Saturday, October 10, 2015

Conflict of the Terms Theotokos and Christotokos

Our Thursday class discussion revolved around the rise of the term of “Theotokos” to refer to the Virgin Mary. The term, which originated in the 3rd century, and literally translated means, “Birth giver of God”. The importance of this being that the Virgin gave birth to not a mere man, but a man and God. This title had an importance in the fifth century, as there was a conflict within the early Christian church as to whether it was correct to call Mary the “Theotokos” or “Christotokos”. These terms, although applied to Mary, had importance to Christ as the term Theotokos suggested that Christ was one entity of man and God, whereas Christotokos suggested some sort of split between the entities of man and God in Christ.

For historical readings on each side of this debate we read homilies, and letters of Proclus of Constantinople, Cyril of Alexandria, and Nestorius the Patriarch of Constantinople. I found Proclus’s Homilies to be the most intriguing. Imaging the charged context and atmosphere in which these writings were read gave them an added dimension and excitement for me. The fifth century was a time where Christianity was rapidly spreading throughout the Western and Eastern Roman Empires. However the Church had only recently, within the past hundred years become the state religion of the Empire, and the memories of a persecuted faith likely still pervaded Christian conscience. Even though the historical debate over the title, Theotokos took place four hundred years after the death of Christ, the religion was still quite young and the theological debates of the time would have had an importance that is hard to comprehend.

Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople represented the side that insisted on terming the Virgin Mary, Christotokos. He was a particularly dramatic character. Upon his appointment as Patriarch by Emperor Theodosius II, Nestorius vehemently, and in particular violently pursued those who he believed were heretics of young religion. Nestorius promised the Emperor to expel the empire’s internal enemies, the heretics from within the empire in order to help the Emperor’s wars against the Persians. In this internal, spiritual battle, Nestorius was overly zealous, and not particularly politically astute. He made enemies of the local populace, the local monks, and the Emperor’s sister, Pulcheria with his stance against the title of Theotokos. In Constantinople the veneration of the Virgin as the Theotokos was particularly popular, and outside influences -Nestorius came from Antioch- were resented. Pulcheria, a supporter of the term Theotokos had styled herself after the Virgin Mary by taking a vow of virginity. Nestorius made little of Pulcheria’s influence, even as the sister of the emperor, and publicly humiliated her by insinuating that she took lovers in spite of her vow, by effacing her image, and removing her robes from the altar of a church. The battle between these two public figures in Constantinople, one the leader of the faith, and the other of the highest levels of the imperial family would have dominated the society’s political and spiritual life.

In the middle of this heated struggle between Pulcheria and Nestorius, Proclus of Constantinople delivered a sermon on the Virgin Mary that must have been stunning in the context of this theological battle. Given at the Church of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople -not to be confused with the Hagia Sophia built in 537- Proclus gave a brilliant sermon that upheld the popular understanding of Mary as the Theotokos. Read on a festival day for the Virgin Mary in the presence of a great crowd, Pulcheria and Nestorius, one imagines the crowd and Pulcheria experiencing a great feeling of vindication and agreement as Proclus passionately defended the idea of the Theotokos, while Proclus shifted uneasily in his chair.

Proclus’s sermon had its strong effect by tying the importance of Mary as the Theotokos to the foundations of the Christian understanding of God, and through many references to the traditions of the Christian faith in the Old Testament. In a litany of titles, Proclus praises Mary by comparing her to instances in the Old Testament where God is in the presence of man such as the Garden of Eden, the burning bush, as well as many others.  The sermon parallels Eve and Adam with Mary and Christ. The origins of man and original sin in Eve and Adam necessitated the coming of Mary and Christ for humanity. Adam and Eve’s transgressions against God presented two outcomes for humanity: that the sin would be wiped away by destroying humanity, or that a substitute take the place of humanity. This logic requires that one who is sinless die, and that they be able to die. A mere man will always be tainted with sin, but God cannot die so Christ, a man and God was necessary. Proclus’s understanding that Christ had to be a single entity of both God and man meant that the understanding of Mary as the Theotokos was correct. If Mary was not the birth giver of God, than the sins of man could not be redeemed.

Originally, when beginning to look at the importance of Mary as the Theotokos as opposed to the Christotokos seemed a bit of an instance of splitting hairs.  However, the debate’s historical result of affirming Mary’s status, the eventual exile of the Patriarch of the Church, and the creation of two different Christian traditions is quite interesting, and shows how seriously 5th century Christians took interpretations of scripture. 



  1. I love the vivid account you give of what it must have been like to be in the church when Proclus preached. Could you say more about why Nestorius would have been squirming so in his seat? Having set the scene, it would have been good to hear more about the particulars of the arguments that were at stake. RLFB

  2. You've provided a good summary of the history here, but it would have been great to hear some more detailed analysis. The Proclus-Nestorius incident Prof. Brown mentioned would be a great point to delve further, as would the political maneuvering you describe occurring behind the scenes between Nestorius and Pulcheria. Besides the fact that Pulcheria supported Theotokos, were there other political consequences of Nestorius's beliefs?

  3. HB, I agree with you that while issue between theotokos and christotokos wasn’t necessarily seen as an immediate issue that needed a resolution, as we have seen throughout the course, these two distinctions became more important throughout history, as the church evolved. It seems to me that the the core issue within the letters between Cyril and Nestorius is that of classic Christian concern: that is, Jesus’ nature as part human and divine and his agency as such. What is at stake is the decay of a theological system, ultimately leading to atonement, and what the person of Jesus in the Trinity reveals to that coeternal relationship. What I think is at stake for Mary’s involvement in this conversation is hinged on the risk of accidentally conveying her as a person with agency who has the ability to somehow complete the theological function of Christ by giving birth to him. Cyril and Nestorius have a real concern about the proper teaching being spread, as they are said to be personally responsible for doing so. What is wrong with Nestorious’ letter looks rather familiar, as it it blasphemes the doctrine of the Trinity, separating incorrectly the divinity from the humanity of Jesus. Perhaps neither the disctintion between theotokos as the birth-giver of God and christotokos as the birth-giver of Christ would be an appropriate way to describe Mary by authority condemning Nestorius.