Due to a lack of concerned readers of history picking up the pen against Father Christiaan Kappes’ thesis in The Immaculate Conception, I will continue in my series of rebuttals so that it cannot be said that no one spoke up. Building from my analysis of Saint Dionysius’ treatment of the purification of angels (which is a required perquisite if you want to really understand Tsirpanlis’ thesis), we can now look into the question of Saint Nicholas Cabasilas’ Mariology.

The Passage From Cabasilas in Question. Before we get into any nitty gritty, let’s read the passage under dispute:

If there are some of the holy doctors who say the Virgin is ‘prepurified (προκεκεαθαρθαί)’ by the Spirit, then it is yet necessary to think that ‘purification (καθαρθίv)’ [Kappes adds (i.e. an addition of graces)] is intended by these authors, and these [doctors] say that this is the way the angels are ‘purified,’ with respect to whom there is nothing knavish. (Cabasilas quote in Kappes, The Immaculate Conception, p. 86-87)

A Summary and Brief Rebuttal of Kappes’ Treatment of the Passage. Kappes’ treatment in The Immaculate Conception can be summed up in a few words. In short, Saint Nicolas Cabasilas makes mention of the term prepurified (prokathartheisa/προκεκεαθαρθαί). He took care to modify the meaning of the term (borrowing not from its treatment in Dionysius, according to Kappes, but in response to Aquinas’ treatment of Dionysius) so that it pertained to an increase of grace and not a cleansing from actual sin.

As a brief aside, it must be noted that though Cabasilas’ terminologically addresses this dichotomy between what Kappes calls “positive” and “negative” purification, that does not mean he concedes to there being a true ontological differnece—as this would actually contradict Dionysius’ treatment of the term “purification.”

Back to Kappes’ personal analysis, he believes that Cabasilas’ interpretation of the term “prepurification” must be read back into all preceding sources. This, of course, can only be true if Cabasilas’ belief that what was “intended by these authors” is the same as Dionysius’ definition (“the way the angels are ‘purified.’”)

While I concur with Kappes that Cabasilas is consistent with other saints, because Kappes’ personal definition of prepurification is incorrect, he misinterprets what Cabasilas is saying.

A Brief Definition of “Prepurification” According to Kappes and a Brief Response. As I laid out in detail in Part I of another article:

Kappes’ thesis is that the term prokathartheisa has a specific meaning when it pertains to the Theotokos. Specifically, the term does not mean purification in its traditional sense, but when it pertains to Mary specifically it means that she, having a holy nature without any defect, was made more holy. [i.e. An addition of grace.] In other words, “purify” can both mean to purify something from a deficiency thereby making it holier than it was previously or (according Kappes) to add holiness to something already holy which had no deficiency whatsoever.

As we have already seen in our article about Dionysius, this is clearly not the Patristic understanding of the term.In short, the key reason why we cannot impose the preceding definition of “purification” on Cabasilas’ treatment is because Kappes’ definition of the term does not adequately address Theosis.

Within the “Theosis paradigm,” the Theotokos’ “baptism” by the Spirit (i.e. her purification at the annunciation) was indeed an addition of grace—as all baptisms of sinless individuals, such as infants, are. Baptisms of all of these people are not purifications from actual commissions of sin. 

What Kappes does not address (and as we shall see Dr. Constantine Tsirpanlis, a native Orthodox Christian does address) is how prepurification specifically pertains to Cabasilas’ Marian teaching on Theosis. The efficacy of baptisms (i.e. purifications) depends upon the cooperation of the recipient’s will with the grace of God. (cf Dionysius, On Heavenly Hierarchy, 9:4) Cooperation to the utmost allows for total purification, illumination (cf Heb 6:4), and Theosis—something that the Theotokos accomplished during the annunciation as the hypostatic union literally took place inside of her. And so, Kappes’ analysis veers into looking for “proofs” that Cabasilas’ rendering of prepurification “proves” the Theotokos never had original sin. This appears to betray his Latin-Rite formation, as to the Orthodox Christian there is nothing fantastic or peculiar about the previous existence of original sin in saints that have attained to Theosis. Hence, it is completely consistent with Cabasilas’ understanding of prepurification that the Theotokos had original sin and this is, in fact, the simplest interpretation of his writings on the topic.

