The fifth-century controversies over the union of the divinity and humanity of Christ had as one of their focal points the term Theotokos (θεοτόκος), "God-bearer," "Mother of God." Nestorius, a monk of Antioch who had become patriarch of Constantinople, insisted that, at most, the term Christotokos (χριστοτόκος), "Christbearer," is proper in speaking of the Blessed Virgin. When challenged by St. cyril of alexandria, he replied:
Whenever the Sacred Scriptures speak of Our Lord's activity, they never speak of the birth and suffering of the divinity, but of the humanity of Christ. That is why the most accurate way of speaking about the Holy Virgin is Christ-bearer, not God-bearer [Letter to Cyril 2.11; Acta conciliorum oecumenicorum (Berlin 1914–) 22.214.171.124–31; Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, 48:820–821].
The title had been used as far back as the beginning of the fourth century. Alexander of Alexandria, an important figure at the Council of Nicaea I, had written: "Our Lord Jesus Christ in very deed, and not merely in appearance, had a body from Mary, Mother of God [Theotokos]." Gregory of Nazianzus considered the title part of the orthodox faith:
If anyone denies that Saint Mary is God-bearer, he is far from God. If any one says that He passed through the Virgin as through a tube and was not formed in her in a divine and human way, divine because it was without intercourse with man, human because it took place like every other pregnancy, he is equally far from God [Letter 101; Patrologia Graeca, ed j. p. migne, 37:177].
Eustathius of Antioch (fl. 326) and Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394) also used the term.
In the Council of ephesus (431) Nestorius was condemned and Cyril's Second Letter to Nestorius was read and approved as embodying the orthodox Catholic faith. In this letter Cyril writes: "Thus they [the holy fathers] confidently called the Holy Virgin Theotokos …" (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer 251). The Formula of Union (433) that interpreted the doctrine of Ephesus to the satisfaction of the Church of Antioch states: "…we confess the Holy Virgin to be Theotokos" (Acta conciliorum oecumenicorum, 126.96.36.199; Patrologia Graeca, 77:177). The Council of chalcedon also adopted the term in its definition on the hypostatic union: "…for us and for our salvation born of Mary the Virgin Theotokos in His human nature…" (Enchiridion symbolorum, 301, cf. 300). The use of this title by the Church was undoubtedly decisive for the growth in later centuries of Marian doctrine and devotion.
See Also: mother of god; mariology; mary, blessed virgin, articles on.
Bibliography: m. jugie, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., (Paris 1903–50) 5.1:137–163. e. dublanchy, ibid., 9.2:2339–69. g. sÖll, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 1957–65) 4:1126–27.
[j. m. carmody]