Saturday, October 10, 2015

Paradox and Theotokos

Again and again throughout this course, we, like the ancient writers whose works we are reading, come up against ideas about God that simply cannot be. If God is the creator, how could he also be the creation? If God is eternal, how does he die? How can God suffer? The challenge, then, for the early Christians was to reconcile these completely opposing ideas to one another, for on them hinges the very possibility of their faith; if any one of them is truly impossible, then the life and, more importantly, the sacrificial death and ensuing resurrection of Jesus Christ is also impossible. In order to explain these paradoxes, they repeatedly turn to Mary and her role in the salvation of humanity as described in the New Testament and foretold in the Old Testament as well (when, of course, the Old Testament is read as these authors would have read it).

Indeed, the Old Testament is pivotal to the entirety of Marian doctrine, as was highlighted in Margaret Barker’s “Wisdom Imagery and the Mother of God” and Thursday’s discussion of it. However, I can’t say that I particularly agree with Barker’s reading of either the various Old Testament texts cited or the Akathistos Hymn, which we also read. According to Barker, the Yahweh of the Old Testament is the proto-Jesus, the Son of God who takes human form as Jesus Christ. Much harder to swallow is her description of an early female divine figure, Wisdom, present during creation and worshiped by the Israelites until King Josiah’s “purges” in 623 B.C. Her reading of the Old Testament texts reflects a certain censorship that edits out this early goddess.

Perhaps this is just personal bias; this theory is a very uncomfortable and foreign way to think of a text that I’ve been reading for my entire life. However, my main problem with this reading is that I don’t think it’s argued particularly effectively. Barker’s argument relies heavily on her trying to piece back together texts that she claims have had signs of the divine Wisdom edited out or otherwise obscured, so much of her evidence feels rather shaky.

The piece is organized to describe a certain instance of the Wisdom figure being described in Old Testament texts and then compare it to various lines from the Akathistos Hymn, the Kanon of the Akathist, and the Protevangelion of James that describe Mary to show their similarities. Barker successfully illustrates the overlap in the language and imagery surrounding both these figures—provided we agree with her reading of these texts supposedly (or openly) about Wisdom. As for me, I’m not sure that I do.

I do, however, agree with Proclus of Constantinople and Cyril in their argument against Nestorius. That being said, Nestorius’s letter was one of my favorite things we’ve read thus far because of how angry he clearly was at Cyril. Especially given the background information Prof. Fulton Brown shared about Nestorius, I liked that the venom he clearly felt for anyone who disagreed with him had been preserved for all these years. I think that it really underscores how important these debates were and just how high the theological stakes were set. Of course, I disagree with his point, so I guess it’s good that his ire is so obvious because it would be directed to me too.

Nestorius, Cyril, and Proclus are all addressing the paradox of a God who can suffer and die. Nestorius’s answer is that because (according to him) this cannot be, there must be a separation between the spirit of God and the physical form of Jesus Christ. God, then, didn’t die; Jesus did. Cyril and Patroclus, however, argue that in assuming a physical form, Jesus became prone to suffering and all the various physical needs that being a human entails, like hunger and exhaustion. These differing opinions both make significant recourse to Mary and her role to defend their respective points. Nestorius claims that Mary is not, in fact, the Theotokos, or “birth-giver of God,” but rather the “birth-giver of Christ,” because no woman could possibly give birth to God, she herself being the creation of God.

Alternately, in his homilies, Proclus cites this as grounds for praise, both for God and Mary herself. Patroclus, like all the writers we read, makes extensive use of Old Testament texts; for example, in Homily I, he includes a long string of titles for Mary, most of which refer to very specific stories throughout the Old Testament. All the titles, though, that he ascribes to Mary center around a few common themes: they are places where something can be created or God’s presence can come together with humanity. I also really liked in Homily I when Proclus compared Mary to Eve because, since we had just discussed this very idea Tuesday, I felt like I really knew and understood that connection. It was also cool to see how these things do get built into the tradition and carry forward in the layering that Prof. Fulton Brown is always describing in class as being so crucial to Marian doctrine. Proclus, I thought, presented an argument that was clear and convincing that there was no separation between the spirit of God and the actual person of Jesus Christ and that this could be possible without in any way tainting or otherwise affecting the divinity of that spirit.

Similarly, I found Cyril’s argument convincing. I think that one point he brought up that especially strengthened the argument he and Proclus are representing was in the second letter when he argues that although Jesus Christ was in fact human, he was not human in the way that all other people were, but rather set apart because of his divinity. I think that it is a good caveat to throw in because it takes the most important issue Nestorius and those who agree with him take with Cyril and company—that God’s divinity cannot exist in the confines of a human—and acknowledges it and amends it to still follow what they see as the necessity that the spirit of God and the person Jesus Christ were one and the same.

Throughout the past two weeks, we have seen that Marian doctrine arises as a reaction to certain paradoxes not about Mary but rather about Jesus Christ and the nature of his divinity and actions while on earth. Thursday’s discussion of her title “Theotokos” and the debate that surrounded its institution continued the pattern of paradox, controversy, and eventual determination of doctrine that has been seen throughout. This pattern allows for the immense layering effect characteristic of both Marian imagery and doctrine as Christian thinkers both draw and build upon a rich tradition spanning thousands of years to address key issues of their faith.



  1. I like very much the way you narrate here your grappling with the texts and arguments we have been discussing--this is exactly the kind of work I would argue we need to do in order to get inside what motivated the development of the tradition. As you show very well in your discussion of Barker, so much hinges on the way in which we ourselves conceptualize this tradition, it is often hard to argue against ourselves to see where the authors of our texts were coming from, even when they tell us clearly what they thought they were doing. RLFB

  2. One additional difficulty with Barker is that her readings requires us to in a sense both trust and distrust the text of the Old Testament, to believe that it was simultaneously edited comprehensively in accord with a religious purge but that this editing was insufficient to truly mask what was being edited out. This is certainly possible, but can it ever be more than conjectural? I'm not sure. Positing an unknown redactor strikes me as a way of saying that a book could originally have been about whatever you like, anything that disagrees with your interpretation is simply the product of that redactor, everything which agrees with you authentic tradition. We might compare the way Barker approaches the text to Cyril, Nestorius, and Proclus. The latter are compelled to work with the whole of the text, to make it "fit" despite the apparent contradictions within.

    The argument that you found so compelling from Cyril, that Christ was human but not like other humans is interesting, because it might have been turned around on him. If Christ is not human like other humans, in what sense is he human at all? Every question and solution seems to lead to yet more questions. It's no wonder that the Nestorian controversy did not end the Christological debates which would rock the Christian world for centuries more.

  3. I think you do a great job here of summarizing the theological stakes that surround the Theotokos debate and the different arguments of Proclus, Nestorius, and Cyril. I am inclined to agree with you that Nestorius’s separation of the human and divine aspects of Christ is problematic; if Jesus only died as a human, then how could God have entered death and in doing so offered salvation? 1 Corinthians 15:26 seems to support this: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” How can God truly defeat death if He does not die himself in some way? I’d also be interested to see how Nestorius’s arguments regarding Mary as Christotokos might have come into play during the Reformation, for just as Nestorius claims that Mary gave birth to Christ’s human form, Luther (over 1,000 years later) came to criticize Mary’s holiness in regards to her as the bearer of God and the Word.