The Theology of Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko: Orthodox or Opinion?

The Theology of Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko: Orthodox or Opinion? (continuation)–I must apologize for the inconsistent formatting; in transferring this document errors crept in that cannot be corrected on this processing program

Let us now continue to look into this Chapter, “The Purification of Mary”; it is stated:

We learn from the Church’s liturgy that Joseph and Mary were considered to be poor, since they did not offer a lamb, but rather the turtle doves, as is depicted on the icons of the feast. The Gospel of Saint Luke makes no mention of the possibility of offering a lamb. We learn as well that, although the accent of the liturgy is on the meeting, Mary did in fact come for purification as the law required. This means that her womb was opened and that the Christ Child was born from her in the manner in which all children are born. In this sense, although the Church insists that Mary remains forever a virgin, the only miracle in regard to the Lord’s birth is the virginal conception. There is no teaching of any other sort of a miracle in regard to His birth; certainly no idea that He came forth from His mother without opening her womb. (pp. 174-5)

Furthermore, by way of conversation, several students of the author have related how he has expounded the subject at hand. In classroom lectures it has been taught that in order for Christ to be fully human He had to have a normal human birth, which meant birth pangs, the breaking of the seal of the Theotokos’ virginity, and the usual bleeding of a woman. What does the Church say about this? The Theotokos is ever-virgin, she is virgin before, during and after childbirth. She had no birth pangs, there was no spilling of blood in the birth of Christ, the Theotokos was alone in the cave when she gave birth to our Lord, and it was a supernatural birth. The midwife quoted above has testified to this and this has been confirmed by Scriptures, the writings of our Holy Fathers, and the liturgical tradition of the Church.

To begin with we can quote the Prophet Isaiah: “Before she travailed, she brought forth; before her pain came, she was delivered of a man child”. (Isa 66:7) This is a prophecy of the painless birth giving of the Theotokos to our Lord. St. John of Damascus confirms this in writing:

Having completed the nine-month period He was born at the beginning of the tenth, it was in accordance with the law of gestation; while because it was without pain, it surpassed the established order of birth (emphasis mine) — for, where pleasure had not preceded, pain did not follow, as the Prophet said: “Beforeshe was in labor, she brought forth, and again: before her time came to be delivered she brought forth a man child.” (Isaiah66:7) [Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Christian Faith, Book 4, Chapter 14—all excerpts from St. John of Damascus are from, The Fathers of the Church, A New Translation, Vol. 37]

Likewise St. Irenaeus of Lyons in writing of this says: “And concerning His birth, the same prophet says in another place (Is. 66:7), ‘Before she who was in labor gave birth, and before the birth pains came on, she was delivered of a male child;’ thus he indicated His unexpected and extraordinary birth from the Virgin”. [“The Miraculous Virgin Birth of our Lord” See:


In the canons of the Church in reference to Nativity icons we see the miraculous birth of our Lord confirmed:

Just as we confess the conception of the Theotoke to have been seedless and to have resulted from the action of the Holy Spirit, so in like manner we also join in confessing Her childbirth to have been one above every accompaniment of any confinement due to what is commonly called childbed, which consists in giving birth to an infant with the accompanying pangs of childbed and is followed by a flux of blood, according to Zonaras. [He was a 12th century Byzantine canonist and historian] Whoever should do this, if he be a Cleric, let him be deposed from office; but if he be a layman, let him be excommunicated. [From the interpretation of Canon LXXIX of the 102 Canons of the Quinisext or Sixth Ecumenical Council, The Rudder, p.384 ]

The footnote to this carries on as follows:

Hence artists painting pictures ought not to depict the Theotoke on the occasion of the feast of Christmas, at the Nativity of Christ, to be lying on a bed and apparently exhausted by the pain….For certain women, on the other hand, to be depicted as washing Christ in a basin, as is seen in many icons representing the Nativity of Christ, is an absurdity and impropriety of the rankest kind, and is an invention of carnal men; wherefore it ought by all means be discarded. [ibid. pp. 384-5]

Let us now continue and consider the prophecy of Ezekiel: “Then he brought me back the way of the gate of the outward sanctuary which looketh toward the east; and it wasshut. Then said the LORD unto me; this gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter in by it; because the LORD, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it, therefore it shall be shut.” (44:1-2) Our Church considers the gate that is shut and shall not be opened to refer to the ever-virginity of the Theotokos, the physical seal (or gate) of her virginity was not violated by the birth of our Lord. Thus Saint Amphilochius of Iconium writes: “In the Virgin Birth, the virginal gates were in no way opened, as He fittingly hath willed, who was conceived there, according to the words that were spoken concerning Him: ‘this gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it: because the Lord God of Israel hath entered by it, and it shall be shut’”. (Eze. 44:2) [The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, Vol. I, p. 175]

The hymnology of the Church often speaks of this, one of the most beautiful that does so is as follows: “Of old thou wast revealed as the gate of life to the Prophet Ezekiel through whom the Lord incarnate alone has passed. And as He is the Most High He preserved thee sealed, O most pure One”. [Tone 6, Friday Matins, Ode 3, Canon to the Theotokos] Thus our hymnology also speaks of the Theotokos as being the, “Impassible gate mystically sealed”. [Tone 2, Sunday Vespers, Theotokion at the Aposticha]

Let us finally take a look at several excerpts from our holy fathers that speak of the ever virginity of the Theotokos. St. John of Damascus writes of her: “Just as at His conception He had kept her who conceived Him a virgin, so also at His birth did He maintain her virginity intact, because He alone passed through her and kept her shut”. [Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Christian Faith, Book 4, Chapter 14] St. Leo, Pope of Rome, in his Tome written to the Council of Chalcedon says that “Christ was conceived of the Holy Ghost within the womb of a Virgin Mother, who bore Him as she had conceived Him without the loss of virginity” [Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 14, p. 254]. Also St. Gregory of Nyssa writes:” The womb of the Holy Virgin, which ministered to an Immaculate Birth, is pronounced blessed in the Gospel; for that birth did not annul the virginity, nor did the virginity impede so great a birth”. [“On Virginity”, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5, p. 365]

In concluding what can we say as regards those who speak of the Theotokos as having giving birth to our Lord in the normal human manner? We shall let a 5th century bishop, St. Peter Chrysologus, give us a reply:

Where are they who think that the Virgin’s conceiving and the Virgin’s giving birth are like those of other women? Theirs is of the earth, hers is of heaven. Hers is by divine power, theirs by human weakness. Theirs is in the passions of the flesh, hers in the tranquility of the Divine Spirit and in a human body at rest. Blood was quiet, flesh was still, her members slept, and the Virgin’s womb was entirely un­moved in that heavenly visit, while the Author of flesh was clothing himself in a garment of flesh and becoming a Heav­enly Man, who would not only restore the earth to man, but would even give him heaven. A Virgin conceived, a Virgin bore, and a Virgin she remains. [The Fathers of the Church, A New Translation, Vol. 17, Sermon 117 “The First Adam, and the Last Adam, Born of a Virgin” p.199] (It is possible that in his last sentence St. Peter is quoting the midwife at the birth of Christ—see above fourth paragraph.)