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“Theotokos”: Mary, the Mother of God

Let us…turn to the realization, in point of time, of the unique mission assigned to (Our Blessed Lady) by the Almighty, namely, to be the worthy Mother of the Son of God. (1) In treating this subject we will discuss briefly:

I. The errors in this connection;

II. The official teaching of the Church;

III. The argument from Sacred Scripture;

IV. The teaching of Tradition;

V. The theological explanation of the Catholic dogma;

VI. The objective dignity resulting from it.

I. Errors Concerning the Divine Maternity.

The Docetae, Anabaptists, and other heretics held that Christ was true God, but not a true man; hence, in their opinion, Mary could not be said to have begotten Him. On the contrary, the Ebionites, Arians, Rationalists and others hold that Christ was a true man, but not God; hence, Mary may be called the Mother of Christ, but in no way the Mother of God. The third error is that of the Nestorians, who claim that there were two persons in Christ (one divine and one human), and that Mary gave birth only to the human person; therefore, she cannot be called Mother of God.

II. The Official Teaching of the Church.

The Third General Council of the Church, which met in Ephesus in the year 431, under the presidency of St. Cyril of Alexandria, unhesitatingly approved the latter’s second letter to Nestorius in which the Blessed Virgin is openly proclaimed as Theotokos (i.e. Mother of God). (2) This official action was practically equivalent to a dogmatic definition. It seems now that the famous anathemas of St. Cyril, traditionally associated with the Council of Ephesus, were probably not read on that occasion, but rather at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553. The first one reads: “If any one does not profess that Emmanuel is truly God, and that consequently the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God (Theotokos), inasmuch as she gave birth in the flesh to the Word of God made flesh . . . , let him be anathema.” (3) It is, therefore, an article of our Catholic faith that Mary is really and truly the Mother of God. In 451 the Council of Chalcedon had already inserted the word Theotokosin one of its canons. (4) The nature and basis of the Catholic teaching on this point were authoritatively explained more recently by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Lux veritatis written in 1931 to commemorate the anniversary of the Council of Ephesus. (5)

III. The Argument from Sacred Scripture.

The Bible nowhere uses the expression “Mother of God” It refers to Mary as “the mother of Jesus” and “the mother of the Lord” (6) However, since Christ is true God, it follows that all texts which refer to Mary as His Mother, are so many proofs of her divine Maternity. Thus, the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaias was announced by the Archangel Gabriel in these words: “Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb and shalt bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus.” And he added: “Therefore, the Holy one who shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:31). We gather the same truth from the following statement of St. Paul:

“When the fullness of time was come, God sent his son, made of a woman” (Galatians 4:4).

IV. The Teaching of Tradition.

Primitive Christian belief in Mary’s divine Maternity is evidenced in the liturgical prayers used by the faithful, particularly the Apostles’ Creed wherein they professed faith in “Jesus Christ, His only Son, Our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” Similarly, the early Fathers of the Church boldly proclaimed the same doctrine, not in employing the term Theotokos itself, but by affirming that Christ, who was the Son of God, was truly born of the Virgin Mary. St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202), Tertullian (d. 222/3), Novatian of Rome (d. c. 253), St. Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258), and St. Hippolytus of Rome (d. 235) are all witnesses to this dogma.

(7) Whether or not Hippolytus was the first to use the word Theotokos is disputed. (8) The ancient prayer Sub tuum praesidium does address Our Lady under that title, but scholars are not agreed as to the exact date of its original composition. It was written certainly before the close of the fourth century. (9) The first undisputed use of the expression Theotokos was made, according to W. J. Burghardt, around the year 319 by Bishop Alexander of Alexandria. (10) The term occurs likewise in St. Ambrose of Milan (d. 397) and St. Vincent of Lerins (d. 450). (11) Of course, after the Council of Ephesus in 431, no disagreement was possible among Catholics on this point. (12)

V. Theological Explanation of the Catholic Dogma.

The objection of the Nestorians against the term Theotokos was based on a false notion of motherhood, and also of the Hypostatic Union. (13) To understand the Catholic dogma, we must have exact ideas concerning both. Motherhood is the relationship established when a woman communicates to her offspring a nature identical to her own, and this by means of a true generation (conception, gestation, birth). The terminus of generation is the whole son, not only the physical body furnished by the mother. Thus, we say that St. Ann is the mother of Mary (i.e., this whole and complete person: Mary), and not only of Mary’s body, even though we know that St. Ann did not furnish Mary’s soul.

