In his fifth homily (On the Meeting of Our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ) Palamas in no uncertain terms teaches that mankind all has original sin, that Christ assumed the consequences of the sin (and not the sin itself) from Mary the Theotokos, and He transfigured the human nature He inherited from her so that all mankind can be freed from this sin.
The quote. In the first two paragraphs of the homily, Palamas states the following:
Before Christ we all shared the same ancestral curse and condemnation poured out on all of us from our single forefather, as if it had sprung from the root of the human race and was the common lot of our nature. Each person’s individual action attracted either reproof or praise from God, but no one could do anything about the shared curse and condemnation, or the evil inheritance that had been passed down to him and through him would pass to his descendants.
But Christ came, setting human nature free and changing the common curse into a shared blessing. [How?] He took upon Himself our guilty nature from the most pure Virgin and united it, new and unmixed with the old seed, to His divine person. He rendered it guiltless and righteous, so that all His spiritual descendants would remain outside the ancestral curse and condemnation. How so? He shares His grace with each one of us as a person and [we] received forgiveness of his sins from Him. For He did not receive from us a [postlapsarian] human person, but assumed our [postlapsarian] human nature and renewed it by uniting it with His own person. His wish was to save us all completely and for our sake He bowed the heavens and came down. When by His deeds, words, and sufferings He had pointed out all the ways of salvation, He went up to heaven again, drawing after Him those who trusted in Him. His aim was to grant perfect redemption not just to the nature which He had assumed from us in inseparable union, but to each one of those who believed in Him. This He has done and continues to do, reconciling each of us through Himself to the Father, bringing each one back to obedience and thoroughly healing our disobedience.
The rest of the homily states some interesting things. Some cryptic comments on fornication within marriage are made, but he is not clear if adultery or non-procreative acts are the point at issue. He also interprets Gen 6:1-2 not to be about fallen angels procreating with women, but the sons of Abel intermarrying with the sons of Cain. Though these points are interesting in their own right, they do not bear on the anthropology or Mariology.
Palamas’ teaching in the preceding is simple. All of mankind is fallen in sin (“we all shared the same ancestral curse”). Christ undid this sin by “assuming” the results of that sin “from the most pure Virgin,” her flesh being called “the old seed.” This is not a peculiar statement, but an affirmation of a prayer in the Great Euchologion, which states:
I confess the Word of God, coeternal with the Father, being above time, uncircumscribed, unconfined, yet came down to our nature and humbled himself as man and took our whole fallen (peripeptwkota) human nature from the pure and virginal blood of the only immaculate and pure Virgin. (p. 182 of Jesus Fallen)
By taking her flesh, He turned it into sinless flesh by being “new and unmixed.” The sentence, “For he did not receive from us…” can be a point of contention because its interpretation requires an inference. It appears what Palamas is saying is that Christ was not born sinful (due to the virgin birth), but He voluntarily assumed the results of our guilt (i.e. the blameless passions and corruption). This too follows the same prayer as the above, which ends stating:
I confess that He assumed all our human blameless passions that constitute our nature, excepting sin…He underwent them not of necessity as in our case. (Ibid.)
Christ did this in order to “grant perfect redemption…to the nature which He had assumed from us,” which is a clear reference to the fallen nature of all mankind’s flesh. The fact the second paragraph details that Christ had flesh “from” both the Virgin and “us” clearly equates the flesh of both. Therefore, the Theotokos shares the same plight of the human race.
Similarities with Palamas’ other homilies. If one has even a surface-level understanding of Palamas, it is even clearer that the above two paragraphs teach that the Theotokos had original sin. For example:
He took upon Himself our guilty nature from the most pure Virgin and united it, new and unmixed with the old seed, to His divine person.
This is the key sentence in the whole passage. What does Palamas mean by “seed?” In his Nativity Homily, he explains:
If He had been born from seed, He would not have been a new man and, being part of the old stock, and inheriting that fall, He would not have been able to receive the fullness of the incorruptible Godhead in Himself and become an inexhaustible source of hallowing.
