“ZJ” made the following comments which I felt were worthy of a reply in article form instead of just in the com box:

Late to the party but better late than never. Craig, as others have also observed, your intellectual honesty is a breath of fresh air, and I thank God for your hard work in the business of “messy apologetics”. As a Catholic, your articles on the IC have been extremely helpful on how to follow the path of the Fathers. I love especially your excavation of the traditions on her cleansing just prior to the Incarnation and what that means.

I am not used to be being “buttered up” so I am appreciative that though we disagree, that intellectually you can appreciate the research that I have been doing.

Let us admit that, as regards our Holy Mother, the various strands of the tradition are complex to weave together. RC apologists simply don’t know what to do with much of it, and so post-1854 apologetics are a large reduction of the Church’s faith about Our Lady.

I lament that you are correct. The RC apologetics world seems to be so geared in responding to Protestant polemics on this question, that they have not seriously invested in the Patristic and Orthodox anthropological paradigm. As a result, their treatments have been highly eisegetical and dismissive, but not serious interactions with the evidence at hand.

As you say, they either have to say, “church fathers were wrong” which to my mind is impious, or they have to do strange mind-twisting interpretations of passages like these that show that her “prior” cleansing was somehow her conception, which is intellectually dishonest.

Thank you for stating this. I think it is both best to avoid impugning the saints as well as bending their meaning in an artificial sense. I too have noticed this tendency, because let’s be frank—we love our traditions. Because we love God, we want to defend through the means we get to know Him—which is mainly the Scriptures and the traditions of our communions. So, if one either by not understanding their own tradition or, God forbid, having the wrong one sees things inconsistent with their communion’s claims, the desire to defend their tradition with what amounts to be something little better than lying and sophistry is understandable. Must it be avoided? Absolutely.

For all that, I do not yet think the IC is as unsalvageable as you say. First, I find it very helpful to know what theologumena are still open to debate after the dogma, which Catholic theologians in good standing have debated all the way through the 1950s, before the post conciliar collapse of RC theology.

This is intriguing. I am not so steeped, nor pretend to be, in the RC worldview(s) so thus is what your words sound like to me. Papal Infallibility and Vatican I are only “on the books” given conciliar approach of RC theology. They only appear as a fait accompli dogmas presuming the post conciliar collapse is actually theologically correct. Maybe I am wholly understanding your words wrong, and I have no dog in that fight if your words are right or wrong, but it is very interesting.

The dogma did not settle the specific parameters of the original sin from which Mary was preserved; whether the expression “all stain” includes immunity from the infection of the flesh, from the debt of sin, or from concupiscence (though ordinary magisterium does teach immunity from concupiscence in some sense)

Yes, this is something I covered in my article responding to Dr. Ortlund’s assertion Marian doctrines are superfluous accretions. I think we can admit that “all stain” does seem to be an intentionally categorical statement, and I think these best theologians and most laity have taken this view. Everything else really, if we are honest, bends the meaning of either “all” or “stain.” We also run into the issue of the RC view of concupiscence. Concupiscence is a broad idea, which roughly includes both the blameless and blameworthy passions within the Orthodox paradigm. But, by this broad interpretation of concupiscence, even the Lord would have experienced this (albeit voluntarily). I am more sympathetic to Dr. Benjamin Heidgerkin’s speculations (which he closes his excellent book Salvation Through Temptation with) is that the Council of Trent by a lack of precision has left open the door, maybe just a little, so that concupiscence can be re-interpreted and spliced along Orthodox lines. To not do so creates all sorts of anthropological problems which he, as a Roman Catholic historical theologian, obviously seeks to avoid. I think his endeavor is a worthy one, because after all I think the more RCism (re)interprets their tradition with the Patristics, the more we can break down the barriers to unity, let alone purify aberrant doctrines.

whether “singular grace” is an “exclusive” grace, sanctifying grace, or divine favor; whether “privilege” means dispensation or exemption from the law; whether God foresaw Christ’s merits before or after the foreknowledge of the fall, whether Christ saved His mother through the mode of glorification, redemption, satisfaction, or sacrifice.

These are categories of thought that I do not recognize from the Patristics and so would not know where to begin applying these.

In Catholic theological parlance, those are all huge unknowns, many of which can actually accommodate patristic and Orthodox Mariology. For example, if she had debt of sin, this means that it was not her nature which was exempted from original sin, but rather, it was her person that was preservatively redeemed from the Adamic nature she did inherit, and her person then mediated salvation to her nature, which was only fully cleansed at her Assumption when the gates of heaven were opened to her body and soul.

