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An Orthodox View of the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

A Paper delivered to the Catholic-Oriental Orthodox Regional Forum at The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales, Eccleston Square, London, on 24 May 2012.

In December 1854 Pope Pius IX issued the Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus defining the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It stated:

“We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”

In 1992 the Catechism of the Catholic Church expounded further on this by stating “through the centuries the Church has become more aware that Mary, ‘full of grace’ through God was redeemed from the moment of her conception.[1] The salutation of the Archangel Gabriel, kecharitomene, variously translated as “highly favoured” and “full of grace” (Luke I: 28) is here interpreted as proof of her perfection. The great Biblical scholar, Origen, comments, “The angel greeted Mary with a new address, which I could not find anywhere else in Scripture. I ought to explain this expression briefly. The Angel says, ‘Hail, full of grace’ … I do not remember having read this word elsewhere in Scripture. An expression of this kind, ‘Hail, full of grace,’ is not addressed to a male. This greeting was reserved for Mary alone.[2]

Orthodox have no problem in agreeing with the statement that, “to become the mother of the Saviour, Mary “was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role.”[3] It is, however, not entirely clear what is implied by the statement, “In order for Mary to be able to give the free assent of her faith to the announcement of her vocation, it was necessary that she be wholly borne by God’s grace.” As the English verb ‘borne’ means ‘carried’, ‘sustained’, ‘endured’ its plain meaning would be that she was filled or sustained with God’s grace.

The Catechism also states, “The Fathers of the Eastern tradition call the Mother of God ‘the All-Holy’ (Panagia), and celebrate her as ‘free from any stain of sin, as though fashioned by the Holy Spirit and formed as a new creature’. By the grace of God Mary remained free of every personal sin her whole life long.”[4] This quotation draws on Pope Paul VI’s Dogmatic Constitution, Lumen Gentium (1964), although the latter goes on to state quite explicitly that she was “Adorned from the first instant of her conception with the radiance of an entirely unique holiness.”[5] The Catechism states that this adornment comes wholly from Christ and that she is “redeemed, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son”[6]

Believing that the Virgin was not only of outstanding purity but that she was filled with grace at the Annunciation, the Orthodox Church recognises that the Mother of God, St. Mary, is “more honourable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim”[7], which is echoed by Pope Paul VI when he declares that, “Because of this gift of sublime grace she far surpasses all creatures, both in heaven and on earth.” He continues, “At the same time, however, because she belongs to the offspring of Adam she is one with all those who are to be saved”[8] which might appear to be common ground with the Eastern Churches, except for the emphasis elsewhere given to her immaculate conception. How can she be “one with all those who are to be saved” if she is set apart from the human race by claiming that she was born without ‘ancestral’ sin, as if she was not herself born of human seed.

The Apostle St. Paul declares, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”[9] The testimony of the church fathers is quite clear that the only exception to this rule is our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, states, “Of all those born of women, there is not a single one who is per­fectly holy, apart from the Lord Jesus Christ, Who in a spe­cial new way of imma­cu­late bir­t­h­gi­ving, did not expe­ri­ence eart­hly taint.”[10]

The Orthodox Church maintains that the Virgin received her humanity from the seed of earthly Adam, having been born to Joachim and Anna. Saint Epiphanios of Cyprus (c. 315-403) writes of Mary, “If it is not his will that angels be worshipped, how much more the woman born of Ann, who was given to Ann by Joachim and granted to her father and mother by promise, after prayer and all diligence? She was surely not born other than normally by the man’s seed and a woman’s womb like everyone else …. Mary is to be held in honour, but the Lord is to be worshipped!”[11] St. Ambrose says, “When the Lord wanted to redeem the world, He began His work with Mary, that she, through whom salvation was prepared for all, should be the first to draw the fruit of salvation from the Son”.[12]

The Orthodox Church calls Mary “immaculate,” “pure,” or “spotless” (achrantos in Greek). Some Orthodox state that she was free from actual sin, some say she never sinned, and others just say she died sinless. We need to remember that in the Magnificat, her song of praise and thanksgiving, she declares, “My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour”[13] Mary was born a sinner, a human with full human nature. Mary’s Son, Jesus the Christ, took flesh from her. So as Son of God, He assumed fallen human nature from her and redeemed humanity by His Crucifixion and Resurrection.

When Orthodox Christians speak of ‘ancestral sin’ (which Catholics prefer to call ‘original sin’) they refer to the first sin committed by Adam & Eve. As their descendants, all of humanity bears the ‘consequences’ of sin, the chief of which is corruption caused by the separation of mankind from the uncreated grace of God, leading to death.

