Church Fathers Who Denied the Immaculate Conception


Recently I had the privilege of participating in a discussion with some Catholic brothers over at the Reason and Theology channel on our respective views of the virgin Mary. Thank you, Michael, Erik, and William for having me! For anyone interested, we are talking again on February 9.

I thought it might be useful to compile some of the quotes I referenced that I regard as countervailing data among the church fathers with respect to the third Marian dogma, the immaculate conception of Mary. That way those following the debate can look them up for themselves.

I know there is disagreement on whether Origen and Tertullian are actually church fathers. I think it is difficult to sustain that Origen, in particular, was not a church father, but whatever view on takes on this, it is really irrelevant. Both were significant Christian voices whose views are reflective of broader beliefs throughout the early church. We are after historical evidence of what the early Christians actually believed—say, in the 2nd century, or early 3rd century. (Hence the Protoevangelium of James comes up in discussion of the perpetual virginity of Mary, despite the fact that it is an apocryphal text officially condemned by Pope Innocent I in 405). Origen and Tertullian are relevant to this historical question, however we classify them.

1. Origen, commenting on Luke 2:35, and specifically Simeon’s statement that a sword will pierce Mary’s heart:

“What ought we to think? That while the apostles were scandalized, the Mother of the Lord was immune from scandal? If she had 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, but are justified by his grace and redeemed,” then Mary too was scandalized by this 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” (Homilies on Luke, 17.6-7).

2. Tertullian references certain flaws of Mary in his discussion of the unbelief of Jesus’ family (“not even his brothers believed in him” [John 7:5]) and Jesus’ question in Matthew 12:48: “What are mother and brothers to me?” He affirms, over and against Apelles and Marcion, Jesus’ genuine nativity, but has no hesitation in including Mary along with his brothers as unbelieving and the object of his rebukes: “when denying one’s parents in indignation, one does not deny their existence, but censures their faults.” Evidently Tertullian is not aware that this is a controversial opinion. He even goes so far as to see Mary as a symbol of the unbelieving synagogue that rejected Christ: “in the abjured mother there is a figure of the synagogue, as well as of the Jews in the unbelieving brethren” (On the Flesh of Christ, chapter 7.)

3. Like Origen, Basil interpreted the sword of Luke 2:35 as the sword of doubt, linking Mary with the disciples in receiving healing and confirmation in faith after Jesus’ resurrection:

“Simeon therefore prophesies about Mary herself, that when standing by the cross, and beholding what is being done, and hearing the voices, after the witness of Gabriel, after her secret knowledge of the divine conception, after the great exhibition of miracles, she shall feel about her soul a mighty tempest. The Lord was bound to taste of death for every man—to become a propitiation for the world and to justify all men by His own blood. Even you yourself, who hast been taught from on high the things concerning the Lord, shall be reached by some doubt. This is the sword. “That the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” He indicates that after the offense at the Cross of Christ a certain swift healing shall come from the Lord to the disciples and to Mary herself, confirming their heart in faith in Him. In the same way we saw Peter, after he had been offended, holding more firmly to his faith in Christ” (Basil, Letter 260.9).

The earlier context makes it clear that this is not a blameless doubt, for Basil is linking Mary with the other disciples in their “rising and falling” in doubt at the offense of the cross, which Basil interprets as the “sign” of which Simeon speaks (see Letter 260.6-9).

4. There are numerous passages in John Chrysostom where he indicates a moral fault in Mary. His comments on Mary’s vainglory in John 2, and Jesus’ rebuke to her, are well-known. Also relevant is his comment on Matthew 12:46-49, where John portrays Mary with a vainglorious desire to have power over her son:

“And this He said, not as being ashamed of His mother, nor denying her that bare Him; for if He had been ashamed of her, He would not have passed through that womb; but as declaring that she has no advantage from this, unless she do all that is required to be done. For in fact that which she had essayed to do, was of superfluous vanity; in that she wanted to show the people that she has power and authority over her Son, imagining not as yet anything great concerning Him; whence also her unseasonable approach” (Homilies in Matthew, Homily 44.3).

John proceeds to compare this occasion to Jesus’ rebuke of Mary in John 2, describing the effect of Jesus’ words to his mother as intended to “heal her vainglory.”

