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Why We Call Mary the Mother of God

The title “Mother of God”  is given to Mary in both the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Catholic) Churches. Used by early Christian writers such as Origen, Athanasius, and Augustine, the title seems to have been well established and widely accepted prior to its formal proclamation in the 5th century. This title is important. “Mother of God” carries with it the full weight of Jesus Christ’s deity. Mary is the Mother of God because she bore a son named Jesus who was and is God. While this fact is agreed upon in Protestant circles, most Protestant Christians tend to call Mary the Mother of Jesus, and may be taken aback to hear here referred to as the Mother of God. Historically, we do see Mary called “Mother of Jesus” early on in the life of the church, but those who used this title for the Virgin were adamant that the one she bore was only a man, not God.

HISTORY

The third Ecumenical Council was called in A.D. 431 in the city of Ephesus. The reason: the Bishop of Constantinople was said to be propounding a strange doctrine, and deposing clergy that disagreed with him. Saint Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, was charged by Saint Celestine, the Bishop of Rome, to look into the matter. After corresponding via snail mail with the Bishop of Constantinople, whose name was Nestorius, Saint Cyril concluded that the rumors were true. Both Cyril and Nestorius sent detailed accounts to Celestine. Cyril noted that they had yet to abstain from communion with Nestorius, but awaited the judgment of Celestine and the other bishops so that they could all hold a “firm sentence” with “one mind.”1

Informed by both sides, Celestine charged Cyril with a second task: to carry out the sentence against Nestorius with the power of the Pontifical See. In accordance with the will of Celestine, Cyril gave Nestorius ten days to repent of his error or suffer excommunication. Nestorius did not budge. This left Cyril with a problem: Nestorius was popular and had already deceived many. It would not take much for him to start an uproar. The entire empire, it seemed, was teetering on the brink of heresy. Because of this, neither Cyril nor Celestine relied on their own judgment, but wished to submit their judgments to the Universal Church. So an Ecuemnical Council was called, and all the Bishops gathered together in Ephesus to discern the truth in community and the Holy Spirit. Nestorius, however, did not show up.

The council convened with the reading aloud of Cyril’s and Nestorius’ letters. Cyril, having subjected his own judgments to the universal community—some of whom were more fond of Nestorius than him—inquired as to whether he had truly articulated the faith of the Apostles.

THE DISPUTE

But what exactly did Nestorius believe? In contrast to the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant articulation of Jesus Christ as one person in two natures, Nestorius claimed that Jesus Christ the man and the Divine Logos were two separate persons. Nestorius believed that Mary bore a only a human being who was overshadowed by the Divine sometime after his birth. For this reason, he refused to call Mary the Mother of God (Theotokos in Greek), and instead called her the Mother of Jesus (Christotokos). This belief also led Nestorius to deny that the second person of the Trinity suffered on the cross, claiming that it was only the man, Jesus, who suffered, and not God. It is believed that this doctrine of Christ was not Nestorius’ own invention but rather that he was influenced by Theodore Bishop of Mopsuestia (circa 428).

While Nestorius wanted to divide the Logos from Jesus, that is, divide the person of Jesus Christ into two separate persons—the Divine (Logos) and the Human (Jesus)—Saint Cyril insisted that Christ is not divided: Jesus Christ is one person in two natures. He wrote that Logos  “was incarnate and made man; that is, taking flesh of the holy Virgin, and having made it his own from the womb, he subjected himself to birth for us, and came forth man from a woman without casting off that which he was.”2 And that he “suffered for us in the flesh according to the Scriptures, and although impassible, yet in his Crucified Body he made his own the sufferings of his own flesh; and by the grace of God he tasted death for all.”3 But the mystery of the Incarnation goes even further than this; Saint Cyril links the importance of this topic with the Eucharist in a way that is worth quoting at length:

Proclaiming the death, according to the flesh, of the Only-begotten Son of God, that is Jesus Christ, confessing his resurrection from the dead, and his ascension into heaven, we offer the Unbloody Sacrifice* in the churches, and so go on to the mystical thanksgivings, and are sanctified, having received his Holy Flesh and the Precious Blood of Christ the Saviour of us all. And not as common flesh do we receive it; God forbid; nor as of a man sanctified and associated with the Word according to the unity of worth, or as having a divine indwelling, but as truly the Life-giving and very flesh of the Word himself. For he is the Life according to his nature as God, and when he became united to his Flesh he made it also to be Life-giving, as also he said to us: Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his Blood. For we must not think that it is flesh of a man like us (for how can the flesh of man be life-giving by its own nature?) but as having become truly the very own of him who for us both became and was called Son of Man.4

Not only was the person of Christ at stake, but the entire structure of the Church, which is based on the centrality of the Eucharist.

CONCLUSION

After the reading of both letters, the Bishops agreed that Cyril had maintained the Apostolic Faith, while Nestorius had deviated from it.  Thus, the dispute at the third Ecumenical Council  in Ephesus in A.D. 431 was finally settled by 12 Anathemas proclaimed against Nestorius, the first of which reads:

If anyone will not confess that the Emmanuel is very God, and that therefore the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God, inasmuch as in the flesh she bore the Word of God made flesh [as it is written, ‘The Word was made flesh’]; let him be anathema.5

The council proclaimed that Jesus Christ was one person: one hundred percent God and one hundred percent man, with a rational soul and body, and in whom the Divine and human natures dwelt. To safeguard this teaching, the title “Mother of God” was formally given to Mary, because she bore Jesus Christ, who was and is fully God and fully man from the exact time of his conception in Mary’s womb. In keeping with this great Tradition of the church, the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches proclaim the title “Mother of God” as dogma. Because whatever is said about Mary has, by necessity, theological ramifications for the whole of Christendom.

