On the Title “Mother of God” / Theotokos (vs. Steve Hays)

On the Title “Mother of God” / Theotokos (vs. Steve Hays) May 14, 2020

Steve Hays of Tribalblogue is an anti-Catholic polemicist and sophist. I’ll be responding to the relevant portions of Steve’s article, “Theotokos” (12-19-17, Tribalblogue). His words will be in blue.


Because “mother of God” is equivocal, Catholics use that as a wedge issue. They try to get evangelicals to agree on an orthodox sense of the title, swap that out and swap in a different meaning, then use their bait-n-switch to promote their legendary Marian dogmas.

. . . we should reject equivocal usage, where the evangelical side means one thing, the Catholic side means something else, and the Catholic side substitutes their meaning for our meaning, as if we made a substantive concession.

This also goes to the tactical blunder of letting your opponent define the terms of debate. That rigs the outcome in his favor.

Nonsense. Rather, the situation is that many Protestants absurdly misunderstand what we mean by “Mother of God” or Theotokos (literally, “God-bearer”): even though much of historical Protestantism (e.g., Luther, Calvin, Lutheranism, Anglicanism) fully accepted the term (or if not the very term — as with Calvin — , the exact notion that it conveys) in the same sense that we do. But the ones who are ignorant of both historical theology and especially historical Marian theology then project their own confusion back onto our use of the term.

Thus, it is not our supposed equivocation that is the problem; it is their blissful ignorance and lack of comprehension of what may be somewhat subtle, but is not, alas, rocket science.

The confessional Lutheran Book of Concord (Epitome of the Formula of Concord), states:

10] 6. Hence we believe, teach, and confess that God is man and man is God, which could not be if the divine and human natures had in deed and truth absolutely no communion with one another.

11] For how could the man, the son of Mary, in truth be called or be God, or the Son of God the Most High, if His humanity were not personally united with the Son of God, and He thus had realiter, that is, in deed and truth, nothing in common with Him except only the name of God?

12] 7. Hence we believe, teach, and confess that Mary conceived and bore not a mere man and no more, but the true Son of God; therefore she also is rightly called and truly is the mother of God. (section VIII: “The Person of Christ”, from the year 1577)

As for Anglicans, consider the view of Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626). The Wikipedia article on him describes his importance within Anglicanism:

an English bishop and scholar, who held high positions in the Church of England during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. During the latter’s reign, Andrewes served successively as Bishop of Chichester, of Ely, and of Winchester and oversaw the translation of the King James Version of the Bible (or Authorized Version). . . .

As a churchman he was typically Anglican, equally removed from the Puritan and the Roman positions. . . .

Andrewes was considered, next to Ussher, to be the most learned churchman of his day, and enjoyed a great reputation as an eloquent and impassioned preacher . . .

Andrewes wrote about Mother of God:

Neither are we unmindful to bless Thee, for the most holy, pure,
highly blessed, the Mother of God, Mary the eternal Virgin, with all the Saints:
Recommending ourselves and our whole life to Thee,
O Lord, our Christ and God:
For to Thee belongeth glory, honour, and worship. Amen.
For more on classical Anglicanism and Mother of God, see “Blessed Virgin: Mary and the Anglican Tradition,” by Dr Colin Podmore (2014). See also: “Evangelicals and the Mother of God” (First Things, February 2007), by Baptist Timothy George.
Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, understood the correct historical (and continuing Catholic) meaning:

She became the Mother of God, in which work so many and such great good things are bestowed on her as pass man’s understanding. For on this there follows all honor, all blessedness, and her unique place in the whole of mankind, among which she has no equal, namely, that she had a child by the Father in heaven, and such a Child . . . Hence men have crowded all her glory into a single word, calling her the Mother of God . . . None can say of her nor announce to her greater things, even though he had as many tongues as the earth possesses flowers and blades of grass: the sky, stars; and the sea, grains of sand. It needs to be pondered in the heart what it means to be the Mother of God. (Commentary on the Magnificat, 1521; Luther’s Works [LW], Vol. XXI, 326)

A guy of Steve’s anti-Catholic mentality and many other Protestants might say, “but that was early Luther, when he had barely extricated himself from the clutches of Holy Mother Rome.” Very well, then, here are four more quotations from 1539: just seven years before he died:

