Monday, 28 April 2014


We are often told that the Council of Ephesus (A.D 431) "defined" St Mary as Theotokos. In fact, it did no such thing. The Council issued no dogmatic decrees or definitions at all. The fathers condemned Nestorius as an heretic but the issue at stake was thoroughly Christological. The heresy of Nestorius lie in his position that Christ was a mere man and his teaching that St Mary was, therefore, Anthropotokos (Mother of the Man) was treated as evidence of this. But most of the evidence given against Nestorius came from his sermons that said absolutely nothing about St Mary. As Professor Price notes in his essay Theotokos: Significance in Doctrine and Devotion, the closest the Council came to defining St Mary as Theotokos was in an epistle sent by St Cyril of Alexandria to John of Antioch in A.D 433, two years after the synod, even so:

"On the matter of how we think and speak concerning the Virgin the Theotokos and the manner in which the only-begotten Son of God became man, we must state briefly (not by way of addition, but in the form of giving an assurance) what we have held from the first...We acknowledge our Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, perfect God and perfect Man made up of a rational soul and body, begotten from the Father before the ages in respect of the Godhead and the same on the last day for us and for our salvation from the Virgin Mary in respect of his manhood...By virtue of this understanding of the union which involves no merging, we acknowledge the holy Virgin to be Theotokos, because God the Word was enfleshed and became man and from the very conception united to himself the temple taken from her."

I take comfort in the fact that these early debates were fundamentally about Christ, not His Mother.


  1. Then why is it said that the following (St Cyril of Alexandria to Nestorius) was read out and approved by the Council at Ephesus?

    "For we do not say that the nature of the Word was changed and made flesh, nor yet that it was changed into the whole man (composed) of soul and body but rather (we say) that the Word, in an ineffable and inconceivable manner, having hypostatically united to Himself flesh animated by a rational soul, became Man and was called the Son of Man, not according to the will alone or by the assumption of a person alone, and that the different natures were brought together in a real union, but that out of both in one Christ and Son, not because the distinction of natures was destroyed by the union, but rather because the divine nature and the human nature formed one Lord and Christ and Son for us, through a marvellous and mystical concurrence in unity. . . . For it was no ordinary man who was first born of the Holy Virgin and upon whom the Word afterwards descended; but being united from the womb itself He is said to have undergone flesh birth, claiming as His own the birth of His own flesh. Thus [the holy Fathers] did not hesitate to speak of the holy Virgin as the Mother of God."

    Why do you mind if we call her Theotokos? I'd rather do that than assert she bore just a man.

    [Not trying to be waspish; just trying to understand your point(s).]

    1. I don't mind if men call St Mary Theotokos; it would be unorthodox not to...but it is equally true that she is Anthropotokos because of the two natures in Christ.

      My point is that the Council issued no dogmatic decrees or definitions and so it is misleading to say that the Council "defined" St Mary as Theotokos.

    2. Ah right, then I see what you mean. Son of God and Son of Man. Thank you, Patricius!

  2. I thought that the word that Nestorius preferred was "Christotokos," and that "Anthropotokos" was what his opponents interpreted it as meaning.

  3. By rejecting Nestorius, that Christ was a mere mortal at birth, but proclaiming Him to be God at birth, Mary by an extension is the Mother of God. Theotokos. Thus, the prayer recited by Catholics, "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners."