The Immaculate Conception from an Eastern Orthodox Perspective – Rev Dr John (Patrick) Ramsey
There are many works out about this topic and many collections of patristic sayings around the topic. This article will not be an attempt to consider all these writings in themselves but rather to present a theological position on the matter that assumes a general witness that the Mother of God was purified by the time of the Incarnation and that process of purification began from birth and even from conception.
The doctrine of Immaculate Conception as defined by the Papacy of Old Rome is:
Declaramus, pronuntiamus et definimus doctrinam quae tenet beatissimam Virginem Mariam in primo instanti suae conceptionis fuisse singulari Omnipotentis Dei gratia et privilegio, intuitu meritorum Christi Jesu Salvatoris humani generis, ab omni originalis culpae labe praeservatam immunem, esse a Deo revelatam, atque idcirco ab omnibus fidelibus firmiter constanterque credendam.
Literal translation into English:
We declare, pronounce, and define the doctrine which holds the most blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, to have been, by a singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, in view of the merits of Christ Jesus, Saviour of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original guilt (sin), has been revealed by God, and so, for that reason, is to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.
There is again much written about this definition from a Roman Catholic point of view and much too from other views. This article will focus on this definition from an Orthodox point of view and perhaps establish some questions rather than pronouncing definitive judgements on it.
The particular points of wording that are pertinent to an Orthodox critique are: “at the first instant”, and: “from all stain of original guilt (sin)”. There are other phrases that are at issue, although not as pertinent to the possibility of the doctrine being something to which Orthodox can assent given its wording. There are all sorts of other questions about the whole process of defining such a doctrine and its source that may rather invalidate the doctrine for Orthodox on procedural grounds leaving aside the issue of doctrine in itself. These matters will not be addressed deeply here apart from a brief mention. The focus will be on the theological or anthropological meaning of the phrases mentioned.
The first phrase that will be addressed here is: “from all stain of original guilt (sin)”. The first question here is what is meant by “all stain”. In particular, is whether this includes death as a stain of original sin. The Orthodox received position is that the Mother of God died. This death was a natural death, which means that the reason for her death is the inheritance of death from Adam and this inheritance is solely attributable to Adam’s original sin through which death entered humanity. On this ground, the Mother of God must have inherited ancestral (original) sin from Adam. Thus, if “all stain” is inclusive of death, the doctrine of Immaculate Conception is inconsistent with the Orthodox Tradition on the matter. Considering the general variance of RC thought on the matter, it seems that death is not definitively considered as a “stain” of original sin. The doctrine though does not explicitly state that original sin in itself is not inherited but “all stain of”. Yet, it could mean that original sin is not inherited at all. This understanding of the doctrine is unacceptable to Orthodox, even if it may otherwise be stating something that may be acceptable, because the Mother of God clearly inherited death from Adam. This raises another point of issue is what exactly is inherited. For many Orthodox theologians, what is inherited is simply death as a consequence of the sin of Adam and from the inheritance of death one is found a sinner because being bound to death in itself separates from Life, in which there can be no contradiction, and that separation denies participating in the power of Life so as to avoid sin. One would then need to read “preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin” as affirming the inheritance of death, but that the Mother of God is preserved from the consequence of becoming a sinner that is preserved from actually sinning. This thought raises another question as to what “stain” can be said to be derived from original sin apart from death. It is hard to see what stain there can be. Yet another question is what is meant by “original guilt (sin)”. The Latin seems here to focus on the culpability of the original sin than on sin itself. For previous question, I assumed it meaning the same as “original sin”, but this is probably not strictly correct and something more specific may be intended by the wording. Inheriting death does not require any sense of guilt being associated with this inheritance, so the idea of “original guilt or culpability” is strange to Orthodox and not something that would be accepted in defining a doctrine. If “original guilt” is a reference to Adam’s guilt that is not passed on then what is inherited can only be said to be death, leaving the same issue as earlier in that the Mother of God died due to death inherited from Adam. This phrase raises too many issues for Orthodox to be acceptable as a definition of doctrine. It reflects some type of understanding of original sin that is strange or even foreign to the Orthodox understanding of the Gospel and Apostolic Tradition.
