During the first centuries of the church the greatest theological controversy sought to answer the question, “How is Jesus of Nazareth God?” A full discussion of the Christological developments can fill a library with books. I want to briefly address only one issue – the significance of Theotokos, which says that Mary is “God-bearer.” I remember this discussion in my theology class in seminary. Our professor insisted that Theotokos was improper and it is better to think of Mary as “mother of our Lord.” I must challenge that statement and affirm Mary as Theotokos.
Those who haven’t pitched 1500-2000 years of church history in order to make them feel singular about themselves know that one of the ways Nestorius propounded his broad-based dualism of the divine/human nature of Jesus Christ was to object to Mary being referred to as Theotokos, or Mother of God. Nestorius was shown the door over this, although churches which followed his idea flourished for many centuries from Iran to China.
The church’s apprehension about Nestorian dualism were justified. If we really believe that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh, that he is both human and divine, and that he is not spiritually schizophrenic, then we must proclaim that Mary is indeed the Mother of God, whether we believe that devotions to her are proper or not. This is true whether we are Chalcedonian or not.
Daniel Tomberlin, who wrote the quote cited above, has a more seminary proper explanation without naming the usual suspects:
During the Christological debates of the 3rd and 4th centuries the many controversies can be expressed in two words – Theotokos or Christotokos. Is Mary the mother of the Christ, or is Mary the mother of God? If Mary is Christotokos, the mother of the Christ, then when did Jesus become Christ? Maybe, Jesus was not God incarnate, but was later adopted or anointed as the son of God. If so, then Jesus is not of the same divine essence of the Father. To suggest that Mary is “mother of our Lord” falls into the same theological trap – that Jesus may not be the eternal Son. Christotokos cannot fully express the meaning of Jesus Christ. Mary is Theotokos – the mother of God. Theotokos affirms the fully divinity of Christ, that Jesus, the son of Mary, is of the same essence with the Father and Holy Spirit; that Jesus Christ is the union of eternal divinity and humanity. The union of God and human took place in the womb of the Virgin.
For those who are wondering what relevance this has in a day when the main focus seems to be on attendance and income, it can be shown that Islam is, in many ways, Nestorianism taken to its logical conclusion. The Qur’an is a document that shows a serious relationship with Nestorian concepts. This is especially true with Jesus Christ; Nestorius’ neat separation of Jesus’ human and divine natures ends up with Jesus losing the latter (sort of) in the pages of the Qur’an. A long running objection to Nestorianism is that it leads back to the complete denial of the divinity of Christ; Islam is the fulfilment of that objection.
That, of course, exposes one of the key weaknesses of Islam from a theological standpoint. It’s something I beat to death in My Lord and My God, but ultimately there is a great gap between an uncreated God and his creation. There must be something to connect the two. For Christians, the incarnate Christ is the ultimate connection, the connection that gives us a way back to God. With Islam, there is no such connection, thus there is no apparent rationale why or how God would care or interact with us.
Those who would emulate Nestorius in order to combat Marian devotions, as Nestorius did, are taking Christianity in a direction that we (and they) really don’t want to go. Can we excise this kind of thinking? If Allah wills it…