5. Hilary of Poitiers, once again on Luke 2:35, interprets Simeon’s words as a judgment upon Mary: “if this virgin, made capable of conceiving God, will encounter the severity of this judgment, who will dare to escape?” (Tractatus in Ps. 118).

There are other examples we could give (just this morning I discovered a strong statement by Fulgentius of Ruspe as late as the 6th century that Mary was “conceived in iniquity in accordance with human practice” [Epistula 17.13]). And even among theologians who affirm Mary’s sinlessness, many do not affirm the immaculate conception. Augustine would fall into this camp (e.g., he speaks of Mary being “derived from the propagation of sin” in Genesi Ad Litteram 10.18.32).

Perhaps what is most striking about these various statements is the lack of controversy they provoked. If belief in Mary’s immaculate conception was common in the early church, why did no one rise up censure Origen or Basil or John? This, combined with the absence of clear support for the immaculate conception in the first or second century (it possibly begins in the third, but is still very scant then), suggests that this dogma is an accretion, rather than a development of the apostolic deposit.

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  1. Great response, Gavin. My thoughts: Whether it was common for men at that time to address their mothers as “Woman”, I do not know. But the quote in John 2:4, is revealing. Not only does Jesus address His mother as just another person, inconsequential of her personal relationship to Jesus, He points out that He, Jesus, has a mission of which she is totally ignorant. The rebuke is clear: “Don’t press me! Don’t anticipate or accelerate the date of the real Marriage.”

    By referring to Mary as “Woman”, rather than Mother, Jesus relegates her to as insignificant a status as the rest of her gender. She is just simply another woman. She is indisputably deprived of any special consideration as the Mother of the incarnate God.

    The account in John 2 seems to reference and looks forward to John 19:26 at the Last Supper. At the Wedding in Canaan, Jesus initiated His Mission by drinking of the 1st Cup of the Seder. He would later drink of the 3rd Cup of Suffering at the Last Supper, before His Crucifixion and Resurrection. But the Wedding we all look forward to, the drinking of the 4th Cup, will be at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb of God.

    By His rebuke and categorization of Mary as just another common, sinful individual, indistinct from everyone else, Jesus was telling the rest of the world, and more specifically the Jews of that time, that it was not yet time to celebrate His assumption of the Kingdom of God, Revelation 19-22.

    In like manner, Jesus addressed the Woman at the Well in John 4. “Woman,” Jesus called to her, “give me to drink!” “Woman!” There was no special status assigned to her. Jesus didn’t even identify her by name.

    Mary is of course, a very significant figure in the life of Christ, the Church and history. But even as Jesus hung on the Cross, He commissioned John to take care of His mother, and once again referred to her as, “Woman”. Jesus was no longer the son of Mary. He was the suffering Messiah afflicted for the iniquity that corrupted all of creation. “Woman, your son [John].” I would add, “I am no longer your son. I am your God and Savior.”

    My comments are not meant to demean the status of Mary as the Mother of Jesus. She is very significant. But there is no certifiable account for the Immaculate Conception.

    1. No offense, but I think you are really reading a whole lot into our Lord’s use of “Woman” without considering what the word meant when He said it. More than that, you’re adding on something that He certainly did not say, which is exactly what Protestants often accuse Catholics of. What’s more revealing to me in John 2:4 is that our Lord actually does what His mother asks, which makes clear that the miracle is not contrary to His mission or will. And His words to Mary from the Cross shouldn’t be interpreted as demeaning, but loving, as our Lord entrusts His mother to another to be cared for.

      I’m not really an expert on this subject, however, so all I can do is refer you to this video here, a friendly discussion between a Protestant and two Catholics which goes through several of these verses:

    1. hey John, I don’t have any links to it online. You’d have to look it up in his homilies in the Psalms. Hope this helps.

      1. Ok, thanks for the reply. If you were at least able to give the paragraph or a few sentences before and after, that would be helpful as well. I don’t own a hard copy of his stuff. But no worries if not. Peace, John

  2. Greetings Gavin,

    Thank you for compiling the info.

