There is good reason to believe that the Council fathers of Constantinople III (AD 681) and Nicaea II (AD 787), which were predominantly Eastern in attendance, taught the immaculate & sinless existence of the Virgin Mary. And not just her present existence in the blessedness of heaven, but of her earthly life. Let’s take a look at some of the evidence that the Council text provides for us.
“Moreover we confess that one of the same holy consubstantial Trinity, God the Word, who was begotten of the Father before the worlds, in the last days of the world for us and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Ghost, and of our Lady, the holy, immaculate, ever-virgin and glorious Mary, truly and properly the Mother of God, that is to say according to the flesh which was born of her; and was truly made man, the same being very God and very man. God of God his Father, but man of his Virgin Mother, incarnate of her flesh with a reasonable and intelligent soul” (Letter of Pope St. Agatho to Constantinople)
That Agatho’s letter was well-received by the Council as an authentic expression of orthodoxy is proven by the Conciliar statements in the Prosphoneticus to the Emperor:
“…The ancient city of Rome handed you a confession of divine character, and a chart from the sunsetting raised up the day of dogmas, and made the darkness manifest, and Peter spoke through Agatho, and you, O autocratic King, according to the divine decree, with the Omnipotent Sharer of your throne, judged.”
In this same address to the Emperor, the Council writes concerning Christ:
“For as the Word, he is consubstantial and eternal with God his father; but as taking flesh of the immaculate Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, he is perfect man, consubstantial with us and made in time. We declare therefore that he is perfect in Godhead and that the same is perfect likewise in manhood, according to the pristine tradition of the fathers and the divine definition of Chalcedon.”
Now, this may entail some flowery language, not intended to really describe Mary as literally sinlessly perfect. This fails to convince given that Pope St. Agatho’s letter uses the very same word to describe the disposition of Jesus Christ:
“From all which it is evident that he [Christ] had a human will by which he obeyed his Father, and that he had in himself this same human will immaculate from all sin, as true God and man.”
And, in the 18th session of the Council Acts, we read:
“For as his flesh is called and is the flesh of God the Word, so also the natural will of his flesh is called and is the proper will of God the Word, as he himself says: I came down from heaven, not that I might do my own will but the will of the Father which sent me! where he calls his own will the will of his flesh, inasmuch as his flesh was also his own. For as his most holy and immaculate animated flesh was not destroyed because it was deified but continued in its own state and nature (ὄρῳ τε καὶ λόγῳ), so also his human will, although deified, was not suppressed, but was rather preserved according to the saying of Gregory Theologus: His will [i.e., the Saviour’s] is not contrary to God but altogether deified.”
This is very interesting. Why would these 7th century church fathers, in the presence of an Eastern Council majority, be describing the earthly Virgin Mary as “immaculate” , the very same word describing the Lord Jesus Christ? Now, you may think that it was really just Pope Agatho’s letter which stated that Mary was immaculate, and so part of the Western tradition. But the Council had praised the letter of Agatho. And if that didn’t work, at the Council of Nicaea II (787 AD), the very Decree of the Council towards the very end, just after the recitation of the holy Nicaene-Constantinopolitan creed, we read:
“With the Fathers of this synod we confess that he who was incarnate of the immaculate Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary has two natures, recognizing him as perfect God and perfect man”
Add to this the following statement from the Council’s letter to the Emperor and Empress:
And as the hands and feet are moved in accordance with the directions of the mind, so likewise, we, having received the grace and strength of the Spirit, and having also the assistance and co-operation of your royal authority, have with one voice declared as piety and proclaimed as truth: that the sacred icons of our Lord Jesus Christ are to be had and retained, inasmuch as he was very man; also those which set forth what is historically narrated in the Gospels; and those which represent our undefiled Lady, the holy Mother of God [obviously a description of the earthly Mary]……The things which we have decreed, being thus well supported, it is confessedly and beyond all question acceptable and well-pleasing before God, that the images of our Lord Jesus Christ as man, and those of the undefiled Mother of God, the ever-virgin Mary, and of the honourable Angels and of all Saints, should be venerated and saluted”
But does this provide support for the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception? Now, I anticipate that the modern day Eastern churches would pitch in that Mary was immaculately conceived just like any other human being, though inflicted with the ancestral curse of death. This is because the East doesn’t always acknowledge the reality of an “original sin” as the Latin dogma has been taught at the Council of Trent. But there is reason for a great misunderstanding between the two traditions here. But I am not here going to explain whether or not the Latin doctrine truly falls prey to the Orthodox objection to an “original guilt” of some sort. What I’d like to address is that these references to Mary as undefiled and immaculate actually do imply something which pertains to a unique conception from her mother. The East would read these as referring to an earthly sinlessness, and not anything with regard to her conception in the womb of St. Anne. Well, I provide some quotations below from some Eastern saints who seem to think that the immaculate-ness of the Virgin’s initial existence was profoundly unique in comparison to the rest of everyone else. It leads the reader asking why they would make a distinctive character for Mary when all are born the same immaculate way [i.e. without the Latin doctrine of original sin].
