The Mother of God
A reader has asked, “Jesus has two natures ... We know that Mary is the mother of Jesus (being man) but is Mary also the mother of God (for Christ is divine)?”
The difficulty in answering this question revolves around the great biblical truth that Jesus, with His divine and human natures, is still one Person and that He is, personally, the Second Person of the Trinity, the eternal and only begotten Son of God.
The question is whether we may ascribe things that are true of Him as a man to the divine Person. The Bible does this in Acts 20:28: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood,” where Scripture, in effect, calls the blood of Christ the blood of God. We know that God has no blood, no “body, parts, or passions” (Westminster Confession 2:1), yet Christ’s human blood is ascribed to Him personally and is called the blood of God. This would seem to justify calling Mary the mother of God (Greek: theotokos or God-bearer).
Mary, we all understand, is not the mother of Jesus’ divine nature, the mother of God, in that sense. According to His divine nature, He is eternal, has no earthly father or mother and no beginning. But, in the same way that His blood is referred to as the blood of God, can Mary be called the mother of God as the one who gave birth to the Person who was God, united at conception with our human nature?
In Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy, the term, mother of God, is accepted. It was in early use in the ancient church, but there were differences of opinion about it and a controversy erupted as part of the church’s battle against Nestorianism.
Nestorianism arose in the fifth century. Nestorius, Archbishop of Constantinople, separated the divine and human natures of Christ to the point that he was guilty of teaching that Christ was two persons instead of one. At the heart of his teaching was a denial of the union of Christ’s two natures from the moment of His conception in the womb of Mary. His objections centred on the use of the term, mother of God, for he insisted that Mary could not be the mother of the divine nature and that God could not be a baby: “God is not a baby two or three months old!”
The Nestorians were guilty of serious error in teaching that the only begotten Son united Himself with an independent and completely human person, thus denying the reality of the incarnation. They insisted that the proper term for Mary was Christ-bearer (Greek: Christotokos). Mary was only the mother of the human person with whom the divine Son of God united Himself. There can be no doubt, therefore, that Nestorianism, a heresy that continues to plague the church, was wrong in its position regarding the union of Christ’s two natures.
Nestorianism was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431 and again at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Both these councils affirmed the propriety of the term, mother of God. The Creed of Chalcedon not only rejected Nestorianism by insisting that the two natures of Christ were united “without separation” but also used the name, “mother of God,” for Mary: “born of the Virgin Mary, the mother of God, according to the manhood.” For this reason, however, the Creed of Chalcedon has not been recognized by many. Article 9 of the Belgic Confession (1561) mentions the Apostles’, Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, but not the Creed of Chalcedon.
The view of this writer is that, following the example of the Word of God in Acts 20:28, the term can be properly used, but it is not a biblical term and is often used to promote Mariolatry, so it is probably better to avoid it. Nor is it necessary to use the term to defend the truth that Christ is God and man in one Person, fully God and fully man, but still only one Person, and that the two natures of Christ were inseparably united in one Person from the moment of His conception in the womb of Mary.
Actually the Greek term, theotokos, God-bearer, is better than its usual translation, mother of God. The former makes it clear that Mary is in no sense the mother of Christ according to His divine nature and in no sense Christ’s mother from eternity.
It is better, so it seems to this writer, to stick as much as possible to the language of Scripture when speaking of the union of Christ’s two natures and to avoid language that may give offence or lead to misunderstanding. The fact is that the union of Christ’s two natures is a mystery. It lies at the heart of everything we believe but is beyond our comprehension. Any attempt to reason out the union of the two natures, the kind of attempt of which Nestorius was guilty, is bound to end in error.
We must confess that Christ is fully God and fully man. He must be God because only God can “by power of His Godhead sustain in His human nature, the burden of God’s wrath; and ... obtain for, and restore to us, righteousness and life” (Heidelberg Catechism, A. 17). He must be man because only man can pay for man’s sin, and only one who is like us in all things, except sin, can redeem and deliver us, body and soul, from our sins. He must be only one divine Person, for the testimony of Scripture is that there are not two Christs but one only and that one the only begotten Son of God.
How that divine Person could speak of being forsaken by God, how He, personally the Son of God, could hunger and thirst, be weary, suffer, die and rise again from the dead is the great mystery of our faith, and we must not tie ourselves in theological knots attempting to understand and explain that mystery, but must bow in wondering awe at what God has done and confess that “God was manifest in the flesh” (I Tim. 3:16).
The old Athanasian Creed sums up beautifully what we by faith are able to say, without destroying the mystery and miracle of the incarnation or by curiously inquiring into those things that are too high for us: “Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe faithfully the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man. God, of the essence of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man, of the substance of His mother, born in the world. Perfect God and perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood. Who, although He is God and man, yet He is not two, but one Christ.” Rev. Ron Hanko