By Father Lev Gillet
From Chrysostom, Vol. VI, No. 5 (Spring 1983), pp. 151-159.
V. There are three principal causes which provide an explanation for the opposition with which the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has been met in the Orthodox Church.
First and foremost, there is the mistrust felt a priori by many Orthodox about any doctrine defined by Rome since the separation of East and West. That, of course, is primarily a psychological reason.
There is also the fear of formulating a doctrine which might not seem to have sufficient foundation in Holy Scripture and the patristic tradition. We have left the patristic age outside the bounds of our discussion, limiting ourselves to the Orthodox theology of Byzantium: but it seems that (from St Andrew of Crete to St Theodore the Studite) much evidence can be produced from Greek sources in favour of the Immaculate Conception.
Finally there is the fear of restricting the redemptive work of Christ. Once you have exempted Mary from original sin, have you not exempted her from the effects of her Son’s redemption? Is it not possible for a single exception to destroy the whole economy of salvation? The Orthodox theologians who think on these lines have not given careful enough consideration, or indeed any at all, to the fact that according to Pius IX’s definition, Mary was only exempt from original sin in view of the merits of Christ: “intuitu meritorum Christi Jesu Salvatoris humani generis“. Therefore, Christ’s redemptive action was operative in Mary’s case although in a quite different way from that of the rest of mankind.
We will add this, too. Orthodox theology has always insisted on the beauty of human nature in its integrity before the fall. Now it is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception which alone can justify this ‘humanism’. It is only in Mary conceived without sin, that human nature has reached its fulfilment and actualized all its possibilities. Mary is the one and only success of the human race. It is through her and in her that humanity has escaped total failure and has offered to the divine a point of entry into the human. Mary, said Metropolitan George of Nicomedia (19th century) “was the magnificent firstfruit offered by human nature to the Creator.” (16) “She is”, said Nicholas Cabasilas (14th century), “truly the first man, the first and only being to have manifested in herself the fullness of human nature.” (17)
VI. Let us draw our conclusions:
- The Immaculate Conception of Mary is not a defined dogma in the Orthodox Church.
- One can say that since the first part of the nineteenth century the majority of Orthodox believers and theologians have taken their stand against this doctrine.
- Nevertheless. it is impossible to say that from the Orthodox point of view the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception constitutes a heresy; for canonically it has never been defined as such by an oecumenical council and in fact it has never met with the disapproval of a universal and unchanging consensus of opinion.
- There does exist a continuous line of eminent Orthodox authorities who have taught the Immaculate Conception.
- Therefore the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has every right to its existence in the Orthodox Church as an opinion of a school or as a personal theologoumenon based on a tradition worthy of respect.
- It follows therefore that the Roman definition of 1854 does not constitute an obstacle to the reunion of the Eastern and Western Churches.
- It is my own view that not only does the Immaculate Conception not contradict any Orthodox dogma but that it is a necessary and logical development of the whole of Orthodox belief. (18)
Regina sine labe concepta, ora pro nobis.
16. Hom. III in Praesentat., Migne P.G. t. C, col. 1444.
17. Hom. in Nativ. B. Mariae, Greek Cod. 1213 of the Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris, fol. 3, r.
18. On the whole subject see M. Jugie, “De immaculata Deiparae conceptione a byzantinis scriptoribus post schisma consummatum edocta”, in Acta II conventus Velehradensis, Prague 1910; and article Immaculee Conception, in Dictionnaire de theologie catholique, Paris 1922, t. VII, col. 894-975. This last article by Jugie gives a complete bibliography of the subject. Much will also be found in P. de Meester, “Le dogme de l’immaculee conception et la doctrine de l’Eglise grecque”: 5 articles published in the Revue de l’Orient chretien, Paris, 1904-1905.
Many thanks to Professor William Tighe for the text of this rare article.