Friday, January 6, 2017

Did Origen believe in the Immaculate Conception?

Some Catholic apologists point to early Christians referring to Mary as “all-holy” (panaghía) as evidence, if not of the Immaculate Conception, is, at the very least, evidence of their belief in the sinlessness of Mary. However, this and similar terms were used by early Christian authors who believed Mary was a sinner just like all of us are. One such example of that of Origen (185-254).

Taylor Marshall, who I previously refuted on the topic of the Bodily Assumption of Mary, has an article entitled, "The Church Fathers on the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary." As alleged support for Origen holding to this dogma, he provides the following quote:

“This Virgin Mother of the Only-begotten of God, is called Mary, worthy of God, immaculate of the immaculate, one of the one.” Origen, Homily 1 {A.D. 244).

 The reality, however, is that Origen did not affirm the personal sinlessness, let alone the Immaculate Conception, of Mary, and such is admitted by more honest Catholics. One Catholic scholar on Mary wrote the following about Origen’s Mariology on this point:

To indicate the exalted holiness of the Mother of the Lord, the Eastern Church has used the term panaghía (all-holly), which has become common in theological and liturgical language. It is possible that this title began to be attributed to Mary in the Church of Alexandria. As far as Origen is concerned, we encounter this title more than once in his writings and, while some scholars consider it an interpolation, others see no plausible reason to share this suspicion.

According to Origen’s dynamic concept of Christian perfection, understood as a journey or continual progress toward higher forms of the spiritual life, Mary could not have been totally holy from the beginning of this journey. For this reason, he readily admits the presence of some imperfections or defects in her. For example, he asserts that the sword foretold by Simeon was none other than the doubt and scandal that arose in her during her Son’s Passion:

What ought we to think? That while the apostles were scandalized, the Mother of the Lord was immune to scandal? If she had not experienced scandal during the Lord’s Passion, Jesus did not die for her sins. But if “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and if all “are justified and saved by his grace” (Rom 3:23), then Mary, too, was scandalized in that moment. This is what Simeon is prophesying about: … Your soul will be pierced by the sword of unbelief and will be wounded by the sword point of doubt. (Homily on Luke 17, 6-7; PG 13, 1845; SC 87, 236-58)

From this text also emerges the intention to support such a conclusion by restoring to a dogmatic reason: the universal value of the redemption accomplished by Christ.

But usually Origen, faithful to the more ancient Alexandrian tradition, tends to emphasize the Virgin’s holiness and virtues, always in the context of her condition as one still making progress. He regards as assiduous in reading and meditating upon Scripture, open to the influence of the Holy Spirit, who pours into her the light of prophecy at the moment she pronounces her Magnificat; he calls her humble and poor, but rich in faith, persevering in spiritual knowledge. In terms of trial, he sees her as capable of overcoming difficulties, obediently accepting the revelation of mysteries. Among the holy persons of the Old and New Testaments, he attributes a place of honor to the Mother of the Lord, unique among all women. (Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999], 77-78)

 My friend and expert on the patristic literature, Errol Vincent Amey shared with me on the issue of the early Christians and the sinlessness of Mary:

Not only is there not a single witness to the supposedly immaculate conception among the pre-Nicene Christians, but many of their statements regarding sinfulness necessarily encompass Mary and attribute the sinless nature exclusively to Jesus. Here is an example from Origen:

"'For all have sinned,' [Romans 3:23] as it is written; and again, as Scripture says: 'There is no just man upon earth that hath done good and hath not sinned;' [Ecclesiastes 7:20] and again: 'No one is free of uncleanness, not even if his life be of but one day.' [Cf. Job 14:4] Therefore Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ alone is He 'who did no sin' [cf. 1 Peter 2:22, citing Isaiah 53:9; 2 Corinthians 5:21]"

(Origen, ca. 240, 'Commentary on The Song of Songs' 3:13, in 'Ancient Christian Writers' 26:237)

 While much more could be said on this point, it is clear that contra Marshall, Origen is not an early Christian witness to the Immaculate Conception.

Further Reading

Luke 1:28 and κεχαριτωμενη: Evidence for the Immaculate Conception of Mary?

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