Dialogue: Original Sin, Jesus, & Mary’s Immaculate Conception

Dialogue: Original Sin, Jesus, & Mary’s Immaculate Conception November 2, 2018

The following is from the Coming Home Network forum (where I was staff moderator from 2007-2010). The primary person I’m interacting (blue color) with is Orthodox, and seriously considering Catholicism. He may not always accurately reflect what is Orthodox belief. Those colored in green and brown are other Catholics.


Since the Orthodox view has been presented at such length it is important (in this context) that the Catholic view is thoroughly clarified in contrast, since this is a Catholic forum and not an Orthodox one, and we don’t want our members (or indeed anyone who reads the thread) to be confused over such differences or unaware of the Catholic “take” on them. We do differ in some respects with each other, after all. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t still be tragically divided. We’re very close, praise God, but not identical.

A lot of this has already been done in the thread, but I’ll add my $00.02 as well, for what it’s worth, as “network apologist,” one who has debated many Orthodox, attended Orthodox services and talks and Bible studies, invited an Orthodox priest into my home to a group discussion, and who has even written a book about them.

Christ indeed assumed our humanity EXACTLY as we are, except without sin. But what we mean by that is PERSONAL sin. He never committed a sin, He lived a sinless life, etc… Obviously that’s the same as the RCC.

This is true of Mary, but technically, not of Jesus, because He was impeccable, meaning that He not only did not sin, but could not sin, being God, Who is pure holiness. Mary was not impeccable, but only sinless, which is a different thing. Impeccability entails sinlessness, but not all who are sinless are impeccable. Mary and the unfallen angels are sinless. Only God is impeccable.

Adam and Eve committed the original sin, we inherit the consequences of their actions. 

That’s true, but according to Catholic teaching only half of the truth. It is also the case that we were “in” Adam and Eve and partook of original sin along with them. It is a corporate sense of all humanity, not just Adam and Eve, and then we receive the deleterious effects of that as if it were a genetic disease passed down through no fault of the recipient at all. This aspect is discussed in CCC #404:

404 How did the sin of Adam become the sin of all his descendants? The whole human race is in Adam “as one body of one man”.By this “unity of the human race” all men are implicated in Adam’s sin, as all are implicated in Christ’s justice. Still, the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand. But we do know by Revelation that Adam had received original holiness and justice not for himself alone, but for all human nature. By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state. It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called “sin” only in an analogical sense: it is a sin “contracted” and not “committed” – a state and not an act.

There is fairly explicit biblical indication of this:

Psalm 51:5 (RSV) Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.

Romans 5:12-18 Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned — sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the effect of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men.

1 Corinthians 15:21-22 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.

The dominion of the devil is a result of original sin; it caused a catastrophic cosmic disorder (Gen 3:15, Jn 12:31, 14:30, 2 Cor 4:4, Heb 2:14, 2 Pet 2:19). That’s why the theological liberals who deny original sin (if not sin itself) invariably deny the existence of the devil and evil. For more along these lines, see my paper on it.

the idea that Mary didn’t have original sin, means she was an immortal being.

That’s correct, because without this original sin, there would be no necessary death as a result, as happened to Adam and Eve as individuals when they rebelled.

(remember original sin is something Adam and Eve did, and we simply inherit the CONSEQUENCES of it.) 

Not at all, as just shown from the CCC and the Bible. There is an element of “transmission” but that doesn’t fully capture the essence of it. That’s not just me saying that, but the Bible and the Catholic Church.

And so if Christ is born of an immortal being, then Christ is immortal, and so just how was he like us in every way then?

I understand this section is a presentation of mistaken Orthodox views of the Catholic view, but this has to be addressed. Jesus is not dependent on Mary in any way other than her being an instrument for the Incarnation and His taking on flesh from her as His true mother. None of the essential characteristics of His divine nature are dependent on her. Jesus was immortal (“eternal” is the better term) because He was God before He ever took on flesh, and remained God at all times. That no more depended on Mary’s status than God the Father’s eternality does.