“O blessed loins of Joachim, whence the all-pure seed was poured out! O glorious womb of Anna, in which the most holy fetus grew and was formed, silently increasing! O womb in which was conceived the living heaven, wider than the wideness of the heavens” (St. John of Damascus, Homily on the Nativity 2: Patrologia Graeca 96, 664 A)
If each human being is born in the same sinless manner, what purpose would St. John to describe her as the “all pure seed”? Seems like it would be an ordinary description of even St. John’s conception himself, had he believed that everyone was born immaculate.
“Today that [human] nature, which was first brought forth from the earth, receives divinity for the first time; the dust, having been raised up, hastens with festive tread toward the highest peak of glory. Today, from us [Anne’s humanity] and for us [humanity], Adam offers Mary to God as first-fruits, and, with the unpoisoned parts of the muddy dough, is formed a bread for the rebuilding of the human …Today, pure human nature receives from God the gift of the original creation and reverts to its original purity. By giving our inherited splendor, which had been hidden by the deformity of vice, to the Mother of Him who is beautiful, human nature receives a magnificent and most divine renovation, which becomes a complete restoration. The restoration, in turn, becomes deification, and this becomes a new formation, like its pristine state“
(St. Andrew of Crete, Homily 1 on the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in PG 97:809D-812)
In the above citation, St. Andrew is speaking in a homily of the Nativity, so one might try and point out that it is possible these divine interventions were pertaining to the moment of exit from the womb of St. Anne, and not pertaining to the fetal development from conception to delivery. Well, the next citation from St. Andrew would seem to make this observation completely invalid:
“Death, natural to men, also reached her; not, however, to imprison her, as happens to us, or to vanquish her. God forbid! It was only to secure for her the experience of that sleep which comes from on high, leading us up to the object of our hope…No man lives, says Scripture, who will not see death. But even though the human create we celebrate today [Mary] must obey the law of nature, as we do, she is superior to the other humans. Therefore, death does not come to her in the same way that it comes to us. Instead, it comes in a superior way, and for a reason higher than the reason that obliges us to surrender totally to death” (Homily 1 on the Dormition, PG 97, 1052 C-1053 A)
Now, St. Andrew makes clear that Mary’s bodily death was unique to all other human persons. Might this include sinless infants? The saying “Death, natural to men, also reached her…not, however…..as happens to us”. Does the “us” there include infants? If so, then St. Andrew would be distinguishing Mary’s death from even sinless infants, thereby making her whole existence unique even from conception.
Even for the most ardent skeptic, even if these statements do not fully express a detailed formula stating the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary, they definitely go a long way in revealing what the undivided Church believed in the 7th & 8th century, and, in particular, what the Eastern fathers believed.
[Picture of the Virgin w/ Child https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Theotokos_Icon_Outside_Hajdudorog.JPG%5D