Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Mother of God

Theotokos
Justify FullIn his weekly "Bulletin Inserts" this past Sunday, Fr. Wells wrote:
"The Church has given her the title 'Mother of God.' That appellation still offends many, just as it offended the heretic Nestorius. He was willing to call her 'Mother of Christ,' but not 'Mother of God.' 'Mother of God' seems to imply something false, that Mary is the mother of the Godhead, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, as if Mary herself were a Goddess from eternity. Such a notion would be beyond heresy, a leap into sheer paganism.

"When we say, as we must say, that the Virgin Mary was the Mother of God, we are saying quite emphatically that the One to whom she gave birth was none other than God in the flesh. Her Son Jesus Christ was and is Deity Incarnate. So the title 'Mother of God' at bottom line is not a statement about Mary herself but a statement about the One to whom she was Mother."

Like me, Fr. Wells is about as much on the Reformed and -- according to Anglican use of the word -- Protestant (emphasis on the first syllable, pro) side as Continuing Churchmen tend to be. And, like me, he says that we "must" call the Blessed Virgin Mary "the Mother of God." Frankly, if Martin Luther insisted on the same point (which he did), and even the way out Urich Zwingli insisted on the same point (which he did), it ought to be no surprise that two priests of the Anglican Catholic Church say so.

But, someone may contend, is not the word "must" a bit strong? Why would Fr. Wells and Fr. Hart say that we "must" call Mary the Mother of God? Is that not merely optional? Let me say, with all the confusion of the last several centuries, I am not about to declare someone anathema if he cannot bring himself to say "Mother of God" about the Blessed Virgin mother of our Lord. But, once we understand that the title is not about Mary herself as much as it is about Jesus Christ, we must find it acceptable. In fact, it is shorthand for "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God...And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth." (John 1:1,2,14)

The Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) has been much aligned in recent decades, blamed for creating division and banishing the Alexandrian Church. It was Eric L. Mascall, writing in 1980, who rehabilitated the reputation of the fourth [O]Ecumenical Council, getting to a simple but profound point early on in his book, Whatever Happened to the Human Mind?1

"What, let us now inquire, is the relevance of Chalcedon to Christian belief today?...First, I would suggest, its insistence upon the reality and completeness of Jesus' humanity. Orthodox Christians in the world of today have had to devote so much effort to defending the divinity of Christ against attacks from within as well as from outside the Christian community, that both they and their opponents have sometimes forgotten that Traditional Christology, with its roots in Chalcedon, is committed no less strongly to defending, in its concrete fullness, his humanity."

The teaching, defended and clarified at Chalcedon, reaches its greatest point in this passage:

"So, following the saintly fathers, we all with one voice teach the confession of one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and a body; consubstantial with the Father as regards his divinity, and the same consubstantial with us as regards his humanity; like us in all respects except for sin; begotten before the ages from the Father as regards his divinity, and in the last days the same for us and for our salvation from Mary, the virgin God-bearer (Theotokos) as regards his humanity; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation; at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being; he is not parted or divided into two persons, but is one and the same only-begotten Son, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ, just as the prophets taught from the beginning about him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ himself instructed us, and as the creed of the fathers handed it down to us"

Without digressing far from the main topic of this essay, notice how the passage begins: "So, following the saintly fathers." This point is clear: They created nothing new, but rather defended what had been taught from the beginning. We must recall the words of St. Paul:

"But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed." (Gal. 1:8,9).

Recall also his words,

"Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the Gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received.." (I Cor. 15:1-3a)

The key word is "received." The truth taught, defended and proclaimed by the Church has been received, not imagined or created by men. Paul says "But though we" preach a message other than the message of the Gospel that has been received. Even the Apostles themselves would have been anathema were they to change course, and preach some other message. The Gospel has been revealed, therefore received, not invented. So, at Chalcedon in 451 AD, the bishops of the Church declared that they followed the doctrine already taught and received by the Church. They had nothing new to say.

In the above translation we find the Greek word Theotokos translated "God-bearer." Fair enough. We have seen the word translated "Birth-Giver of God." Also, fair enough. But, that translation seems strained, coming across as a fancy and impressive linguistic feat, or academic acrobatic stunt, to avoid the obvious word, "mother." She bore the Lord in her womb, and gave birth to him. The word for that, in mere human language, without all the heroic efforts not to sound "too catholic" (whatever that silly phrase could possibly mean), is "mother." To say that God the Son, or the Word (λόγος ) has a mother, is to say that He has been made flesh, that he may dwell among us in the tabernacle of a complete human nature.

