Orthodoxy and the the doctrine of the Immaculate

Author: Dave Brown


Dave Brown

Has Eastern Orthodoxy always opposed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Theotokos, the Mother of God? She is praised in the Megalynarion hymn in the Divine Liturgy and in Vespers and Matins showing the pre-eminence of Mary among the saints:

It is truly right to bless you, O Theotokos, ever-blessed and most pure, and the Mother of our God. More honorable than the Cheribum, and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim, without defilement you gave birth to God the Word: True Theotokos, we magnify you.

How is the Theotokos "most pure"? Most Orthodox would say that she was without sin at the Annunciation, but would disagree that the Virgin Mary was conceived immaculate by St. Anne. Fr. Peter E. Gillquist comments in "Becoming Orthodox":

However, the Immaculate Conception of Mary is a doctrine unknown in the ancient Church and unique to the modern Roman Church. He later refers to the Roman Church with its questionable late dogmatic additions concerning Mary. (pp. 119, 122)

Fr. Casimir Kucharek in his magnus opus "The Byzantine-Slav Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom" (1971; Alleluia Press, pp. 355-357) marshals the evidence that the early Eastern Church did believe in and commemorate the Immaculate Conception of the Theotokos:

Also, from end to end of the Byzantine world, both Catholic and Orthodox greet the Mother of God as "archrantos", "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..."; "She is conceived...the only immaculate one"; "or "Having conceived the most pure dove, Anne filled...." [References: From the Office of Matins, the Third Ode of the Canon for the feast; From the Office of Matins, the Stanzas during the Seating, for the same feast; From the Office of Matins, the Sixth Ode of the Canon for the same feast.]

Fr. Kucharek continues:

No sin, no fault, not even the slightest, ever marred the perfect sanctity of this masterpiece of God's creation. For hundred of years, the Byzantine Church has believed this, prayed and honored Mary in this way. Centuries of sacred tradition stand behind this title. [The very vastness of available testimony precludes listing. Two excellent surveys may be consulted: A. Ballerini, "Sylloge monumentorum ad mysterium conceptionis immaculatae virginis deiparae spectantium" (Rome, 1854-1855), and C. Passaglia, "De immaculato deiparae semper virginis conceptu commentarius" (Rome, 1854 -1855).] 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.

In support of this statement, Fr. Kucharek cites these references in a footnote on pp. 355-356:

Among the better known ninth to thirteenth century Byzantine theologians: Patriarch Photius in his homilies "De Annuntiatione" and "De Nativitate Deiparae" (S. Aristarchis, "Photiou logoi kai homiliai", Vol. II [Constantinople, 1900], pp. 230-245, 368-380); George of Nicomedia in his homilies (PG 100, 1336-1504), especially "Conceptione deiparae" and "Praesentatione Mariae virginis"; Michael Psellos in the recently discovered and edited homily "De Annuntiatione" (PO 16, pp. 517-525); John Phurnensis, "Oratione de Dormitione" (G. Palamas, "Theophanous tou kerameos homiliai", [Jerusalem, 1860], append., pp. 271-276); Michael Glykas, "Annales", III (PG 158, 439-442); Germanus II, Patriarch of Constantinople, "In annuntiationem" (edit. Ballerini, op. cit., Vol. II, pp. 283-382); Theognostos the Monk, "In dormitionem" (PO 16, pp. 457-562); Nicetas David, "In nativitatem B.M.V." (PG 105, 16-28); Leo the Wise, "In dormitionem" and "In praesentationeum" (PG 107, 12-21); Patriarch Euthymius of Constantinople, "In Conceptionem Annae" (PO 16, pp. 499-505); Bishop Peter Argorum, "In conceptionem B. Annae"(PG 104, 1352-1365); John Mauropos, "In dormitionem" (PG 120, 1075-1114); James the Monk, "In nativitatem et in praesentationem B.M.V." (PO 16, pp. 528-538). Cf. Jugie, "L'immaculee Conception dans l'Ecriture Sainte et dans la tradition orientale [Rome, 1952], pp. 164-307, for others.

Fr. Kucharek notes that Eastern theologians took St. Thomas Aquinas to task on this issue. (Aquinas did not believe in the Immaculate Conception):

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. [Demetrios Kydonios, "Hom. in annuntiationem deiparae", contained in "Cod. Paris gr.", 1213 (cf. Jugie, op cit., pp. 276-279.] No less did the other great Thomist, Georgios Scholarios (fifteenth century), in his synopsis of the immaculate conception. [Georgios Scholarios, "In dormitionem" (PO 16, p. 577); cf. Petit-Siderides-Jugie; "Oeuvres completes de Georges Scholarios", Vol. 1 [Paris, 1928], pp. 202-203; also Petit-Sisderides-Jugie, op. cit., I, p. 501; also Jugie, "Georges Scholarios et l'Immaculee Conception", Echos d'Orient (Paris-Istanbul, 17 [1915], pp. 527-530.]

How did Orthodoxy come to reject the Immaculate Conception of the Theotokos? Fr. Kucharek concludes:

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. [Nicholas Callixtus, however, expressed doubt during the fourteenth century (cf. Jugie "L'Immaculee Conception dans l'Ecriture Sainte et dans la tradition orientale", p. 2130, but the great Cabasilas' (1371) teaching on the immaculate conception ("In nativitatem" [PO 19, pp. 468-482]; "In dormitionem" [PO 19, pp. 498-504]) still had great influence in the subsequent centuries. Perhaps even more influential was Patriarch Gregory Palamas (1446-1452) whose homilies on the Mother of God are second to none even today ("De hypapante"; "De annuntiatione"; "De dormitione" [PG 151]; also "In Christi genealogiam" and "In praesentationem" [edit. K. Sophocles, "Tou en hagiois patros emon Gregoriou tou Palama homiliai", Athens, 1861]). 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. [Cf. N. Subbotin, "Materialy dlja istorii Roskola", Vol. IV (Moscow, 1878), pp. 39-50, 229, and Vol. 1 (Moscow, 1874), p. 457.] 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. 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.