Hello Rosary Lovers! In this post we will ask: What is ‘Theotokos’?
First of all, ‘Theotokos’ is an ancient Greek word which means literally ‘carrier of God’ or ‘God-bearer’.
As a sort of paraphrase, it means ‘Mother of God’. It is a title which exclusively refers to Mary in Christian theology.
‘Theotokos’ is especially popular in the Eastern Orthodox Divine Liturgy and their theology.
‘Theotokos’ is a word of tremendous respect and honour given to Mary, because it means that she actually bore God in her womb and is truly his Mother.
Mary is the Mother of the eternal God (see here also).
Think about this: God actually has a Mother.
Yes, really. God – whoever, or whatever God is – has a Mother, who is a flesh and blood human like us.
That. Is. Amazing.
Where did the word ‘Theotokos’ come from?
The word ‘Theotokos’ was properly established by the Catholic Church at the third Ecumenical Council in 431 AD.
It is a word that was in use already, but it took on much greater importance following the Nestorian controversy.
Nestorius was a Bishop/Patriarch (head of the Church at Constantinople) who taught that Mary could not be called ‘Theotokos’ (Mother of God).
She could only be called ‘Christotokos’, meaning ‘Christ-bearer’, or Mother of Christ.
Nestorius refused to call Mary Mother of God (Theotokos) or even to concede this when pressed. He was absolutely against the use of the word in reference to Mary.
The reason Nestorius despised the word ‘Theotokos’ is because he believed that God could not be born.
God is impassible: meaning, God cannot suffer or experience passion like creatures. God is simple: not complex like creatures. God is completely other than creatures.
For this reason, God cannot die, God cannot be conceived or born from a creature because the divine essence is eternally unoriginated by any other than itself.
All of this is perfectly true, and the Catholic Church has always believed it. Nestorius wasn’t the least bit wrong here.
To suggest that the divine essence in and of itself can be born or can have a mother is absolute heresy, and Nestorius is correct on this.
As is so often the case with heretics, they can be completely right about one part of truth, but terribly wrong about another part.
Where Nestorius Messed Up
This is where Nestorius went wrong. Nestorius failed to appreciate that the eternal Son of God united himself with human flesh in such a way that the Son of God truly became absolutely ONE with his flesh. ‘The Word became flesh’ (John 1:14).
The Union between the Son of God (God) and his flesh (humanity) is such that it is absolute. It is a perfect and full union.
Nestorius didn’t seem to believe this. His idea of the unity of the Son of God was considerably looser than this, less concrete.
When the Church speaks of Jesus Christ, she is speaking about ONE Divine Person incarnate.
The divinity and humanity of Jesus are absolutely one in perfect union, without confusion, without division and without any change to either.
Both the divinity and humanity of Jesus remain forever distinct. They are not one nature, but two natures. Forever. Distinct. They are not mixed and they are not confused. At all.
And yet, they are entirely ONE in union, because Christ is one Divine Person and Individual.
Beyond this, we cannot understand this mystery. It is beyond human understanding.
As with so much in the holy Catholic faith, we simply must accept it because this is what the Church teaches and has always taught.
All of this was later more thoroughly defined at the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. Apparently, Nestorius was happy with this much later Council, he even claimed that it had vindicated his theology.
Whether Nestorius was misunderstood or didn’t express himself very well, or whatever, what came to be called Nestorianism was the heretical idea that Jesus Christ isn’t ONE absolutely concrete Entity.
In Nestorianism, there is something about the unity of the divine nature and the human nature of Jesus that isn’t entirely one. Their union is much more loose than this.
Nestorius himself said things like the divine nature and the flesh are one in will and one in power, etc. Sure, they are one in some way, he said. But he seemed reluctant to suggest they were one in Identity of Person.
Nestorianism, therefore, has come to be the view that Jesus Christ is, in a sense, two distinct persons: a divine Person and a human Person. Obviously Nestorius didn’t quite put it like this, but this is what his theology gave rise to, whether he intended it or not.