When you say that Mary is the Mother of God, you are saying very much the same thing that you say when you confess that "Jesus is the Lord." As I wrote once for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity:

"If you know, and can say with all your heart, that Jesus is the Lord, you are saying that He is one with the Father. You are saying, therefore, that 'the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.' You are saying that God the Son has taken human nature into His Divine Person, our created nature into his uncreated Being. You are saying that He has assumed what is alien to Him, our humanity, as the One who is wholly other from every created thing, to forever transform human nature by making us partakers of the Divine Nature, as is written by the Apostle Peter (II Peter 1:4)."

Antichrist
"Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world." (I John 4:1-3)

Of all the doctrines that our enemy cannot confess, one stands out above all others. It is the doctrine of the Incarnation. That is the one doctrine we must get right in order to have the others right. For, without a true understanding of Jesus Christ, we are like a man buttoning his shirt who begins by getting a button into the wrong buttonhole. Unless he goes back and corrects that first misplaced button, every other button will be in a wrong buttonhole. Unless we can say that Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man, complete in both natures (φύσις) and yet remaining one Person (ὑπόστασις ) after the union, nothing else we say can be the revealed and received message that is the Gospel.

No wonder, then, that we are warned by St. John the Apostle, that this is the one doctrine that the spirit of Antichrist refuses to confess. That evil spirit of error must profess some other Jesus (II Cor. 11:4), either by denying that Jesus Christ is one with the Father, equal by nature to God as the eternal and only Son, without beginning and without end, not created, but eternally begotten of the Father, as the Holy Spirit is eternal and not created, eternally proceeding from the Father; or, the spirit of error must profess some other Jesus who, even if he is divine, is only a mixture that is part divine and part human, and therefore by nature neither fully God nor fully man, or that has never taken human flesh, true human nature, at all; merely appearing human while leaving no footprints. The different false versions of Jesus make him out to be merely human, like all others -- perhaps a great prophet or teacher, but less than God. Or, they make him out to be a god, created although superior to mere mortals (the polytheism of the Arian heresy), and therefore a lesser god. Or, they allow him perhaps as much as full divinity and equality to the Father, but deny to him a real human nature in which he could die for our sins as the Propitiation and Atonement, and in which he could rise again from the dead to give us immortality. Such a Jesus may be worthy of worship because he is divine; but, he offers us no hope and no salvation.

No wonder the Church has no hesitation in calling Mary the "Fighter against heresy." When we say, as we must, that she is the Mother of God, we have said more than a mouth full. We have confessed that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. We have frustrated the spirit of Antichrist, and confessed the true Jesus; the Jesus Christ who is come in the flesh, the Lord proclaimed in the Gospel that has been revealed, which we have received, and wherein we stand.

1. Mascall, E.L. Whatever Happened to the Human Mind? ( London: SPCK, 1980)

17 comments:

Jack Miller said...

Thanks Fr. Hart for unpacking the title "Mother of God" in this essay. It's an term that I have had to adjust to over the years, as my evangelical background caused me to bristle at it. Yet it is the modern evangelicals who have so broken with church tradition that err here.

Even the "dreaded" John Calvin accepted this title for the Virgin Mary:
"Elizabeth called Mary Mother of the Lord.....the mortal man engendered in the womb of Mary was at the same time the Eternal God." The Works of Calvin, Berlin, 1863.

Jack

Stephen said...

The fact that Materou Theou implies the eternal pre-existing goddesshood giving existence and life to the Blessed Trinity is why I and apparently Chalcedon, prefer to say Theotokos, not Materou Theou.

God-bearer is not strained. It is what the Council said.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

...Materou Theou implies the eternal pre-existing goddesshood giving existence and life to the Blessed Trinity...

No one could interpret Christian theology in that way.

God-bearer is not strained. It is what the Council said.

Yes, but the Western phrase, Mother of God, is the obvious meaning. She bore Him in her womb.
The real issue was in the Theo part of the word. Besides, the Council of Ephesus (431 AD) is more to the point.

Fr. Dcn. David Gould said...

Thank you for showing that Anglican Catholics should use the term Mother of God. May we have churches dedicated to "The Mother of God" in the ACC soon. In reality we have a degree of atonement for the lack of reverence shown by many Anglicans to Our Lady.

Anonymous said...

