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Was Mary the Mother of God?

I recently had a conversation with a Christian on Facebook regarding some of the passages in the Bible that refer to Mary.  During the conversation, I referred to Mary as The Mother of God (Theotokos).  This brought a rather stern reaction from him.  He stated, “Mary isn’t the Mother of God.  God is not born or created.  That’s heresy. Mary is the mother of Jesus’ flesh of his human body, not of His Divinity, which already existed before Mary was born.”  While I can understand his concerns, I wonder if this gentleman realizes that his position was thoroughly discussed, analyzed, and subsequently rejected by the Church roughly 1600 years ago.

During the first 500 years of Christianity, the Church dealt with the rise of several Christological heresies that necessitated the formulation of a clear theological expression of Christ’s Person and Nature.  In the early fifth century, one of these heresies questioned how Christ’s two natures, that of God and Man, related to one another. Following the teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, taught that Christ’s nature as God was utterly separate from His nature as man.  In this understanding, Christ’s early life was that of a human being in contact with God.  God foresaw that Christ would lead a virtuous life and chose Him to be a vessel of divinity.  At Christ’s birth, his contact with divinity was incomplete, becoming so later in His life.  Nestorius preferred the term Christotokos (Mother of Christ) to that already accepted as part of Holy Tradition, Theotokos (Mother of God), for He believed that Mary’s baby was not fully divine.

This teaching, which came to be known as Nestorianism, led to the calling of the Third Ecumenical Council in 431 AD.  In this Council, the Fathers of the Church upheld the teaching that in Christ the dual natures of divinity and humanity do not merely come in contact with one another, but that they are, rather, in union.  At the Incarnation, the Second Person of the Trinity, Christ, took on human nature, adding it to His Person, while at the same time retaining the fullness of His Divinity.  At the birth of Christ, Mary gave birth to a baby who was both God and human, each in the fullest sense of the word.  As a result, to deny that Mary was the Mother of God is to deny the full reality of the Incarnation and its resulting efficacy in our salvation.

In a letter to John of Antioch in 433 AD, Saint Cyril summed up this aspect of Christology very well.

Thus we confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, is perfect God and perfect man, consisting of a rational soul and body, that he was begotten from the Father before all ages according to the Divinity, and that in these latter times was begotten for us and for our salvation from the Virgin Mary; that he is consubstantial with the Father in his Divinity and consubstantial with us in his humanity, for in him there was accomplished the unity of two natures.  Therefore we acknowledge one Christ, one Son, one Lord.  On the basis of this union without confusion, we confess the Most Holy Virgin to be the Mother of God because God the Word was incarnate and became man and in the conception itself united with himself the temple received from her. . . God the Word came down from heaven and, taking the form of a servant, emptied himself, and was called the Son of man, remaining that which he is – God.

The title Mother of God is a confession about Christ.  As I have heard said in the past, it says more about Him than it does about Mary.


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Comments

  • Ggodat

    Darrell,
    While I don’t disagree that Jesus was fully God and fully man, I’m not so sure we can know when Jesus became self aware of this. When you say Mary gave birth to God it is confusing to people that don’t understand the dual nature Jesus has. I think it might have been better to say, Mary the mother of Jesus, then spend more time explaining who Jesus was and why he has two natures.

  • darrellboan

    Thanks for the input Greg. I agree with you that we have no way of really knowing when Jesus became fully aware of His role. That is not what I am speaking to. Instead, I am speaking to who He *was* from the start – fully God and fully man. When Mary, while pregnant with Jesus, visited Elizabeth, John leapt in Elizabeth’s womb and she exclaimed, “But why is granted to me that the mother of *my Lord* should come to me?” As we can see here, those who were spiritually discerning could detect the power of Christ even while He was still in the womb. The babe whom Mary carried inside her, the babe who nursed at her breasts, the child whose skinned knees she washed and cared for – He was fully God and fully man. When we refer to Mary as the Mother of God we are preserving this theological teaching in its fullness.

  • Boz

    OP said: “This teaching, which came to be known as Nestorianism, led to the calling of the Third Ecumenical Council in 431 AD. In this Council, the Fathers of the Church upheld the teaching that xxxxx”

    How would you respond to a rebuttal stating: the third ecumenical council was incorrect anout xxxxx. yyyyy is true, not xxxxx.

  • darrellboan

    People do make that argument Boz. My response is to attempt to reason with them and to point out that they are rebeling against the Church and delving into heresy. Bowing ones knee to the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15) is a choice.

