It's a pleasure discussing the sinlessness of the Theotokos with you, Clemente. You raise thoughtful questions and arguments. I also welcome the opportunity to reflect further on this controversial topic.
1. Sergius Bulgakov is a dubious witness for the argument that the Theotokos was utterly sinless. He was charged with heresy for his ideas about sophiology. St. John Maximovitch charged that he sought to deify the Theotokos and cited St. Epiphanius of Cyprus: "There is an equal harm in both these heresies, both when men demean the Virgin and when, on the contrary, they glorify Her beyond what is proper". A recognised saint of the Church tells us explicitly that Bulgakov's views on the Theotokos are not "proper". So, if the argument about the utter sinlessness of the Theotokos depends on Sergius Bulgakov's distinction about the relative sinlessness of the Theotokos, is would seem to me to hang on a rather precarious peg.
This really amounts to nothing more than an ad hominem attack. The fact that Bulgakov was accused of heresy does not mean that he was guilty
of heresy. This is a very complicated matter. His own diocese determined that his reflections on sophiology were severely flawed but not heretical. Fr Sergius died a faithful priest in communion with his bishop. He was a brilliant, insightful, devout, speculative theologian. Many of his writings are difficult to read and understand and thus difficult to evaluate. I have tried to read one of his "big" books and have concluded that his sophiology is beyond my sympathies, as well as my comprehension. "Whatever he was," Fr Thomas Hopko writes, "Father Sergius Bulgakov was not a heretic. Like others before him, including saints such as Augustine of Hippo … and Gregory of Nyssa, Father Bulgakov was a bold and brilliant thinker, whom many judge to be mistaken in certain of his ideas and faulty in certain of his conceptualizations. … Father Bulgakov never doubted the truth of Orthodoxy. He created no formal schisms or divisions in the Church. He was never deprived of his chair of dogmatic theology or his deanship at St. Sergius. He was never suspended from the priesthood or removed from the Church's communion. When his teachings were formally questioned by the Moscow Patriarchate, his apology was accepted by his archbishop, Metropolitan Eulogius, who eulogized him at his funeral as 'a teacher of the Church in the purest and most lofty sense who was enlightened by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Wisdom, the Spirit of Understanding, the Comforter to whom he dedicated his scholarly work'" (Foreward to The Orthodox Church
, p. xi).
St John Maximovitch's claim that Bulgakov sought to improperly glorify Mary needs to be carefully examined and weighed. Bulgakov is clear in The Burning Bush
that the heavenly Theotokos is and eternally remains a creature; but in heaven she is now completely deified, exalted above the angels and saints. At no point does he make her into something akin to a fourth person of the Holy Trinity. I well imagine that St John found Bulgakov's theological idiom strange, alienating, and disturbing. It's also possible that he misunderstood some parts of the book (it's difficult not to misunderstand Bulgakov). It's also possible that Bulgakov pushes the Marian envelope too far. But he is trying to exposit and elaborate upon the remarkable things that are said about the Theotokos in the prayers, hymns, and iconology of the Church, as well as the homilies and teachings of many of the Church Fathers and saints.
Have you read The Burning Bush
? Have you carefully considered Bulgakov's arguments? If you have not, then you should not be dismissing Fr Sergius in this way. The Burning Bush
is a wonderful work, in my opinion. It was commended to me by the exceptionally fine Orthodox theologian, Fr Andrew Louth. This doesn't mean that I agree with everything in it, and it certainly doesn't mean that I understand everything in it, which I do not; but I find it stimulating, challenging, and enriching, both intellectually and spiritually. And Bulgakov seems to be one of the few Orthodox theologians who actually understands the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which makes his critique of the Latin doctrine invaluable.
