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Is Mary the Theotokos?

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Published: Thu, 07 Sep 2017

“Is Mary the Theotokos? Does it matter?

Without the Blessed Virgin Mary Christianity, would be meaningless. That Mary is Mother of God is rooted deeply in sacred scripture, and this Church doctrine has been confidently taught since the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431), during which occurred a decisive intervention of the Church’s teaching authority on behalf of Mary’s divine motherhood and against the claims of Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople who stated that Mary did not give birth to God, but to an ordinary baby, called Christ, who was in some way connected to God. Consequently, Mary did not deserve to be called by the title of ‘Theotokos’, or God-bearer, but rather the meeker title of ‘Christotokos’, or bearer of Christ.

To get an idea of what was happening at the time we need to take a brief look at why this controversy began and at what was being said. So, to begin, it was the primary concern of the Council of Nicaea to make it plain beyond all possibility of misunderstanding that Jesus of Nazareth, while personally distinct from the Father, is God in the fullest sense of the word. As the Creed states, ‘God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, consubstantial with the Father’; it was the Church’s determination to maintain this doctrine of derived equality without deviating into either modalism or tritheism, that led her on the long intellectual pilgrimage whose goal was full understanding of that mutual interpenetration of the three divine Person’s, through their union with the one divine Essence, which is denoted by the word perichoresis. Only when the divinity of the Son had been firmly established could the Church give her full attention to the fact that the Son, being God, had become man.

But can there be in Christ an unconfused union of Godhead and manhood? This was the question which was to exercise the minds of theologians and throw the life of the Church into turmoil from Constantinople to Chalcedon.

What the orthodox Fathers were striving to do, and what was ultimately achieved at Chalcedon, was to preserve the doctrine of unconfused Godhead and manhood of Christ against tendencies which strove, on the one hand, to unite the two terms at the cost of confusing them with each other and, on the other hand, to keep them distinct at the cost of separating them. This today may not seem to offer any special difficulty; that this is so is a sign of the triumph of Chalcedon in theological thought, but, in the fifth century it was a notion that could only be achieved at the cost of bitter controversy and schism.

So, when the theologically unimaginative but critically active Nestorius became Patriarch of Constantinople everything was ready for an explosion, which came when Nestorius openly supported his chaplain Anastasius in denouncing the application to the Blessed Virgin Mary of the title Theotokos. Nestorius was an Antiochene in Christology, deeply influenced by the ideas of Theodore of Mopsuestia, and it was his clumsy, clumsily articulated elucidation of the inferences of the position of the Antiochenes that was to set light to the controversy.

Quite early on Nestorius was called upon to pronounce on the suitability of Theotokos as a title of the Virgin Mary, and ruled that its correctness was doubtful unless Christotokos was added to balance it.

But in getting himself around this issue Nestorius used uncontrolled language which was calculated to provoke those whose approach was different to his own. He argued that no human being could be God’s mother and no human being could give birth to God; Mary gave birth to a man not God, the instrument of divinity. God could not have been carried for nine months in a woman’s womb, or have been wrapped in baby-clothes, or have suffered, died and been buried. Behind the description of Mary as Theotokos, he professed to detect the Arian theory that Mary’s Son was human or the Apollinarian concept that the manhood was imperfect.

These flare-ups of Nestorius were calculated to be confrontational. But they played into the hands of Cyril of Alexandria, Nestorius’s bitter rival. Cyril claimed to see in them as a resurgence of the theory of two sons which was rejected in the fourth century. Alarmed by this claim that Mary’s son was just a man, Eusebius, later to become Bishop of Dorylaeum, quickly concluded that Nestorius was trying to re-establish the adoptionism of Paul of Samosata. By exploiting this interpretation Cyril was able to secure Nestorius’s condemnation as a heretic at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Based on these judgements the traditional picture of Nestorianism as a heresy which split God/man into two distinct Persons rapidly formed itself.

