What’s the Deal with Immaculate Conception in Eastern vs. Western Theology?

What’s the Deal with Immaculate Conception in Eastern vs. Western Theology? December 8, 2015

Some Protestants will point to the fact that the Eastern tradition doesn’t care about the Immaculate Conception to argue that this proves Mary is sinful and the Catholic Church just cooked her sinlessness up from thin air.

In fact, however, the Immaculate Conception is the answer to a question the Western Church asked and the Eastern Church didn’t: namely, if original sin is true, then how can Mary be sinless? It asks this question because *all* apostolic Churches, east and west, profess Mary’s sinlessness and always have.

The Western Church got more fine-tuned on what “All have sinned in Adam” means, and then had to figure out how Mary could therefore be sinless as the Tradition of the Church had always held.  So the Western Church naturally came up with an answer while the Eastern Church basically didn’t worry about it.

The Eastern Church, in short, affirms the sinlessness of Mary just as much as (indeed, more) than Rome does. (Just attend an Eastern liturgy and you will be overwhelmed by the Marian piety, whereas most Western Marian piety tends to be expressed in private devotions like the Rosary.) But the Eastern Church is content with the far more important fact that Mary is Panagia, All Holy, etc. (i.e., sinless) and leaves to God the question of how she got that way. It’s really a difference of emphasis rather than a fundamental difference in theology. Compared to many Protestant views of Mary as a sinner, Catholics and Orthodox are practically indistinguishable.

For a really thorough discussion of the development of the Church’s doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (as well as that of other Marian doctrines and devotions) see my Mary, Mother of the Son.

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  • Mark R

    Orthodoxy does not teach Original Sin, (although the term is often used by theologians from the Russian tradition due to long Latin influence), but Ancestral Sin or the Fall, in which there is no inheritance of guilt or stain. This makes the teaching of the Immaculate Conception superfluous. The East views the I.C. as somehow putting Mary so far outside the human race not to transmit her humanity to her Son and would compromise her free will. Orthodox tradition, however, holds that she is free of personal sin.
    I realise this is a complex issue to which I am ill-suited, but I hope this clears things up a little.

    • Dave G.

      I’m no expert on Orthodox views, but based on my talks with an Orthodox deacon I’ve gotten to know, I think you’re right. It’s not that the East didn’t ask the question. It’s that the East didn’t feel the question needed asked in the first place.

    • Something like that was my understanding. One Orthodoxer I met online, or maybe just student of Orthodoxy, indicates the consequences of the Fall is Death. So “in a sense” Mary was “removed” in that in the Dormition she resurrects after death and goes to Heaven bodily.

  • Laura Brown

    I can’t agree that it isn’t a fundamental theological difference.
    http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/73378.htm explains it pretty well, I think.

    However, we all agree that Mary was one special woman!

    • Yep, it looks as if there is a fundamental difference as to Mary’s lack of sin. For the Orthodox, though capable of it she resists it, for Catholics she is born without it.

      • Sue Korlan

        Catholics also believe she could have sinned, just as Eve was born without original sin and still sinned. The difference is that Eve sinned and Mary didn’t.

    • wineinthewater

      I think this reveals a very common theme. I have generally found that there are two basic Orthodox opinions of the Immaculate Conception.

      The first is an assent to the basic belief, but no commitment about the particulars. This is very much Mark’s “a question they didn’t bother answering” and a subsequent commenter’s “and didn’t even bother asking.”

      The second response is like your link, a rejection. But when you press, you find out that they aren’t actually rejecting the Catholic belief, but what they think the Catholic belief is. They aren’t rejecting the Catholic reasoning, but what they think the Catholic reasoning is. I think part of it is that fundamentally, if only in nuance, difference in the concept of original sin.

  • HornOrSilk

    There is something very modern with the current Orthodox approach — it came after the declaration from the West, where the Orthodox just wanted to say “We are not like Rome.” Solovyov criticized this anti-Catholic policy of some Orthodox polemics, with the IC being one point among many which he raised. And all we have to do is look at how the Orthodox criticized Aquinas over Mary to see that they did ask, and answer, the question — but now, they want to ignore their tradition and just say it was all theological opinion.

  • Mark R

    No. What Orthodoxy teaches is Catholic teaching prior to St. Augustine. Relatively speaking, it is the Latin position which is “current”.

    “As ligh­t­ning illu­mi­na­tes what is hid­den, so also Christ
    puri­fies what is hid­den in the nature of things. He puri­fied the
    Vir­gin also and then was born, so as to show that where Christ is,
    there is mani­fest purity in all its power. He puri­fied the Vir­gin,
    having pre­pa­red Her by the Holy Spi­rit… having been born, He left
    Her vir­gin. I do not say that Mary became immor­tal, but that being
    illu­mi­na­ted by grace, She was not dis­tur­bed by sin­ful desi­res.” — St. Ephrem the Syrian
    Anti-Latin polemics was the norm among Russian theologians, especially those from Ukraine like St. John Maximovich (who reposed in Seattle). because they had a lot of “baggage” with the West what with historical Polish encroachment and the Russian education system based on Western models. This St. John, however, rose heartily to the defense of St. Augustine when various Greek zealots sought to denigrate him..

  • bob

    My Orthodox confessor was talking to a nice Catholic lady who said a big difference between them was that Catholics believe in the Immaculate Conception and the Orthodox don’t. Oh no, he replied, we believe in the immaculate conception, we just think everybody has one. “Original Sin” isn’t understood as a sexually transmitted disease to the Orthodox. The best person who ever lived, also the worst, also squirrels, horses and sheep have an immaculate conception. I have read Catholics use some reasoning to establish that St. John the Baptist *also* was “free” of original sin though I can’t recite it.

    • Sue Korlan

      No, Catholic teaching is that John was freed from original sin when he leaped for joy in Elizabeth ‘ s womb and was therefore born without it.

  • Sue Korlan

    Catholics use the doctrine of original sin to explain why there is evil in the world.