“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” 

Mary, mother of God
Mary is our mother by adoption. But she is the natural mother of God the Son — Theotokos. Shutterstock photo

The most important truth about the Blessed Virgin Mary is that, by divine election, she is the Mother of God, Theotokos. Pope Pius XII regarded Mary’s divine motherhood as the principal reason for her many graces and privileges.1 

That Mary is Mother of God is the teaching in the Catholic Church. This is seen most dramatically in the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium. Well rooted in sacred Scripture, this Church doctrine has been taught authoritatively since the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431), during which occurred a decisive intervention of the Church’s teaching authority on behalf of the divine motherhood of Mary and against the position of Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople. Nevertheless, many Catholics today lack a clear understanding of this important teaching. 

The title Mother of God as used for Mary appears 13 times in Chapter VIII of Lumen Gentium. This chapter speaks about “the duties of the redeemed toward the Mother of God, who is mother. . .of all those who believe.” 

Biblical Foundations

Although it is not explicitly asserted in the Bible that Mary is Theotokos, Mother of God, the biblical foundations for that Church teaching are unambiguously clear. In Luke’s Gospel, the words of the angel Gabriel addressed to Mary imply that she is truly the Mother of God. “ ‘You are to conceive and bear a son, and you must name Him Jesus. He will be called. . .Son of the Most High. . . .[T]he power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God’ ” (Lk 1:31-32,35).2 A little later in Luke, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth addresses her as “the mother of my Lord” (Lk 1:43). “Why should I be honored with a visit from the mother of my Lord?” Among Hellenistic Jews, the term “Lord” meant God. This is clear from verses 45 and 46 which follow (O’Carroll, Theotokos). “‘Yes; blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.’ And Mary said: ‘My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit exults in God my savior. . .’” (Lk 1:45-46).3 

Without naming her, John’s Gospel more than once refers to the Blessed Virgin as Jesus’ mother. “[T]here was a wedding feast at Cana. . . .The mother of Jesus was there. . .” (Jn 2:1). “Near the cross of Jesus stood His mother. . .” (Jn 19:25). Of course, for John, Jesus is God. “In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God. . . . The Word was made flesh, He lived among us. . .” (Jn 1:1,14).3 Hence, Mary is the Mother of God. 

In Galatians 4:4, St. Paul writes: “[W]hen the appointed time came, God sent His Son, born of a woman. . . .” The woman is the Virgin Mary. Speaking about the Israelites, St. Paul writes in Romans 9:5: “They are descended from the patriarchs, and from their flesh and blood came Christ who is above all, God, for ever blessed.” While St. Paul does not ordinarily attach the title “God” to Jesus, he does so in Romans 9:5.Jesus, who is God, is born of the Israelite woman, Mary. 

Despite the strong biblical foundation for the Marian title Theotokos, Mother of God, its usage was opposed in the fifth century by Nestorius (A.D. 381–451), bishop and patriarch of Constantinople (428–31). Shortly after his installation as bishop, he became aware of a vigorous dispute underway in Constantinople regarding the correctness of designating Mary as Mother of God. He felt it his duty to enter the debate as mediator to protect tradition and present the Church’s orthodox position. Unfortunately, he was not theologically well equipped to do so. In asserting that Mary should be called Mother of Christ rather than Mother of God, Nestorius’s intent was not to deny the unity of Christ but to stress the distinction between His two natures.4 Although Nestorius has been interpreted as implying (and Nestorianism may actually have taught) that “there were two separate persons in Christ” (Matthew Bunson, Our Sunday Visitor’s Encyclopedia of Catholic History), that was not in fact his view.5 

Nevertheless, the unity Nestorius proposed as existing in Christ between His human and divine natures was a loose one, an external one like that between a man and the clothing he wears (Pierre T. Camelot, O.P., “Nestorianism.” New Catholic Encyclopedia). It was not a metaphysical unity, a unity in being.6 In Nestorius’s view, a human child was born to the Virgin Mary to whom the Logos, Word of God, was loosely connected. A divine Person was not born to her. Therefore, the title Theotokos, in his view, was inappropriate.7 In a letter to Pope Celestine (A.D. 422–32), Nestorius explains that he was fighting against the title Theotokos because it clashed with the Nicene Creed.8 

