Saturday, October 10, 2015

Argumentum ex Matre

During our discussion in class, it dawned on me how much of the historical arguments about Mary were not waged for her sake – nor out of a desire to know more about the historical Mary as noted in class by Professor Brown. Rather, all the arguments surrounding who Mary was and what exactly was the nature of her relationship with Jesus came out of a larger Christological debate. In Thursday’s class this became abundantly clear through Proclus’ homilies in praise of the Virgin and against Nestorianism. However, this was also the case in early Christian writings against Ebionites and Gnostics – as in the writings of Iraneus – or against Arianism – a previously condemned heresy mentioned in passing by Nestorius in his letter to Cyril. In many ways, it seems then as though for many of these early authors – particularly those who became known as the orthodox thinkers – Mary was the first step to understanding the nature of the person of Jesus. 

Though some heterodox beliefs denied such basic tenants as the virgin birth, the main controversy from Thursday’s class between Nestorius and others such as Proclus and Cyril dealt with the finer distinctions of the relationship between divinity and humanity in the person of Christ. Both Nestorius and his opponents affirmed the virgin birth; however, I noticed that a striking difference between their positions could be articulated in a simple question: who was the true human-temple for God on earth? Was it Jesus or Mary?

I’m drawing this question from a passage in the letter of Nestorius to Cyril where he claims “The body therefore is the temple of the deity of the Son, a temple which is united to it in a high and divine conjunction, so that the divine nature accepts what belongs to the body as its own. Such a confession is noble and worthy of the gospel traditions.” Here Nestorius clearly articulates his belief that it was the human man Jesus who was the temple – the physical vessel – where God dwelt on earth. Against this claim, we have read many times in early Marian authors elaborate temple metaphors regarding Mary. One such example comes from Proclus’ first homily: “Through ears that disobeyed, the serpent poured in his poison; through ears that obeyed, the Word entered in order to build a living temple.” This divergence encapsulates how Mary comes to play a role in a fundamentally Christological argument over whether Christ was God and man conjoined or whether he was God and man hypostatically as one.

This also explains the painstaking lengths to which theologians such as Proclus went in order to prove absolute purity and holiness of Mary. For, if one agrees with Nestorius, then Mary need only be pure enough to bear the temple of God – which is an act that has already been accomplished by other humans before her. The Holy of Holies in the original, physical temple in Jerusalem was likewise said to be the dwelling place of god, but human hands raised that building. Furthermore, the high priests, who were pure themselves as manifested by the wearing of white, linen robes, were allowed to enter and exit the Holy of Holies. Under the Nestorian understanding of Christ, Mary needs only be as pure as these people were before her. However, Proclus and other writers held and argued that she was pure beyond any other previous human since by the Immaculate Conception she was born without the stain of original sin so that she may be the temple herself. She was the Holy of Holies for Christ, as both human and divine, while she carried him in her womb.

In contrast to the energy spent by Proclus and others, Nestorius spends no time arguing the nature of Mary – other than to say it would be inappropriate to call Mary the Theotokos. However, this is grounded in his argument that only the human vessel for the Godhead was born of Mary. It seems to me that, in this haste to repudiate the veneration of Mary, which was developing in orthodox Christianity at the time, Nestorius in fact misses perhaps a key proof. For, Proclus and others were able to argue that there could be no other reason for Mary to be as pure as she appeared to be if she were not the temple for the Godhead. Nestorius presents no counterargument apparent in the readings to the Eve-Mary or Temple-Mary comparisons drawn by Proclus. Furthermore, if one finds the line of reasoning presented by Barker in her article persuasive, then Nestorius also seems to be ignoring an important strain in the tradition.

Through her article, Barker establishes that prior to the Deuteronomic reforms there was a long tradition of the female characterization of the Queen Mother and wisdom – made most explicit on pages 101-102
            Some of Philo’s Wisdom imagery has no obvious root in the Greek scriptures. He knew of a divine couple who were parents of the king, that God was the husband of Wisdom, that the Logos was the son of Wisdom of his mother, through whom (fem.) the universe came into being. Wisdom was the ‘first born mother of all things’. Philo must have known the older cult – that Wisdom was the mother of Yahweh the King.
Between Barker’s article and the sheer number of old testament allusions drawn to Mary, it seems there can be little doubt that the early triumphs of the Marian supporters can be attributed at least in part to their hearkening back to the older tradition whereas Nestorius seems to have completely ignored such a tradition. It is an old maxim taught in debating that any point not contested is conceded; in a nutshell, and Nestorius appears to have done just that. On Christological grounds, Proclus and Nestorius seem to be on even footing. Many people in our discussion on Thursday pointed out that both sides appeared to ground their arguments equally well in the scripture. Therefore, the difference was that one side also fielded Mariological arguments.

Perhaps he had not done so, perhaps if Nestorius had tied himself to the reforming tradition of Josiah –not alienating most of the important players in the Eastern Mediterranean could also have helped – then perhaps it would have been Nestorianist theology that prevailed to today.



  1. You had me until your conclusion! I like very much the distinction you draw between Nestorius and Cyril: that Nestorius emphasized Jesus's own body as the "temple," while Cyril and Proclus emphasized Mary as the temple for the God-man. But if Nestorius had conceded that Mary was the temple, surely he would have had to adopt Cyril and Proclus's position--or am I missing something? The larger point you make is the one I was trying to get us to: there were deep roots for both positions in the ancient tradition, which is what made the argument between the two so very bitter. RLFB

  2. A consequence that might arise from the Nestorian view of Mary might also be that if what Mary did has been accomplished by others prior, might it not occur again? Does this entail that there could be another Christ? It's obvious why this implication would deeply worry the party of Cyril and Proclus.

    It's an interesting point to note that Nestorius's failure might ultimately have been a rhetorical one. He simply left the key arguments of his opponents unaddressed, unchallenged, and thus they "won", undermining all his other points. Agreeing with Prof. Brown that if Nestorius had conceded on this point it would have required him to adopt Cyril's position, I wonder how Nestorius could have responded, could he have explicitly rejected the tradition that Barker suggests the orthodox party are drawing on? What shape would this take, and what might its consequences be? Perhaps there's something beyond just appealing to a tradition, an innate appeal to what that tradition teaches, or maybe a sense that it resonated more clearly with the broader emerging Christian identity, that helped Nestorius's opponents gain traction.