Where Does Mary Fit in Orthodoxy?

You have, or perhaps “They had,” three options: Mary gave birth to the human Jesus (but not to the eternal, divine Logos), or Mary gave birth to the Christ (not to God, but to Christ, who was both human and divine), or Mary gave birth to God (Jesus was divine). The first view is called Anthropotokos, the second Christotokos, and the third (orthodox view) Theotokos. (A long “o” in the -kos ending.)

The issue is discussed in Ron Heine, Classical Christian Doctrine: Introducing the Essentials of the Ancient Faith. His sketches of the signal issues in orthodox development is admirable, lucid, and deserving of a place on the shelf of student and pastor libraries.

The debate occurred between Nestorius, up in Antioch, who was a Christotokos and who (allegedly) had a more tangential and non-ontological relation between the divine and human in Christ, and Cyril of Alexandria, who was adamant that Mary gave birth to the Son of God, and that Son was divine and therefore she was the Theotokos. Anything less is less than orthodoxy. Now we must remember that the Incarnation figures prominently in early Christian theology; it is diminished very much in much of modern evangelical thinking (mostly because it does not figure in how theology is done by many). If true God did not become true man, God or man could not have been adequately represented in the work of Christ.

In essence, Nestorius sees no mixture in the human and divine nature of Christ; in essence, Cyril says they intermingle. For Nestorius the human nature of Christ lived, died, suffered and was buried and raised; the Logos is above that. Remember, in essence for many ancients God could not suffer (Moltmann completely rejects this notion, as many of you know). Many then thought Nestorius believed in two Sons — the human and the divine Sons. He believe in two separable natures but one person (prosopon).

Cyril said there was one being, fully God and fully human. The body of the baby Jesus was the Logos. There was a perfect harmony of divine and human without mixture into a third substance. Like Athanasius he thought the Logos shared in the death and suffering, but the Logos did not die. So intimately joined they communicated their essences with one another. The two natures are not mixed and inseparable. One person, one substance, two natures. That’s Chalcedon. That’s orthodoxy.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Marcus Eiland

    I thought this article was going to help me understand the Catholic view of Mary and how Protestants should properly understand her place in orthodoxy!

  • Rick

    Scot’s book, The Real Mary, should be able to help with that.

  • Alvin Kimel

    The title misled me, too. I thought it was going to talk about the place of the Blessed Virgin in the Eastern Orthodox Church. :) But it wasn’t about Mary at all but rather about the Incarnation and the identity of the son she bore. Of course, she wouldn’t be Theotokos is her son was not the divine Son.

  • RtRDH

    Agreed with all the commenters before me. Where was Mary in this post?

  • scotmcknight

    Well, she’s the mother either of God or not. So, she’s all over the place in the post.

  • scotmcknight

    Marcus, the Catholic view is the Protestant view here if Prots embrace Chalcedon.

  • attytjj466

    I guess what strikes me most when you start to get into the weeds of the incarnation is that to get to these formulations one must go beyond what the NT text explicitly tells us. There must be a theological leap or several leaps perhaps. And there remain difficult (seemingly) contraditions. I adhere to the orthodox view but very humbly and with the caveat: at the end of the day the incarnation is a mystery and a paradox.


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