"Mother of God" is our attempt to translate "Theotokos" in Greek and "Genetrix Dei" or "Deipara" in Latin.
While I cannot say that "Meter theou" or "Mater Dei" were NEVER used by Patristic writers, the more normal terms are more precisely rendered "God-bearer," or "one who gives birth to God."

Regrettably, post-Reformation RC devotion has turned "Mother of God" into an expression of adoration for Mary herself. That was not the original intent of the term Theotokos.

But bad RC spirituality must not make us forget the essential truth of the expression. If someone vehemently denies that Mary is the Mother of God, there is very probably a bad case of Arianism waiting to happen.

It should not be surprising to find the magisterial Reformers using the language "mother of God." They were in vigorous debate with Anabaptists who frequently denied that Our Lord took His human nature from His mother, but rather brought a pre-existent humanity with Him from heaven. (Docetism, anyone?)
LKW

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Fr. Den. David Gould wrote:

In reality we have a degree of atonement for the lack of reverence...

With all due respect Father, I cannot accept this use of the word "atonement." We ought to reserve that word for one and only one Biblical meaning.

Anonymous said...

I am aware of no conciliar decision binding on Anglicans that requires the Greek word "Theotokos" to be rendered in English as "Mother of God." And, I am glad of same because such a translation is unfortunate for several reasons:

First, in traditional English usage, an unqualified reference to "God" generally denotes "God the Father," not "The Son of God" or "God the Word." Hence, the idiomatic phrase "Mother of God" is patient of a construction that Mary is genesis of God the Father, which is of course nonsense.

Second, "Theotokos" literally translates "God-bearer," which is perfectly good, intelligible English and is also much less patient of misreading. Why use a potentially misleading idiomatic translation when a literal translation is clearer?

Third, due to historical accident, the phrase "Mother of God" has unfortunately become associated with numerous, dubious medieval Latin scholastic and folk opinions concerning Mary. Why use a translation that carries unfortunate baggage when another sound options is available?

Fourth, the phrase "Mother God" has required the very eloquent Fr. Hart to write a lengthy post to explain its orthodoxy to devout and informed, English Christians. In contrast, one wonder wether the term God-bearer would require any explication at all? So why not eschew idiomatic obfuscation in favor or literalness and clarity?

In sum, Conciliar Christians "must" confess the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of our Lord, as "Theotokos" or "God-bearer," but good reason exists to avoid the idomatic phraseology "Mother of God," even though the later most certainly can be construed in an orthodox manner. Moreover, when the phrase "Mother of God" is employed to describe the Blessed Virgin Mary, Christian charity ought compel us to presume that it is intended in the orthodox sense, just as the same sense of charity ought prevent anyone from insisting that that questionable parsing of Theotokos "must" be used.

Death Bredon

Canon Tallis said...

I always love it when you and Father Wells go Mere Anglican. It reminds me so strongly of why the prayer book wants the Church to recite the creeds so frequently.

It reminds me so much of Bishop Gore's response to someone who objected to the "Ave Maria" because it sounded so Roman Catholic. He replied that his first thought was the Gospel according to St. Luke. As Anglicans we should always sound like the gospels.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Deth Bredon wrote:

First, in traditional English usage, an unqualified reference to "God" generally denotes "God the Father," not "The Son of God" or "God the Word."

But, this argument is against not the the word "mother", but against "of God." Hence, we are back to the problem of Nestorius, able to say Christotokos, but not Theotokos.

Hence, the idiomatic phrase "Mother of God" is patient of a construction that Mary is genesis of God the Father, which is of course nonsense.

True. In fact, it is such obvious nonsense that I cannot see the danger. Is there really any danger that someone might think we mean this? Also, since we are discussing the English word "God" with a capital G, we still have the words of John 1:1,2 about the Trinity, including, "and the Word was God." In this case we speak of Divine Nature.

Second, "Theotokos" literally translates "God-bearer," which is perfectly good, intelligible English and is also much less patient of misreading. Why use a potentially misleading idiomatic translation when a literal translation is clearer?

The only question is, what did they mean by "bearer" at all? Obviously, they meant that she bore the Lord in her womb. That brings us back to the word "mother."

Third, due to historical accident, the phrase "Mother of God" has unfortunately become associated with numerous, dubious medieval Latin scholastic and folk opinions concerning Mary. Why use a translation that carries unfortunate baggage when another sound options is available?

