Mary, Mother of God

October 12, 2013 | 10 comments

The most common objection I get to Mary as Mother of God, especially from Fundamentalists, but not limited to them, is, “The words ‘Mother of God’ are nowhere to be found in the Bible. Therefore, I will not accept it as true.”

This line of reasoning fails in dramatic fashion when carried to its logical conclusion when we consider the central mystery of the Christian Faith, the Trinity, is not found in Scripture verbatim as well. And we could go on. The Incarnation would fall by the wayside. Essential terms we use to do theology, like homoousios (Gr.—same nature, Jesus has the “same nature” as his Father), hypostatic union, the circumincessions of the persons of the Blessed Trinity, etc. All gone! The canon of Scripture, the nature of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, and so much more we believe as Christians would be out the door because none of these things are made explicit in Scripture.

And this is not to mention “justification by faith alone.” Can anyone agree there is just a bit of irony in the fact that the same fellow who tells me he will not accept Mary as “Mother of God” because those words “are not found in the Bible,” will accept justification by faith alone when the only time those words are found in the Bible the words “not by” are right in front of them (cf. James 2:24)?

Positive Proof

Though we don’t have the words “Mother of God” as such in Scripture, we do have something very close in Luke 1:43, when Mary’s cousin (or relative) Elizabeth greets Mary shortly after she has conceived our Lord:

And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?

Mother of the Lord means Mother of God, right? Isn’t Jesus our Lord and God?

"Not so fast," so often says my Protestant interlocutor. "The Greek word kurios or 'lord' can indeed be used to denote divinity but not necessarily so. It can be used to denote an earthly potentate or even false 'lords' or gods" (see Matt. 20:8; 21:40; I Cor. 8:5-6, etc.). And this is true.

The key to our discussion then is to ascertain how kurios is being used of Christ in Luke 1:43. Was it being used to describe Jesus with regard to his humanity alone, or with regard to his divinity?

Old Testament Type

First, when Elizabeth “exclaimed with a loud cry… why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me” (Luke 1:42-43), Mary was revealed to be the New Testament Ark of the Lord. Elizabeth’s words make this clear as they hearken back to a text from II Samuel 6:9 wherein David exclaims concerning the Old Covenant “ark of the Lord:”

And David was afraid of the LORD that day; and he said, "How can the ark of the LORD come to me?"

If this one parallel leaves you unconvinced, there are more that may tip the scale for you. St. John the Baptist “leaped for joy” at the salutation of Mary (Luke 1:44), just as King David “danced before the Lord” in the ark of the Lord in II Samuel 6:14. Moreover, Mary “remained with [Elizabeth] for three months (Luke 1:56),” just as “the ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obededom the Gittite for three months” in II Sam. 6:11.

Good enough for me.

The question is: Was the ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament the ark of an “earthly potentate,” or was it the ark of almighty God? The answer is obvious. If this is true, then the more glorious New Covenant Ark of the Covenant could never be said to be inferior to its antecedent. New Covenant fulfillments are always more glorious than their Old Covenant types (see Heb. 10:1; Col. 2:17; Heb. 8:6). Thus, the New Covenant “Ark of the Lord” could not be an ark of an earthly potentate, or a mere man. Given the revelation we have received from God, it—or she—is the Ark of Almighty God.

To Whom Did Mary Give Birth?

The second and most important reason we know Luke 1:43 is referring to Mary as the Mother of God is summed up nicely in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 495:

Called in the Gospels “the mother of Jesus,” Mary is acclaimed by Elizabeth, at the prompting of the Spirit and even before the birth of her son, as “the mother of my Lord.” In fact, the One whom she conceived as man by the Holy Spirit, who truly became her Son according to the flesh, was none other than the Father’s eternal Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Hence the Church confesses that Mary is truly “Mother of God” (Theotokos).

Mary is the Mother of God precisely because Jesus Christ, her Son, is God. And when Mary gave birth, she did not give birth to a nature, or even two natures; she gave birth to one, divine person. To deny this essential truth of the faith, as the Council of Ephesus (AD 431) declared in its first of many “anathemas” of St. Cyril which would be accepted by the Council, is heresy:

If anyone does not confess that God is truly Emmanuel, and that on this account the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God (for according to the flesh she gave birth to the Word of God become flesh by birth), let him be anathema. 

