Mary, the Mother of God (Theotokos) or the bearer of Christ (Christotokos)?

Historically, Mary (mother of Jesus the Christ) has been called the “Theotokos”. Thre are at least two recent posts about it: here and here, and here is something someone posted in a comment to me about it. This is what the Orthodox say concerning the title. Here is some of the history concerning it being accepted into use.

The term, Theotokos, has been translated as ‘Mother of God’, as well as “God-bearer’, and ‘Birth-giver-of-God’. The most common usage in English is “Mother of God”.

The argument goes: “If Mary is the mother of Jesus, and if Jesus is God, then Mary is the Mother of God.”

Technically, Jesus is the human incarnation of God the Son – 100% man and 100% God (John 1:1-14; 1 John 4:2). God the Son took on flesh and became man. Mary did not give birth to God before time began; she gave birth to the human incarnation of God the Son (Luke 2:1-8).

The term Mother of God inherently (although probably not purposefully) contains certain ideas:

1) Jesus is God

2) Mary gave birth to Jesus.

3) Mary existed before time to give birth to God.

4) The divine person of God the Son was created when Mary gave birth.

5) One should pray to Mary who, being the mother of Christ, will interceed with Christ for man. After all, what son doesn’t want to do what his mother asks?

None of the latter three ideas were intended in giving Mary the designation. In fact, the definition of Theotokos specifically excludes any understanding of Mary as Mother of God in any eternal sense. Technically, Theotokos refers to the human incarnation of the Son of God. To the knowledgeable theologian, the moniker does not have those ideas inherent in it. Indeed, for some people, some of those ideas are contrary to what is taught by their church. But the truth is, the first idea is half of the truth: Jesus the Christ was the human incarnation of God the Son – both God and man at the same time. Additionally, the last three ideas are all against what scripture teaches.

While I understand the designation of “Mother of God”, I do not agree with it for the average non-theologian. I dont agree with it because most people will miss the nuances involved in its use. People already make it hard to be a Christian, we dont need to make it harder to understand that Christ is both God and Man, and Mary isn’t.

Mary was the mother of someone who had both a divine nature and a human nature. Mary is NOT the mother of GOD, as that would require she be present when God was created – but GOD was NOT created. Mary was one who carried and gave birth to the human incarnation of God the Son. Christ was 100% God and 100% man simultaneously – something most people find difficult to understand, let alone explain. The idea is made ever harder to understand and explain if we say that Mary is the Mother of God. While the concept of “Mary the Mother of God” might not purposefully include the eternality of Mary, nor the intercession of Mary for believers with God, nor the creation of God the Son, those concepts are inherent in its usage – particularly among non-theologians.

 Patriarch Nestorius wanted to call her the Christotokos to restrict the understanding of Mary having given birth to the human incarnation of God, and not his divine nature. But the church leaders at the time did not want to divide the two natures of Christ like that – the Orthodox teach the two natures are eternally joined in one person. So, like alot of theological dealings, the “specialists” contrived a definition (formally defined at the Third Ecumenical Council held at Ephesus in 431) which explicitly denies what the term literally means. Thus the theologians called Mary the Theotokos to highlight the divine nature of Christ, and then in the theological definition of the term said she was not the Mother of the eternal God nature.

I think using the term Theotokos causes confusion. I believe its better to teach Mary carried the Christ, who had both natures: divine and human. Mary bore the Christ, and she bore the human incarnation of God – God was not created when she gave birth.

Let the arguments commence…..

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43 Responses

  1. I would disagree with your 3rd and 4th bit. That is how Protestants understand it, but not the ones who make use of this title, although you somewhat deal with that in your next paragraph.

    Further, the history of theotokos existed before Nestorius who did fight against the developing Marian doctrine.

    Further, and further still :) I think that a translation of ‘mother of God’ is confusing, completely. I do think, however, instead of ignoring it, we should learn what it means as theotokos, especially in relating to the Arian and Semi-Arian controversy (Alexander/Athanasius and Arius/Eusebius).

    • Joel,

      :)

      I know the majority of those points are not intended to be understood when one uses the term Theotokos. But my point is that some CAN understand it that way (as unfortunate as it may be).

      And yes, you make a good point about the history of the term predating Nestorius.

      I realize we need to teach people what is meant by theological terms.
      But the majority of the population are NOT theologians, and never will be.

