“My soul is glorifying the Lord and my spirit rejoicing in God my Savior” (Lk. 1:46). With this antiphon Our Blessed Mother herself began an everlasting hymn of praise to the Majesty of God for the wondrous mystery of divine motherhood which God had worked in her. Each succeeding generation has added its voice to the chorus according to Mary’s prophecy, to glorify the divine goodness “whose mercy is from generation to generation” (Lk. 1:50). In making Mary His Mother, God has poured forth on her all the treasures which His loving omnipotence could confer on a person who is not God Himself. Because Mary is God’s Mother, she stands next to her divine Son, at the summit of creation, above the angels and saints, having within her the very fullness of divine grace and purity and holiness. As Pius XII wrote in his encyclical Fulgens Corona, “A higher office than this (the divine motherhood) does not seem possible; since it requires the greatest dignity and sanctity after Christ, it demands the fullest perfection of divine grace and a soul free from every sin. Indeed, all the privileges and graces with which her soul and her life were endowed in so extraordinary a manner and measure, seem to flow from this sublime vocation of Mother of God, as from a pure and hidden source.” (1)
The divine motherhood is not only Mary’s greatest privilege, but it is the key to the understanding of all her other privileges. Not only does this truth hold the primacy in Mariology, but it is so intimately connected with the whole economy of salvation in Christ that for the past 1500 years the recognition of Mary as Mother of God has been a touchstone of Christian orthodoxy. For if Mary is not truly the Mother of God, then her Son, Christ Our Redeemer, is not true God as well as true man; moreover, His salvific work for the Redemption of mankind would be nothing more than vapid imaginings of a restoration that had never taken place.
In one brief article it is obviously impossible to treat adequately of this great privilege of Mary which seems to exploit the very omnipotence of God Himself. (2) We shall limit ourselves here to the following points: 1. the revealed fact of the divine motherhood in Scripture, Tradition, and history: 2. an attempt at delineating the essence of the divine motherhood; 3. some reflections on the relationship of Mary’s motherhood to her other privileges.
I. The Fact of Divine Motherhood
For Mary to be the Mother of God, two things are necessary: first, that she be really the Mother of Jesus; and second, that this Jesus whom she bore be really God. If both these conditions are fulfilled, Mary is truly the Mother of God.
Hence we must try to understand what exactly is meant when it is said that Mary is a real mother and then why it must follow that, if Mary’s child is God, Mary is truly the Mother of God.
Every man who comes into the world has a mother who has conceived him, carried him in her womb, and brought him forth. A woman is prepared for motherhood from the very beginning of her life by the feminine structure of her body. On coming to puberty she develops within herself maternal ova designed to issue in children of her womb when fertilized by the male sperm. This fertilization disposes the ovum in such a way that it calls for the creation and infusion of a rational soul on the part of God. In the very instant that the soul is infused and a new being essentially like herself is formed in her womb, a woman is said to conceive or generate a child. A tiny globular embryo at first, the child is nourished in her womb from her bloodstream and develops there in the course of nine months into a recognizable human baby. Then the mother brings him forth into the world.
No woman can be said to be a mother in the proper sense of the word unless she has generated a child. Generation requires, first of all, that the offspring be a living subsistent being. (3) For what is generated is a being existing completely in itself, not in another, as, for example, a part exists in a whole. It would be wrong, therefore, to say that a woman who conceives a child generates his body or his soul or his nature; these are only parts of her child. She generates the whole child, the being which exists completely in itself. That is why your mother is the mother of you, not the mother of your nature or your body or your soul. (4)
Second, generation requires that the offspring be of the same nature as the parent. This point is too obvious to dwell upon; for God the Father generates God the Son; human parents generate human children, doves generate doves, giraffes generate giraffes.
Third, part of the very substance of the parent must pass into the substance of the child, so that the child is really from the substance of the parent; otherwise there is no real generation, no real fatherhood or motherhood. Hence adopting a child can never bring about real parenthood. Or suppose that God should create out of nothing a child’s body as well as his soul and lodge it in the womb of a woman in such a way that the child would develop there and be delivered by way of natural birth, even then the woman would not really generate the child and thus be its true mother; it would not be from her own flesh that the child had originated. It may seem useless to emphasize this rather obvious point, but it has been misunderstood in the past.
