Answering Eastern Orthodox Objections Against the Immaculate Conception

I was on Facebook and I came across a post that one copy and pasted from an Eastern Orthodox website where they make some objections to the Catholic Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The objections will be in red and with five asterisks (*****).

Please note:

IC = Immaculate Conception

OS = Original Sin

BVM = Blessed Virgin Mary

*****“Immaculate Conception is the “New” dogma in Roman Catholic Church, this doctrine was not dogmatically defined in the Roman Church until 1854.”*****

Response: One can argue that Icons have always been part of the tradition of the Church but the dogma was not formulated until the latter part of the first millennium. One would hardly call this a new dogma. It was taught prior to the formulation of the dogma. The question with regards to the Immaculate Conception is: was it also taught prior to its formulation and from Apostolic times? If the answer is yes, then it is not a new dogma.

*****“The Immaculate Conception of Mary is a doctrine of Western Catholic Church (Rome) which is based on Augustine’s “original sin” doctrine. They believe that Mary was “immaculately conceived” apart from original sin, by the merits of Christ.”*****

Response: This is the usual polemical misconception that keeps getting repeated in the blogsphere world. No, the dogma is not based solely on Augustine’s original sin doctrine. Since Augustine is not the only father who taught this doctrine. We have a whole synod of Carthage in the 5th century that taught the same doctrine in which Augustine himself attended. That was also attended by the North African bishops. And if Roman Catholicism supposedly did not exist in the 5th century, then that synod would be claimed by Eastern Orthodoxy today.

From Canon 110 of the synod, it states:

“Likewise it seemed good that whosoever denies that infants newly from their mother’s wombs should be baptized, or says that baptism is for remission of sins, but that they derive from Adam no original sin, which needs to be removed by the laver of regeneration, from whence the conclusion follows, that in them the form of baptism for the remission of sins, is to be understood as false and not true, let him be anathema.”

So, here we have a synod teaching that babies are born with original sin and that they must be baptized in order for it to be washed. Now, as a daughter of Adam, the Mother of God should also be included in this as well. But the question is, whether she was included or not. The Catholic Church would argue that she was not. But here, we are not trying to prove the dogma of the IC but the basis of it which is the dogma of Original Sin. To put it in more context, the teaching of Original Sin is that we are all born under the dominion of the devil. And we need to be baptized in order to go from being under the devil’s dominion to being children of God.

Furthermore, the Eastern Orthodox held a synod of Jerusalem in 1672 in which the topic of Original Sin was dealt with. From Decree 16, it states:

“We believe Holy Baptism, which was instituted by the Lord, and is conferred in the name of the Holy Trinity, to be of the highest necessity. For without it none is able to be saved, as the Lord says, “Whoever is not born of water and of the Spirit, shall in no way enter into the Kingdom of the Heavens.” {John 3:5} And, therefore, baptism is necessary even for infants, since they also are subject to original sin, and without Baptism are not able to obtain its remission. Which the Lord showed when he said, not of some only, but simply and absolutely, “Whoever is not born [again],” which is the same as saying, “All that after the coming of Christ the Savior would enter into the Kingdom of the Heavens must be regenerated.” And since infants are men, and as such need salvation, needing salvation they need also Baptism. And those that are not regenerated, since they have not received the remission of hereditary sin, are, of necessity, subject to eternal punishment, and consequently cannot without Baptism be saved.”

In other words, children are born with sin in their soul which subjects them to hell unless they are baptized. One could call this a stain which is what the Catholic Church refers to it as (more on this later).

Ironically, in the same decree, one of the church father that is quoted to back up the teaching is no other than St. Augustine himself. So, I wouldn’t be so quick to brush this off as a merely western teaching lest the East want to admit to flip flopping on dogmatic matters.


*****“The Bible doesnt teach that immaculate conception doctrine. Even the Eastern Catholic Church (Constantinople, Ortodox Greek) has a different view than that of the Roman church.”*****

Response: Well, we should first expand on what the West means by “stain” of Original Sin. Since the IC dogma is regarding the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) having contracted no *stain* of Original Sin rather than simply Original Sin. This is an important nuance to consider. We now have to ask what this stain is in reference to.

The stain of OS is in reference to the following:

  1. That man is born without the original holiness and grace that Adam and Eve enjoyed prior to the Fall
  2. That man is born under the dominion of the devil
  3. That man is born with an inclination to sin  

Having defined more closely what this stain of OS is in reference to, we can now better understand the Dogma of the IC. We can now go to the Scriptures to show where it is alluded to.