“When Divine Scripture is about to tell of the birth of Christ from the Virgin Mary or [his] death, in no place does it appear that it puts ‘God’ but either ‘Christ’ or ‘Son’ or ‘Lord’, because these three are indicative of the two natures, now of this and now of that, now of the one and now of the other. For example, when the Book relates unto us the birth from the Virgin, whom docs it say? God sent his Son. It says not that God sent God the Word, but it takes a name which indicates both the natures. Since the Son is man and God, it says that God sent his Son and he was born of a woman; and therein thou seest that the name is put which indicates both the natures. Thou callest [him] Son according to the birth from the blessed Virgin, for the Virgin Mother / of Christ bare the Son of God. But since the Son of God is twofold in natures, she bare not the Son of God but she bare the humanity, which is the Son because of the Son who is united thereto” (Nestorius, 450 AD).

The first chapter of St John’s Gospel tell us quite simply that ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ Two points need to be noticed. The first is that in Hebrew flesh and blood means not just the material part of a man in contrast with his soul, but human nature as a whole. The second is that St John does not say that the Word united flesh to himself, but that he became flesh. St Athanasius was fundamentally clear on this point. In general, however, he was quite content to think of the Incarnation as taking place through the union of human flesh to the divine Word.

“He took upon him our flesh, as Aaron did his robe, and assumed a body like ours, having Mary for the Mother of his body” (Athanasius, 356/360).

Nestorius himself never drew from his premises the conclusions which Cyril believed him to have drawn and which were drawn by some of his followers. Nor is it to be supposed that the outlook of Antiochene theology logically implied the Nestorian heresy.

What is true, however, is that, while the pluralistic emphasis of Antioch made it perfectly easy to preserve the distinction of the humanity and the divinity in Christ, it made it very difficult to provide for their real union.

Apollinarius had maintained the union by removing from Christ’s humanity one of its constituents, the rational soul, and inserting the divine Word (Logos) in its place. No Antiochene could tolerate such a mutilation; the humanity must remain entire and complete. But how then is this unity of divinity and humanity to be effected? If the humanity is complete we shall surely have a complete human individual and it will be this individual and not the divine Word (Logos) who will be the subject of Christ’s life. No wonder, then, the Alexandrian will reflect, that these Antiochenes refuse to call Mary theotokos; they cannot help believing that he whom she bore was not God but a man, even if God came to dwell in him after she had borne him. Whatever they may say, they believe in two Sons, one the Son of God and the other the son of Mary, however close the relation of the two may be.

The clash between these points of view was fierce at first. Cyril’s intervention was quick when he heard of Nestorius’s mockery of Theotokos, in refuting what he deemed gross heresy. The patriarchs exchanged some quite prickly letters without with neither of them making any significant headway. So, Pope Celestine was contacted by Cyril, who send him a dossier of extracts from Nestorius’s writings and from the declarations made on the Incarnation by the reverend fathers of past generations. Nestorius also wrote letters to Celestine and in his third he stated:

“I have learned that Cyril, the most distinguished bishop of the city of Alexandria, has become worried about reports against him that we received, and is now hunting for subterfuges to avoid a holy synod taking place due to these reports. In the meantime he is devising some other disturbances over terms and has chosen [as a point of controversy] the term Theotokos and Christotokos: the first he allows, but as for Christotokos, sometimes he removes it from the gospels, and sometimes he allows it, on the basis of what I believe is a kind of excessive prudence. In the case of the term Theotokos, I am not opposed to those who want to say it, unless it should advance to the confusion of natures in the manner of the madness of Apollinaris or Arius. Nonetheless, I have no doubt that the term Theotokos is inferior to the term Christotokos, as the latter is mentioned by the angels and the gospels. And if I were not speaking to Your Worship who is already so knowledgeable, I would need to give a very long discourse on this topic. But even without a discourse, it is known in every way to Your Beatitude, that if we should think that there are two groups opposed to each other, the one using only the term Theotokos, the other only Anthropotokos, and each group draws [others] to what it confesses or, if they have not accomplished this, puts [others] in danger of falling from the church, it would be necessary to assign someone to such an affair if it arises who exercises concern for both groups and heals the danger of both parties by means of the term taken from the gospels that signifies both natures.

