Michael Lofton, to use a phrase he does not find offensive (by his admission), “has no idea what he is talking about.” His latest rant against the Orthodox opposition to the Immaculate Conception (one endorsed by every modern saint commenting on the issue and two Orthodox councils), is littered with factual errors. “Will you speak wickedly for God and talk deceitfully for Him?” (Job 13:7) One is left to wonder.
Lofton, perhaps in the hope of creating controversy to drive up clicks and Patreon subscribers, regularly starts fights with online personalities. Whatever the actual motivation, because only God can know, this is concerning due to Scriptural prohibitions on gossip. His slew of “response shows” and “call out sessions,” typical of the “Christian” apologetics scene (he is hardly alone), are against several Traditional Catholic and Orthodox personalities alike. Recently, he attacked Orthodox Ethos for merely quoting someone else on a Youtube Community Page. The quote is from a recent holy elder (Father George of Grigoriou). Lofton fixates on the part of the quote which states “if the Virgin possessed a different nature [as Roman Catholics allege], then the Lord taking on human nature from her divinized some other nature and not the nature common to all men.”
At first glance, the quote appears erroneous. “Nature” usually refers to substance/essence. No Roman Catholic actually asserts that the Theotokos, due to the Immaculate Conception, has a different essence/substance from the rest of mankind.
However, Lofton ignores that “nature” is often a reference to tropos, in other words, the way essence/substance operates. I would hope Lofton affirms that mankind’s tropos after the Fall is different that Adam’s preceding it or the Lord’s sinless flesh. (Rom 8:3) With this in mind, he should consider the Great Euchologian’s mandatory confession for all bishops (something the Uniates likewise do):
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)
Now, the holy elder’s argument can be seen in a very different light than how Lofton portrays it (whether out of malice or ignorance, God knows). The argument is if the Theotokos possessed an unfallen nature, then Christ did not assume “our whole fallen human nature”–something that is necessary for the atonement. The moment Christ assumed our fallen human flesh, it instantly ceased to be fallen because He assumed the human essence/substance into the divine hypostasis of the Word. Saint Cyril is emphatic on this point and it is a linch pin of all Orthodox anthropology. Lofton ironically complains that Roman Catholics are being strawmanned when this is literally the nature of his whole critique–attacking a position not held by the elder.
Lofton then offers his own definition of the Immaculate Conception, one not found quoted in the 1854 decree: “there was never a time Mary was estranged from God.” This is a polemical talking point, making an emotional appeal which he has made to me before: there couldn’t be a time where the Theotokos had original sin because if she died she would have went to Hell. However, why speculate such impious things? The tradition of the saints inveighs against them. In the PL of Saint Augustine’s Against Julianus the following is asserted:
We do not deliver Mary to the devil by the condition of her birth; but for this reason, because this very condition is resolved by the grace of rebirth. (Augustine, Against Julianus, Book 4, Par 122)
Non transcribimus diabolo Mariam conditione nascendi; sed ideo, quia ipsa conditio solvitur gratia renascendi. (PL 45, p. 1418)
Saint Gregory the Illuminator teaches the exact same thing:
[Gabriel said to Mary:] No longer shall the devil be against you; for where of old that adversary inflicted the wound [i.e. the womb], there now first of all does the Physician apply the salve of deliverance. Where death came forth, there has life now prepared its entrance. (Gregory the Illuminator, Homily 3 On the Annunciation)
Hence, the Immaculate Conception is not the reason why Mary was never estranged from God. The straightforward answer is the Annunciation is the reason–not say I, but the saints–including Augustine, the very person he is paraphrasing in making his emotional appeal. Of course, people will double-down and ask nonsense rhetorical questions such as “what if Mary died before the Annunciation despite God predestining her from the foundation of the world to serve her role as the Theotokos?” Does anyone listen to how ridiculous this sounds?
She was predestined (i.e. foreknown and directed by grace) to salvation. There is no way to speculate what would happen if she died in some absurd way without removing a central premise of her soteriological condition. The Theotokos never in thought or deed sinned. She never conceived of sin in her mind, and by God’s grace she rejected every temptation to sin (whether it be doubts at the cross, vainglory at the Wedding at Cana, or whatever else that ever came her way). God’s grace was with her from conception and it indwells her assumed body today. However, none of this means that the Theotokos was born with an intact, prelapsarian tropos–something that defies the Orthodox theory of the atonement and removes its incarnational importance.
