Recently there was a debate between an Old Calendarist Orthodox and a Roman Catholic on the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

In short, the Roman Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception (IC) teaches that it was “firmly and constantly by all the faithful” that Mary was not conceived with original sin. This is a very specific idea, so the obvious burden of proof is on the Roman Catholic side to demonstrate that this was an idea firmly communicated and held throughout Church history. William Albrecht, the Roman Catholic debater, is the big name here and is famous in his own right. So, the Orthodox side had their work cut out for them.

My analysis is neither side fared well, but Albrecht fared especially badly as he failed to prove his point and embarrassed himself more than once to any informed observer by making irrational arguments and being outright rude. Deacon Joseph Suaiden oftentimes sounded confused or not knowing how to respond to Roman Catholic distinctives for reasons outside his control–the Orthodox never formulated a clear doctrine on Mary’s conception, so we can only respond with stuff we cannot affirm but not specifically with what we do affirm about her conception as this is a much bigger issue.

This is not some sort of cop-out, but to make up an example, if I were to positively assert whether Saint Anna never sinned, how would we go about proving or disproving the notion? When a notion is never stated as fact, it is hard to contemplate. So, if someday someone states something as fact you never heard about, other than saying “I have never heard of this,” it is hard to formulate a response. This is unlike the Christological controversies where there were more concrete ideas in the Scriptures and early fathers speaking in some detail about the subject.

Opening Statements

William Albrecht

  • Ephraim the Syrian speaks of the Theotokos and Jesus Christ: “…nor is there any stain in you…”

Where in this quote is it stated that the Theotokos did not inherit original sin, defined by Orthodox to be 1. a necessity to die and 2. a fallen will? Further, being that we know that John the Baptist and Jeremiah were also given grace and lived sinless lives because of being “hallowed even from the womb” (according to tradition, mentioned in passing during the first session of the Council of Ephesus and cited in verse 917 in Chalcedon–it is a quote from Athanasius third book against the Arians, the 33rd paragraph), we cannot take this statement as necessarily excluding them as well, otherwise one can take other passages out of context that say “there is no one righteous, not one” or “You [i.e. Christ] alone are without sin” and say this excludes Mary. If we do not allow Protestants this sort of apologetic, nor can we use such an apologetic against Orthodox.

Interestingly, Saint Ephraim the Syrian wrote that, “O Child that gave Your Mother a second birth from the waters?” (Hymn 11) I ask, did Jesus get second birth in baptism? No. What is second birth? Dying onto sin and being resurrected with Christ in baptism. Every single church father who has ever used the term “second birth” has always meant baptism. If Ephraim believed in the IC, how can he conceive such a thing?

  • Cites Gen 3:15 as pertaining to the Theotokos.

Yet, this still has nothing explicitly to do with the IC. Nor is the “Marian interpretation cited by all the fathers,” as Albrecht claims. Sure, a lot of them do, but fathers sometimes simply do not mention it, like Saint Theophilus of Antioch. I only point this out because Albrecht makes several emphatic, categorical statements and never concedes an inch–but he goes too far in these statements, such as here.

  • Isidore, a seventh century writer, allegedly wrote that “sinless from the beginning of her existence.”

No citation is given. Further being sinless from the beginning of life (i.e. not committing sin) is different from not having “original sin,” because (again) the examples of Jeremiah and John the Baptist–two individuals RCs do not assert are IC’d.

  • Father’s teach that Mary could not be as great “if she was under Satan’s dominion i.e. original sin.”

Which fathers? How do they say it?

  • Gregory the Wonderworker, Dionysus of Alexandria, Didymus the Blind quotes

None of these fathers say anything about the IC. Whether or not Didymus the Blind stated Mary had a “sinless nature,” we do not know because we lack a citation to check context. Further, what “nature” meant in Egyptian theology may be different than the western view. For example, in Orthodox theology it is taught that no one is sinful by nature, because we are by nature good. Original sin connotes, therefore, that our nature is fallen by a perversity of the will. So, there needs to be so much more here in order to even begin making a point. Later in the debate, Deacon Joe gives one alternate view of what “sinless nature” means (to be forgiven of all sin.) Hence, to argue a doctrine from the turn of one word is not possible, given all the different meanings imported from context of a passage and meaning imported into a word depending upon the theological school teaching at issue.