    Could you provide a citation to back the claim that the Protoevangelium of James (PEJ) was officially condemned by Pope Innocent I in 405 C.E. I personally find the the PEJ to be very gnostic flavored and a semi denial of the incarnation. Post-resurrection Jesus, I think, is a different situation since the His body would have been redeemed to a glorified (or deified, per Eastern Orthodox theology) state and clothed in incorruptibility, but I guess anyone can hide behind vagueness.

    Lastly, I’ve only been able to find two English translations of Clement of Alexandria’s quote touching on this topic:

    1) Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, or Miscellanies: Book VII, Chapter XVI, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II (pg. 551)
    “But, as appears, many even down to our own time regard Mary, on account of the birth of her child, as having been in the puerperal state, although she was not. For some say that, after she brought forth, she was found, when examined, to be a virgin [cf. Protoevangelium of James]. Now such to us are the Scriptures of the Lord, which gave birth to the truth and continue virgin, in the concealment of the mysteries of the truth. ‘And she brought forth, and yet brought not forth,’ [Ezekiel 44:2] says the Scripture; as having conceived of herself, and not from conjunction. Wherefore the Scriptures have conceived to Gnostics; but the heresies, not having learned them, dismissed them as not having conceived.”

    2) Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies: Book VII, Chapter XVI, Sections 93-94 (pg. 164-167, Gr. on opposite page); Translated by Fenton John Anthony Hort & Joseph B. Mayor
    “But, just as most people even now believe, as it seems, that Mary ceased to be a virgin through the birth of her child, though this was not really the case — for some say that she was found by the midwife to be a virgin after her delivery [cf. Protoevangelium of James]; — so we find it to be with the Lord’s Scriptures, which bring forth the truth and yet remain virgins, hiding within them the mysteries of the truth. ‘She has brought forth and has not brought forth’ [cf. Ezekiel 44:2 & Tert. De Carne Christi 23] , says the Scripture, speaking as of one who had conceived of herself and not from another. Wherefore the Scriptures are pregnant to the gnostics, but the heresies, not having examined them, dismiss them as barren.”

    They both agree that some in the church believed that Mary was perpetually a virgin (persuaded by the PEJ) and others did not, but the two translations give a different impression as to whether Clement agreed. The ANF strikes me to say be saying that Clement did not agree and the translation by Hort & Mayor strike me as saying that he did agree.

    You can find a scanned copy of Hort & Mayors’ trasnalaiton in the link below, with the Greek on the opposite page. If you know how to read Greek (Koine or Classical) could you shine light on the translation and what it implies regarding Clement’s position?

    Either way this quotation and Origin’s (below) show that the perpetual virginity doctrine was not a catholic doctrine and thus most likely not an Apostolic one. Also, even if both Clement and Origen thought that Mary was perpetually a virgin it wouldn’t be too surprising since Origen was a student of Clement and both from Alexandria and the same school.

    Origen (253 a.d.), Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Book X, Chapter 17
    “But some say, basing it on a tradition in the Gospel according to Peter, as it is entitled, or ‘The Book of James,’ [i.e. PEJ] that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary. Now those who say so wish to preserve the honour of Mary in virginity to the end, so that that body of hers which was appointed to minister to the Word which said, ‘The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee’ [Luke 1:35], might not know intercourse with a man after that the Holy Ghost came into her and the power from on high overshadowed her.”

    The last thing I wanted to bring up is that while Tertullian did join the Montanist sect, which certainly had theological or spiritual abuses, they did not technically have wrong theology. In addition part of their abuse was a strict ascetism which viewed sex as intrinsically bad and demanded abstinence from it’s members. So for Tertullian to have argued that Mary was not a perpetual virgin goes against the currents of Montanism. Plus it wasn’t until late in his life that he joined the sect. Plus On the Flesh of Christ (De Carne Christi) is assumed to have been written (aprox. 211) prior to his conversion to Montanism.

    I got a lot of this info from the following source:

    I hope this help you as this discussion continues. I did not find the RC apologist’s argument persuasive.



    1. Good comment, David! Great Clement quotes. Yeah, it’s funny how some Catholic apologists use Tertullian and Origen when they want, and then disregard them when they need!

