Saturday, December 10, 2011

Conception of the Theotokos

On December 9, the Holy Orthodox Church, commemorates the conception of the Theotokos by her parents, Sts. Joachim and Anna. The Roman Catholic Church uses this feast to affirm the "Immaculate Conception" of Mary which, in 1854, was officially promulgated as a dogma of the Church, which means that assent to it is a prerequisite to salvation. Needless to say, the Orthodox Church remains opposed to such a dogma, simply because the Roman Church and her progeny from the Reformation erroneously, following St. Augustine, believe that conception of children and, by extension, sexual intercourse is a transmission of the "stain" or guilt of original sin.

Fr. Thomas Hopko replies to this belief and expounds the Orthodox position thus:

The Orthodox Church affirms original sin. Orthodox theology teaches that all human beings, including the Virgin Mary, who is a "mere human" like the rest of us--unlike her Son Jesus who is a "real human" but not a "mere human" because He is the incarnate Son and Word of God-are born into a fallen, death-bound, demon-riddled world whose "form is passing away" (1 Cor 7:31). We are all born mortal and tending toward sin. But we are not born guilty of any personal sin, certainly not one allegedly committed "in Adam." Nor are we born stained because of the manner in which we are conceived by the sexual union of our parents. If sexual union in marriage is any sense sinful, or the cause in itself of any sinfulness or stain, even in the conditions of the "fallen world," then, as even the rigorous Saint John Chrysostom (see On Titus, homily) has taught, God, is the sinner because He made us this way, male and female, from the very beginning.

--The Winter Pascha, pp. 42-3.


  1. Two quick responses to this.

    1. I don't think that the West argues that sexual conception is the cause (Nor are we born stained because of the manner in which we are conceived by the sexual union of our parents.) but rather that sex is the mechanism by which new people, who are conceived sinful, are created normally.

    2. If, as Paul would have us believe, death is the wages of sin, why would one who is not a sinner but only happens to have a tendency already have received the wage?

    I'd say that the point is that we are "sinful" -- and that because we are sinful there will be actual sins which manifest themselves... but to be sinful is to be mortal. Indeed, when we rise with and like Christ, we will no longer be mortal nor have a tendency towards sin.

  2. Rev. Brown,

    1) I think the question is whether the Western Confessions believe NOW that sexual union is somehow sinful and thus the cause of the transmission of the macula or stain. Augsutinianism with regards to this reigned supreme in the Middle Ages up until about the time of enlightenment.

    2) You'd have to ask st. Paul on that one. :) Not trying to skirt the issue, but I believe St. Paul was speaking generally. There is the possibility of living life without sin with God's grace, but that has yet to happen. Even St. John Chrysostom believed that Mary exhibited sin by being prideful. Of course, trying to prove St. Paul correct by listing sins of everyone would be impossible, from the youngest infant to the most revered saint.

    You are correct that we are sinful, but the overall point of the quote was to show that there is no transmission of guilt or stain. We bear our own responsibility for our own sins. The Theotokos was in need of the Cross as all of us, but not simply for some "not guilty" verdict, but as you said, to rise with Christ and to have some "change". The juridical emphasis of the Western Churches is what lead to the promulgation of the Roman Catholics to proclaim a Feast of Immaculate Conception. Even in their protest against the Immaculate Conception, the various Protestant communities conceded the point to the Catholics of transmission of guilt, but opposed it on other grounds, mainly from anti-Marian polemic.

  3. 1) I'll say that I think the Church has always been hounded by ascetic strains that want to demonize sex, even though it was commanded before the fall.

    2. But things are not just a matter of action (our own sins) but our own being (we are sinful). While we act, we do not cause our own being. And as Adam has fallen, we come into being sinful. As Christ is our New Adam He shall shape what we are like and what we will be like. Redemption is not simply a matter of Christ giving us the ability or making us to act better, but His headship changes who we are.

  4. Romans 5:13-14, on everybody dying, even those who had not transgressed any commandment, as Adam did. No, it isn't fair; that's one of the injustices Jesus came to correct.


  5. There's an even more compelling (I think) reason the Orthodox reject the doctrine of the immaculate conception:" it quite undercuts our salvation!

    One of the ways in which we are saved is, Jesus purifies our currupted humanity by uniting it, at the moment of His coneption, to Divinity. But to do that, He had to inherit our fallen condition - from His Mother. (Who else?) But if she didn't have it to pass on to her Son to be purified by Him, then we're all sunk.