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The immaculate nature of Mary is a doctrine, that holds that the Virgin Mary was free of original sin from the moment of her conception and that she lived a holy and sinless life, but did any of the early church fathers believe that Mary was without sin?

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From a Roman Catholic "Encyclopedia of Theology" I gleaned the following:

The absolute sinlessness of Mary was taught for the first time by Pelagius and Augustine, then that view was expanded into freedom from original sin which was later attributed to Mary.

The belief that Mary was without sin is bound up with the view that Mary was not merely a virgin at the time the Holy Spirit caused her to become pregnant, but the claim that she was perpetually virgin. However:

"There was no fully general consensus before the Council of Ephesus. It was not taught by Tertullian, Origen or Jerome. But it was upheld by Irenaeus, the apocryphal writings of Clement of Alexandria, the Consultationes Zacchaei et Apollonii, and Gregory of Nyssa. ...From the 4th century on, her perpetual virginity is often mentioned." (Encyclopedia of Theology Edited by Karl Rahner, p. 896, article by Michael Schmaus, Burns & Oates, London, 1981)

It was after the 7th century that the formula of "virginity before, in and after giving birth" came into use. This progressed into comparing Mary with Eve. As Eve's disobedience brought ruin, the faith and obedience of Mary brought salvation - Catholics claimed. And Mary's supposed role in the history of salvation was compared with that of the [Catholic] Church (taught by Irenaeus, then Hippolytus and Tertullian but above all by Augustine.

"After some uncertainty about the holiness of Mary, inspired by Lk 2:48, and indeed some negative pronouncements (Cyril of Alexandria), the absolute sinlessness of Mary was taught for the first time by Pelagius and Augustine. This thesis was soon expanded into the freedom from original sin which was then attributed to Mary. In the East, something similar was taught by Andrew of Crete and John of Damascus. No express testimony to Mary's freedom from original sin is found in the West before about A.D. 1000. Bernard of Clairvaux, a fervent admirer of Mary, and Thomas Aquinas remained doubtful. Theologians could not harmonize the universal necessity of redemption with the thesis being developed in Mary's freedom from original sin. In the course of the controversy William of Ware (c. 1300) and Duns Scotus developed the notion that Mary remained free from original sin by virtue of Jesus' redemption...

The doctrinal declaration of the fifth session of the Council of Trent on original sin stated that it was not the intention of the Council to include Mary in its teaching on the universality of original sin. In the 19th century, faith in the freedom of Mary from original sin had matured so widely that Pius IX could teach it as a dogma in 1854." (Ibid. p. 897)

It appears that no expression of Mary's freedom from original sin is found in the West before about AD 1000. And it wasn't until the 19th century that faith in the freedom of Mary from original sin had matured to the degree that Pius IX could teach it as a dogma in 1854. You may thus grasp that Catholic views about Mary took hundreds of years to gradually build up. But the Early Church Fathers that introduced the idea of Mary being absolutely sinless were Pelagius (early 400s, and later declared a heretic) and Augustine (354 - 430 and declared one of the greatest Church Fathers).

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    It can't be the case that Pelagius was the first to teach the doctrine. This CA article (catholic.com/tract/mary-full-of-grace) quotes earlier Fathers. For instance, Ephraim the Syrian wrote, when Pelagius was still just a boy: "You alone and your Mother are more beautiful than any others, for there is no blemish in you nor any stains upon your Mother."
    – jaredad7
    Aug 31, 2023 at 19:53
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    @jaredad7 That extra info. appreciated. I was simply quoting from the official Catholic Encyclopedia which said "the absolute sinlessness of Mary was taught for the first time by Pelagius and Augustine" and, in the West, after A.D.1000. But the Q asked for early Church Fathers, so was Ephraim the Syrian one such? For sure, such ideas would predate official Church Father written statements; that is understood.
    – Anne
    Sep 1, 2023 at 8:25
  • Yes, Ephraim is a Church Father. Are you quoting from the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia? That one is mostly good, but it is over 100 years old. It may be that this writing from Ephraim was not known to the authors.
    – jaredad7
    Sep 1, 2023 at 14:28
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    @jaredad7 Oh, no, the Encyclopedia of Theology I quoted from was published in 1981, edited by the renowned Catholic scholar Karl Rhaner, subtitled, "The Concise Sacramentum Mundi". I would be surprised if such a writing from Ephraim the Syrian was not known in the early 1980s.
    – Anne
    Sep 2, 2023 at 12:57
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Did any Early Church Fathers believe that Mary was without sin?

There are a few Church Fathers that at least made believed so especially when making a comparison of Mary to Eve.

