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“Bearer(s)” of God

1/2/2003 - 8:25 AM PST

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© Third Millennium, LLC
By: Deacon Keith A Fournier

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“Men have crowded all her glory into a single phrase: The Mother of God. No one can say anything greater of her, though he had as many tongues as there are leaves on the trees." Martin Luther, From the Commentary on the Magnificat.

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From antiquity, Mary has been called “Theotokos”, or “God-Bearer” (Mother of God). It is a relatively recent phenomenon among some Christians, that this term has become controversial. Yet, particularly since the Protestant reformation –it has.

As we conclude, we will examine one of the most controversial aspects of Mary, the very title that has so long divided many Christians and perhaps prevented the full appreciation for the gift that she was meant to be for the whole church and for the world. That is the use of the Greek word “Theotokos” in reference to her. The word literally means, “Bearer(s) of God”.

Though used as part of the popular piety of the early first millennium church, the word became a stress point in dealing with early threats to orthodoxy or maintaining authentic doctrine.

A pronouncement of an early Church Council (The Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D.) still echoes as a point of division and a source of heated discussion and long festering animosity within the Christian community, particularly since the Protestant Reformation.

“… If anyone does not confess that God is truly Emmanuel, and that on this account the holy virgin is the “Theotokos” (for according to the flesh she gave birth to the word of God become flesh by birth) let him be anathema.” The Council of Ephesus, 431 AD,

I believe that this division over Mary should not continue.

First, the historical reason for the Council’s insistence on the appropriateness of the use of the term reflected a well intended effort to preserve the teaching of the Christian church that Jesus was both Divine and human and that those two natures were one in Him. Not only was that teaching under an assault then but it is now. This teaching lies at the very heart of the Christian claim of the Incarnation and still must be protected as the unique distinctive of Christianity.

It is precisely this kind of challenge to the possibility that divinity and humanity can “mix” that led to the pronouncement at the Church Council in 431 A.D. The leaders of that council made it clear. Mary was “Theotokos.” She is not divine. She is absolutely and fully human. However, she was the mother of Jesus Christ, the One in whom heaven touched earth, the One in whom those two natures were combined.

The reason that the early Church Council pronounced this doctrine was “Christological”, meaning that it had to do with Jesus Christ. It preserved a critical teaching about Jesus Christ—that He was truly God and truly man! No one has ever claimed that Mary gave birth to His Divinity, but rather that His human and divine nature could not be separated.

We should remember that this early Church Council was confronting a threat to “orthodoxy” or correct Christian doctrine. These threats came from the same sources we find engaged in the contemporary oppositions to faith. One of the leaders of this threat was a Bishop of Constantinople named Nestorius, who insisted on calling Mary only the “Mother of "the Christ””.

The Council insisted on the use of the title (in the Greek) of “Theotokos,” (“Mother of God” or “God-bearer”). This Greek term is still the favored title given to Mary by Eastern Christians who honor her in a special way in their worship of God and their practice of piety.

The action taken by the Council was also intended to reaffirm an important truth about the incarnation and its implications for every human person who is baptized into Jesus Christ. The Church knew then what she knows now. We need fully human examples. We need fully human models.

Mary is still such a model for anyone who would examine the extraordinary claim of the Christian Gospel and say “I am too human, this cannot apply to me”. Back then, we were not all that different. We doubted, we made wrong choices, we were tempted. We overate, we drank too much, we engaged in the illicit use of one another and lusted after material things… we were the same as we are now and we had a hard time believing we could be any different.

Continued disagreements concerning this term through Christian history have led to a diminution in the role of Mary in many Christian circles. Subsequent reaction and counter reactions made it all very complicated. A generalized suspicion concerning this humble virgin of Nazareth led to a near rejection of her unique role in many Christian circles.

This has impeded some from grasping a ...

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