We are running into a few hiccups here which may require further clarifications. So, “debt of sin” in the Orthodox world view is not an immaterial, abstract “debt” against God’s honor owed to Him. “Debt” would be better understood as a deficit in the tropos belonging to human nature. In other words, the way human nature operates is not sufficient according to nature, but deficient. This is properly “debt” in the Orthodox understanding. Human nature is naturally prone to always co-operate and co-will with God. Christ’s human nature did this as default, obviously because He is deified flesh. Technically, nature itself cannot be deficient—though to be fair in English language translations, sometimes I’ve seen what is in fact “tropos” simply called “nature” as a euphemism.

So, let’s just presume that you are speaking of tropos. What you are alleging is that it was not her tropos that was exempted from original sin, but rather, “her person.” But what does this even mean? A fallen tropos by necessity leads to corruptibility and passions (both blameless and blameworthy). Consider Saint Gregory Palamas on the question:

When the human soul is separated from the divine energy for good, it is not only smitten with inaction, but starts working against itself, sinking from bad to worse…the soul’s state of death in due course brought about the death of the body too….[W]hen Adam fell by turning aside from good to evil, no one remained who was not inclined to evil…He [Satan] beguiled him [Adam] with deadly advice and made him share his own sin and spiritual deadness. Of necessity bodily death followed this spiritual death, so the evil one caused our double death by his single death. (Homily 16, Par 7-9, 11, 25)

And so, there is no way for the Theotokos to have a fallen, postlapsarian “flesh” but exemption from what constitutes original sin in the Orthodox worldview. We can divorce two concepts which are by necessity, in our own theology, connected. Being that we are writing these responses cordially, I will avoid (for now) getting into the Damascene and Maximus teaching the same idea, preceding the schism. I just think Palamas puts it so clearly here that it is helpful for our purposes.

The common Orthodox yarn that the Dormition “proves” no immaculate conception is a bit reductionist, but sensible given the anthropological presumptions at work. This is not without nuance, as tradition asserts plainly that the Theotokos died by both necessity and volunteerism! I have seen no one reconcile the two assertions of our saints, so we can presume that they are either disagreeing with each other–or that (in my view) the latter is true because the former was true only for a time, but by grace (located after the annunciation) is no longer. The Theotokos attained to a spiritual state where death became voluntary (as did numerous other saints by the way, this is the importance of spiritual principles of Christianity that permit us to literally overcome sin and death).

So, you assert that the Theotokos assumed an “Adamic [postlapsarian] nature,” as surely you are not speaking of Adam’s tropos before the fall. As I detail in my article contra Dr. Ortlund, this Marian postlapsarianist position is correct inasmuch that Orthodox affirm that the Theotokos was in fact subject to a fallen tropos. However, how this can square with an allegedly immaculate conception, I suppose, is not for us Orthodox to figure out!

“Preservatively redeemed” is a concept you speak of, but don’t define. I can only guess what you mean. If “preservatively redeemed” at conception is something along the lines that God predestined the Theotokos to be sinless at conception, and this includes the purification of her lineage, and the subsequent pre-ordination of life events that would preserve her from sin and grant her grace—then sure! Orthodox affirm this. In fact, this is precisely how we would be able to affirm some of the most terse passages of Saint John Chrysostom on the question of her temptations to vainglory and Saint Basil (amongst others) on her healing from doubts during the crucifixion. However, this does not seem to be a serious assertion that the Theotokos had no experience of concupiscence, but rather the immaculate conception (in this rendering that you appear to be giving) is merely a euphemism that God predestined that the Theotokos would never consent to concupiscence. This being the case, one can prevent a lot of confusion and simply call this “predestined sinlessness” as this is what is really being spoken of.

To my mind, this is most consonant with the Church’s whole teaching, because it admits that she still inherits Adam’s nature (which the Orthodox would say simply means she inherited original sin), but she was instantly cleansed of one of the penalties of that inheritance, namely, being a sinner oneself, which is what happens to us in Baptism, though our natures retain the penalties of sin.

The preceding passage has one particularly problematic part. “She was instantly cleansed of one of the penalties of that [postlapsarian] inheritance, namely, being a sinner oneself.” No one is born consenting to sin as a default. Nor are we born guilty of another man’s sin according to Orthodox anthropology.

