Mary is the Mother of God

Within the earliest of Christian writings, we see Mary referred to by the title of Theotokos, which is Greek for “God-bearer.”  This term is translated by St. Jerome into Latin as “mater Dei,” or “Mother of God.”  We find Mary referred to in this way by Irenaeus (2nd century – 202), Hippolytus of Rome (170-235), Gregory the Wonderworker (213-270), Peter of Alexandria (300-311), Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386), Ephraim the Syrian (306-373), Athanasius (296-373), Epiphanius of Salamis (310-403), Ambrose of Milan (330-397), Gregory of Nazianzus (320-390), Jerome (347-420), Theodore of Mopsuestia (350-428) and Cyril of Alexandra (376-444).  Athanasius is bolded to give us some sense of a timeline reference.  He is the first Christian writer to correctly list the New Testament canon of Scripture.  Two hundred years before the Church even has a compiled New Testament, it was recognized with great consistency Mary is indeed the Mother of God.  But the title was not yet dogmatic.

But in the early fifth century, a controversy over the nature of Christ erupted within the Church and resulted in the heresy known as Nestorianism.  This is the belief that within Christ there are two separate “hypostases” or persons – one human and one divine.  Along with this heresy, the title of Mary as Theotokos was also rejected by those who held this view.

It is not clear whether Nestorius, who was the archbishop of Constantinople, held this position.  But he did try to find middle ground between those who embraced the historical title of Mary as Theotokos which emphasized that in Christ, God had been born as a man, and those who rejected the title because they believed that God as an eternal being could not have been born.  He suggested for Mary instead the title of Christotokos (the “Christ bearer”), but neither side accepted that as a compromise. 

Nestorius arranged with the emperor to convene an ecumenical council and in typical early church council fashion it was filled with strife.  The emperor backed Nestorius.  He was opposed by Cyril of Alexandria, who had been given the task by Pope Celestine to excommunicate Nestorius if he did not renounce his views.  In 431 Cyril took charge of the first council of Ephesus and opened the debate before the Patriarch of Antioch and the bishops from his area even arrived.  The council deposed Nestorius and declared him a heretic.  But when the Patriarch of Antioch and the other bishops arrived, they were furious to learn Nestorius had already been condemned.  They in turn convened their own synod and deposed Cyril.  Both sides appealed to the emperor, who ordered both Cyril and Nestorius to be exiled. 

In the following months however Pope Celestine acted and removed seventeen bishops from their offices who supported Nestorius, and eventually the Patriarch of Antioch agreed to abandon the teaching.  The Council of Ephesus was then accepted by the Church as official and ecumenical. 

From this council comes two important dogmatic teachings.  The first is known as the “Hypostatic Union,” which professes the revealed truth that in Christ, one Divine person subsists in two natures, the divine and the human. 

One simple test of this truth can be revealed in these four questions.  Does Jesus have a divine nature?  Does Jesus have a human nature?  Is Jesus a divine person?  Is Jesus a human person?

Usually if asked in a group, there are a chorus of “yeses” to all the above.  But while the answer to the first three questions is yes, the answer to the fourth question – Is Jesus a human person – is no.  Does he have a human nature?  Yes he does.  But Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity is a divine person who has existed from all eternity.  The Incarnation, when he assumed a human nature, did not change who he is – a divine person who has existed from all eternity.  As Scripture tells us, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Hebrews 13:8).  Christ does not give up his divinity in the Incarnation.  Thus the catechism repeatedly references Christ as one divine person who assumed a human nature.

The second dogmatic teaching we receive from the Council of Ephesus is that Mary is indeed the “Theotokos” or “Mother of God.”  The first anathema from the council is this — “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.”

Paragraph 466 of the Catechism quotes from the council – “For this reason the Council of Ephesus proclaimed in 431 that Mary truly became the Mother of God by the human conception of the Son of God in her womb: Mother of God, not that the nature of the Word or his divinity received the beginning of its existence from the holy Virgin, but that, since the holy body, animated by a rational soul, which the Word of God united to himself according to the hypostasis, was born from her, the Word is said to be born according to the flesh.’”