Where I would start is Genesis 3:15 in which the Scripture passage says:

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

“I will put enmity between you and the woman” is in reference to the devil and the BVM. If God will put an enmity between the two, then we have the dogma of the IC alluded to here where God ensures that the dominion of the devil does not fall upon her.

We can also look at the infamous Luke 1:28 passage where the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary and says “Hail, full of grace…” The significance of this passage is the Greek word suggests one who has BEEN fully graced from before the angel appeared to her. This alludes to the fact that Mary has received an overwhelming amount of grace prior to the Annunciation.

Now, I will not go so far as saying these two verses are slam dunk proofs of the dogma of IC; however, when we take the evidence from the fathers, we can see how the passages bring the whole puzzle together.  


*****One thing leads to another. The doctrine of the original sin is the mother of these doctrines such as the immaculate conception. Well, the Bible doesn’t teach “original sin” in the first place. So all these doctrines have no basis.*****

Response: Ironically, Decree 16 from Jerusalem Synod 1672 quotes Romans 5:19 as the Scriptural backing to the teaching of Original Sin.

*****—What is the Orthodox view of immaculate conception and the teaching of sinlessness of the Mother of God?
— St John Maximovitch: Immaculate Conception is “a teaching which seemingly exalted highly the Virgin Mary, but in reality denied all Her virtues.
This teaching is called that of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, and it was accepted by the followers of the Papal throne of Rome. The teaching is this- that “the All-blessed Virgin Mary in the first instant of Her Conception, by the special grace of Almighty God and by a special privilege, for the sake of the future merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin” (Bull of Pope Pius IX concerning the new dogma). In other words, the Mother of God at Her very conception was preserved from original sin and, by the grace of God, was placed in a state where it was impossible for Her to have personal sins.*****

Response: If one believes that the Dogma of the IC denies the reality that Mary obtained all the virtues, then they misunderstand the dogma. In fact, the Catholic teaching is that Mary possessed ALL the virtues PERFECTLY from the moment of her conception until her death. Now, that does not mean that she did not grow in virtue. For perfection never ends when it comes to holiness. One who is perfect can still obtain more graces and increase even more in virtue and holiness. Every virtuous act that one does is an increase in that virtue even if that virtue has already been perfectly obtained. It is also an increase in grace. The Mother of God’s life was so dedicated to the Holy Trinity, that every breath she took and every movement she did was for the Glory of God. We will go into this more below when answering objections 4 and 5.


****Christians had not heard of this before the ninth century, when for the first time the Abbot of Corvey, Paschasius Radbertus, expressed the opinion that the Holy Virgin was conceived without original sin. Beginning, from the 12th century, this idea begins to spread among the clergy and flock of the Western church, which had already fallen away from the Universal Church and thereby lost the grace of the Holy Spirit.”****

Response: Well, we have Theodotus of Ancrya in the 5th century who wrote, ““A virgin, innocent, spotless, free of all defect, untouched, unsullied, holy in soul and body, like a lily sprouting among thorns.” (Homily 6, 11{ante A.D. 446). The significance of this passage, in my opinion, is the reference to Mary being a lily among thorns. This is a recurring theme from the fathers that alludes to the fact that the BVM stands out from the rest of humanity. And I will say again that this is not a slam dunk proof of the dogma. This is evidence that adds to the dogma when taken everything together from the scripture and the fathers.

We also have Romanos the Melodist in the 6th century who says “Anna conceived the immaculate one.” (On the Birth of Mary, 4). Now, I understand that the Eastern Orthodox have no issue with saying Mary’s conception was immaculate. Heck, they pray that in their very liturgy! What they find problematic is this idea of Mary having contracted no stain of OS. Though when I ask our interlocutors what is the difference between one who is IMMACULATELY conceived and one who is MACULATELY conceived. They usually struggle to answer such a nuanced question. Perhaps, it’s not something they’ve thought about prior. I have even heard one Eastern Orthodox priest say that it may be in reference to one who is conceived without passions and therefore would have no inclination to sin from conception to death. Well, welcome to the dogma of the IC!

We can also turn to St. John Damascene in the 8th century who wrote. ““O most blessed loins of Joachim from which came forth a spotless seed! Oh glorious womb of Anne in which a most holy offspring grew.” (Homily 1 {ante A.D. 749). Again I would ask an Eastern Orthodox the same question: What does a SPOTTED seed mean vs a SPOTLESS seed? Please note that the Virgin here is called MOST HOLY from her mother’s womb.