Rather, we are sinners in two senses. In one sense, merely having the experience of blameless passions, even without consent, makes one “sinful.” Infants are examples of this. They are objectively sinless, but sinful by the preceding standard. The reason this occurs, in the Orthodox anthropology, is due to original sin. And so, if the Theotokos merely haves that “inheritance” but is spared by the immaculate conception of “being a sinner oneself,” then she would be no different than you are me as newborns.

If so, what is the actual point of the immaculate conception doctrine? This surely cannot be its intended meaning, though such a reinterpretation would make it wholly unproblematic as the RCs would merely be affirming what Saint Nicolas Cabasilas explicitly taught: “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…” (Source quoted here)

Good theologians in this camp will say that she was not given “original justice” in her conception, which is the grace of Adam and Eve and which was lost to her in Adam, but rather sanctifying grace, which is the redeeming grace of Christ.

“Original justice” is another euphemism which, again, is not in the Patristics and hence missing in Orthodoxy. If “original justice” is the prelapsarian state of always co-operating and co-willing with God, then yes Adam and Eve had that before the Fall and the Theotokos did not have this as a default, but rather, had to work to assimilate this. The preceding quote from Cabasilas ends as follows:

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.

We would consider “alone” to be a pious exaggeration as there are other saints that did the same, but you get the point. “Sanctifying grace,” again another non-Patristic term, seems to be something that can be conflated with what Cabasilas said above. But, if so, how is this different from Saints John the Forerunner, Demetrius, Jeremiah, and others saints who never sinned? (cf Decree 6 of Council of Jerusalem 1672) Were they all immaculate conceived by this definition? If God in his grace blesses you and I with a child who ends up being one of the rare sinless saints, is that child immaculately conceived too? Again, while I am open to a complete re-interpretation of the immaculate conception so as to turn it to be wholly Orthodox, in order to accomplish this, it loses its Mariological exclusiveness.

However, so full is she of Christ’s redeeming grace that she is in no way a sinner, not actually, habitually, or dispositionally.

In this we agree, as Orthodox affirm that the Theotokos never consented to a blameless passion.

This is a very Augustinian way of thinking – the effect of God’s full forgiveness in us is the cessation of sin. To be fully and completely forgiven is to be without sin, since God forgives us of the sins we would have committed without His grace.

This would be technically incorrect from the Orthodox vantage point. I suppose what you mean is that man, according to his own nature, can do good (i.e. not sin). However, according to nature, one only does good by grace. Sin by default is defying the will of God. So, even non-Christians, as they have intact human natures, will co-operate and co-will with God’s grace whenever they do good. If it were not for God’s grace, they would instantly cease to exist.

In any event, the Orthodox do have a notion that a sin is completely forgiven in a lived-in sense when we have attained mastery over the passions. We believe the spiritual disciplines, which the Theotokos is our best exemplar, is the way to this.

As the Orthodox priests over at Ancient Faith Ministries have reminded us, the Fall was actually multiple falls into sin, death, and demonic rule. Our Lady was saved from hypostasizing one of those falls, namely, sin, but this through Christ’s redemption.

I am not sure what you mean by “hypostatizing” sin, which I presume you mean is consenting to sin in her own life. However, as I discussed before, this is the default of all children born after Adam, who are born liable to original sin, but sinless in that they have not yet consented to sin.

However, as your research has shown, she still had to be cleansed of association with that other fall, which was death, and the curses on the womb, and this the Holy Spirit accomplished prior to the Incarnation, and then her gifts were perfected at the Assumption.

I hope that, in the above, you will see in some more detail how this is theologically worked out. And there is so much more detail. My own parish priest is a far better thinker on this question than I am. I lament that, as far as “public” figures go, I seem to be on the vanguard. I wish this was not so and I hope that better thinkers than me go public, publish, and engage in these questions.

I think you are right that “postlapsarianism” is the patristic view of Mary, and the Catholic Church would do well to clarify it.

It does seem this is the view that you are expounding, though better than I can represent it as an outsider.

However, I don’t agree that an immaculate conception is as incongruous with this position as you say. If you do some research on the various Catholic debates on the debitum peccati (Mary’s debt of sin or lack thereof), I think this might become clearer. Simply, for the debitist camp, to say that Mary was immaculately conceived does not mean that she was conceived in original justice, with titles to Adam’s grace. Even Mary did not have a title to an immaculate nature, which was lost to all in the Fall.