The real problem with denying Mary to be Mother of God and affirming her to be merely the mother of the man Christ Jesus is in doing so one invariably either denies the divinity of Christ (as the 4th century Arians did), or one creates two persons with regard to Jesus Christ (as the 5th century Nestorians did). Either error results in heresy. The Ecumenical Councils of Nicaea (AD 325) and Constantinople (AD 381) dealt decisively with the Arian heresy. The Council of Ephesus (AD 431), as mentioned above, dealt with this latter heresy as it was being taught by the followers of Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople. Rather than teaching the truth that Christ is one divine person with two natures—one human, and one divine—hypostatically unified, or joined together without admixture in the one divine person of Christ, they were teaching Christ to be two persons with a mere moral union. The Council fathers understood this could never be affirmed by Christians. The Bible declares to us: “… in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). And, “… in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…” (Colossians 1:16) No where do we read in them

A Catholic Quadrinity?

Another common objection to Mary, Mother of God, goes something like this: “If God is Trinity, and Mary is the Mother of God, would that not mean Mary is the Mother of the Trinity?”

Actually, it does not.

Paragraph 495 of the Catechism, quoted above, was very clear that Mary is the mother of the second person of the Blessed Trinity because neither the Father nor the Holy Spirit were incarnate.

Simple enough.

But I am going to suggest the problem here to be deeper than just a confusion of persons within the Godhead. In my experience, this simple explanation almost invariably leads to another question that reveals the real problem in the mind of many Fundamentalists: “Even if Mary is only the Mother of the second person of the Blessed Trinity, he is just as eternal as the other two divine persons are. Thus, in order to be his mother, Mary would still have to be equally as eternal.” The root of the Quadrinity problem is really a false understanding of what is meant by Mary’s true motherhood and perhaps a false understanding of what is meant by motherhood in general.

By saying Mary is the Mother of God, the Catholic Church is not saying that Mary is the source of the divine nature among the three persons of the Blessed Trinity, nor is she the source of the divine nature of the second person of the Blessed Trinity. She doesn’t have to be in order to be the mother of the second person of the Blessed Trinity incarnate.

Perhaps an analogy using normal human reproduction will help clarify the Catholic and biblical position. My wife is the mother of my son, Timmy (and four other little human tornadoes). But this in no way implies that she is the source of Timmy’s immortal soul. God directly and immediately created his soul as he does with every human being (see Eccl. 12:7). However, we do not conclude from this that my wife, Valerie, is merely “the mother of Timmy’s body.” She is Timmy’s mother… period. This is so because she did not give birth to a body. She gave birth to a human person who is a body/soul composite… Timmy.

Analogously, though Mary did not provide Jesus with either his divine nature or his immortal human soul, she is still his mother because she did not give birth to a body, a soul, a nature, or even two natures—she gave birth to a person. And that one person is God. The conclusion to the whole matter is inescapable: If Jesus Christ is one, eternal and unchangeable divine person—God—and Mary is his mother—then Mary is the Mother of that one, eternal and unchangeable person—God. 


Tim Staples is Director of Apologetics and Evangelization here at Catholic Answers, but he was not always Catholic. Tim was raised a Southern Baptist. Although he fell away from the faith of his childhood, Tim came back to faith in Christ during his late teen years through the witness of Christian...

The Gospel Truth About Mary Volume 1: Mary, the Mother of God and the Immaculate Conception
"The dogmas proclaiming Mary’s Immaculate Conception and her role as Mother of God may make sense to Catholics, but can they be explained to questioning Protestants? Tim Staples renders a masterful defense of these doctrines by starting with the questions he himself had as a young Protestant about Mary.  By examining the Scripture passages often used to disprove Marian dogmas, he shows how Scripture is, in fact, one of the sources from which these dogmas arise. “The Scripture passages that reveal the truths about the Blessed Mother,” says Staples, “became so obvious and so overwhelming to me that I could no longer deny the truth of the matter.”"

Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Gloria Silveira - Saint Marys, Kansas

If a protestant said that to me, I would argue John 2:1 : "And the mother of Jesus was there."

True, it isn't the words "Mother of God", but anyone who believes "Jesus is Lord!" will face a hard time arguing that "Mother of Jesus" is all that different. (Doesn't mean they won't try ;)

October 12, 2013 at 4:24 pm PST
#2  Bryan Metcalf - Napa, California

I would add John 19:25-27, "Standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother, His mother's sister, Mary the wide of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw His mother and the disciple He loved standing there, He said to His mother, 'Woman, here is your son.' Then he said to the disciple, 'Here is your mother.' And from that hour the disciple took her into his home."

Not only does this refer to Mary only as "His mother," but Christ also gives her to His disciple to care for her as he would his own mother. But first He gives His disciple to her! In doing so, He has given her the role of mother to those who believe in Him.

October 12, 2013 at 7:06 pm PST
#3  Frances Theresita - Fresno CA, California

I think we should say, Mother of God Incarnate. This is accurate. And it would have saved countless difficulties in Catholic Protestant dialogue.

When I say the Hail Mary I always say, "Mother of God Incarnate.

We should not say simply Mother of God as if God would not exist without Mary.

God, the three Persons of the Trinity always existed. Mary through the Holy Spirit brought forth God Incarnate.

~~~A sincere and concerned Catholic. God bless you.

October 13, 2013 at 2:30 am PST
#4  Todd Farris - Mattoon, Illinois

With all due respect Frances, if you say Mother of God Incarnate when you recite the Hail Mary, then you are saying it the wrong way and should not recite it at all in my opinion. I would pause to consider myself worthy to change the words in the prayer and I would also not question the wisdom and authority of the Tradition of the Church. This is why there are thousands of Protestant communities, because they believe, individually, that they have the right to change and interpret as they see fit.

October 14, 2013 at 8:28 am PST
#5  Frances Theresita - Fresno CA, California

Dear Todd, you object to my saying the Hail Mary. You are entitled to believe as you will that the way it is said is infallible. I also say, not just bluntly, "Pray for us sinner" but also, more courteously, "Please pray for us sinners" so you can be still more disapproving that I speak to our beloved Heavenly Mother as I do. :)If I'm a heretic, I personally trust my Mother's love and her willingness to know my sincere honesty.

I will continue to pray it thus in private though I don't impose it on others when publicly praying. I speak to my Mother from my heart and from truth.

I repeat what I said and stand by it as a logical person and a person of faith:

I think we should say, Mother of God Incarnate. This is accurate. And it would have saved countless difficulties in Catholic Protestant dialogue.

We should not say simply Mother of God as if God would not exist without Mary.

God, the three Persons of the Trinity always existed. Mary through the Holy Spirit brought forth God Incarnate."

God's abundant blessings to you. Frances

October 14, 2013 at 7:05 pm PST
#6  Todd Farris - Mattoon, Illinois

I don't see any reason to clarify in personal prayer a fact that is known by Our Lady when you ask for her intercession. She is fully aware that she is the Theotokos and I stand by my belief that there is no reason to change the wording of this beautiful prayer. While it is accurate to say Mother of God Incarnate, I don't feel that it is proper and I believe that the Church would agree. As for relations with Protestants, I feel that the wording of the Hail Mary is not on the forefront of their problems with the Church. Many are so ignorant of what the Church really is and what She truly believes in, that a proper explanation of this prayer would start with the deep Scriptural roots of the Hail Mary, and what it truly means to be devoted to Our Lady. God Bless you Frances and God Bless Pope Francis!!

October 15, 2013 at 8:24 am PST
#7  Stacy Forsythe - Lexington, Kentucky

Frances,

Unlike Todd, I certainly do not object to the way you choose to say the Hail Mary in your private prayers.

However, there is a history to the use of "Theotokos" that makes it unlikely we would simply change to another formulation (even one that is more specific).

As the CA apologists are forever saying, the title came into common use as a way of saying something important about Jesus, not about Mary. It was put forth in opposition to the competing title "Christotokos" or "Christ-bearer," which like your "Mother of God Incarnate" is entirely correct but doesn't go far enough.

