Mary, the Mother of God
The title ‘Mother of God’ has less to do with who Mary is and more to do with who her son is. This title is not endowed upon her due to any excellence of her own, but rather due to her relationship to her son, Jesus Christ. Mary not only carried Jesus in her womb but also supplied all of the genetic matter for his human body so that He could be “descended from David according to the flesh” (Rom. 1:3).
If Mary is the mother of Jesus, and if Jesus is God, then Mary is the Mother of God. This is not intended to insinuate in any way that she is somehow the source of the Trinity nor even of her Son’s divinity, for she is neither. Rather, the title is a translation of the ancient title of ‘Theotokos’, meaning ‘God-bearer’. This title has it’s roots in Scripture, where in Matthew 1:23 it says “‘a virgin shall conceive and bear (Greek=tíktō) a son, and he shall be called ‘Emmanuel’, which means God (Greek= Theos) with us.” When Mary’s cousin Elizabeth greets her, she calls her “the Mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:43).
To deny Mary the title of Mother of God and to affirm her to be merely the mother of the man Christ Jesus, inevitably leads to either a denial of Christ’s divinity or creates two persons with regard to Jesus Christ. The former was proffered by the Arian heresy, while the latter was put forth by the Nestorian heresy. Nestorianism claims Mary did not carry God in her womb, but only carried Christ’s human nature, which separates Christ’s human nature from his divine nature, creating two separate and distinct persons—one divine and one human—united in a loose affiliation.
This goes against the nature of motherhood as a mother does not merely carry the human nature of her child in her womb, but rather carries the person of her child. Women do not give birth to human natures; they give birth to persons. Mary thus carried and gave birth to the person of Jesus Christ, and the person she gave birth to was God. This does not mean that she is the source of his divinity any more than any mother is the source of their child’s soul. In other words, for Christ to be fully human, he had to be fully united to his body from the moment of conception. If His body had been merely a vessel that His divinity took possession of, then He would not have been able to enter fully into human suffering and His sacrifice on the cross would lose it’s meaning from a human perspective.
The Historical Development of the Doctrine:
The Gospel of Matthew 1:23
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear (tikto) a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God (theos) is with us.”
The Gospel of Luke 1:43
“And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”
Church Father Quotes:
St. Irenaeus of Lyons
“The Virgin Mary, being obedient to his word, received from an angel the glad tidings that she would bear God” (Against Heresies, 5:19:1 [A.D. 189]).
St. Hippolytus of Rome
“[T]o all generations they [the prophets] have pictured forth the grandest subjects for contemplation and for action. Thus, too, they preached of the advent of God in the flesh to the world, his advent by the spotless and God-bearing (theotokos) Mary in the way of birth and growth” (Discourse on the End of the World 1 [A.D. 217]).
St. Gregory Thaumaturgus
“For Luke, in the inspired Gospel narratives, delivers a testimony not to Joseph only, but also to Mary, the Mother of God, and gives this account with reference to the very family and house of David” (Four Homilies 1 [A.D. 262]).
“It is our duty to present to God, like sacrifices, all the festivals and hymnal celebrations; and first of all, [the feast of] the Annunciation to the holy Mother of God, to wit, the salutation made to her by the angel, ‘Hail, full of grace!’” (ibid., 2).
St. Peter of Alexandria
“They came to the church of the most blessed Mother of God, and ever-virgin Mary, which, as we began to say, he had constructed in the western quarter, in a suburb, for a cemetery of the martyrs” (The Genuine Acts of Peter of Alexandria [A.D. 305]).
“We acknowledge the resurrection of the dead, of which Jesus Christ our Lord became the firstling; he bore a body not in appearance but in truth derived from Mary the Mother of God” (Letter to All Non-Egyptian Bishops 12 [A.D. 324]).
St. Methodius of Olympus
“While the old man [Simeon] was thus exultant, and rejoicing with exceeding great and holy joy, that which had before been spoken of in a figure by the prophet Isaiah, the holy Mother of God now manifestly fulfilled” (Oration on Simeon and Anna 7 [A.D. 305]).
“Hail to you forever, you virgin Mother of God, our unceasing joy, for unto you do I again return. . . . Hail, you fount of the Son’s love for man. . . . Wherefore, we pray you, the most excellent among women, who boast in the confidence of your maternal honors, that you would unceasingly keep us in remembrance. O holy Mother of God, remember us, I say, who make our boast in you, and who in august hymns celebrate your memory, which will ever live, and never fade away” (ibid., 14).
St. Cyril of Jerusalem
“The Father bears witness from heaven to his Son. The Holy Spirit bears witness, coming down bodily in the form of a dove. The archangel Gabriel bears witness, bringing the good tidings to Mary. The Virgin Mother of God bears witness” (Catechetical Lectures 10:19 [A.D. 350]).
St. Ephraim the Syrian
“Though still a virgin she carried a child in her womb, and the handmaid and work of his wisdom became the Mother of God” (Songs of Praise 1:20 [A.D. 351]).
St. Athanasius of Alexandria
“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” (The Incarnation of the Word of God 8 [A.D. 365]).
St. Epiphanius of Salamis
“Being perfect at the side of the Father and incarnate among us, not in appearance but in truth, he [the Son] reshaped man to perfection in himself from Mary the Mother of God through the Holy Spirit” (The Man Well-Anchored 75 [A.D. 374]).