[S]he is rightly called not only the mother of the man, but also the Mother of God. . . . it is certain that Mary is the Mother of the real and true God. (Sermon on John 14:16, 1539, LW, Vol. XXIV, 107)

We, too, know very well that Christ did not derive his deity from Mary; but it does not follow that it must, therefore, be false to say, “God was born of Mary” and “God is Mary’s Son” and “Mary is God’s mother.” (On the Councils and the Church, 1539; Works of Martin Luther [PE], edited and translated by C. M. Jacobs and A. T. W. Steinhaeuser et al; Philadelphia: A.J. Holman Co. and the Castle Press, 1930, six volumes; also reprinted by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1982; Vol. V, 218)

He [Nestorius] admits that Christ is God and man in one Person; but since His deity does not come from His mother, Mary, she ought not to be called the mother of God. This was rightly condemned in the council, and ought to be condemned. (Ibid., PE, Vol. V, 219)

Mary is the true, natural mother of the child called Jesus Christ, and the true mother and bearer of God . . . Mary suckled God, rocked God, made broth and soup for God. For God and man are one Person, one Christ, one Son, one Jesus, not two persons . . . just as your son is not two sons . . . even though he has two natures, body and soul, — body from you, soul from God alone.  (Ibid., PE, Vol. V, 220)

John Calvin concurred:

She [Elizabeth] calls Mary the mother of her Lord. This denotes a unity of person in the two natures of Christ; as if she had said, that he who was begotten a mortal man in the womb of Mary is, at the same time, the eternal God.  (Harmony of the Synoptic Gospelscomment under Luke 1:43Calvini Operaibid., vol. 45, 35)

In his standard biography, Zwingli (Cambridge University Press, 1976, p. ), G. R. Potter observed about this important early Protestant leader (p. 89, footnote 5): “he insisted upon the certainty of the perpetual virginity of the mother of God.”

Early Protestant “reformer” Heinrich Bullinger was also of like mind:

The Virgin Mary . . . completely sanctified by the grace and blood of her only Son and abundantly endowed by the gift of the Holy Spirit and preferred to all . . . now lives happily with Christ in heaven and is called and remains ever-Virgin and Mother of God. (from: Hilda Graef, Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion, combined edition of volumes 1 and 2, London: Sheed & Ward, 1965, vol. 2: 14-15)

All of these men understand the term (or concept in Calvin’s case, since he avoided the title itself) in exactly the same sense as Catholics do.

ii) The Theotokos is a half-truth. As such, it can be misleading, and Catholic apologists exploit that. There’s nothing wrong with avoiding formulations that are half-truths.
Theotokos, while having a grain of truth, is far from strictly accurate. For one thing, the Trinity is God, but Mary isn’t the birth-mother of the Trinity.
No one (who knows anything about historical orthodox Christian theology and specifically Mariology and Christology at all) is saying that Mary is the “birth-mother of the Trinity”: which is as asinine and blasphemous as it is ignorant. The very term Theotokos means literally “God-bearer” (i.e., one who gives birth to God”). Only one person of the Trinity was born of a human being: Jesus Christ the God-Man / God incarnate. No eminent Catholic or Orthodox in the history of the Church (in agreement with the majority of Protestant founders and thinkers) ever said otherwise.
Likewise, what Mary actually bore was the body of Jesus, which is in union his rational soul, while his body and soul are in union with the Son. But that’s two steps removing from giving birth to God. 
To be theologically orthodox requires precision thought and precision formulations, not equivocations and half-truths. 
This is precisely the Nestorian heresy of Christotokos which was condemned by the Council of Ephesus in 431. Yet here is Steve Hays spouting it in the year 2017, and being so ignorant that he’s not even aware of how heretical and blasphemous this is. This is so stupid it’s almost as if he is deliberately engaging in parody or engaging in a ruse, just to see if he can get away with it, for fun.

Holy Scripture teaches that:

1) Jesus is God (many many biblical proofs).

2) Mary is His true mother (Is 7:14; Matt 1:16, 18; 2:11, 13, 20; 12:46; Lk 1:31, 35, 43; Jn 1:15; 2:1; Gal 4:4).

Ergo, “Mary is the Mother of God” [the Son].

