Eastern Orthodox Challenges the Immaculate Conception

by Steve Ray on September 22, 2013

An Eastern Orthodox Christian wrote to complain about, or to see how we Catholics explain the Immaculate Conception. He said he had asked many Catholics and none could answer. I find that hard to believe.

After I answered his long and slightly edgy e-mail, I received his response – “Thanks.”

Picture One: Statue of Mary in Nazareth entitled “Mary of Nazareth” which is one of my favorites! Second picture is me falling in the mud in our documentary “Mary, Mother of God” when I explained the Immaculate Conception.

Here are the Eastern Orthodoxes two questions, and my simple answers:

mary_nazareth2HIS QUESTION: If Mary the Mother of God was born without original sin, and was pure and could not sin, then how could she have possibly said “No” to God’s messenger, the Archangel Gabriel? Why were God and the angels “holding their collective breaths” (as the Basilica of the Annunciation notes in Nazareth) if they knew that she was going to have to say “Yes”, because she could not deny God’s will, which would have been a sin?

MY RESPONSE: REMEMBER THAT THE FIRST EVE WAS ALSO “CONCEIVED IMMACULATELY” — SHE WAS SINLESS, WITHOUT THE STAIN OF ORIGINAL SIN OR ANY ACTUAL SIN. YET, SHE WAS ABLE TO CHOSE SIN. MARY, THE 2ND EVE COULD ALSO HAVE SAID NO TO GOD AND SINNED, JUST LIKE THE FIRST “IMMACULATELY CONCEIVED” EVE. THAT IS WHY MARY IS SO SPECIAL —- SHE RESISTED SIN LIKE THE FIRST EVE DIDN’T DO. EVE TIED THE KNOT OF SIN; MARY UNTIED IT.

HIS QUESTION: By declaring the Immaculate Conception, suddenly, Mary the Mother of God became very unlike us; her purity became unachievable for us mere mortals born with “original sin”; and she became a model of Godliness that we can never achieve on earth. The best human example of humility and obedience that Christians had been able to strive towards for 1,800 years was taken away and transformed into a something different, something suprahuman.

Steve_Closeup_mud@600MY RESPONSE: NOTHING HAS BEEN TAKEN AWAY. SHE WAS GIVEN SANCTIFYING GRACE AT THE MOMENT OF CONCEPTION, THE REST OF US NINE MONTHS LATER AT OUR INFANT BAPTISM. SHE COULD HAVE SINNED, BUT DIDN’T. WE CAN AVOID SIN BUT DON’T. THAT IS WHY CATHOLICS LOVE HER. BEING IMMACULATELY CONCEIVED DID NOT MAKE HER SUPERHUMAN; RATHER IT MAKES HER TRULY HUMAN IN THE FULL SENSE OF THE WORD, A MODEL FOR US ALL TO STRIVE FOR.

SHE NEEDED A SAVIOR (“MY SPIRIT REJOICES IN GOD MY SAVIOR”) LIKE WE DO BUT FOR HE PREVENTED HER FROM FALLING INTO THE MUD WHEREAS WE’VE ALL BEEN SAVED BY BEING PULLED OUT AND CLEANED UP.

EVEN THE ORTHODOX REFER TO MARY AS THE ALL HOLY ONE. IT IS REALLY THE SAME THING, JUST CATHOLICS GAVE IT A FORMAL DEFINITION.

HOPE THAT HELPS. HAPPY EASTER.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Brian April 27, 2011 at 12:50 PM

When people are unable to grasp the Marian Dogmas, it usually stems from a superficial knowledge of the deposit of faith. This is not the case for those who do fully comprehend them and disagree, but those who react by scratching their heads and suggesting that they are incompatible with Christianity have yet to wade into the deep end of the pool, so to speak. From my experience, it comes from an unintentional, but inappropriate separation of the Old and New Testaments and reading scripture strictly verse by verse without reference to the overarching truths of salvation history.

This is a problem when it comes to the issue of justification as well. For example, many Christans read Romans and Galatians like a Catholic vs. Protestant issue rather than what it really is, a Jew vs. Gentile argument. This knocks the train off the tracks before it even leaves the station and results some very dangerous teachings such as “once saved always saved.”

I am not claiming that these people do not know scripture, only that they approach it with presuppositions that hinder a a proper understanding and result in instances of bad theology.

STEVE RAY HERE: BRILLIANTLY STATED BRIAN. THANKS FOR YOUR INSITEFUL COMMENT!

Dr. Eric April 27, 2011 at 4:40 PM

Most Orthodox Christians claim that the Holy Blessed Theotokos was redeemed at the Annunciation when the Word became flesh. So, for them it’s not a matter of “if” but “when.” We say at her conception they say at the Annunciation.

Also, remember that Satan and the devils were created pure and had much more in terms of wisdom and grace and yet they still fell.