The Catholic understanding of original sin owes much to the writings of St. Augustine which was formulated largely in response to his attempts to combat the errors of Pelagianism, which denied ancestral sin, arguing that the consequences of Adam’s sin are not passed on to the rest of mankind. Augustine argued that mankind is utterly sinful and incapable of good, believing that the state of Original Sin leaves us in such a condition that we are unable to refrain from sin. The ‘image of God’ in man (i.e., free will) was destroyed by the Fall. As much as we may choose to do good, our evil impulses pervert our free will and compel us to do evil. Therefore we are totally dependent upon grace. From this position he argued that each of us is guilty of original sin from birth. From this flowed the doctrine that unbaptised babies, being still stained with original sin, could not enter paradise but went instead to limbo; as well as the doctrine of Predestination, which affirms that God has foreordained who will be saved and who will not.

A contrary view was espoused by St. John Chrysostom who regarded the Fall as “an inheritance essentially of mortality rather than sinfulness, sinfulness being merely a consequence of mortality”.[14] Chrysostom, while claiming that all human beings are made in the image of God, believed that the Ancestral Sin brought corruptibility and death not only to Adam but to all his descendants, weakening his ability to grow into God’s likeness, but never destroying God’s image (free will). Chrysostom’s position is echoed St Cyril of Alexandria, who claimed that we are not guilty of Adam’s sin, though we inherit a corrupted nature; but our free will remains intact.

“How did many become sinners because of Adam?… How could we, who were not yet born, all be condemned with him, even though God said, ‘Neither the fathers shall be put to death because of their children, nor the children because of their fathers, but the soul which sins shall be put to death’? (cf. Deut. 24:18) … we became sinners through Adam’s disobedience in such manner as this: he was created for incorruptibility and life, and the manner of existence he had in the garden of delight was proper to holiness. His whole mind was continually beholding God; his body was tranquil and calm with all base pleasures being still. For there was no tumult of alien disturbances in it. But because he fell under sin and slipped into corruptibility, pleasures and filthiness assaulted the nature of the flesh, and in our members was unveiled a savage law. Our nature, then, became diseased by sin through the disobedience of one, that is, of Adam. Thus, all were made sinners, not by being co-transgressors with Adam,… but by being of his nature and falling under the law of sin… Human nature fell ill in Adam and subject to corruptibility through disobedience, and, therefore, the passions entered in”.[15]

Father John Romanides expresses this difference, “The Greek Fathers look upon salvation from a biblical perspective and see it as redemption from death and corruptibility and as the healing of human nature which was assaulted by Satan. … It is quite the opposite in the West where salvation does not mean, first and foremost, salvation from death and corruptibility but from the divine wrath.”[16]

In the Creed we declare concerning our Lord Jesus Christ that, “for us men, and for our salvation, [he] came down from heaven; and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” For Orthodox the incarnation is significant because God united to Himself human nature

It is through the Blessed Virgin St. Mary that our Lord assumes our human body and nature so that He might redeem it from the evil consequences of Adam’s sin. If the Virgin Mary possesses a different body, which is not subject to death and corruption “it would separate her from the human race and she would then have been unable to transmit to her Son this true humanity.”[17] St. Gregory of Nazianzen, enunciates a simple rule of faith, “That which was not assumed is not healed and what is united to God is saved”[18]

If the Virgin Mary was born immaculately, we would not be a partaker in Christ’s redemption, which was fulfilled by His incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. If the Virgin in her humanity was unique from all others, then it was not our nature which the Lord assumed and we are not redeemed.

St. Ephrem the Syrian wrote, “As ligh­t­ning illu­mi­na­tes what is hid­den, so also Christ puri­fies what is hid­den in the nature of things. He puri­fied the Vir­gin also and then was born, so as to show that where Christ is, there is mani­fest purity in all its power. He puri­fied the Vir­gin, having pre­pa­red Her by the Holy Spi­rit… having been born, He left Her vir­gin. I do not say that Mary became immor­tal, but that being illu­mi­na­ted by grace, She was not dis­tur­bed by sin­ful desi­res”[19]

There were saints of the Catholic church who understand the dangers of this growing doctrine and warned against it. In the 12th century St. Bernard of Clairvaux called it “a novelty which is the mother of imprudence, the sister of unbelief, and the daughter of lightmindedness.”

