Turretin: What We Mean When Call Mary Theotokos, The Mother Of God

XI. Mary is rightly called the Mother of God (theotokos) in the concrete and specifically because she brought forth him who is also God, but not in the abstract and reduplicatively as God. Although this is not expressly stated in the Scriptures, still it is sufficiently intimated when she is called the mother of the Lord (Lk. 1:43) and the mother of Immanuel. If the blessed virgin brought nothing to the person of the Logos (Logou) absolutely considered, still she can be said to have brought something to the person of the incarnate Logos (Logou) economically considered, inasmuch as she gave the human nature which he took into the unity of person.

XII. The title Mother of God given to the virgin was perverted by superstitious men into an occasion of idolatry, as Paul Sarpi observes. “Because the impiety of Nestorius divided Christ, constituting two sons and denying that he, who was born of the virgin Mary, is God; the church, in order to implant the catholic truth in the minds of believers, decided that the words, Mary, the Mother of God (Maria theotokos), should be more frequently inculcated in the churches of the East as well as of the West. This, instituted indeed solely for the honor of Christ, by degrees began to be shared with the mother and at length was referred entirely to her alone” (History of the Council of Trent 2 [1620], p. 181). Although, I say, this most gross error either arose from or was increased by this occasion, it derogates nothing from the truth because the abuse and error of the papists ought not to take away the lawful use of this name.

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger, vol. 2 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992–97), 13.7.11–12 (p. 320).

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  1. Thank you Dr Clark for this – I had EVENTUALLY worked out most of the above for myself, but I had not grasped the Nestorian connection.
    I took quite some time for me, after accepting the virgin birth, to realize that original sin is only inherited from the father (We have inherited the sin of Adam – We are not told we have inherited the sin of Eve) and, therefore, Christ IS the seed of the woman in all respects of the phrase. Indeed the only genetic component that MUST have had to be created for Him anew in the womb is the Y-chromosome (because she had none) – not that sin necessarily comes from the genes anyway – or physical mortality, for that matter.

    • Anthony, as I see it you are confusing two things. Yes, we inherit the guilt of Adam, but in Reformed theology this is understood to be because of federal headship. Adam is the federal head of all his progeny by natural generation, whether men or women, who are ‘in Adam’. Eve is not the federal head, but the mother of all living. One can speculate on the mechanism of transmission of Adam’s guilt by natural generation, but an argument from federal headship does not translate into an argument as to which parent (or both) transmits it by the mechanics of generation.

      I think it is a mistake to assert that the reason why Christ was not subject to original sin/guilt is because it could not have been transmitted through his mother. That is not a revealed truth. Though he was ‘made of a woman’ and ‘made of the seed of David according to the flesh’, Christ was not the progeny of Adam by natural generation, and so did not have Adam as his federal head: he was never ‘in Adam’, but was the ‘second Adam’, the federal head of all his seed, all them that believe on him.

      It is dangerous to base theological arguments upon science. Our Christology must be based on revealed truths, whether explicit or deduced by good and necessary consequences. To make a deduction where one premise is a revealed truth and the other is a non-revealed scientific opinion (and all such scientific ‘facts’ are contingent and opinions) yields a conclusion that is an opinion, at best a theologoumenon, which cannot be asserted as a revealed truth.

      Getting completely off theology and onto genetics (i.e. I draw no theological conclusion from the following), your statement that Mary had no Y-chromosomes in her body is an unverifiable assumption that does not comport with the fact that large numbers of virgins in the world today (which is suggestive that this has always been the case) do carry Y-chromosomes in their body. There are many pathways for this, some (though not all) of them after conception, for example non-identical twins, male and female, sharing genetic material via a common placenta, or tetragemetic chimerism etc. To assume that all the genetic material in a virgin’s body comes from her at-fertilization zygotic material may have some instrumental value as a general rule of thumb, but may in any particular individual case be false.

  2. It seems rather presumptuous to say we know what Christ’s genetic makeup was. I don’t believe it can be derived from any specific scripture. To speculate about it seems to be a matter that Dr. Clark refers to as QIRC (Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty).

    • Anything genuinely derived from Scripture is not presumptuous. I argue that if the Lord Jesus did not inherit at least one gene from the woman, He is not her seed, she is merely a surrogate. If this argument is false, then the Religious Certainty of this statement is indeed illegitimate. Similarly, one could, I suppose, hypothesise that God grabbed hold of a Y-chromosome from Joseph or someone else and somehow spirited it into Mary’s womb (which might result in Christ having had a human father?); but I think it quite reasonable to assume that rather than do that, God created a new Y-chromosome in Mary’s womb – maybe I’m wrong?
      All I am saying is that we know from Scripture the wide range of possibilities of what Christ’s genetic physical makeup could have been, and an even wider range of impossibilities of the same.

  3. As I said, we don’t know what Christ’s genetic makeup was so why speculate about that which scripture does not clearly state?

  4. Anthony: What difference does Christ’s precise genetic makeup make? We know the important parts such as he was fully God and fully man. Nothing can change or diminish that.