  • Gregory Nanzianzus in the 38th Oration

Albrecht employs a translation from Father Kappes (Uniate scholar) and asserts it teaches the IC:

And in every way He became a man, save sin; for He has been conceived from a virgin, after she had been prepurified (prokathartheisa) with respect to soul and body through the Holy Spirit (for it was necessary that His birth be honored, and virginity be honored prior to that); and every way He was born a man, save sin. (Or. 38.13; trans. Kappes)

Here is the same passage, translated by a Roman Catholic scholar who was not a Uniate:

…in all points except sin [Jesus] was made man. Conceived by the Virgin, Luke 1:35 [Mary] who first in body and soul was purified by the Holy Ghost (for it was needful both that Childbearing should be honoured, and that Virginity should receive a higher honour), He came forth then as God with that which He had assumed, One Person in two Natures, Flesh and Spirit, of which the latter deified the former. O new commingling; O strange conjunction; the Self-Existent comes into being, the Uncreate is created, That which cannot be contained is contained, by the intervention of an intellectual soul, mediating between the Deity and the corporeity of the flesh (Ibid.).

With the fuller context, it seems to me pretty obvious that the passage’s usage of “prepurification” is about God purifying Mary prior to Jesus’ incarnation. It is also worth noting that the Greek allows for the passage to also be about Mary’s birth (see Sister Nonna Harrison’s translation), but even this additional translation leaves it open so that the incarnation may be in view instead).

However, to anyone who reads the whole paragraph it seems to me obvious that Mary’s birth is not being spoken of, not even as an aside. Additionally, if it is grammatically possible that Mary was prepurified at the incarnation, then this means “prepurified” cannot mean what Albrecht thinks it does–or Mary would have been immaculately conceived after her conception! Hence, the mere mention of the term “prepurification” does not prove the Immaculate Conception because it cannot mean IC. Rather, if it is used in reference to the conception, one must ask, how is it applicable being that it grammatically may also apply at a different point in time?

  • Sixth ecumenical council uses the word “prepurify” as it pertains to the Theotokos: “We confess that the only begotten Son who descended from the heavens, who emptied Himself in a willful humility in the womb of the Immaculate [Greek: prepurified] Virgin, after she was prepurified with respect to soul and body, he made His dwelling via the Holy Spirit, from her holy and blameless flesh.”

There are a few problems here. Chief among them, the statement we have appears (like that of Saint Gregory Nanzianzus’) to speak of Mary being prepurified at the incarnation, which corresponds with Ode 7 of the Canon of the Annunciation. Hence, if the “incarnation reading” is possible, we Orthodox are bound to take that interpretation because the Ode demands it.

Second, this is a translation that was made privately by William Albrecht and undisclosed helpers from the original languages and is not found in any contemporary scholarship nor publicly available minutes of the council so it can be scrutinized.

Third, there is no citation. Nevertheless, even without the additional context which would help us frame this debate that a citation may provide us, I still think the passage is fairly accurate. Being that even Albrecht (who’s argument has been exceedingly slanted, as I have shown, thus far) translated the text in such a manner that it is clearly (as it pertains to chronology) about the incarnation of Christ, I am inclined to believe the translation is fundamentally sound. Nevertheless, the interpretation is way off from the most obvious and compelling interpretation, which would be that the Spirit at the time of the annunciation prepurified the Theotokos. Her flesh is holy and blameless because of her sinless life up until then and her Godliness (just read up on her life in the Protoevangelicum of James.)

Lastly, Albrecht’s reading is obviously eisegetical because it jumps around chronologically. Albrecht’s reading:

We confess that the only begotten Son who descended from the heavens [approx 4 BC], who emptied Himself in a willful humility in the womb of the Immaculate [Greek: prepurified] Virgin [also approx 4 BC], after she was prepurified with respect to soul and body [we just went back in time to approx 18 BC], he made His dwelling via the Holy Spirit, from her holy and blameless flesh [we are back to 4 BC].

Obviously, the time jump of 14 years in the middle is not demanded by the context. In fact, the context demands that the Theotokos was prepurified with respect to soul and body within the same period of time noted three times within the passage.

Deacon Joseph Suaiden

  • If saint canonizations are scrutinized for tangible evidence of there being real holiness, doctrines must be found tangibly in the Scriptures and fathers.

Maybe not the most usual way to introduce the topic, but I get his point.

  • State of being versus temporal event.

I’d agree that the IC dogma, as stated by the Pope, is clearly referring to an event in time.

  • Roman Catholic scholars concede no one believed in IC for first 1,000 years of Church history.

Cannot confirm this without citations.

  • “Only one came into the world without sin and that is Christ” and therefore Mary came into the world with original sin.

We need to be careful with inferences, because we have similar categorical statements in our prayers such as, “There is not a man that does not sin.” (c.f. Ecc 7:20) So, it is one thing to say that the fathers never positively affirmed the IC, it is another to say they knowingly rejected a doctrine (which they never contemplated, probably.)

  • Pre-schism and a few past schism Popes taught that only Jesus was born without sin.

See above.

Rebuttals

William Albrecht

  • Ad hominem #1: “He has no idea what he is talking about when it comes to the IC.”

