Why “Theotokos (Mother of God)” Is Important

Pictured to the left is a giant icon of St. Mary “the Virgin” placed at the entrance to the Old City in Nicosia, Cyprus.  Framing this image of the Mother of Our Lord are the words, “Iperayia Theotoke, soson imas“, which I like to translate as, “Supersaint Mother of God, save us.”  This sort of behaviour on the part of the Church of Cyprus is the sort of thing that led one young Chinese man with whom I led Bible studies to say that the major religions of the world were Buddhism, people who believe the Bible, Islamists (his word, not mine), and people who worship Mary.  It is also the sort of thing that makes me more, not less, comfortable with my Protestantism.

What bothers me with that icon is not that it exists at all — I see no reason why one ought not to put up a giant icon of St. Mary if one so wishes.  I would rather it be one of the glorious icons of the crucifixion or resurrection, but, hey, that’s why I’m a Prot.  Nor am I bothered by the word Theotokos, literally “God-bearer”, usually translated as “Mother of God.”  I think that word is very important in our understanding of Who Jesus Is.  I am bothered by the words “soson imas” — save us.  Now, the devout, informed Orthodox will tell that it doesn’t mean the same thing as when they say “Kyrie Khriste, soson imas“, but the words are still the same.

Most Protestants, however, would have been stopped short at the word Theotokos, if not by Iperayia.  It is impious, they will fervently tell you, to call Mary the “Mother of God.”  Did the creator of the starry height have a mother?  Was the originator of all that is, all that was, all that ever shall be begotten of a woman?  Dare we to say that God, whom we all know to be the uncaused cause thanks to St. Thomas Aquinas, was begotten of a human being within time?  Would it not be better to say that Mary was “Christotokos”?

Thank you for showing up, Nestorius.  Of course, in real life, if you were named Nestorius and were saying those same things in the late 420’s in Constantinople, your sermon would have been shouted down somewhere around the word “impious”, and an angry mob would cry out for your deposition (in a mere twenty years, such angry mobs are calling out for blood, so Nestorius got it easy).

Question:  Is Jesus Christ fully God?

Answer:  Yes.

Question:  Seeing as how He is fully God, is He therefore creator of the starry height, the originator of all that is, all that was, all that ever shall be, the uncaused cause?

Answer:  Yes.

Question:  Does Jesus Christ have a mother?

Answer:  Yes.

And you will say, “I know all this.  But Christ Our Lord was born of Mary only of His human nature, not of His divine nature.  As God, He was/is/is being/will be eternally begotten of the Father before all worlds.”

Indeed, God the Son only partook of the Blessed Virgin for His human nature.  To say that she in any way imparted divinity unto Him is blasphemy.  However, was the child born to her God?  Yes, yes He was.  And this is the scandal of the Incarnation.

You see, by limiting the role of Mary as Jesus’ mother to Christotokos, we limit His Incarnation.  We confuse the question.  There are and have been many heretics running about, some of whom imagine that divinity only came upon Jesus at His baptism in the Jordan or in the Transfiguration.  There were and are others who believe that He grew into being God’s son and that he was just a dude upon whom the Logos of God descended.  Others seem to think that He was/is St. Michael the Archangel.  Others think He was just another one of God’s spirit babies up in heaven and that He lived a pure, spotless life but is not identical in substance with God.

Yet St. John of Damascus teaches us that Jesus is of the same essence as God the Father as well as of God the Holy Spirit.  When Jesus was born, God was a man.

The fullness of the Godhead dwelt in Jesus.  He was, by nature, God.  He is, by nature, God.  The child whom St. Mary carried in her womb was God.  He took from her His humanity and became consubstantial with us thereby.  He already had His divinity, already was consubstantial with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Since God the Creator of the Universe was born as a child, she who bore Him in her womb is rightly called Theotokos, God-bearer, the Mother of God.  It is a safeguard for the full divinity of Christ, a safeguard for the Incarnation.  It is not a point of Mariology but a point of Christology.

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6 thoughts on “Why “Theotokos (Mother of God)” Is Important

  1. To be entirely honest, I have never run into someone that had an issue with this term, or even as much issue with Mary as those Baptists you described in another post. Perhaps it’s just the people I know, though.

    I really do enjoy these ways of showing reverence through superlatives. The other day, I ran into a medieval commentary that referred to “supersanctissimus Deus” (super-holiest God).