The dogma of Mary as Mother of God is shared with the Orthodox churches and is often accepted by the Lutheran and Anglican churches as well.  But many other Protestants object to this title for Mary.  Ron Rhodes, in his anti-Catholic work “Reasoning from the Scriptures with Catholics” has this to say – “The very important point I want to make, in view of all of the above, is that Jesus was and is eternal God.  Mary is not the mother of his deity.  While the child born in her womb was divine, it was not Mary who gave rise to that divinity.  Her role was to enable Jesus as eternal God to take on an additional nature: a human nature.  And so, Mary is Jesus’ mother only in that limited sense.  She most certainly is not the mother of God in any sense that she gave rise to the being of God.  We need to make sure our Roman Catholic acquaintances understand this distinction.” 

The “distinction” Rhodes wants to make sure as Catholics we understand – that Mary was not the rise or the cause of the divine nature – was clearly defined as being true 1600 years ago by the council of Ephesus.  He’s a bit late to the game on that point. 

But when Rhodes says Mary was not the “mother of his deity,” he brushes up against the age-old heresy of Nestorianism himself and needs to answer the question – who exactly is Jesus?  Scripture is quite clear Mary is the mother of the person Jesus (Matthew 1:18, John 2:1, John 19:25, Acts 1:14).  And Scripture is quite clear that Jesus is the divine second person of the Trinity – God.

But perhaps the real problem when people object to the title of Mary as Mother of God is the view people have of motherhood, and what it means to be a mother.  Mothers are never the creator or the source of their children.  God is.  Yes, we participate in His creative work by pro-creation.  But we are neither the creator of the process or the child.  Mary likewise participated in God’s creative work by her fiat (“let it be to me according to your word” Luke 1:38).  And in Mary’s unique situation she did give birth to a person who has existed from all eternity – the second person of the Trinity who is God.  But being the Mother of God should in no way imply she is the source of God, any more than any mother is the source of their child.  We give birth to children who are created by God.  In Mary’s case, she gave birth to God Himself.  Rhodes objection to the title of Mary as Mother of God and desire to make sure Catholics understand it doesn’t imply Mary is the source of Christ’s divinity is rooted in a false understanding of what it means to be a mother. 

The problem with rejection of the title of Mary as the Mother of God is it will without fail lead to an error in what is true about Christ.  In his anti-Catholic book “Catholicism and Christianity,” Jimmy Swaggart says about Luke 1:43 where Elizabeth refers to Mary as “the mother of my Lord,” that “once again, it must be emphasized that it was not God that was born of Mary, it was the human child – the Lord Jesus Christ.”  The only reasonable conclusion to Swaggart’s statement is he believes the child Jesus was not God.  This denies both the dogma of the Incarnation and Sacred Scripture – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1,14). 

Some will argue Mary is never referred to as the Mother of God in Scripture, but only as the mother of Jesus.  There are many terms not found in Scripture that are accepted by Christians – Trinity, Hypostatic Union, Incarnation.  The question always comes back to – exactly who is Jesus?  The Catholic faith has always professed Jesus is the eternal second person of the blessed Trinity, and is God.  When he assumed a human nature, he also became the son of a human woman.  If Mary is the mother of Jesus, and we believe Jesus is God, how can Mary not be seen to be the Mother of God?

But that logic does seem to elude some.  Dr. Mal Couch, president and professor of Theology and Languages at Tyndale Theological Seminary refers to this logic as a “perversion” that goes something like this: “(1) Jesus is God, (2) Mary birthed Jesus, and therefore (3) Mary is the mother of God.  Catholic theology is famous for such inbred reasoning.”  Of particular interest to me is his refusal to even acknowledge Mary is the mother of Jesus as Scripture does, but instead uses the term she “birthed” Jesus.  Again, there seems to be a real failure with some to understand that being a mother does not mean to be the creator of her child or the source of his existence.  But as a Catholic, I do indeed attest because (1) Mary is the mother of Jesus, and (2) Jesus is God, that leads to a very logical conclusion that (3) Mary is the Mother of God. 