For as I said, the term Christotokos keeps the assertion of both parties to the proper limits, because it both removes the blasphemy of Paul of Samosata, who claimed that Christ the Lord of all was simply a human being, and also flees the wickedness of Arius and Apollinaris. Now I have written these very things to the most distinguished bishop of Alexandria, as Your Beatitude can tell from the copies I have attached to this letter of mine, as well as from the copies of what he wrote to us. Moreover, with God’s help it has also been agreed to announce a world-wide synod in order to inquire into the other ecclesiastical matters. For I do not think it will be difficult to investigate an uncertainty over words, and it is not a hindrance for a discussion of the divinity of Christ the Lord” (Nestorius, 430)

It did not take to long for Celestine to make a decision, and he called a synod in Rome in August 430 which decided against Nestorius and voted in favour of the title Theotokos. Nestorius was given a warning that, within ten days he would be treated as excommunicate unless, after receiving the notification, he retracted his teaching. The implementation of this ruling was given to Cyril and he characteristically carried out his task. He held a synod at Alexandria, afterwards sending a letter to Nestorius requiring him to subscribe to twelve anathemas. These anathemas, which were intentionally confrontational, summarise in terms which were uncompromising the Cyrilline Christology, some of which I reference here:

  1. “If anyone does not confess that Emmanuel is God in truth, and therefore that the holy virgin is the mother of God (for she bore in a fleshly way the Word of God become flesh, let him be anathema.”
  2. “If anyone does not confess that the Word from God the Father has been united by hypostasis with the flesh and is one Christ with his own flesh, and is therefore God and man together, let him be anathema.”
  3. “If anyone divides in the one Christ the hypostases after the union, joining them only by a conjunction of dignity or authority or power, and not rather by a coming together in a union by nature, let him be anathema.”
  4. “If anyone distributes between the two persons or hypostases the expressions used either in the gospels or in the apostolic writings, whether they are used by the holy writers of Christ or by him about himself, and ascribes some to him as to a man, thought of separately from the Word from God, and others, as befitting God, to him as to the Word from God the Father, let him be anathema.”
  5. “If anyone dares to say that Christ was a God-bearing man and not rather God in truth, being by nature one Son, even as “the Word became flesh”, and is made partaker of blood and flesh precisely like us, let him be anathema.”
  6. “If anyone says that the Word from God the Father was the God or master of Christ, and does not rather confess the same both God and man, the Word having become flesh, according to the scriptures, let him be anathema.”
  7. “If anyone says that as man Jesus was activated by the Word of God and was clothed with the glory of the Only-begotten, as a being separate from him, let him be anathema.”
  1. “If anyone dares to say that the man who was assumed ought to be worshipped and glorified together with the divine Word and be called God along with him, while being separate from him, (for the addition of “with” must always compel us to think in this way), and will not rather worship Emmanuel with one veneration and send up to him one doxology, even as “the Word became flesh”, let him be anathema.” (Alexandria, 430).

This union of two natures in the one divine Person of Christ is called the hypostatic or personal union. It is the mystery of the Incarnation of God; it is also the mystery of the divine Motherhood of Mary.

Cyril also said in this letter:

“Therefore, because the holy virgin bore in the flesh God who was united hypostatically with the flesh, for that reason we call her mother of God, not as though the nature of the Word had the beginning of its existence from the flesh (for “the Word was in the beginning and the Word was God and the Word was with God”, and he made the ages and is coeternal with the Father and craftsman of all things), but because, as we have said, he united to himself hypostatically the human and underwent a birth according to the flesh from her womb. This was not as though he needed necessarily or for his own nature a birth in time and in the last times of this age, but in order that he might bless the beginning of our existence, in order that seeing that it was a woman that had given birth to him united to the flesh, the curse against the whole race should thereafter cease which was consigning all our earthy bodies to death, and in order that the removal through him of the curse, “In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children”, should demonstrate the truth of the words of the prophet: “Strong death swallowed them Up”, and again, “God has wiped every tear away from all face”. It is for this cause that we say that in his economy he blessed marriage and, when invited, went down to Cana in Galilee with his holy apostles” (Alexandria, 430).