  • Ggodat

    I agree with what you are saying, I’m just saying that to someone that doesn’t recognize Jesus as the Living Word, by whom and for whom all things were created; saying Mary gave birth to God would be confusing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/francisco.serna.1447 Francisco Serna

    OK, so if Mary is the mother of God, who is the father of God? What is the problem if we just say that Mary was the mother of our Lord Jesus? For sure, The Lord Jesus IS God to us. But something just does not seem right. But I just don’t know. And I am not going to argue with you. Have you really been at the foot of the Cross?

  • http://www.facebook.com/francisco.serna.1447 Francisco Serna

    Confusing, confusing. This really is a doctrine in line with the Roman Church. You are quite knowledgeable in early christian history. You certainly use good references from 500 or so AD. But you understand, one does not build church doctrine from those that hold no authority as the Word of God, (Old, New Testament). The apostles of our Lord did have authority in what they preached and wrote. All others that followed like the Church Fathers, good men that they were, had not that authority. The Roman Church builds some of its doctrine from them. When you say, “the Church ” during those early 500 years that dealt with this problem, What Church are you talking about. Are you sure that it is the Church that our Lord is building ?. Matt. 16:18.
    I’m sorry, your blog comes up with red flags.
    Question, is Mary the mother of the HOLY SPIRIT? The Holy Spirit is God. The Father of the Lord Jesus is GOD. Is He the Son of Mary? The Lord Jesus is God and we know that Mary, bless her heart, is the mother of our Lord Jesus. Can you clear this up without manufacturing something from the Scriptures.
    Tell me, Just what credentials do you have? Your picture as well as your statements seem crafty. Is that a picture of you as a kid or is it a picture of a child of yours.
    You see, all those comments that I have read, all lead to confusion. Surely you know that the Word of God is clear and true and does not lead to confusion. Am sorry that I need to test you. If I do err, I would welcome that our Lord may take me to the woodshed. your bro’ francisco

  • darrellboan

    Thanks for your comments Francisco.

    “When you say, “the Church ” during those early 500 years that dealt with this problem, What Church are you talking about.”

    At the time of the first few ecumenical councils, there was only one Church. It was led by Bishops who retained the authority implicit in Apostolic Succession.

    “Are you sure that it is the Church that our Lord is building ?”

    Yes, that is my belief.

    “Question, is Mary the mother of the HOLY SPIRIT? The Holy Spirit is God. The Father of the Lord Jesus is GOD. Is He the Son of Mary?”

    When we refer to Mary as the Mother of God, we are not claiming that she was the generating source of diety. (A quick review of the Nicene Constantinopolitan Creed, whcih was a product of the first two councils, clears that up). Rather, what we are saying is the the babe that she carried in her womb and subsequently gave birth to was and is fully God. Jesus as the second person of the Holy Trinity is fully God. As Holy Scripture tells us, ” For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily. . . ” (Col. 2:9).

    God bless!

  • Ggodat

    I told you it would be confusing :)

  • darrellboan

    Hahahaha! That is the same thing that Mormons say about the doctrine of the Trinity. “It is confusing!” :-)

    Honestly, it is only confusing to those who don’t understand the doctrine. Sometimes being confused is a good thing. It forces one to study things out in prayer and come into greater light.

  • http://www.facebook.com/don.sciba.3 Don Sciba

    For me she should be referred to as the Mother of Jesus.
    Period.
    The dual nature of Jesus can then be explained and examined without all the confusion.

  • david

    Like others have said, this teaching puts red flags up about your blog. Mary was the mother of Jesus. Jesus is fully God and fully man. That doesn’t make Mary the mother of God. All your Christian readers can understand this, judging by the comments.

  • Greg

    David, that Mary is properly called Theotokos is just basic Christology that almost all protestant confessions agree with – some like Jehovah’s Witnesses deny that Christ is God and so do not, but virtually all the major Reformers and early evangelical figures are on the same page here and I am confident that if you ask any evangelical pastor with a proper seminary education and I am confident you will get the same answer: Mary is Theotokos or more informally truly the Mother of the one who is God. It is not a “Catholic thing” – its central to what we as Christians believe about Christ. (Not that it matters, but I am not Catholic and do not agree with several of the Roman Catholic dogmas about Mary, especially the “Immaculate Conception”).

    In any case, more formally, there is one Eternal, Divine Logos who assumed human nature through Mary. He is not divisible into multiple personal subjects – the man Jesus is the Divine Person and Mary is most certainly the mother of that person according to the flesh. To suggest, as Nestorius did, that Mary can only be called the Christ-bearer (or the mother of Jesus) is actually an ancient heresy. Nothing wrong with saying she is the mother of Jesus per se, but it does not affirm anything about the Christian confession – that Christ is indeed fully Divine.

