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Theotokos in scripture, tradition, and an argument against Marion development

August 9, 2011

Tonight I was able to have a great discussion with some of my old reformed friends at my house. We talked about many things, and I was able to give them some insight into my thoughts on reformed theology from and Eastern Orthodox perspective. The conversation naturally came to Nestorianism, and who is the real Nestorian. Though this topic is probably the main topic I cover on this blog, an interesting perspective came out from one of the people that was here on Nestorius and his position of Mary. His point was that Nestorius was correct in arguing that the Divine nature didn’t originate with Mary, and that to say Mary is the Mother of God (Theotokos) seems to imply such a thing. He also added that the response to Nestorius by the church, or St Cyril of Alexandria produced an elevated view of Mary, which can be seen in Rome and in Orthodoxy that is not known in scripture.

My goal with this post is to show that the answer to Nestorius was not a new view of Mary, or that it now brought about some view of her that was higher than previously thought, and that scripture clearly shows that Mary has a very honorable position.

“for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed” – Luke 1:48

Nestorius’s position on Mary was a new position. It was a challenge to the received tradition from the fathers before him. Mary was called the Theotokos previously. The controversy between Nestorius and the Orthodox church was in the 5th century, yet, we read this prayer to the Theotokos in the 3rd century, which reads:

“Beneath your compassion we take refuge, Theotokos. Our petitions do not despise in time of trouble, but from dangers ransom us, Only Holy, Only Blessed” – 3rd century letter. Egypt, Circa AD 250 

With this we see that the term Theotokos was not invented, or implied in the 5th century, but was a term used prior to the Nestorian controversy. It also shows that prayers to Mary were common among Christians prior to the 3rd-5th centuries.

“Under the Holy place of Mary, I wrote there the names. The imaged I adored of her” – The Grotto of the Annunciation in Jerusalem (Inscription in a Church) Somewhere between the 1st and 2nd centuries

Here again, we see that Mary is prayed to, and adorned. What we also can see, is that images of Mary were in churches from the earliest times of Christianity.

The Historian in the day of the Nestorian controversy, Socrates,  notes in his letter to the Royal Princesses, and to Theodosius that Nestorius is “Disgracefully Illiterate” seeing that tradition was overwhelmingly saturated with Mary being called the Theotokos, in which Socrates lists for Nestorius.

He lists: Origen, commentary on Deuteronomy (PG 12.813) Hom 7, In Lucam 7 (Socrates Hist Eccl. 7.32)  Peter of Alexandria (PG 18.517) Alexander of Alexandria Ep, Ad Alexandrum 12, PG. 18.568; Eusebius Caesarea, Vita Constantini 3.43 PG. 20.1104; Athanasius, Con. Arianos 3.14, PG. 26.349. Vita Antonii 36, PG. 26.897;  Gregory of Nazianzin Ep. 101. PG 37.177;  Gregory of Nyssa Ep.3 PG. 46.1024

Here we can see, that Nestorius was going away from the traditional use of the term Theotokos. This brings about a big issue. The idea that sola scriptura, or the denial of the use of tradition as somewhat informative for fallible generations, is not only useful, but completely adhered to in the times of heresy. Each council even would say in defense of a councils authoritative position on a said subject, that this has been taught before us by the fathers, and brought down to us, whereas, the heretics always strayed away from tradition, and used a singular dogmatic position against the the heavy consensus of the fathers before them.

We can see above, that the argument that Mary was elevated to a higher place as a reaction to Nestorianism is false, since the patristic fathers before Nestorius was around held to the same thing as the St Cyril of Alexandria, and the plurality of bishops against Nestorius. What it also shows, is that the consensus of the church before Nestorius held the very answer to such Christological issues as Nestorianism. St. Cyril notes, that the only non heretical name for Mary is Theotokos, which was not an invention of St. Cyril

Scriptural support for the Theotokos

This notion that Mary in the bible is not ever mentioned in a high place seems accurate as a protestant. You seem to never see any place where she is given honorable mention, however, with a patristic perspective on the biblical view of Mary, we see an extremely deep, and an almost impossible to argue away view of Mary as the Ark of the Covenant

This seems to make complete sense, seeing that Christ, who came to restore life, was carried in the womb of Mary, much like the Holy Law of God was carried in the Ark of the Covenant. Also was the mana in the Ark of the Covenant, and the obvious connection between Christ being the bread of life. But is there scriptural support for such a thing?

The story of David in 2 Samuel, as he is bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, is obviously mirrored in Luke. We read:

David “arose and went” (2 Samuel 6:2)  The same words are applied in Luke 1:39 Mary “arose and went”

Both David and Mary proceeded to the hill country of Judah

David speaks of his unworthiness with the words ” How can the Ark of the Lord come to me?” (2 Samuel 6:9)  Which are almost said verbatim in Luke 1:43 “Why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”  The word “Ark” is changed with “mother”.

David danced for joy in the presence of the Ark (2 Samuel 6:14,16)  and we read in Luke 1:44 that the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaped as Mary approached.