Cyril, archbishop of Alexandria (d. 444), saint and doctor of the Church,warned Nestorius that to insist that Mary should be called Mother of Christ and not Mother of God carried a heretical implication, namely, dual personhood in Christ. In A.D. 430, Cyril sent an envoy to Rome, the Deacon Posidonius, who accused Nestorius of teaching Adoptionism, a doctrine according to which there were two sons in Christ, the divine Logos Son and the man Jesus who was accepted as Son because of His merit.9 The clash between Nestorius and Cyril culminated in the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431) Under the direction of Cyril, appointed by Pope Celestine to represent him, the Ecumenical Council condemned Nestorius’s thinking as heretical and Nestorius as a heretic.10 Following the logic of the Nicene Creed, the bishops of Ephesus underscored the fact that there was always one subject for everything asserted about the Son of God.11 

Council at Ephesus

The Council of Ephesus approved the title Theotokos, declaring that the one born of Mary was indeed God’s Son. The dogmatic idea that the Fathers at Ephesus insisted upon was this. The eternal Son of the Father is the very same as the Son of Mary born to her according to the flesh in time. Hence, the Virgin Mary is correctly designated Mother of God.12 This was the substance of the clash with Nestorius. “Divine life with the Father, descent to the earth, incarnation and humanity must be predicated of one and the same subject, the Logos who is omoosios with the Father” (Grillmeier, Christ). Ephesus made the following declaration: “[B]y uniting to himself in His own person a body animated by a rational soul, the Word has become man in an inexpressible and incomprehensible way. . . .It was not that first an ordinary human being was born of the holy Virgin, and then the Word descended upon that man; but, in virtue of the union, He is said to have undergone birth according to the flesh from his mother’s womb. . . .”13 The Creed of Nicaea (A.D. 325) guided the thinking of the Fathers at Ephesus. According to the Nicene Creed, one subject was born eternally of God and temporally of Mary, one subject only. Less than two decades after Ephesus (A.D. 449), Pope Leo the Great (A.D. 440–61) would write to Flavius, Patriarch of Constantinople, the following words, consistent with the teaching of Ephesus and Nicaea: “And so the Son of God, descending from His heavenly throne, yet not leaving the glory of the Father, enters this world’s weakness and is generated in a new manner, born with a new birth.” 

Before being given official sanction at Ephesus (431), the Marian title Mother of God had been used in the Christian Community for more than a century.36 Fathers of the Church, both East and West, utilized it. Among these were St. Ambrose (A.D. 340–397), Bishop of Milan, St. Athanasius (A.D. 293–373), Patriarch of Alexandria, and St. Gregory of Nazianzen (d. A.D. 389), bishop of Constantinople.14 

Teaching after Ephesus

After Ephesus, the title Mother of God, used in reference to the Virgin Mary, was sanctioned repeatedly by Ecumenical councils. The Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) declared in reference to the Son of God that in His divinity “He was begotten of the Father before time, and in His humanity he was begotten in this last age of Mary, the Virgin, Mother of God, for us and for our salvation.” The Second Council of Constantinople (A.D. 553) anathematizes whoever denies “that God the Word became incarnate in the holy Mother of God and ever-Virgin Mary and became a man. . . .” The Council of the Lateran (A.D. 640) is crystal clear on the teaching that Mary is the Mother of God. “If anyone does not profess. . .that, in the proper and true sense, the holy, ever-Virgin, immaculate Mary is the Mother of God, since. . .she properly and truly conceived the divine Word. . .and gave Him birth. . .let such a one be condemned.” The Third Council of Constantinople (A.D. 680–81) affirmed that the Lord Jesus was begotten “of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, rightly and truly the Mother of God according to His humanity. . . .” 

Doctrine Explained

The Indian priest who celebrated the Eucharist in my parish on the feast of St. Cyril of Alexandria (June 27) some years ago explained what it meant for Mary to be Theotokos, Mother of God. He made some interesting distinctions. Nevertheless, some parishioners departed confused. After Mass, a retired teacher, a lay pillar of a neighboring parish, approached me seeking enlightenment. I gave him an explanation that pleased him, one that he said helped him understand the Church’s teaching. Perhaps my explanation could be helpful to more people. 

Mary is Jesus’ mother. She bore Him. She is not the mother of Christ’s humanity. A mother gives birth to an individual person, not a soul, or body, or abstract concept like human nature or humanity. Mary gave birth to Someone with a unique identity: Jesus. Who is Jesus? He is God, the eternal Son. So Mary is Mother of God. 

God is in me. But for me there always remains a distinction between God and me, regardless how close He might be, even if He is closer to me than my brain or heart. I am never God. I am not eternal. There was when I was not. 