In fact, a lot of Catholic theologians (if not nearly all) hold that the Immaculate Conception was not intrinsically necessary or required for the Virgin Birth. God did this miracle, rather, because it was “fitting” for the Mother of God to be without sin, just as we all possibly could have been. That’s good Catholic theology, though not a dogma, as far as I know. She is the Second Eve: the one who said “yes” to God rather than “no.”

How could he suffer in all things like we do? Including death? 

God can choose to take on human flesh and undergo death (which means the separation of soul and body) if He wants to, since He has all power. It is not a death due to His sin in any sense, but a voluntary sacrifice as the redeemer of mankind. Likewise, the Church has not declared whether Mary died or not, but she certainly could have, since Jesus did. I personally believe she did, so as to be like her Son.

Since without original sin (ie: mortality, sickness, pain, death) Christ isn’t truly one of us, and so the Logos is not cosubstantial with us, and thus not our Savior. 

But Jesus can experience all that without any need for sin, original or actual. The essence of a human being is not sin but being made in the image of God. Sin is a distortion of humans (just as it is in the case of the demons). Overemphasizing the human aspect of Jesus supposedly being tempted in the sense of concupiscence is the Nestorian heresy, which was erroneously presupposed in, e.g., the movie, The Last Temptation of Christ.

Of course immortal beings cannot die on a cross, so how could this have happened?

They certainly can. Jesus did. It is perfectly orthodox to state that “God [i.e., God the Son] died.” Death is not a cessation of “immortality.” It is merely the separation of body and soul. Souls are eternal by nature and can’t cease to exist (unless, of course, God decreed it so, but we know He does not because there is heaven and hell).

So obviously the western view of Original Sin cannot be correct, because it is full of logical problems….

I see none at all, and I don’t think any have been demonstrated.

Obviously I realize you don’t think Mary was immortal, or Jesus was immortal

Jesus was, being God, and could not be other. So was Mary, if indeed she didn’t undergo death. Neither did Elijah nor (we think) Enoch, so that was nothing entirely new if it happened.

it is a misconception that many Orthodox have about the West.

One of many many such.

So to summarize: for us, original sin is mortality, the ability to suffer, and die and get sick, all that makes us human beings. 

Those are all consequences that came from something else, which is original sin. If they are consequences of something, then obviously there must be “something” that caused the consequences and can be discussed in some sense apart from them.

If Mary didn’t have original sin, then neither did Jesus,

This is a confusion of thought, because as I’ve explained, Jesus is not dependent on Mary in that way and He was impeccable in the nature of things. Mary could have theoretically actually sinned or have been subject to original sin and Jesus wouldn’t have been affected in the slightest, being God, Who cannot sin, let alone have original sin (which is a rebellion against God: how could God rebel against Himself?).

So to say Mary didn’t have original sin, sets her apart from us, 

It doesn’t set her totally apart (though she is unique); it merely makes her like the unfallen Adam and Eve and how we all could and should have been, ideally. As you note, Orthodox are allowed to hold the view if they so choose. Kallistos Ware states on p. 264 of The Orthodox Church (Penguin: 1980 version): “the whole question belongs to the realm of theological opinion; and if an individual Orthodox today felt impelled to believe in the Immaculate Conception, he could not be termed a heretic for doing so.”

let me state, that even though I’m EO, I think Chalcedon got it wrong,

According to Kallistos Ware, you are not at liberty as an Orthodox to dispute the teachings of an Ecumenical Council, whose decrees he describes as “infallible” (ibid., 256).

I don’t think St. Leo was a Nestorian at all, but I’m not sure he fully grasped the fine details of what was really going on in the East.

The East at the time accepted his judgment in confirming the teachings of the Council, excepting the disputed matter of the 28th canon, which tried to elevate Constantinople to the level of the Apostolic See of Rome.

For her to give physical birth to a man who is just like the rest of us, she too needs to be just like the rest of us according to the flesh. Because the flesh is inherited from the flesh. 