His Achilles’ heel was that Nestorius didn’t have a robust and solid or confident view of the Unity of Christ’s human and divine natures in one Divine Person.
Nestorius’ rejection of the word ‘Theotokos’ was merely a consequence of this. He could not call Mary the ‘Theotokos’, the God-bearer or the Mother of God because he didn’t believe Mary had conceived the Son of God in her womb.
Nestorius viewed Christ in such a way that for him what Mary bore was not the infinite Son of God, but simply the flesh, the humanity of Christ.
Many modern Christians seem to think this same way today, but this is actually a very grave error, no matter how subtle it is.
In effect, it means that anyone who believes this doesn’t really believe in the real, total unity of the Divine Son of God with his humanity.
Which, if you think about it, is an implicit rejection of the full reality of the Incarnate, the central teaching of our entire Faith. Get that wrong, and you get the entire Christian faith wrong.
What the Catholic Church Actually Teaches
Strictly speaking, of course Mary didn’t originate the divine essence in her womb. Such an idea is nonsense and the Church has never even been tempted to think this. This isn’t ever what has been meant by ‘Theotokos’.
Yes, strictly speaking, Mary conceived the Son of God in her womb ACCORDING TO THE FLESH (Council of Chalcedon):
“as regards [Christ’s] Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the Godbearer“. (See this link).
But this does NOT mean that Mary is simply the Mother of the human nature of Jesus, or the mother of the flesh. Mary is not simply ‘Mother of Christ’ – Christotokos.
Why not? Because WHAT Mary conceived in her ever-blessed womb was none other than the eternal and infinite Son of the living God in the flesh.
THAT – and nothing less – is precisely what Mary conceived in her precious and virginal Body: God incarnate.
THAT – and nothing less – is precisely what fed from her life-giving breasts: God incarnate.
THAT – and nothing less – is what died for us at Calvary. God died for us in the flesh. This is why we can be saved.
The Gospel has nothing to do with a man dying for us to save us. That is not the Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Gospel is the truth that holds up the Universe: That Christ, the infinite and eternal Son of the living God, died for us, according to the Scriptures.
God suffered for us, in the flesh.
God was buried for us, in the flesh.
God was raised up for us 3 days later, in the flesh.
God ascended into the heavens for us, in the flesh.
Every last thing God ever did on earth in human flesh he did for us (so said St Theresa of Avila).
And every last thing he did he did as one complete Divine Person incarnate.
One Divine Person, with a true and perfect human nature in perfect union with his eternal Divinity.
‘I believe in One Lord Jesus Christ.’ (Nicene Creed, 381 AD).
The Fate of Nestorius
Nestorius was brought before the entire Church so that his views could be investigated properly and thoroughly.
The Church found Nestorius and his theology to be deeply destructive of Christian truth, and Nestorius was condemned at the Third Ecumenical Council of 431 AD.
He was deposed from his Office as Patriarch and even excommunicated from the holy Catholic Church, so that he could learn the seriousness of his teachings and return in humility to the Gospel as taught by the Church which is ‘the Pillar and Ground of the Truth’ (1 Timothy 3:15).
The main influence behind this decision was St Cyril of Alexandria. He more or less led the proceedings with the Pope of Rome’s permission.
St Cyril’s famous axiom was ‘there is ONE incarnate Nature/Person of God the Word.’
St Cyril didn’t mean by this that Christ only had one Nature. He meant that Christ was one Entity: both fully Divine and yet also fully human in absolute and perfect Union, so that he is ONE.
As such, the Church proclaimed for all time that Mary is truly, and absolutely, and forevermore, ‘Theotokos’ – the Mother of the living God.
This is no less than what St Elizabeth proclaims in the Gospels when she says to Mary: ‘And how come I have this great honour, that the Mother of my Lord/God should come to me?’
The Rosary of the Theotokos
Here at Rosary Lovers, we try to honour Mary greatly, especially by spreading devotion to her Rosary.
Please check out our other posts; you’ll find many here.
If you have any questions, please let me know and I’ll be happy to respond.
God bless, through Mary immaculate, Mother of the living God and Theotokos.