That Which Has Been Believed Everywhere, Always And By All: The Perpetual Virginity of the Theotokos

Ἦσαν δὲ προσκαρτεροῦντες τῇ διδαχῇ τῶν ἀποστόλων καὶ τῇ κοινωνίᾳ καὶ τῇ κλάσει τοῦ ἄρτου καὶ ταῖς προσευχαῖς.
-GNT-PT Πράξεις 2·42

“The Fathers formed dogmas on the basis of their experiences of theosis, and not after philosophical reflection on what is mentioned in the Bible.”
-Protopresbyter John Romanides, Patristic Theology

It is common for people raised with a Western φρόνημα to look to Scripture in search of a counter to why heterodox faith traditions don’t believe certain tenets of the Orthodox Christian Faith. This is even more compounded when said people do not know Koine Greek and instead are forced to use Protestant translations of the Scriptures into English (which is itself a Protestant language, which further adds to the problem of arriving at a correct hermeneutic).

The problem boils down to one thing: the approach is wrong. Orthodox Christians have never derived any dogma from Scripture; Scripture is the written record of the dogma which existed prior to it being written down. In the history of the Orthodox Church, it was always heresies that based their teachings on a novel extraction of portions of Scripture. We can see this with Gnosticism’s eisegesis of Scripture (q.v., St. Irenaeus), the Roman Catholic heresy of the filioque from St. John 20:22, Martin Luther’s novel doctrine eisegeted out of the Latin of Romans 1:16-17 (yes, novel. This why Philip Melanchthon had to strike out at the Church Fathers: this (new) doctrine is absent from them; therefore they were in error and Luther a prophet) and complicated further with his addition of “allein” in his German translation from the Koine Greek Textus Receptus. The sad irony in all this is that Luther himself believed in the perpetual virginity of the Theotokos, which is the topic of this post.

Failing to find Scriptural support in an English translation of Scripture for one’s ἀπολογία, one is forced into choosing a branch of theology as a hermeneutic. The thing is that no ἀπολογία is needed for the approach is off. For example, the Church has always believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary. When has She not? Even Luther knew this, and he knew it not from Scripture but from <<τῇ ἅπαξ παραδοθείσῃ τοῖς ἁγίοις πίστει>> (GNT-PT Ἰούδα 3), for it was “Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est” (Vincentian Canon).

It is sometimes said as an argument against the perpetual virginity of the Theotokos that it is not found in Scripture; hence the teaching was arrived at via a typological exegesis of the Septuagint; the problem with this is twofold. 1., it is indeed found in Scripture (even the great Greek grammarian, Baptist A.T. Robertson was mistaken on this—but this was because he fell into the fallacy that doctrine is built from Scripture rather than Scripture being the written record of a part of the Faith). And 2., as I have already stated, the teaching is not based upon arguments from Scripture, thus whether or not it is “found” in Scripture doesn’t even matter. This last point will become very clear when we get to Ricky Gervais and Stephen Colbert below.

To elaborate upon No. 1., in the New Testament it isn’t explicit, but it is definitely clear in the Greek: καὶ οὐκ ἐγίνωσκεν αὐτὴν ἕως οὗ ἔτεκε τὸν υἱὸν αὐτῆς τὸν πρωτότοκον, καὶ ἐκάλεσε τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν. (Most?) Protestants look to ἕως and commit an exegetical fallacy by usually saying something like “ἕως means ‘until'” (C.S. Lewis would lose his shirt over this), and then also forget all the other uses of ἕως where it is very clear that it does not refer to a terminus, for example, Matthew 20:28 διδάσκοντες αὐτοὺς τηρεῖν πάντα ὅσα ἐνετειλάμην ὑμῖν· καὶ ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ μεθ᾿ ὑμῶν εἰμι πάσας τὰς ἡμέρας ἕως τῆς συντελείας τοῦ αἰῶνος. Ἀμήν. At the end of the aeon Christ leaves us? Further, in Matthew 1:25 above ἐγίνωσκεν is in the imperfect active indicative, so past continuous, not simple past (aorist). To quote Zerwick, “ἐ-γίνωσκεν impf of duration: ἕως would require constative aor. (§253) if indicating termination of action” (Max Zerwick and Mary Grosvenor, A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1974), 2).

Also, many Greek and even Latin Fathers are clear on the grammar, see for example Sts. Chrysostom & Jerome. Going by an English translation, then yes typology definitely makes the perpetual virginity more clear; however, in the Greek vis-à-vis Greek, it is clear.

To elaborate on No. 2. I quote St. Vincent of Lerins,

(1) I have continually given the greatest pains and diligence to inquiring, from the greatest possible number of men outstanding in holiness and in doctrine, how I can secure a kind of fixed and, as it were, general and guiding principle for distinguishing the true Catholic Faith from the degraded falsehoods of heresy. And the answer that I receive is always to this effect; that if I wish, or indeed if anyone wishes, to detect the deceits of heretics that arise and to avoid their snares and to keep healthy and sound in a healthy faith, we ought, with the Lord’s help, to fortify our faith in a twofold manner, firstly, that is, by the authority of God’s Law, then by the tradition of the Catholic Church.