      We need to ensure our theologians understand the concepts,
      but we shouldn’t define things in confusing ways.
      Its like an engineer trying to explain things to a non-technical
      manager – find words that the non-specialist can understand and use those.

  2. W,
    I am not going to argue with you. I am only going to say, that your post is filled with poor logic and argument. Once again the lack of good theology. As Mary is only the Mother of the Incarnate Christ, the Son of God, and thus the Theotokos (God-bearer)..Mother of God. And thus if one views the whole of the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus, one will see the real theological and lasting issues. See also that Calvin stood here, as Luther and most all the Reformers of that time. And later also Wesley. As most good Anglicans. Again, you are rejecting the Ecumenical Councils. Of which many Protestants accept now, at least the first 5 to 7. But again, I will say no more here. The readers must decide from Scripture, Church and Ecumenical Council and history.

    Peace of Christ,
    Fr. R.

    • Actually, Fr. R., I have a great deal of training and experience in the use of logic. Because the premise of the argument for calling Mary the Mother of God is flawed, we get the flawed result of the argument. Feel free to show me how you think I have shown flawed logic, or write is up on your blog.

      I’m not actually outright rejecting the council so much as wishing they had not done what theologians tend to do – invent language that is difficult for the majority of the populous to grasp. I understand what is intended to be said by using the term – Mary carried and gave birth to the entity which had the two natures: divine and human (not wanting to deny either nature). As far as THAT goes, I agree with it. But the average person would miss the nuance, if one calls her the Mother of God.

      Missing that nuance makes it easy, and in some cases necessary, to justify other docrines, which I think ARE erroneous: such as praying to Mary instead of directly to God, the doctrine of immaculate conception of Mary (where SHE was conceived free from sin), call her Queen of Heaven/Universe, etc…. The entire New Testament is focused on God the Father, Christ, and the Holy Spirit have done, are doing, will do, and our response to God. Yet, the Catholic churches have created doctrines around one woman who was faithful to God that go against what scripture teaches – at least in part because of this easily missed nuanced definition.

      • hmm.. I should not say “other erroneous doctines” above. I should only say “other doctrines”, because I dont believe the doctrine itself is erroneous.

        • ok. I fixed the comment.

          Instead of it saying, “other erroneous doctrines”, it now states, “other docrines, which I think ARE erroneous”.

  3. It appears to me that your reasoning for using ‘Christotokos’ rather than ‘Theotokos’ is not b/c you deny the essential theological point being made by ‘Theotokos’ but b/c you find that it may be confusing to those new to Christianity. I guess I am just not sure where this argument is going b/c ideas like the Trinity itself and the incarnation are very difficult to even begin comprehending.

    We do not have to begin discussing these ideas with people who are trying to figure out the basics of Christianity if for some reason it would be a hinderance, but I don’t think we should do what Nestorius did for the very reason that it can eventually lead to the heresy named after him which I brings its own sort of confusion.

    While I understand the point you are trying to make I don’t reach the conclusion that you do.

    • Brian,

      You are correct. I have no problem with highlighting the divinity of Christ in what Mary did. I simply have a problem the usage of a term that goes against language constructs – call her mother of God and then say she is not REALLY the mother of the divine nature is very counter intuitive.

      I dont think it would be confusing just to those who are new to Christianity. I think its confusing to the majority of the populous. And I think it leads to the necesity for erroneous doctrines.

  4. Wb, I understand your point and even agree with you mostly – but who would I be if I didn’t return your points every now and then!

    One of the problems, of course, if the development of the term. Once it moved past the theological boundary that it was to a doctrine all of its own, it became something that is wrong. (Plus, not to mention that those who create this word spoke Greek!).

    • Joel,

      You make a good point about the language. It is easy to mis-translate an idea when the language you are translating to/from is not one of your primary languages. If you grow up speaking both English and Spanish, you can more easily translate from one to the other. But even so, sometimes it is difficult to translate ideas from one language to another. And this may be the case with Theotokos.

  5. […] Theotokos because ”most people will miss the nuances involved in its use” (see here). While I understand his concern (like I understand that of Nestorious) it does not follow that we […]

  6. Wait. Just wait. Wb, are you saying that you aren’t perfect? My worldview is shot.

  7. WB,

    We can avoid the confusion by explaining the “birth of God” in incarnational terms. God did not begin existing, but God was born.

    The language of Jn 1 does a similiar sort of thing. The Word was in beginning with God, the Word was God, the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us. This is what must be taught. It is Mary through whom the Word became flesh.

