Responding to Bulgakov: Orthodox Denials of the Immaculate Conception

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By Emma Shea, Hillsdale College

In considering the concerns Sergei Bulgakov has with the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, I hope to show how Catholics can answer to Bulgakov’s claims about the Immaculate Conception and develop my understanding of Mary in the Incarnation.

Before contrasting and synthesizing Eastern and Western views, it is important to understand the basis of the Immaculate Conception. Through time and the gradual development and understanding of what God has revealed through Scripture and the life of Jesus, the Catholic Church under Pope Pius the IX, definitively pronounced the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1854. This established the belief that Mary was born of St. Anne with no stain of original sin, as She would be a fitting mother to Jesus, and the soon to be redeemed humanity. The basis of the theology is laid out, where it is stated: “What the Catholic faith believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary illumines in turn its faith in Christ.” [1] Mary, from no virtue of Herself is perfect, but all through Her connection with Christ. The Catechism states that,

“The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of Her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Her son Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.”

The timelessness of the Trinity, and Christ’s divinity is emphasized in the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Since Mary is Jesus’ Mother before Her fiat, or the creation of the world, She is given the graces of the spirit, and made prefect. She is already free from original sin through the intimate relationship with Her Son. The Catechism speaks to this when it states:

The “splendour of an entirely unique holiness” by which Mary is “enriched from the first instant of her conception” comes wholly from Christ: she is “redeemed, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son”. The Father blessed Mary more than any other created person “in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the            heavenly places” and chose her “in Christ before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before him in love”.[2]

Before Genesis, Mary is thought to be perfect and blameless, because She is to be the Mother of God in time. She is exalted in a higher fashion, in that instead of being saved from the pit of sin by Christ, She was obviated from falling into it, through Her Son, receiving the overabounding blessings of purity. This being considered, the Catechism claims the Immaculate Conception was essential for Mary’s fiat. Through Her perfection and sinlessness, She did not perish before the angel or the Holy Spirit at work in the Incarnation, when God the Son was conceived. The Catechism explains:

“To become the mother of the Saviour, Mary “was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role.” The angel Gabriel at the moment of the annunciation salutes her as “full of grace”. In fact, in order for Mary to be able to give the free assent of her faith to the announcement of her vocation, it was necessary that she be wholly borne by God’s grace.”[3]

Without Mary being completely perfect, how could the Son of God be borne and carried by Her? In coming to clearer theological understanding, the church is mainly concerned and opposed to the idea that Christ could be united and born of a woman who had at one time been under the dominion of evil, being stained by original sin. A similar comparison can be found in Exodus, looking at the Ark of the Covenant, which held the Word of God inside it, and it was made of incorruptible wood and given ultimate honor. This being considered, how much more perfect and purer of a vessel would be necessary for the Ark of Jesus, the living Word of God?

A broader concern of the doctrine is in terms of the fulfillment of the new age. Mary is considered to be the new Eve, just as Jesus is the new Adam. This is seen in Genesis 3:15, where it is stated: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and Her seed: he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” Mary is to be the new eve, in complete opposition to the serpent, or Satan, at all times and in all ways. This is true in the Immaculate Conception, in that there was no period in Mary’s life when She was under the influence of original sin. If Mary was stained by original sin, this would no longer be fulfilled, and Mary could not be the new Eve.[4] 

Apart from the concern of Mary’s immaculate womb are the literal translations from Scripture. In considering the Annunciation, Catholic doctrine has come to understand that Mary being proclaimed by an angel as “full of grace,” means that the grace was extended throughout all of Her life, from conception to that moment, not just in one particular moment. In the translation to Greek, the phrase also translates to kecharitomene, which is a proper noun in the perfect tense of “to fill with grace,” meaning that the grace is not only in the present moment but refers to past actions as well in the perfect tense.[5] Since Mary is being addressed by an angel, the phrase is not just an empty meaning, but a declaration of a quality of Mary’s person. The Catholic church takes this interpretation literally, and incorporates it into the understanding of Mary’s condition, prior to Christ’s conception.

