A Catholic-themed opinion blog about various topics, including theology, philosophy, politics and culture, from a Thomistic perspective.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Theotokos: A Defense of the Mother of God

 To celebrate this joyous feast of the Solemnity of the Mother of God on New Year’s Day, it can be fruitful to explore and hopefully gain a fuller understanding of one of the greatest Marian doctrines of the Catholic Church: that Mary is the Theotokos, the Mother of God. This is a claim that, despite going back to the earliest days of the Church and promulgated by official magisterial teaching, is often neglected or shied away from even by faithful Catholics. After the claims of some Protestant reformers that, by this doctrine, Catholics are idolizing Mary or giving her equality or even supremacy over Christ have been popularized throughout the West, we can find it difficult to witness our veneration of Mary as the Mother of God.

The identification of the mother of Jesus as the Mother of God has been met with controversy throughout the history of the Christian Church. To some, the title seems almost self-evident, since the mother of Jesus, whom Christianity professes to be God, the Second Person of the Trinity, would necessarily also be the Mother of God by her son’s own divine personhood. However, others have raised various objections to this claim, particularly Christian thinkers during and after the time of the Protestant Reformation, causing even many who hold to this historic doctrine to doubt its veracity or to show reluctance in openly proclaiming it. The ancient history of this teaching, which has been inseparably linked to the Incarnation of Christ since the time of the Church Fathers, as well as strong theological answers to the objections raised can help to encourage all Christians to profess Mary as the Mother of God without reservation. Through an exploration of the biblical, historical and theological evidence, the role of Mary as Mother of God can be demonstrated, and the objections answered conclusively.

The disputations of the claim that Mary should be considered the Mother of God have taken many forms throughout the centuries, depending on the specific theological lens of the objector. A question commonly raised in Fundamentalist circles concerns the proposition that the term “Mother of God” cannot be found in Scripture. If the Bible is the ultimate source and rule of Christian faith, how can we hold to a doctrine that it does not seem to contain? Further, even if the divine maternity of Mary can be inferred from Scripture, can we justifiably nominate this interpretation using words which, to all appearances, are not to be found in the Sacra pagina itself? “If this doctrine were as important as Roman Catholics claim,” they might ask, “would not at least one of the inspired writers have used it?”[1]

Another objection, from a more theological rather than textual perspective, is that titling Mary as Mother of God would cause her to be the source not only of Jesus’s human nature, but his divine nature as well, thus making Mary herself divine. Even in the biblical example often used by Catholics and other proponents of the divine maternity of Mary, namely the exclamation by Mary’s cousin Elizabeth at the Visitation, “And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk 1:43 DRA), the Greek word used for Lord, kyrios, can be used interchangeably to mean either God (as it is most often used in the Septuagint, or Greek Old Testament) or a human ruler. Thus, this passage can be interpreted to only identify Mary as the mother of Jesus’s humanity, not his divinity.

Along these lines, it can be problematic and even heretical not only to see Mary as the source of Jesus’s divine nature in her maternity, if she is called the Mother of God, but she could even be seen as the source of the Trinity itself. Since Jesus as the Son of God is the Second Person of the Trinity, and the persons of the Trinity, while distinct, are not separate but rather are a single Godhead, would not the divine maternity of Mary also make her the source of the Trinity and thus superior to it, becoming a kind of supreme goddess figure akin to many pagan deities? If her son is eternal, would not Mary as his mother be equally eternal as well as divine, thus forming a “Quadrinity” rather than a true Trinity?[2]

For other Christians who have raised doubts about Mary as the Mother of God, the above difficulties are ultimately unimportant precisely because of their understanding of what Mary’s maternity involved. For them, Mary was not a true “mother” in the fullest sense, as the term is applied to human and even animal mothers, but was only the vessel of the Incarnation, the medium or conduit through which the Word of God chose to take on a human nature. This, they argue, does not confer any kind of maternal relationship between Mary and Jesus, even if she is understood to have raised Jesus as her own child according to the norms of human family life; she is not the source of his nature or personhood, nor does she have any kind of authority over him, since as God no mere human could claim either role in relation to Jesus. It is even possible that, while Mary did incubate Jesus for nine months and gave birth to him, his human nature was created instantaneously by God at his conception and so they do not actually share a bodily relation, such as the same DNA or physical resemblance.[3]