Vic December 8, 2011 at 7:22 AM

They are our separated brethren but Orthodox can be very annoying. Their pride gets the better of them. Not referring to the guy who asked the question mainly but Orthodoxy as a whole. They seem to have a chip on their shoulder with regards to the Catholic Church. They are like a smaller brother who has too compete with the older and in many cases while he agrees with the brother, will assert his authority and independence in disproportion to the authority given to the older brother by the Father. What I’m trying to say is that Orthodox are like people from the country who are jealous or insecure of folk from the city so they have to assert themselves or begrudge city folk at every turn. Not always this way but it seems like this a lot.

Edward Hara December 16, 2011 at 11:30 AM

Vic — You have not been Eastern, so you don’t know the rest of the story. If the Orthodox have a chip on their shoulder, the Roman Catholics are about as arrogant as they come when it comes to other forms of the Catholic faith. Remember, Catholic means “universal” or “the fullness of”, NOT ROMAN. For three quarters of the last century, we in the Ruthenian Catholic Church had to put up with an incredible amount of meddling from Roman bishops and arrogant Latins who viewed our church with disdain because we were not Latin and didn’t do things in the Latin way. Does the name Biship Ireland and Fr. Alexis Toth mean anything to you at all? If not, look it up.

Don’t point your finger at the Orthodox as if the Roman church has not had its share of pride and arrogance in dealing with people and cultures they don’t understand. If you still don’t “get it”, Google THE SACK OF CONSTANTINOPLE. Maybe that will enlighten you.

John January 17, 2012 at 4:52 PM

Edward;

Most Catholics are not even aware of the Orthodox. Orthodox, on the other hand, suffer from a very accute case of inferiority. You guys always bring up the sack of Contantinople. Get over it. The Pope never orderd that and the lost control of those armies long before it happened. In fact (look it up Edward) the pope forbid the Crusaders to attack Byzantium or be excommunicated. I also recommend you look up all the lesser know atrocities from the Orthodox on the latins like in 1182 or in 1171 where thousands of Venetians were killed with the Byzantine government. Sin goes both ways. Get over it because we have. Look it up!!!

Daniel Smith April 3, 2012 at 10:23 PM

Really, it all stems from different apostolic traditions: Or rather, it stems from Augustine.

Augustine was the first to introduce the “Stain” and guilt of original sin.

The Catholic and Orthodox east has no such notion of sin. Rather, our mortality, our loss of divine grace, our fear of death, as the scripture says, give birth to sin. Some call this pelagianism, the Orthodox call it apostolic tradition, as it RIGHTLY IS.

In other words, because we are MORTAL, we sin. The remdy AGAINST sin is immortality, i.e. Divine life. That is what God’s grace is. God is life, and when we participate in his divine energies, which are HIMSELF in action in the world, when we participate in HIM, we are made immortal, by grace. We are made partakers of the divine nature, and divinized, we are aflame with God. There is the closest possible union that begins to be formed and which can come to an amazing degree of fruition (Just look at the monks of Athos and St. Symeon the new Theologian!)

Now, here is the problem, The Panagia (All-Holy one) Theotokos (God-Bearing-One) Died.
This means she was mortal. Being mortal, she was subject to the effects of sin, but this does NOT mean she EVER DID sin. Most Orthodox believe she never did.

The problem is, the Orthodox do not consider there to be any such a thing as Marian dogma. No new dogmas can be created, EVER. Ecumenical councils create AXIOMS to give clarity to dogmas that ALREADY EXIST. The IMMACULATE CONCEPTION is an innovation, not because it is necessarily false (It is consistent from a western theological standpoint), but because it has no business being dogmatized.

How can anything regarding Mary be a dogma? Dogmas are necessary truths to religious experience. Are you going to tell me it was necessary for first century and second century Christians to confess the All-Holy one’s “immaculate conception” before she had even died or before it had ever been REVEALED to her? That is ludicrous. The truth about Mary is truth indeed, but does NOT belong to the level of Dogma, because MARY belongs to those who are ALREADY within the church. She is a mystery to be cherished, not a DOGMA to be made a requirement to salvation!

Oh, and before I get told off by the council of Ephesus, let me remind you that the Dogma of Mary as Theotokos is a Christolgical dogma, not a Marian one.

Oh, and all this theology that the Roman Catholics hate, yeah, that’s approved by the Pope, especially when he tells the Eastern Catholics to go deeper into their Orthodox roots. This is the faith of the fathers, this is the faith that sustains the world.

BRavo Holy Father, Bravo.

Marie Claire April 11, 2012 at 12:06 PM

Since Mother Mary was to be the mother of our Savior, she had to be free from sin, she had to be pure. God cannot simply put the Christ Child to be conceived in a “dirty” womb. That Mother Mary was born free of sin is something that the early Christians have always believed. It was just later on defined by the Catholic Dogma on Immaculate Conception when there was the need to define it. Dogmas are not additions, but merely definitions of things that the early Church have always believed in.