After explaining many aspects of the Catholic belief in the Immaculate Conception, the counters of Bulgakov can be better understood. Bulgakov claims that the Immaculate Conception is not an appropriate theology because he thinks it does not include the full assumption of Jesus of the human condition and its brokenness, where it does not allow Jesus to fully become man, becoming a Docetic theology.

In Catholic theology, Mary was born without original sin. Bulgakov claims that Christ would then be different from man “not only by the duality of natures but also by the duality of hypostasis.”[6] Bulgakov is against any difference between Christ and man, except in the duality of His will alone, because He is both God and man. Bulgakov believes this point is very important, because he believes Christ comes down as the new Adam, into a wretched world of original sin instead of the Garden of Eden, to purposefully assume and redeem the world in its sickness. Christ was truly tempted, and felt sadness and anger, and grew up in intelligence as humans do, and assumed the human life completely to do this. In the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception, the womb of Jesus would be another difference between man and Christ, because Jesus would not be born of a womb which was marked by original sin, further separating Christ from redeeming humanity and original sin. He thinks the Immaculate Conception is an unthoughtful theology, relying more on the nature of God than the healing activity of God. This contributes to Bulgakov’s opinion of Docetism in Catholic theology, where Jesus resembles humanity but not completely, due to His discordance with human history of original sin and how it is passed.

Instead, Bulgakov would insist upon a theology where Mary is sinless, but still has the potency of original sin in Her, where “she was not subject to the power of original sin, although it lived in Her as the universal human destiny, as the hereditary illness of man’s nature, which she bore in herself.”[7] He find this a more accurate theology, because in this case, Jesus is still in the womb of a woman with original sin, who carries this burden with Her, but is not affected by it, and does not choose to sin. In Christ assuming the womb of a woman with original sin, it is redeemed and transformed, and He becomes similar to man in this respect, healing and transforming humanity in this way.

Considering the ability of Mary to become the Mother of God and having the potency of original sin, Bulgakov acknowledges and accounts for the consuming fire of God, seen in the Old Testament. He answers to this, saying that only God is able to “sanctify and deify a creature to the point where it becomes strong enough and worthy of the incarnation.”[8] Bulgakov addresses how God has acted through Mary’s family lineage, enabling Her to be so close to God in the Incarnation without “annihilation.”[9]  She is the product of many generations, being gradually made more holy, and to the point where she is “worthy of being united with the divine nature of the logos through the reception of his hypothesis.”[10] In Mary, a mediation between God and man occurs, where humanity is “restored in its Sophianacity and purified and integrated to such a degree that the descent upon Her of the Holy Spirit could occur, communicating perfect Sophianacity to Her,” so She is able to be the Mother of God.[11]

She is the participation of God and man, where the Lord awaits Mary’s “yes,” before acting inthe Incarnation, not where God acts before consent. Bulgakov sees truth in this theology because he finds it more continuous with the interactions and human nature prior to the Incarnation. Bulgakov, using simple language, believes:

“it is the conception of Christ, by which without male action and the sole blood of the Virgin Mary, his human nature was formed, sanctified by the operation of the Holy Spirit, assumed by the Son of God and united personally to himself.”

Through Sophia, the Incarnation is an outworking of the Trinity, so it is not an abrupt injection of divinity into humanity.[12] Since divine Sophia has been acting through the generations prior to Mary, it is not disjunctive when Mary is filled with Divine Sophia in the outworking of the Trinity and does not perish, because She has been prepared for this in Her heredity.

Bulgakov sees the Immaculate Conception as an abrupt intervention of God in humanity, where Mary is born without original sin, opposed to the Mary that “participates in it spiritually, consciously, in an inspired and sacrificial manner.”[13] Instead of God continuing and transforming the human race, Bulgakov sees the Immaculate Conception as an abrupt start, where God would be divinely coercing Mary to be sinless, discordant with the tendencies of original sin in the past. Because this would not be in continuation and transformation of humanity, Bulgakov believes Christ would not be redeeming all, since He was not born of a woman with the potency of original sin, like every other man before Him. Bulgakov thinks it to be Docetic, and not in accordance with the healing and transforming work of God through humanity. Only after the Annunciation, the Holy Spirit descended upon Mary, “cleansed Her, and Her womb became a heaven” when She carried in Her womb the Divine Infant. Bulgakov believes Mary is perfected and redeemed only when She becomes one with Christ, through Divine Sophia.[14]