She was! Mary was human either way. If she had original sin, she was just like the rest of us. If not, as we believe, then she was still human, just in the unfallen sense of Adam and Eve initially. But Jesus could not have taken on any sense of original sin anyway, in the nature of the case. You are tying His qualities too closely to Mary. God is not dependent on human beings. Jesus would never “have” to die, simply because He was a human being. He chose to do so.

But if her flesh is different than our flesh, then His flesh is different than our flesh and so He is not one of us. 

This is the same error again. Jesus was impeccable. He could not have sinned, either actually, so obviously He couldn’t have original sin, either, whatever Mary’s status was. You are the one who is dangerously close to the Nestorian heresy in thinking this, not Chalcedon, since you make even Jesus’ “spiritual” status (if we may so speak of God) dependent on Mary, a human being whom He created.

And the whole enterprise of Christianity is thrown out the window, because He shares in our sufferings, He became like us, even unto death on a cross. He can only SHARE with us, if He is one of us. 

As I wrote in my article, Orthodox Catholic Christology: A Theological Primer:

1) Holy Trinity: God exists eternally in Three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: all eternal and equal in glory, honor, and essence.

2) God (i.e., Jesus, God the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity) became Man (the incarnation) at a certain identifiable point in space-time history.

3) Jesus is a Divine Person.

4) It is improper to refer to Jesus as a “human person” or to claim that He contains within Himself more than one person (human and divine) or to deny that Mary is Theotokos (Mother of God or, literally, “God-bearer”). That is the heresy of Nestorianism. When we refer to “human” with regard to Jesus, it is with regard to His human nature, that He assumed at the incarnation, not His Person (which is Divine and eternal).

5) Jesus has two natures (the Hypostasis or Hypostatic Union): divine and human (the denial of his human nature is the heresy of Monophysitism; some Monophysites, however, believed in a single divine-human nature in Christ).

6) Jesus has two wills: divine and human (the assertion of a single divine-human will is the heresy of Monotheletism).

For us, to say Mary was not of the same flesh, ie: the same genetic make up, the same DNA as us, is what is heretical to the Orthodox perspective.

Whoever said that her genetics and DNA were affected by being immaculate? That’s a completely separate and irrelevant issue. Sin is a spiritual thing, and if we were to look at a microscopic specimen even of Jesus’ flesh, I don’t think it would look any different, and science couldn’t prove that He was God on this basis.

To us original sin is a genetic defect found somewhere in our DNA (if it could ever be found)….to take away the defect would make the DNA different than ours, and would essentially create a new species of human, ie: not homo sapiens sapiens, but something else. 

I find this very curious. From what Orthodox source do you derive this notion? I’ve never heard this before.

Because the defect is what makes us experience all the passions, the pain and the hardship of being human. 

The greatest pains (e.g., betrayal, despair, loneliness, regret, existential loss of faith) are non-physical and in the soul.

original sin = homo sapiens sapiens
no original sin = super human, immortal, not homo sapiens sapiens

Original sin is not intrinsic to the human race, but only universal, post-Adam and Eve’s fall. If you deny this, then you have to assert the absurd notion that Adam and Eve were not human beings.They certainly were!

As a side note, the more I learn about the Catholic view of original sin, the more I misunderstand the Orthodox view and see it as not making as much sense as I thought it did. 

We agree there . . .

The Orthodox do not, so there is no “dogma” as such because there is no one to proclaim it.

But Kallistos Ware did say that Orthodox hold the Ecumenical Councils to be infallible, so I see little practical difference at least insofar as their teachings are concerned.

Aha! I think here’s where you misunderstand me….for us there is no transmission of sin. Only the consequences of it. Nothing is handed down to us from Adam, except our fallen human nature. Sin itself is not passed on. 

That would appear to directly contradict the three biblical passages I cited above.

We can believe in the IC and that Mary had original sin at the same time because for us the IC is a spiritual preservation from PERSONAL sin. 

That’s completely incoherent, even in the terminology. because “conception” was the very first moment of Mary’s existence, when she obviously was not able to commit personal sin. So if you want to believe this, at least give it another description that isn’t internally contradictory. We simply call that “sinlessness” — referring to actual sin.