    Also, the Biblical language affirms this explicitly – Elizabeth greets Mary under the influence of the Spirit as “the mother of my LORD…” – the Kyrios reference here echoes the Divine Name. By the way, this passage is full of amazing Old Testament prophetic and typological fulfillment: Mary is greeted by Elizabeth as David greeted the Ark of the Covenant – the Scriptural imagery here is that Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant, within her womb is contained the uncontainable God. Even the earliest Christian hymns included statements affirming Mary as Theotokos (see the Sub Tuum Presidium, for example) long before the Council of Ephesus dealt with Nestorius’s heresy.

    Something is off with both the common American evangelical and Roman Catholic takes on Mary to be candid – the Scriptures and the earliest Christians do, however, affirm that she is Theotokos – the Mother of our God.

  • Greg

    ps. here is the letter from Cyril to Nestorius spelling out the position affirmed at Ephesus. Again, this is – or should be – basic Christology affirmed by all Christians. Yes, there are some protestant sects like Jehovah’s Witnesses (and I believe Mormons) who would not accept the title Theotokos), but they are substantially outside the historic Christian confessions.

    http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf214.x.viii.html

  • Vance

    Hi Darrell,
    I appreciate your post. I am from the Protestant branch of the tree (Evangelical) who also has a huge fascination with the Orthodox faith (I sure wished you guys practiced open communion!). I understand the concept of the Theotokos as explained and I appreciate the thinking behind it but I think that Language and Culture can be partially to blame for the confusion from an American Protestant perspective. I would venture to say that most Christians in Evangelical America would soundly reject Nestorian teaching and most have fairly orthodox views of the nature of Christ.
    However, when you use the English language which is a Subject-Verb-Object (SOV) language and You say “Mary is the Mother of God” to an American Protestant outside of the Liturgical tradition who relies on not so many creeds or councils and does not really see the need for such in determining Heresy other than their Pastor, Trusty Bible version and some concordances, that phrase rings very Roman Catholic. Unfortunately if you grow up in American Protestantism, you often don’t understand that in some measure you all owe a debt to many of the councils before us that did the hard intellectual work in thinking the nature of these things through.

    Back to language though. English, being a very broad and general language when compared to Greek is SOV in nature translates when you come out and say “Mary is the Mother of God” then Mary is indeed, in English, the causative subject of the sentence and God is the object being begat by her. so to an American Protestant ear “Mary is the mother of God” = “God, the un-caused caused, Yahweh the Father, was originated by Mary” No matter how you explain your meaning, this is what you said and what was understood by your audience. I am uncomfortable with the Title myself although I agree with the essential truth of Christ’s incarnation into the world by the means of Mary.

    They will agree with you that Jesus is God, that the Trinity is God, that Jesus is both God and Man, etc on all those things but the moment you come out and say “Mary, Mother of God”, you have not, in their ears, made a statement about the incarnation so much as you have elevated Mary to a heretical position. “God” in terms of a name is usually understood to be God the Father. Yes, Jesus is God but the reference to that being His nature is implicitly understood and equated. I think it is an unwritten rule of our vocabulary.

    I think this misunderstanding is also because The Orthodox Branch of the Church has a largely continuous history that relies and values on visible precedents of Councils (and hence is comfortable with ecclesiastical authority) and approved creeds and your disagreeing audience (in some measure) is a much simpler version of Christianity filtered by the Protestant Reformation and American Protestant Christian glasses that are not comfortable at all with ecclesiastical authority(or History). How the Text is treated/interpreted and who shall interpret it are also issues that come into play. Most American Protestants will follow you till the Nicene creed and the Apostles’ Creed and after that they just relegate it to unimportant or to a Catholic Apostasy.

    If you had said the Theotokos is this: “Mary was the mother of our Lord Jesus who is fully God and fully man”, or better yet:”Jesus Christ, who was both God and Man to the fullest extent was born the son of the Virgin Mary” then you would not behaving some of the adverse reactions you are having (I think). As a pastor friend of mine once said “Good Greek does not make good English” I think this is the case in terms of 2 different Christian cultures. One is not translating well into another at least from a linguistic or semantic standpoint even though I think there is by and large agreement on the nature of what is being talked about.

    Anyhoo, I am sure I was long-winded but maybe I made some sense? Lord’s blessings on you.

    Vo Kriste,

    Vance

  • darrellboan

    Well said Greg!

  • darrellboan

    Thank you for your thoughts Vance. In the Orthodox Church we use the original Greek title for Mary – “Theotokos”. This word literally translates as “God Bearer”. I love this title because it clearly communicates her role and speaks to the OT imagery which is fullfilled in her. The Arc of the Covenant in the OT beared God and in the NT Mary, as the God Bearer, became the Arc of the New Covenant.

    Perhaps in some ways this title – Theotokos – can help avoid some the semantical issues to which you refer.
    God bless.

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