A Detailed Response to Kappes’ Treatment of Cabasilas. Let’s begin critiquing some more what Kappes wrote:

[T]here is the association of Mary’s purification with that of the angels. This interpretation does not come from the Damascene. [Footnote 141: I have consulted all the indexes of Kotter…The Damascene makes no reference (to angels)…] In fact, Cabasilas appears to be supplying a corrective to his reader. For the first time that we have seen,* an author must apologize for the προκαθαίρw as a Mariological term. The implication is that some theologians were committing errors in his time by asserting that prepurification referred to a defect in Mary. (The Immaculate Conception, p. 87-88)

*Ed: This is based on Kappes’ admittedly limited reading of the “prepurification” and searches on digital databases for the term, not its treatment in first millennium sources as I have detailed elsewhere. See here and here.

We can already see right off the bat that Kappes’ historical analysis is based on mostly conjecture and little evidence. He arbitrarily implicates Saint John of Damascus, even though he admittedly found nothing relevant in his teachings pertaining to the purification of angels. Kappes might have not read many of Damascene’s works as he admits that he simply did a database and index search into a word and came up empty. Someone who has thoroughly read the Damascene would be able to confirm or deny such a specific idea in his writings. On another occasion, he was interviewed concerning his Mariology and was confused (or agitated) when posed with a teaching of the Damanscene’s statement that the Theotokos turned from passions in Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, something seemingly inconsistent with his view that the Theotokos lacked latent concupiscence. He betrayed no familiarity with the passage. This indicated that he had not seriously interacted with this most important of Damascene’s works, at least in his Mariology research. 

As for myself, I am like Kappes in that I have not read everything the Damascene ever written, especially considering that he traditionally compiled the octoechos (a comprehensive version is allegedly more than 20,000 pages), let alone all his theological works.

In any event, Kappes’ interpretations are highly speculative. He concludes Cabasilas modified the meaning of the term prepurification in response to contemporary false teachers, but cites no names or statements from contemporary Orthodox teachers showing that there was an aberrant Mariology in those times. Furthermore, there is nothing in Cabasilas’ statement to this effect. As we can see, Kappes literally invents a theological dispute that no historical evidence documents the existence of. 

Why may this be? Kappes’ appears not to have given serious thought to etymology. When a word such as “(pre)purification” has a plain, recognized meaning, Greek authors whenever putting some sort of atypical spin on it always make special note to modify its meaning. Cabasilas’ “corrective” is unexceptional in this regard. It is something that both Saints Gregory Nazianzus (see part I of this article) and Dionysius do. So, unless Kappes also infers that those saints were also issuing a “corrective” in response to incorrect Christology and Angelology, his inference is radically inconsistent. 

Sadly, the conjecture does not stop there. In short, Kappes speculates that Cabasilas was borrowing from an unknown translation of Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas. Therein, a passage invokes Dionysius’ treatment of the purification of angels. As we shall see, this is a needlessly complicated “solution” to a non-existent “problem.” A historian can more justifiably infer that Cabasilas simply read Dionysius and employed Dionysius’ treatment of the term. This interpretation actually makes sense with everything Cabasilas has written on Mariology, as we shall soon see. 

Nevertheless, Kappes concocts a “conspiracy theory” of sorts. This is because the 14th century Greek translation of Summa Theologica was (at the time of his book being published) not available/extant. So, Kappes admits he does not actually know if the passage of Aquinas (translated into Greek) in question existed in the 14th century–let alone Cabasilas even read it. To work around this obvious impediment to convincing people of his theory, he speculates that the 14th century source may have theoretically contained the same Greek passage as a later translation from the 15th century. Thankfully for Kappes, the 15th century translation is extant.