Marie Claire April 11, 2012 at 12:09 PM

Since Mother Mary was to be the mother of our Savior, she had to be free from sin, she had to be pure. God cannot simply put the Christ Child to be conceived in a “dirty” womb. That Mother Mary was born free of sin is something that the early Christians have always believed. It was just later on defined by the Catholic Dogma on Immaculate Concepcion when there was the need to define it. Dogmas are not additions, but merely definitions of things that the early Church have always believed in.

craig June 11, 2012 at 6:55 PM

From what I have been reading, the Orthodox do not believe in the Immaculate Conception because they believe it was not needed. Their take on original sin is a little different. Their honor for Mary, however, is equal or greater than the Roman Church. She is mentioned in the Liturgy multiple times and more than the Roman Litrugy. I have been attending an Eastern Catholic Church and actually like their Rites better than the Latin Rite. It is older and has more Tradition. The Byzantine Liturgy is currently the oldest that is still in use. There are however, a group of Orthodox that are very anti-Catholic. Someone told me it is basically Orthodox or die and has been pushed by the monks of Mount Athos in Greece. To keep the record straight, Rome has tried to bully the Eastern Churches and not sure what that is about. They still have not learned that unity does not necessarily mean uniformity.

Daniel Smith June 13, 2012 at 9:50 PM

Unity is inter-communion, not submission. Period. Unity in Faith, Morals and Worship. Nothing else is needed, so the fathers taught.

I find it intriguing that in St. Augustine’s 80 chapter work on the Unity of the Church against the Donatists, he never ONCE mentions the necessity of submission to Rome as the guarantee of orthodoxy.

Not once.

Brent Craig March 28, 2013 at 7:24 AM

I am a Southern Baptist who has a lot of respect for the Catholic faith. The Immaculate Conception is a hard concept for me. Does it also include the belief that Mary never sinned? How does that pass muster with Rom. 3:23 “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God?” It seems like Paul would have noted the one exception here in Mary if that were the case.
From my limited studies, I think Catholics have a very good argument on their position regarding the Eucharist. But wasn’t it several centuries before this concept of Mary arose in the Church?

Timothéet August 10, 2013 at 9:37 AM

Dear Brent Craig:

Well when we look at Romans 3:23, we realize that it is about humanity in general. Take a look at Hebrews 9:27 — “And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment…” Yet we have several exceptions in the Bible : Enoch and Elijah were carried away to Heaven without dying; and what about Lazarus or those who were resurrected when Christ died (Matt. 27:52-53) or anyone either Jesus or any of the disciples had resurrected? They died more than once.

Or Psalm 53:1-3 states that “there is none that does good” and in Luke 18:19 Jesus says, “No one is good but God alone.” yet then in Matt. 12:35, Jesus also says “The good man out of his good treasure…” So Jesus says no one is good but God, and then calls another person good. See also Matthew 1:20, Luke 23:50 and Acts 11:22-24.

We must also remember that Mary is compared to the Ark of the Covenant in Scripture. I have never known a Protestant who noticed this — read Luke 1:39-56 / 2 Sam. 6:2-11; see also Revelation 11:9-12:1 where the Ark is seen after 600 years and what we see is the description of a “woman” who is seems to embody Israel or daughter of Zion (since the Messiah comes from Israel) and the Church (since all those who follow the commandments of Jesus are considered her children).

The evidence is strengthened when we think about whom Mary carried in her womb and what the Ark of the Covenant contained (which Christ embodied and fulfilled).

And then there is the holiness of the Ark: In Exodus 25:11-21 we read that the ark of the Old Covenant was made of the purest gold for God’s Word. Mary is the ark of the New Covenant and is the purest vessel for the Word of God made flesh.; 2 Sam. 6:7 (1 Chron. 13:9-10) – the Ark is so holy and pure that when Uzzah touched it, even with the best of intentions, the Lord slew him. This shows us that the Ark is undefiled. Mary the Ark of the New Covenant is even more immaculate and undefiled, spared by God from original sin so that she could bear His eternal Word in her womb. God prepared her body in advance for this great calling.

Other Scriptures always used to show Mary’s Immaculate Conception were Wisdom 1:4 : “For into a malicious soul wisdom shall not enter; nor dwell in the body that is subject unto sin…” (cf. Ef. 1,6-7 ; Col. 3,16). For God to dwell within Mary the Ark, Mary had to be conceived without sin.

Other Marian types in the OT are detailed here FYI: http://campus.udayton.edu/mary//meditations/advc01.html

For these reasons, and others (how Mary, when the Holy Spirit overshadowed her, entered into a marital covenant with God, and thus was “off limits” for any sexual contact with Joseph — which is another topic of reading but I’d suggest you read http://www.ewtn.com/library/answers/talmud.htm which explains celibacy in the OT to also see how Mary and Joseph remained a chaste relationship) we believe that Mary was preserved from birth.

I never understand why some Orthodox (many Orthodox *do* believe in Immaculate Conception but do not use such a term) object to this dogma as they believe Mary never sinned was ever-virgin. Strange.

Irenaeus of Lyon (disciple of Polycarp who was a disciple of the Apostle John) and Justin Martyr (who probably learned from people who had known Peter and/or Paul in Rome) speak much of Mary as the “new Eve” and as Stephen Ray mentioned, Eve too was conceived without sin.

God took Eve from the flesh (rib) of Adam and from Mary’s flesh sprang the new Adam (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:45).

God bless,
TIMOTHÉE

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