“I am frightened now, seeing that certain of you have desired to change the condition of important matters, introducing a new festival unknown to the Church, unapproved by reason, unjustified by ancient tradition. Are we really more learned and more pious than our fathers? You will say, ‘One must glorify the Mother of God as much as Possible.’ This is true; but the glorification given to the Queen of Heaven demands discernment. This Royal Virgin does not have need of false glorifications, possessing as She does true crowns of glory and signs of dignity. Glorify the purity of Her flesh and the sanctity of Her life. Marvel at the abundance of the gifts of this Virgin; venerate Her Divine Son; exalt Her Who conceived without knowing concupiscence and gave birth without knowing pain. But what does one yet need to add to these dignities?[20]

In 1895 Patriarch Anthimos VII of Constantinople responded synodically to Pope Leo XIII’s Encyclical, Praeclara Gratulationis Publicae and took the opportunity to attack Catholic departures from the apostolic tradition, among which he noted,

The Papal Church scarcely forty years ago again made an innovation by laying down a novel dogma concerning the immaculate conception of the Mother of God and ever-Virgin Mary, which was unknown to the ancient Church (and strongly opposed at different times even by the more distinguished among the papal theologians).”[21]

There is a view held by some Orthodox, however, that since the Second Vatican Council the Catholic Church has drawn closer to its Eastern roots and that there is greater convergence with the Orthodox churches in understanding apostolic tradition. This later statement about original sin seems to have moved away from its dependence on Augustine and closer to our understanding of ancestral sin,

“Although it is proper to each individual,original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is called concupiscence.”[22]

The late Indian Orthodox theologian, Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios, wrote, “human nature cannot be sinful, for nature is what is created by God, and it was not created evil or sinful. What is constitutive of our nature is that it was created in the Image of God, who is the perfection of all goodness.”[23] Procreation, therefore, is in the nature of man and natural to him and what is of his nature is no sin.[24] Mar Gregorios says, “Ephraim and Gregory would argue that passion or concupiscence by itself does not constitute sin. For Augustine concupiscence constitutes the root of sin. For the Eastern tradition human freedom is man’s most cherished possession.”[25]

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says, “We are all of us implicated from birth in a fallen condition that carries with it not only far-reaching physical consequences but also weakness of will and solidarity in a state of sinfulness. Despite all this, however, the view of our fallen state accepted within the Orthodox tradition is definitely less sombre that that upheld by Augustine, Luther or Calvin. While Orthodox agree that we all suffer by virtue of the fall from a weakening of the will, we would not say with Luther or Calvin that our nature had undergone a radical depravity or total corruption. Whereas Lutherans tend to assert that because of the fall the image of God has been ‘effaced’ or ‘lost’, Orthodox would state that it has been tarnished but not obliterated; or else, making a distinction between ‘image’ and ‘likeness’, we maintain that at the fall the ‘likeness’ of God was lost, but not the ‘image’.”[26]

Abba Seraphim


[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 491

[2] Homilies on the Gospel of Luke 6.7.

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 490.

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 493.

[5] Lumen Gentium, 56.

[6] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 492

[7]The Greek hymn, ‘Axios Estin’ is an irmos attributed to St. Cosmas the Hymnographer (died 773).

[8] Lumen Gentium, 53.

[9] Romans III: 23.

[10] St. Ambrose, Commentary on St. Luke, chapter 2.

[11] Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, Vol. 2, and translated by Frank Williams (1994), “Against Collyridians,”pp. 625-629.

[12] Exp. In Luke “:17 quoted in Tadros Y. Malaty, St. Mary in the Orthodox Concept (Alexandria: 1978), p. 59.

[13] Luke I: 47.

[14] John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes (New York: Fordham University Press, 1976), 144.

[15] Commentary on Romans, P.G. 74, 788-789

[16] John Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, pp. 34-35.

[17] Sergius Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church (1935), p. 138.

[18] Epistle 51, to Cledonius (First Epistle against Apollinarius)

[19] St. Ephrem the Syrian, Homily Against Heretics, 41.

[20] Epistle 174

[21] A Reply to the Papal Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, on Reunion, XIII.

[22] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 405.

[23] Gregorios, The Cosmic Man (Kottayam, 1980), p. 156.

[24] David Daniel, Blessed Virgin Mariam (New Delhi, 1992), p. 113.

[25] Gregorios, op.cit., p. 167.

[26] Kallistos Ware, How are we Saved ? The Understanding of Salvation in the Orthodox Tradition (Minneapolis, 1996), p.28.




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