I was a little mystified. I had just entered the Orthodox Church for the first time, and then I heard this term Theotokos being applied to Mary, the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ. It took me some time to sort out just what the Orthodox mean by Theotokos. Let’s unpack just what’s going on here. Perhaps we can get a little “de-mystified” together!
When the Eternal Word of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity took up residence “in the inner sanctuary” of Mary’s body, He transformed Mary’s womb into a “most holy place”. In the Person of Jesus Christ there is now an indestructible meeting place—or joining together—of our fallen race and the Holy God Who created us.
In John 14:8, 9, Philip makes a very important request to Jesus: “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus’ response was to say: “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’” Because of the Incarnation, we may now look at Jesus Christ and see the Godhead for ourselves.
For this reason, the Church, through centuries of liturgical, theological, and historical development, has staunchly defended the title Theotokos as being appropriate for Mary. Theotokos—from the words Theos, which is Greek for “God”, and tokos, which is Greek for a “bringing forth” or a “birth-giver”. The most common English translation for the word Theotokos is “Mother of God”, but it would be more accurate to translate it as “Birthgiver of God”. The term is not so much about Mary as it is about Jesus. The title is not concerned with the honour of the mother, but is safeguarding the true nature of the Son.
The Word of God took up His dwelling in the Theotokos in an inexpressible manner and proceeded from her, bearing flesh... this transcends nature and (as a result) she was also rightly glorified and exalted together with her Son, Our Lord.
(Saint Gregory Palamas, A.D. 1296-1359, Greek Theologian and main teacher of Hesychasm).
The History of the Name “Theotokos”
The term has not been without controversy in the life of the Church. When Nestorius was the Patriarch of Constantinople (428-31), despite being a zealous and articulate teacher of doctrine, he misled the flock of Christ with a different teaching than that received in Scripture and liturgy.
Nestorius developed an innovative theory about the person of Christ: that it is better to speak of Him as having two persons than one. One person, he contended, is the man who was born, suffered, and died; the other person is the divine Logos, eternal and unbegotten. One person is begotten of the mother; the other of the Father. Nestorius suggested changing the prayers of the Eucharist to reflect that belief. Change the liturgy, he proposed, to speak of Mary not as Theotokos (birthgiver of God), but only as Christotokos (birthgiver of Christ), because “she gave birth not to Christ as God but only to Christ as man”.
The Council of Ephesus was called by the Emperor Theodosius II, in 431 AD, to sort out the disagreements over this new teaching and it was attended by 200 bishops. The leader of the anti-Nestorian party, Cyril of Alexandria, was not very tactful or patient with his opponents and antagonized many—including the Emperor. The third Ecumenical Council was a tragic affair, but eventually the “mind” of the Church accepted its decisions as having adequately articulated the Apostolic faith: Jesus Christ, while being both God and man, is one Person.
The radical distinction between the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ, implied by Nestorius, was seen to be a distortion of the Gospel. The Council decreed that the humanity and Divinity were complete in Christ. The Virgin Mary gave birth to a divine human Who was God before eternity and became flesh “at the fullness of time” (Titus 1:3). The unity of the person of Christ was not formed after His birth but was knitted in the womb. Christ was the truly human son of a human mother and the truly divine Son of the eternal Father, in one person. Christ is one person in two natures. It is crucial to the proper idea of the incarnation that the eternal Word of God is born of Mary as one person, not two.
In harmony with the traditional teaching about the incarnation, therefore, the Virgin is correctly addressed as Theotokos.
Patriarch Nestorius was condemned and deposed at the Council. His teaching was declared to be a heresy and is known as Nestorianism(1).
Through the agonies of the Nestorian controversy, the ecumenical body of Christ came to a clearer understanding of the incarnate Lord, which has remained unchanged until today.
Venerating the Theotokos
In Eastern Christian worship Mary is venerated as Ever-Virgin and as sinless, as “more honoured than the Cherubim, and more glorious than the Seraphim”. If Jesus represents the ultimate descent of God into human life, Mary is the supreme moment in the ascent of humanity to meet God. “I am the servant of the Lord”, Mary said to the angel Gabriel, “let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Mary’s submission to God’s will enabled divinity to partake of humanity in her, and also made it possible for humanity to participate in divinity.
Greater in honour than the Cherubim and beyond compare, more glorious than the Seraphim, without spot of sin, you gave birth to God the Word; truly the Theotokos, we magnify you.
Like Mary, we will always be creatures, as another of her titles, the New Eve(2), emphasises. However, also like her, by grace, we will be able to share in the divine life that Christ lives with the Father in the Holy Spirit. This transfiguring of the human by immersion in the divine is salvation and has been made possible only by Mary’s “Yes!” to God.
Mary is Theotokos, the Birthgiver of God—the God Who has always existed. Jesus did not start being God when he was born of Mary; He was God from before all eternity. The child Mary bore was God Himself.
Every Orthodox chapel contains icons of the Virgin holding the infant Christ in her arms as a visible confirmation of the ancient doctrine proclaimed at the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus.
What shall we call you, O Lady? With what words will we salute you? With what praises shall we crown your glorious head, you who are the provider of all good things, the giver of riches, the ornament of the human race, the pride of all creation, through whom creation was made happy.
(St. John of Damascus, A.D. 675-749, Greek Theologian and Doctor of the Church)
It has been said that the term Theotokos contains in a single word the entire theology of Christ’s person.
1 St. Cyril (Patriarch of Alexandria - died A.D. 444) said that Nestorius was condemned because he denied the union of the two natures of Christ, thereby producing two sons. Cyril clearly teaches us that Nestorius was not condemned because he said two natures, but because he denied the union of the two natures, thereby (and here is Nestorius’ error and heresy) producing two sons.
2 In 1 Corinthians 15:45, Saint Paul writes, “Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” Saint Paul gives Jesus the title, the last Adam, the One Who brought redemption to a world enslaved by sin because of the actions of the first humans, Adam (the first man Adam) and Eve (the first woman Eve). But Jesus could not have brought redemption to the world without Mary consenting to be the Theotokos, the Birthgiver of the Redeemer. So in the Orthodox Church, one of her titles is The New Eve.