Theotokos: Mary the Mother of God

One of the more important Christological questions in the history of the church is whether or not the church should confess that Mary is the theotokos, or the Mother of God.  There are several reasons why this is an immensely important question but the primary reason is because it has profound implications for rightly confessing the incarnation of Jesus Christ.  In fact, two of the most important councils in church history, the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, spent a great deal of time answering this very question.   Therefore by looking at the validity of using the term theotokos and its Christological and Mariological implications, this post will argue for the Chalcedonian label for Mary as “Mary the Virgin Mother of God.”[1]

Theotokos

One question that we must answer first is whether the church has warrant to call Mary the Mother of God, and to do this we must first look at the witness of the early church and Scripture.  The word theotokos is a Greek term that is translated as the Mother of God and was used by early church theologians to describe Mary the Mother of Jesus.[2]  The Scriptures contain a manifold witness to Mary as the Mother of Jesus (Jn. 2:1, 19:25; Mt. 12:46, 13:55), but there is only one place where Mary is described as something close to the Mother of God (Lk. 1:43).  In this passage, the Greek phrase ἡ μήτηρ τοῦ κυρίου μου πρὸς ἐμέ is translated as “the mother of my Lord.” Now the Greek word used for Lord is κυρίου which is commonly translated as master or Lord.  Κυρίου began as a term for master but later in the Hellenistic period it morphed into a term that had connotations of divinity.[3]  In the Septuagint, κύριος was commonly used to translate the divine Tetragrammaton (YHWH) so that the term for God became Lord.[4]  The use of κύριος to refer to the God of the Bible was carried into the New Testament but this term also began to be used to refer to Jesus, specifically as a messianic title.[5]  This means that we can understand Elizabeth, in Luke 1:43, as referring to Jesus as the divine Messiah, and probably as referring to Jesus as God.[6]

While Luke 1:43 comes very close to proving that Mary is the Mother of God, it is not sufficient by itself since the word κύριος is used in other passages to describe Jesus in ways that are not arguing for his divinity.[7]  This means that we must compliment the witness of Luke 1:43 with other texts that clearly present Jesus as God.  There are several texts that attest to Christ’s deity but for brevity we will only look at the Gospel of John.  In John 8:58, Jesus responds to Jewish accusations by making the astonishing claim that “before Abraham was, I am.” Here Jesus is clearly arguing for his deity by identifying himself with Exodus 3:14 where God told Moses “I AM WHO I AM.”  The Jews recognize this and try to stone Jesus for blasphemy (Lev. 24:16; Jo. 8:59).  Furthermore, in John 10:30 Jesus further identifies himself as God when he said, “I and the Father are one.”  We know that this is a claim to divinity since the Jews attempted to stone him again and explicitly accused him of blasphemously claiming to be God (Jo. 10:33).  In other words, Jesus is clearly presented as God in John and throughout the entire New Testament (Jo. 1:1, 14, 20:28; Acts 20:28; Tit. 2:13; 2 Pet. 1:1; Heb. 1:8; Rev. 19:10).  So the Scriptures attest to Mary being the mother of Jesus and to Jesus being God.  From these two truths, we can formulate an irrefutable logical syllogism to prove that Mary is the Mother of God: Since Mary is the Mother of Jesus, and Jesus is God, Mary is the Mother of God.

Christological and Theological Implications

As sound as this argument is, there are still other factors and objections that must be considered.  One of these is the objection from Nestorius that we should not say that Mary is the Mother of God but only that she is the Mother of Christ.[8]  Nestorius was concerned that the title theotokos implied that we must deny God’s immutability because God could not change into a man.[9]  For Nestorius, it was improper to speak of the “birth of God” or the “death of God” and he rather proposed that the incarnation was merely an appearance of the divine nature joining the human nature, which is called the Christ.[10]  In short, Nestorius wanted to protect Christ’s divinity but this lead to the diminishing of Christ’s humanity which led him to the heretical notion that Christ was two persons.  For Cyril, and the majority of the church, Nestorius’ denial of the term Mother of God and his understanding of the incarnation as a mere appearance was anathema.[11]

