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.
And if you’re interested in buying a Rosary, check out this post for some help.
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.
10 Replies to “What is ‘Theotokos’?”
I find this very interesting. I had never heard of the term Theotokos in reference to Mary. I think this is very eye opening and your explanation was very well put. This made me look at the rosary in a whole new light and brought more understanding to how deep the meaning of it is.
Wow, thank you so much for that feedback! 🙂
I’m also glad to hear it all made sense.
I’m especially very happy to hear that it made you look at the Rosary in a new light! That’s fantastic and I didn’t expect this outcome
Thank you for the explanation. I am one who enjoys learning about other religions and this was really an eye-opener. I never heard the term ‘Theotokos’ and now I can say that I have learned something new. In fact, I have bookmarked your site. It’s truly fascinating to read about Mary and Jesus Christ.
Hello there! I’m happy to hear you benefitted from reading the post 🙂 And I’m obviously thrilled you’ve bookmarked the site! God bless you and thank you.
I am still doing research on this subject so I am glad that I landed on your website to glean additional insight in regards to the term Theotokos.
Indeed, the Greek term Theotokos, translated as “Mother of God” literally means “God-bearer.” But according to some scholars, the term God-bearer as it was used in the Creed and as it was applied to Mary said something about the nature of Christ, not the nature of Mary. In other words, Mother of God is a phrase that has a proper theological meaning only in reference to Christ.
You’re right; Nestorious objected to the use of the word Theotokos because he was concerned about the word being easily misunderstood. However, his denial of the term has led him to insist that Jesus were two separate persons, which of course is a huge mistake.
But calling Mary the Mother of God is problematic. God, the Divine Creator of everything could not possibly have a mother, right? She is the mother of Jesus but not the mother of God. The divine Person who became Jesus, the eternal God, the Logos, has existed eternally and is the Creator of Mary.
What do you think?
Hi there. Many thanks for your comment and thoughts.
Yes, mainly ‘Mother of God’ has primary reference to Christ being Almighty God. But it also has obvious significance about who Mary is and how important she is. But yes, she gets ALL of her significance from Christ her Son and God.
You are right that the eternal Son of God created Mary in time. And yes, in an eternal sense, the Son of God has no human origin.
But the Son of God chose to enter time, and he did this by being conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the blessed ever-Virgin Mary. Since she conceived God the Word in human flesh, we rightly call her the respectful title: ‘Mother of God’.
I appreciate that you are concerned, as Nestorius was, about the phrase ‘Mother of God’ leading to the idea that Mary is the Mother of the divine nature of Jesus. This is not the case, at all. The divine nature has no human mother.
According to the flesh, the infinite Son of God was begotten in time of Mary, whom we call Mother of God. We could just as easily called her Mother of God the Son, or Mother of the Son of God. All mean exactly the same thing.
You write: “She is the mother of Jesus but not the mother of God. The divine Person who became Jesus, the eternal God, the Logos, has existed eternally and is the Creator of Mary.”
It is true that the divine Person, the Son of God, who became Jesus is the Creator of Mary. But this very Person is Jesus Christ. There is no difference at all between them. They are one and the same. And so when you say ‘She is the mother of Jesus but not the mother of God’, if she is the Mother of Jesus, then she is most certainly the Mother of God.
This is because Jesus and the infinite God the Son are exactly the same divine Person.
It is precisely this that the Church was seeking to protect by calling Mary Mother of God. Ultimately, nothing better protects the fact that Jesus is absolutely the Almighty God more than calling Mary ‘Mother of God’. Historically this has proved to be the case.
Plus St Elizabeth calls Mary ‘Mother of my Lord’ in Luke 1:43. As a good Jew, Elizabeth means ‘Mother of my God’, since as a good Jew Elizabeth knew nothing of any distinction between her Lord and her God.
Perhaps have a re-read of my post? Because I try to address your concerns in it.
Very interesting article. I was not familiar with the term Theotokos, even though I went to many years of Catholic school. I always find the history behind the words and rituals of the church to be especially intriguing. Even learning about the things that the church considers heresy. Sometimes it did not take much, did it? I’m glad we can not be put to death for going against the church today, or just getting our phrasing wrong. What a scary time our ancestors lived in. Thanks for sharing some important history with us!
The term Theotokos is more an Orthodox term than a Catholic one. Catholics don’t refer to it often, if ever. But Catholic theologians and hierarchs are very aware of this term.
I love learning about the things the church considers heresy. I’m currently going through a fascinating series of lectures on Gnosticism. This is a heresy I find incredibly stimulating because I see many parallels between Gnosticism and movements outside the Church today.
Admittedly, sometimes it seems to us that our ancestors became furious over seemingly small matters. I remember feeling this way when I first studied the Eutychian heresy of 449.
However, when understood correctly, these are often not small matters, but matters that reach straight into the heart of the Christian faith.
Because Jesus Christ is so central to our faith – he IS our Faith – any slight miscalculation about who he is could be devastating to the entire Gospel.
If Nestorianism had triumphed, Christianity may well have perished eventually. This is because if Jesus and God are seen as two separate persons and identities, then we would lose our connection to God. How would we connect to God if Jesus isn’t God?
It may interest you to know that Nestorius was not actually put to death for his heresy, but he was deposed from being Patriarch of Constantinople, and he was kicked out of the holy Catholic Church. This was to give him chance to repent and change his mind.
(As an interesting side-note, the fact that Nestorius was deposed from being Patriarch of Constantinople ought to remind our Orthodox brothers and sisters that a Patriarch CAN indeed by deposed by the Pope and the rest of the Church. Which means a Patriarch or Bishop is NOT the supreme Head of their Church. But that’s another story.)
It wasn’t merely Nestorius’ phrasing that was wrong. There is nothing wrong with calling Mary ‘mother of Jesus’ or ‘mother of Christ’. It’s that Nestorius would not and could not admit she was Mother of God. That’s a rather serious denial of a critical aspect of the Christian faith.
Nestorius didn’t really see Jesus and the Son of God as the same exact Person and Identity. That’s the problem.
Being Catholic is primarily about submitting to the authority of the Church. This is what faith is: submission of reason and will to the teaching authority of the holy Catholic Church.
Nestorius, like us, had to learn to do this, rather than trusting in himself and his own reason and views. By cutting him off from the Church, the Church was showing him how serious it all was.
I agree with you that life back then and in the Middle Ages was a scary time. Certainly people were put to death later for heresy, though by the State, not the Church (though the Church often backed it).
I do love history 🙂
Thank you for this post over the Mother of God, Theotokos. I’m not a Catholic anymore, indeed, not even a Christian anymore (unless you could possibly say I’m Gnostic), but I defend the Catholic Church all the time and I used to be Catholic and debate all the time. Have you read the book, “Behold Your Mother” by Tim Staples? I recommend it. He talks about this. It’s a historical reality that Mother Mary is the Theotokos, the Mother of God.
Thank you for your honesty.
I find it highly curious that ex-catholics very often do defend the Church all the time.
Why do you think this is?
I’ve not read that book but I have heard of it.
Why aren’t you Christian or Catholic anymore, if you don’t mind me asking?