A bit of historical background on the Immaculate Conception in Eastern Orthodoxy, from Casimir A. Kucharek’s The Byzantine-Slav Liturgy of St John Chrysostom (Allendale, NJ: Alleluia Press, 1971), pp. 354-7. I would love to see an Orthodox historian’s rebuttal of Kucharek (a Greek Catholic) on this topic.
The Byzantine Church calls [Mary] Panagia, “the all-holy one”, because she is the supreme example of synergy, the cooperation between God’s will and man’s freedom. Forever respecting the free will of man, God became incarnate through the free consent of the person he chose as his Mother. She could have refused, but she did not. “So the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed through the obedience of Mary,” says Irenaeus, “for what Eve, a virgin, had bound through her unbelief, Mary, a virgin, unloosed through her faith.” (Ad. haeres. III, 22, 4). Jerome puts it more succinctly: “Death by Eve, life by Mary.” (Epist. 22, 21) And Cabasilas: “The Incarnation was not only the work of the Father, of his Power and his Spirit … but also that of the will and faith of the Virgin … Just as God became incarnate voluntarily, so he wished that his Mother should bear him freely and with her full consent.” (On the Annunciation, 4-5).
Also, from end to end of the Byzantine world, both Catholic and Orthodox greet the Mother of God as achrantos, “the immaculate, spotless one”, no less than eight times in the Divine Liturgy alone. But especially on the feast of her conception (December 9 in the Byzantine Church) is her immaculateness stressed: “This day, O faithful, from saintly parents begins to take being the spotless lamb, the most pure tabernacle, Mary …” (From the Office of Matins, the Third Ode of the Canon for the feast); “She is conceived … the only immaculate one” (From the Office of Matins, the Stanzas during the Seating, for the same feast); or “Having conceived the most pure dove, Anne filled …” (From the Office of Matins, the Sixth Ode of the Canon for the same feast). No sin, no fault, not even the slightest, ever marred the perfect sanctity of this masterpiece of God’s creation. For hundreds of years, the Byzantine Church has believed this, prayed and honored Mary in this way. Centuries of sacred tradition stand behind this title. Even during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when some Western theologians doubted or denied the truth of her immaculate conception, Byzantine Catholic and Orthodox theologians unanimously taught it.* Two of Thomas Aquinas’ most ardent disciples among the Greeks disagreed with him on one point only, his failure to admit the immaculate conception of the Mother of God. Demetrios Kydonios (fourteenth century) translated some of Aquinas’ works into Greek, but vehemently opposed Thomas’ views on the immaculate conception.
The Greek Orthodox Church’s belief in the immaculate conception continued unanimously until the fifteenth century, then many Greek theologians began to adopt the idea that Mary had been made immaculate at the moment of the Annunciation.** Among the Eastern Slavs, belief in the immaculate conception went undisturbed until the seventeenth century, when the Skrizhal (Book of Laws) appeared in Russia, and proposed what the Slavs considered the “novel” doctrine of the Greeks. The views proposed in the Skrizhal were branded as blasphemous, especially among the Staroviery (Old Believers), who maintained the ancient customs and beliefs, however small or inconsequential. This reaction confirms the ancient Byzantine and Slav tradition of the immaculate conception. Only after Pope Pius IX defined the dogma in 1854 did opposition to the doctrine solidify among most Orthodox theologians.*** The Orthodox Church, however, has never made any definitive pronouncement on the matter. Its official position is rather a suspension of judgment than a true objection. When Patriarch Anthimos VII, for example, wrote his reply to Pope Leo XIII’s letter in 1895, and listed what he believed to be the errors of the Latins, he found no fault with their belief in the immaculate conception, but objected to the fact that the Pope had defined it.
* In a footnote, Kucharek mentions Patriarch Photius, George of Nicomedia, Michael Psellos, John Phurnensis, Michael Glykas, Patriarch Germanus II, Theognostos the Monk, Nicetas David, Leo the Wise, Patriarch Euthymius, Peter Argorum, John Mauropos, James the Monk.
** “Nicephorus Callixtus, however, expressed doubt during the fourteenth century [...], but the great Cabasilas’ (1371) teaching on the immaculate conception [...] still has great influence in the subsequent centuries. Perhaps even more influential was Patriarch [sic] Gregory Palamas (1446-1452), whose homilies on the Mother of God are second to none even today [...].
*** “Most of them seem to have objected on the grounds that it was unnecessary to define it.”
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