Ad hominems do not require responses as they are logically fallacious.

  • “We don’t need to hear about” the IC from the fathers.

This response is self-refuting according to any paradigm that is not ultramontanist.

  • The point in time the IC occurred is irrelevant.

This argument not only seems specious (after all, is not the birth of Mary a point in time?) but it speaks to a lack of appreciation in the differences between the theological paradigms of Greek and Latin historical theology as it pertains to original sin, gnomic will, the passions, etcetera.

  • Fathers speak of Mary being born without a sinful nature.

No proof of this was ever cited, see comments on Albrecht’s opening statement.

  • “The heart of this debate is when Saint Gregory Nanzianzus in his 38th oration talks about Mary’s already pure nature.”

If this is “the heart” then, sadly, Albrecht already lost the debate as nothing grammatically in the passage demands it is speaking of Mary’s birth.

  • The Scriptures teach Mary is at enmity with the devil, so she cannot have original sin.

This is possible and not irrational, though obviously not the only interpretation.

Deacon Joseph

  • Asserts that Albrecht simply has not shown anyone actually taught the doctrine in Church history.

This is a simple, but true point. Deacon Joseph does not need to prove anything more. The burden of proof is not on him to show a doctrine does no exist–he needs to dispute if the evidence was there that it did.

Cross examinations

  • Albrecht asserts he can list “14 fathers” that used the word prepurify.

Judging from what he has already brought to bear on the topic, I see no compelling reason to think that any of them actually teach IC.

  • Deacon Joseph says prepurification must be eternal, because if it occurred in a moment of time it does not prove IC.

This really did not make sense nor do I think Deacon Joseph really described the significance that eternity brings to bear on this matter. He merely demonstrated that IC, as stated, occurred in a moment of time. My point would be that saying that IC is eternal would definitionally contradict IC as defined.

  • Albrecht explains that Sophronius of Jerusalem speaks of multiple prepurifications.

The problem with this is that the IC speaks of a single moment. If the IC made a specific nature for Mary that was like Adam and Eve before the fall, then it is superfluous to repeat the procedure. Hence, whatever the prepurification(s) did, it cannot be what the IC says occurred simultaneous with conception.

  • Albrecht gets Deacon Joseph to agree that prepurification means Mary had a sinless nature.

While I do not think this was a concession Deacon Joseph had to make, due to the meaning of the word “nature” as covered by my comments about Albrecht’s opening statement, it really does not prove anything.

  • Albrecht falsely equates a statement from Scotus and Saint Mark of Ephesus.

Scotus: “Mary was created sinless before all eternity.”

Saint Mark of Ephesus: “Who alone is the most supernatural marvel…from eternity…God wished His ominpotence to be manifested in this woman.”

To any honest observer, the two statements are nothing alike, even if someone very loudly and emphatically insists that they are. Mary being “perfectly sinless from all eternity” pertains to God’s foreknowledge, just as Christ was “slain before the foundation of the world” (Rev 13:8). It has nothing to do with God applying the merits of grace to Mary simultaneous to conception so that she would not share the fallenness of her parents.

  • Deacon Joseph asks if Albrecht can find a single father who taught the IC as stated (that it occurred in time).

Albrecht’s response was that “I can do something better than that,” and cites his earlier quotes. Obviously, these quotes are hardly “better” because they do not even remotely teach the IC.

Albrecht then teaches that “they,” as in Jesus and Mary, had “prepurified natures.” This, as I said above, means something other than the IC or it is Christological heresy (because Jesus did not need to be made immaculate from anything.)

  • Albrecht interrupted Deacon Joseph while asking a question about the 38th Oration, who was stressing that virginity and birth is chronologically is after birth and therefore the passage is speaking of a prepurification after Mary’s conception, not simultaneous.

I thought this was bad form on Albrecht’s part. Albrecht responds with his previous interpretation, that Mary was prepared at her birth sinless (which does not address Deaon Joe’s point) and then says Saint Hippolytus (no citation) and Saint Gregory the Wonderworker (he didn’t) concur.

  • Deacon Joseph cites that Augustine in a treatise teaches that Jesus “did not take a flesh of sin from His mother…when [the flesh was] taken was purified immediately in the act of taking…Mary, the mother of Christ from whom He took on flesh, was born of the carnal concupiscence of her parents…Christ was begotten by the Holy Ghost.”

For one, I think Augustine disagrees what is implied by the akathist of Joachim and Anna (Ikos 10) and taught by Saint Paisos that their procreation was passionless. I also agree with Albrecht that Christ was only made in the likeness of sinful flesh, but this does not address Augustine’s assertion Joachim and Anna had concupiscence during Mary’s conception (which disagrees with Orthodox doctrine, we believe Mary was immaculately conceived in that sense).