Hence, Kappes’ analysis is literally a speculation on top of a speculation–not the simplest explanation of the evidence. For those who want to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth, here is his analysis in his own words:

As a corrective, Cabasilas refers here to Ps. Dionysius the Areopogite. [Footnote 142] This makes us highly suspect that Cabasilas was confronted with the Greek version of the Summa Theologiae, which was having a negative influence on Orthodox in the realm of Mariology. (Ibid., p. 88)

[Footnote 142: …(Gennadius) Scholarius’ epitome (mid 15th century) of the Summa Theologiae (of Thomas Aquinas), which is directly dependent on (Demetrius) Cydones’ (14th century) Aquinus Graecus may be read…”For one angel enlightens another, in such a way does Dionysius speak, because the angels of the second hierarchy are cleansed (καθαίρθvrαί) and enlightened and perfected through the angels of the first hierarchy.” Mary parallels this theme perfectly. Just as the angels’ intrinsic perfections are not compromised by the additional of supernatural knowledge, so too Mary’s diachronic reception of revelations does not imply that she was smitten with the “ignorance” of the fallen nature a propos Adam and Eve…It must be said that currently there is no extant Greek translation of this question, nor is there evidence for a translation of this precise question on Mary. Nonetheless, Demetrius and Prochorus Cydones may be responsible for further translations of Latin texts… (Ibid., p. 88) 

[T]o argue against this innovation [from Aquinas against the Immaculate Conception], the Palamite author ingeniously employed Aquinas’ own citation of Ps.-Dionysius (ch. 6) on angelology against the Doctor Angelicus. Cabasilas asserts that, since the natures of Mary and the angels are univocal in some way, the controlling idea must refer to both Mary and angels being exempt from any moral defect due to the perfection of their created natures. (Ibid., p. 89)

Tsirpanlis Pre-Emptive Response to Kappes’ Arguments. Some readers may think I am being too hard on Kappes. So what he forgot to integrate Theosis in his analysis? And maybe he speculated an awful lot about where Cabasilas’ got the word “prepurification” from–that’s forgiveable. His overall analysis could still be true, because wouldn’t Cabasilas’ usage of the term “prepurification,” they conjecture, be consistent with the Immaculate Conception? 

The answer would be no, because Cabasilas does not use the term consistently with the Roman Catholic dogma and earlier scholarship has correctly identified this. Dr. Tsirpanlis, in his 1979 article The Mariology of Nicholas Cabasilas (published in the 30th volume of “Marian Studies”), had already anticipated Kappes’ argument. This is simply because Kappes was not the first to make it. Martin Jugie, who translated Cabasilas’ homilies into Latin decades ago, made what was substantially the same argument–the prepurification of the Theotokos was indicative of her Immaculate Conception. 

Tsirpanlis pointed out that Roman Catholic scholars, asserting the Immaculate Conception doctrine, both ignored plain statements in Cabasilas’ homilies that assert the Theotokos had original sin and did not understand Cabasilas’ actual point. That point was, specifically, that God gave the Theotokos grace to cooperate with the divine will so that through progressive sanctification she attained to Theosis at the time of conception. 