Being born from “seed” makes one “part of the old stock…inheriting that Fall.” So, in Homily 5, Palamas is asserting that Christ assumed a “guilty nature from the most pure Virgin and united it, new and unmixed with” any “old seed.” The seed is a reference to a male father, so this would not bear specifically on the Theotokos’ flesh, but this action is “new” as the Theotokos’ was not conceived virginally. And so, this is not intended to slight the Theotokos, but rather to exalt her seedless conception. Nevertheless, she was born from seed and so, in Palamas’ anthropology, could not be exempt from original sin.
However, Palamas believed that by attaining Theosis she was able to overcome the results of original sin. The Theotokos attained to Theosis during the annunciation, but she is like any other ascetic in that she only reached this spiritual state by cooperating with the grace of God. This is why Palamas’, in his Dormition Homily, stated that:
[S]he co-operated and suffered with that exalting condescension (kenosis) of the Word of God, she was also rightly glorified and exalted together with Him, ever adding thereto the supernatural increase of mighty deeds. And after the ascent into the heavens of Him that was incarnate of her, she rivaled, as it were, those great works, surpassing mind and speech, which through Him were her own, with a most valiant and diverse asceticism.
He later on makes even clearer that the Theotokos’ spiritual state had advanced during her life to the point of perfection, exempting her from death (i.e. the wage of sin):
[I]t was because of Adam and so that she might prove to be his daughter, that she yielded a little to nature…if while yet three years of age and not yet possessing that super-celestial in-dwelling, she seemed not to bear our flesh as she abode in the Holy of Holies, and after she became supremely perfect even as regards her body by such great marvels, how indeed could that body suffer corruption and turn to earth?
Hence, the Theotokos overcame corruption (i.e. the results of original sin) by becoming “supremely perfect” after dwelling in the Holy of Holies by virtue of the incarnation. She was not born perfect, because she was Adam’s daughter. “She seemed not to bear our flesh,” because she was so holy. However, this statement is in fact a delicate concession that she did indeed bear “our flesh.” Palamas’ homily details that her supreme perfection attained during the annunciation was something she would continue to enjoy as she maintained an ascetic life and cooperated with God’s grace. Recent scholarship concurs with this assessment of his thought.
The preceding Mariological paradigm is precisely why Palamas understood the Theotokos had original sin–because her overcoming of this sin was, in effect, a case study in how the spiritual life demonstrates the energies-essence distinction. Cooperating with God’s grace was an actual participation in divinity which preempts the effects of sin. Unless one understands that this is central to Palamas’ whole thought, one cannot make sense of him.
How contemporaries understood Palamas. And so, it should not surprise the reader that Palamas’ Mariology is exactly the same as his contemporary ally who also expounded the energies-essence distinction, Saint Nicholas Cabasilas. Cabasilas succinctly wrote that:
[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…the Virgin alone could escape the common disease, being just human and without receiving anything more than other me.
And so, the Theotokos “came…from the fallen human race,” but she “overcame all evils” and “escape[d] the common disease.” How? The preceding was overcome due to her becoming perfect through asceticism and the grace of God bestowed during the incarnation:
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...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…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.
The preceding is so fantastic, because the Theotokos “recreated” prelapsarian human nature, as she was not born with it. This means, she had to do so with difficulty as postlapsarian flesh is liable to the passions:
[I]t 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.
And so, the Theotokos was not merely like Eve, who without proclivity towards the passions simply had to dodge temptation. Rather, she overcame “the same challenges to virtuous life given equally to everyone.” The statement lacks rhetorical force if Cabasilas does not have in mind everyone’s battle with fallen flesh.
Conclusion. And so, one can concludefrom the preceding that those who assert that Saint Gregory Palamas taught the Immaculate Conception are radically misunderstanding his words. The simplest interpretation of his fifth homily is that the Theotokos had original sin. This interpretation appears consistent with Palamas’ other writings on the subject. Lastly, Palamas’ chief contemporary, Cabasilas, along the same lines understood this to be the case. One can only lament that there are scholars and apologists that confuse the public by misrepresenting the teaching of this saint.