Book Review: “Introducing the Orthodox Church,” By Anthony M. Coniaris

A Hymn to the Theotokos

Thy wonders, O pure Theotokos, surpass the power of words. For in thee I see something beyond speech: a body that was never subject to the taint of sin. Therefore in thanksgiving I cry to thee: O pure Virgin, thou art truly high above all.—from the 9th Ode of the canon for the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos, translation is from The Festal Menaion, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press

Book Review:

Introducing the Orthodox Church  

Its Faith and Life

Anthony M. Coniaris

This review is the result of my involvement with a number of inquirers to our Orthodox Church. The aforementioned book has been recommended for their reading and as Rev. Stanley S. Harakas notes in his introduction: “It is written to inspire as well as inform, a special charisma of the author”. Nevertheless I feel a responsibility to do some critiquing. In this review I want to speak about what is expressed in the Chapter: “What we believe about the Saints and the Theotokos”. In particular it is what is written concerning Theotokos that will be commented on.

While speaking of the Annunciation the author finds it necessary to differentiate between the Orthodox Church and belief of Roman Catholicism as follows:

The immaculate Conception of Mary is not recognized as a dogma (official teaching) by the Orthodox Church. According to this Roman Catholic dogma, Mary was cleansed of original sin by God while still in her mother’s womb in order that the All-Pure Son of God might be born through her. Since such a teaching denies the free response of man to God, the Orthodox Church believes that Mary was cleansed of all sin at the Annunciation after she had agreed to accept God’s offer. It was at that point that the Holy Spirit came upon her to make her fit to receive the Word in her womb. At that moment she became “blessed” and “full of grace”. (p. 132)

There are several flaws in the above that I would like to address, they are:

1. The concept of so-called, “original sin”, what is the Orthodox response?

2. The comment: “The Orthodox Church believes that Mary was cleansed of all sin at the Annunciation after she had agreed to accept God’s offer”.  Is this really what the Orthodox Church believes?

3. Again the comment, “At that moment”—that is, after the Theotokos submitted to the will of God—“she became ‘blessed’ and ‘full of grace’”.

“Original sin”—what is our Orthodox response to this?

“Original sin” is Roman Catholic terminology which the Orthodox in the English speaking world have sometimes borrowed.  It is best to stay away from this term but if it is used one should define it in an Orthodox manner; otherwise it could be misleading.  In using the term “original sin” the author did not inform his readers that the Orthodox and Roman Catholic concepts of “original sin” are quite different so let us do this.  In order to illustrate our proper response to the idea of “original sin” I would like to quote a book on the Theotokos, “O Full of Grace, Glory to Thee”.

The sin of our forefathers or first-parents – as “ancestral” is literally translated from the Greek – of course, had an effect upon all mankind. The Blessed Augustine, who set the pace for Roman Catholic doctrine on this subject, clung to the erroneous opinion that Adam’s personal guilt is inherited by all his descendants and therefore, so also is the responsibility and punishment for his sin. It was in reaction to an error on the other extreme, which came to be called Pelagianism, that he expressed this opinion in his preaching and writing. Pelagius was a British theologian who taught in Rome in the late 4th and early 5th centuries. Pelagianism reduced the effects of the fall by saying that the sin of Adam had no effect on his descendants, and the more extreme Pelagians denied any transmission of ancestral sin.

In both of these errors there is a confusion of person and nature in the human being. If while examining ancestral sin, we build the foundation of our theology on human nature alone, we shall have the Augustinian conclusion. This makes the human nature, which is common to all mankind, the bearer of Adam’s guilt and a co-participant in the responsibility for his sin. The Pelagians rightly teach that only the person effects sin and that each particular person shall be accountable for the guilt of his own sins. However, in overlooking human nature, and focusing solely upon person, they incorrectly conclude that the sin of Adam had no effect on the human nature in which all his descendants share.

