The Immaculate Conception and the Orthodox Church
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?
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." (
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.
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)
1. Photius, homil. I in Annunt., in the collection of St. Aristarchis,
Photiou logoi kai homiliai, Constantinople 1901, t. II, p. 236.
2. Theognostes, hom. in fest. Dormitionis, Greek Cod. 763 of the
Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris, fol. 8. v.
3. Euthemius, hom. in concept. S. Annae, Cod. laudianus 69 of the
Bodleian Library, fol. 122-126.
4. Photius, In Praesentat. Deiparae, in the collection of Sophoclis
Grigoriou tou Palama homiliai kb', Athens 1861.
5. Manuel Paleologus, orat. in Dormit., Vatic. graecus 1619. A Latin
translation is to be found in Migne P.G. t. CLVI, 91-108.
6. Scholarios, hom. in Dormit., Greek Cod. 1294 of the Bibliotheque
Nationale of Paris, fol. 139 v.
7. Lukaris, hom. in Dormit., Cod. 263 of the Metochion of the Holy
Sepulchre in Constantinople, fol. 612-613, and hom. in Nativ., Cod. 39
of the Metochion, fol. 93.
8. Hypsilantis, Ta meta ten alosin, Constantinople, 1870, p. 131.
Coursoulas, Sunopsis ten ieras Theologias, Zante, 1862, vol. I, pp.
9. Quoted by Frederic George Lee, in The sinless conception of the
Mother of God, London 1891, p. 58.
10. See Chiliapkin, St Dmitri of Rostov and his times (Russian), in
the Zapiski of the Faculty of history and philology of the University
of St. Petersberg, t. XXIV, 1891, especially pp. 190-193.
11. See J. Gagarin, L'Eglise russe et L'immaculee conception, Paris 1876.
12. See Makary Bulgakov, History of the Russian Church (Russian) 1890,
t. XII, p. 681. On the Polotsk brotherhood, see the article by
Golubiev, in the Trudv of the Academy of Kiev, November 1904, pp.
13. See N. Subbotin, History of the hierarchy of Bielo-Krinitza
(Russian), Moscow, 1874, t. I, p. xlii of the Preface.
14. An article by M. Jugie, Le dogme de l'immaculee conception d'apres
un theologien russe, in Echos d'Orient, 1920, t. XX, p. 22, gives an
analysis of Lebedev's monography.
15. Letter of Archbishop Anthony of Volhynia to the Old Believers, in
the organ of the Russian Holy Synod, The Ecclesiastical News of 10
March 1912, p. 399. Morozov's reply is contained in the same
periodical on 14 July 1912, pp. 1142-1150.