Eastern, Oriental and Western understanding of Immaculate Conception

I’m thoroughly puzzled as to how the Western doctrine of the immaculate conception can be understood as compatible with Eastern theology. If you could provide a quick explanation in this thread or provide a link to the same in another thread, either would be enlightening.

Dear brother Trebor,


The main difference between Eastern and Western Catholics on the matter of the IC is the concept of “the stain of Original Sin.”

To EASTERN Catholics, the stain of Original Sin exhibited/exhibits itself PRIMARILY in the PHYSICAL consequences of the Original Sin - i.e., mortality.

To WESTERN Catholics, the stain of Original Sin exhibited/exhibits itself PRIMARILY in the SPIRITUAL consequences of the Original Sin - i.e., separation from God (as an aside, on this point the Western and ORIENTAL Traditions are more similar).

Now, the dogma is couched in terms of the WESTERN understanding. When the dogma states that by a special grace, God preserved Mary from the stain of Original Sin, it means nothing more than that Mary was not separated from God at any moment of her existence - from the first moment of her conception to her death, and beyond. AFAIK, no Eastern Catholic denies this.

The issue comes when Christians of the Eastern Tradition (both Catholic and Orthodox) misunderstand that when the dogma uses the term “stain of Original Sin,” it is using the term according to the Eastern understanding. Simple truth - it is not. The dogma does not contradict the Eastern Tradition on Original Sin in any way because the dogma does not even address the matter of the physical consequences of Original Sin in any way. The dogma simply addresses the matter of the SPIRITUAL consequences of Original Sin.

The concern Orientals not in communion with Rome have with the IC is different (though the concerns are also echoed by the Easterns). OO have two main problems with the IC, because the dogma appears to imply that:
(1) Mary did not have a natural conception.
(2) Mary had no free will.

In short, the main issue with the OO is that the dogma confounds the human nature of Mary. And if Mary did not have a true human nature, then Christ did not have a true human nature, which goes to the very heart of Christology. Catholic apologetics on these points is pretty popular and rather common so you are probably already aware of them. Let me know if you are not or if you have questions on those points.


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Interesting. :slight_smile: Thanks for this explanation.

The concern Orientals not in communion with Rome have with the IC is different (though the concerns are also echoed by the Easterns). OO have two main problems with the IC, because the dogma appears to imply that:
(1) Mary did not have a natural conception.
(2) Mary had no free will.

In short, the main issue with the OO is that the dogma confounds the human nature of Mary. And if Mary did not have a true human nature, then Christ did not have a true human nature, which goes to the very heart of Christology. Catholic apologetics on these points is pretty popular and rather common so you are probably already aware of them. Let me know if you are not or if you have questions on those points.

I would indeed like to hear the Catholic response on these two issues. :slight_smile:


Adam and Eve had free will and were given the same gift of grace (the indwelling of the Holy Spirit) as the Blessed Virgin Mary.

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Mardukm IS Catholic. :smiley:

Vico: Thank you.

I was aware of this. Why do you mention it? :slight_smile:

I just want to register my agreement with Marduk’s comments above. But I would like to add the following: The differences between the Latin and Eastern Churches on the Immaculate Conception reflects subtle disagreements on grace, nature, and freedom, disagreements that are difficult to articulate but which exist nonetheless.

One important reason, for example, that EO reject the Immaculate Conception is because it appears to ground the sanctity of the Theotokos in a singular bestowal of grace rather than in the sanctity of Israel, progressively embodied in the ancestors of Mary (particularly in her parents), and her synergistic, ascetical cooperation with divine grace. As Paul Evdokimov states: “Although she is of Adam’s race, the Virgin is guarded from any personal impurity, all evil being rendered powerless to affect her by the successive purifications of her ancestors, by the special operation of the Spirit and by her outstanding act of free will” (Orthodoxy, p. 157).

I first became aware of this concern when I read Sergius Bulgakov’s The Burning Bush and The Friend of the Bridegroom. EO do not see the Theotokos as “the great exception,” as Orthodox polemicists sometimes like to put it. St John the Baptist also embodies an analogous sanctity! His conception, too, is commemorated in the liturgical calendar. He, too, manifested an incomparable sanctity. He, too, lived a sinless life. He, too, was “pre-determined” to exercise a unique role in the economy of salvation. Just as the Virgin Mary never knew separation from God, so did the Forerunner. And thus on the Deisis the Enthroned Christ is flanked by St John on his left and his Mother on his right.

Excellent points, Father. I would also add that Mary being full of Grace from her conception does not mean it was impossible for her to sin (God’s eternal foreknowledge aside, of course). The teaching doesn’t speak to whether or not it was possible for her to sin, and some have speculated that she couldn’t, but there is no reason to assume that’s the case. Adam and Eve were likewise full of Grace and “without Original Sin” from their conceptions, and look how that turned out!

So Mary is not the “great exception”, even according to the dogma. She is, rather, a model for what we can be when we cooperate fully with God’s Grace and don’t turn our backs on Him.

Peace and God bless!

Father, bless!