James Cardinal Gibbons explains the doctrine of Theotokos very well (roundly refuting Hays’ outrageous claim above):

We affirm that the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Word of God, who in His divine nature is from all eternity begotten of the Father, consubstantial with Him, was in the fullness of time again begotten, by being born of the Virgin, thus taking to Himself, from her maternal womb, a human nature of the same substance with hers.

But it may be said the Blessed Virgin is not the Mother of the Divinity. She had not, and she could not have, any part in the generation of the Word of God, for that generation is eternal; her maternity is temporal. He is her Creator; she is His creature. Style her, if you will, the Mother of the man Jesus or even of the human nature of the Son of God, but not the Mother of God.

I shall answer this objection by putting a question. Did the mother who bore us have any part in the production of our soul? Was not this nobler part of our being the work of God alone? And yet who would for a moment dream of saying “the mother of my body,” and not “my mother?” . . . . .

In like manner, . . . the Blessed Virgin, under the overshadowing of the Holy Ghost, by communicating to the Second Person of the Adorable Trinity, as mothers do, a true human nature of the same substance with her own, is thereby really and truly His Mother.

It is in this sense that the title Mother of God, denied by Nestorius, was vindicated to her by the General Council of Ephesus, in 431; in this sense, and in no other, has the Church called her by that title.

Hence, by immediate and necessary consequence, follow her surpassing dignity and excellence. (The Faith of Our Fathers, New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, revised edition, 1917, 137-138)

iii) Likewise, a formulation that’s innocent in one context may be imprudent in another. There are perfectly innocent, acceptable theological formulations of the Incarnation or Trinity use with Christians in a popular context that I wouldn’t use in philosophical theology or that I wouldn’t use when debating a unitarian.

The Christian Church throughout history has always devised orthodox formulae and exacting expressions of true theological doctrines. This is one of them, from an ecumenical council. There is nothing “imprudent” about it at all. Steve is simply descending to his usual sophistry and obscurantism: missing the forest for the trees, as he almost always does.

iv) There’s no obligation to use invented Marian titles. Sure, we can and should use extrabiblical terminology for various things, but I reserve the right to choose which extrabiblical terms I use. That can’t be foisted on me by someone with their own agenda.

He’s free to reject classical theological formulations, accepted by Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, many Anglicans and other Protestants, Martin Luther, Zwingli, Bullinger, etc. But if he wants to do so, he needs to be intellectually honest about being in a tiny heterodox minority among the various portions of historic Christianity.

v) you’re allowing Catholics to frame the debate. And it gets off track, because it becomes a debate over Mary rather than Jesus. A strategic shift in focus. We don’t need to start with Mary to expound NT Christology: we can go straight to what-all the NT has to say about Jesus, which is abundant. Any discussion of Mary can and should be secondary to the direct, primary NT evidence regarding the nature of the Incarnation.

Not really. This was the decree and understanding of the early, united universal Christian Church: some 600 years before Catholicism and Orthodoxy split and 1100 or so before the tragic schism of the so-called “Reformation.” That’s why even Luther, Zwingli, Bullinger, many early Anglicans, the Lutheran confessions, and [in concept] even John Calvin agreed with it. Theotokos is primarily about Jesus Christ. It was declared precisely to safeguard the incarnation and belief that Jesus was God in the flesh (hence, Mary as His mother is the mother of God [the Son]). The Nestorianism that it was intended to counter was a Christological heresy, not a Marian heresy.

We don’t need to go through Mariology to arrive at Christology. The NT has little to say about Mary but tons to say about Jesus, unsurprisingly.

Exactly! That’s why we always observe that he relatively little Mariology in the NT was directly about Jesus Christ. That was God’s intention. As a result (for the very same reason), most of the Marian doctrines developed far more after the period of the writing of Scripture (first century). That follows from what Steve just asserted (with which we agree), yet he wants to have it both ways: have his cake and eat it, too.

After asserting that the NT is overwhelmingly focused on Christ our Lord, he would no doubt complain that the Marian doctrines were late to develop, and make out that this is somehow indicative of their falsity: even though trinitarian doctrine also developed through history up till at least the 7th century, when major, influential Christological heresies like monophysitism and monothelitism (after the earlier heresies of Arianism and Sabellianism were pretty much vanquished) were still being fought and refuted by orthodox churchmen.

It’s double standards and historical blindness all the way with this sort of anti-Catholic nonsense.


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Photo credit: Madonna with child (1899), by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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