Fourth, the child must originate from that part of the parent which has the specific design and function of bringing about the same kind of nature in the offspring. If God should form an infant from the heart of a woman or from any part of her body other; than from her maternal ova, she could not be truly said to generate the child and to be its mother. The child must originate from the seed or ova of the parent; otherwise there is no true generation. (5) We do not say that Adam generated Eve, that he was the father of Eve; for although Eve originated from Adam’s flesh, she did not come from his seed.
Unless all these elements of generation are verified in the production of her child, no woman can be properly said to be a mother.
Mary the Mother of Jesus
It is astonishing with what clarity the Scriptures speak of Mary as a genuine mother. From the beginning of God’s revelation of the promised Redeemer, it was clear that He would have a real mother. He would be the “seed of a woman” (Gen. 3:15), a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of the seed of David according to the flesh (Rom. 1:3; Acts 2:30), a shoot that would spring from the root of Jesse (Isa. 11:1), the fruit of a virginal womb (Isa. 7:14). By the power of the Most High and the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 1: 18-25; Lk. 1:35), Mary would conceive Jesus as her own Son (Lk. 1:31), and bring Him forth (Lk. 2:7; Mt. 1:16). From her He was made (Gal. 4:4), the fruit of her womb (Lk. 1:42). She gave Him His name and brought Him up as her Son (Lk. 2), a man in all things like the rest of men, except sin (Hebr. 4:15).
Difficulty begins to arise only when we try to understand how the Mother of Jesus is truly the Mother of God. We know from Scripture and Tradition that Jesus, the Son of Mary, is the only-begotten Son of God. He has a human nature which He received from His Mother, and He is therefore man like ourselves. But He is not a human person. He is a divine Person who is also man, who subsists not only in the divine nature which He receives in eternity from the Eternal Father, but also in the human nature He has received in time from His human mother. Mary, therefore, in generating her Son, did not generate a human person. Does, then, the mere fact that she gave a human nature to the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity give us the right to say that she generated that divine Person, that she is truly the Mother of God?
We have seen that the object of generation, the being which is generated, is not just a part of the offspring, but the whole being existing completely in itself at the term of generation. If the offspring has an intellectual nature, as is the case in all human generation, then it is a person. Hence a woman’s motherhood always refers to the person of her child. What she mothers, what she generates or conceives, is a person. (6)
The very way in which we speak about a mother makes this truth clear to us. We say, for example, that St. Monica was the mother of St. Augustine. St. Augustine is a person. We ask: “Who is your mother?” or “Whose mother is she?” Who and Whose refer only to persons. Thus we see that our very manner of speaking about a mother and her child indicates that the relationship of mother to child is one of person to person; in other words, what a woman mothers is a person.
It is true, however, that a mother is not the cause of the soul or the personality of her child except in so far as she provides the matter disposed in such a way that it requires the creation of the soul of her child immediately by God. But even though a mother is not the total cause of her child, even though what she gives him by her own proper activity is not his soul nor his personality but only the flesh of his human nature, nevertheless she is truly his mother, the mother of the person of her child.
Although what she gives of her own is only part of her child, she is mother of the whole child.
If Mary did for Jesus everything that any human mother does for her child, then Mary is as much the mother of the person of Jesus as any other woman is the mother of her child. The fact that Jesus had no human father does not make Mary any less His mother. The essential difference between purely human motherhood and divine motherhood is not that Mary did something more or something different in the conception of her child. It is simply this: Mary’s Child is a divine Person, whereas the child of an ordinary mother is a human person.
We know that only God can create the soul of a child and make soul and body as one human nature exist completely in itself; in other words, God alone makes the human nature exist as a human person. Personality is the term of human generation as a gift from God, rather than as produced by human generation. (7) Hence human motherhood is not in the least interfered with or compromised, if God creates the soul in the flesh provided by maternal activity in such a way that the human nature produced does not exist completely in itself as a human person, but is assumed by a divine Person. If instead of giving human personality as the term of maternal activity, God gives the divine Person of His own Son to be clothed with a woman’s flesh, then far from interfering with her motherhood, this action of God raises it to “an almost infinite dignity.” (8) For such a mother bears the most perfect Son that can possibly be born. The divine motherhood leads us right into the heart of the Christian mystery: the unfathomable truth that Jesus Christ is both true God and true man, in whom the human nature received from His human mother and the divine nature received from His eternal Father are united in the one Person of the Son of God. Unless Jesus is true man, Mary cannot be a true mother. Unless the Child Jesus born of Mary is a divine Person and God Himself, Mary cannot be called the Mother of God.