Text Box: Raphael’s MadonnaThe Sistine Madonna - by RaphaelBulgakov believes that human nature cannot be disregarded or altered but must be saved in continuation with humanity in an unforceful way—which is what Bulgakov believes is wrong with the Immaculate Conception. Bulgakov criticizes Catholic Mariology for “imputing an arbitrary notion of activity to God, God in this account is not an eternal being, but rather a time-contingent, juridical person who acts arbitrarily, exempting Mary from original sin.”[15] In fact, it is believed that Bulgakov came to reject Catholicism in the “Western Church’s anthropomorphization of God,” when he viewed Raphael’s Mother of God in the Sistine Chapel. Instead, he would support the iconography of Madonna and Child, which he believes portrays not the “being,” of the thing in historical reality, but the “meaning of the thing.”[16] Similarly, he believes that the Immaculate Conception is of human motivation and does not accord to the overarching and mysterious redeeming work of God in humanity.[17] His emphasis on continuity and harmony is seen in many of His references, including “this harmony and interpenetration of the two natures in the God-Man is the feat and way of the cross, which begins in the Bethlehem Manger and ends at Golgotha.”[18] God is ever present, knitting and healing within human nature. Christ is the perfect image of man and God, and cannot in one way be unlike man, except that He is God.

In considering both of these theologies, Catholicism seems to emphasize the importance of Mary’s ability and worthiness of being a vessel of the Son of God and Man, and the mother of humanity, not as much on the continuity of human history. A Catholic would say that the Mother of God was pure and stainless because of the angel’s perfect tense declaration, Her position as the new Eve, and the fulfillment of time in the Incarnation and birth of Jesus in accordance with the Trinity.

The two agree strongly on the vitality of Mary in Her role in the Incarnation. This being said, both theologies would agree that Protestantism, in disregarding Mary, disregards the true humanity of Christ. The humanity of Christ came from His Mother, so in disregarding this, one disregards the actual validity of the Incarnation. The power of God is emphasized instead of the participation of God within humanity, seen in the belief that Mary is simply a random vessel, and not the epitome of the Holy Spirit in the lineage of David. They both see the reformed view of the Incarnation as “mechanistic and magical,” with an unenriched and shallower understanding of the intimacy and importance of the Incarnation.[19]

Both accounts believe in the highly involved activity of the Holy Spirit through the generations of David up to Mary, and that Mary “stands out among the poor and humble of the Lord, who confidently hope for and receive salvation from him.”[20] If all things are already considered, and there is no truth in Mary’s Fiat, then how could humanity participate in bringing God into humanity? Would this not seem to be random coercion of God? In this way, Catholics and Bulgakov would agree with the doctrine of Communicato Idiomatum, the belief that man is able to interact and participate with the divine will of God, and the world is not mechanically planned out regardless of humanity’s efforts.[21] Both Catholics and Bulgakov agree on the veneration and importance of Mary, and emphasize Her role in the Early Church. Explicitly stating this, Sergius Bulgakov wrote: “unity [can] only be accomplished when Protestant churches embraced the Mother of God.”[22] In understanding each theology’s veneration of Mary, it becomes easier to see their respective approaches and attempt to sift out commonalities or areas of theological deficiencies.

Bulgakov seems to think that the emphasis of Mary’s fulfillment is where the Catholic theology is imperfect, because he thinks this disrupts the healing of humanity, by creating a discontinuous array of fixing and not really redeeming sinful humanity. The key to Catholic understanding of the Immaculate Conception is the main problem of Bulgakov, because he believes it questions the real assumption of Christ into humanity. He is concerned that if Mary was perfect and free of original sin, She did not need Jesus to be Her savior.[23]