Another objection I often see is that if Mary is the Mother of God, that means she is also the mother of the Father and the Holy Spirit.  It can sometimes be expressed like this – (1) God is Trinity, (2) Mary is the Mother of God, (3) Therefore Mary is the Mother of the Trinity.  This, at its core is a failure to understand the great truths of the mystery of the Trinity.  For while there is indeed one God, there are three distinct persons, and each person is fully God.  If we truly believe and profess Jesus is fully God and is a distinct person from the Father and the Son, then yes Mary is the Mother of God by virtue of being the Mother of Jesus, and that does not require a conclusion she is the mother of each person of the Trinity.  Jesus is God, not “a third” of God.

Another objection I’ve seen goes something like this – if Mary is the Mother of God, since Mary would have taught things to Jesus, that means Mary would have taught God to walk, and to speak, and all the things mothers teach their children.  That view is seen by some to be unfathomable.  The question still comes back to this – was the child Jesus God?  Or was he a separate human person that was at some point joined to the second person of the Trinity as two persons co-existing?  That is the heresy of Nestorianism that the title Mother of God counters.  The reality that Jesus had to grow and develop in his human nature is evidence of what Scripture tells us that he “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phillipians 2:7), and is at the very heart of the mystery of the Incarnation.

Scripture is clear.  The child Jesus that Mary gave birth to, and became mother to, is God.  This is seen from the prophecy of Isaiah that God would be born as a child (Isaiah 9:6), to St. John’s proclamation that the Word who became flesh is God (John 1:1,14), to Matthew’s reference to the child as Emmanuel (God is with us – Matthew 1:23) and multiple other references that can be reviewed here.  Scripture also records when the Magi came to visit them, they “saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him” (Matthew 2:11).  God received worship as the child Jesus and Scripture noted that his mother was present.

So back to Jimmy Swaggart’s reference to Luke 1:43 when Elizabeth, inspired by the Holy Spirit refers to Mary as “the mother of my Lord,” and his view that this is referring only to the “human child” Jesus.  The term “Lord” is used in Scripture and by the Jewish people to refer to both human men who have special status and are therefore referred to as “Lord,” as well as to God.  For example, when speaking to God Moses refers to Him as “my Lord” (Exodus 4:10) as does David in the Psalms (Psalm 35:23, 109:21).  But for those who wish to claim as Swaggart did that Elizabeth’s inspired words are referring only to the “human child” Jesus, I would ask this question.  In what way would the humanity of Christ establish him to be “lord” for Elizabeth?  The answer is nothing.  In his human nature, Jesus is simply the unborn child of her younger cousin who has no special status in society.  There is nothing in the human nature of Christ that would status him as Elizabeth’s “lord.”  It is only his divine nature that qualifies him to be her Lord, and it was through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that she recognized him as her Lord.  It is also the Holy Spirit that identified Mary as the mother of Elizabeth’s “Lord” – God Himself.

Every Marian dogma has a direct relationship to either the human nature of Christ, or his divinity.  In this case, it’s both.  By the title “Mother of God” given to Mary, the Church makes a clear and unequivocal statement that the person Mary bore in her womb is indeed the second person of the Trinity – God.  And by the dogmatic statement that she is the “Mother of God,” the Church makes a clear statement that Jesus also has a human nature, derived from the woman chosen to be his mother.  We see within this simple three-word title all the mysteries of the Christological dogmas of the Incarnation and the Hypostatic Union in a practical and tangible way.  Mary is the “Mother of God.”

And while Mary is the only person in the world who will ever give birth to God, all believers should relate to this dogma because by the power of our Baptism Christ also dwells within us, and we are all called to share him with the world.  Mary becomes our first and best example of welcoming Christ to dwell within us, and then to share him with others. 

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