The incarnation is understood as the full-dose of Theosis. It technically undoes the fallen tropos. This is why there are hagiographies of saints that cannot be killed–they voluntarily gave up their own souls without violence. The idea is that God’s grace can even undo all the effects of original sin. Yet, there are other martyrs that did not attain to the same level of spiritual perfection, dying involuntary deaths. They too are also saints. Salvation, being on a spectrum and grace being applied diversely, does not allow itself to be reduced in the sense that Lofton demands (i.e. that the Theotokos before experiencing grace in its fullness and sinlessness would automatically be subject to Hellfire, an impious and horrible thought).
Hence, there is no contradiction when Orthodox presume the Theotokos was under grace her whole life, but that a specific moment stands out as her actual “baptism” (a euphemism Saints Pope Leo the Great, Ephraim the Syrian, and other saints use for the Annunciation). For those who do not understand how Orthodox do theology, they may have never even thought of this. But the point is, to critique the Orthodox position, one must correctly surmise how they do theology. In short, hagriographic consensus on points of doctrine mean something to us. This borders on non-existent in the West.
Lofton continues with the same emotional appeal: “she was always morally upright…effectively we are saying the same thing…Orthodox think this means we think she did not die.” This is misleading as an acceptable position in Roman Catholicism is that the Theotokos did not die. In contradiction to this, Lofton emphatically cites Munifentissimus Deus (the 1950 dogmatization of the Assumption) on this point. The intent is to convey that there are Orthodox that misrepresent the Roman Catholic Church’s view concerning whether the Theotokos died. He asserts most definitely she died according to the document. He quotes a translation which transparently teaches such. The Latin is as follows: “hoc nempe festo non solummodo Beatae Virginis Mariae nullam habitam esse exanimis corporis corruptionem commemorari.” (Par 20) The Latin lexicon points out that “exanimis” means “lifeless, dead” and “corporis” means “[living or lifeless] a body, flesh, or a lifeless body.”
However, mainstream Roman Catholic sources treat it as an open question, citing a plethora of authorities on both sides of the subject. A 1959 English translation even leaves out the word “dead.” I am very appreciative that Lofton takes the view that he does, but it appears informed contemporaries in the 1950s did not read Par 20 of the aforementioned document as authoritative, but rather teaching one acceptable opinion. The Vatican’s top scholars on the subject (Jugie and Wenger) of the Dormition and Assumption in the 1950s were Marian prelapsarianists who doubted her death. (Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition and Assumption, p. 14-17) According to Shoemaker, “at the urging of Jugie in particular, the 1950 definition deliberately left open the question of the Virgin’s actual death.” (Ibid., p. 17)
Other contemporaries concurred. In 1951, Caspar Friethoff (in Thomist: A Quarterly Speculative Review) candidly wrote:
If Mary did die, then, this privilege includes an anticipated glorious resurrection. I say: if she did die. Historically there is no evidence of that death. There have been, and are, theologians of the opinion that she never died.
One must be understanding that to the Orthodox, the well-publicized views of men like Jugie are very troubling. To informed Roman Catholics, though perhaps Lofton would decry them as heretics (and we’d agree), the prelapsarian, immortalist position on the Theotokos is an allowed theological opinion. Orthodox have every right to condemn the still “allowable” false doctrine. In the meantime, we are of course happy when they modify anything so that it is more orthodox than it was before.
Lofton then read from the Catholic Encyclopedia, speaking of the Immaculate Conception permitting the Theotokos to have some consequences of Adam’s Fall, such as sorrow. This is incoherent anthropologically and it shows that the Immaculate Conception has wed the Roman Catholics to having the wrong doctrine of original sin. Sorrow is a result of the Fall. The fathers not only teach this but are emphatic that Christ (being sinless) never experienced grief. Before people start citing Is 53:3, they ought to consult the NRSV and multiple translations which render the passage similarly to the LXX. Christ was not a sorrowful man before His resurrection. Rather, He voluntarily assumed physical pain and would shed tears of empathy.
Lofton then strawmans the Orthodox again, apparently reading minds, alleging that the reason the Orthodox do not believe in the Immaculate Conception is out of spite. According to his accusation, they reject their own saints on the question, cutting off their nose to spite their face. I am not following Reason and Theology that closely so I am not sure if Lofton still claims the mantle of “charity” or not anymore, but surely it is not charitable to slander a whole group of people–especially with no grounds. I am not aware of a single Orthodox person that says “I will spite my own saints so I can reject the Pope.”
