How Can Mary Be God’s Mother?
Everyone agrees that Mary is the mother of God, right? Not exactly. Here are three of the most common objections to the Church's teaching.
For many in the more traditional Protestant communities, believing Mary to be the Theotokos (Greek, “God-bearer“), or Mother of God, is an area of agreement with Catholics. If Jesus Christ is truly God, then Mary is truly the Mother of God. But millions of others in Fundamentalist and Evangelical communities would not join Catholics in celebrating the Mary as the Mother of God.
The objections to this great dogma of the Faith are essentially three. The first objection states the obvious. Nowhere in Sacred Scripture are the words “Mother of God” used to describe Mary. “If this doctrine were as important as Roman Catholics claim, would not at least one of the inspired writers have used the term?”
The second objection is rooted in Luke 1:43—a text used by Catholics to demonstrate a biblical foundation for the Theotokos—wherein Elizabeth “exclaimed [to Mary] with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?’” Fundamentalists point out this text does not call Mary Mother of God; it calls her mother of my Lord. The New Testament uses the term “lord” (Gr., kurios) in the context of divinity at times, but it also uses it with reference to human persons in various contexts. The passage in Luke, it is argued, refers not to the divinity of Christ, but to his humanity.
And finally, Protestants make the point that it is impossible for God to have a mother. “God is a Trinity. If Mary is the Mother of God, she is the mother of the Trinity. Therefore, the Trinity is no longer a Trinity—it would be a Quadrinity!
Let’s start with the first objection. To say Mary cannot be the Mother of God because Sacred Scripture does not use those explicit words places the Protestant in an uncomfortable position. He would also have to conclude that multiple other essential Christian doctrines are erroneous because they are not found verbatim in the Bible, either. Take the Trinity, for example. This doctrine is pre-eminent among all Christian doctrines—and yet the term Trinity is not found in the Bible. Nor are terms like homoousios (Gr., “same nature”; Jesus has the “same nature” as his Father) and hypostatic union.
The question the Protestant should ask is this: is the concept of Mary, Mother of God revealed to us in Sacred Scripture? And we will see that it is. Thus, this first objection is quite easily dismissed.
The second objection is not so easily dismissed. The Greek word kurios or “lord” can indeed be used to denote divinity, but it isn’t always used that way. An example of the latter is found in 1 Corinthians 8:5: “For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’ . . .” Here the term “lord” is obviously not used to refer to divinity. Moreover, Christ himself refers to the “owner of the vineyard” in his parable of the householder in Matthew 21:33-40, as kurios, or “lord of the vineyard,” in verse 40. Thus, kurios can be used specifically with regard to a human person.
However, if we go back to 1 Corinthians 8:5, the next verse gives us an example of kurios being used with regard to divinity: “yet to us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” Notice two key points: Jesus is called both the one Lord and creator of all things.
There can be no doubt that the context refers to our Lord’s divinity. Every Jew knew the truth of the great Sh’ma of Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.” There is only one Lord in Israel. And according to 1 Corinthians, Jesus is that one Lord. And Jesus is also called the creator of all things. Genesis 1:1 cannot make any clearer that it is almighty God who is the creator of all things. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The title kurios applied to Christ as creator of all things in 1 Corinthians 8:6 is clearly a title of divinity for Christ. It is the context that makes this so apparent.
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? There are at least two reasons we can know for certain it refers to Christ as a divine person.
First, if we understand its Old Testament antecedent, the conclusion becomes clear. Elizabeth was referring, almost verbatim, to a text from 2 Samuel 6:9, wherein David exclaims concerning the Old Testament Ark of the Covenant: “And David was afraid of the Lord that day; and he said, ‘How can the ark of the Lord come to me?’” 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 Covenant.
The question for us, then, is this: 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. In the same way, the more glorious New Testament Ark of the Covenant is not an ark of an earthly potentate; rather, it is the ark of Almighty God.
The second and most important reason we know that Luke 1:43 is referring to Mary to be the Mother of God is summed up in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
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) (495).
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 (431) declared, is to cut yourself off from full communion with Christ and his Church. The first of many “anathemas” that would be accepted by the council decreed, “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.”
Notice the council refers to the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 in its definition. This text prophesied over 700 years before the birth of Christ that the Messiah was to be born of a woman, yet he was to be “God with us.”
The real problem with denying Mary as Mother of God and affirming Mary to be only the mother of the man Christ Jesus is that in doing so, you invariably either deny the divinity of Christ (as the fourth-century Arians did) or create two persons with regard to Jesus Christ. Both errors result in heresy.
The Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon (433) dealt with a heresy called Nestorianism. 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—Nestorianism, or at least one version of it, taught that Christ is two persons with a merely moral union.
The council fathers understood that Christians could never affirm this. The Bible declares to us, “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). And “in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible” (1:16). Nowhere do we read in them; we read only of him. The error proposes essentially different Christs. Jesus is truly one divine person. If one prays to a Jesus who is two persons, one prays to a “Jesus” who does not exist!
So what about the third objection? “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 is clear that Mary is the mother of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity because neither the Father nor the Holy Spirit is incarnate. Simple enough. But the problem here may 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 difficulty for many Fundamentalists: “even if Mary is only the mother of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, Jesus is just as eternal as the other two divine persons are. Thus, in order to be his mother, Mary would have to be equally eternal.”
The root of this “Quadrinity” problem is a false understanding of what is meant by Mary’s true motherhood and perhaps a false understanding of is meant by motherhood in general.
By saying Mary is the Mother of God, the Catholic Church is not saying 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. But 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 truth of the matter. My wife is the mother of my son, Timmy. But this does not mean 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 then that Valerie is merely “the mother of Timmy’s body.” She is Timmy’s mother, period. 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. Just as many of the more traditional Protestants would confess with us as Catholics: 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.