With Jesus the situation is decisively different. His existence did not begin with His earthly conception. Who Jesus is is eternal. One cannot distinguish between God in Him and He himself. “Jesus is the Eternal Son; He is God. So there is a strict identity between God-in-Jesus and Jesus himself. . .He is God the Eternal Son. The one who was born as a human baby, Jesus, was no other than the Eternal Son of the Father.” 

Mary conceived as her son, the Eternal Son of God, who developed in her womb as a human being. After carrying Him to term, the Virgin Mary gave Him birth. She did not give birth to Jesus’ divinity. She is not the mother of the divine nature, but the mother of someone with the divine nature, someone who, as a human baby, needed to be nursed and carried, yet someone who holds the universe in existence. 

The unique Son of God was begotten twice. He was born eternally of the Father before creation. Mary was not involved. He was also born in time, as the man Jesus. In this second birth, Mary played a major role. The Father’s role in Jesus temporal birth was primary, yet Mary’s was indispensable. The same someone who was born eternally of the Father was born in Bethlehem to the Virgin Mary. 

There is only one grammatical subject in Jesus, and that is God the Eternal Son. The Niceno–Constantinopolitan Creed (A.D. 381) states: “We believe. . .in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all time. . .He. . .was made flesh by the Holy Spirit from the Virgin Mary, and became man. . . .”

The word “God” carries different meanings. It often signifies the Father. If we so understand the term, Mary is not the mother of God. Obviously, she is not the mother of the Eternal Father. He is her source and the source of all. She is not His source. The word “God” also refers to the Trinity. Clearly Mary is not the mother of the Trinity. “God,” likewise, signifies One who possesses the divine nature. Because it is possessed, “owned,” equally, though differently, by Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each Trinitarian Person is necessarily and equally God. 

Since the Son of God is God and Mary carried Him as a human being in her womb, ultimately giving Him birth, she is the mother of God. She mothered Him in His acquired humanity. The Divine Son, eternal and without beginning, experienced an earthly beginning through Mary. 

Mary is our mother by adoption. But she is the natural mother of God the Son. He is the fruit of her womb, Jesus. TP 

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1Michael O’Carroll, C.S.Sp., Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1982), p. 257. 

2Cf. The Jerusalem Bible, gen. ed. Alexander Jones, Garden City: Doubleday, 1966. All biblical citations are taken from this translation. The language used for Jesus here is language utilized to depict God’s saving presence. “Mary’s future son is described with language ordinarily reserved for God’s redeeming presence among His people. The boy will grow up to be ‘great’; ‘Son of the Most High’ . . .” Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P., “The Gospel According to Luke,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, S.S., et al. (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1968), vol. II, p. 122. “The Infancy Narrative, composed in the post-Pentecostal age. . . , rather obviously insinuates the divinity of Jesus. . . .The O.T. does not state God’s presence in a divine-human person, but Luke does.” Ibid. According to Michael O’Carroll, C.S. Sp., Luke infers as clearly as does Paul in his letters that Mary is Mother of God. “An analysis of Luke 1:32, 35, where Mary’s future Son is called ‘Son of the most high,’ and ‘Son of God,’ will show that . . .Mary’s son is God, and she is the mother of God.” Theotokos, p. 257. 

3Jesus is not the Father, but neither is He just “divine.” He is God: God the Son. Cf. Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Jesus: God and Man (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing, 1967), pp. 26-27. 

4Aloys Grillmeier, S.J., Christ in Christian Tradition: From the Apostolic Age to Chalcedon (451), trans. J.S. Bowden (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1965), pp. 364, 373-74. Nestorius did not wish to oppose Church teaching, but he did not know how the Logos and manhood were united in Christ. He could not clearly point to or identify the subject of the Incarnation. He could not clearly state that what belongs to life within the Godhead and what pertains to the earthly history of the Incarnation are both predicable to the Word or Verbum. Ibid, p. 395-96. Although Nestorius affirms the unity of human and divine natures in Christ, he does not clearly grasp the notion that it is the Logos who is “the bearer of both the divinity and the humanity. Instead, he regards ‘Christ’ superficially as the sum of the two natures and sees these in turn merely as a collection of qualitative expressions. . .He thus reduces the subject ‘Christ’ to the sum of the two natures and only rarely leaves room to consider the bearer, the subject of the natures.” Ibid., p. 377. 