The Scriptures on Divine Motherhood
Although the Scriptures do not explicitly call Mary the Mother of God, the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation speaks of the Child Mary is to conceive as the “Son of the Most High,” “the Son of God” (Lk. 1:32, 35). Elizabeth salutes Mary as the Mother of her Lord (Lk. 1:43). Although Lord (Kyrios) is employed in the New Testament for man as well as for God, in the present context it seems more certain that the Holy Spirit revealed the mystery of the Incarnation to Elizabeth in full. When she asks why should “the mother of My Lord come to me?” Elizabeth speaks of the same Lord of whom Mary sings: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Lk. 1:47). (9) It is beyond the scope of this essay to expound the testimony of Scripture regarding the divinity of Mary’s Son. Still, because this truth is at the very foundation of the divine motherhood, it may be well to recall the precious prologue of St. John’s gospel in which he trumpets forth the divinity of Jesus Christ. The Word is God, he says (Jn. 1:1). God the Word was made flesh (1:14). God the Word-made-flesh is Jesus Christ, of whom John the Baptist gave testimony (1:15-17). Jesus Christ is Mary’s Son.
In the Synoptics we read that when Jesus was on trial for His life before the Sanhedrin, He professed under oath (Mt. 26:63, 64) that He was the Christ, the Son of God, and was charged guilty of death for blasphemy (Mk. 14:64), a charge having no meaning unless His claim meant equality with God Himself. Moreover, at least three times Jesus is explicitly called God by the Apostles. Recall the profession of faith on the part of doubting Thomas, as Jesus shows him the wound in His side: “My Lord and my God” (Jn. 20:28). St. John in his first epistle is direct and explicit about the divinity of Christ:
We know also that the Son of God is come, and has given us understanding to know Him who is true: and we are in Him who is true—in His Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and life eternal (1 Jn. 5:20).
Furthermore, St. Paul not only says that “God sent His Son, born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4), that Jesus was “in the form of God” (i.e., by nature God) and regarded Himself “equal to God” (Phil. 2:6), but speaks of “Christ in the flesh, who exalted about all things is God blessed forever” (Rom. 9:5). (10)
Therefore, even though Mary is never explicitly called the Mother of God in Scripture, she is explicitly called the Mother of the Lord, the Mother of Jesus; and her Son Jesus, whom she conceived, is explicitly called God. Mary is the Mother of God.
History and Tradition
The history of the Church’s teaching is to a great extent the history of her combat with error. Her infallible authority to interpret the deposit of faith and guard it from error leads the Church to define more and more precisely her own teaching. So it has been with the doctrine of Mary’s divine motherhood.
In the very early ages of Christianity belief in Mary’s divine motherhood found its expression in the creed attributed to the Apostles. According to the form in use at the time of Hippolytus (c. 215), the catechumens were asked: (11)
Dost thou believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. . . .
St. Ignatius of Antioch, a bishop and martyr who died shortly after the close of the first century, and who was probably a disciple of the Apostles themselves, is an eloquent witness to the early teaching of the Church. In his letter to the Ephesians he says: (12)
God our Lord Jesus Christ was born in the womb by Mary, according to the dispensation of God, from the seed of David, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
As Mary can be the Mother of God only if she is truly the mother of Jesus and if her son Jesus is truly God, distorted views of the Word’s Incarnation logically involve a denial of the divine motherhood. The basic errors about the Incarnation are two: 1. Jesus, the Son of God, did not really become flesh, at least not flesh of our flesh, and hence cannot be said to have had a mother in any real sense; 2. the man, Jesus, who was born of Mary was only a human person, not the second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Therefore we can trace the history of the Church’s teaching on Mary’s divine motherhood by studying the Church’s reaction to each of these two heretical tendencies.
The first great menace to the doctrine of the divine motherhood was Gnosticism. (13) While to the Jews it appeared blasphemous for any man to call himself the Son of God, the stumbling block for the Gnostics was rather that any god and savior of mankind should become incarnate by taking to himself real human flesh from a woman. To them the flesh was an evil thing, coming from an absolute source of all evil; the body was to be despised, abhorred, even annihilated. While the concern of true Christianity was the redemption and restoration of the flesh through the Incarnation, death, and resurrection of a divine Person, the main doctrine of Gnosticism was redemption from the flesh by a process of purification and deliverance from the flesh through knowledge (gnosis).