  2. An interesting post, and very true regarding “Theotokos” being a term which says more about Christ than about Mary. On the whole phrase: “Iperayia Theotoke, soson imas“, it is a refrain from a canon to the Mother of God and so it’s not really meant to be considered in isolation. Within the words of the canon, though Mary is praised highly, it cannot be said that Mary is praised more highly than Christ.

    FWIW, the Greek phrase in standard English (i.e. used by Orthodox christians in English speaking parishes) is “Most Holy Mother of God, save us”.

    Like Andrew has written, these superlatives are a sign of reverence but not meant as an usurption of God’s holiness. We can see this use of superlatives in Luke’s gospel, where he adresses the “Most Excellent Theophilus”. This statement is rightly seen as a show of reverence to Theophilus, but not a claim that he is “more excellent” even than Jesus Christ.

    The Greek word translated as “Save” is a very broad term used a LOT in the New Testament, and not necessarily to refer to eternal salvation of the soul. The “save us” of the supplication to Mary shouldn’t really be understood in that sense. Having said that, however, how do we interpret St. Paul’s use of “save” in 1 Corinthians 9:22? If the Apostle can be understood to “save” people without being thought to be the source of salvation, then so too can Mary. And she is, as the Canon the verse is taken from is a canon of suplication – asking for prayers – rather than a “worship song” to the Mother of God.

    I find it quite interesting that you said such veneration of Mary makes you more comfortable in your Protestantism. I never really thought of Protestantism being defined by opposition to such “excessive” veneration. Historically it is not defined by such, as the Reformers were not “protesting” against veneration of Mary, but rather other practices of the Roman Catholic church; from what I can tell most Reformers held Mary in very high regard. Certainly the canon to the Theotokos pre-dates the Reformation by quite a while — yet for whatever reason such language was not on the Reformers’ radar.

    • BTW, you can publish the above comment if you want, but don’t feel you have to. I wasn’t posting to deface your blog, just to address a few comments to your good self.

  3. Thank you for the post, I actually found it looking for the phrase “Yperaghia Theotoke soson imas” which I always forget. The discussion of word Theotokos versus Nestorius’ Christotokos is interesting.

    As a convert myself from a more protestant background to Orthodoxy myself, I never had much of an issue with using the phrase ‘soson imas’ with the Saints. Although it does seem to be a point many protestants don’t like. One protestant friend of mine thinks we should use another translation, such as “heal us” to avoid confusion I write this since I find the phrase “soson imas” interesting, and would like to point out that Paul uses the same word “save” many different ways, including ways similar to what us Orthodox like to use. For example, in talking to the Corinthians 1:9 Paul speaks “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” And again Paul says in Romans 11 that he might “save some of them”. Here Paul doesn’t limit the usage of “to save” purely to God. Not to imply that when Paul says that he might “save some” that its the same thing God does (which is the reasoning you mention Orthodox using in your article).

    I do not intend to start an debate, but merely hope to point out that the usage of “save” (which is related in Greek to the idea of healing) is much deeper in usage and meaning that sometimes we think of in English.

    Thanks again for your post!

    • I guess this is a reply both to Jeremiah and iconreader.

      Re translating “Iperayia”, I just like the cheeky choice. It’s a bad habit my classmates and I developed in undergrad whilst translating the pagans. I hope it persists my whole life, only because cheeky or variant translations of familiar phrases help us rethink our words and their sources. I have nothing against calling the Mother of Our Lord Superholy, Supersaint, or Most Holy.

      Thank you for the reference to St. Paul and the reasoning behind “soson imas”. My experience with the Orthodox world is largely that when something is different or “strange” and is part of the official actions of the Church, there is a good reason, and I just need to find said reason. Thus here. I can see the intercession of the saints having a role in our salvation — our healing — that is like unto that of St. Paul in 1 Cor 9:22.

      I fear that not all Orthodox are properly catechised, however. Perhaps that is the greater danger than having a giant icon proclaiming, “Iperayia Theotoke, soson imas” — that too few people, Orthodox and otherwise, understand the statement, understand what use sozo has in that case.

      Indeed, the Marian dogmas were not at issue with the Reformers when they found themselves bending to the breaking point with Rome; the questioning of such issues came later, although with the removal of relics far and wide and the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England, the cult of the saints suffered greatly, and with the Cult of the Virgin. A Protestant in 1536 (when Tyndale was killed) or 1549 (first BCP) may not have taken issue with “Most Holy Mother of God, save us,” but most of them within a century would. To this day, the Marian dogmas are among the issues most decisive for most Protestants when they look at Rome, thus making many become Nestorian in their thoughts of the Mother of God, spurning those very words because they smack of Popery.

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