Finally, the ark remained in the hillside for 3 months (2 Samuel 6:11) In which Mary spent 3 months with Elizabeth (Luke 1:56)

We can clearly see the typology, which is strikingly obvious.  The early church evidence of such and idea before the Nestorian controversy were:

St Ephrem of Syrian (S. Ephrem, Rhythm iii, On the Nativity); St Hippolytus “At that time, the Savior coming from the Virgin, the Ark, brought forth His own Body into the world from that Ark” In, Patr. Gr., Tom. 10, p. 648; St Ambrose “The prophet David danced before the Ark.  Now what else should we say the Ark was but holy Mary?” Serm. xlii. 6, Int. Opp., S. Ambrosii; St Athanasius  full of grace, Lady, Queen, Mistress, Mother of God, and Ark of sanctification” (Orat. In Deip. Annuntiat, nn. 13, 14. Int. Opp. S. Athanasii) 

Mary as women

John’s Gospel opens declaring “In the beginning” (John 1:1) just as Genesis starts out by saying “In the beginning” (Genesis 1:1).

Genesis goes on to say “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1) and John states “In the beginning, the word was the Word, and the Word was with God”

Genesis 1;:3-5 God creates light to shine in the Darkness, and in John 1:4-5 we read “life was the light of men” and it “shines in darkness”

Genesis 1:2  Speaks of “the Spirit of God..hovering over the face of the waters” and in John 1:32-33 we read that the Spirit hovering over the water of Baptism

Clearly John is setting up a comparison of the new creation in Christ, as his pattern is Genesis. John then starts to number the days

“The next day” John 1:29 with the encounter of Jesus and John the Baptist

“The next day” John 1:35 Christ calling the first disciples

“The next day” John 1:43 Christ calls two more disciples

From the opening narrative of the Messiah, to the day we find ourselves in the book of John, we are now in the 4th day

John then goes into the Wedding feast of Cana, and writes “On the 3rd day” which is the third day from where he left off. This brings us to the seventh day, which is a type of the creation account, and from this point on, John stops counting days.

So on the 7th day, we find ourselves at the wedding, which is where Christ is at with His mother and His disciples. John 2:3 ” They have no wine” says Christ’s mother, in which Christ responds “O Women..what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come” Which is a popular text that protestants use against the doctrines of Mary found in Rome and Orthodoxy. However, this is just a word concept fallacy, in which, applying the term “women” as we would use it today, can be applied to this verse in question. However, what must we take note of in this text?

-Mary’s observation that there is no wine is upheld by Christ, in that he fills the wine jars. So, if this is a rebuke, it makes Christ seem to be a reluctant son, who bickers with his mother, then does what she asks even though he is a bitter about it.

– The saying “What have you to do with me” was a common saying in the OT and NT and sources during that time outside of scripture show this to have a completely different meaning than protestants want it to say. It speaks more to the effect, that one has been commissioned to do something.

However, Christ’s use of the word “Women” for Mary is the significant part of the text. Here we are in the 7th day, at a wedding, and the new Adam gives the new Eve the term “Women” just as in Genesis 2:23. Clearly Jesus is fulfilling the role of the new Adam in this way. Jesus also calls his mother “Women” somewhere else in scripture. John 19:26 ““Woman, behold, your son!” Obviously, this term used by Christ is not a spurn, but a image of Mary as the new Eve.

The Women in the garden led Adam to the first act of sin, whereas Mary the new Eve, led the new Adam (Christ) to the first glorious act, in filling up the wine jars.

We can find the teaching that Mary is the new Eve in the major patristic fathers before the Nestorian controversy. Listed is:

Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho the Jew; St Ireneus Bishop of Lyons.  Adv. haereses, 3.22 (Eve tied the knot, Mary the new Eve loosened it); Terullian (Witness) post Nicea writings. St. Ambrose of Milan (Speaks of our nature being destroyed through Adam and Eve, and linked to God through Mary) St. Jerome “Death through Eve, life through Mary” (Epist. 22.21) 


I have give sufficient evidence to show that the view of Mary did not develop out of the name Theotokos during the Nestorian controversy, or that the name Theotokos was something that was man made in response to Nestorius. I have shown that Nestorius’s position was man made, outside of tradition, and that he shifted away from tradition. I have shown that the biblical view of Mary is strong, and a patristic usage prior to Nestorius. I have shown that images were made of Mary prior to Nestorius, and that prayers were given to her prior to Nestorius.

The argument I am addressing, is another typical argument from the reformed camp, which cannot find any stable ground in the early church in order to argue for their beliefs. This is exactly what happened to Nestorius. His teachings were not found in the previous fathers, and the fathers before them had the better teaching than Nestorius’s heretical position of Mary. The name Theotokos was ultimately the answer to Nestorianism, and St. Cyril of Alexandria even notes that no other name can be used without being a heretic Christological speaking,


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  1. ***His point was that Nestorius was correct in arguing that the Divine nature didn’t originate with Mary, and that to say Mary is the Mother of God (Theotokos) seems to imply such a thing.***

    Except that the divine nature qua nature wasn’t in Mary. This proves (for the nth time) that Reformed people confuse person and nature. In fact, almost all problems in Reformed theology reduce to this point. The divine nature wasn’t in Mary’s womb; the divine person of the Son was.

    Will the Reformed deny that? They cannot, but if they affirm that then they must withdraw their earlier criticism.

  2. Eric Castleman permalink


    That is exactly right. All of their arguments boil down to a Nestorian Christology. For instance, I was told that Icons are Nestorian, because we are picturing Christ only in his humanity, however, that is a Nestorian Christology, in that, for the argument to work, the two nature need to be united to make up the Divine person. That is a Nestorian Christology. Example, Nestorius was not willing to call Christ God in the womb of Mary, yet, I am being labled a Nestorian because I look at an image and say that it is God, but they argue against that, stating that it is false to say that Christ’s human nature is God…That is a Nestorian perspective on the meshing together of the two natures to make up the divine person.

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