Publications: Articles - Saints & Patristics
Mary Theotokos and the 3rd Ecumenical Council
Without doubt the month of August, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Not only do we celebrate the Dormition (or Falling Asleep) of the Theotokos, but there are Supplication Services which are held every day in the first two weeks of this month leading to the great feast as well as the designated period of fasting which the Church has prescribed. Indeed, even though the historical origins of the feast are vague, already before 500 AD, it was being celebrated on the 15 August. (1) Not only does this betray the great devotion attributed to the blessed mother personally by the faithful of the Church throughout the ages, but also the extent to which her person has infused Orthodox spirituality. To be sure, the mother of Jesus is held in such high esteem in the Orthodox Church that there are many titles which have been attributed to her, some of which are: the 'all-holy Mother', 'the ever-Virgin Mary', and of course the title 'Theotokos'. Furthermore, in the Orthodox Tradition, there are many icons of the blessed mother of Jesus where she is given titles such as: 'Mother, Praised by All', 'Mother who is Swift to Hear', 'Mother, Queen of All', 'Mother of Consolation', 'Mother of Tender Feeling', 'Life-Giving Fountain', 'Mother of Unexpected Joy', 'Surety of Sinners' and many more.
The reason for all these appellations to the Virgin Mary must not be misunderstood as worship towards this person, but rather is a testimony that, with her 'falling-asleep', Christ's mother already began to enjoy, as an accomplished fact, the final blessedness of the victorious Christ, something which all human persons anticipate in the final Parousia. That is, everything that is said and sung about the Virgin Mary is a sign of all that God has ultimately promised to all persons in the life of the Church. It is precisely for this reason that Archbishop Stylianos stated that each Christian is called to 'bring forth' the Word of God in their lives in a moral sense so as to become a kind of bearer of God. (2) Consequently, the profound extent of God's love made manifest already in the Virgin Mary at her assumption is a promise of the eternal blessedness awaiting all the faithful. For this reason, one could dare say that a faith in Jesus Christ which would exclude a love and veneration for His blessed mother would not only seem cold and incomplete but also devoid of an affective and an innately intuitive element since her example, utter humility, obedience and love are a source of inspiration and encouragement for all. Accordingly, it becomes clear that the Church''''s devotion to the Virgin Mary and its use of various titles to her, are not theologically unfounded or merely emotional and sentimental.
In spite of the above, however, which all point to the truth that she can rightly be considered a human icon of perfection because of her profound humility, what is of utmost importance is her role as Birth-giver – that is, her divine maternity. Indeed of all the titles attributed to the Virgin Mary, it is only the name 'Theotokos' which is a doctrinal definition for the Eastern Orthodox Church. Yet beyond its significance for an understanding of the person of Mary, it is also central for the faithful of the Church. Beyond the fact that she was the Mother of Christ our God (Theotokos) she is also the universal mother – the mother of all humankind. Consequently, this article will examine the events, which led the Church to apply formally the title, 'Theotokos' to the Virgin Mary in 431 AD. As we shall see, more importantly this term had soteriological importance for our understanding of the person of Christ.
Meaning and Importance of the term 'Theotokos'
Of the many titles attributed to the blessed Virgin, undoubtedly the most important is the title 'Theotokos'. The early Church in general and the fathers of what came to be called the Third Ecumenical Council understood this appellation as possessing a precise doctrinal significance for the person of Jesus Christ. Both before and after the council of 431AD, the title 'Theotokos' was seen as something central to the confession of the true faith in Jesus Christ. Etymologically speaking, the name, 'Theotokos' is a composite Greek word made up of the Greek words 'Theos' meaning God and the verb 'tikto' meaning 'to give birth to'. Therefore the title 'Theotokos' implies 'the one who gives birth to God'. And in so far as the Virgin Mary gave birth to the Son of God (the second Person of the Holy Trinity), she could be called God-bearer. The term was already in use for over two hundred years before it was officially sanctioned in 431 AD. It had previously been employed by Origen (3) in the 2nd century. In an even earlier statement, St Ignatius of Antioch had written: "Our God, Jesus Christ was conceived by Mary according to the economy." (4) In the fourth century, St Gregory the Theologian stated: "if anyone does not confess the Holy Virgin to be Theotokos, that person is estranged from God." (5) In the eighth century, St John of Damascus would say that the term 'Theotokos' expressed the whole mystery of God's saving dispensation. (6) It is clear that the Patristic tradition understood this appellation as possessing a precise Christological significance, which safeguarded the personal unity in Jesus Christ.
Historical and Theological Insights
The formal sanctioning of the term 'Theotokos' in the 3rd Ecumenical Council came about as a result of an extensive and complicated controversy which developed in the fifth century over the person and nature of Christ. This historical detail is important in that it shows that the committed attentiveness of the faithful of the Church to the term 'Theotokos' was fundamentally centred around its faith in Jesus Christ, the Son and Word of God. It is precisely for this reason that all Orthodox icons of the blessed mother normally always depict her son Jesus in her arms to show that the Church's affection towards the Virgin Mary is inextricably linked to its faith in Jesus Christ. Notwithstanding this iconographic detail, from a historical point of view, the conflict over the title 'Theotokos' arose between Nestorius and St Cyril of Alexandria – it was this which would finally be the cause for the convocation of the Third Ecumenical Council in 431 AD. Nestorius and St Cyril belonged to two differing schools of theology (the schools of Antioch and Alexandria respectively), which, in and of themselves were theologically valid, but when taken to their extreme could lead to heresy – something which Nestorius unfortunately did.