This concludes the second of eight articles about Mary. | 1. The Perpetual Virginity of Mary | 2. Mary, Mother of God |

Download a PDF of Cyril’s Letter to Nestorius with the XII. Anathematisms.


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Benjamin Cabe

Benjamin Cabe

Benjamin Cabe is an Eastern Orthodox Christian who aspires to learn from, and write within the framework of, the teachings of the Church Fathers. He is an artist, writer, animator, husband, and father. In his free time, he enjoys spending time with his family, reading, writing, and composing music.

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  • Just in my brief cursory reading, it is fascinating that the Nestorian churches have evolved to a position much closer to that of Eastern Orthodoxy, yet the position that one out in the Ecumenical Councils hasn’t evolved. That seems to speak very strongly to who has the true Spirit of the Church.

    So just to make sure I have this down, the Oriental Churches, which were originally Nestorian, now say two natures fully united and indistinguishable in one person without separation, and the Eastern Church says two distinct natures in one person so that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. Is that an accurate statement of the two positions as they stand today?

    These two sound very similar now, but I’m sure there is something important I might be missing…

    • The Oriental Churches rejected the Chalcedonian Christology set forth at the fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon (451). (http://orthodoxwiki.org/Fourth_Ecumenical_Council). That being said, the Third and Fourth Ecumenical Councils are only separated by 20 years. Certainly Nestorius and the Third Ecumenical Council played into the heresy causing the a Fourth Ecumenical Council to be called—adherents to the heresy, in contrast to Nestorius, who proclaimed two persons, believed Christ was only in one nature (monophysite).

      • Excellent! Thanks for that clarification. I really need a Ecum. Council cheat sheet. Maybe I’ll make a Powerpoint…

        • mmchanb

          The fifth century councils are worthy of close inspection. While we Westerners enjoy tidy explanations of theological heresy, the details reveal far more was at play politically and one could argue far less was in play theologically than others prefer to admit.

          • Excellent point! We can never overlook power. Politics and theology have often been closely linked throughout history and almost always due to the quest for power.

            • Benjamin Winter

              Indeed. As I mention above, for example, Pulcheria (the older sister of the emperor) took Nestorius’s attacks on the Theotokos personally, since she was a virgin. As you can imagine, she was in quite the position to “stir the pot…”

              • mmchanb

                I’m glad you replied. I hadn’t previously seen your comment. I appreciate the information and the Cyril book recommendation.

  • Benjamin Winter

    Loved the article. The doctrine of the Theotokos is indeed meant to safeguard the fact that Christ was not a man “bearing God,” nor was he God simply using the body of a man. He was truly God, and yet he came truly from Mary. If you don’t mind, I’d like to share some notes on the historical context of the council, just to further highlight its significance:

    -Cyril and his uncle Theophilus dominated the Alexandrian see for 59 years
    -In Constantinople, Nestorius (made bishop in 428) posed a formidable challenge to Cyril’s influence

    -Pulcheria, the older sister of the emperor, took Nestorius’s attacks on the Theotokos personally (she was a virgin)
    -An increasingly heated exchange of letters between Cyril and Nestorius had preceded the Council of Ephesus (431).

    In these letters, Cyril points out that if the Word simply passed through Mary, “He dwelt [only] incidentally in a human being … it follows that we see nothing more in the holy Virgin than in other women. For Elizabeth gave birth to the blessed Baptist who was sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” (Tome 1, Chapter 3)

    He continues in Tome 4: What need would there be for the Word at all if the human nature is sufficiently able, even when conceived of alone and in itself, to abolish death for us and dissolve the power of corruption?” (Tome 4, Chapter 4) He also argues that Nestrius’s de-emphasis of Mary as “God-bearer” causes Christ to be placed “on the same level as those who are sons by grace the one on whose account they have been enriched by the grace of adoption.” (Tome 2, Chapter 4) So here indeed we see that the issue is one primarily of Christ, but that this issue hinges on the state of Mary.

    Finally, I end with more heavily theological comment paraphrased from the opening essay in this volume: http://www.amazon.com/Cyril-Alexandria-Early-Church-Fathers/dp/0415182514/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1423073565&sr=8-2&keywords=Norman+Cyril

    Cyril and Nestorius “each believed that heretical conclusions were necessarily implied by the logic of the other’s language about Christ. Cyril, rooted in Athanasian soteriology, could not believe that a Christ who was the result of a merely extrinsic union between the Word and humanity … was capable of effecting out salvation. Nestorius, for his part, could only see Cyril’s arguments through anti-Apollinarian spectacles. If the Word did not unite himself with a human life that was complete in every respect, he could not be our savior.” (40) In contrast, Cyril emphasized that “the Word descended into the human world in order to raise it up to the life of God.” (45) “The Word of God was the subject of all the acts of Jesus Christ [see Athanasius], for salvation is brought about by the eternal Son who has accommodated himself in the economy of salvation to human life.” (41) “Christ is not a theological problem to be scrutinized: he is a savior to be worshipped and adored.” (44)

  • partofaplan

    I think the disconnect for many (non-Cathlodox) Christians is that even though there is a strong message of God being 100% man and 100% God, there is not much thought to the implications beyond that. I myself still struggle to call Mary the “Mother of God” because it sounds so pagan when you’re not used to saying it. It’s not though, when you rightly understand the hypostatic union. Mary bore Jesus, a man. Mary also bore God, the eternal Logos. Hence, she is the mother of God, not co-eternally, but from the appointed time and to now. Mystery of mysteries!

    • That is exactly right. While Non-“Cathlodox” may have certain aspects of truth, the implications—that is, what those truths mean for our Christian practice—don’t always follow through.