As discussed beforehand, it does seem that the usages of the terms “debt” and “nature” may be problematic, or if applied in an Orthodox sense, make the immaculate conception lose its Mariological exclusiveness. Perhaps for RC theology to begin expounding the immaculate conception is not exclusive to the Theotokos would go a long way of the RCs and Orthodox to begin bridging the gap.

What happened to Mary at her conception is what happens to us at baptism (though in a much more powerful way), where our person is cleansed of the sinfulness we contracted from Adam’s nature.

Yes and no. In part, I want to affirm this because we do believe her conception was preceded by the grace of dispassion and that if Saint John the Forerunner was graced in the womb, certainly so was the Theotokos. However, I’d be careful not to equate this one for one with the baptismal waters, not because it is impossible (Saint Augustine provides for us the logic that baptism in blood for even the unborn is possible), but simply because saints like Leo the Great and Ephraim appear to identify the annunciation itself with the “one baptism” of the Church. I’d argue that the preceding purifications of the Theotokos allowed her to fully co-operate with the grace of baptism at the Lord’s conception. While, schmucks like you and me constantly fail to co-operate with the fullness of grace we received at baptism, grace at baptism is potentially so profound that Saint John Chrysostom asserts that it is theoretically possible we have no passions whatsoever if we so co-operated with that grace. (see comments on Rom 6:11-12 in Chrysostom, Homily 11 on Romans)

The distinction between nature and person is all important.

As discussed beforehand, this distinction appears problematic in the Orthodox context. To me, it only honestly seems to work in an Mariologically exclusive sense if we presume original sin includes a component of inherited guilt, something the Orthodox reject. (see Decree 6 of the Council of Jerusalem 1672)

It is the person who is the subject of Christ’s sanctifying grace, not the nature.

This seems to be a problematic statement, as the morality of the person (which is due to the co-operation with God’s grace) does have an effect on tropos according to Orthodox spirituality.

God accepts this personal grace, won for us by the Son, in place of Adam’s natural grace.

Adam’s “natural grace,” as you put it, in the Orthodox paradigm is a tropos acting appropriately as per its original state in human nature—reflexively co-operating and co-willing with God. “Personal grace,” another euphemism I am not familiar with, seems to mean one’s living up to what you coin “sanctifying grace.” I suppose a way to make Orthodox sense of this is that when the saints attain to Theosis in this life, by His grace, this “bests” Adam’s default state of co-operating and co-willing. Adam in some degree fell short of Theosis and I presume (I speculate, based upon Saint Irenaeus’ speculations in Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching) due to a lack of maturity and lived in experience in co-operating and co-willing. We’d go crazy if we speculate, “How long would Adam and Eve have to be in the prelapsarian state before they would co-operate and co-will enough to attain to Theosis?” I don’t know.

In any event, grace requires acquisition and application. So, it cannot be a default at birth. It wasn’t for Adam and Eve, and they had an intact tropos at their creations. Hence, it appears you are trying to argue the Theotokos had Theosis at conception, but this would not work as the saints speak of the Theotokos acquiring this experience over time (particularly Saint Gregory Palamas’ homily of her presentation at the Temple).

Our Lady’s person received sanctifying grace, which was then mediated to her nature, as it is for all of us.

Over how much time?

It’s worth pointing out that, for the medieval west, this happened to all the righteous Old Testament patriarchs at various points of their lives. Aquinas has a whole section on how circumcision saved Israelites from original sin when performed in the faith of the coming Christ. This didn’t mean heaven was opened to them yet, it just means they were ordained to Christ through faith, and so their person was cleansed of their natural will’s assent to the devil’s usurpation.

This is roughly analogous to the purging of the passions through the grace of baptism and co-operating with said grace. There are some issues with Aquinas’ application of these ideas, which Heidgerken fleshes out in considerable detail.

In this cleansing, they were removed from the world of profanation and brought into the realm of election, as regards sin. Only in the realm of election, cleansed of original sin, is any kind of meritorious action possible for an Augustinian Catholic. However, their natures were not yet healed in regard to death, and so they had to wait in Hades for the fulfillment of their prevenient cleansing.

Again, I am not sure what you are getting at here due to the usage of terms in a peculiar sense. For example, what is “election” in reference to conception, when election occurs before conception; before the foundation of the world?