Essentially she achieved theosis or divinization at her conception because God preserved her from spiritual fallenness….she was divinized as it were. I guess you could say she was Immaculately conceived spiritually, but not physically. 

This is very similar to Martin Luther’s view (which I have studied in great depth).

We know that Jesus aged and we can assume that he would have continued to do so and eventually died a natural death had it not been that he was put to death. 

Original sin was what caused death and decay in the first place (CCC 400), so arguably Jesus (not being subject to that or any sin) would not have died naturally. You state this yourself: “All life experiences disease and death, whether it be plants, pets, livestock, etc. If it were not for original sin, they also would share an idyllic existence.” Jesus has no original sin; therefore He was not subject to a natural death, and this is why Mary was assumed body and soul without undergoing decay, because she was immaculate and one thing flows from the other.

We certainly do not believe she [Mary] was immortal, 

Without original sin she was restored to the state of the pre-fall Adam and Eve with regard to death, and was not intrinsically subject to death. She still could have died, though, by her choice and God’s, just as Jesus died.

The problem with her being like Eve in every single way from the Eastern POV, is that she would then be immortal! 

Why is this a “problem”? Why cannot God make ONE person the way Adam and Eve were originally? What better, more appropriate person than the All-Holy Theotokos?

Certainly you see the problem with an immortal being, (which makes her not fully human)

This is the fallacy, because you (as Nestorians also habitually do) again equate the essence of being human with fallen humanity, which is the corruption of humanity and human beings. Adam and Eve were human beings. After they rebelled (and the human race “in” them, as Scripture says, we are all fallen, corrupted human beings. But Mary was spared that by a special act of grace.

Remember He took His flesh from HER. 

But that’s basically all He received from Mary. His Divine Nature was completely unaffected by that, just as, by imperfect analogy, our immaterial souls have nothing to do with our parents and come straight from God by special creation.

And yet we know Jesus was not immortal because He died…

You again exhibit the confusion of an intrinsic mortality (which Jesus did not have, being God) and His death, which was voluntary but not necessary simply because He was born of Mary.

You keep getting hung up on this thing of Jesus not being immortal, and supposedly being mortal. But Jesus was God. According to theologian Ludwig Ott, the Church teaches that: “The nature of the Hypostatic Union is such that while on the one hand things pertaining to both the Divine and Human nature can be attributed to the person of Christ, on the other hand things specifically belonging to one nature cannot be predicated of the other nature.” Therefore, it is orthodox Christianity to say that “Jesus is immortal” because Jesus was God and the Bible describes God as immortal:

Romans 1:23 (RSV) and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.

1 Timothy 1:17 To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

1 Timothy 6:16 who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

To the extent that you keep denying that Jesus was immortal, you are being technically heretical, though I know what you mean by it and don’t intend to be.

Human beings attain immortality by means of the Resurrection (Rom 2:7; 1 Cor 15:53-54; 2 Tim 1:10). Mary, by being immaculate, was the “firstfruits” of this, and so she was bodily assumed into heaven.

This sort of touches on what I’m struggling to understand.

In the east, Christ not only becomes Incarnate, but must also do it through His Mother. He had to divinize and conquer the corrupt flesh that was passed on to Him. <–This is what I’m struggling with.

You very well ought to struggle with this, because it is not only heretical (Nestorianism or something akin to it) but blasphemous as well.

YOU GOT IT! That’s basically it! And it’s not really just the Eastern view, but the western view as well.

It’s not at all. From everything I understand about Catholic Christology and trinitarianism it (this particular notion immediately above) is heretical. And it’s certainly my job here to point that out, lest anyone be led astray into non-Catholic theology. Jesus didn’t have to “conquer” anything in Himself. He was completely holy and without struggle (in terms of concupiscence, not any suffering whatever) at all times. He didn’t receive any corrupt flesh because 1) He was God and couldn’t possibly do so, and 2) Mary was preserved from original sin even if #1 weren’t the case.


(originally 9-04-08)

Photo credit: Orthodox icon of Mary and Jesus [Pexels.com / public domain]


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