Finally, even if someone were to accept that Mary is the Mother of God, the titles employed in this designation can become misleading. The ancient and biblically-based name Theotokos, or God-bearer, is only meant to honor Jesus, not Mary, it can be argued; Mary is merely the means through which God is ‘borne’ into the world purely through the divine will, irrespective of Mary’s cooperation or human maternity, and so the Incarnation honors God alone. Taking this argument further, even the common title ‘Mother of God’ can lead to a superstitious worship of Mary as a divine figure or at least to a misunderstanding of what her divine maternity entails, and so it is best to simply disuse the term, ignore Mary’s role in the Incarnation, and focus entirely on Jesus without distraction. As Protestant reformer John Calvin explained, “To call the Virgin Mary the Mother of God can only serve to confirm the ignorant in their superstitions”, or as Protestant apologist Matt Slick wrote, “The term ‘mother of God’ runs the risk of suggesting that Mary is somehow divine and part of the Godhead.”[4]

Before answering these objections, in order to avoid unnecessary confusion and the many errors it can lead to, a correct definition of the title “Mother of God” for the Blessed Virgin is needed. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “[T]he One whom [Mary] conceived as man by the Holy Spirit, who truly became her Son according to the flesh, was none other than the Father's eternal Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Hence the Church confesses that Mary is truly ‘Mother of God’ (Theotokos).”[5] The Catechism’s commentary on the words of Elizabeth at the Visitation succinctly describes the doctrine of Mary as the Mother of God. There are two fundamental points to this definition which are essential for refuting the arguments against giving Mary this title: for one, that the Son became Mary’s own child “according to the flesh,” after the manner of human maternity; and for two, that Jesus can only be considered a singular divine person, the Son of God, even in the hypostatic union of his divine and human natures. All errors about this doctrine derive from a misunderstanding of one or both of these points.

A study of the writings of the Church Fathers can quickly dispel the concern that this doctrine is in any way a new invention of the Church. From the earliest days of the Church up to the present, Mary has been called the Mother of God. The Fathers recognized, especially in response to the proliferation of errors regarding the natures and personhood of Christ, that the divine maternity of Mary is inextricable from Jesus’s hypostatic union as fully God and fully man. While the assignation of the title Theotokos to Mary was officially promulgated through the magisterial teaching of the Council of Ephesus in 431,[6] as early as 189 AD, St. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote, “The Virgin Mary, being obedient to his word, received from an angel the glad tidings that she would bear God.”[7] The description that the Blessed Virgin would “bear God” demonstrates that from the earliest days of the Church, Mary was considered not the bearer of Jesus’s human nature alone, but the bearer of God. Later, in 365 AD, St. Athanasius of Alexandrea would provide an even fuller explanation: “The Word begotten of the Father from on high, inexpressibly, inexplicably, incomprehensibly, and eternally, is he that is born in time here below of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.”[8] Since patristic times, the doctrine of the Theotokos was connected to the Incarnation; if Mary is not the Mother of God, then God was not truly incarnate as one divine person who is fully God and fully man. The Council of Ephesus corrected the heresies of the time that made this error, and the significance of this teaching can be seen in the words of St. Gregory of Nazianzen in the previous century when he wrote, “If anyone does not admit that holy Mary is Mother of God (Theotokos), he is cut off from the Godhead.”[9]

