Mother’s Day is a fitting time to reflect on the most important mother who ever lived: Mary, “the Mother of God” (Greek, Theotokos), as she is called in the Chalcedonian Creed. That God would come into the world for our salvation through a woman is perhaps the greatest proof of the equality of women and the dignity of motherhood. It has provided a source of inspiration to Christian women throughout the centuries.
Two Extremes in the Doctrine of Mary
I once attended a Roman Catholic mass, and while there was much that I could appreciate (most of the liturgy was Scripture reading), I was troubled by a large statue of Mary with the inscription, “I AM THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION.” “Immaculate conception” means “born without the corruption of original sin,” and it is something that is said of Christ alone because he was conceived by the Holy Spirit. It is troubling that Roman Catholics extend the immaculate conception to Mary, but it is alarming to hear it confessed in the form of an “I AM” statement as if from Mary’s mouth. (Interestingly, the immaculate conception of Mary has only been Roman Catholic dogma since 1854. It is rejected by Protestant and Eastern Orthodox Christians.)
The danger, however, is that we would allow our reaction against the abuses within Roman Catholicism to determine how we think about Mary. It’s always easier to tear down one view than it is to offer a thoughtful alternative in its place. Without a biblical doctrine of Mary, one that is informed by the best of Christian tradition, we will end up falling into a different extreme. I once heard someone say, “I don’t like that ‘Mary Did You Know?’ song because it talks too much about Mary.” The irony, of course, is that the song is focused on pointing Mary to Jesus, the “Lord of all creation” who will “one day rule the nations.”
Many Protestant Christians are so fearful of exalting Mary that we avoid talking about her, let alone joining our voices with righteous Elizabeth: “Blessed are you among women” (Luke 1:42). Mary herself, in a song of praise which is now known as the Magnificat, expected future generations to call her blessed: “For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). Although Elizabeth acknowledged Mary as “the mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:43), some recoil when they hear Mary referred to as “the Mother of God,” since they have only heard it confessed by Roman Catholics, and Protestants have an allergy to all things Roman Catholic. This title, however, comes from the Chalcedonian Creed, where it is translated from the Greek Theotokos. (When Mary’s Magnificat is sung, it is sometimes called the Ode or Song of the Theotokos.)
Mary, Mother of God (Theotokos)
Most Christians would be ready to confess that Jesus is one person with two natures: a fully divine nature and a fully human nature. This language comes from the Chalcedonian Creed of 451 AD, the same Creed which teaches us to confess that the Son, “begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead” (eternal generation), was “in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood” (incarnation). The confession that Jesus is one person with two natures, and the confession that Mary is the Mother of God, are inseparably linked.
The confession that Jesus is one person with two natures, and the confession that Mary is the Mother of God, are inseparably linked.
Step back for a moment and consider again the popular song “Mary Did You Know?” The songwriter says, “When you kiss your little baby / You kiss the face of God.” We don’t hesitate to sing this because we know that Jesus is God. This is what we mean when we say that Mary is the Mother of God: the one whom Mary bore and mothered was God. It should be obvious that we do not mean that Mary is the source of the eternal Godhead or divine nature of Christ, as the Creed makes clear.
If we refuse to say that Mary kissed the face of God or is the Mother of God, we risk dividing the God-man Jesus Christ into two persons. The divine and human natures of Christ are united in one person; therefore, we must say that Mary is the Mother of God because the one whom Mary bore in her womb, Jesus Christ our Lord, is God. Theotokos, the Greek word that we translate “Mother of God,” could also be translated “God-bearer.”
Cyril of Alexandria and the Chalcedonian bishops argued that Mary must be called Theotokos if the unity of Christ is to be preserved. The heretic Nestorious was kicked out of his bishopric because he would only call Mary the Christotokos (Christ-bearer or Mother of Christ). This is not Roman Catholic dogma only. It is Christian dogma. Thomas Oden summarizes the Protestan reception of Theotokos:
Among Protestants, Zwingli early argued that “the Virgin should be called the Mother of God, Theotokos” (An Expos. of the Faith, LCC XXIV, p. 256), a view affirmed by Luther and uncontested by Calvin (Inst. 2.14.4; BOC, p. 595). Barth regarded it as “a test of the proper understanding of the incarnation” that “we do not reject the description of Mary as the ‘mother of God’ ” (Barth CD I/2, p. 138).