      1. I mean, yes exactly. There isn’t a “St.” before his name for a reason. One has to have a consistent body of writing to ever be declared a Saint. He said valuable things before leaving the Church, they’re in line with the the Church so, yes the Church cites that. Ditto Origen. You’re quoting Tertullian’s writing *after* he formally left the Church in favor of the Montanist heresy. Invalid at that point.

    2. I’m sorry, but I don’t see how this shows that Origen rejects the perpetual virginity of Mary. He notes the fact that some believe in the doctrine, and explains their basis for it. He doesn’t support or oppose it, unless I am misreading what he is saying

      1. I think I misread your comment actually David, my apologies. You weren’t saying that Origen rejects the perpetual virginity, you were saying that his and Tertullian’s writings prove that it was not catholic or Apostolic doctrine. I don’t think either quote proves that either, but my mistake.

  3. “There are other examples we could give (just this morning I discovered a strong statement by Fulgentius of Ruspe as late as the 6th century that Mary was “conceived in iniquity in accordance with human practice” [Epistula 17.13]). And even among theologians who affirm Mary’s sinlessness, many do not affirm the immaculate conception. Augustine would fall into this camp (e.g., he speaks of Mary being “derived from the propagation of sin” in Genesi Ad Litteram 10.18.32).”

    I don’t see how these two quotes necessarily contradict the Immaculate Conception. Being “conceived in iniquity” or “derived from the propagation of sin” may simply be a reference to the sexual act itself between Mary’s parents, which to Augustine and those influenced by him was sinful because of concupiscence. If understood in that way, it doesn’t exclude the possibility that by a special grace, Mary was preserved from the transmission of original sin.

  4. Interesting Gavin

    But at the end of the day, like so much else, an academic exercise for people for whom Our Blessed Lady (“All generations shall call me blessed”), whether conceived without original sin or not, is not on their radar screens, not part of of their spirituality.

    For those of us who are fortunate enough to have a relationship with her as our heavenly mother, she is extremely special. Uniquely so. When I first became aware of her, I was worried that devotion to her would detract from my relationship with own human mother (who passed away at 96 from C19 in March this year).

    Quite the opposite. Devotion to Mary greatly enhanced my relationship with my own mother and made me realise the unique and indispensible role that mothers play in our lives.

    Mark Smale

    1. I agree, Mark. As a recent convert to Catholicism, I had the mistaken but typical Protestant belief that if I loved Mary, that somehow took away from my love for Jesus. Quite the opposite; the more I love Mary, the more I love Jesus. No one on earth loved Jesus more than His own mother; how much she can teach us about loving Him. As she said at the wedding of Cana, “Do whatever He tells you to do.” And as Jesus said, “Behold, your mother.”

    2. Mormons believe in a heavenly mother. Is their doctrine founded on The Bible, or occultist Joseph Smith? Why wasn’t a heavenly version of the mother prophesied in the Torah like the Messiah? A redeeming birth was prophesied in the House of David, but is there a scripture saying Mary became our advocate in Heaven? Don’t you think God would include that part?

      John 2:1-2 reveals: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”

      Where is the part about Mary seated at the right hand of the Father? Is it in the Vulgate?

      What about Diana worshipped in Ephesus? That is the closest I can find. Acts 19:28. They prayed to Diana where a comet had made a grotto. What am I missing FROM the scriptures? I don’t want to go outside of the scriptures for this like the Mormons.

  5. Gavin,
    Thank you for posting this. I have been researching the quotes and have some questions.
    1) You say the first quote is from Homilies on Luke, 17:6-7 but there appear to be no extant copies of commentaries on those verses from Origen. Were you perhaps referring to another passage? I have a copy of his commentaries on order, so I can search around for it if you are unsure.

    2) In your quote from Hilary of Poitiers, you say it is from Tractatus in Psalm 118. I found a Latin copy of his commentary on the Psalms but it is a bit confusing for me. The numbering of the psalms is 1 off from modern Protestant bibles, so I am unsure if you mean Psalm 118 or Psalm 117? If you mean Psalm 118 in the Latin copies version, then I will be searching the longest chapter in the Bible, which is a bit of a work lol Also, do you have the verse number that he was commenting on?