A letter was issued by Theodosius summoning a general council to meet at Ephesus at Pentecost 431, with an astonishing medley of rival meetings taking place before the event. Recognised as the Third General Council Ephesus was effective in that Nestorius was never rehabilitated, dying in exile in 451. Its more positive achievement was to canonize the Nicene creed as establishing orthodoxy. In the two years following Ephesus strenuous efforts were made to heal the divisions in the Church. The instrument of agreement, known as the Formula of Reunion, was contained in a letter sent by John of Antioch to Cyril, it ran as follows:

“We confess, therefore, our Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, perfect God and perfect man composed of a rational soul and body, begotten before the ages from the Father in respect of His divinity, but likewise in these last days for us and our salvation from the Virgin Mary in respect of His manhood, consubstantial with the Father in respect of His divinity and at the same time consubstantial with us in respect of His manhood. For the union(henosis) of two natures has been accomplished. Hence we confess one Christ, one Son, one Lord. In virtue of this conception of a union without confusion we confess the holy Virgin as Theotokos because the divine Word became flesh and was made man and from the very conception united to Himself the temple taken from her. As for the evangelical and apostolic statements about the Lord, we recognise that theologians employ some indifferently in view of the unity of person but distinguish others in view of the duality of natures, applying the God-befitting ones to Christ’s divinity and the humble ones to His humanity” (Antioch, 433).

Cyril greeted this formulary with enthusiasm in his letter to John Laetentur coeli. Which was read out at the Council of Chalcedon, part of which I now cite:

“…We confess, therefore, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, perfect God, and perfect Man of a reasonable soul and flesh consisting; begotten before the ages of the Father according to his Divinity, and in the last days, for us and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin according to his humanity, of the same substance with his Father according to his Divinity, and of the same substance with us according to his humanity; for there became a union of two natures. Wherefore we confess one Christ, one Son, one Lord. According to this understanding of this unmixed union, we confess the holy Virgin to be Mother of God; because God the Word was incarnate and became Man, and from this conception he united the temple taken from her with himself…” (Chalcedon, 451).

After these early great councils of the Church feasts to The Blessed Virgin increased, lots of churches were dedicated to her and in the latter part of the seventh century four new feasts to Mary had started to be celebrated; the Annunciation, the Assumption, the Purification, and the Nativity of The Blessed Virgin Mary. With Pius IX promulgation of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 devotion to our Blessed Lady accelerated, and many appearances of the Blessed Virgin took place. And also at this time many Marian customs grew which included Maytime processions, the wearing of the Miraculous Medal and the Rosary.

1962 saw a major change which happened with Vatican II grounding more firmly in Scripture and liturgy devotion to Mary placing The Blessed Virgin securely in the mystery of the Church.

The truth of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s divine Motherhood and its corresponding dignity are found in these words of the Second Vatican Council:

“The Virgin Mary, who at the message of the angel received the Word of God in her heart and in her body and gave Life to the world, is acknowledged and honoured as being truly the Mother of God and Mother of the Redeemer. Redeemed by reason of the merits of her Son and united to Him by a close and indissoluble tie, she is endowed with the high office and dignity of being the Mother of the Son of God, by which account she is also the beloved daughter of the Father and the temple of the Holy Spirit. Because of this gift of sublime grace, she far surpasses all creatures, both in heaven and on earth. At the same time, however, because she belongs to the offspring of Adam she is one with all those who are to be saved” (Lumen Gentium, 53).

The mark of our Blessed Lady’s holiness is that she was filled with the grace of God. The Blessed Virgin is the pattern to follow. Giving herself completely with love she was filled with the life of God. Mary’s ‘Yes’ to the angel’s message reveals her part in the work of salvation.

“And the Angel said: ‘Fear not, Mary… the Holy Spirit shall come upon you, and the power of the most High shall overshadow you, and therefore the Holy which shall be born of you shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:26-35).

These are the words of the great mystery of Mary’s divine motherhood heralded by the angel in Luke’s Gospel, their straightforwardness is persuasive as they announce the origin of our religion. In the beginning, they inspired triumphant faith, the faith of the martyrs and the Saints. The faith which will continue to inspire all Christians to the end of time.


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