Tsirpanlis quotes several passages from Cabasilas that clearly bear this out:

The Blessed Virgin is the par excellence first man (in the sense of ideal and original manhood) since she alone fully realized the divine ideal in human nature…She did not create man, but she found him being lost… She helped the Creator to recreate us in the same manner as the statue cooperates with the sculptor. She revealed to this world, as to paradise (before) the pure and integral man, such as he was originally created and such as he ought to remain and such as he would be after creation if he had struggled to become perfect (to be ultimately united with the divine nature)…The Blessed Virgin recreated, in her person, by her own effort and free will, the pre-fallen man, whereas Christ made man capable of realizing his ultimate purpose, theosis, and introduced him to the splendidness of Holy Trinity. (Cabasilas quoted in The Mariology of Nicholas Cabasilas, p. 91-92)

In a few words, Cabasilas is simply asserting Mary encountered her own humanity (i.e. “found him”) in a state of original sin (i.e. “being lost”). However, by the cooperation of her will, she restored in redeemed mankind not only the prelapsarian nature of Adam, but also attained to divine union with Christ (something Adam failed to achieve). Cabasilas continues:

[Mary] was not given anything more than that which Adam and his descendants had received from God, nor did she descend from Heaven, nor was she born from Heavenly bodies. On the contrary, she came from the earth, from the fallen human race that had given her, her own nature in the same way as every human being, but she proved herself to be the only one among all men of all ages who overcame all evils from the beginning to the end…With her love for God, the strength of her thought, the God-centered will, and with her admirable prudence, she liquidated every sin and triumphantly defeated Satan. In this way, she uncovered the true human nature as it was originally created as well as God’s ineffable wisdom and limitless philanthropy…And this precisely surpasses any miracle and astonishes, not only human creatures but even the angels themselves, and goes beyond any oratorical exaggeration: namely how the Virgin alone could escape the common disease, being just human and without receiving anything more than other me. (Cabasilas quoted in Ibid., p. 93)

For, it is certain that God did not create Her (Mary) in such a way that she had to live a totally immaculate life, nor did He grant to her greater help than to all other men…On the contrary, she won that unique and wonderful victory solely by using her own ability and the same challenges to virtuous life given equally to everyone. (Cabasilas quoted in Ibid., p. 95)

The embolden statements make exceedingly clear that Kappes is interpreting Cabasilas incorrectly. Further, it is telling that Kappes never treats any of the above quotations in his analysis, though they were quoted by Tsirpanlis in a seminal work pertaining to Kappes’ field of research.

However, if one understands the teaching of Dionysius on the purification of angels, it makes perfect sense to use the term “prepurification” to convey that the Theotokos attained to the vision of the uncreated Light at the annunciation, despite her original sin. Experiencing Theosis is not something that only the Theotokos experienced, as a plethora of other saints had also done so–all of which had original sin. 

Cabasilas’ entire argument, if we actually understand it, makes sense within the Theosis paradigm where no saint is believed to have experienced union with God’s uncreated energeia in a state of sinfulness. All saints that attain to Theosis have been “perfected” in holiness through faith, works, discipline, and prayer. Hence, any “purification” could not be the simple “negative” type (i.e. mere remission of committed sins.) 

Kappes may be forgiven for not “getting it,” because, as mentioned previously, he received his formation and ordination in the Latin Rite. The whole way he will approach the historical source data will be colored by his background, as would be true of any of us. However, what cannot be forgiven in an academic sense is his lapse as a scholar, as he does not acknowledge Tsirpanlis’ research in his book, which explains all of the preceding. Worse yet, he is aware of its existence

At the preceding link he is extremely dismissive of Tsirpanlis, bordering on disrespectful. I won’t parse what he said here, but Kappes does not seriously interact Tsirpanlis’ actual argument, which is disconcerting because it “solves” all of his objections.

Nevertheless, Tsirpanlis is in good company as in the same comments section Kappes attacks the saints for disagreeing with him. He accuses Saint Cyril of Alexandria of “Origenist error” for expounding the view that the Theotokos’ experienced doubts and grief at the time of the crucifixion. It should be noted that this alleged “Origenist error” is also shared by Saint Basil the Great, who asserts it is a consensus of the whole Church. Saints Hilary of Poitiers, Augustine, and Maximus the Confessor also teach it. 