    Thanks and God’s blessings,

    1. Update on my response:
      1) I discovered that I read the citation incorrectly. I got the copy of the commentary and realized that the citation is Homily 17 on Luke, section 6-7 of that homily. Specifically it is at the end of section 6. I incorrectly read the citation as commentary on Luke 17, verses 6-7.

      2) Still looking for this.

  6. Jesus was the forerunner. He lived sinlessly and died in corruptible flesh, but was raised incorruptibly so we can be as well, despite us being sinners deserving death.

    Seems to me saying Mary was immaculately conceived herself fails the test of an anti-Christ spirit from 1 John 4:2. Jesus needed to be human—hence He was born of a normal human with corrupted flesh that needed redemption.

    I am also very suspicious that the Church declared the Immaculate Conception of Mary herself during a period of rampant occultism and spirtism—1854; a period when the Western world changed its religions to Darwinism, Deism, and Freemasonry!

    1 Timothy 3:16
    God was manifest in the flesh.

    Colossians 2:9
    For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,

    Hebrews 4:15
    For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.

  7. “He was the ark formed of incorruptible wood. For by this is signified that His tabernacle was exempt from putridity and corruption.” Hippolytus, Orations Inillud, Dominus pascit me {ante A.D. 235).

    “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).

    Appropriately, therefore, did the angel Or, archangel say to Mary the holy virgin first of all, “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee;” inasmuch as with her was laid up the full treasure of grace. For of all generations she alone has risen as a virgin pure in body and in spirit; and she alone bears Him who bears all things on His word. Nor is it only the beauty of this holy one in body that calls forth our admiration, but also the innate virtue of her soul. Wherefore also the angel Or, archangel.
    addressed her first with the salutation, “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, Or, gifted with grace. the Lord is with thee, and no spouse of earth;” He Himself is with thee who is the Lord of sanctification, the Father of purity, the Author of incorruption, and the Bestower of liberty, the Curator of salvation, and the Steward and Provider of the true peace, who out of the virgin earth made man, and out of man’s side formed Eve in addition. Even this Lord is with thee, and on the other hand also is of thee. Come, therefore, beloved brethren, and let us take up the angelic strain, and to the utmost of our ability return the due meed of praise, saying, “Hail. Or, rejoice. thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee!” For it is thine truly to rejoice, seeing that the grace of God, as he knows, has chosen to dwell with thee—the Lord of glory dwelling with the handmaiden; “He that is fairer than the children of men”
    with the fair virgin; He who sanctifies all things with the undefiled. God is with thee, and with thee also is the perfect man in whom dwells the whole fulness of the Godhead. Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the fountain of the light that lightens all who believe upon Him! Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the rising of the rational Sun, others, the rising of the Sun of righteousness and the undefiled flower of Life! Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the mead of sweet savour! Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the ever-blooming vine, that makes glad the souls of those who honour thee! Hail, thou that art highly favoured!—the soil that, all untilled, bears bounteous fruit: for thou hast brought forth in accordance with the law of nature indeed, as it goes with us, and by the set time of practice, better conception and yet in a way beyond nature, or rather above nature, by reason that God the Word from above took His abode in thee, and formed the new Adam in thy holy womb, and inasmuch as the Holy Ghost gave the power of conception to the holy virgin; and the reality of His body was assumed from her body. And just as the pearl comes of the two natures, namely lightning and water, the occult signs of the sea; so also our Lord Jesus Christ proceeds, without fusion and without mutation, from the pure, and chaste, and undefiled, and holy Virgin Mary; perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, in all things equal
    to the Father, and in all things consubstantial with us, apart from sin. Gregory Thaumaturgus (270 A.D.)

    It looks like the Immaculate Conception meets your time requirement for apostolic teaching in the early third century, Gavin Ortlund! Are you now going to believe in the Immaculate Conception now?

  8. Origen’s complete statement about Mary’s Immaculate Conception:

    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 (Origen, “Hom. i in diversa”)

  9. Although the Catholic church denies Origen & Tertullian are Church Fathers, but rather heretics, what’s ironic is that William Albrecht has flip-flopped back & forth several times between calling them Church Fathers, then heretics, then Church Fathers. He can’t seem to make up his mind.