Is this phrase the problem? If so, we do better by defining the only true meaning it can have, inasmuch as it is so commonly used that it will never go away in our lifetimes. Better, then, to use it wisely then to hope for its demise. To shun the phrase, however, so commonly used, is to appear to oppose the simple phrase, "the Word was made flesh.".

Moreover, when the phrase "Mother of God" is employed to describe the Blessed Virgin Mary, Christian charity ought compel us to presume that it is intended in the orthodox sense, just as the same sense of charity ought prevent anyone from insisting that that questionable parsing of Theotokos "must" be used.

Which is why I wrote, "I am not about to declare someone anathema if he cannot bring himself to say 'Mother of God' about the Blessed Virgin mother of our Lord. But, once we understand that the title is not about Mary herself as much as it is about Jesus Christ, we must find it acceptable."

In this I am being terribly realistic. A phrase so commonly used, and with such strong orthodox meaning, ought not to be a point of controversy.

Anonymous said...

"First, in traditional English usage, an unqualified reference to "God" generally denotes "God the Father," not "The Son of God" or "God the Word." "

If this is the case (and note that I did not use the subjunctive "be") then "traditional English usage" is Arian.

I truly suspect this is indeed the case, since Arian Christology works well with semi-Pelagian soteriology.

And that is why I insist, without apology, on "Mother of God." The Incarnation was not something happening in an isolated moment, like an act of midwifery. The Incarnation is an enduring fact, lasting for eternity.
Mary's role was not only to give birth, but to nurture and teach. She was as much the Mother of God standing at the cross as in the cave at Bethlehem.
LKW

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Another thought in reply to Death Bredon:

Moreover, when the phrase "Mother of God" is employed to describe the Blessed Virgin Mary, Christian charity ought compel us to presume that it is intended in the orthodox sense...

Why should it require charity to presume the obvious? Is there anyone out there who actually uses the phrase in an unorthodox sense? Does anyone anywhere think that Mary is the mother of the Godhead, the genesis of the Divine Nature? I dare to say, without fear of contradiction, that no such person exists.

Anonymous said...

"Does anyone anywhere think that Mary is the mother of the Godhead, the genesis of the Divine Nature?"

Surely not, but many Protestants really believe that Roman Catholics really believe something like this. One Baptist theologian (either Millard Erickson or Norman Geisler) allows that "Mother of God" is technically correct but misleading and unhelpful (for reasons alongs the lines of the inimitable Death Bredon). I would assert on the contrary, the title is quite necessary to keep the Trinity properly balanced. That is very helpful.
LKW

Anonymous said...

Fr. Hart,

So I take it that you believe Orthodox Christians are unorthodox because they say "Theotokos," per the third General Council, rather than ""Meter theou," which you insist "must" be used?

DB

Fr. Robert Hart said...

DB, what I said was this: "But, once we understand that the title is not about Mary herself as much as it is about Jesus Christ, we must find it acceptable." In western churches, "Mother of God" is the standard and most often used translation of the same word Theotokos. Therefore, if we hesitate to use the term, at least in the west, we appear to be denying the truth that it conveys, taking the wrong stand where Ephesus and Chalcedon took the right stand.

AFS1970 said...

I am not sure that I see any fundamental difference between the meaning of "God Bearer" and "Mother of God". As long as the root word bear is being used in the context of child bearing and not load bearing. This seems to be two ways of saying the same thing, with Mother of God being the more plain and less formal. To insist on the more formal does seem to add fuel to the fire of those that want to continually modernize the language in the liturgy and scriptures.

Second of all, how can we as bible believing Christians quibble over this distinction when we use the very same lack of a distinction to describe the inherent nature of motherhood when seeking to apply the biblical definition of marriage to civil law. When we argue that God created man and woman as different in nature and each serving a unique purpose we inevitably follow that with the woman's role to bear children or to serve as a mother and not a father. Thus we freely admit that a child bearer is a mother of children. How then can we argue that a God bearer would not likewise be a mother or God?

Fr. Robert Hart said...

How then can we argue that a God bearer would not likewise be a mother or God?

I assume that was a typo, and was meant to say "of" rather than "or."

AFS1970 said...

Yes quite the typo there. Not only is that not the point I was making, it is also a point that is not effectively argued by the rest of my post. For that to not be a typo, I would find myself perilously close to being that elusive idiot that you have written of.

So to be clear, what I meant to say was this:

Thus we freely admit that a child bearer is a mother of children. How then can we argue that a God bearer would not likewise be a mother of God?