Marian Reflections II: Mother of God (Part II)

Marian Reflections II: Mother of God (Part II) February 21, 2016
Coptic Icon of the Theotokos, Photograph by Henry Karlson
Coptic Icon of the Theotokos, Photograph by Henry Karlson

Some might agree with what I have said in Part I about Jesus, that he is God who came in the flesh to be with us, but deny the logical consequent of that teaching, that is, deny saying Mary is the Mother of God. Why? God, they say, is not created. Therefore, God can have no mother.

Since being a mother is tied with giving birth, the confusion here centers on the distinction between being born and being created. While the two concepts usually go together, and do go together in our normal conventional experience of birth,[1] they do not have to be put together in this fashion. Indeed, when talking about Jesus, we do not only say he is God, but we say he is a particular person of the Trinity, God the Son, begotten of the Father. Talk about the Son being begotten of the Father, if understood improperly, would seem to suggest that he is a created person, but this is exactly what is denied by orthodox theology.[2] And yet the convention was misunderstood. Arians, seeing that Jesus is God the Son and begotten, came to the conclusion that Jesus was a created being because he was born. Those who deny Mary as being the Mother of God follow with the Arians in confusing the implication and meaning behind generation and birth. By necessitating that being begotten is the same thing as being created, they must conclude that Jesus, the only begotten Son of the Father, is a created being (and so reject his divinity, not just because he was born of Mary, but because he was begotten of the Father).

The orthodox theological response to the Arians required an explanation as to how creation implies contingency while begetting implies relationship, which may be contingent (for us, in our birth) or essential (for the Godhead). God the Father is eternal and unchanging. If God the Father is to be a Father, he must be the Father from all eternity, therefore, begetting the Son of his own substance in all eternity. This, moreover, leads to the conclusion that the Son is eternal and uncreated, despite being begotten. It is in this fashion St. Athanasius explained why Scripture talks about God making created beings, but only the Son is said to be begotten of the Father: generation does not imply creation, nor does creation imply generation, the two are differing (but often interconnected) concepts; if we do not properly distinguish the two, we will come to absurd conclusions, such as saying the world and what is in it is begotten of the Father (making Jesus, the Son, no longer the only-begotten son of the Father).[3]

Denial that Mary is the Mother of God is therefore the result of a misunderstanding of the issue of begetting, which in relation to her is a confusion of what motherhood is and what it is not. To be a mother is to give birth, and to give birth is to give birth to a particular person (for it is a person who is in the womb and not a mere lump of flesh, even when the flesh is unformed because the soul is with the flesh, forming it, making its own habitation). The person given birth by Mary was Jesus, and he is, as we have said, God. He was born of her also as a man, and this was possible because he assumed human nature and through it possessed everything that a human would have.[4] In time, the humanity of Jesus is created, even if the divinity of Jesus remains unchanged and uncreated. Being born in time, the divine person remains divine. Being born of Mary must not be seen as any indication that she created the divine person of the Son of God even as God the Father begetting the Son in eternity does not indicate the Father created the Son. The Son is born in eternity and is born again through his humanity. He has two births, neither of which indicates a time in which the divine Son was not. Being born, through the assumption of humanity, makes Mary, who gave birth to him, his mother not because she created the person, but because the person entered her womb and took on humanity in and through her flesh. She did not create God the Son: she gave birth to him.

The fact that Jesus came to die on the cross, and actually did die, can be used as proof that he was born: you have to be born to be able to die, without birth, there can be no death. The birth of Jesus demonstrates the reality of his humanity, and with it, the reality of his death on the cross can be affirmed. Denial of that humanity, denial of that birth, is a denial of the cross, even as a denial of the cross, a denial of the reality of his death, would also lead to a denial of his humanity. His flesh is real, his humanity is real, and so he had a real birth and a real death, contrary to any Gnostic theory which would suggest his humanity was illusory. This is exactly how St Ephrem the Syrian connected these points together: “His birth from the Father is not to be investigated; rather, it is to be believed. And His birth from a woman is not offensive; it is noble! His death on a cross is evidence of His birth from a woman, for whoever dies was also born.”[5]

Jesus, being the eternal Son of the Father, is begotten outside of time and in eternity, but by assuming human nature, he is also born in time. His two natures indicate his singular person has two births: one outside of time, which transcends human understanding, and one within time which requires him to have a mother. It is a denial of his humanity to deny the maternity of Mary. This is why St. Cyril of Alexandria became frustrated with those who denied Mary’s place as being the mother of God, for in doing so, they denied the personal integrity of Jesus Christ, making two different lords, one human and one divine, instead of the one Lord of the Christian faith (cf. Eph. 4:5):

What then does ‘manifested in the flesh’ mean? It means that the Word of God the Father became flesh, not by a change or alteration of his own nature, as we have already said, but because having made the flesh taken from the holy Virgin his own, one and the same subject is called Son, before the Incarnation as the Word still incorporeal and after the Incarnation as the same Word now embodied. This is why we say that the same subject is simultaneously both God and man, not dividing him conceptually into a human being with a separate individual identity and God the Word also with a separate identity, that we may exclude any idea of two Sons, but acknowledging that one and the same subject is Christ and Son and Lord.[6]

More to Come On This Series Next Weekend


 

[1] Because, we are contingent beings, and our birth is the end result of a process by which we are created, we often connect the two together, so that we normally think of being born as being created. It is a convention which we are used to, but yet, it is not a necessary one. This attempt to absolutize the convention, as we shall see, has had caused several problems in the development of authentic Christology.

[2] See Luke 1:35; John 3:16; John 10:30; John 17:5; Heb. 1:8; 1 John 5:20; et. al., for not only a presentation of a personal distinction between the Father and the Son found in Scripture, but also the fact that the Son is said to be begotten of the Father.

[3] We find this pointed presented in length in St. Athanasius’ Second Discourse Against the Arians, where he explored the way Scripture distinguished begetting from the act of creation, and why those things made by God are not stated to be begotten by him. He begun this exegesis with the following:

“For had He been a creature, He had not said, He begets Me, for the creatures are from without, and are works of the Maker; but the Offspring is not from without nor a work, but from the Father, and proper to His Substance. Wherefore they are creatures; this God’s Word and Only-begotten Son. For instance, Moses did not say of the creation, ‘In the beginning He begat,’ nor ‘In the beginning was,’ but ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.’ Nor did David say in the Psalm, ‘Thy hands have “begotten me,”’ but ‘made me and fashioned me, ‘every where applying the word ‘made’ to the creatures. But to the Son contrariwise; for he has not said ‘I made,’ but I begat and He begets Me, and My heart has burst with a good Word. And in the instance of the creation,’ In the beginning He made;’ but in the instance of the Son, ‘In the beginning was the Word,’” St. Athanasius, Discourses Against the Arians II in NPNF2(4):379.

After exploring this concern further, Athanasius concluded: “Thus does divine Scripture recognise the difference between the Offspring and things made, and shew that the Offspring is a Son, not begun from any beginning, but eternal; but that the thing made, as an external work of the Maker, began to come into being,” ibid., 380.

[4] Such as having a mind, a body, a soul, and a will.

[5] St. Ephrem the Syrian, “Homily on Our Lord,” in St. Ephrem the Syrian: Selected Prose Works. trans. Edward G. Matthews, Jr. and Joseph P. Amar (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1994), 276.

[6] St. Cyril of Alexandria, “An Explanation of the Twelve Chapters” in Cyril of Alexandria. trans. Norman Russell (London: Routledge, 2000), 179-80.

 

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