Protestants often instinctively bristle up when hearing the claim that the title of Theotokos (God-bearer, Mother of God) is applied to Mary. Although this is understandable given the abuses of the Roman Catholic and, to a lesser degree, Eastern Orthodox Churches, it is vital that we understand the stakes of the argument. Since most of the arguments for denying the Theotokos are based on misunderstandings or misconceptions, I want to try to elucidate a few of those today. This isn’t’ a new issue, and I’m certainly not the first to write about it.
Theotokos Doesn’t Mean God Started With Mary
The most common reason to argue against the use of the Theotokos is that it seems somehow to imply that the Godhead began to exist in Mary’s womb. Simply put, this is not what anyone in the world actually means when they use this term. Ironically, those who reject the Theotokos typically deny with vehemence the charge of Nestorianism, but their primary concern and objection start in the exact same place. Although I will acknowledge that the brevity of speech used to say that Mary gave birth to God, or that God was carried in the womb of a virgin, is a truncated statement, it does not follow that the statement is untrue. When we affirm that Mary is the Theotokos we are not articulating in any way that the divine nature came to be through Mary.
Theotokos Isn’t a Title of Authority or Veneration
Another common objection to the use of the term theotokos is that it gives Mary some kind of special place of honor, or that it somehow gives her authority over God. This again is an understandable concern. Contrary to the above issue, both Rome and Constantinople have turned the term into a title, rather than a description. Originally, the phrase “mother of God” or “God-bearer” was simply descriptive. It indicated that the one whom Mary gave birth to was indeed “one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 This fact was what was disputed at the first Council of Ephesus. It was not until much later in history that this fact was used to elevate Mary in any significant way. 2
Theotokos Is Really about Jesus
When we affirm that Mary is the Mother of God, we aren’t really saying something about Mary, but about Jesus. The concern that Nestorius had was that if we said that Mary was the God-bearer, then we were saying that God had a beginning. As I mentioned above, it is somewhat ironic that people who deny the charge of Nestorianism raise the same objection that Nestorius did. Another unfortunate corollary is that they often propose the same solution. Nestorius preferred the term Christotokos, or Christ-bearer. Taken at face value this isn’t so bad. However, it quickly began to mean that the person whom Mary bore was not the divine Logos, but instead was a man who was specially graced by the Logos. Modern opponents who object to the use of theotokos often insist that it was only Jesus who was born of Mary, or worse that it was only his human nature that was born of Mary. While both of these are true, what is often missed is the subtle Christological issues that this kind of speaking can lead to. If we are not careful, we end up speaking in ways that are strikingly similar to Nestorius, and after a while, those patterns of speech shape our patterns of thought. When we speak of a human nature being born, rather than a person who is a human nature or has a human nature, we subtly begin to treat that nature as though it was a person. Jesus becomes, then, no longer a unity of two natures subsisting in a single person… but instead a unity of two persons who has a single appearance (prosopon). This is exactly the error which Nestorius is purported to have made. 3
To Deny that Mary is Theotokos, is to Deny that Christ is Theos
To wrap this all up, I have a very simple question. I want you to think about Jesus as a child. (Don’t picture him!) Think about him coming to Mary to ask her something. He opens his mouth. What does he call her? Do you think he calls her mother, or do you think he calls her something else. Now, that single person who called Mary mother… is he God? When you understand the answer to that question is and must be yes, then you understand the importance of this term. To deny that Mary is the Mother of God, is to deny that the son of Mary is God.
- Chalcedonian Definition ↩
- It is true that there were pockets of Marian veneration in the Church before and around the time of Ephesus, and although it was a concern which prompted Nestorius’s response, it was not in any real sense the focus of his objection. That said, the Marian veneration during this era does not appear to be anything close to the Mariolatry that we would later see from the Roman and Eastern Churches. ↩
- There is some dispute as to whether or not Nestorius actually held this. ↩