In any event, the proof for his contention is highly deficient. He cites an article from Father Lev Gillet, a Roman Catholic that converted to Orthodoxy in 1928 who then spent the rest of his life supporting the ecumenist movement. Ecumenists are often very nice people, so this is not a slur, but we must recognize that their ideology encourages the “flattening” of differences between communions. No surprise, not only does Gillet do this, he fails to quote a single Orthodox saint unambiguously teaching the Immaculate Conception doctrine. This contradicts Lofton’s whole point that he has “proof” in that article of Orthodox saints affirm the Immaculate Conception. Orthodox saints in the modern era, including Saints John Maximovitch and Paisios the Athonite (just to name two), explicitly reject the Roman Catholic doctrine. There will be more in coming years, such as Archbishop Dmitiri of Blessed Memory (whose relics are actually incorrupt as shown in mainstream news articles) and New Martyr Daniel Sysoev, as both taught against the doctrine emphatically and by name.
Ironically, if Lofton bothered reading the comments section of the same blog, he would have saw that three different 21st century scholars likewise rejected that the saints taught the Immaculate Conception. This is not some sort of Protestant import into Orthodoxy as he would like to have people believe. He cites the ecumenist scholar, John Panteleimon Manoussakis, on this point. Again, being an ecumenist does not make someone a bad person, but Manoussakis in making this slur cites a Roman Catholic scholar as his basis: Father Christaan Kappes. First, this is an odd way of proving that Protestant sensibilities are corrupting Orthodox doctrine, being that he had to resort to citing a non-Orthodox source. Second, Kappes’ research is riddled with methodological errors. He also collaborates in self-published Amazon books with non-academics (who perhaps are not even college graduates). Not coincidentally, he also regularly collaborates with Lofton. Kappes’ collaborations with polemicists may not suffer from the same errors as his other published work, but it is surely a detail which demonstrates that he is not an aloof, impartial scholar. The most up-to-date peer-reviewed scholarship has definitively debunked his professionally published argumentation on the Immaculate Conception, effectively rendering Manoussakis’ own slander entirely without a basis.
Lofton makes a more profoundly bad point, in misreading the holy elder’s quote, by asserting that Orthodoxy assumes that human nature is inherently sinful. This point is not one that can be addressed briefly, so I commend readers to read this blog post. Due to Roman Catholicism having both Marian pre and postlapsarianists (something Lofton obfuscates, as covered earlier), their Immaculate Conception doctrine creates two entirely different anthropologies. Neither is “kosher.” The prelapsarianists must affirm that things like hunger, grief, pain (i.e. some blameworthy and the gamut of blameless passions) precede the Fall. However, the postlapsarianists (Lofton and not a few others) effectually adhere to a dualistic doctrine of original sin: that sin affects the body but (somehow) not the soul (see p. 58-60, 90-91 in Ullathorne’s 1855 book The Mother of God). So, Mary was in effect immaculately conceived, exempted from “all stain of sin,” but “all” does not mean “all” as the effects of sin still afflict her. In effect, the soul does not inherit original sin, but the body does. This scholastic, crassly Gnostic (cf Gospel of Mary 8:10-12), doctrine that divides body and soul is utterly heterodox as the cause of bodily corruption is the fallen tropos. In short, blameless passions cannot exist without original sin, because it is according to the fathers simple cause and effect. (cf Rom 5:12) As the Scripture teaches:
God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them, and the dominion of Hades is not on earth. For righteousness is immortal. But the ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death. (Wis 1:13-16)
So, this puts the Roman Catholic in a dilemma. Either the effects of original sin do precede the Fall or one must affirm Gnostic dualism and turn God into a death dealer who arbitrarily punishes bodies with death irrespective of sin. For the Orthodox, it is easier to simply dispense with the Roman Catholic doctrine and affirm the Patristic consensus on such matters.
Lofton ends his critique of the holy elder by (for some unrelated reason) making inaccurate claims about the Papacy. He alleges that more than one ecumenical council claims “the bishop of Rome is a source of unity.” He does not quote one section that says this or even conceptually parallels the idea. He cannot because it does not exist. There is not a single canon, decree, or even passing comment in conciliar minutes that makes this point. It is simply a false, off-the-cuff comment. Lofton then asserts that concerning the Formula of Hormisdas, “I know there were various versions but they all affirm the papal claims essentially.” The problem is that this is also absolutely false, as C.A. 139 proves. For those interested in a serious, fair and balanced coverage of the History of the Papacy, I recommend the collaboration between myself and John Collorafi.
Lastly, a brief comment should be made which implicates more people than just Lofton. The Scripture warns, “Avoid all appearance of evil.” (1 Thes 5:22) If a Youtube “ministry” looks more like MMA televangelism, then this is the worst pay-per-view there is. I think the content producers and audiences alike are morally obligated to distance themselves from such unholy endeavors.