Could you perhaps briefly explain what is meant by the “purification of the ancestors of Mary”? Or, if more appropriate, could you please point to the place(s) where one may learn more about this? Thank you.

Kissing your right hand.

Tim, I’m afraid I am not sufficiently knowledgeable to guide you. But a good place to begin are the homilies of St Gregory Palamas on the Theotokos. In these homilies we find passages like the following:

Having begun with Adam’s sons, God’s selection according to His foreknowledge for the sake of the future Mother of God was accomplished down through the generations until it reached the king and prophet David, the successors to his throne and his descendants. When the time came for God’s choice to reach its culmination, Saints Joachim and Anna, of the house and lineage of David, were picked out by Him. They were childless, but lived chastely together, and were more virtuous than all those who traced back their noble descent and character to David. "With asceticism and prayer they begged God to deliver them from childlessness, and promised to dedicate to Him from infancy the child to be born to them. She who is now the Mother of God was promised and given to them by God as their daughter, that the girl with every virtue might be born of virtuous parents, the all-pure Maid of those who were exceptionally chaste, and that chastity; coming together with prayer and asceticism, might become as a result the mother of virginity; that virginity which without corruption brought forth, according to the flesh, the One Who, in respect of His divinity, was begotten before all ages of a virgin Father. O, the wings of that prayer! With what boldness it came before God!

Why did she come from a barren womb? In order to put an end to her parents’ sorrow; transform their disgrace, and prefigure that deliverance from the grief and curse of the Forefathers of the human race, which was to come about through her. She alone dwelt in the Holy of Holies, and she alone became the abode of the Creator of the natural order, so how could nature dare profane the womb in which she rested, and from which she came forth? Neither before nor after her had there appeared a virgin mother or a mother of God, and no one before or after her had dwelt in the Holy of Holies, so it was fitting that no other infant was seen to have been conceived within her mother’s womb before or afterwards. As the Mother of God had to be a virgin of David’s stock, born at the right moment for our salvation, the time drew near and the Virgin had to be made ready, but even among David’s descendants no others were found at that time superior in virtue or in nobility of character and birth to that childless couple. So those without children were preferred to those with many, that the Daughter with all virtues might be born of highly virtuous parents, the All-pure of those who were exceptionally chaste, and that chastity, conceiving through prayer and asceticism, might as a consequence become the mother of virginity, virginity which would bring forth without corruption the divinity begotten of the virgin Father before all ages. What wings that prayer had! How boldly it approached God! How spotlessly pure their hearts must have been to offer a prayer which so speedily achieved so much! A miracle was needed to prepare the way for the great wonder, and nature had gradually to give way to grace.

Offer now with one accord to the Virgin, whose feast we keep today, the most desirable and appropriate gift, your sanctification and bodily purity through self-control and prayer. See, all of you, how chastity, fasting and prayer, linked with contrition, made Joachim and Anna the parents of a divine vessel, a vessel chosen not just to bear the name of God, like Paul (Acts 9:15) who was to be born later, but to bear Him “Whose name is Wonderful” (cf Isa. 9:6; Ps. 8:1 Lxx).

She was a gift from God and to God even before she was born–how could she be otherwise, as she was pre-ordained before all ages as the dwelling place of the Maker of all worlds? She was a gift to Go and the fruit of her righteous parents’ vow and supplication–Oh the wings of that prayer! What boldness it found before the Lord! Hos spotless their hearts must have been to be able to offer up a prayer so far-reaching and effective! As the fruit of such a vow the Virgin was brought by her parents to the Giver, like a beloved votive offering. (Oh finest of couples! Oh elect pair who cultivated and presented to God a dwelling place dearer than heaven!) She was brought, like a most holy shoot sprung from a holy root, a shoot reaching from earth to heaven, so great was its honour, a shoot which would soon bring forth the pre-eternal, unfading flower, and to was produce Him by Whose word alone everything natural and supernatural sprang to life.

What St Gregory is doing, I think, is connecting the purity of the Blessed Virgin with the faithfulness and asceticism of her parents. But the purity of the Blessed Virgin is also the fruit of her ascetical labors and training in the Temple. See this article on the Annunciation by Met Hierotheos. Also see Mary: The Untrodden Portal of God by George S. Gabriel. I hope this helps.

Thank you very much, Father. :slight_smile:

St. Lawrence of Brindisi

The root of humanity, bedchamber of God, and pure water: This is Mary, therefore Immaculate.

Great was the happiness of human nature in paradise before original sin, so long as man remained in the state of innocence and original justice. Then was human nature like that tree seen by King Nabuchodonosor in his dreams: tall, with its top touching heaven; wide, with its branches filling the whole world; adorned with the loveliest fronds and flowers and the best of fruits in greatest abundance. But soon, by virtue of the sentence executed by the Angel, this tree was despoiled of its goods, and, with branches and trunk cut off, was reduced to nothing—almost, except for the command that a root with a shoot be preserved safe and intact (cfr. Daniel 4,7-12). On account of sin, humanity tumbled from maximum good fortune to maximum misfortune; light was changed into darkness, the bright day into the cloudiest of nights, a full moon went into eclipse.