In any case, Bulgakov's distinction between the absolute sinlessness of Christ and the relative sinlessness of his mother stands on its own merits. As Archimandrite Irenei notes, there is a critical difference between the sinlessness of Christ, which is grounded on the hypostatic union, and the sinlessness of the Blessed Virgin, which is grounded in sanctification and theosis. Instead of assuming that Bulgakov's assertion of the sinlessness of the Theotokos flows from his sophiology, why not, instead, assume that its source is the Orthodox faith which he lived and breathed. This seems much more likely. As we have seen, numerous saints of the Church have affirmed the sinlessness of our Lord's mother. It's not a Bulgakovian innovation.
2. The liturgical testimony for the argument that the Theotokos was utterly sinless is highly ambiguous. I understand how you could read those citations, repeated here, through the prism of an a priori belief that the Theotokos was utterly sinless and conclude that the liturgical evidence supports your case. Yet references to "spotless" or "undefiled" by the Fathers often refers to her virginity. For example, Hippolytus of Rome (3 C.) called Mary "the tabernacle exempt from defilement and corruption" referring to her virginity. Moreover, we know that using the terms "most holy", "pure", "blessed" or "glorious" for the Theotokos does not at all imply a belief in her utter sinlessness because these all appear in the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, who believed she committed some minor sin! Most (though admittedly not all) of those citations seem perfectly compatible with the notion that the Theotokos became sinless but was not "utterly sinless" throughout her life.
We do not in fact know what portions, if any, of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom were actually penned by this great doctor of the Church. In his book The Orthodox Liturgy
Hugh Wybrew states that liturgical scholarship has discounted St John's authorship of the anaphora, "not least because Chrysostom's name is not firmly linked with the Liturgy now known as his until relatively late" (p. 56). St John quite possibly brought the liturgy celebrated in Antioch with him to Constantinople. We also know that the Byzantine liturgy has evolved and changed over the centuries. Hence it is precarious to draw conclusions about the meaning of the liturgical prayers based on Chrysostom's private opinions on the sinfulness of the Theotokos. Moreover, the Eucharist must not be divorced from the totality of the Church's liturgical life.
I agree with you that our reading of the prayers and hymns of the Church is shaped by our prior convictions about the Theotokos, though those convictions are in turn shaped by the prayers and hymns. Clearly it is possible to read, pray, and sing them and be not be persuaded that they assert the (relative) sinlessness of the Mother of God, as evidenced, for example, by Sts. John Maximovitch and Ignatius Brianchaninov. The reverse also holds true.
3. The witness of St. John Maximovitch suggests that this issue is not "essential", in the sense that it does not preclude sainthood. St. John argued against the Immaculate Conception in The Orthodox Veneration of the Mother of God with an argument which is in the format "if not B, not A". He reasoned that since the Theotokos was not utterly sinless, the IC could not be true. One may or not agree with his argument. What is absolutely unambiguous, however, is that he argued that the "teaching of the complete sinlessness of the Mother of God does not correspond to Sacred Scripture" or to the teaching of the Fathers and is recognised as a saint. You may argue that the teaching of the utter sinlessness of the Theotokos is true and important. But the experience of the Church vis-a-vis St. John Maximovitch shows that this cannot be considered an "essential" issue.
But you have ignored the critical weakness in St John's essay, namely, his apparent construal of sinlessness as the inability to sin. But no Orthodox says that Mary was unable to sin or did not struggle with temptation. Hence St John's objections do not apply to the present discussion. He quotes St Ignatius Brianchianov: “Despite the righteousness and the immaculateness of life which the Mother of God led, sin and eternal death manifested their presence in Her. They could not but be manifested: Such is the precise and faithful teaching of the Orthodox Church concerning the Mother of God with relation to ancestral sin and death.” What does this mean? Apparently this manifestation of sin and eternal death excludes personal sin, for how else could Mary be described as having led an immaculate life? (Unfortunately, Brianchianov's book on the Theotokos is not available in English translation, but see Bulgakov's brief discussion of it in Burning Bush
, pp. 161-162, n. 3.) Surely here is an occasion where the logic of original sin ("all men commit sin and subject themselves to the power of spiritual death and the Devil; therefore, the Blessed Virgin committed sin and subjected herself to the power of spiritual death and the Devil") breaks down. If the syllogism were true, how could St Germanus describe her "as excelling all in the greatness and purity of sublime and divine virtues, and having no affinity with sin whatever" (Marracci in S. Germani Mariali)? How could St Ephrem pray to Christ, "For in you, Lord, there is no blemish, nor any stain in your mother" (Nisibine Hymn 27.
