BOOK REVIEW: The Immaculate Conception: Why Thomas Aquinas Denied, While John Duns Scotus, Gregory Palamas, and Mark Eugenicus Professed the Absolute Immaculate Existence of Mary–Review by Andrew Jacob Cuff

Fr. Christiaan W. Kappes, The Immaculate Conception: Why Thomas Aquinas Denied, While John Duns Scotus, Gregory Palamas, and Mark Eugenicus Professed the Absolute Immaculate Existence of Mary. New Bedford, MA: Academy of the Immaculate Press, 2014, xx+252pp. ISBN: 978-1601140654.

Ever since the declaration of Mary’s immaculate conception by Pope Pius IX in 1854, few topics in Mariology have been so controversial among Orthodox theologians as this dogma.  While they generally consider the unilateral declaration by the Roman Catholic Church of Mary’s perpetual sinlessness to be unnecessary, many have disagreed about the extent to which the Orthodox tradition bears witness to this idea.  Some (such as Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew) have recently argued that the dogma stems from an overly-Augustinian view of original sin, while a few others (such as Sergei Bulgakov) have even claimed that an immaculate conception would make the Theotokos non-human.  In his new monograph, Fr. Christiaan W. Kappes, a Roman Catholic Priest of the Latin Rite and scholar of both patristic theology and scholasticism, argues that the doctrine of the immaculate conception is actually a longstanding tradition of the Orthodox Church fathers, and explores in-depth the language and textual transmission of several of the doctrine’s key witnesses.

In Kappes’ view, the doctrine is best shown to be truly “Orthodox” and not, as some have claimed, a Western innovation.  He points out that it was originally professed by church fathers who defended Orthodoxy against the claims of Latin Church, such as Gregory Palamas (14th c.) and Mark Eugenicus (15th c.).  Although he could have concentrated on several other church fathers who approached the same question, Kappes wisely gives the most attention to these so-called “Pillars of Orthodoxy” because they were very aware of placing their thought in a dialogue with Latin scholasticism.  The Immaculate Conception greatly improves upon other studies which have treated the same question, in that Fr. Kappes does not just gather a florilegium of hand-selected quotes from the theologians under consideration.  Rather, his is a groundbreaking historico-linguistic study which treats the development of the word προκαθαρθείσα (“prepurification”) as it is used in progressive Byzantine discussions of Mary’s sinlessness.

Beginning with Gregory Nazianzen (4th c.) and emphasizing John Damascene (8th c.), Kappes embarks upon a painstaking argument which places each appearance of the word prepurification and its related, translated, and corollary vocabulary in dialectical context.  The book’s subtitle implies a twofold task: (1) demonstrating the affinity of the Byzantine fathers for a tradition of Mary’s sinlessness in utero and (2) explaining the reluctance of Latin theologians like Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas to embrace such a doctrine.  To do this, Kappes points to key passages in the Latin translation of John Damascene which state that any prepurification (Latin translators either write praepurgans or mundans) from the stain of sin actually took place along with the bestowing of grace at the Annunciation.  Because of Damascene’s authority in the West, theologians like Albert the Great or Thomas Aquinas are unable to move beyond the identification of Mary’s purification with events of the Annunciation.  However, as Fr. Kappes points out, this is a negative, “subtractional” view of prepurification which the Greek Fathers (including Damascene himself) do not embrace.  Thanks to the correct interpretation of the Greek roots of the doctrine in Nazianzus and Damascene, the East consistently viewed the prepurification at the Annunciation as a positive purity—not a removal of concupiscence, but a superaddition of grace that prepared the Theotokos for the incarnation.  Her sinlessness from birth, conversely, is designated under expressions like “all-holy,” “ever-blameless,” and “all-immaculate.”  The evidence of this Eastern tradition is an unbroken theological and liturgical transmission of this idea well beyond John Damascene’s time.