Mary as the second Eve

This celebrated comparison between Eve, while yet immaculate and incorrupt — that is to say, not subject to original sin — and the Blessed Virgin is developed by:

The absolute purity of Mary

Patristic writings on Mary's purity abound.

  • The Fathers call Mary the tabernacle exempt from defilement and corruption (Hippolytus, "Ontt. in illud, Dominus pascit me");

  • Origen calls her worthy of God, immaculate of the immaculate, most complete sanctity, perfect justice, neither deceived by the persuasion of the serpent, nor infected with his poisonous breathings ("Hom. i in diversa");

  • Ambrose says she is incorrupt, a virgin immune through grace from every stain of sin ("Sermo xxii in Ps. cxviii);

  • Maximus of Turin calls her a dwelling fit for Christ, not because of her habit of body, but because of original grace ("Nom. viii de Natali Domini");

  • Theodotus of Ancyra terms her a virgin innocent, without spot, void of culpability, holy in body and in soul, a lily springing among thorns, untaught the ills of Eve, nor was there any communion in her of light with darkness, and, when not yet born, she was consecrated to God ("Orat. in S. Dei Genitr.").

  • In refuting Pelagius St. Augustine declares that all the just have truly known of sin "except the Holy Virgin Mary, of whom, for the honour of the Lord, I will have no question whatever where sin is concerned" (On Nature and Grace 36).

  • Mary was pledged to Christ (Peter Chrysologus, "Sermo cxl de Annunt. B.M.V.");

  • it is evident and notorious that she was pure from eternity, exempt from every defect (Typicon S. Sabae);

  • she was formed without any stain (St. Proclus, "Laudatio in S. Dei Gen. ort.", I, 3);

  • she was created in a condition more sublime and glorious than all other natures (Theodorus of Jerusalem in Mansi, XII, 1140);

  • when the Virgin Mother of God was to be born of Anne, nature did not dare to anticipate the germ of grace, but remained devoid of fruit (John Damascene, "Hom. i in B. V. Nativ.", ii).

  • The Syrian Fathers never tire of extolling the sinlessness of Mary. St. Ephraem considers no terms of eulogy too high to describe the excellence of Mary's grace and sanctity: "Most holy Lady, Mother of God, alone most pure in soul and body, alone exceeding all perfection of purity ...., alone made in thy entirety the home of all the graces of the Most Holy Spirit, and hence exceeding beyond all compare even the angelic virtues in purity and sanctity of soul and body . . . . my Lady most holy, all-pure, all-immaculate, all-stainless, all-undefiled, all-incorrupt, all-inviolate spotless robe of Him Who clothes Himself with light as with a garment . . . flower unfading, purple woven by God, alone most immaculate" ("Precationes ad Deiparam" in Opp. Graec. Lat., III, 524-37).

  • To St. Ephraem she was as innocent as Eve before her fall, a virgin most estranged from every stain of sin, more holy than the Seraphim, the sealed fountain of the Holy Ghost, the pure seed of God, ever in body and in mind intact and immaculate ("Carmina Nisibena").

Jacob of Sarug says that "the very fact that God has elected her proves that none was ever holier than Mary; if any stain had disfigured her soul, if any other virgin had been purer and holier, God would have selected her and rejected Mary". It seems, however, that Jacob of Sarug, if he had any clear idea of the doctrine of sin, held that Mary was perfectly pure from original sin ("the sentence against Adam and Eve") at the Annunciation.

St. John Damascene (Or. i Nativ. Deip., n. 2) esteems the supernatural influence of God at the generation of Mary to be so comprehensive that he extends it also to her parents. He says of them that, during the generation, they were filled and purified by the Holy Ghost, and freed from sexual concupiscence. Consequently according to the Damascene, even the human element of her origin, the material of which she was formed, was pure and holy. This opinion of an immaculate active generation and the sanctity of the "conceptio carnis" was taken up by some Western authors; it was put forward by Petrus Comestor in his treatise against St. Bernard and by others. Some writers even taught that Mary was born of a virgin and that she was conceived in a miraculous manner when Joachim and Anne met at the golden gate of the temple (Trombelli, "Mari SS. Vita", Sect. V, ii, 8; Summa aurea, II, 948. Cf. also the "Revelations" of Catherine Emmerich which contain the entire apocryphal legend of the miraculous conception of Mary.

From this summary it appears that the belief in Mary's immunity from sin in her conception was prevalent amongst the Fathers, especially those of the Greek Church. The rhetorical character, however, of many of these and similar passages prevents us from laying too much stress on them, and interpreting them in a strictly literal sense. The Greek Fathers never formally or explicitly discussed the question of the Immaculate Conception.

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  • CJ is back to posting duplicates... wish you'd waited before writing this up
    – curiousdannii
    Sep 3, 2023 at 3:38

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