One way to understand the divine maternity of Mary is to see her as the “New Eve,” the New Covenant typological fulfillment of Eve, “the mother of all the living.” (Gn 3:20) Like all fulfillments of Old Testament types in the New, Mary is not merely a copy of Eve but is far superior to her. The Wedding at Cana is the clearest sign of the identification of Mary as the New Eve. St. John in his Gospel includes Jesus’s naming of her as “Woman.” Rather than being a sign of disrespect, this title echoes that used for Eve eleven times in Genesis. As Raymond Brown explains, “John thinks of Mary against the background of Genesis 3… Mary is the New Eve.”[10] Again, at the Crucifixion, when the Blessed Virgin and St. John stood at the foot of the Cross, Jesus repeats this title: “When Jesus therefore had seen his mother and the disciple standing whom he loved, he saith to his mother: Woman, behold thy son.” (Jn 19:26)

From this analysis of Mary as the New Eve, the question naturally arises, “If Mary is the New Eve while Jesus is the New Adam (1 Cor 15:22), how can she also be his Mother?” To answer this question, it is necessary to turn to the Book of the Apocalypse (Revelation) of St. John. Here, in a vision, Mary is seen to be not only the Mother of God but also the New Ark of the Covenant, as well as the Mother of the Church. Like the old Ark, Mary bore within herself the bread from Heaven, the Word of God, and the High Priest - like the manna, the Ten Commandments and the rod of Aaron of the first Ark.[11] The image of Mary as the New Ark is previewed in the Visitation, when Elizabeth, in her exclamation “And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk 1:43),


was referencing, almost verbatim, a text from 2 Samuel 6 in which we discover the Ark of the Covenant being brought into the newly conquered city of Jerusalem in triumphant procession… Kind David exclaimed, ‘How can the ark of the Lord come to me?’ (2 Samuel 6:9).[12]


This preview is made clear in the Apocalypse. Mary, who like the old Ark was “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit at the Annunciation (Ex 40:35, Lk 1:35), is described in St. John’s vision accordingly:


And the temple of God was opened in heaven: and the ark of his testament was seen in his temple… And a great sign appeared in heaven: A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars… And being with child… she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with an iron rod: and her son was taken up to God, and to his throne. (Rev 11:19; 12:1-2, 5)


While these verses are taken from separate chapters in modern Bibles, their repetition of the phrases “seen/appeared” connects them as a single vision.[13] From this vision, in which the “woman” can be clearly recognized as Mary, whose relation to “her son” who was “taken up to God, and to his throne” evidences her divine maternity, one can also identify her as the Mother of the Church from a succeeding verse: “And the dragon was angry against the woman: and went to make war with the rest of her seed, who keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.” (Rev 12:17) Here, the offspring of the woman, of whom the divine Son is the firstborn, are those who “have the testimony of Jesus Christ.” Thus, all Christians are also her children, and she is their mother, just as Christ gave her to be their mother from the Cross (Jn 19:27); in this way, she is also the New Eve, the mother of all those who live in the new life of Christ.

As corroborating evidence outside Scripture and Tradition for the doctrine of Mary as the Mother of God, it should be remembered that the early Protestant reformers, particularly Martin Luther and John Calvin, clearly shared this belief themselves. Luther gave one of the clearest declarations of belief in the Mother of God amongst the reformers when he wrote:


[S]he became the Mother of God, in which work so many and such great good things are bestowed on her as pass man's understanding. For on this there follows all honor, all blessedness, and her unique place in the whole of mankind, among which she has no equal, namely, that she had a child by the Father in heaven, and such a Child.... Hence men have crowded all her glory into a single word, calling her the Mother of God.[14]

Luther’s teaching remains the official and predominant view of Lutherans today; because Protestantism itself and most of its denominations descend from Luther, his words should carry great weight for Protestants who are wary of this doctrine. Despite Calvin’s warnings quoted above against the “superstitious” use of the term itself, which he applied particularly to Catholic Marian devotion, he also believed in the truth of this doctrine. In his commentary on the Visitation, in Luke 1:43, Calvin wrote:


[Elizabeth] calls Mary the mother of her Lord. This denotes a unity of person in the two natures of Christ; as if she had said, that he who was begotten a mortal man in the womb of Mary is, at the same time, the eternal God.... This name Lord strictly belongs to the Son of God 'manifested in the flesh,' (1 Timothy 3:16,) who has received from the Father all power, and has been appointed the highest ruler of heaven and earth, that by his agency God may govern all things.[15]

Thus, even with his reservations about the potentially superstitious or idolatrous nature of Marian devotion, John Calvin – the originator of many Protestant branches which were not founded by Luther – also believed that Mary is the Mother of God. The perspectives of these reformers help to solidify the historic nature of this doctrine and show that it is not necessarily contrary to a Protestant worldview.