But a more slam dunk passage from Damascene comes from his Dormition Homily II in which he writes: “The serpent, by whose deceitful promise we were likened to brute beasts, did not enter into this paradise.” Paradise here is in reference to the Virgin. Now, this may seem like nothing but when one understands the implication, this becomes a testimony to the IC Dogma. Why does he call Mary Paradise? Because the serpent had entered the first paradise of Adam and Eve and deceived them into being slaves to his dominion. But here, we have the serpent who does not dare enter this new paradise (Mary) because God has put enmity between the serpent and Mary (Genesis 3:15). Since the serpent has not touched this virgin, this would be alluding to the Fall (which is obviously about Original Sin) which tells us that Mary was never touched by that serpent at any point of her existence. Now, one can argue that the Virgin could’ve had Original Sin and then God could’ve washed it away at some point in her life the way he does with a soul at baptism. But would that be an adequate response to Damascene’s point? Hardly! The serpent DID NOT enter into this paradise. It does not say he was cast out; but that he never entered in the first place.

*****The teaching of the complete sinlessness of the Mother of God (1) 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” (1 Tim. 2:5); “and in Him is no sin” (1 John 3:5); “Who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth.” (1 Peter 2:22); “One that hath been in all points tempted 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). But concerning the rest of men it is said, Who is pure of defilement? No one who has lived a single day of his life on earth (Job 14:4). God commendeth His own love toward us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…If, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, shall we be saved by His life” (Rom. 5:8-10).*****

Response: Both East and West hold to the teaching that Mary did not sin. If an Eastern Orthodox is going to use these passages to prove ALL have sinned except Christ, well, then they have proven too much. Since in their own liturgies, and in their own fathers, they teach that Mary was sinless. We are not here talking of Original Sin, but of personal sin. But neither are these passages talking about OS, but they speak of personal sin. And we know that there were others who lived without committing any personal sin other than Christ (St John the Baptist, Jeremiah, BVM). This is enough to refute the absoluteness of the claim that is being attached to these verses.


*****(2) This teaching contradicts also Sacred Tradition, which is contained in numerous Patristic writings, where there is mentioned the exalted sanctity of the Virgin from Her very birth, as well as Her cleansing by the Holy Spirit at Her conception of Christ, but not at Her own conception by Anna. “There is none without stain before Thee, even though his life be but a day, save Thou alone, Jesus Christ our God, Who didst appear on earth without sin, and through Whom we all trust to obtain mercy and remission of sins.” (St. Basil the Great, Third Prayer of Vespers of Pentecost.) “But when Christ came through a pure, virginal, unwedded, God-fearing, undefiled Mother without wedlock and without father, and inasmuch as it befitted Him to be born, He purified the female nature, rejected the bitter Eve and overthrew the laws of the flesh” (St. Gregory the Theologian, “In Praise of Virginity”). However, even then, as Sts. Basil the Great and John Chrysostom speak of this, She was not placed in the state of being unable to sin, but continued to take care of Her salvation and overcame all temptations (St. John Chrysostom, Commentary on John, Homily 85; St. Basil the Great, Epistle 160).*****

Response: Please see above for patristic support to the IC. In a brief response to the above with regards to the fathers speaking of Mary’s purification at the Annunciation, one can hardly see a purification of sin here. I will admit that St John Chrysostom is impossible to reconcile with the dogma of the IC. But he is also difficult to reconcile with the Eastern Orthodox teaching that Mary did not commit any personal sins. Since Chrysostom seems to contradict almost every father who claim that Mary did not commit any personal sins.

To comment further on the purification of Mary at the Annunciation, we even have 2nd millennium Eastern Orthodox saints who make it a point to teach that the purification of Mary at the Annunciation is not one of sin but it is an increase in holiness the way that angels are said to be purified by some early church fathers.

We can quote Eastern Orthodox saint Nicolas Cabasilas from the 14th century who comments on this exact topic and says:

“”Of the holy doctors who say that the Virgin is ‘prepurified (προκεκαθάρθαι)’ by the Spirit, then it is yet necessary to think that ‘purification (κάθαρσιν)’ (i.e. an addition of graces) is intended by these authors, and these [doctors] say that this is the way the angels are ‘purified’, with respect to whom there is nothing knavish.” (Patrologia Orientalis 19)


*****(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.*****

Response: We have heard this objection many times over. This objection shows another misunderstanding of the dogma of the IC. For we have to distinguish between Mary’s IC and Christ’s IC. For Mary, she was immaculately conceived by GRACE. In other words, her nature was SUPPOSED to be tainted with the stain of OS but God stepped in and covered it with Grace in order to prevent it from contracting the stain. Since Mary now has a perfect nature by grace, she is now able to pass on this perfection to Christ when she conceives Him.

