The Church Fathers and the Mother of God

Now I have said all I mean to say on what I have called the rudimental teaching of Antiquity about the Blessed Virgin; but after all I have not insisted on the highest view of her prerogatives, which the Fathers have taught us. You, my dear Friend, who know so well the ancient controversies and Councils, may have been surprised why I should not have yet spoken of her as the Theotokos; but I wished to show on how broad a basis her dignity rests. independent of that wonderful title; and again I have been loth to enlarge upon the force of a word, which is rather matter for devotional thought than for polemical dispute. However, I might as well not write to you at all, as altogether be silent upon it.

It is, then, an integral portion of the Faith fixed by Ecumenical Council, a portion of it which you hold as well as I, that the Blessed Virgin is Theotokos, Deipara, or Mother of God; and this word, when thus used, carries with it no admixture of rhetoric, no taint of extravagant affection – it has nothing else but a well-weighed, grave, dogmatic sense, which corresponds and is adequate to its sound. It intends to express that God is her son, as truly as any one of us is the son of his own mother.

If this be so, what can be said of any creature whatever, which may not be said of her? What can be said too much, so that it does not compromise the attributes of the Creator? He indeed might have created a being more perfect, more admirable, than she is; He might have endued that being, so created, with a richer grant of grace, of power, of blessedness: but in one respect she surpasses all even possible creations, viz., that she is Mother of her Creator.

It is this awful title, which both illustrates and connects together the two prerogatives of Mary, on which I have been lately enlarging, her sanctity and her greatness. It is the issue of her sanctity; it is the origin of her greatness. What dignity can be too great to attribute to her who is as closely bound up, as intimately one, with the Eternal Word, as a mother is with a son?

What outfit of sanctity, what fullness and redundance of grace, what exuberance of merits must have been hers, when once we admit the supposition, which the Fathers justify, that her Maker really did regard those merits, and take them into account, when He condescended “not to abhor the Virgin’s womb”?

Is it surprising then that on the one hand she should be immaculate in her conception? Or on the other than she should be honored with an Assumption, and exalted as a queen with a crown of twelve stars, with the rulers of day and night to do her service? Men sometimes wonder that we call her Mother of life, of mercy, of salvation; what are all these titles compared to that one name, Mother of God?

The title of Theotokos, as ascribed to the Blessed Mary, began with ecclesiastical writers of a date hardly later than that at which we read of her as the Second Eve. It first occurs in the works of Origen (185-254); but he, witnessing for Egypt and Palestine, witnesses also that it was in use before his time; for, as Socrates informs us, he “interpreted how it was to be used, and discussed the question at length.” Within two centuries of his time (431), in the General Council held against Nestorius, it was made part of the formal dogmatic teaching of the Church.


At that time, Theodoret, who from his party connections might have been supposed disinclined to its solemn recognition, owned that “the ancient and more than ancient heralds of the orthodox faith taught the use of the term according to the Apostolic tradition.” At the same date John of Antioch, the temporary protector of Nestorius, whose heresy lay in the rejection of the term, said, “This title no ecclesiastical teacher has put aside. Those who have used it are many and eminent; and those who have not used it, have not attacked those who did.”

If we look for those Fathers, in the interval between Origen and the Council, to whom Alexander refers as using the term, we find among them no less names than Archelaeus of Mesopotamia, Eusebius of Palestine, Alexander of Egypt, in the third century; in the fourth, Athanasius, who uses it many times with emphasis, Cyril of Palestine, Gregory Nyssen and Gregory Nazianzen of Cappadocia, Antiochus of Syria, and Ammonius of Thrace – not to refer to the Emperor Julian who, having no local or ecclesiastical domicile, is a witness for the whole of Christendom.

Another and earlier Emperor, Constantine, in his speech before the assembled Bishops at Nicaea, uses the still more explicit title of the “Virgin Mother of God”; which is also used by Ambrose of Milan, and by Vincent and Cassian in the south of France, and then by St. Leo.

So much for the term; it would be tedious to produce the passages of authors who, using or not using the term, convey the idea. . . .

This being the faith of the Fathers about the Blessed Virgin, we need not wonder that it should in no long time be transmuted into devotion. No wonder if their language should become unmeasured, when so great a term as “Mother of God” had been formally set down as the safe limit of it. No wonder if it should be stronger and stronger as time went on, since only in a long period could the fullness of its import be exhausted.

And in matter of fact, and as might be anticipated [with few exceptions], the current of thought in those early ages did uniformly tend to make much of the Blessed Virgin and to increase her honors, not to circumscribe them. . . .

“She was alone and wrought the world’s salvation and conceived the redemption of all,” says Ambrose; “she had so great grace, as not only to preserve virginity herself, but to confer it on those whom she visited.” “She is the rod out of the stem of Jesse,” says St. Jerome, “and the Eastern gate through which the High Priest alone goes in and out, which still is ever shut”. . . . “The mystical new heavens,” “the heavens arraying the Divinity,” “the fruitful vine,” “by whom we are translated from death unto life,” according to St. Ephrem. “The manna which is delicate, bright, sweet and virgin, which, as though coming from heaven, has poured down on all the people of the Churches a food pleasanter than honey,” according to St. Maximus.

Basil of Seleucia says that, “she shines out above all the martyrs as the sun above the stars, and that she mediates between God and men.” “Run through all creation in your thought,” says Proclus, “and see if there be one equal or superior to the Holy Virgin, Mother of God.” “Hail, Mother, clad in light, of the light which sets not,” says Theodotus, or someone else at Ephesus; “hail all undefiled mother of holiness; hail, most pellucid fountain of the lifegiving stream.”

And St. Cyril, too, at Ephesus, “Hail. Mary, Mother of God, majestic common-treasure of the whole world, the lamp unquenchable, the crown of virginity, the scepter” of orthodoxy, the indissoluble temple, the dwelling of the Illimitable, Mother and Virgin, through whom He in the holy gospels is called blessed Who cometh in the name of the Lord. . .through Whom the Holy Trinity is sanctified. . .through whom Angels and Archangels rejoice, devils are put to flight . . . and the fallen creature is received up into the heavens, etc., etc.”

Such is but a portion of the panegyrical language which St. Cyril used in the third Ecumenical Council.


*Image: Madonna and Child by Giovanni Benelli, c. 1470 [The MET, New York]

John Henry Newman (1801-1890) was made a cardinal by Leo XIII in 1879, beatified by Benedict XVI in 2010, and canonized by Pope Francis on October 13, 2019. He was among the most important Catholic writers of the last several centuries.