So what is the Orthodox teaching on this subject? Namely, that we inherit the effect of the personal sin of Adam upon his human nature, a nature that is common to all of us. This results in a distortion of man’s being, since there is a certain hierarchy in man, in which the reasoning power of the soul should rule over the other powers, the desiring and incensive. However, with the fall, this hierarchy is turned upsidedown, and the reasoning power is enslaved to the other two powers of the soul; thus, the soul becomes a slave to the passions. This state is a state of separation from God and therefore a state of sin, a condition in which we are all born.  So it is this, along with the death of the body that we inherit from Adam. (pp. 74-75)

Now and then we do see an Augustinian concept of original sin in books on the Orthodox Faith.  One could question: How did this happen?  In responding I would like to tell a story of something that occurred when I was a novice at St. Tikhon’s Monastery.   I asked my spiritual father a question about some matter of faith and he told me to read a particular section in a book that was written in Greek and translated into English: “Orthodox Dogmatic Theology”.  He continued to say, “Read the whole book if you like.”  This book answered my question but in reading the whole I found it explained “ancestral” or “original” sin from an Augustinian standpoint.  This disturbed me and after speaking to the librarian I complained to my spiritual father about this he smiled, acknowledged the flaw in this book, and said he expected me to be able to make such distinctions.  Afterwards in speaking of this whole matter with an older monk he smiled and said:  “The problem is that because of the Turkish yoke and impoverished state of the Church of Greece many theologians in the earlier part of the 20th century received higher education inWestern Europe.  And so, such ideas have crept into the Orthodox Church.”

Next to comment: “The Orthodox Church believes that Mary was cleansed of all sin at the Annunciation after she had agreed to accept God’s offer”.

Before responding to this erroneous statement I would like to say something about its roots.  Again it is the same as the aforementioned, “original sin”.  I know of a seminary professor who gave an opinion on how this idea has entered the Church as follows: “It is from Germany and Lutheranism.  Because of the lack of higher education in Greece as a result of the Turkish yoke many theologians of the Greek Church in the earlier half of the 20th century were educated in Germany.”

In going on with critiquing the aforesaid comment we must combine with it the idea that the Theotokos became “blessed” and “full of grace” at the point when the Holy Spirit came upon her after her obedience to God at the time of the Annunciation.  The critique of these two comments must be addressed together since these are inseparably intertwined in the writings of the Holy Fathers.

Let us now continue.  To say that the Theotokos was cleansed of all sin at the Annunciation certainly implies she was guilty of personal sin and is a tangent from our Orthodox Faith. One flaw in this conclusion is that the author gave no support by any of the saints or reputable theologians of our Church.  This is an unhappy conclusion and is not in harmony with our Orthodox Faith!  On the contrary the holy fathers of our Orthodox Church teach that the Theotokos was free from personal sin.  So let us look at what of some of our saints say in reference to the spiritual state of the Theotokos at the time of the Annunciation and her sinlessness.

St. Gregory Palamas is the foremost who speaks of this.  In his homilies on the entry of the Theotokos into the temple (see Homily 53, Saint Gregory Palamas the Homilies, Mount Thabor Press).  He writes of the Virgin finding a new way to heaven, previous unknown, which is silence of mind and unceasing prayer to God.  He says that she reached such a spiritual height that she saw the glory of God greater than Moses.  And many other saints speak of the greatly exalted life she led in the Temple, instance, Sts. Jerome, George of Nicomedia and Theopylact of Bulgaria (see The Great Collection of the Lives of Saints compiled by St. Demetrius of Rostov, November 21st , Chrysostom Press).    And so, we can be sure that by the time she left theTemple to live in the house of Joseph she was indeed blessed and had acquired much grace.