(2) Here, it may be, someone will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and is in itself abundantly sufficient, what need is there to join to it the interpretation of the Church? The answer is that because of the very depth of Scripture all men do not place one identical interpretation upon it. The statements of the same writer are explained by different men in different ways, so much so that it seems almost possible to extract from it as many opinions as there are men. Novatian expounds in one way, Sabellius in another, Donatus in another, Arius, Eunomius and Macedonius in another, Photinus, Apollinaris and Priscillian in another, Jovinian, Pelagius and Caelestius in another, and latterly Nestorius in another. Therefore, because of the intricacies of error, which is so multiform, there is great need for the laying down of a rule for the exposition of Prophets and Apostles in accordance with the standard of the interpretation of the Church Catholic.

(3) Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all. That is truly and properly ‘Catholic,’ as is shown by the very force and meaning of the word, which comprehends everything almost universally. We shall hold to this rule if we follow universality [i.e. oecumenicity], antiquity, and consent. We shall follow universality if we acknowledge that one Faith to be true which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is clear that our ancestors and fathers proclaimed; consent, if in antiquity itself we keep following the definitions and opinions of all, or certainly nearly all, bishops and doctors alike.

(4) What then will the Catholic Christian do, if a small part of the Church has cut itself off from the communion of the universal Faith? The answer is sure. He will prefer the healthiness of the whole body to the morbid and corrupt limb. But what if some novel contagion try to infect the whole Church, and not merely a tiny part of it? Then he will take care to cleave to antiquity, which cannot now be led astray by any deceit of novelty. What if in antiquity itself two or three men, or it may be a city, or even a whole province be detected in error? Then he will take the greatest care to prefer the decrees of the ancient General Councils, if there are such, to the irresponsible ignorance of a few men. But what if some error arises regarding which nothing of this sort is to be found? Then he must do his best to compare the opinions of the Fathers and inquire their meaning, provided always that, though they belonged to diverse times and places, they yet continued in the faith and communion of the one Catholic Church; and let them be teachers approved and outstanding. And whatever he shall find to have been held, approved and taught, not by one or two only but by all equally and with one consent, openly, frequently, and persistently, let him take this as to be held by him without the slightest hesitation.

The Chuch Fathers didn’t believe what they believed because they extracted it second hand from intellectual grappling of Scripture. To be sure, my point is that the belief in the perpetual virginity of the Theotokos is not derived from Scripture, rather it is known experientially by all baptized and chrismated Orthodox Christians through the Holy Tradition, guided by the Holy Ghost in the Church. Just to be clear, I’m not arguing against typology as a hermeneutic, in fact, I think it is great. But by the same token, we need to keep in mind that the Fathers actually knew the language in which their writings and those of our Scriptures were written in—Greek and Latin.

This issue reminds me of a video I saw recently where Ricky Gervais and Stephen Colbert go head-to-head on religion. I have no clue who Ricky Gervais is other than that he is an atheist who shows up in memes on social media, but he said something here that is relevant to my point. He said that if all the holy books were destroyed, in a thousand years they wouldn’t come back as the same texts. This, of course, is only a problem for Protestants and atheists; for Gervais the reason why is explicit in the video, and for Protestants because their dogma is based upon various Reformers eisegesis of a specific “holy book.” Remove the book, and all you have is a dead false prophet.

For us in the Orthodox Church, however, you would have to remove all of us who make up the Church: we who live Tradition guided by the Holy Ghost. This truth is so well known that even throughout history this is exactly what has been attempted: in the Roman Empire, by the Muslim Turks, by the Bolsheviks, and now in our own times by legislating Postmodernism’s anti-Logos ideology via identity politics, and through sharia creep via “social justice.”

Further Reading

The Ever-Virginity of the Mother of God By Fr. John Hainsworth

The Eastern/Greek Orthodox Bible, “Appendix E: Mark 6:3—The ‘Brothers’ of the Lord”

An Orthodox Hermeneutic by Fr. Stephen Freeman

Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament: An Essential Resource for Exegesis by Murray J. Harris, “Chapter 24. Notable Uses of Selected “Improper” Prepositions, E. ῞Εως οὗ–Matthew 1:25,” pp. 262-263

Defending the Vincentian Canon “Everywhere, Always, and By All” — A Response to Outlaw Presbyterianism by Robert Arakaki

A Protestant Defense of Mary’s Perpetual Virginity By Brantly Millegan

Interview with Charles Lee Irons: Syntax, Exegesis, and Forthcoming

Mary’s Virginity and its Perpetuity in Biblical Typology By Rdr. Isaac G.

Why is Mary Considered Ever-Virgin?

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