There appears to be a pattern in how Kappes defends his work in lieu of making fundamentally sound historical arguments. The nicest way one can put it is that he employs unscholarly underhanded tactics when defending his views. The following are a few examples I am aware of:

Once, Kappes accused myself of blasphemy for quoting the Damascene in a question posed to him in contradiction of his thesis. Instead of answering the question he employed an ad hominem.

Kappes also collaborates with polemicists such as William Albrecht (with whom he co-wrote a book). This is a strange choice in a partner, as Albrecht has never been published in any academic venue (or even self-published until the release of his book with Kappes), never attended an actual university, and repeatedly misrepresented Kappes’ own research. There is nothing wrong with collaborating with an unknown if the individual is some sort of underrated subject matter expert, but would it show better discernment to work with someone that though lacking a formal education, at least accurately represents one’s own work? It should be noted that Albrecht’s notoriety comes from being a feisty debater on Youtube, not being a respected researcher or apologist in his own right.

In light of the preceding, Kappes’ does not appear like an aloof scholar. Instead, either intentionally or through ineptitude, he engages in polemics. This is either through proxies or sometimes personally.

Whatever his reasons may be for his regrettable deficiencies in this regard, the end result is the same. Kappes has intentionally refused to review Tsirpanlis’ analysis in his book. In response, I will give such a review here. As follows are Tsirpanlis’ main points:

The most astonishing point is, perhaps, that even before the coming to earth of the Author of Peace, Mary, by herself, abolished in her own self the enmity that existed in human nature against God, opening the gates of Heaven by attracting His grace with her victorious struggle. (Ibid., p. 94)

Cabasilas refers to the idea that, although the Virgin was a human being like all men and had inherited nothing more than an ordinary man, yet she was able to escape the “common disease” (i.e. mortality as the result of the original sin). (Ibid., p. 94)

It is Cabasilas’ profound conviction that God did not give to Mary any special privilege, natural sinlessness and freedom from original sin by birth or by nature. (Ibid., p. 95)

Certainly, the aged parents of Mary did not consummate their marriage because of sexual desire, but only out of their faithful obedience to God…Consequently, Mary was born with the original sin, even though she was the gift, the reward, to her parents’ faithful obedience and virtuous life. (p. 98)

[T]he Virgin Mary stayed holy and sinless throughout her life. Holy, because of her unceasing spiritual struggle, total dedication to God and a steadfast will. Sinless, because of the grace of her Son. (p. 99)

She was holy and pure from her mother’s womb, but not with a sanctity which places her outside the rest of humanity-before Christ. She was not in a state analogous to that of Eve before the fall at the moment of the Annunciation. On the contrary, Mary was in the state of fallen humanity. She was born under the law of original sin. (p. 100)

In the same article, Tsirpanlis discusses Cabasilas’ usage of the term prepurified/prokathartheisa, calling it “procatharsis.” He is well aware of the Patristic passages that only decades later Kappes would seize upon:

Certainly, this idea of Cabasilas is not an innovation. Gregory of Nazianzus as well as John of Damascus, many centuries before Cabasilas, taught that at the Annunciation the Holy Spirit entered Mary’s soul and body and cleansed both of them only after her free consent. (p. 102)

In expounding the term’s meaning, Tsirpanlis states the following:

This is the reason why Mary’s holiness reached its peak at the time of the Annunciation and why, according to Cabasilas, after the Annunciation, her holiness could not decrease or increase. Therefore, according to his procatharsis view, which is traditional Eastern Patristic doctrine, the purification of Mary by the Holy Spirit before Christ’s conception means for her an addition or augmentation of graces and perfection of sanctification, rather than an immaculate conception or freedom from the Debitum Peccati [i.e. original sin]. (p. 102-103)

The fullness of grace was truly bestowed upon the Blessed Virgin, and her personal purity was preserved by the perpetual assistance of the Spirit. (p. 104)

What Kappes Got Right. One may become so fixated on what Kappes got wrong, that it can become easy to miss where he is correct. On the most part, Tsirpanlis and Kappes agree that the grace of the annunciation’s prepurification was not a removal of a literal defect (as the Theotokos committed no act of sin), but an “increase of grace.” What Kappes never addresses is that this would be true of a sinless infant’s baptism as well as sinful people’s purifications (as Dionysius explains). Nevertheless, for Mary, this is even more profound as she attained to Theosis at the annunciation and thereby experienced perfection and illumination via God’s uncreated energeia.* The vast preponderance of us do not experience this at baptism due to us not fully cooperating with the grace of God.

