Orthodox view on Immaculate Conception

The Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God was first promulgated as a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church in the year 1854, by Pope Pius IX. The official statement of it, is as follow:

"The doctrine which declares that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, was the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore must be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful of the Roman Catholic Church."

The declaration of this doctrine to be a dogma of the Western Catholic Church marked the end of a period of often bitter controversy between its adherents and those who denied it, a controversy that involved some of the most well known Western Catholic theologians.

Throughout the Eastern part of the Roman empire, from as far back as the fifth century, a feast day was observed on 9th December entitled The Conception of Saint Anna. This feast day celebrated the events surrounding the conception of the Mother of God by Saint Anna in her and her husband Joachim's old age, as set forth in the apocryphal Protoevangelion of James.

There was no attempt on the part of the hymn writers of the early church to suggest that there was any other miracle than the conception in the face of prolonged sterility.

This feast day soon became popular with Western Christians, and by the 8th century was celebrated on 8th December. Soon after, some western churchmen began teaching that Mary, from the moment of her conception, was "miraculously innocent" of the guilt of original sin.

This teaching was bitterly opposed by such churchmen as the great Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, and the great Dominican Doctor of the Western Church Thomas Aquinas. Eventually however, in 1854, those who accepted the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception gained the attention of the Pope, who effectively ended all the controversy about it by officially promulgating it as an official teaching of the Western Catholic Church.

In order to understand the position of the Orthodox Church on this teaching we must begin with understanding the Orthodox concept of original sin, as opposed to that which prevails in the Western Catholic Church.

The Western Catholic Church's teaching of original sin, is based in part on the writings of Saint Augustine, which states that each human being at the moment of conception shares in the guilt of Adam's sin of disobedience.

This was based on Saint Augustine's slightly flawed Latin translation of Romans 5:12. Augustine did not read Greek with any great proficiency. Augustine read it as saying "so death spread to all men in whom (Adam) all men sinned", rather than "so death spread to all men because all men sinned", which is how the original Greek reads.

It is this teaching that led Western Catholic thinkers to create a place called "Limbo" (from the Latin word limbus, "border" or "hem"), meaning on the border of heaven. They said this is where the souls of unbaptised infants could find refuge, since though not guilty of any personal sin, they still had the guilt of original sin on their souls, and so could not enter heaven proper.

In the medieval Western Catholic Church, original sin was believed to be transmitted in a physical sense through conception. It thus became important to many that Mary be preserved from this taint. Hence the creation in the ninth century of the doctrine of the immaculate conception.

The Orthodox Church has kept alive the original understanding of the early Church as regards "original sin." The early Church did not understand "original sin" as having anything to do with transmitted guilt but with transmitted mortality. Because Adam sinned, all humanity shares not in his guilt but in the same punishment.

We are tempted by sin and we become guilty of it through committing our own personal sins. We therefore suffer and we die. This is the orthodox understanding of original sin. It is not something that we are guilty of personally, but an action whose consequences have affected our lives as humans. As humans we sin, and our own guilt is because of our own personal sin.

In the light of this, the Western Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is redundant.

In Orthodox eyes, there is simply no original guilt for Mary to be made innocent of.  Which is also why we have no Limbo for infants who die unbaptised, which was also at one time the usual teaching of the Western Catholic Church.

Often those advocating the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, have sought to discover it in Orthodox writers of the Middle Ages or in Orthodox hymns.

Orthodox writers who often refer to Mary as having been "prepared," and "sanctified," and who hail her as the "immaculate one," are thinking in the context of the Orthodox view of original sin, not the Western. None of these writers put forth a claim that Mary was immortal – which necessarily follows for those who accept the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. It does not fit in the context of the Orthodox view of original sin.

Many of these theologians held to a view that by special grace the Mother of God did not commit any personal sins. Others asserted that Mary was sanctified through her response to Archangel Gabriel at the annunciation, "Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38).

Taken at face value, the Western doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is seen by the Orthodox as separating the Mother of God from the rest of the human race. If true, this would have made it impossible for Christ to become truly man, because Mary would therefore not be subject to the same conditions of humanity as those for whom Christ had become incarnate in order to save. Mary is human, and through her, God became fully human as well.

During this Advent season, the Orthodox Church frequently remembers the Virgin Mary as a gift of humanity to God, through whom God gave Himself back to humanity. One of our Christmas hymns asks "What shall we offer You, Christ, You Who for our sakes appeared on earth as a man?  Every creature which You have made offers You thanks.....… We offer You a Virgin Mother. Pre-eternal God, have mercy on us."

Edited from an article in "The Word" Magazine. The Word is the official print publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

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