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A View from the Altar / Mother of God
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Mother of God

It’s Christmas time, so Christians are turning their attention to the miracle of the incarnation when the Word was made flesh (Jn 1:14), or as Paul expresses it, “God was manifest in the flesh.”  (1 Tim 3:16)  For those who wander by AVFTA unawares, this is a Christian web site, and we Christians believe that God entered into the world through the virgin Mary having wrapped himself in robe of human flesh.  This is the doctrine we call the “deity of Christ.”

A friend of mine was discussing the deity of Christ with a Moslem acquaintance at his workplace.  The Moslem, because of his Islamic presuppositions, couldn’t quite grasp what was being said about Jesus, “It sounds almost like you’re saying he is God.”  My friend said, “Yes, exactly.  Jesus made the world, made the sun and stars, created all the animals, and created man.”  (John 1:3, Col 1:16)  When Christ was portrayed as Creator, our Moslem acquaintance finally caught the meaning and expressed his amazement.  If it helps to say it this way, the Creator entered into his creation by means of physical birth.  He never ceased to be God, nor did he abandon any of his divine nature.  Rather Christ, as God, took on a human body prepared for him in the which he was to suffer death for every man.  (Heb 2:9)

This doctrine was understandably a matter of controversy in the earliest Christian times, and the controversy is considered by history to have been settled at the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451.  The council said a number of things you can read about via Google, but the one which eventually became a new controversy all its own was that Mary was said to be the theotokos, a word coined at Chalcedon and which literally meant the “God-bearer.”  That is, the council intended the churches and the public to understand that the person who emerged from Mary’s virgin womb was, and is, God Almighty.  “God of very God” was how they characterized the divine nature of Jesus.

Eventually, however, the term theotokos shifted from its original and carefully crafted meaning of God-bearer and was supplanted by the phrase, “Mother of God,” a term which Protestants have largely rejected as being a step too far.  The linguistic concept of “mother” really wasn’t in the original word.  Further, the intent of theotokos was to say something about Jesus by explaining that Mary had borne or carried a child who was also God.    But when the phraseology shifted to “Mother of God,” two unsatisfactory things happened.  First, the focus shifted from Christ to Mary.  The word theotokos speaks of something Mary did as a consequence of what Jesus is.  Jesus is God; therefore, the person who bore him bore God.  But “Mother of God” is more of a title than a description of her great deed, involving only nouns which place all the emphasis on what Mary is.  That is a theological misstep of the first magnitude, and it is the taproot from which the unlawful adoration of Mary grows which our Roman and Eastern friends, to their credit, acknowledge as a problem.

Second, by dint of this theological error, a degree of confusion has been introduced into the two natures of Jesus.  The biblical teaching is that Christ had no beginning and certainly no mother as concerns his divine nature.  But the shift of theotokos into “Mother of God” creates the impression that Mary is the progenitor of Jesus as to his divine nature.  Roman Catholic friends have asked me, “What would you prefer in English?  To call her ‘The Mother of the Body of Jesus?”  But the answer is not to coin a clunky title for Mary and argue on the basis of its clunkiness that “Mother of God” is the only reasonable thing to say.  It is better from the biblical standpoint to create no title at all and simply to repeat what the Chalcedonians attempted to say, namely, that Mary bore or carried a child who was, and is, God.  This solves all the problems at the same time, glorifying Christ as the God-Man and honoring Mary to precisely the correct degree by saying that she bore him.

And after all, this is the real story of Christmas.  God became flesh and entered into the world, revealing and declaring God in a way that changed all history.  We can never go back to a world in which the influence of Jesus isn’t here, and thank God for that.  His entrance into the world had one supreme purpose which was to offer himself without spot to God, the just dying for the unjust, that he might reconcile God and man in the body of his flesh through death.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Brother Steve! Theotokos is the term used in our worship and home. I appreciate you calling to attention a modern-day misconception that can be remedied by a close look at history and the original purpose that the term ‘theotokos’ was coined– to protect the divinity of Christ against heresy.

    Merry Christmas to you & your loved ones!

    Posted on 21-Dec-09 at 9:55 am | Permalink
  2. And may God bless you and yours with a joyful Christmas season.

    Posted on 21-Dec-09 at 19:10 pm | Permalink

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