Archive for July, 2008

By Father Lev Gillet

From Chrysostom, Vol. VI, No. 5 (Spring 1983), pp. 151-159.

(Continued from Part I and Part II)


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 anomoly. 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)


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By Father Lev Gillet

From Chrysostom, Vol. VI, No. 5 (Spring 1983), pp. 151-159.


(Continued from Part 1)

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.

To be continued …


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By Father Lev Gillet

From Chrysostom, Vol. VI, No. 5 (Spring 1983), pp. 151-159.


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?

To be continued …

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To a disciple who had quarreled with those around him, [Elder Nicodemus] said: “It is not good or Christian to lose time in discussions that lead to argument and disunity. He who is victorious in discussions is he who in the beginning seems to be conquered but to the end remains peacefully and lovingly disposed to the one who whom he disagrees.”

– Archimandrite Ioanichie (Balan), “Elder Nicodemus (Manditsa): Spiritual Father and Missionary of Romania (1889-1975)”, The Orthodox Word, November-December 2007, Vol. 43, No. 6 (257), p. 287.

Thanks to Orrologion.

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A few reminders

First, forgive me for being such a stickler, but I have this little pet peeve about off-topic comments. Each combox exists solely for the purpose of discussing the actual blog post to which the combox is attached.

Second, let’s watch the tone of the comments we leave. Definitely, no ad hominems. Let’s also watch the sarcasm.

Finally, if you are new to this blog, please take a look at my post on Church Nomenclature. Or, if you have been posting here a while, it might not hurt to refresh your memory. This is not about thought control but about basic Christian charity and fruitful, substantive discussion.

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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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Not all [modern] Orthodox theologians deny [the Immaculate Conception], though some do very explicitly deny it, thereby illustrating the different development which took place in the West and left the East comparatively unaffected. The development of an explicit doctrine of the Immaculate Conception originated in the Pelagian denial of original sin, which denial forced Latin theology to consider the nature of original sin, and hence to formulate more explicitly some of the relations between nature and grace in a way which Orthodox theology was not forced to do.

The sinlessness of the Theotokos, her closeness to her Son, her absolute accord all through her life with all the designs of her Son, her singular place in the economy of salvation – all this was and is common to Greeks and Latins alike. Common, too, was the belief that Mary was redeemed by her Son and redeemed in a most singular way. Mary as the second Eve was not a concept that arose in the West, but in the East – at least as far as we know; Mary as the type of the Church is to be found equally among Greek theologians and among Latin, and the Orthodox hold strongly that the Church is without sin, however much sin there may be in the members of the Church.

But the Latins, having had to deal with Pelagius’ denial of any original sin at all, had to analyze the notion of original sin more explicitly than the Orthodox; and thus the Latins came to see more universally than the Greeks that Mary’s singular privileges, as revealed in the Scriptures and the Church [Tradition], carried the implication of total exemption from the common sinful inheritance of the rest of men. The Orthodox, of course, hold strongly to the doctrine of original sin and to the privileges of the Mother of God; but they did not so early or so clearly connect the two.

I conjecture that those Orthodox who deny the Immaculate Conception may be under the impression that exemption from sin implies either that Mary did not need redemption, or else that exemption from sin carried with it exemption from the natura phthora, corruption in the wide sense, which is the natural lot of all men save only the God-man.

Professor Jean Meyendorff thinks that the Latin doctrine of original sin involves some responsibility, meriting a punishment, on the part of all men, and that exemption from this responsibility involves exemption from all “corruption” and hence exemption from death. The Orthodox doctrine, he says, of original sin involves a certain subjection, or even servitude, to the devil, who exerts a usurped, unjust, and deadly tyranny. Hence all men “inherit corruption and death and all commit sin.” But Mary, being born by natural generation of Joachim and Anne, was mortal, and her corporal glorification came only after her death. Hence he objects to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

But the Catholic doctrine of original sin does not involve any responsibility for the actual sin of Adam. Sin is spiritual disorder. If it is personal sin, then the person is responsible for the disorder; but if it is original sin, then the originator of the race, and not the individual person, is responsible for the disorder. The spiritual disorder, which is signified by original sin, involves a privation of that original holiness and rightness in which God created man; it involves too, in the normal way, that subjection to the evil one of which Professor Meyendorff speaks; and it involves bodily corruption and death.

Christ was exempt from all sin, and from all spiritual subjection to the evil one; but he was not exempt from death, for he died, and by his death we live. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has nothing to do with the acts of Joachim and Anne; it only means that God exempted the future Mother of his Son from the spiritual disorder which leads all ordinary men to actual sin. Mary was born mortal, a true child of our race in that her natural lot was death. She was the second Eve, and it was precisely her immaculateness which, by God’s unmerited, spontaneous gift, prepared her for the fiat through which God sent his Son to be the second Adam, head of the new race, born of a sinless Mother.

On the subject of the Mother of God, I think Latins and Orthodox have the same mind, though perhaps language may sometimes be misleading.

– Bernard Leeming, SJ.

From “Orthodox-Catholic Relations” in Rediscovering Eastern Christendom, E.J.B. Frye and A.H. Armstrong (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1963), pp. 42-43.

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The very problem of Christian reconciliation is not that of a correlation of parallel traditions, but precisely that of the reintegration of a distorted tradition.  The two traditions may seem quite irreconcilable, when they are compared and confronted, as they are at the present.  Yet their differences themselves are, to a great extent, simply the results of disintegration: they are, as it were, distinctions stiffened into contradictions.

– Fr. Georges Florovsky, “The Ethos of the Orthodox Church” (an address to the World Council of Churches given in 1960); emphasis in original

From Torn Notebook

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More catching up …

I was out of town again last week and came back to find an interesting combox discussion of what “modernity” is and how the Church ought to engage it. As always, the most valuable aspect of this blog is the discussion from readers, and yours truly is merely a facilitator.

I’m also catching up with some Orthodox-Catholic related posts from my RSS feed:

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Thanks to the blog Diligite Iustitiam, here’s a link to the Ecumenical Patriarch’s recent lecture at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, entitled “Theology, Liturgy and Silence.”

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