For Our Lady, who is the vessel of election, Catholics claim that she was ordained to election and the kingdom of her Son pre-eminently, being ignorant of the devil’s lies, and so, for Catholics, the prevenient grace given to Israel is given to her as early as logically possible, with the logical boundary being Christ’s dignity as universal redeemer.

The application of the preceding, however, seems to betray it cannot be Mariologically exclusive. After all, would every sinless saint be predestined to be so as the only way this is remotely possible is by God’s grace throughout the entirety of that saint’s existence coinciding with the saint co-willing and co-operating with this grace?

This grace for meritorious action is so that she might merit the coming of the Son through her faith and prayers in a way that is as literally full of grace as possible. Through rigorous debate, it was decided that the earliest moment possible that was logically congruous with Christ’s universal redemption was the very moment of the formation of her person, or the hypostatization of her nature. This does not mean, however, that she doesn’t have Adam’s nature. It means that her person is converted to Christ’s coming instantly, so as to never incur God’s reproach of her person, though her nature awaited the full liberty of the Son of God until He came.

Again, the fact that what you are saying here is that “sanctifying grace” had to be applied (or assimilated) over time betrays an existence no different than other sinless saints, and so, not really an exclusive definition of the immaculate conception. Rather, this appears to be a description of “predestined sinlessness.”

Scotus even talks about her conception this way, that God cleanses her at the most dire moment possible, namely, between the formation of her nature (body and soul) and the formation of her person (particular body soul composite named Mary). If He had not cleansed her, though, her person would have contracted the sin passed through her parents’ nature to hers.

The preceding appears to betray to me a certain incongruity between the Immaculate Conception doctrine as you describe it and Orthodox anthropological teaching. To put the matter succinctly, it appears you are positing inherited guilt. Being that no one inherits the personal guilt of another’s sin in Orthodoxy, then this would make everyone Immaculately Conceived.

Thus, Our Lady is still part of fallen and redeemed humanity. As Aquinas said, at her first sanctification she is inclined to the Good, at the incarnation she is confirmed in the Good, and at the assumption she is perfected in the Good. She is preveniently redeemed from sin, but she is liberatively redeemed from death and the curses of the fall. This is true of the righteous patriarchs, and it is pre-eminently true for the Queen of the kingdom of the Son, for whom it is just to have the greatest share in Christ’s redeeming grace possible, so that He could most fittingly call her “My delight.” It is for God to forgive us all, and He forgives Our Lady most perfectly by forgiving her from all sins she would have committed, whether actually, habitually, or dispositionally, without His grace.

Again, this seems to be a simple non-exclusive “predestined sinlessness” view. The fact you speak of “disposition” to sin appears to betray to me you affirm the Theotokos having some experience of concupiscence.

You asked for proof that this was part of the ordinary magisterium. Well, everything I’ve written here is from theologians of good standing from the mid-1800s through the 1950s. The catechism of the Catholic Church calls her the “first-fruits of redemption,” which certainly seems to say she is postlapsarian. Sorry for commenting similar content on two separate blog posts, but I felt you might prefer this one as a venue for discussion.

I just want to note that before this period of time, Roman Catholics had a (more) popular prelapsarianist sentiment as well, which is why I stated plainly this is an unsettled question in your communion. Additionally, it appears to me that some of the larger critiques in my article contra Ortlund, pertaining to the experience of despair in the Theotokos at the cross, seems to me to be missing from your analysis. This doctrine of the RCs seems to me to be the real clincher which ultimately invalidates both the prelasarianist and postlapsarianist extrapolations of the Immaculate Conception doctrine precisely for the Christological reasons I state.

Once again, I very much admire your good will towards Catholics and your intellectually honest approach towards making sense of all the available data. I think you are more right than wrong about most of what you say in this issue, but I feel that some of the data of modern (1600-1950) Catholic debate about the IC can really clarify what is permissible to believe in the dogma. Catholic apologists are often staking their claim in one of the possible camps within the IC, unwittingly battling legitimately Catholic options voiced by the Orthodox.

Thank you for your kind words. I think your reply, and my response, brings out what are some of the real differences in anthropology which make the RC doctrine dependent upon the inherited guilt view or by necessity take away any exclusivist sense in which the Immaculate Conception can be applied. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware comments on the doctrine, a non-exclusivist view would be “superfluous” to the Orthodox and simply confusing for RCs. I hope what is written here gives you much to chew on. Thank you for your serious interactions with my writings. I am not sure if you have seen it, but you may be interested in my work on this issue published in a Romanian Orthodox journal. Let me know what you think!