5For Nestorius each of the natures of Christ had its own prosopon, which we might translate as person. But for Nestorius, prosopon meant collectively the inward and outward characteristics of a nature. It signified the way a thing appeared, acted and existed. It did not mean an identity or a who. Grillmeier, Christ, p. 385. Although Nestorius is often charged with thinking that there were two sons of God, a human one and a divine one, in some of his writings he rejects that notion. Ibid., p. 379. 

6Nestorius has a sense of the real unity of subject in Christ, and he is concerned that it be maintained. Nevertheless, he is never completely clear about the ontological primacy of the hypostasis or person of the Logos. Yet, he would never think that Christ is just a man. Cf., Grillmeier, Christ, p. 379. 

7Camelot, “Nestorianism,” p. 253. Nevertheless, Nestorius was not entirely opposed to the title. For Nestorius the birth of Christ refers to the birth of His human nature rather than to that of the divine Person. But for him, the term “Christ” implies two natures. Therefore, he “concedes that Mary may be named ‘Mother of God’ because of the conjunction of the human nature of Christ with the Godhead.” Cf., Grillmeier, Christ, p. 378. In Nestorius’s Second Homily on the Temptation of Jesus, he even used the title “Mother of God” himself without explanation. Ibid., p. 370. 

8Ibid., p. 392. Actually the Christian Church in A.D. 428 confessed in accordance with the Nicene Creed “Mary as ‘Mother of God’ (Theotokos) and spoke of the ‘suffering of God’ (Deus passus) as an expression of the fact that the true Son of God was born, as man, from Mary and died on the cross. This kerygma was. . .the result. . .of the belief and confession of the Church according to the Apostolic tradition.” Ibid., pp. 369-370. 

9Grillmeir, Christ, p. 393. Cyril of Alexandria interprets Nestorius as teaching that the Logos is conjoined with a man. With the Incarnation there occurs an indwelling of the Logos, but an indwelling that involves an accidental relationship with human nature not a substantial one. As interpreted by Cyril, the Logos does not truly become a man in Nestorius’s view. Ibid., p. 405. 

10Pierre T. Camelot, O.P., “Nestorius,” New Catholic Encyclopedia 10 (2003), p. 254. Although Nestorius was condemned as a heretic, he apparently was a faithful follower of Jesus struggling with a difficult problem: how to affirm the unity of Christ while maintaining the integrity of His two natures. “We understand how he could be condemned if the consequences of his false premises were drawn. But we can recognize just as clearly that he need not have been condemned had attention been paid to his care for tradition and to the new problem which he posed.” Cf., Grillmeier, Christ, p. 388. Cyril correctly recognized one existent subject in Christ, but he spoke about his one sole nature (mia physus). Nestorius correctly distinguished between Christ’s human and divine natures and between nature (ousia) and person (hypostasis). But he could not attribute to the divine subject things like suffering, or human actions, occurring in the human nature. All of this “makes it probable that if their ideas and vocabulary could have been neatly clarified and defined, the argument as well as the schism could have been avoided.” Cf., Camelot, “Nestorianism,” p. 252. 

11Daniel Helminiak, The Same Jesus: A Contemporary Christology (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1986), p. 130. The special contribution of Cyril of Alexandria is his insistence that in Christ a substantial union of the Word and man occurred, not an incidental conjunction. God the Word did not enter into a man but actually became a human without ceasing to be God. Cf., Grillmeier, Christ, pp. 406 and 405. Cyril made this important contribution without “being able to grasp the concept of person.” Ibid., p. 383. 

12“[T]he divine maternity of Mary was agreed upon by all without discussion, and tradition has not been in error in seeing in the Council of Ephesus the triumph of Theotokos.” Pierre T. Camelot, O.P., “Council of Ephesus.” New Catholic Encyclopedia 5 (2003), p. 275. Although no formal definition of Mary’s divine maternity occurred, the decisions reached regarding her maternity have in tradition the equivalent status. Ibid, p. 274. 

13The Church Teaches: Documents of the Church in English Translation, trans. John Clarkson, S.J., et al. (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1955), p. 167, no. 399. 

14Ibid., pp. 257-8. For Gregory of Nazianzen failure to accept Mary as Mother of God was to be cut off from the life of grace. “If anyone does not accept the holy Mary as Theotokos, he is without the Godhead” (Epistle 101). Cited in Ibid., pp. 257-8.

Dr. Decelles, Ph.D., is professor and chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at Marywood University, Scranton, Pa.