Calling Mary the Theotokos impresses upon our minds the distinct honor given to Mary and the vital role that God allowed her to play in his plan of redemption. Truly, Mary was blessed among women. We should be counted among the generations that recognize and celebrate this fact (Luke 1:48). Throughout Christian history, this honor bestowed on Mary and on her motherhood has been an inspiration for Christian women.
The Theotokos and the Equality of Women
First, God honored all women by coming into this world through a woman. Augustine pointed out that both sexes were honored in the incarnation: the Son of God became male, but he was born of a female: “That dispensation did honor to both sexes male and female, and showed that both had a part in God’s care; not only that which he assumed, but that also through which he assumed it, being a man born of a woman” (On Faith and the Creed 9). We are struck by the dignity of manhood when we consider that God became a man. But we are equally struck by the dignity of womanhood when we remember that this God-man nursed at the breast of a woman. Methodius of Olympus eulogized Mary as “the mother of the Creator; the nurse of the Nourisher” (Oration on Simeon and Anna 10).
That God would come into the world for our salvation through a woman is perhaps the greatest proof of the equality of women and the dignity of motherhood.
Recall that in the beginning, Eve was brought forth from Adam’s side, created from his rib. This has been misused by some to suggest that women are inferior to men. It’s the stuff of many jokes. Matthew Henry had a clever way to warn men against misusing this verse: “the woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.”
The more important point, however, is that in these last days, Jesus Christ, the new Adam, was brought forth from a woman. In the beginning, Eve came from Adam’s side; in the fullness of time, Christ came from Mary’s womb. The first Eve came from the first Adam; the new Adam (Christ) came from the new Eve (Mary). This is the supreme example of what 1 Corinthians 11:12 uses to ground the equality of men and women: “in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman” (1 Cor. 11:12).
When we look at Mary, the God-bearer, we are reminded that God has honored the entire female sex. By choosing a woman as a temple for his Son, he honored womanhood. From the moment that God entered into this world through a woman, he lifted women up. He continued to do so throughout his earthly ministry, choosing women as the first witnesses of his resurrection—a great honor, since women were considered unreliable witnesses in the ancient world. The church, too, should honor and lift up women as equals.
The Theotokos and the Dignity of Motherhood
Second, God honored motherhood by accomplishing our salvation through childbearing. After Satan deceived Eve, God promised that Satan would be crushed through Eve’s seed or offspring (Gen. 3:15). But since God alone can save, the promised seed was none other than the Son of God made man. For us and for our salvation, the one who was born of the Father before all words was born in time by the virgin Mary. Being compassionate towards our sorry condition, the one who had God for his Father took Mary to be his mother.
Being compassionate towards our sorry condition, the one who had God for his Father took Mary to be his mother.
There is a painting of Eve and Mary that makes it rounds during Christmas time. Eve has an apple in one hand and the serpent’s tail wrapped around her leg. Her cheeks are bright red with shame. But Eve’s other hand is on Mary’s pregnant stomach, and her eyes look longingly towards the promised seed in Mary’s womb. Under Mary’s foot is the serpent’s head. If Paul can say to the Church, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom. 16:20), surely we can acknowledge Mary’s important role as the God-bearer, the ark who carries the serpent-crushing seed of Genesis 3:15.
In “The Seed of Woman: Mary Among the Protestants,” evangelical theologians Matthew Emerson and Luke Stamps point out that Mary plays a role in fulfilling the Skull-Crushing People of God typology in the Old Testament. The OT records
God’s people crushing the skulls of their enemies. Sometimes these are men (e.g. David in 1 Samuel 17), but other times they are women (e.g. Jael in Judges 4). In the latter cases, it is particularly evocative that it is a woman who does the crushing, as Israel is waiting on the Seed of woman to do that for all of God’s creatures. Of course, all of these are types, who only find the antitype in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Mary is not the antitype here, but she is participating in the type – and she knows it (Luke 1:51–52)!
In 1 Timothy 2:13–15, we read, “Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing.” While this verse’s meaning is debated, one compelling option is that although Eve had a unique role in bringing sin into the world, she also had a unique role in sin’s defeat through Mary. Mary obeyed God and the serpent-crusher was brought forth, undoing the disobedience of Eve. “Under God’s sovereignty, Mary’s obedient response was a means by which God-in-Christ accomplished redemption” (emphasis original). It is in this sense that, as Irenaeus wrote, “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith” (AH 3.22.4).
On Mother’s Day, our confession that Mary is the Mother of God reminds us of the equality of women and the dignity of motherhood. The Church should lift up women, and women in the Church should find encouragement in remembering the Theotokos.