St. Ambrose of Milan
“The first thing which kindles ardor in learning is the greatness of the teacher. What is greater than the Mother of God? What more glorious than she whom Glory Itself chose?” (The Virgins 2:2 [A.D. 377]).
St. Gregory of Nazianz
“If anyone does not agree that holy Mary is Mother of God, he is at odds with the Godhead” (Letter to Cledonius the Priest 101 [A.D. 382]).
“As to how a virgin became the Mother of God, he [Rufinus] has full knowledge; as to how he himself was born, he knows nothing” (Against Rufinus 2:10 [A.D. 401]).
“Do not marvel at the novelty of the thing, if a Virgin gives birth to God” (Commentaries on Isaiah 3:7:15 [A.D. 409]).
Theodore of Mopsuestia
“When, therefore, they ask, ‘Is Mary mother of man or Mother of God?’ we answer, ‘Both!’ The one by the very nature of what was done and the other by relation” (The Incarnation 15 [A.D. 405]).
St. Cyril of Alexandria
“I have been amazed that some are utterly in doubt as to whether or not the holy Virgin is able to be called the Mother of God. For if our Lord Jesus Christ is God, how should the holy Virgin who bore him not be the Mother of God?” (Letter to the Monks of Egypt 1 [A.D. 427]).
“This expression, however, ‘the Word was made flesh’ [John 1:14], can mean nothing else but that he partook of flesh and blood like to us; he made our body his own, and came forth man from a woman, not casting off his existence as God, or his generation of God the Father, but even in taking to himself flesh remaining what he was. This the declaration of the correct faith proclaims everywhere. This was the sentiment of the holy Fathers; therefore they ventured to call the holy Virgin ‘the Mother of God,’ not as if the nature of the Word or his divinity had its beginning from the holy Virgin, but because of her was born that holy body with a rational soul, to which the Word, being personally united, is said to be born according to the flesh” (First Letter to Nestorius [A.D. 430]).
“And since the holy Virgin corporeally brought forth God made one with flesh according to nature, for this reason we also call her Mother of God, not as if the nature of the Word had the beginning of its existence from the flesh” (Third Letter to Nestorius [A.D. 430]).
“If anyone will not confess that the Emmanuel is very God, and that therefore the holy Virgin is the Mother of God, inasmuch as in the flesh she bore the Word of God made flesh [John 1:14]: let him be anathema” (ibid.).
St. John Cassian
“Now, you heretic, you say (whoever you are who deny that God was born of the Virgin), that Mary, the Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, cannot be called the Mother of God, but the Mother only of Christ and not of God—for no one, you say, gives birth to one older than herself. And concerning this utterly stupid argument . . . let us prove by divine testimonies both that Christ is God and that Mary is the Mother of God” (On the Incarnation of Christ Against Nestorius 2:2 [A.D. 429]).
“You cannot then help admitting that the grace comes from God. It is God, then, who has given it. But it has been given by our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore the Lord Jesus Christ is God. But if he is God, as he certainly is, then she who bore God is the Mother of God” (ibid., 2:5).
The Council of Ephesus
“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” (Formula of Union [A.D. 431]).
St. Vincent of Lerins
“Nestorius, whose disease is of an opposite kind, while pretending that he holds two distinct substances in Christ, brings in of a sudden two persons, and with unheard-of wickedness would have two sons of God, two Christs,—one, God, the other, man; one, begotten of his Father, the other, born of his mother. For which reason he maintains that Saint Mary ought to be called, not the Mother of God, but the Mother of Christ” (The Notebooks 12 [A.D. 434]).
Martin Luther, Father of the Protestant Reformation
“Men have crowded all her glory into a single word, calling her the Mother of God.”
Norm Geisler and Ralph MacKenzie, Protestant theologian and philosopher
“There are many things Catholics and Protestants hold in common on the doctrine of Mary. These include her being the most blessed among women, her virgin conception of Christ the God-man, and by virtue of that her being in this sense ‘the Mother of God.” –Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences
Francis Turretin, Protestant Reformer
“Mary is rightly called the Mother of God (theotokos) in the concrete and specifically because she brought forth him who is also God, but not in the abstract and reduplicatively as God. Although this is not expressly stated in the Scriptures, still it is sufficiently intimated when she is called the mother of the Lord (Lk. 1:43) and the mother of Immanuel. If the blessed virgin brought nothing to the person of the Logos (Logou) absolutely considered, still she can be said to have brought something to the person of the incarnate Logos (Logou) economically considered, inasmuch as she gave the human nature which he took into the unity of person. The title Mother of God given to the virgin was perverted by superstitious men into an occasion of idolatry, as Paul Sarpi observes. “Because the impiety of Nestorius divided Christ, constituting two sons and denying that he, who was born of the virgin Mary, is God; the church, in order to implant the catholic truth in the minds of believers, decided that the words, Mary, the Mother of God (Maria theotokos), should be more frequently inculcated in the churches of the East as well as of the West. This, instituted indeed solely for the honor of Christ, by degrees began to be shared with the mother and at length was referred entirely to her alone” (History of the Council of Trent 2 , p. 181). Although, I say, this most gross error either arose from or was increased by this occasion, it derogates nothing from the truth because the abuse and error of the papists ought not to take away the lawful use of this name.” –Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger, vol. 2 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992–97), 13.7.11–12 (p. 320).