This is my first post so greetings everyone.
Well I have a say on this one, well actually not my own but of an RC friend of mine who later became Orthodox, so here it goes:
Some thoughts regarding “Immaculate Conception”:
Just as Protestants, not being guided by Tradition, love to quote verses of the Bible out of context in order to “prove” this or that error, in the same way people sometimes quote this or that Holy Father of the Church, in order to demonstrate some favorite error or privately held opinion. But the Orthodox Christian way, when there isn’t already a clear dogmatic statement from an Ecumenical Council, is to find the “consensus” of the Fathers. That means that when the vast majority of them agree on some particular point of theology, then this constitutes the infallible voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to His Church, rather than any one individual’s opinion. Contrariwise, where there is no patristic consensus, we say that a particular question falls into the category of “private opinion” (unless, of course, it completely contradicts the received teaching of the Church).
Therefore, regardless of what this or that Orthodox writer, priest, or even bishop has said, the universal “consensus” is that the Virgin Mary was not “immaculately conceived.” Although, as Bishop Kallistos Ware says in his book, “The Orthodox Church,” has not “in fact made any formal and definitive pronouncement on the matter,” this isn’t because the Church doesn’t know her own mind on the subject. Not everything in Orthodoxy is made into a “formal and definitive pronouncement.” But several local Synods (for example, the Church of Greece, in the 19th century) have condemned this particular Latin dogma in very frank and outspoken terms.
So, where the Theotokos is concerned, we already not only have a consensus of the ancient Fathers of the East and West (before the eleventh century), who spoke in detail about the nature of the Mother of God, but we also have a more modern or contemporary consensus of Church Fathers, who decisively rejected the Roman Catholic Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, as defined by Pope Pius IX in 1854—and rejected it more than once. It’s interesting that this error only began to become an issue in the West after the schism from the Eastern Church, when the West had lost its consciousness of being a universal Church—that is, one that followed the patristic consensus.
But by the way, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception not only never appeared in Eastern Christendom, but was rejected also by Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas, considered great Fathers of the post-schism Western Church.
However, the most important question to ask is not whether the Theotokos was “immaculately conceived,” but what is it that she transmitted to Christ in her womb or, more precisely, what is it that Christ received from His mother in the womb? Once we have the answer to that, all other questions fall into place.
(Incidentally, I know Catholics who sincerely think that the “immaculate conception” has to do with the virgin birth, rather than the conception of the Mother of God!)
Orthodox Christians believe that Christ received flesh, a human body, from His Mother in her womb. And his body was like ours—in other words, it could grow weary, it needed food and rest, and it could suffer and die, it was subject to temptation. These are among the primary attributes of a fallen human nature. The body that Adam and Eve possessed in Eden was not yet that of fallen human nature because they had not yet “fallen” into sin. But after sin, they acquired a body like ours, the kind of body that expresses and carries a “fallen human nature.” This is what we have inherited from Adam—not guilt from his sin, but a fallen human nature.
According to the Roman Catholic dogma (quoting from “The Catholic Encyclopedia”), however, “’The Blessed Virgin Mary in the first instance of her conception, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin.’” (The correct Orthodox term for original sin is Ancestral Sin.) In other words, original sin “was excluded, it never was in her soulGÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Â¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Âª. The state of original sanctity, innocence, and justice, as opposed to original sin, was conferred upon her, by which gift every stain and fault, all depraved emotions, passions, and debilities, essentially pertaining to original sin, were excluded.” And this was done “’by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus ChristGÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Â¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Âª’” In other words, she did not have a fallen human nature, although for some reason she could grow weary, needed food and rest, etc.—which are qualities of a fallen human nature. Some Roman Catholic theologians also say that she didn’t actually die, but only fell into a “death-like” sleep; therefore she wasn’t resurrected by her Son, but was only “assumed” bodily into heaven, never having really tasted of death!
And yet, Christ received a completely human body, just like ours with its fallen human nature, from His mother—a body through which, according to Scripture, He was even tempted to sin, just as we are, although He did not, in fact, fall into sin—this being an essential part of the redemption of man, the transformation and healing of his fallen human nature, and his ultimate deification. In order to save us, it was absolutely necessary that His our fallen human nature and mortal flesh be united to his divinity and immortality. This is called the “hypostatic union”: a theological term for the doctrine that in Christ one Person subsists in two natures, the Divine and the human. This is discussed by St. Nicholas Cabasilas in his books, wherein he also explains the mechanism by which Christ unites Himself to us through His human nature (which is already hypostatically united to His divinity)--and this is what we receive in the Sacraments or Mysteries, most especially in the Eucharist or Holy Communion.
It follows, then, that since Christ received His human nature (which was a fallen nature, remember) from His Mother, and since you cannot give what you don’t have—then she herself must have possessed a fallen human nature; therefore she was not somehow “exempt” from the effects of Adam’s sin. To have been somehow supernaturally preserved, from the moment of conception, from possessing a fallen human nature, would mean that she could not sin (and we Orthodox believe that, in truth, she did not sin, but this was a supreme act of synergy with God’s grace). In that case she becomes something quite different from the rest of humankind and would not have been able to transmit to her Son a fallen human nature and the body that goes with it, thus making nonsense of the Hypostatic Union.
Now, according to the Roman Catholic Church, by “original sin” is meant two things (quoting the Catholic Encyclopedia): “1) the sin that Adam committed; (2) a consequence of this first sin, the hereditary stain with which we are born on account of our origin or descent from Adam. From the earliest times the latter sense of the word was more common.”
While the Orthodox accept unanimously that Adam and Eve did indeed commit the first, or “original” sin, sometimes called “original guilt,” we reject the idea that we have inherited any “hereditary stain” and punishment for that sin. That idea is a much later error which developed in the West and is not part of the consensus of the Universal Church of East or West before the eleventh century. Rather, we believe that we inherited the same fallen human nature which Adam acquired when he lost his original innocence through disobedience—that is, a body (and it’s nature) which is subject to temptation and passions, grows weary, can become sick, needs rest and food, and will ultimately die, etc. But we do not inherit guilt for his sin (which would be a very peculiar idea of divine justice, in any case, but this is behind the Latin error called “atonement” or “satisfaction”, as taught by Anselm of Canterbury).
According to Catholic theology, “the abasement of the Word consists in the assumption of humanity and the simultaneous occultation of the Divinity. Christ's abasement is seen first in His subjecting Himself to the laws of human birth and growth and to the lowliness of fallen human nature.” (“The Catholic Encyclopedia”) But where did He acquire this “fallen human nature” if not from His Mother? And according to Catholic theology, our fallen nature is part of Original Sin. But if the Theotokos was preserved from Original Sin and its effects, then she did not have a fallen nature, and therefore could not transmit this to her Son.
Finally, to quote a contemporary Orthodox writer (George Gabriel in “Mary: The Untrodden Portal of God”): “The dogma of the Immaculate Conception severs Mary from her ancestors, from the forefathers, and from the rest of mankindGÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Â¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Âª. By severing her from fallen mankind and any consequences of the fall, this legalistic mechanism makes her personal holiness and theosis nonessential in the economy of salvation and, for that matter, even in her own salvation. Moreover, ‘it places in doubt her unity of nature with the human race and, therefore, the genuineness of salvation and Christ’s flesh as representative of mankind.’ [A. Yevtich, commentary in The Theotokos: Four Homilies on the Mother of God by St. John of Damascus.]”