It was important to stress that Jesus is one and only one Person, that being the Second Person of the Trinity. It is impossible to have a relationship with "Jesus the man" that one does not also have with God the Son.

Mary, who conceived and carried and bore and reared Jesus, is His mother in every sense. And therefore she is truly and properly said to be the mother of God.

Yes, of course she is the mother only of the Son and not of the entire Trinity. And of course she became His mother only at the Incarnation and did not somehow bring God into existence. But putting any of that in the title would have given the Nestorians a loophole for their teaching that the Incarnate Christ was distinguishable from God the Son. "Theotokos" is a title the heretics simply could not affirm, just as the Nicene language of "homoousious" or "consubstantial" was not something the Arians could affirm. In both cases the language was chosen specifically to stake out the orthodox position clearly.

Basically, we already know that "Mother of God" doesn't mean "creator/origin of the Trinity" and that it has never been used to mean that. It would be nonsensical and blasphemous to Catholic thinking, just as much as Protestant thinking, to imagine that it could mean that.

October 18, 2013 at 9:59 am PST
#8  Kim Baker - Westminster, South Carolina

In an age when devotion to Jesus through Mary seems to be on the wane, I am rejoicing any time the Marian prayers are said with the sincere, holiness-oriented intent that everyone in this thread is attempting to describe.

I appreciate the substantive references in this article and the food for thought in this discussion. We live in a Protestant-dominated region and, while only the Holy Spirit can enlighten the heart, we strive to be as well-prepared as possible for those times when He sees fit to use us in some small way for the Faith.

With all due respect and in Christian love, we do well to support one another in all of the many beautiful devotions permissible in the Church. Both Todd's and Stacy's points are well-taken, although I don't think the conclusions drawn are necessarily as crucial as they might first appear -- at least relative to other pressing challenges in the contemporary Church. In many parts of the world, the Faith is fighting for its very survival, particularly among younger generations; while we do have a sacred duty to preserve and uphold the truths of our Faith as passed down and affirmed through the ages, we have to be careful not to undermine one another too rashly in our zeal.

Here in our neck of the woods, where Catholics are a minority, it's especially important not to antagonize each other with relatively minor points of disagreement. If Frances finds it helpful to add "Incarnate" when she prays privately for the reasons she describes, then it seems to me that we do well to support her devout intentions and not allow ourselves to be drawn away from the Object of our shared Catholic devotion, the redemptive Love embodied in the Eucharist.

I'm trying not to be antagonistic myself, and if it comes across that way, I do beg forgiveness. It's just that it's so easy to get swept up in debate to a point where we lose sight of the fact that we are brothers and sisters in Christ, in the fullness of the one, holy, apostolic Church. We are so misunderstood (and so often maligned) by those outside the Church that it's sometimes helpful to circle the wagons, so to speak, and support each other as we strive for the holiness to which we are called.

The Peace of Christ be with us all!

October 24, 2013 at 11:11 am PST
#9  Mari Lu - Los Angeles, California

Kim, believe it or not, we are the largest Christian denomination in the United States. If you divide every Christian by denomination, we're the largest at 70 million. Next would be the baptists at 38 million. In other words, it's a misconception that we're the minority. In fact, among Christians, we're the majority. The difference is we lump the protestants together.

Nevertheless, we all agree that Mary is the mother of God. We need to do our best to explain her with love. She is our mother, too. Have you read St. Louis de Montfort's True Devotion to Mary? In doing my apologetics to explain Mary a few weeks ago, I use a lot from the book. Of course, I didn't give credit to St. Louis but not because I don't want to. The listener just isn't receptive to saints. Still, I'm doing a lot of making up. I recommend it as a reading because even JP2 understood Mary and became a devout follower of Mary because of it.

May 17, 2014 at 11:55 am PST
#10  Brenda Miller - Orrville, Ohio

I think Jesus would say it is done to honor her and He doesn’t mind it. And that He wishes there wasn’t so much fighting about it.

August 25, 2014 at 1:05 pm PST

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