Contrary to Nestorius, Cyril argued that the union of the divine and human nature in the person of Christ was not merely moral and phenomenological but ontological.[12]  In other words, the second person of the Trinity became man in the sense that his divine and human natures were united to his person at conception, as one person, in the womb of Mary, by the Holy Spirit, through the hypostatic union.[13]  This does not mean that Christ’s divinity somehow mixed with his humanity to create a third type of being other than creature and Creator, as Nestorius alleged, rather, it meant that Jesus is “the one Son of God existing as man.”[14]  Cyril’s formulation became the test of orthodoxy as it rightly confirmed that Christ’s divinity and humanity could be attributed to one and the same person.[15]   This means, contrary to Nestorius, that “Mary is indeed the Mother of God for the Son of God, who was humanly conceived by the Holy Spirit within her womb, was physically born of her as man.”[16]

This requires the church to confess that Mary is the Mother of God because she is not only the mother of Christ’s humanity, but she is the mother of the Person, who is divine, that subsisted in her womb.[17]  Mary is not the Mother of a man who became God, or was united to God, but who was God and man in the Person of Jesus Christ from the point of his conception.[18]  Even though we should confess that Mary is the Mother of God, we must not confess that Mary is the Mother of the Godhead.[19]  For this would elevate her to a status of giving being unto the eternal and Triune God who is not derivative but exists in Himself.  Nor should we confess that Mary gives our Lord his divine personality since before she was conceived, the Son of God is God from all eternity.[20]  Rather, we must confess that she is the Mother of God in that the Son of God became God incarnate as “her son according to the flesh.”[21]

Mariological Implications

Now the importance of theotokos is not merely limited to Christology because many theologians have used it as a spring board into developing a robust Mariology.   The Eastern Orthodox Church, for example, believes that theotokos is a word that not only points to Jesus Christ but is also a term that points to Mary’s significance in the Orthodox tradition.[22]  Roman Catholic theologians hold a similar position as they believe Mary as theotokos elevates her to be “the symbol and the most perfect realization of the Church.”[23]  While the desire to honor the Mother of God is understandable, we must remember that historically, and biblically, theotokos was a term used to say something about Christ and not about Mary.[24]

Conclusion 

In conclusion, the church should boldly confess that Mary is the Mother of God because this confession is well attested and mandated by Scripture and church history.  Indeed, if we deny that Mary is the Mother of God then we are left with holes in our theology at best and a confession that is rank with heresy at worst.  What must rather learn to humble ourselves under the whole counsel of God and follow those who have gone before us in confessing that Mary is the Mother of God.

[1] Murphy, Francesca Aran, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Christology. 1st edition. (Oxford, United Kingdom ; New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015), 559.

[2] Murphy, The Oxford Handbook of Christology, 556.

[3] Spicq, Ceslas. Theological Lexicon of the New Testament. Translated by James D. Ernest. Volume 2. (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Pub, 1995), 346.

[4] Spicq, TLNT, 347.

[5] Spicq, TLNT, 349.

[6] Bock, Darrell L. Luke 1:1-9:50. 1st Edition. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 1994), 137.

[7] Spicq, TLNT, 348.

[8] Murphy, The Oxford Handbook of Christology, 556.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, 557.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Murphy, The Oxford Handbook of Christology, 557.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Suenens, L.J. Mary the Mother of God. 1st American edition. (Hawthorn Books, 1959), 46.

[18] Suenens, Mary the Mother of God, 46.

[19] Ibid, 47.

[20] Ibid, 47.

[21] Church, Catholic. Catechism of the Catholic Church. (San Francisco, Calif.: Ignatius Pr, 1994), 125.

[22] FitzGerald, Kyriaki Karidoyanes. “A person in communion: the witness of Mary, the Mother of God.” The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 46, no. 3-4 (September 2001): 229-253. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed May 08, 2017), 232.

[23] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 128.

[24] White, James. Mary–Another Redeemer? 1st Edition. (Minneapolis, Minn: Bethany House Publishers, 1998), 47.