This brings us to the phrase: “in the first instance”. This statement is in regard to something being done and completed in an instant, especially with the preposition “in” coupled with “first instance”. The Latin “in” is best translated as “in that moment” and so not at any other moment, thus not the beginning of a process, but a completed event (albeit with permanent consequence). That raises the question as to what can be so completed? From the Orthodox point of view, it is the inheritance of death that drives sin rather than an inheritance of sin that drives death. It is rather almost a meaningless idea to speak of the inheritance of sin because sin pertains to the operation and not to the essence of man; we are judged for the deeds, operations, done in the body and not simply for being human. (We may be judged in that our deeds in themselves, due to the limits of our nature, are incapable of the perfection of the deeds of God and so fall short of righteousness and thus are counted as sin, even if we have not done intentionally sinful acts. Nevertheless, the judgement of sin is pertaining to deeds or lack thereof rather than our nature or essence in itself.) So, given that sin is an issue of one’s actions or limits of them, the only thing from which the Mother of God can be preserved in the instant of her conception is the inheritance of death, which we have stated is something that she does inherit. One can state that the operations of the Mother of God are aided by the grace of God in such a manner as to avoid sin of intent or of omission or lack, but this would only apply once she began to act, which would not be in the first instance of her conception but from the first instance of her conception. Thus, a process can be said to begin from the first instance of her conception to maintain her operations as free from sin, but that such a process cannot be said to be something done and completed in the first instance of her conception. Thus, the phrase, “in the first instance”, of the doctrine is inconsistent with Orthodox thinking and it is not something that can be accepted as stated.
So, to summarise this brief consideration from an Orthodox perspective, the doctrine of Immaculate Conception, as it is defined, is unacceptable to Orthodox as being framed in a foreign framework of the Fall and the human condition. It fails not for the desire to honour the Mother of God and to recognise her purity, but more on grounds that it really is framed in a manner that makes no sense to Orthodox and simply is not something that can be accepted as doctrine as statement of definition.
The idea that many are trying to hold about the Mother of God, which this doctrine may be trying to capture, is that the Mother of God was totally pure and sinless at the Incarnation of Christ. While there is some variation in opinion, Orthodox also affirm that a process of purification and also the state of being pure began from the conception of the Mother of God. For Orthodox, though, the Mother of God inherited the common human condition of death from Adam as testified by her natural death and in that state she was “a sinner” in potential and needed saving by Christ taking on death and defeating death, just like any other human being. The Mother of God is known to suffer other limits of the human condition such as limits of knowledge. Orthodox can in a way hold seemingly different views on whether the Mother of God was a sinner and these may be consistent depending on the context and perspective taken. Orthodox can, and many Fathers did, hold that the Mother of God was keep free from sin from conception in a manner very much like what many see the doctrine of Immaculate Conception as stating. Thus, one can see a number of Orthodox agreeing with the doctrine at that level. However, due to the doctrine being expressed in a manner foreign to Orthodox and with confused meaning, it is also something that can be condemned and rejected as a doctrine. One must be careful not to judge an Orthodox opinion rejecting the doctrine to mean that one affirms that the Mother of God sinned in deed or must sin in deed, nor that an Orthodox accepting the Immaculate Conception is thereby denying that the Mother of God died or denying that we inherit death from Adam and are thus made sinners. Many speaking for the Orthodox opinion may also be doing so in a limited and imperfect manner also, and so one should not judge all Orthodox as holding exactly that view.
For Orthodox, what matters in regard to the Mother of God is as a matter of faith to affirm that she is truly and properly called: “Mother of God”, and that she was indeed a virgin at the conception of Christ. Along with this as a matter of maintaining one mind with the Fathers that: the Mother of God is ever-virgin; she is properly honoured as “all-holy” and is “greater than the Cherubim”; she died; and her body did not see corruption because she was the Mother of Life. These are not open to contrary opinion, even if not formally expressed as doctrines at the Ecumenical Councils. The Mother of God is also to be regarded as the Mother of all the faithful, the new Eve. All the things said about her in the common services of the churches is to be affirmed as true and fitting. On other matters, a variety of opinion is not forbidden nor a specific opinion required to be Orthodox. The matter of what precisely happened at her conception is not something considered to have been passed on by the Apostles and so it is not part of the Tradition per se.
Rev Dr John (Patrick) Ramsey, June 2021.