1854 does not constitute an obstacle to the reunion of the Eastern and Western Churches.
7. It is my own view that not only does the Immaculate Conception not contradict any Orthodox dogma but that it is a necessary and logical development of the whole of Orthodox belief. (18)
Regina sine labe concepta, ora pro nobis.
1. Photius, homil. I in Annunt., in the collection of St. Aristarchis, Photiou logoi kai homiliai, Constantinople 1901, t. II, p. 236.
2. Theognostes, hom. in fest. Dormitionis, Greek Cod. 763 of the Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris, fol. 8. v.
3. Euthemius, hom. in concept. S. Annae, Cod. laudianus 69 of the Bodleian Library, fol. 122-126.
4. Photius, In Praesentat. Deiparae, in the collection of Sophoclis Grigoriou tou Palama homiliai kb’, Athens 1861.
5. Manuel Paleologus, orat. in Dormit., Vatic. graecus 1619. A Latin translation is to be found in Migne P.G. t. CLVI, 91-108.
6. Scholarios, hom. in Dormit., Greek Cod. 1294 of the Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris, fol. 139 v.
7. Lukaris, hom. in Dormit., Cod. 263 of the Metochion of the Holy Sepulchre in Constantinople, fol. 612-613, and hom. in Nativ., Cod. 39 of the Metochion, fol. 93.
8. Hypsilantis, Ta meta ten alosin, Constantinople, 1870, p. 131. Coursoulas, Sunopsis ten ieras Theologias, Zante, 1862, vol. I, pp. 336-342.
9. Quoted by Frederic George Lee, in The Sinless Conception of the Mother of God, London 1891, p. 58.
10. See Chiliapkin, St Dmitri of Rostov and his times (Russian), in the Zapiski of the Faculty of history and philology of the University of St. Petersberg, t. XXIV, 1891, especially pp. 190-193.
11. See J. Gagarin, L’Eglise russe et L’immaculee conception, Paris 1876.
12. See Makary Bulgakov, History of the Russian Church (Russian) 1890, t. XII, p. 681. On the Polotsk brotherhood, see the article by Golubiev, in the Trudv of the Academy of Kiev, November 1904, pp. 164-167.
13. See N. Subbotin, History of the hierarchy of Bielo-Krinitza (Russian), Moscow, 1874, t. I, p. xlii of the Preface.
14. An article by M. Jugie, “Le dogme de l’immaculee conception d’apres un theologien russe,” in Echos d’Orient, 1920, t. XX, p. 22, gives an analysis of Lebedev’s monography.
15. Letter of Archbishop Anthony of Volhynia to the Old Believers, in the organ of the Russian Holy Synod, The Ecclesiastical News of 10 March 1912, p. 399. Morozov’s reply is contained in the same periodical on 14 July 1912, pp. 1142-1150.
16. Hom. III in Praesentat., Migne P.G. t. C, col. 1444.
17. Hom. in Nativ. B. Mariae, Greek Cod. 1213 of the Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris, fol. 3, r.
18. On the whole subject see M. Jugie, “De immaculata Deiparae conceptione a byzantinis scriptoribus post schisma consummatum edocta”, in Acta II conventus Velehradensis, Prague 1910; and article “Immaculee Conception,” in Dictionnaire de theologie catholique, Paris 1922, t. VII, col. 894-975. This last article by Jugie gives a complete bibliography of the subject. Much will also be found in P. de Meester, “Le dogme de l’immaculee conception et la doctrine de l’Eglise grecque”: 5 articles published in the Revue de l’Orient chretien, Paris, 1904-1905.
(From Chrysostom, Vol. VI, No. 5 [Spring 1983]: 151-159)
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