I would like to commend a book that I am presently reading, and plan to re-read: The Burning Bush
. Originally published in 1926, it has only just recently been translated into English.
Bulgakov's intent in this book is to present what he believes to be the true Orthodox understanding of the sanctity of the Theotokos, particularly over against the Roman Catholic scholastic dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which he violently rejects, and over against some late 19th-early 20th century Orthodox presentations of the Theotokos, presentations that he judges to be distorted over-reactions to the Catholic dogma. The former removes Mary from the fallen human condition; the latter dare to immerse her in personal sin.
Invoking the liturgical prayers of the Orthodox Church, Bulgakov begins his book with a clear and emphatic affirmation of the absolute sinlessness of the Theotokos. "Does the Most Pure, the All-Immaculate One have any kind of personal sin?" he asks. "Is it possible even for a moment to conceive this dreadful abuse? And yet, as strange it may sound, to just such an admission do those Orthodox theologians tend who are tempted by excessive zeal to shatter to its foundations the unsuccessful Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God." Bulgakov acknowledges confusion among some of the Fathers on this question, but asserts that in the end the authentic teaching of Orthodoxy is represented in the views of Ephrem the Syrian, Epiphanius, Gregory Nazianus, Ambrose of Milan, and Augustine, which were eventually authoritatively embodied in the liturgical prayers:
In its countless divine services dedicated to the Mother of God, the Holy Orthodox Church firmly and clearly teaches the absolute sinlessness of Mary in her birth, her holy childhood and adolescence, in the Annunciation, in the birth of her Son and throughout her entire life. We shall pause at only the most important dogmatic witnesses borrowed from the services of Theotokos feasts. As is evident from these witnesses, the Most Holy Virgin is called in her very birth "Holy of Holies," "living heaven," "temple of all kings and thrones," "sole immaculate one," "the true temple pure from infancy on," "hostile to the course of sin," etc. The question arises: is the idea of any sort of assault of sin, which even some fathers of the church, and with them other orthodox theologians, allow, compatible with this veneration? Obviously not. The Mother of God was sinless, not a single attack of sin approached her most pure soul, the bearer of perfect virginity. But in that case is she not made equal "to the one sinless" Lord Jesus? No, and therein is the whole point. Sinlessness belongs in a unique and exclusive sense to the Son of God conceived without seed from a virgin who had never known a man, in that He was a stranger not only to every personal sin but also to original sin. The latter had absolutely no power over the new Adam. ... It is quite the opposite in the case of the Most Pure and Immaculate One: in her, original sin preserved its entire power with all its fatal consequences--weakness and mortality of the body (for death is only the final revelation of this weakness). The Theotokos died a natural death in fulfilment of the natural law, which she bore in her human nature. Death was defeated only by the salvific power of Christ's resurrection and was ultimately annulled by it. The Lord Jesus is in this sense the Saviour for the entire human race, and in it of His mother as well.
A proper understanding of the Theotokos will seek to articulate how one who was subject to the condition of fallenness could overcome it and live a personally sinless life. This is the burden of Bulgakov's book.
I was gratified to see that Bulgakov does not focus his critique of the Immaculate Conception dogma on the red herring of original guilt. He understands that the Roman Church construes original sin as a privation of original righteousness, and it is precisely this construal that he vigorously attacks. He rejects the dualism of nature and grace that he sees in the Catholic teaching of his day. This neo-scholastic dualism would later be strongly criticized by Catholic theologians in the mid to late 20th century, Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner, and Hans Urs von Balthasar (see Stephen J. Duffy, The Graced Horizon
), as well as by Anglican neo-Thomist Eric Mascall. If Bulgakov were alive today, perhaps he might be a tad less harsh with Catholic teaching--perhaps.
Let me close with a passage that must certainly resonate with all Catholic hearts and hopefully Orthodox hearts:
In as much as sin through the paralysis of human freedom engenders personal sinfulness, this latter can be weakened to a minimum and even brought down to the condition of full potentiality: posse non peccare (though before redemption and before baptism the condition of non posse peccare cannot be reached). To be sure, such a maximum achievement is unthinkable for fallen humanity without the help of Divine grace which, however, only assists freedom and does not compel it. In other words, when original sin as infirmity is kept in force, personal freedom from sins or personal sinlessness can be realized by the grace of God. In harmony with the firm and clear consciousness of the Church, John the Forerunner already approaches such personal sinlessness. The most holy Virgin Mary, the all-pure and all-immaculate, possesses such sinlessness. Only by virtue of this sinlessness was she able to say with her entire will, with her whole undivided essence, behold the handmaid of the Lord, to speak so that the answer to this full self-giving to God was the descent of the Holy Spirit and the seedless conception of the Lord Jesus Christ. The smallest sin in the past or the present would have broken the integrity of this self-giving and the power of this expression. This word, decisive for the whole human race and the entire world, was the expression not of a given moment only, but came out of the depths of Mary's unblemished being. It was the work and the sum of her life. The inadmissibility of personal sin in the Virgin Mary thus becomes axiomatically trustworthy provided we understand what kind of answer was demanded here of Mary. This was not the particular agreement of her will to a particular action, relating only to a given moment of life; no, this was the self-determination of her entire being.
While this might not appease very traditional Catholics who are wedded to a scholastic theological framework, I suspect that many Catholic theologians today would acknowledge that Bulgakov's presentation of the purity of the Theotokos satisfies the principal theological concern that the dogma of the Immaculate Conception seeks (however imperfectly) to address. Whatever differences might remain certainly are not church-dividing.
Pick up a copy of this book, read, and inwardly digest.