In Christ there are two natures (one divine, one human), and these two natures are inseparably united in onePerson, namely, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity. That most perfect union is called the Hypostatic Union.

Now Mary did not supply Christ with either His divine nature or His divine Person. Both existed from all eternity. She furnished only His human nature. But since that human nature was inseparably united to the divine Person in the very first instant of Christ’s conception, we say that Mary conceived and gave birth to a Son who is truly God, and hence she is the Mother of God.

The fact that there are two natures in Christ entails a twofold sonship. Because His divine nature was generated from the Father from all eternity, Christ is the true Son of God the Father. Because His human nature was generated from Mary, Christ is the true Son of Mary. However, this twofold sonship does not imply two Sons. Being one undivided Person, Christ the Son of the eternal Father is absolutely identical with Christ the Son of Man. Hence Mary is truly the Mother of God. By destroying this oneness of Christ’s Person, the Nestorians were led to deny Mary’s divine Motherhood. By this same token, when the Church defended and defined Mary’s divine Motherhood, she was also safeguarding the revealed Catholic doctrine concerning the Hypostatic Union. They necessarily stand or fall together. (14)

VI. The Objective Dignity of the Divine Maternity.

By objective dignity here we mean the dignity of the motherhood in itself, that is, abstracting from the plenitude of grace which, as a matter of fact, has always accompanied it. By the very fact that she is the Mother of God, Our Lady is raised to a rank high above that of any other creature. Indeed, we may say that she constitutes a category all her own in the hierarchy of creation. This dignity of hers is unquestionably “‘the greatest after God” as Pope Pius XI states. It may also be referred to as an infinite dignity (in a relative sense) because of her unique relationship with the infinite God. Just as there cannot be anything better and greater than God, so there cannot be anything better or greater than His Mother. (15) Mary’s relationship to the Most Blessed Trinity may be summarized as follows. She is related to God the Father by a certain affinity. This is based on the fact that the eternal Father and Mary have a Son who is common to both, although in a different way. She is related to the Second Person of the Holy Trinity (as Man) by consanguinity, inasmuch as the Person of the Logos in His human nature is the terminus of her motherhood. She is related also to the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Holy Spirit, by a certain affinity, because she is the true Mother of Him who, from all eternity, and together with the eternal Father, “spires” the infinite Love which is the Holy Spirit. Mary is properly styled Spouse of the Holy Spirit because it was by the supernatural operation of the latter that she conceived Christ, the Son of God.

In view of the above, theologians generally admit that while Mary docs not belong to the Hypostatic Union (Christ alone does), yet she belongs to the Hypostatic Order, either directly, according to some (Suarez, Saavedra, Cardinal Lépicier), or at least indirectly, according to others. (16) The reason is that it was in her, and through her own generative act, that the Union was accomplished.

Theologians likewise ask the question whether the divine Maternity is a greater dignity than adoptive filiation (through sanctifying grace), and also greater than the priesthood. Actually, since the termini being compared belong to different orders of reality, a comparison in the strict sense seems impossible. Nevertheless, not a few authors are of the opinion that the divine Maternity by far exceeds the dignity conferred by sanctifying grace, “because it is a much greater dignity to be the Mother of God by nature than to be the child of God by adoption.” (17) As to the priesthood, it is generally believed that its dignity is far inferior to that of the divine Maternity. The reason lies in the fact that the terminus of Mary’s maternal action is a human nature hypostatically united to the Godhead, while the action of the priest during the consecration renders the existing human nature of Christ present: in a sacramental status. Admittedly, Our Lady lacks the powers which the priest has of consecrating and absolving from sin; but it remains true that it is a far greater dignity to be the Mother of God than to be God’s minister or ambassador. (18)

The Late Fr. Juniper B. Carol, O.F.M., was a world-renowned authority on Mariology and the founder of The Mariological Society of America. This article was excerpted from Fundamentals of Mariology, Benziger Brothers, 1956.