    • Wow, the language construct thing is so hard. “God was born” has problems similar to what the term “Mother of God” has. Being born has the connotation of a beginning to existance (which you tried to get around by stating “God did not begin existing”).

      Perhaps that is why John said, in John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And then in John 1:14, “14 And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us….” This avoids the misunderstanding that there was a time when God did not exist and then came into existance through being born.

      That’s why I prefer Biblical language, for the most part. I think God chose certain words for a reason.

  8. Brian,
    The real issue here is both the Incarnation and the Trinity of God, of which the Virgin Mary is quite central in the Christological truth of Christ, the Father sent the Son to be the Savior from sin (Lk.1:26-38)…the whole of the First Letter of John is seen from here. And though Mary is not mentioned in 1 John, the Incarnation is very central. And as I have written elsewhere, there is almost no subordinationism of Christ the Son of God, in 1 John.

    Many Christians today want to deny or devalue the eternality of Christ as the Son, and also do the same with the Trinity of God. This is the whole point to Mary as Theotokos (God-bearer), she is forever centered in Christology, which opens up for us the great doctrines of grace, and the doctrine of God.

    • Fr. R.,

      The problem with this term for me is not explaining or standing firm on the Incarnation and the trinity. I totally agree with the definition of the term. I simply dislike the term itself as being too easy to confuse.

      When you saying “deny or devalue the eternality of Christ as the Son”, are you saying I am wanting to say that Christ is not the Son of God from before time? (just trying to understand what you are saying)

  9. W,
    Mary is an elect vessel for Christ and His Incarnation, in some manner she also safeguards the reality of that mystery. So to question or confuse this great truth, we perhaps can lose that place of Mary as “theotokos”, as can be seen with Nestorius and Nestorianism. So yes, Mary as theotokos guards the Christology of Christ, and thus also the doctrine of God.

    No I am not saying you are against Christ as the eternal Son, but we must see the doctrine of Mary in the centre of Christology. Again, a safeguard.

    • As I’ve said before, where any doctrine lines up in agreement with Scripture, I am in agreement with it.

      I agree with the concept of Mary as theotokos. I just wish people would choose to define things in more straight-forward terminology, rather than do what specialists in all fields tend to do – invent language (sometimes using existing language and changing its definition).

      Personally, I see Christ at the center of Christology, not Mary.

      • Oh, and it is the Holy Spirit who leads us in to all truth (John 16:13). So I would think that God, using both His Scirpture and the Holy Spirit, is the safe guard for any doctrine, not Mary.

  10. Fr. R,

    I have no contentions with what you say. I do see ‘Theotokos’ as a very important part of Christian doctrine as well as the eternal nature of the Son of God.

    While Mary as Mother of God and terminology like God being born can be confusing, thus is the incarnation. The eternal and infinite God came into our temporal and finite reality.

  11. W,
    Certainly Christ IS Christology! But there with Him, is the vessel of that grace and mystery…the Virgin Mary, the Mother of the Incarnate Son of God. In the Virgin Birth Mary was no mere surrogate, when God chooses someone He advances them by His grace and power, yes, grace does change nature. There was/is only one Virgin Mother of God…St. Mary the Virgin as the Anglican Church calls her. Here again is the development of doctrine. Note Mary was the first to believe…(Lk. 1:45) And there is nothing quite like verse’s 46-49, for any other human soul, save the Mary the Mother of our Lord. “And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of MARY, the child leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! AND WHY IS IT GRANTED ME, THAT THE MOTHER OF MY LORD SHOULD COME TO ME? For behold, WHEN THE VOICE OF YOUR GREETING CAME TO MY EARS, THE CHILD IN MY WOMB LEAPED FOR JOY.” Yes, Mary is forever Blessed, the great vessel of grace and glory in the Incarnation! Again, grace changes nature.

  12. WB,

    I also have an argument for theoktos here:

    http://politicaljesus.com/2010/01/03/mythbustvirginbirth/

  13. W,
    I see Mary a young virgin girl of Israel, chosen by God to become the very living vessel for the Incarnation (the birth of God) in to this world. “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you . . . “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” (Lk. 1:28, 30) And then in verse 49, “for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” Really the whole of chapter one is simply beyond human comprehension! That a young virgin girl will be the place (her womb)..a temple, for the Son of God! This surely is a place of blessing and the elevation or height of grace that makes her say: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Lk. 1:38) The grace and glory of the Lord! Mary is never the same again! (See, Lk. 1:48..”For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.”

