In the history of theology, there have been many issues which for those who are not “professional” theologians seem rather abstract. I know that there are times when I drive my wife crazy talking about some minutia of theological detail which has no connection to her world as a pre-school teacher, and she has never had a taste for the kind of hypothetical speculation which makes systematic theologians so excited. She is, however, very patient and tolerant, and I can even get her to do final proof-reading of manuscripts before I send them out. I think that most people are like my wife and as I have grown older, I try to think more about the work of the theologian as a service to the Church. I try to think from the perspective of how the issues which occupy so much of my time can be brought into the larger conversation of the Church and the people who are my brothers and sisters in the mission of God. As the recent survey of the theological opinions of American evangelicals demonstrated, there is work to be done to make these doctrinal truths more well-known as well as why these issues are important for people to know and to get right in their theological thinking.
This Advent season, I have been thinking about two topics which might help stir up some thinking about the incarnation which are buried deep in the history of theology and do not get much thought. The first comes from the fifth century – the controversy centered on Mary as the theotokos – the mother of God. The second comes from the eleventh century and was the question which Anselm asked – Cur Deus Homo? – why did God become man?
In this first devotional, we will consider the question of the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God. I think that if you were ask most people in your Bible study, SS class or small group whether Mary was the Mother of God, you would probably get strange looks. It sounds vaguely wrong somehow – God is eternal, he can’t have a mother; that would imply that the Son of God had a beginning, which would be a heretical position (known as Arianism). In this fifth century, this question of Mary as the Mother of God bore the weight of a major theological controversy: the question of the relationship of the divine and the human natures in the person of Jesus Christ. Eventually the issue was settled when the Council of Chalcedon was called in 451 AD to resolve the issue. The result of the Council was that Mary was affirmed as the Theotokos – the God-bearer. But what does that mean, why was it important, and how can we apply this to our thinking during this Advent season? Let’s explore this a little deeper.
The main controversy was between two schools of thought about the relationship of the two natures of the incarnate Christ. Since Nicaea (325 AD), the Church had affirmed that in the incarnate Christ both the human and the divine nature were present in Christ. But the exact relationship of these natures in the single subject was left unanswered. These schools, centered in the cities of Alexandria and Antioch, offered competing ideas. The Alexandrian school emphasized the union of Christ’s two natures in the incarnation. The Antiochene school emphasized the remaining distinction of each nature in the incarnation. Each of the two schools had a potential problem which came with the emphasis. The Alexandrian emphasis on union lead to people like Eutyches which said in the union, the two natures lost their distinctions and a new third nature (a tertium quid) was created, a God-man nature. The Anchiochene problem, held by Nestorius, was that the distinction of the two natures meant that there also had to be two persons, since you cannot speak of a nature which has more than one person (the Greek concept of person is not the same as we would think about t the concept of personhood today – which makes this issue even harder to grasp). For Nestorius, you could not properly call Mary the Mother of God because the person Jesus did not gain divinity from his mother. Instead, Nestorius said that you could only say that Mary was the Christotokos – the mother of Christ. This battle (it is proper to call it a battle for it was full of political intrigue – there were even casualties [Flavius was beaten to death!]) had to find a resolution; it was threatening to tear the Church apart as the battle lines were being drawn.
After the Council of Ephesus (449), which was called to attempt a solution to the problem, was declared invalid (it is known in history is the Robber Synod), the Emperor’s untimely death due to a riding accident paved the way for the new emperor and empress to call a new synod to meet at Chalcedon in 451. The Council of Chalcedon would have to find a way to resolve this issue, or the Eastern and Western halves of the Church were headed for schism. The resolution revolved around the issue of Mary as Theotokos.
The solution to the issues with the two different viewpoints came in a letter from Pope Leo which is known as Leo’s Tome. The Chalcedonian Creed essentially follows the path which is outlined by Leo: both natures maintain their essential character, but these natures are united in the singular person, Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. The main way of talking about this union of distinct natures is what is known as the communication of idioms or properties. The communication of properties allows us to talk about the two natures centered on the one subject – Jesus of Nazareth. So you can talk about the Son of God being born, even though the divine nature is eternal. The key is that you can correctly apply the predicates which are distinct of the nature to the single person. God can die in the person of Jesus, even though you cannot say that God’s nature ceased to exist. You can say that the man Jesus knows everything, even though it is not possible for a human mind to have the same knowledge as God. You can say that God can learn in the person of Jesus Christ. And you can say that Mary is the mother of God, because the baby which grew in her womb was in fact God.
Mary as the Theotokos became a way to judge whether you are properly thinking along the lines of the Council of Chalcedon. The baby which Mary carried in her womb was fully and completely God. The baby whom Mary carried in her womb was also fully and completely human as well. Both natures are fully present in this one person; the person we celebrate and anticipate in the Advent season.
In this Advent season, I think that we should rejoice in the incarnate Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary. I think it is also appropriate to rejoice in the unfolding understanding of theological thinking of which we are the recipients. We can rejoice also in the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Theotokos, not for her sake, but for the baby whom she carried. In this child, the creator God is recreating, and this changes everything.
Note: For Michael consideration of “Anselm’s question – Cur Deus Homo?” click here.
Painting of Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Photo by -Reji
About the author:
I am a PhD student in theology at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. I am studying the theology of John Williamson Nevin, who taught in the seminary of the German Reformed Church in America in the mid-nineteenth century. He was also the president of Franklin and Marshall College and a friend to James Buchanan, the 15th president of the United States. I am currently a teaching fellow at CUA, teaching undergraduate theology and Church History classes. My goal is to teach at a college or university after completing my degree program. I am also the current vice-president of the graduate student association at CUA. Before life as a grad student (if that were an acronym it would be BLaaGS) I was a teacher and principal in secondary education at various Christian schools in the Northeast. My family and I currently live in Hagerstown, MD.
James W. Sire says
How would you understand the Nestorians who, as I understand it, did not accept the view of Chalcedon? Is the Eastern Orthodox heretical? Does that make them less than or other than Christian?
I’m certainly not going to say that the Eastern Orthodox are heretical. My understanding of the Eastern Church was that they accepted Chalcedon and were instrumental thinking through the difficulties associated with the fullness of the implications of Chalcedon – specifically the issues of whether Christ had a human will and human energies (admittedly not a subject the Western church has given much consideration). There were those who rejected Chalcedon and essentially were considered in schism from the Church, but my understanding is that both the monophysites and the nestorian Churches are not considered heretics by Rome. I think that Chalcedon gives room for “interpretations” of what exactly it means – and these interpretations can lean in either direction without crossing the line of heresy. For instance, many will say that the Reformed (following Calvin) lean toward Nestorianism while the Reformed say that Lutherans lean toward monophysitism. I think the exact boundaries (or grammar as Lindbeck calls them) of the implications of Chalcedon are still being debated. A good example is the historical debate between Charles Hodge and John Nevin. Karl Rahner, in his studies on Chalcedon leading up to the 1500 year anniversary concluded that the Western church had veered too close to Nestoriansim. That being said, I think that there is a line that can be crossed with our language, but it is more a broad boundary in my mind.