Basic in nearly every form of Gnosticism was a fundamental dualism between matter and spirit; it was impossible for any good god or savior of mankind to become enfleshed or to be born of the human substance of a woman. One form in which the Gnostic mind expressed itself was called Docetism—from the Greek word dokein, meaning “to seem,” “to appear,” “to make believe.” These “make-believers” as Ignatius of Antioch called them, taught that Christ’s body was but a phantom, that “the Savior was unborn, incorporeal and without form . . . a man only in appearance.” (14)
Valentinus taught that although Christ had a real body, it was not a material body like our own, but a celestial body, which came down from heaven into this world by merely passing through Mary’s body, as through a channel. Marcion went so far in his effort to obliterate any recollection of Christ’s human descent from David through Mary, that he not only discarded the Old Testament completely but even rewrote the New Testament according to his own Gnostic views. In Marcion’s gospel, Christ appears as a full-grown man without any human parents. Marcion turns the words of Christ, “Who is my mother and who are my brethren?” into a proof that Christ had no mother whatsoever.
St. Ignatius of Antioch about the year 110 is already warning the Christians of Trallia against such doctrine: (15)
Stop your ears therefore when anyone speaks to you who stands apart from Jesus Christ, from David’s scion and Mary’s Son, who was really born and ate and drank, was really persecuted by Pontius Pilate, really crucified and died. . . .
But if, as some atheists, that is, unbelievers, say His suffering was but a make-believe—when in reality, they themselves are make-believers—why then am I in chains? Why do I even pray that I may fight wild beasts? In vain, then, do I die! My testimony after all is but a lie about the Lord!
Justin, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Tertullian, all vigorous opponents of Gnosticism in the West, not only used expressions which equivalently affirm Mary’s divine motherhood, but testified explicitly to the basic truths handed down in Scripture and Tradition upon which Mary’s divine motherhood is founded. (16) Here we shall be content merely to present a significant text from St. Irenaeus, who abounds in statements covering the fact of the divine motherhood and founds his teaching solidly on the Scriptures and apostolic Tradition: (17)
That He (Christ) is Himself in His own right, unlike all men who have ever lived, God and Lord, King Eternal, and Incarnate Word, proclaimed by all the prophets, apostles, and by the Spirit Himself, may be seen by all who have arrived even at a small portion of the truth. The Scriptures would not have given this testimony about him, if like others He had been a mere man. That He had in Himself, unlike all others, that pre-eminent birth which is from the Most High Father, and also underwent that pre-eminent generation which is from the Virgin—both these facts the divine Scriptures testify about Him; also that He was a man without comeliness and subject to suffering.
Closely related to Gnosticism was the doctrine of the Manichaeans. (18) Under its founder, Mani, Manichaeanism spread rapidly in the West and even claimed for a time the great Augustine who was later to become its most vigorous opponent. According to Faustus, the protagonist of the Manichaeans against Augustine, Jesus was the “Son of God,” but in no sense was He the child of Mary. With telling inconsistency, as Augustine pointed out, Faustus taught that the virgin overshadowed by the Holy Spirit in the conception of Christ was not Mary, but the earth itself. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, the earth conceived and fashioned the mortal Jesus, who later became the Son of God at the time of his baptism. (19)
Although St. Augustine never used the expression “Mother of God” in his writings against the Manichaeans, he does call Mary God’s Mother (genitrici suae) in his sermons, and sets Mary’s “conception of her Creator” in sharp contrast with Elizabeth’s conception of John: (20)
It was a man Elizabeth conceived, a man that Mary conceived. Elizabeth was the mother of John, Mary the mother of Christ. But Elizabeth conceived only a man, Mary conceived one Who is both God and man. A stupendous thing it is, how a creature could conceive the Creator!