Nestorius belonged to the theological school of Antioch, which emphasised the historical Christ. In its biblical exegesis, the school of Antioch focused on giving literal explanations of Biblical passages and persisted on the fully human reality of Jesus. This, it did because, in the past it had to confront Apollinarius and his followers who had refused to uphold the full humanity of Christ (they had claimed that Christ did not possess a human soul) (7). However, the danger of the school of Antioch was that in its quest to stress the separateness of the divine and human natures of Christ it could invariably be led to undermine the unity of both these natures in the one person of Christ. And so, belonging to this school of thought, when Nestorius was enthroned as Patriarch of the Church in Constantinople in 428AD, he firstly sought to 'rid' the city of what he considered to be false teachings. Ironically, in this attempt, however it would be Nestorius, who would be condemned for heresy by the Church. The reason for this was his denunciation of the title 'Theotokos' for the mother of Jesus Christ and his support for other titles such as 'Anthropotokos' or 'Christotokos' at best. Indeed Nestorius openly supported one of his priests called Anastasios who preached a sermon on the Theotokos stating:
Let no one call Mary, Theotokos, for Mary was but a woman and it was impossible that God should be born of a woman. (8)
It was Nestorius' support of such comments, which caused such unrest in the entire Christian Empire that St Cyril of Alexandria would refer to this tendency as a 'scandal' of ecumenical (or universal) magnitude (oijkoumenikovn skavndalon).
Nestorius claimed that the 'only begotten Son and Word of God' did not only assume a human nature but also a human prosopon. This led to the suggestion that the divinity and humanity of Christ were to be conceived ultimately as two different persons. (9) That is to say, for Nestorius, Jesus was the man upon whom the Son of God (the Logos) subsequently joined himself. It is clear that he did not wish to identify Jesus Christ with the divine Logos of God. He believed that the Son of God 'assumed' and joined with the Son of Mary on an exterior level. And so, Nestorius falsely claimed that it was more correct to say that the Virgin Mary gave birth to a mere man called Christ and so His mother could be called 'Anthropotokos' (bearer of a human being) or at best 'Christotokos' (Christ bearer). Reflecting back on this, one could say that Nestorius' Christology was one-sided since, in so far as it emphasized the distinction between the divine and human elements to such an extent it failed to account for the unity of Christ. Like other Antiochenes, in underscoring the humanity of Jesus Christ, Nestorius found it difficult to explain the unity in the person of the Son of God. And so the Church had to respond so as to safeguard not only the natural distinction in Christ but also to uphold the personal unity.
When speaking of the connection between the Word of God and the man, Jesus, Nestorius preferred the term conjunction (sunavfeia) rather than union to avoid any suspicion of confusion or mixing the two natures. By this he meant, that the drawing together of the two natures, was not a physical necessity but was effected by the kenosis of the Godhead and the love and obedience of the man. Effectively, he would claim that Jesus Christ was a mere man who only progressively became god-like by a gradual process of intensification. Therefore, for Nestorius it was enough to speak of a moral 'unity' between Christ and the Logos which transpired as a result of Christ's obedience to the Son of God. Effectively Nestorius believed that Jesus Christ could not be identified with the eternal Son and Word of God but was, rather another person alongside the Logos. And so, in his Christology, he suggested that these two prosopa were merely externally and voluntarily conjoined.
Nestorius went on to say that the two distinct natures, each with its own prosopon came together to form one prosopon of unity. For him, however, the term 'one person of unity' simply indicated the outward appearance of Jesus Christ who still had two natures and two prosopa – i.e. the Son of God and the Son of David were two distinct personal subjects. Thus Nestorius would say:
Son of God, eternal; Son of Man died. Christ, though eternal, died. One should therefore not say that God was born of the Virgin Mary, because this is to attribute a human activity to the divinity. One should say more properly, that Christ, the prosopon of unity was born of the Virgin (Christotokos).(10)
Nestorius' belief was contrary to the faith of the Church since, by 'prosopon' the divine Son and Word of God who had become incarnate was not meant, but the unified activity of an alleged two persons (the divine Word and the person of the human nature) in Christ. (11) As we shall see, in the next issue, St Cyril of Alexandria and the fathers of the 3rd Ecumenical Council, as a whole, had to respond to emphasise that the Virgin Mary could rightfully be called 'Theotokos' since the One that she had given birth to was none other than the divine Son of God in human flesh, the second Person of the Holy Trinity.
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
1. Didache, 1: 321.
2. Eusebius, History of the Church 5, 24, 18
3. Triodion, 30, taken from Archimandrite Akakios, Fasting in the Orthodox Church, pp.9-10.
4. Archimandrite Tickon, The Land of the Living, 63
5. St Abba Dorotheus, Directions on Spiritual Training, cited in T. Hopko, The Orthodox Faith: Spirituality, vol. 4, 148.
6. St Gregory of Sinai, Instruction to the Hesychasts, cited in T. Hopko, Spirituality, 149.
7. For more on this, see my article entitled ''''Nestorianism: Challenges to the Faith in Jesus Christ'''', Vema Sept (2005): 8/26-9/27.
8. Cited in Georges Florovsky, The Byzantine Fathers of the Fifth Century, vol. 8 (Belmont: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1987), 216.
9. Even though it has to be admitted that Nestorius could also speak of one person, the fact that he also spoke of two persons clearly made him guilty of the theory of two Sons. Besides by the formula ''''two natures, one person'''' Nestorius did not mean the Logos of God.
10. Cited in Leo Donald Davis, The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (Collegeville, Minnesota: A Michael Glazier Book, The Liturgical Press, 1983), 147.
11. For Nestorius, the term ''''Christ'''' did not imply the divine Word of God but the person to which the Son of God joined himself.