  • Deacon Joseph agrees with Saint Mark of Ephesus but not Scotus because only one is a saint.

I agree with Albrecht. This makes no sense. Nevertheless, because Scotus and Mark were not saying the same thing, I think Deacon Joseph could have responded differently. Deacon Joseph makes the same mistake later, not answering if he agreed with a quote because the content was not as important as its author.

  •  Pope Innocent III (12 century): “Mary was produced in sin but was brought forth without sin.”

Albrecht replies that the Holy Ghost had before “the annunciation cleansed Mary’s soul from original sin.” This is a shocking admission, as this accords with the Orthodox doctrine (prepurification at the incarnation) and says nothing of the RC doctrine. Albrecht then denies that Pope Innocent III used the word “produced.” All translations of De festo Assump., sermon 2 I can find online use the term are anti-RC screeds. The original text is in Latin here (bottom left of p. 581 near the letter “D” in between the columns), and it should be noted that Deacon Joe (who reads Latin) concurs with the translation. Google translate confirms that the word “produced” is the same as Latin and that the translation above is fundamentally accurate.

  • Albrecht raises voice, says “OK” in a condescending tone amidst interrupting Deacon Joseph during his answer, calls Deacon Joseph’s understanding of IC “outrageous,” accuses Deacon Joseph of “not paying attention,” and sneers “it’s not my fault you cannot read Gregory Palamas.”

I do not agree with this debating tactic (acting like the opposition is an idiot so as to make the audience think he’s an idiot). Not once in the order of the described events did Deacon Joseph do anything but respond defensively until the last comment when he said, “It’s not my fault you cannot read him.”

Later in the debate Albrecht accuses Deacon Joseph of not reading Greek manuscripts, essentially snobbishly accusing him of not being scholarly enough to discuss the topic (even though Albrecht admits he had other people translating for him.)

Albrecht, who I like personally, is most unprofessional here and owes the audience an apology for these infantile tactics. I say this not as a swipe against Albrecht himself, because I am convinced he is a better man than this and will owe up to his wrongdoing here now that it is brought to light.

  • Deacon Joseph: “If the soul exists before the conception of a child wouldn’t that imply the Theotokos was already pure before she was conceived?”

Albrecth then replies, “That’s exactly what Pius IX is saying, that’s what the doctrine of the IC hinges upon…she was protected from original sin because she was sinless from all eternity.”

I think Deacon Joseph trapped Albrecht (he says sow at 1 hr 34:30) into teaching an Origenist heresy of the pre-existence of souls (which some reason Albrecht concurred emphatically.) Interestingly, at 1 hr 35 Albrecht is reluctant to correct himself on this note, but then clarifies that God “from all eternity prepared” the Theotokos to be sinless and denounced the pre-existence of souls.

  • Albrecht: “We do not need to hear anything about them [Joachim and Anna.]”

This is huge, as it shows he does not want to understand the Orthodox paradigm. As I said before, Mary’s conception was passionless. When celebrating the nativity of the Theotokos, the following was chanted in my church:

We hymn thy holy nativity and honor thine immaculate conception, O divinely chosen Bride and Virgin. And with the ranks of angels and the souls of the saints glorify thee (Ode 7, Canon II, Par 4.).

Saint Andrew of Crete also taught something similar:

The constraints of infertility were destroyed — prayer, upright manner of life, these rendered them fruitful; the childless begat a Child, and the childless woman was made an happy mother. Thus the immaculate Fruition issuing forth from the womb occurred from an infertile mother, and then the parents, in the first blossoming of Her growth brought Her to the temple and dedicated Her to God.

So, we can affirm the wording but not necessarily the RC import into what it means. For those interested in the topic, the following link collects what I think are the closest passages we have to an endorsement of the IC, though they do not quite get at the same point. Nevertheless, I think that my original article topic shows that the fathers taught the Theotokos had gnomic willing. I have heard conflicting thing pertaining to Saint Maximus’ teaching on gnomic willing and whether it precedes the fall or not. So, the Theotokos having such would mean her will was not yet deified. The iconography also appears to imply that the Theotokos is corruptible as Jesus receives the Theotokos’ soul and the assumption of her body into heaven may not be according to her own power (unlike Jesus Christ, who by nature could not remain dead and had the authority to raise Himself up, John 2:19). This is a nuanced topic without easier answers.

Conclusion

Due to Albrecht citing Christological heresy, an Origenist heresy, and initiating ad hominem attacks, Deacon Joseph was the winner of this debate. The losers were Albrecht (who failed to make a single factual statement and used aggressive, bullying tactics) and the audience, who learned pretty much nothing from the debate itself.