But from the contagion of that sin, the shoot, that is, Christ, was preserved, as well as the root (Mary) from which that shoot was to rise…We see in Genesis the root with its shoot preserved; for before a penalty for sin was inflicted on man, it was said to the serpent: I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; she will crush your head (Gen. 3,15).

When a king builds some palace to be a proper and rightful dwelling for himself and his family, he constructs it wholly magnificent, and adorns it royally as befits his majesty. In such wise did Solomon build his house (III Kings 7,1-12). Such a king will especially adorn with the greatest magnificence and riches his own chamber, where the throne of his majesty is to be placed. So too does God build His holy Church, the living Temple of God: Behold, the tabernacle of God with men (Apoc. 21,3); You are the temple of God (II Cor. 6,16), a temple made of living stones, the whole constructed with divine magnificence, as the temple of Solomon (cfr. III Kings 6,1-18). But above all, God adorned His own chamber, which is the most holy Virgin. He did so just as did Solomon adorn the holy of holies, the dwelling place of God (III Kings 6,19-36).

You are all fair, my love, and the stain is not in you (Cant. 4,7). The Hebrew reads: the stain not in you—without the verb is. Similarly, the verb is does not appear in Deuteronomy 32,4 when Moses said of God: A faithful God and without any iniquity. David said: Because You are a God that wills not iniquity (Ps. 5,5); yet the Hebrew for that actually reads: not a God willing iniquity You. The latter means: You never were, are not, nor will be willing iniquity; there never was, is not, nor will be iniquity in God. So too, the statement the stain not in you means that the stain never was, is not, nor will be in you. Thus must be understood (not limited to the present tense only) the statement the stain not in you.

One only is my dove, one my perfect one (Cant. 6,7). The Hebrew reads: my immaculate one. There are three words in Hebrew very similar: tham, thamah, and thamim, of which the first means simple, the second immaculate, and the last perfect. The Hebrew text here, however, uses the second. For this reason, therefore, the all-holy Virgin is unique above all queens… and young maidens (Cant. 6,7) because She is immaculate, like the purest dove, like the sun itself, which was made full of light. Hence it is written: you all fair, my love; and the stain not in you. The singular for you is used: You all (tota tu); not in you; this denotes the uniquely singular grace of Mary.

The soul of the Virgin Mother of God was in Her conception like the bush with Moses, entirely intact in the midst of the flames, not consumed, unharmed (Ex. 3,2).



Father, is this sanctity through prayer something separate or akin to Baptism, since it is of the faith that without the Grace of God through Baptism that no one may resist their fallen nature and not sin,

I found the theory of ancestor purification culminated in Mary is interesting and I don’t find it is incompatible with the Latin dogma of immaculate conception.
The dogma is silent on how the grace works. It only state that in Mary, it was complete, the indwelling of the Spirit is perfect in Mary.

And I found it entertaining.
When the Latin defines the after effect of consecration in transubstantiation, the Orthodox said we define too much.
When the Latin defines the perfect indwelling of Spirit in Mary, someone out there yell we define too little.

Good question. I do not know the answer. But here are a couple of things to keep in mind, from an Eastern perspective:

  1. By the grace of the Spirit, St John the Baptist lived a sinless, holy life, yet when he died he descended to Hades and awaited the coming of the Savior. Might this not suggest that he needed to receive the Spirit in its Pentecostal fullness?

  2. By the grace of the Spirit, the Theotokos lived a sinless, immaculately holy and pure life, yet she was present at Pentecost with the Apostles and was baptized in the Holy Spirit. Sergius Bulgakov suggests that despite “the singular and unrepeatable indwelling of the Holy Spirit,” conferred upon her at the Annunciation, the Blessed Virgin “needed” to be baptized in the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Met Hierotheos, on the other hand, disagrees: he locates her baptism in the Holy Spirit at the Annunciation.

Azurestone, are you familiar with these Biblical statements?

**Jeremiah 1:5

** Before I formed thee in the bowels of thy mother, I knew thee: and before thou camest forth out of the womb, I sanctified thee, and made thee a prophet unto the nations.

**Luke 1:15 (Re: St. John the Forerunner)

** For he shall be great before the Lord; and shall drink no wine nor strong drink: and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb.

Yes, I am. Why?

Well, I was wondering if those two statements would be equivalent to Baptism, in reference to your statement on the faith, that is is by “…the Grace of God through Baptism that no one may resist their fallen nature and not sin…”?

Yes, it would be.

I have been aware for some time now that “Western” and “Eastern” means more than just which liturgy we attend. In a larger context, it seems to me that it is two different ways of thinking…
“Western” thought leans toward the linear and analytical and will tend to describe an event in linear, historical terms. “This happened, then that, and then after that”
Eastern seems to lean more to the conceptual and non-lineal, and thus, will describe the same event in a way that seems to be historically incorrect to someone who is used to the “newspaper” way of reading. It often takes some time to adjust.
Many passages of the bible have been hard to understand if one does not realize that the writer had that “eastern perspective” which influenced how the event was described…

Could we not be experiencing the same confusion when trying to understand the way East and West conceptualize and understand the same dogmas?

BTW- this post is a question, not a statement…

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