Based on these arguments for titling Mary as the Mother of God, the objections against doing so can be answered. As mentioned above, the objections to this title are founded on two misconceptions: on the nature of Mary’s maternity, and on Jesus’s singular personhood within the hypostatic union. By explaining these two points, the objections can be answered. First, the divine maternity of Mary does not make her the source of Jesus’s divinity, nor does it make her his Creator or “goddess.” Further, in authority, she has no more over Jesus than do any human mothers. Her motherhood, while certainly nobler and more universal than that of a normal human mother, due to the supreme nobility and universality of her Son, is still that of a human mother. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, 


The Blessed Virgin is said to have merited to bear the Lord of all, not because she merited God to be incarnate, but because she merited, from the grace given to her, that grade of purity and holiness, which suited her to be the Mother of God.[16]

In the disputation of Elizabeth’s use of the term “mother of my Lord” at the Visitation, described above, the specific meaning of the word kyrios in this instance is not the most important point; rather, it is that Elizabeth considered Mary to be the mother of the one to whom she was referring, namely Jesus. Thus, Mary is truly the mother of Jesus. Accordingly, the term Theotokos is proper and fitting to Mary because, since Jesus is God and she is his mother, she is truly the “God-bearer,” and this phrase is essentially synonymous with the title “Mother of God.” The roots of the title Theotokos go even deeper, however; it is ultimately rooted in an explicit biblical use of the compounded term. As Catholic Bible scholar Brant Pitre explains,


Theotokos is a compound word that comes straight from the Bible… The Greek word for ‘God’ is theos, and the word “bearer” (Greek tokos) comes from the verb “to bear” (Greek tiktō). With this in mind, look closely again at the Gospel of Matthew: ‘A virgin shall conceive and bear (Greek tiktō) a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel,’ which means, God (Greek theos) with us. (Matthew 1:23)[17]

The compounding of these terms, drawn from the prophecy of Isaiah quoted by St. Matthew, was the basis of the official authorization of the title “Mother of God” for the Blessed Virgin by the Council of Ephesus in 431. St. Athanasius made this connection himself when he wrote:


Now the scope and character of Holy Scripture, as we have often said, is this — it contains a double account of the Saviour; that He was ever God, and is the Son, being the Father's Word and Radiance and Wisdom ; and that afterwards for us He took flesh of a Virgin, Mary Bearer of God , and was made man… but in fullness of the ages, He sent Him into the world, not that He might judge the world, but that the world by Him might be saved, and how it is written 'Behold, the Virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a Son, and they shall call his Name Emmanuel, which, being interpreted, is God with us Matthew 1:23.'[18]

From this evidence, it can be understood that, as the Mother of God, Mary was the “God-bearer,” bearing the person of Jesus just as a human mother bears her child – not as the source, creator or ultimate authority over them, but as their mother. The presumption that calling Mary the Mother of God will imply that she is the source of his divinity is equivalent to the early Mormon error and Islamic accusation that the conception of Jesus involved physical sexual relations between God and Mary, based on the use of Jesus’s title “Son of God.”[19] While the exact term Theotokos, like the term Trinity and like the biblical canon itself, cannot be found explicitly in Scripture, the roots of the title and its meaning certainly can.

