If Mary is the mother of Jesus, and Jesus is God, does it follow that Mary is the mother of God? What kind of logic is this? Seriously thinking about it, if this syllogism is theologically sound, doesn’t it also follow that since Mary is the Mother of God, Mary is also God? Or, since God is Triune, doesn’t it follow that Mary is also the mother of the Holy Spirit, or, Mary, the mother of the Father? Of course they’re not saying that but do you see how inconsistent their position is on this matter? Even though Mary to them is not the source of Jesus’ Divinity, they’re still bent on calling her the Mother of God. Why call Mary God’s mother in the first place?
Protestants are not the first to raise this objection. The Nestorian heretics in the early Church argued that Mary could be called “the Mother of Christ” (Christotokos), but not “the Mother of God” (Theotokos).
The Nestorian position was based on a deeper heresy: the notion that Jesus Christ consists of two Persons one human, one divine). In 431 A.D., The First Council of Ephesus, the third of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, clarified that Christ is one Person, not two, and for the first time, laid out a specifically Marian doctrine, calling Mary Theotokos, the Mother of God.
I. The Answer from the Third Ecumenical Council
|Neroccio di Bartolomeo de' Landi, |
The Virgin and Child, St. Benedict
and Saint Catherine of Siena (1490)
Immediately, we can see why the Marian doctrines matter: because they protect Christological truths. And that is still why they matter. When Protestants claim that “God was NOT born of a woman,” that’s not just an attack on Mary (at least, not primarily). It’s an attack on the Incarnation, and on the Divinity of Jesus Christ. As I’m fond of saying, anti-Catholic Protestants aim at Mary, and hit Jesus.
Based on the reasoning of the First Council of Ephesus, most of the arguments for calling Mary the Mother of God follow this general syllogism:
- Jesus Christ is a single Person, fully God and fully Man. Jesus is God, and always has been.
- The Virgin Mary is the Mother of Jesus Christ.
- Therefore, the Virgin Mary is the Mother of God.
So I think that this syllogism is sound, and easily withstands the unfounded arguments that these Protestants raise. But there are two other ways of approaching of the issue, as well, that might help show the Catholic case to someone unconvinced by the Ephesian syllogism.
II. The Witness of the Church Fathers
|Andreas Ritzos, The Mother of God of Passion (1490)|
That may seem glib, but it’s true. My favorite example of an Evangelical who understands how dangerous the Church Fathers are to Evangelicalism is Dave Hunt, author of the popular anti-Catholic book A Woman Rides the Beast. In this episode of his radio show, he and co-host T.A. McMahon lament the number of Evangelicals who convert to Catholicism after reading the Church Fathers and discovering that “they believed in the Real Presence in the Eucharist and so forth.”
Their response is to simultaneously claim that the Church Fathers weren't Catholic, that Evangelicals shouldn’t read the Church Fathers for themselves, and that they shouldn’t “go to history” to determine which is the true Church. Of course, if the Church Fathers really weren’t Catholic, folks like Hunt and McMahon would be eager for Evangelicals to read the Church Fathers. All in all, they end up running from the Church Fathers, precisely because these early Christians undermine the notion that the Church that Christ built looks remotely like the Church they claim He built.
All of this is by way of preface to the main point here: that the Church Fathers, from the very earliest days of Christianity, affirmed that in the Incarnation, God had been born of Mary. St. Ignatius of Antioch, a first-century student of the Apostle John, who was martyred for the faith in c. 110 A.D., said in his letter to (quite fittingly) the Ephesians:
There is only one physician—of flesh yet spiritual, born yet unbegotten, God incarnate, genuine life in the midst of death, sprung from Mary as well as God, first subject to suffering then beyond it—Jesus Christ our Lord.
For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary, in God's plan being sprung both from the seed of David and from the Holy Spirit.
This is an unambiguous affirmation that Mary is the Mother of God. And again, we’re not talking about the fourth or fifth century here, where an Evangelical might argue that heresy has crept into the Church. We’re talking about one of the earliest Christian martyrs, and a man who was a disciple to one of the Twelve Apostles. Nor was Ignatius alone, either. Irenaeus, writing in 180 A.D., compares and contrasts Eve and the Virgin Mary:
For just as the former [Eve] was led astray by the word of an angel, so that she fled from God when she had transgressed His word; so did the latter [Mary], by an angelic communication, receive the glad tidings that she should sustain God, being obedient to His word.In other words, Eve is tempted by a fallen angel, disobeys the word of God, and flees from Him. The Virgin Mary encounters the Angel Gabriel, obeys the word of God, and bears God in her womb as a result.
III. The Scriptural Case for Mary as the Mother of God
In addition to the declaration of the Third Ecumenical Council, and the testimony of the earliest Church Fathers, there is also clear evidence from Sacred Scripture. In Luke 1:41-49, the Visitation, the Virgin Mary (pregnant with Jesus Christ) goes to visit her cousin, Elizabeth:
And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe 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 this 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 babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Visitation (1491)
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”
So Elizabeth explicitly calls Mary “the Mother of my Lord.” The word being translated “Lord,” Kyrios, is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Adonai. Adonai is the word for God that Jews used (and use) in place of YHWH, which was considered too sacred to say, even in prayer, outside of the Temple. So when Elizabeth calls Mary the Mother of her Kyrios, she’s calling her the Mother of YHWH, the Mother of God.
And that’s plenty clear from context: Elizabeth proceeds to praise Mary for believing “what was spoken to her from the Lord.” That’s unambiguously a reference to God. So is Mary’s declaration, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” In each of these cases, the word Kyrios is the word used for God.
And remember, it’s the Holy Spirit Who inspires Elizabeth to praise Mary as the Mother of her Lord. So not only the Bible, but the Holy Spirit Himself, makes it clear that Mary is the Mother of God. There’s not really another way to take these Scriptures. Could we say that “Lord” refers only to Jesus’ Humanity? Of course not. It makes no sense to try to reduce Christ’s Lordship in that way, nor would that explain the other two references to the Lord in this passage.
So when modern Protestants take up the Nestorian attack on the notion of Mary as Mother of God, they’re not just going against an early Church Council, or the testimony of the earliest Christians. They’re going against the New Testament. But more than that, they’re undermining orthodox Christology, and undermining the direct testimony of the Holy Spirit. Aim at Mary, hit Jesus.