  14. Christotokos. Plain and simple. Mary said so herself.

  15. Mary was more than “Christotokos” (Nestorius). She was and became “Theotokos”, this is a theological development from her place as the chosen Virgin and Mother of God Incarnate. It is noted that Nestorius called Christ’s person a “conjunction” rather than what HE really is, a “union” of God and Man in One Person. What we also call in theology as the hypostatic union of Christ (St. Cyril), which also Nestorius rejected. No, as the Ecumneical or General Council of Ephesus (431), Mary was called and named ‘the Theotokos’ – the God bearer. And Nestorius was sent packing…banished, and his books condemned. Mary exists for Christ (in the incarnation), and thus guards proper Christology. But she is never a mere surrogate agent. In the work or purpose of God, grace does indeed change nature, and Mary becomes the “Blessed” Virgin Mother of God.

  16. Job, where do you see Mary having said she was Christotokos?

  17. […] His plans for revelation and redemption (see Genesis 3:15 and John 4:22 to see why a Jewish woman was the chosen vessel for the incarnation of Jesus Christ). Misunderstanding this key point by viewing Israel’s chosen status apart from that context […]

  18. Is sad that instead of refering to the bible we refer to “Ecunemical Councils” as a higher authority than the bible, that’s were the “Theologians” made the big blunder of ‘Theotokos” Jesus had ONE NATURE as a human , Hebrews 2:9 says ” Jesus was made a little lower than the angels” he was a complete human, perfect yes, but human, you know that the two nature theology is not biblical, so lets get back to the bible and not to “Ecunemical Councils” compose of egotistical men, you also know that this teaching was invented to put Mary at a higher level of worship. Agape my friends!!!

    • I think scripture teaches Christ had two natures. You can see the dual natures in John 1.

      As I said in the comments, the name (without proper definition) leads to misunderstandings of what is being taught by it.

  19. So, the perennial question is, “Proclaim the Truth”, and let the “non-theologians” suffer the consequences of study? Or, not proclaim it? Sound bite it? So it is easy for “non-theologians” to understand? Thank you, St Cyril, Bishop & Doctor!!!!!

    • I thin we should ALWAYS proclaim the truth. But we need to make it so everyone can understand. Sometimes that involves incremental teachings (ie, teach 1+1=2 before you teach 1×2=2, before you teach 1Y = 2, solve for 2). But that doesn’t mean to use such things unnecessarily. And I dont think teaching Mary is the mother of God does a good job of explaining her position or her role.

  20. The Term Mary the Mother of God is taken from the words of Elizabeth on seeing Mary said “That the mother of MY LORD should visit me—. Now the term MY LORD refers to the Psalm Quoted by Jesus “Why did then David in Spirit say THE LORD said unto MY Lord—” where The Lord refers to the Father & My Lord refers to The Son. & Since the Son is God the words ‘mother of god”. Theologically, in terms of the Trinity Mary becomes the mother of the Father, is to an error. However the Church clarifies this by calling Mary as the daughter of God , which basically is the Truth by the Origin, even unto the words said during the Catholic Mass’ As it was in the beginning so it shall always be” Needless to say that salvation is come by the Regeneration through the flesh(though not the eternal state of God who is Spirit) so as to reverse the temptation & fall from Eden.

  21. Can anyone explain to me what is the difference between “kurios mou” and “theos mou”?

    • That’s what Thomas said when he saw Jesus with his wounds:
      Kurios mou = My Lord (which indicate Jesus is in control, his Lord)
      Theos mou = My God (which indicates Jesus is God)

      John 20:27-29
      27 Then He *said to Thomas, “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.” 28 Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus *said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”

  22. Note the words of St.Thomas “MY Lord & MY God” matches with Elizebeth’s ‘ The Mother of MY Lord—” same as Davids ” The Lord said unto MY Lord—‘. My Lord is Jesus, on whose image is man created., man becomes directly under Him, for all things seen & unseen were made by(through) him, by the Father-THE LORD to mean the Sovereign God.
    Where the Bible in John says that Jesus would in the end destroy death & put all things at the feet of the Father including himself- “Hear O Israel the Lord thy God is one Lord”- The mission that seems impossible to man becomes ‘Mission Accomplished” even as the scriptures note “There is nothing impossible with God”

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