And concerning the spiritual state of the Theotokos at time of the Annunciation St. Gregory Palamas writes:

“And the Virgin’s name”, it says, “was Mary” (Luke 1:27), which means, “Lady”.  This shows the Virgin’s dignity, how certain was her virginity and set apart was her life, exact in every respect and completely blameless.  She properly bore the name of Virgin, and possessed to the full all the attributes of purity.  She was a virgin both in body and soul, and kept all the powers of her soul and bodily senses far above any defilement (emphasis mine). This she did authoritatively, steadfastly, decisively and altogether inviolably at all times, as a closed gate preserves the treasures within. (Saint Gregory Palamas the Homilies, p. 103)

And St. Gregory the Wonderworker of Neoceasarea writes of this:

The angel said to Mary the holy virgin first of all, “Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee;” inasmuch as with her was laid up the full treasure of grace. For of all generations she alone has risen as a virgin pure in body and in spirit; and she alone bears Him who bears all things on His word. Nor is it only the beauty of this holy one in body that calls forth our admiration, but also the innate virtue of her soul. Wherefore also the angels addressed her first with the salutation, “Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee, and no spouse of earth.

And she was perplexed by this word; for she was inexperienced in all the addresses of men, and welcomed quiet, as the mother of prudence and purity; (yet) being a pure, and immaculate, and stainless image herself (each emphasis is mine). (see First Homily on the Annunciation to the Holy Virgin Mary—Gregory Thaumaturgus, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VI, WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)

Then St. Gregory continues in first quoting the archangel:

“The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee; therefore also   that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.” For what He is, that also shall He be called by all means.  Meekly, then, did grace make election of the pure Mary alone out of all generations. For she proved herself prudent truly in all things; neither has any woman been born like her in all generations. (ibid.)

Again in The Great Collection of the Lives of the Saints compiled St. Demetrius of Rostov there is a homily on the Annunciation (see March 25th) speaks of the state of grace the Theotokos had already acquired at that time.  In the person of the Archangel Gabriel the homilist thus writes:

You have found favor with God on account of your innumerable virtues, of which three are chief.  Firstly, you have obtained grace because of your profound humility.  “God giveth grace to the humble” (Jas. Ch. 4; Prov. Ch. 3), and He asks, “Unto whom shall I look down, save upon the meek and the humble?” (Is.Ch.66)  Secondly you have obtained grace because of your virginal purity.  God, Who is supreme pure by nature, wishes to be born of an immaculate virgin.  Thirdly, you have obtained grace because of your flaming love for God.  The Lord says, “I love them that love Me, and those that seek me find grace” (Prov. Ch.8).

A little later the homilist comments on Mary’s question, “How shall this be seeing I know not a man?”

So saying the immaculate Virgin did not express disbelief in the angel’s words, for by the grace of God, with which she was filled [emphasis mine], she knew she would bear the One heralded.  The Lord Himself had revealed this to her while she was still in the Temple.

And one widely revered contemporary Greek theologian, Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos, affirms that the Theotokos reached a state of deification during her life in the temple.  And she was brought to a yet even higher state after the Annunciation (see The Feasts of the Lord, Chapter 1, The Annunciation).  Another contemporary patristics scholar and professor has commented: “As I recall, some fathers do speak of a cleansing of the Theotokos at the Annunciation, but this is understood in terms of her receiving an addition of grace.  So not a cleansing of sin as such, but an increase of perfection—perfection is a dynamic state, not a static one”.

So then, is it proper for an Orthodox Christian to say that the Theotokos was cleansed of all sin at the time of the Annunciation and full of grace* only after her submission to God’s offer?  Of course not, for she abounded with grace through her ascetic life in the Temple, and was sinless as our Church teaches.  And this latter was confirmed directly by the Holy Spirit in a revelation He had given to St. Silouan the Athonite as he thus testifies:

In church I was listening to a reading from the Prophet Isaiah, and at the words, “ Wash you, make you clean,” I reflected, “Maybe the Mother of God sinned at one time or another, if only in thought.”  And marvelous to relate, in unison with my prayer a voice sounded in my heart, saying clearly, “The Mother of God never sinned even in thought.”  Thus did the Holy Spirit bear witness in my heart to her purity. (St.Silouan the Athonite, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, pp. 391-2)

May our Lord Jesus Christ grant His grace to those who honor His mother in an Orthodox manner.  Amen.

*It should also be taken into consideration that the Greek word which is translated into English as either “highly favored” or “full of grace” is a past participle.