? How could St Ambrose characterize her as "a Virgin not only undefiled but a Virgin whom grace has made inviolate, free of every stain of sin" (St Ambrose, On Psalm 118, 22-30)? How could the liturgy describe her as the "all-blameless Virgin" (Feast of the Annunciation, ode five, Matins), "never subject to the taint of sin" (Feast of the Entry, ode 9, Matins), and declare that she "alone is undefiled" (Feast of the Entry, Lity)?
Consider this passage from Jacob of Serug, the great 6th century Syriac poet, on God's election of Mary to be the Mother of God:
Our Lord descending to earth beheld all women; He chose one for himself who among them all was pleasing.
He searched her and found humility and holiness in her, and limpid impulses and a soul desirous of divinity.
And a pure heart and every reckoning of perfection, because of this He chose her, the pure and most fair one.
He descended from his place and dwelt within the glorious one among women, because for her there was not a companion comparable to her in the world.
She alone is humble, pure, limpid and without blemish, so that she was deemed worthy to be his mother and not another.
He observed her, how exalted and pure from evil, nor stirs in her an impulse inclined to lust.
And she allows no thought for luxury, nor worldly conversation which causes cruel harm.
Desire for worldly vanity does not burn in her, nor is she occupied with childish things.
He saw that there was not like her nor equal to her in the world, then He took her as mother that He might suck pure milk from her.
She was a person of discernment, full of the love of God, because our Lord does not dwell where there is no love.
When the Great King desired to come to our place, He dwelt in the purest shrine of all the earth because it pleased Him.
He dwelt in a spotless womb which was adorned with virginity, and with thoughts which were worthy of holiness.
She was most fair both in her nature and in her will, because she was not sullied with displeasing desires.
From her childhood, she stood firm in unblemished uprightness; she walked in the way without offenses.
Her original nature was preserved with a will for good things because there were always tokens of virginity in her body and holy things in her soul.
This deed which took place in her gave me power to speak these things concerning her ineffable beauty.
Because she became Mother of the Son of God, I saw and firmly believed that she is the only woman in the world who is entirely pure.
From when she knew to distinguish good from evil, she stood firm in purity of heart and in integrity of thought.
She did not turn aside from the justice which is in the Law, and neither carnal nor bodily desire disturbed her.
From her childhood, impulses of holiness stirred within her, and in her excellence, she increased them with great care.
The Lord was always set before her eyes; on Him she was gazing, so that she might be enlightened by Him, and delighted in Him.
Because he saw how pure she was and limpid her soul, He wanted to dwell in her since she was free from evils. (Homily I)
How does the logic of original sin accommodate these praises of the immaculate purity of the Theotokos? Are we to believe, could Mar Jacob have believed, that Mary subsequently fell into sin after the Annunciation? Do we not need the distinction proposed by Bulgakov precisely to reconcile the conflicting statements about Mary that we find in Holy Tradition?
If either/or logic is to be our guide here, then let me pose another conundrum. Scripture tells us that Jesus Christ is the one and only mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5). When I was an Anglican, I preached many a sermon precisely on this theme. How then do we explain a passage like this from St Gregory Palamas's homily on the Dormition:
Just as it was only through her that the Son came to us, was seen on earth, and lived among men, after previously being invisible to all, so from now on for endless eternity all progress towards the manifestation of divine light, every revelation of divine mysteries, and all forms of spiritual gifts are beyond everyone's grasp without her. She was the first to receive the all-pervading fullness of Him Who fills all things, and she brought Him within reach of all, distributing to each as he is able to receive, in proportion to the measure of his purity, such that she is both the treasure-house and Mistress of God's riches.
