For a while now I have been contemplating the title given to Mary (the mother of Jesus) that causes many of us evangelicals to break out in a cold sweat. It’s a title that makes us nervous, yet calling Mary the ‘Mother of God’ has been a mainstay for the majority of Christianity since the very early days of the faith, and for most Christians (yes, we evangelicals do NOT constitute ‘most Christians’) it has never been a problem. The nervousness about it has developed over time since the Reformation. I used to struggle with it and outright reject it, but I am now at a point where not only does the title ‘Mother of God’ not feature as an issue for me, I actually now consider it to be an important title to safeguard orthodox theology and how we understand the central figure of Christian life.
Allow me to validate some of the concern though. Evangelicals are concerned about placing anything in our worship above the triune God and ahead of Christ as our ultimate mediator. Evangelicals, and many other Protestants, when looking from the outside, see in many cultural expressions of devotion to Mary something that is interpreted as worship of her. for this reason I appreciate my Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters when they agree that in some cultural expressions of devotion to Mary, it gets taken too far.
Equally from our side, I will own my belief that we have misinterpreted some Marian dogma as placing Mary higher than the nuances of said dogma actually do. From our viewpoint we have interpreted some dogma as placing Mary on an equal footing or above Christ when it does not. This is what is behind the nervousness we hold in relation to the title ‘Mother of God.’ Whilst I might disagree with some of it, reading much of the established Marian dogma as giving Mary that sort of status, is a misinterpretation.
The original term that ‘Mother of God’ is derived from is ‘Theotokos.’ It pulls together two Greek words – Theos (God) and Tokos (in this context it means ‘bringing forth’ or ‘birth’). One way of translating it would be ‘who gave birth to one who was God.’ Shifting to English, the much simpler ‘Mother of God’ was adopted, coming from the Greek phrase ‘Meter tou Theou.’ The title of ‘Theotokos’ for Mary was in use within the first 3 centuries of the Christian faith. It was important not because of what it said about Mary, but because of what it said about Jesus. That distinction is significant as us evangelicals and many other Protestants hear it as being primarily about Mary rather than it being primarily about Jesus.
The title, ‘Theotokos’ (or ‘Mother of God) was the central matter of debate at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The early ecumenical councils were a gathering of the entire Church (represented by its leaders) to settle various matters of discussion. The first such council (in Jerusalem) is recorded in Acts 15 within scripture. The first half of the first millennia in Christian history was a period of determining what the Church actually understood about the mysteries of God and particularly the nature and place of Christ Jesus. In debating whether or not the title of ‘Mother of God’ was appropriate for Mary the argument was not about the nature of Mary and who she was, it was about the nature of Jesus.
The Council of Ephesus was a messy event and there was a lot of politics in play both before, during, and following it. At the center of the discussion were two people – Nestorious, Archbishop of Constantinople, and Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria.
Nestorious pushed for the council so that the dispute between two schools of thought around the nature of Christ could be settled. One school of thought held that in Christ, God had been born as a man (the union of the Divine and human – Hypostatic union) and therefore they used the title ‘Theotokos’ when referring to Mary. The other school rejected this thought because they held that due to God being an eternal being, proposing that God could be ‘born’ was preposterous and so they rejected the title ‘Theotokos.’ There was/is also an apprehension that the title ‘Mother of God’ suggests that the Godhead somehow originated in Mary, turning her into a Goddess.
Nestorious tried to find a middle ground, but in so doing he rejected the term, ‘Theotokos.’ In opposition to Nestorius, Cyril held to the complete union of the Divine and human in Christ and therefore saw the title of ‘Theotokos’ for Mary not only as correct, but centrally important. Among the messiness of the process the council ultimately landed in Cyril’s favour and the Church therefore cemented the term ‘Theotokos’ or ‘Mother of God’ as orthodox and appropriate. That outcome in the Church’s understanding of Christ is something that I, personally, adhere to.
During the council there was a conflict that arose between Cyril and another key figure, John of Antioch. In the couple of years following, work was done to heal that rift, which involved a number of Bishops on both sides. Part of that was agreement over a statement regarding the central topic of discussion. That agreement is known as the Formula of Reunion. A portion of it sums up the issue of the ‘Mother of God’ like this:
‘We confess, then, our lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, perfect God and perfect man of a rational soul and a body, begotten before all ages from the Father in his godhead, the same in the last days, for us and for our salvation, born of Mary the virgin, according to his humanity, one and the same consubstantial with the Father in godhead and consubstantial with us in humanity, for a union of two natures took place. Therefore we confess one Christ, one Son, one Lord. According to this understanding of the unconfused union, we confess the holy virgin to be the mother of God because God the Word took flesh and became man and from his very conception united to himself the temple he took from her.’
Understanding this context has been the central element for me to move beyond apprehension and disagreement with the title, to now seeing it, as did the Council of Ephesus, as appropriate and even necessary to affirm a belief about Christ that holds as central the understanding that he is/was both fully Divine and fully human. That understanding sits at the heart of what we believe about the incarnation and, in turn, salvation. Our understanding of salvation is seated in the triune God enacting the union of the Divine and the human in Christ. Confidently calling Mary the ‘Mother of God’ is an assertion of this.
Because of this I see the title of ‘Theotokos’ (or ‘Mother of God’) as something that can be appropriately used in our language as evangelicals and Protestants. It gives us the ability to agree with our Roman Catholic and Orthodox family members, and together affirm exactly what we believe about Christ. It also gives room for further affirmation of the feminine within our faith communities as well… but that’s another wonderful discussion. If we argue against it out of a knee-jerk reaction to what we perceive as excesses towards the person of Mary, then I believe we are inadvertently falling into a trap that risks denying the united Divine and human nature of Christ.