The second misconception, concerning the singular divine personhood of Christ within the hypostatic union of divine and human natures, gives rise to the error that, as the Mother of God, Mary would necessarily be the mother of the whole Trinity, or that she could have been only the mother of his human or bodily nature. At the Council of Chalcedon, in 451 AD, the Church definitively declared, in correction of errors prevalent at the time, that Jesus is only one divine person – the Son of God – not a human person and a divine person at once, and in his person he has two natures which are both complete and in perfect union, namely a divine nature and a human nature. According to this definition, then, Mary cannot be the mother of a human person, nor can she be the mother of only a human or divine nature; rather, Jesus, as a singular divine person with two natures, is her Son. From this, it can also be concluded that Mary is not the mother of the Trinity as a whole, since Jesus is the Son of God who, while fully God in the Triune Godhead, is distinct from the Father and the Holy Spirit; Mary is the mother of only one person, Jesus the Son of God. The divine maternity of Mary so defined is the source of the historic veneration of Mary by the vast majority of Christians from apostolic times to the present; as the royal greeting of the archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation (Lk 1:28), as well as Mary’s promise in her Magnificat prayer that “from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed” (Lk 1:48), demonstrate, she, because of her Son, should be duly honored.

The biblical, historical and theological arguments for the divine maternity of Mary are sufficient to answer the most common objections to the use of the title “Mother of God,” as well as any other obstacles that may be brought up against it. While this title has been misunderstood at various times throughout history, its fundamental truth and importance must deter us from disregarding it or being afraid to cause scandal by openly proclaiming it. God chose to honor the faith of the Blessed Virgin by making her his mother, and so we as Christians should not disregard God’s providential plan. Like the other Marian doctrines, such as the Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix, we must work to defend the doctrine of Mary as Mater Dei all the more rather than denying or ignoring these teachings to avoid facing the challenges of those for whom the teachings have not been properly explained.

[1] Tim Staples, “How can Mary be God’s Mother? Answering the top three objections to Mary as ‘Mother of God’,” at Catholic Answers (1 May 2008), at www.catholic.com.

[2] Staples, “How can Mary.”

[3] Trent Horn, “Why ‘Mother of God’ Matters,” at Catholic Answers (1 January 2018), at www.catholic.com.

[4] Horn, “Why ‘Mother of God’.”

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 495, at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church, www.scborromeo.org.

[6] Council of Ephesus, Epistle of Cyril to Nestorius Intelligo quosdam meæ (431), at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.

[7] Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus haereses, 5, 19, 1, trans. Alexander Roberts and William Rambaut, Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, Irenaeus: Against Heresies (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature, 1885), at New Advent, www.newadvent.org, quoted in Jimmy Akin, The Fathers Know Best (El Cajon, CA: Catholic Answers Press, 2010), chap. 50, Mary, Mother of God, Kindle.

[8] Athanasius of Alexandria, Incarnation of the Word, The Faith of the Early Fathers, 3 volumes, ed. William Jurgens (Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1970–1979), quoted in Jimmy Akin, The Fathers Know Best (El Cajon, CA: Catholic Answers Press, 2010), chap. 50, Mary, Mother of God, Kindle.

[9] Gregory of Nazianzen, Letter 101, trans. Luigi Gambro, Mary and the Fathers of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1999), 162.

[10] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John, 2 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1965, 1970), 1:109, quoted in Brant Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary (New York: Image, 2018), 28.

[11] Tim Staples, Behold Your Mother (El Cajon, CA: Catholic Answers Press, 2014), 23.

[12] Staples, Behold, 22.

[13] Brant Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary (New York: Image, 2018), 62.

[14] Martin Luther, Luther's Works (Concordia Publishing House, 1968), 21:326.

[15] John Calvin, "Commentary on Luke 1:43", Harmony of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, at Christian Classics Ethereal Library, www.ccel.org.

[16] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, III, q. 2, a. 11, ad. 3.

[17] Pitre, Jesus, 92.

[18] Athanasius of Alexandria, Against the Arians, trans. John Henry Newman and Archibald Robertson, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Second Series, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, revised by Kevin Knight, vol. 4, Four Discourses Against the Arians (Athanasius) (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature, 1892), at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.

[19] Trent Horn, “Why ‘Mother of God’.”