To maintain the continuity of his narrative, Kappes proceeds with precise chronological detail. By the time his argument has advanced into the Late Byzantine period in the East and High Scholasticism in the West, the Latin debate of Dominican maculists and Franciscan immaculists tends to historically overshadow the Byzantine contribution to this discussion, specifically that of Gregory Palamas and Mark Eugenicus.  One valuable aspect of Kappes’ research is that he points to the Council of Basel-Ferrara-Florence as a key moment of dialogue between the Palamite Byzantinists (Eugenicus and his disciple, Gennadius Scholarius, future Patriarch of Constantinople) and the Franciscan Scotist immaculists, such as Peter Perquerius.  He is able to demonstrate through direct citations of the relevant thinkers that in the debate on original sin and Mary’s conception, there is both a historical and a philosophical convergence (and mutual adoption of ideas) between Palamites and Scotists located around the years of the Council.  He parallels this convergence with the similar intersection of the Scotistic distinctio formalis and the Palamite essence-energies model in the transcendence/immanence debate.  Along with this historical revelation, Kappes proves that the first philosophically robust rejection of the immaculate conception among the Orthodox appears in the sixteenth century, and is completely saturated with Thomistic argumentation.  Historically speaking, the immaculate conception now appears more Orthodox than it is Roman Catholic.

However, this historical narrative does not make for a decisive theological argument.  As Fr. Kappes briefly admits in The Immaculate Conception, the importance of dogmatizing the exact moment of Mary’s purification depends on whether it is necessarily the case that were Mary born in sin and then purified afterward (even immediately afterward), she would be Eve’s moral inferior.  He is correct that certain Fathers seem to hold this view, though his book does not explain why they hold this view, nor why their perspective should be seen as the only allowable one.  Duns Scotus himself obsessed over this question, creating the concept of the “split moment” which could accommodate two separate divine acts in one instant within the Virgin Mary (non simul ambo insunt), namely Mary’s conception and her purification from sin, lest she exist for even a single instant in a sinful state (Lectura in Librum Tertium Sententiarum, D. III, Q. 1).  Given the infinity of God’s purifying grace at whatever moment he happens to purify Mary, does such hair-splitting take Mariology a bit too far?  A philosophical consideration of this question as distinct from the historical question would be a valuable addition to Fr. Kappes’ work.  A future second edition of The Immaculate Conception that includes this discussion would be welcome to those pursuing not only the historical narrative of the dogma, but also the actual verity of its theological claims.

Were I to make my own additions and revisions to The Immaculate Conception, the bulk of these would focus on readability.  Though the book’s back cover invites both “scholars and amateurs” to read it, casual readers will find Fr. Kappes’ argument very difficult to follow if they are not already familiar with the complex narrative of Byzantine historical theology.  Any book that treats a theological debate that is the subject of modern denominational controversy should assume that its audience will include interested laypersons as well as seasoned scholars.  However, The Immaculate Conception, groundbreaking and magisterial as it is, lacks much introductory material and moves quickly with little recapitulation.  Some chapters are replete with page-long footnotes that require multiple re-reads.  In addition, most Orthodox readers will want to know more about the perspectives of modern Orthodox theologians on the immaculate conception doctrine, and the relevance of Kappes’ argument to modern Catholic-Orthodox ecumenism.  While Fr. Kappes no doubt intends to insinuate that a historical study necessarily speaks to modern concerns/audiences, he chooses not to pursue his argument’s modern-day impact.

With this decision, Fr. Kappes makes the valuable point that sensitive questions of ecumenical dialogue between eastern and western Christianity necessarily begin historically, with a view to the full Christian tradition.  The Immaculate Conception is a shining example of such broad, systematic analysis of Eastern and Western sources without drawing arbitrary distinctions between the two.  He fleshes out actual, historical points of textual contact from century to century before making claims of theological influence.  In this regard, his work advances the important school of thought exemplified by scholars such as George Demacopoulos, Aristotle Papanikolaou, David Bradshaw and others who have begun to de-mythologize the philosophical effects of the East-West schism.  In terms of doctrine, this is the most genuine way of achieving any kind of rapprochement between Catholics and Orthodox.

Andrew Jacob Cuff


Andrew Jacob Cuff is ABD in Church History at The Catholic University of America.