(1) On this chapter cf. Roschini, Mariologia, 4 vols., 2nd ed. (Rome, F. Ferrari, 1947-1948) 2, part 1, 141-195; A. d’Alès, S.J., art. Marie, in Dictionnaire Apologétique de la Foi Catholique, 3, 199-206; C. Feckes, The Mystery of the Divine Motherhood (London, 1941); Pohle-Preuss, Mariology, 5th ed. (St. Louis, Mo., 1926), 4-23; G. Van Ackeren, S.J., Mary’s Divine Motherhood, in Mariology (Carol), 2 Ch. 5.

(2) Sections of the letter are given in Denzinger’s Enchiridion Symbolorum (DB), 111a. The letter, with explicit reference to Theotokos, may be found in PG, 77, 43-45.

(3) DB, 113. Cf. Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplisima collectio (Mansi), 9 (Paris-Leipzig 1909), 327; E. Carroll, Mary in the Documents of the Magisterium, 9, in Mariology (Carol), vol. 1 (Bruce, 1954), Palmer, Mary in the Documents of the Church (Westminster, Md., 1952) 10.

(4) DB, 148. Cf. P. Galtier, S.J.. Les anathématismes de s. Cyrille et le Concile de Calcedoine, in Recherches de Science Religieuse (RSR), 23 (1933), 45-57.

(5) AAS, 23 (1931), 493-517.

(6) Cf. B. J. LeFrois, S.V.D., The Theme of the Divine Maternity in the Scriptures, in Marian Studies, 1955, 102-119.

(7) St. Irenaeus, Adversus haereses, 3, 19, 2; PG, 7, 940; Tertullian, De patientia, 3; Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (CSEL), 43, 3; Novatian. De Trinitate, 9ff; PL, 3, 927ff. St. Cyprian. Ad Quirinum testimonia, 2, 9; CSEL, 3, 73; St. Hippolytus, Contra Noatem, 17: PG, 10, 825-828.

(8) Cf. St. Hippolytus. De benedictionibus Jacob, 1; Texte und Untersuchungen, 38, part 1, 13. Cf. W. J. Burghardt, S.J., Mary in Western Patristic Thought, in Mariology (Carol), 1, 134-135; C. Jouassard, Marie à travers la patristique, in Marie (du Manoir), 1, 86.

(9) Cf. O. Stegmüller, Sub tuum praesidium: Bemerkungen zur ältesten Uberlieferung, in Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie (ZfkT), 74 (1952), 76-82; Burghardt, Mary in Western Patristic Thought, 132-133.

(10) Epistola ad Alexandrum Constant., 12; PG, 18, 568; Burghardt, Mary in Western Patristic Thought, 135.

(11) St. Ambrose, De virginibus, 2, 2, 7; PL, 16, 209; St. Vincent of Lerins, Commonitorium, 1, 15; PL, 50, 658.

(12) Cf. M. J. Mealy, The Divine Maternity in the Early Church, in Marian Studies, 6 (1955), 41-62, esp. 53-62.

(13) We abstract here from the disputed question of whether or not Nestorius himself held the heretical views traditionally attributed to him. On this whole controversy cf. J. L. Shannon, O.S.A., Was Nestorius a Nestorian?, in Marian Studies, 6 (1955), 120-130; likewise J. Montalverne, O.F.M., Theodoreti Cyrensis doctrina antiquior de Verbo “inhumanato” (Rome, 1948), esp. 7-8 and 120-131; and T. Harapin. O.F.M., De divina Maternitate B. Mariae Virginis, in Collectanea Franciscana Slavica (CFS), 2 (1940), 39-86, esp. 48-68.

(14) Cf. Pohle-Preuss, Mariology, 10-14.

(15) Summa theologica, I, 25, 6, ad 4. Cf. Carol, The Nature of the Blessed Virgin’s Ontological Mediation, in Miscellanea Franciscana, 39 (1939), 449-470.

(16) Cf. Roschini, Mariologia, part 1, 187-188; J. Keuppens, Mariologiae compendium (Antwerp, 1938), 24-25; J. Chiodini, The Nature of the Divine Maternity, in Marian Studies, 6 (1955), 36-40.

(17) Thus Roschini, Summula Mariologiae, (Rome, 1952), 76. On the related question of the divine Maternity formally sanctifying Our Lady, cf. G. Van Ackeren, S.J., Does the Divine Maternity Formally Sanctify Mary’s Soul?, in Marian Studies, 6 (1955), 63-101.

(18) Cf. W. G. Most, Is the Priest “Greater” than Mary?, in Emmanuel, 61 (April, 1955), 155-158.

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