The Manichaeans won adherents in Spain in the fourth and fifth centuries, even among the clergy. The Manichaean errors associated with Priscillian, the Bishop of Avila, were condemned at the Council of Braga in Portugal. Among these we find the following:
If anyone does not honor the birthday of Christ according to the flesh, but only pretends to do so, fasting on the very day itself and on Sunday, for the reason that, like Cerdon, Marcion, Mani and Priscillian, he does not believe that Christ was born in the nature of man, let him be anathema. (21)
If anyone says that the molding of the human body is of the devil’s fashioning, and that conceptions in the wombs of mothers are brought about with the help of devils, and for this reason does not believe in the resurrection of the flesh, as Mani and Priscillian have said, he is a heretic. (22)
The abhorrence of the flesh as something evil in itself which roused the Church Fathers against the Gnostics and Manichaeans in defense of Christ’s true manhood and Mary’s true motherhood is an idea that has been long in dying. It appeared again in the twelfth century among the Albigensians of southern France, probably transplanted there from a Manichaean sect in Asia Minor called the Paulicians. The Albigensians denied not only that Mary really conceived and gave birth to Jesus, but even that Mary herself was a woman of real flesh and blood. She had, they said, a kind of celestial body, and from her celestial flesh the Word of God was born. (23)
Again in the sixteenth century, Simon Mennon, the founder of the Mennonites, came forth with the doctrine that Jesus was not born of the flesh of Mary; he taught that the man Jesus was somehow produced from the seed of the Eternal Father. Likewise the Puritans reflected in their beliefs this abhorrence of the flesh. Even today Christian Scientists, although they verbally admit the virgin birth, regard matter as an illusion; they hold, moreover, that because evil is always associated with matter, evil too is a delusion of the human mind which can be destroyed only by spiritual understanding. (24)
The Gnostic-Manichaean attack on the real humanity of Christ resulted in the explicit, unequivocal affirmation of Mary’s real motherhood: Mary is truly the Mother of Jesus. Moreover, Christians were all along implicitly professing their belief that Mary is the Mother of God in the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed: “in Jesus Christ, His only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary.” The first to reject this implication were the Arians. Because they denied that the Word of God who became incarnate was the uncreated Son of the Eternal Father, equal to Him in all things, the Arians denied both Christ’s divinity and Mary’s divine motherhood.
It is not surprising then to find St. Athanasius (d. 373), who spearheaded the forces of orthodoxy against the Arians, explicitly calling Mary “The Mother of God” (Theotokos). Moreover, Athanasius does this with the full awareness of its theological implications, because in the same work against the Arians in which he calls Mary Theotokos, he gives theological basis for the doctrine by presenting for the first time the theological explanation of the communication of idioms. (25)
Athanasius was not the first to use the term Theotokos of Mary. Earlier patristic writings frequently make use of the term. (26) In the early fourth century, perhaps even in the third century, the faithful themselves were calling on Maria Theotokos in the prayer, “We fly to Thy protection, O Holy Mother of God.” (27)
Although the doctrine of Mary’s divine motherhood was generally believed in the Church for more than a half century before the rise of the Nestorian heresy, it was not defined until after this belief was seriously challenged by the Patriarch of Constantinople. Nestorius himself had been a disciple of Theodore, Bishop of Mopsuestia, who in turn had been a disciple of Diodorus, Bishop of Tarsus. All these men were representative of the Antiochian school of theological thought which found itself in opposition to the school of Alexandria on the question of the human-divine relations in Christ.
The school of Antioch tended to separate too much the human and the divine in Christ. They explained the union of divinity with humanity as a kind of indwelling of the second divine Person in the man Christ. They saw two physical persons in Christ, because He had two natures: “The Son of God is distinct from the son of David”; and this is the heart of the Nestorian heresy.
The Alexandrian school, on the other hand, tended to exaggerate the union of the human with the divine and in the end tried to explain this union as a fusion of two natures into one. They saw only one nature in Christ, because He was only one person; this is Monophysitism. The tendencies within both schools culminated in heresies about Christ, which are equally opposed to Mary’s divine motherhood. But opposition to Maria Theotokos came only from within the school of Antioch.
According to Diodorus and Theodore, the Word of God dwelt in the man Christ as in a temple; Mary was not the Mother of God; the one whom Mary brought into the world was not the divine Person of the Word, who united in Himself a human nature with the divine, but only the man Christ in whom the Godhead dwelt substantially.
