Defense of title “Theotocos” or “Mother of God”

July 19, 2021 • 7 min

From St. John Henry Newman’s Letter to Dr. Pusey in reply to his Eirenicon, page 67
By St. John Henry Newman

Now I have said all I mean to say on what I have called the rudimental teaching of Antiquity about the Blessed Virgin; but after all I have not insisted on the highest view of her prerogatives, which the Fathers have taught us. You, my dear Friend, who know so well the ancient controversies and Councils, may have been surprised why I should not have yet spoken of her as the Theotocos;—but I wished to show on how broad a basis her greatness rests, independent of that wonderful title; and again I have been loth to enlarge upon the force of a word, which is rather matter for devotional thought than for polemical dispute. However, I might as well not write on my subject at all, as altogether be silent upon it.

It is then an integral portion of the Faith fixed by Ecumenical Council, a portion of it which you hold as well as I, that the Blessed Virgin is Theotocos, Deipara, or Mother of God; and this word, when thus used, carries with it no admixture of rhetoric, no taint of extravagant affection,—it has nothing else but a well-weighed, grave, dogmatic sense, which corresponds and is adequate to its sound. It intends to express that God is her Son, as truly as any one of us is the son of his own mother.

If this be so, what can be said of any creature whatever, which may not be said of her? what can be said too much, so that it does not compromise the attributes of the Creator? He indeed might have created a being more perfect, more admirable, than she is; He might have endued that being, so created, with a richer grant of grace, of power, of blessedness: but in one respect she surpasses all even possible creations, viz. that she is Mother of her Creator.

It is this awful title, which both illustrates and connects together the two prerogatives of Mary, on which I have been lately enlarging, her sanctity and her greatness. It is the issue of her sanctity; it is the source of her greatness.

What dignity can be too great to attribute to her who is as closely bound up, as intimately one, with the Eternal Word, as a mother is with a son? What outfit of sanctity, what fulness and redundance of grace, what exuberance of merits must have been hers, on the supposition, which the Fathers justify, that her Maker regarded them at all, and took them into account, when he condescended “not to abhor the Virgin’s womb?”

Is it surprising then that on the one hand she should be immaculate in her conception? or on the other that she should be exalted as a queen with a crown of twelve stars? Men sometimes wonder that we call her Mother of life, of mercy, of salvation; what are all these titles compared to that one name, Mother of God?

I shall say no more about this title here. It is scarcely possible to write of it without diverging into a style of composition unsuited to a Letter; so I proceed to the history of its use.

The title of Theotocos begins with ecclesiastical writers of a date hardly later than that at which we read of her as the second Eve. It first occurs in the works of Origen (185—254); but he, witnessing for Egypt and Palestine, witnesses also that it was in use before his time; for, as Socrates informs us, he “interpreted how it was to be used, and discussed the question at length” (Hist. vii. 32).

Within two centuries (431) in the General Council held against Nestorius, it was made part of the formal dogmatic teaching of the Church.

At that time, Theodoret, who from his party connexions might have been supposed disinclined to its solemn recognition, owned that “the ancient and more than ancient heralds of the orthodox faith taught the use of the term according to the Apostolic tradition.”

At the same date John of Antioch, who for a while sheltered Nestorius, whose heresy lay in the rejection of the term, said, “This title no ecclesiastical teacher has put aside. Those who have used it are many and eminent; and those who have not used it, have not attacked those who did.”

Alexander again, one of the fiercest partisans of Nestorius, witnesses to the use of the word, though he considers it dangerous; “That in festive solemnities,” he says, “or in preaching or teaching, theotocos should be unguardedly said by the orthodox without explanation is no blame, because such statements were not dogmatic, nor said with evil meaning.”

If we look for those, in the interval, between Origen and the Council, to whom Alexander refers, we find it used again and again by the Fathers in such of their works as are extant; by Archelaus of Mesopotamia, Eusebius of Palestine, Alexander of Egypt, in the third century; in the fourth by Athanasius many times with emphasis, by Cyril of Palestine, Gregory Nyssen of Cappadocia, Gregory Nazianzen of Cappadocia, Antiochus of Syria, and Ammonius of Thrace:—not to speak of the Emperor Julian, who, having no local or ecclesiastical domicile, speaks for the whole of Christendom. Another and earlier Emperor, Constantine, in his speech before the assembled Bishops at Nicæa, uses the still more explicit title of “the Virgin Mother of God;” which is also used by Ambrose of Milan, and by Vincent and Cassian in the south of France, and then by St. Leo.

So much for the term; it would be tedious to produce the passages of authors who, using or not using the term, convey the idea.

“Our God was carried in the womb of Mary,” says Ignatius, who was martyred A.D. 106.

“The word of God,” says Hippolytus, “was carried in that Virgin frame.”

“The Maker of all,” says Amphilochius, “is born of a Virgin.”

“She did compass without circumscribing the Sun of justice, the Everlasting is born,” says Chrysostom.

“God dwelt in the womb,” says Proclus.

“When thou hearest that God speaks from the bush,” asks Theodotus, “in the bush seest thou not the Virgin?”

Cassian says, “Mary bore her Author.”

“The one God only-begotten,” says Hilary, “is introduced into the womb of a Virgin.”

“The Everlasting,” says Ambrose, “came into the Virgin.”

“The closed gate,” says Jerome, “by which alone the Lord God of Israel enters, is the Virgin Mary.”

“That man from heaven,” says Capriolus, “is God conceived in the womb.”

“He is made in thee,” says Augustine, “who made thee.”

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