Christ’s IC was by NATURE. He was perfect by nature since Mary was made perfect by Grace so she was able to pass on her nature to Christ.

The misconception usually stems from the fact that proponents of the dogma think Mary’s parents have any involvement in her contracting no stain of OS. Her parents had the stain. But they did not pass it on to her because grace was conferred upon from the very moment of her conception that prevented her from contracting the stain. So, no, Christ’s ancestors do not all need to be conceived with no stain in order for Him to be. Only His mother need be.


*****(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 person sins, makes God unmerciful and unjust; because if God could preserve Mary from sin and purify Her before Her birth, why does He not purify other men before their birth, but rather leaves them in sin? It follows likewise that God saves men apart from their will, predetermining certain ones before their birth to salvation.*****

Response: Well, does anyone actually deny that God CAN create souls without any stains? Of course he can do so! Whether the Virgin was conceived without stain or not does not negate the fact that God can STILL create souls without stains and defects. Yet, He chooses not to. How does this help the proponents?

So, why only the Virgin? Because she had the most important role any creature has ever been entrusted to. In order for her to carry on her role as Divine Maternity, she was given grace upon grace that prevented her from contracting the stain.


*****(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.*****

Response: Adam and Eve, prior to the fall, were created without any stains or defects; however, they still fell. One needs to ponder such a simple event and compare that to the BVM. One needs to read the Fathers of the Church who compared the fall of Eve listening to the serpent with the Annunciation where Mary listened to the angel. The Fathers are making the point that the Blessed Virgin untied the knot that the serpent had tied due to the Fall.

In fact, when the Church Fathers speak of Mary’s purification at the Annunciation, some of them specify that it is a purification of the mind. This is not in reference to concupiscence or an inclination to sin being purged away. This is in reference to the BVM having her mind purified in order to prepare it to receive the message that the Angel is about to give. The message of Divinity taking on humanity in her very womb! I don’t care how holy one is, this revelation requires one to be prepared with Divine intervention before receiving it. It was God’s way of increasing her understanding before the message was given to her. This also goes back to the Garden where Eve’s mind was deceived by the serpent. With regards to Mary, God steps in and makes sure the BVM is about to comprehend what will be asked of her. This is part of what the purification at the Annunciation is about.

I will end by saying that the dialogue between East and West with regards to the dogma of the IC is much to do with talking past each other. When the West speaks of the Dogma, it emphasizes that Mary received SPIRITUAL privileges in order for her to carry out her role as mother of God. The privileges are as follows:

  1. Mary received grace from conception so that from the very beginning of her existence, she was always under the friendship of God rather than the dominion of the devil.
  2. Mary received the privilege of having no inclination to sin the same Adam and Eve were prior to the fall.
  3. Mary received the privilege of having always been “saved” from the beginning of her existence till her Dormition/Assumption to heaven. In other words, there was no point in her existence where she would have gone to hell had she died.

When the East hear about the dogma of the IC, they think that the West is speaking of PHYSICAL privileges such as:

  1. That she did not die
  2. That she did not feel grief or sorrow
  3. That she did not suffer
  4. That she did not become sick from time to time

This talking past each other has to do with the emphasis that both East and West put with regards to the teaching of OS. The West emphasizes the spiritual defects of the fall while the East emphasizes the physical defects of the fall. BOTH are true and neither side denies the other side of being true as well.

I will end by quoting The Catholic Encyclopedia on the article titled, “Immaculate Conception”:

The formal active essence of original sin was not removed from her soul, as it is removed from others by baptism; it was excluded, it never was in her soul. Simultaneously with the exclusion of sin. The state of original sanctity, innocence, and justice, as opposed to original sin, was conferred upon her, by which gift every stain and fault, all depraved emotions, passions, and debilities, essentially pertaining to original sin, were excluded. But she was not made exempt from the temporal penalties of Adam — from sorrow, bodily infirmities, and death.

https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07674d.htm

I would also like to reference an Eastern Orthodox blog which goes into the difference between East and West on the dogma of the IC. Please note that it is a perfect example of what I meant above by the two sides talking past each other. I will quote the link below, but first, I will quote from the blog:

I think this is too simple as well. There are two senses in which one can speak of original sin. In one sense, original sin refers to the ontological corruption of human nature and its inherent tendency towards division and death. In the other sense, original sin refers to the movement of the will towards sin and the person’s active participation in that movement. My personal belief is that Our Lady was immaculately conceived in the latter sense but not in the former sense. 

https://kabane52.tumblr.com/

He falsely believes that the IC of the BVM means that Mary did and cannot die. This, however, has nothing to do with what Rome means by the BVM contracting no stain of Original Sin.

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