Nestorius’ doctrine was a repetition of the teaching of Diodorus and Theodore. Pius XI sets down the teaching of Nestorius as follows:
This extremely proud man claimed that two complete hypostases in Christ, the human of Jesus and the divine of the Word, are united in one common “person” (prosopon), as he termed it, and hence denied that marvelous substantial union of two natures, which we call the hypostatic union. He therefore asserted that the only-begotten Word of God did not become man, but that His presence in human flesh was by way of indwelling, by divine good pleasure, and by power of operation; and therefore He should be called, not God, but Theophoron or God-bearer, in much the same way that prophets and other holy men can be called God-bearers because of the divine grace given to them. (28)
Controversy flared to ecumenical proportions only after Nestorius began a series of sermons in Constantinople in defense of his secretary, Anastasius, and Dorotheus, the Bishop of Marcianopolis, both of whom had been preaching to the people that no one should call Mary the Mother of God. With his gift of eloquence and with all the authority to which he could swell as Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius did his best to discredit Mary’s title as Mother of God. As was to be expected, his teaching caused considerable unrest and confusion among the people who for more than a half century had been calling upon the Mother of God.
But in the providence of God, what St. Irenaeus had been against the Gnostics, St. Athanasius against the Arians, and St. Augustine against the Manichaeans, St. Cyril of Alexandria was to be against the Nestorians. Once alerted to the dangerous doctrine, Cyril began to turn out letters, sermons, and treatises in defense of the true doctrine of the Incarnation and the divine motherhood. He pleaded with Nestorius to heed the Fathers of the Church, who “did not hesitate to call the holy Virgin the Mother of God (Theotokos), not as if the nature of the Word or His divinity took origin in being from the holy Virgin; but because He took from her that sacred body animated with an intellectual soul to which He was hypostatically united, the Word is said to be born according to the flesh.” (29)
Nestorius could not understand what we call the communication of idioms; how what Christ did as man, e.g., to suffer and to die, could be attributed to the Word of God. He continued to maintain that the exact title of Mary was Christotokos, not Theotokos.
Cyril’s explanation of why the Blessed Virgin is to be called Theotokos has become classic in Marian theology: (30)
Therefore the Word indeed was God, but He became also man; and because He was born according to the flesh, because of His humanity it is necessary that she who gave birth to Him should be the Mother of God. For if she did not give birth to God, certainly neither will He be called God who was begotten of her. But if the divine Scriptures call Him God, she then gave birth to God made man, because a man could not otherwise come to be except through generation from a woman. How then is not she who bore Him the Mother of God? That He is true God who was born of her, we learn from the divine Scripture.
Nestorius first, with several letters, and then Cyril too, appealed to the Pope as judge. After a synod at Rome (430) which condemned the teaching of Nestorius, Pope Celestine commissioned Cyril to execute the sentence of excommunication and deposition against Nestorius, unless he retracted his errors within ten days. But when Cyril dispatched his famous “test letter of the anathemas” (31) to Nestorius, the delegation learned that the Emperor Theodotius II had already called a general council for Pentecost (June 7) of the following year (431). Moreover, it seems that Nestorius had meanwhile admitted in some sense the title Theotokos. Furthermore, when Cyril’s anathemas became known at Constantinople and Antioch, they stirred up a hornet’s nest of opposition against Cyril.
The Council of Ephesus
In spite of considerable opposition, Cyril finally opened the Council on the twenty-second of June, even though the long-awaited papal legates and the Patriarch of Antioch with his suffragans had not yet arrived. In the very first session one of Cyril’s doctrinal letters to Nestorius was read and unanimously approved. Nestorius was declared deposed. (32)
According to historians of the day, on the night of this decree the streets of Ephesus were filled with enthusiastic crowds who waved and shouted: “Hagia Maria Theotokos“— “Holy Mary, Mother of God”—a cry that has never died on Catholic lips.
But four days later, John, the Patriarch of Antioch, arrived, and charging that the Council presided over by Cyril was illegal, organized a separate council favoring Nestorius and condemning Cyril. With the arrival of the papal legates, however, the sessions of the council headed by Cyril were resumed and the acts of the first session were formally approved.