*Saint John the Baptist experienced such a purification in His mother’s womb. (cf Saint Maximus, Ambigua to John, 37:2) Saint Gregory Palamas’ may have believed that this was also true of the Theotokos.

Up until the annunciation, as Kappes correctly teaches, many “purifying” events happened to the Theotokos. Before she was even conceived, the Virgin’s parents lived faithfully. They then had a dispassionate conception. She since then had increasingly cooperated with the grace of God, one extremely important moment being her entrance in the Temple at the age of three. The point of the annunciation, where God became incarnate, was the ultimate and most complete cooperation with God possible—something that only an all-holy woman would be capable of. 

What Tsirpanlis’ treatment lacks, for good reason, is Kappes’ personal interpretation of “prepurification’s” meaning. Kappes’ personal rendering, for some unexplained reason, is that only when the Theotokos receives “purification” this must mean she did not have original sin. This is eisegetical. It is not like other saints were not purified. Hence, Kappes can say something completely true about Cabasilas’ treatment of prepurification (that it was an increase of grace), but then by adding a fundamental falsehood (or in his supporters’ cases, even more falsehoods), he distorts’ Cabasilas’ treatment which explicitly taught the Theotokos had original sin. 

Further, by omitting the Tsirpanlis’ Theosis-explanation in his treatment of Cabasilas, Kappes prevents his readers from assessing the weakness of his own analysis. That weakness is, specifically, that purification can actually be accomplishing an increase of grace without contradicting the baptismal, as well as ascetic, paradigm. Again, if you do not get this, you need to read Dionysius’ treatment of this topic—something that appears Kappes has not committed himself to.

It is precisely this paradigm that connects all the Patristics on the issue of Mary’s purification and her turning from the passions. By understanding this paradigm, we can harmonize the fathers instead of, like Kappes, conflating saints with heretics. This is why the saints, like Augustine, can teach the purification doctrine, but also explicitly teach the Virgin was conceived in original sin.

Conclusion. Perhaps I have identified the key difference between Kappes and the Orthodox on the issue of Mary’s purification. Kappes pursues an epistemology of doctrinal development, which begins with a modern “infallible” teaching and works backwards. This is ironically a self-validating epistemology that a more careful interpreter would be able to employ in defense of the Immaculate Conception to much greater effect. Kappes makes so many fundamental interpretive errors and speculative leaps that he unintentionally discredits his own position. For this reason, there is a danger that someone else takes his ideas, removes the obvious problems, and recycles it just as Kappes did with Jugie.

The Orthodox, like Tsirpanlis, work from a different epistemology. Our presupposition is that the fathers fundamentally agree. Tsirpanlis, in fact, argues the Saint John Chrysostom’s “low Mariological” (as Kappes would call it) statements are consistent with Cabasilas. This is an argument Kappes would never make. 

The question for the historical interpreter is who is making the better case? Who is more consistent? A secular historian might rightly dispense with both views and come to the conclusion that the fathers were all over the place and “prepurification” had no consistent meaning. Nevertheless, for the Christian that believes in the infallibility of the Church and Her saints, the Orthodox case is far more compelling. And, not coincidentally, it is far more cogent than Kappes’ meandering argumentation. 

The case of Cabasilas’ doctrine of “prepurification” may not be our only example of this, but it is certainly a worthwhile one to do a little extra digging into.

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