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