The doctrine formally approved by the Council is contained in the doctrinal letter of Cyril which was read at the first session and unanimously accepted. The letter of the anathemas, although read at this same session, was not proposed for the approval of the Council; the anathemas have doctrinal authority, however, in view of the fact that they were referred to by the Second Council of Constantinople as part of the acts of Ephesus and highly praised. (33)
The most pertinent part of Cyril’s doctrinal letter should be given here: (34)
For we do not say that the nature of the Word became man by undergoing change; nor that it was transformed into a complete man consisting of soul and body. What we say rather, is that by uniting to Himself in His own person a body animated by a rational soul, the Word has become man in an inexpressible and incomprehensible way and has been called the Son of Man; not merely according to will or complacency, but not by merely assuming a person either. And we say that the natures that are brought together into true unity are different; still, from both there is one Christ and Son; not as though the difference between the natures were taken away by the union, but rather both divinity and humanity produce the perfection of our one Lord, Christ and Son, by their inexpressible and mysterious joining into unity…. It was not that first an ordinary human being was born of the holy Virgin, and then the Word descended upon that man; but in virtue of the union He is said to have undergone birth according to the flesh from His mother’s womb, since He claims as His own birth, the generation of His own flesh…. Thus (the holy Fathers of the Church) have not hesitated to call the holy Virgin Mother of God (Theotokos).
All famous causes have their famous battle cries, which serve to rally the common mass of men, incapable of comprehending the nice distinctions of theologians and statesmen. In the fourth century good Catholics (most of whom could neither read nor write) could identify themselves by crying, “Homoousios” which meant that Christ is of the same nature as God the Father. In the fifth century, the battle cry was a happy combination of sound theology with one of the most profound devotional instincts in the Church: veneration of Mary on account of her divine motherhood.
After Ephesus Theotokos became the hymn of the Christian heart. Sermons resounded, feasts were celebrated, and churches dedicated in honor of Maria Theotokos. (35) The memory of the “glorious and ever virgin Mary, Mother of God” began to be commemorated even in the Sacrifice of the Mass.
From Ephesus in 431 to the present day, “Hagia Maria Theotokos,” heralded by the Fathers of the fourth century, has proved to be one of the great touchstones of Christian orthodoxy. It demands faith in the true human nature of Christ; otherwise Mary would not be a real mother. It is a confession of the divinity of Mary’s Son; otherwise Man would not be truly the Mother of God. It is a declaration of belief in the hypostatic union of two distinct natures subsisting in the divine Person of the Word of God; otherwise Christ would not be both Son of God and Son of Mary. It likewise proclaims the truth that the hypostatic union took place in the first instant of Mary’s conception of her Son; otherwise the Mother of the man Christ would not be truly the Mother of God.
For over a thousand years after Ephesus the whole Christian world (apart from a few fitful resurgences of a doomed Gnosticism) hailed Mary as God’s Mother. Protestants who frequently seem offended by the honors which Catholics give to Mary may be surprised at the following tribute to the Mother of God penned by Martin Luther even after his complete separation from the Catholic Church: (36)
The great thing is none other than that she became the Mother of God; in which process so many and such great gifts are bestowed upon her that no one is able to comprehend them. Thereupon follows all honor, all blessedness, and the fact that in the whole race of men one only person is above all the rest, one to whom no one else is equal. For that reason her dignity is summed up in one phrase when we call her the Mother of God; no one can say greater things of her or to her, even if he had as many tongues as leaves and blades of grass, as stars in heaven and sands on the seashore. It should also be meditated in the heart what that means: to be the Mother of God.
However, Luther was not long out of the Church (1522) before he began to change his attitude toward the Mother of God. He objects to the special honor being paid to her, because it derogates from Christ who alone is our Saviour. Luther still calls Mary the Mother of God, but only ”because we cannot all be Mothers of God; otherwise she is on the same level with us.” (37)
The first of the Lutheran confessional writings, the Augsburg Confession (1530) clearly professes the teaching of Ephesus that “the Word, that is, the Son of God, assumed a human nature in the womb of the Virgin Mary, with the result that there are two natures, the human and divine, inseparably united in the unity of the person, one Christ, truly God and truly man, born of the virgin Mary. . .” (38)
Even in the Formula of Concord (1579), the last of the Lutheran confessional writings, the doctrine of the divine motherhood is given accurate expression: “By reason of the hypostatic union and the communion of natures, Mary the virgin most worthy of praise, brought forth not only a man, but a man who is truly the Son of the Most High God. . . . Hence she is truly Theotokos, Mother of God, and yet remained a virgin.” (39)
But Luther had set the style for Protestants when he attacked the Catholic prayer “Hail Holy Queen” which he regarded as blasphemous. “Your prayers, O Christian,” he says, “are as dear to me as hers. And why? Because if you believe that Christ lives in you as much as in her, you can help me as mu