It is an eternal custom in heaven that those who are lesser should participate through those who are greater in what lies beyond existence, and the Virgin Mother is incomparably greater than all. So as many as will share in God will do so through her, all those who know God will know her as the one who holds Him Whom nothing can contain, and all who sing God's praises will hymn her after God. She is the cause of what preceded her, the protectress of what comes after her, and she procures eternity. She is the prophets' theme, the Apostles' starting point, the martyrs' mainstay, and the teachers' foundation. Of all those on earth she is the glory, of those in heaven the delight, the adornment of all Creation, Source, fount and root of ineffable good things, she is the crown and perfection of all the saints.
O holy and now heavenly Virgin, how can I fully describe you? … You have become the treasurer of graces and their store, not so you might keep them for yourself, but that you might fill the universe with grace. For the trustee of inexhaustible treasures sees to their distribution. Why would never-dwindling wealth be locked away?
Therefore, O Lady, generously share your mercy and your graces with all people, your inheritance. Rescue us from the terrors that encompass us. … Through your power turn everything for the best. Bring mutual calm between fellow citizens at home, and drive away those who attack like wild beasts from outside. Bestow your aid and healing on us to counteract our passions, and give our souls and bodies abundant grace sufficient for every need. And if we are unable to contain it, increase our capacity and give us more, that saved and strengthened by your grace we may glorify the pre-eternal Word, Who took flesh from you for our sake, together with His Father without beginning and the life-giving Spirit, now and for ever and unto unending ages. Amen.
St Germanus of Constantinople even goes so far as to exclaim: "No one is saved except through you, O All-Holy. No one is delivered from evils except through you, O All-Chaste. No one obtains the grace of mercy except through you, O All-Honorable" (Homily on the Cincture 9). Jesus Christ is the one and only Mediator, yet Orthodoxy does not refrain also from speaking of the Theotokos as the Mediatrix of all graces. Her intercession is qualitatively different from the intercession of the angelic beings and all the other saints, as beautifully expressed in this Vespers hymn:
Unveil to us the boundless sea of your mercy and goodness and thereby wash away our sins, O All-Blameless One; for as the Mother of God you have authority over creation, and by your power you bring all things to pass according to your will. For the grace of the Holy Spirit clearly abides in you, and unceasingly co-works with you in all things, O All-Blessed One. (Small Vespers, Saturday of the Fourth Tone, Apostichon of the Theotokos)
What has become of our logic? Is the Church making the Mother of God into a goddess and fourth member of the Holy Trinity? Has the Church transformed her into a second mediator alongside Christ? Is the Church glorifying our Lady improperly and excessively? Of course not. Just as we must distinguish between the absolute sinlessness of Christ and the relative sinlessness of Mary, so we must distinguish between the absolute mediation of the Incarnate Son and the dependent mediation of the Mother of God.
Is belief in the sinlessness of the Blessed Mother essential? I honestly do not know. The best way to find out is to persuade several priests and theologians to begin publicly accusing the Theotokos of sin and then watch how the Church responds. Then we shall find out how essential it is. I have also read others on the internet, including this forum, who have wondered whether the bodily assumption of the Theotokos is dogma. Perhaps it's only an optional theologoumenon, they say. After all, it's not found in Scripture; the historical evidence for it is dubious and late (5th century?); etc., etc. All I know is that I would never stand in the ambo and suggest or intimate that the Theotokos was guilty of personal sin, just as I would never suggest or intimate that she was not corporeally raised from the dead.
Another essay for your consideration: "The Sanctity and Glory of the Mother of God
" by Met Kallistos Ware.