Between these two theologies, we can see that there are two sides, and both cannot be true at the same time. The Mother of God cannot be without original sin, while also being sinful flesh that bears the Son of God. This being said, we can see that both are trying to fulfill completion of their respective emphasis, in honoring and thoroughly defending the meaning and sanctity of Christ’s life. Both aim ultimately at proper orthodoxy and orthopraxy, in giving proper veneration to the Mother of God and the coming of God into humanity. They differ in how they think She is affected by Her Son. In assessing why the Western and Eastern Churches disagree on this situation, it is mainly due to the difference of communication. The Western Church was heavily influenced and driven by the importance of original sin and Augustinian thought regarding his debates with Julian of Eclanum and Pelagius, where the Eastern church was not simply due to traveling distance and communication lags.[24]

These differences in opinion ultimately lead to the argument and belief of how divine blessing can be given by God. Bulgakov does not believe that Mary is granted Christ’s redemption in the Immaculate Conception, which makes logical sense as to why he would be opposed to it. He believes Mary is no longer in need of Jesus as Her Savior because She is made perfect. In further inquiry into the Catholic doctrine, it is explicitly stated that all of Mary’s virtues are only through Her Son, and therefore She is still saved by Him. This is commonly confused, because usually redemption is granted in someone’s adult life, but in this case, Mary is prevented from sin, and redeemed by Christ before Her conception.[25] Mary’s sinlessness is seen as the “first fruit of the redemptive work of Christ,” in Her Immaculate Conception. John the Baptist is a similar case to this, in that he was to “be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother’s womb.”[26] Mary was given the grace of an anticipated redemption, which is not set apart from the saving power of Christ.[27] Duns Scotus writes, “not only is prevention better than cure, but that all our cure aspires to being prevention,” exemplifying the place of the Immaculate Conception withing the purpose of Christ’s Incarnation.[28] As Christ’s purpose was to bring the fullness of life to all men, Mary is of no exception here, but Her timing was unique.

In looking into the deeper intricacies of Bulgakov’s theology, he is much more concerned with the continued and assumed human activity of Christ, the meaning of Christ’s life to us and why He came into humanity. In establishing his claim about Mary with the potency of original sin, still able to conceive of the Son of God through Sophia, he shows a clear emphasis on Jesus coming into our brokenness and sinfulness purposefully. Catholic theology claims that since Christ’s Incarnation is before the beginning of time, there was no possibility for the Mother of God to be sinful at a time in Her life where She would later be unified to Christ.

In reading and spending time on both of these theologies, their most complicated points seem similar in difficulty; where Bulgakov explains how Sophia enables Mary to conceive of the Son of God with Adam’s stain of sin, the Catechism explains how Mary was born immaculately, through Her eternal relationship with Her Son. Although Bulgakov explains his theology through Sophia, the all-encompassing and distinct nature of all three parts of the Trinity, it is very difficult to suspend belief in such a vital argument in theology. His antinomic methodology, “leaves the sphere of rational knowledge in order to speak in symbolic terms,” which does not aid in finding harmony and distinction between these two theologies.[29] Bulgakov spends many pages of his works explaining and emphasizing the role of Sophia in the Incarnation, explaining how “creaturely Sophianacity … is the bridge for, or the ontological possibility of, the movement of God and the creature toward one another,” and how it makes possible the union of God and man, but the theology is adorned with mystery and vagueness—making one question the legitimacy of Bulgakov’s claim in Sophia’s role.[30] Because both theologies emphasize the power of the Holy Spirit and Sophia, and they are not entities that can be tracked or understood concretely, I am prone to rely on other explanation of theology.

 I am apt to believe the theology of the Immaculate Conception, where the perfection of Mary in Her being the Mother of God for eternity, due to Her intimate relationship with the Trinity whose dominion is before and after time. As a Catholic, seeking to find understanding and peace between the Catechism and Bulgakov, I have found greater understanding of the Immaculate Conception, mostly due to the strong resonance of the Trinitarian relationships found in all times, where the Incarnation is always present. Since the Incarnation is before all times, it makes sense that Mary as well, in being the Mother of God, would be as perfect as She would be when She brought Christ into the world, at all times through Her Motherhood. I have found resonance in the explanations of Mary being the first redeemed through Christ, resolving Bulgakov’s claim of Mary not needing Jesus as Her savior.

In contemplating Bulgakov’s criticism of the Catholic Church, I have become sensitized to the anthropological interpretations of theologians but believe the Immaculate Conception is not included in this claim. I do not think Bulgakov is convincing in his claim that Mary’s sinlessness prevents Christ from living a fully human life and find duplicitous his rigid and specific demand for the complete human condition of Christ in being born of a woman with original sin, while also emphasizing the over-arching and mysterious works of God. He seems to say that we cannot know the workings of God, but we can know a very specific claim in this Mariology through a very mysterious activity of the Trinity.

 Although Bulgakov believes man cannot understand the ability and transcendence of God through man in Sophia in His life being defined through the meaning of Christ’s life, I also believe that God the Son is before all time, and in being so, he cannot ever at one time, be united with a sinful flesh if He is all redeeming and all healing. He cannot be both perfection eternally and at one time of sinful flesh, and I do not think this because it is the most logical in the human sense, but because it is the surest claim that humanity can make of God, through what He has revealed to us. I dare to say that so far, throughout this research with the available sources and considerations, I have found the Immaculate Conception logically defendable against the claims of Bulgakov.


[1] Pope John Paul II, The Catechism of the Catholic Church. (Vatican City; Vatican Press, 1992.), 482.

[2] Ibid., 492.

[3] Ibid., 490.

[4] William G. Most, “Our Lady in Doctrine and Devotion,” Theology 523, (1994): 1-4, https://northwestsvdpstl.org/sites/svdpstlnw/files/uploads/documents/marys_immaculate_conception.pdf.

[5] Ibid., 490-494.

[6] Sergius Bulgakov, The Lamb of God. (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2008), 235.

[7] Sergius Bulgakov, The Burning Bush: On the Orthodox Veneration of the Mother. (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2009), 178.

[8] Bulgakov, The Lamb of God, 179.

[9] Ibid., 178.

[10] Ibid., 200.

[11] Ibid., 206.

[12] Donald Dawe, “The Immaculate Conception in Ecumenical Perspective,” Mary in Christian Tradition, 1982: 40, https://www.theway.org.uk/Back/s051Dawe.pdf.

[13] Bulgakov, The Lamb of God, 201.

[14] Bulgakov, The Burning Bush, 8.

[15] Walter Sisto, The Mother of God in the Theology of Sergius Bulgakov. (Taylor & Francis, 2017), 14.

[16] Ibid., 14.

[17] Sisto, Mother of God, 17-18.

[18] Bulgakov, The Lamb of God, 243.

[19] Dawe, “The Immaculate Conception in Ecumenical Perspective,” 38.

[20] Pope John Paul II, Catechism, 498.

[21] Bulgakov, The Lamb of God, 207.

[22] Sisto, Mother of God, 12.

[23] Bulgakov, The Burning Bush, 10.

[24] Owen F. Cummings, “Understanding the Immaculate Conception,” The Furrow 30, no. 12 (1979): 768, https://www.jstor.org/stable/27660848?seq=2#metadata_info_tab_contents.

[25] Dawe, “The Immaculate Conception in Ecumenical Perspective,” 35.

[26] Ibid., 35

[27] Ibid., 35.

[28] Cummings, “Understanding the Immaculate Conception,” 769.

[29] Sisto, Mother of God, 19.

[30] Bulgakov, The Lamb of God, 221.

5 Responses

  1. I have just read this on another blog: “This asymmetry suggests that the day of rest possesses an elevated status from the other days and that all things are ordered to the worship of God.”
    It rightly suggests that God intervened on the seventh day to introduce something completely new in creation, to order everything to himself.
    So, God’s intervention to make Mary sinless at the first moment of her conception is an action of the same type, and congruent with his actions on the seventh day.

  2. Hello, I would like to say that before the year 1870 the Roman Catholic Church didn’t believe in the immaculate conception so what changed. Do you remember her words when the angel appeared before her that she rejoice in God her Savior. If she had been born without sin she wouldn’t need a Savior. The Bible states the wages of sin, she did die , there are stories of the apostles carrying her body and rejoining. Though she could sin but stay true to God and stayed holy throughout her life and did not sin.

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