  5. I didn’t think we need to appeal to science to authenticate Scripture. God does use natural means as a general rule, but God is not bound by nature and can use supernatural means, especially to authenticate His Word. So I think we should not try to appeal to science to explain Christ’s human nature. It should be enough to simply accept what the Word tells us, and leave it at that. Mary is Christ’s human mother, He was born a human being through her, but His Father is God Almighty. What a supernatural wonder. In his humanity he became one of us as our true, human representative who could atone for the sins of His people and function as our high priest. In His divine nature he was able to endure our punishment and fulfil the law perfectly on our behalf. Miracle of supernatural miracles, science which can only explain nature, cannot begin to explain it.

  6. Is it truly legitimate to say that Mary is the mother of God? While yes, she did carry and give birth to the incarnate Son, and yes He is truly man and truly God; the Trinity while distinct is inseparable, indissoluble. Since Mary did not give birth to God the Father, and she did not give birth to God the Holy Spirit. This is to say nothing of the eternal nature of God the Son. I just don’t see how she can be considered to be the mother of God.

    • I’m glad you made this wonderfully insightful comment! It is a mystery we cannot fully comprehend. We should not try to pry into things God does not reveal in His Word.

      • Angela and Robert,

        Let’s slow down here. Francis Turretin was not engaging in bizarre speculation. He was reflecting on the Definition of Chalcedon (451), an ecumenical creed in which the church in all times and places confesses that in the womb of the Virgin was God the Son incarnate.

        The ones who objected to Theotokos were the Nestorians, rationalists, who separated the two natures into two discrete persons. Nestorius himself was reluctant to say “Theotokos” preferring to say “Christokos” (Mother of Christ). Some have argued, as I have in the past, that perhaps we should say “God bearer,” and that is one way that Theotokos can be taken but Turretin’s explanation bears serious consideration. He was a judicious and careful theologian in the Reformed tradition. That’s why I posted this quotation, to alert readers to the contours of the discussion and to remind us of our catholicity, not our Romanism, but rather our connection to the church in all times and places.

        We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the theotokos (θεοτοκος), according to the humanity; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

        To refuse to say Theotokos is to run the risk of Nestorianism.

        It does not mean that God had a beginning in the womb of the Virgin! It means, as Turretin reminds us, that God the Son was truly in the womb of the Virgin. That’s the great mystery of our salvation.

      • If it is right to say God became man, then it must be right to call Mary the Mother of God, but only in the senses of
        a) the one from whose womb God came, and, possibly,
        b) the one who contributed to the nature God took when He became man.

    • Thank you Dr. Clark. Your last paragraph says only more eloquently what we were both trying to say, I think, that God the Son was in the womb of Mary and received his human nature from her. And the rest is a profoundly glorious mystery so we should leave it at that.

    • Anthony, you hit the nail on the head! Because Jesus was in the womb of Mary and born like one of us, we are assured that Jesus is truly the God/man that was promised, the one that would fulfill the covenant with Abraham. The one who would fulfill all the requirements for acceptance before God in our place, made possible because he had a human nature as well as a divine nature. It is crucial that he was truly man as well as God for Him to represent us as one of us, and to have the divine nature that made it possible for Him to endure our punishment and to provide the perfect righteousness, to be imputed to us, so that we could be acceptable before a completely holy and perfectly righteous God. He truly is the Prince of Peace.

  7. I too fully believe that God the Son was in the womb of Mary, and that He received His human nature from her. And, for the record, I also fully reject the nonsense of the Nestorians. I think where I get hung up on this is the inseparable nature of God, and the resulting implication of the title “mother of God;” that as the mother of God, Mary is somehow the mother of both the Father and the Holy Spirit as well as the Son. Although I know that she isn’t, my concern is that some would automatically assume that she is. Therefore, I find the title to be both confusing and unhelpful.

  8. I have read several people here say that Christ received his human nature from his mother, Mary. We also seemed to agree that we don’t really know the genetic makeup of Christ and to speculate too far is to venture into QIRC territory. Isn’t that also the case with the origin of his human nature? We know Joseph did not contribute any genetic component. How can we be sure that Mary did anything more than bear Christ? The first Adam inherited no genetic component from an earthly parent yet was fully human. Couldn’t the same have been the case with the second Adam?

    • Bob,

      Fair question. The good news is that we studied the Scriptures in the 3rd and 4th centuries and afterward to answer it. We concluded from the biblical narratives and from what the rest of Scripture says that God the Son did not simply pass through the Virgin. This is why the Apostles’ Creed says, “natus ex Maria Virgine.” He was not simply “in” her womb. His humanity is “of” her womb.

      This goes to our doctrine of consubstantiality, i.e., that just as God the Son is eternally begotten of the Father so too his humanity is begotten “of” (not just in) the womb of the Virgin. His humanity is not merely “like” ours. It is ours. This is very clear from Hebrews, among other places. Remember, he gestated in the womb of the Virgin. She didn’t just appear to be pregnant. She became pregnant and carried a human child to term.

      The notion that Jesus was only “in” the womb but not “of” comes from the Anabaptist heretics, who taught so-called “celestial flesh” Christology, which is a denial of the true humanity of Jesus.

      On this see the (probably 5th century AD) Athanasian Creed.

      The Reformed confessions are equally insistent on Christ’s true, consubstantial humanity. He is “like us in every respect, sin excepted.” His role as our Mediator depends on this. His conception was miraculous but his birth was, otherwise, completely ordinary. He grew (Luke 2:52). He suffered. He learned obedience (Heb 5:8).

      Hs humanity was organically, biologically derived, by the mysterious, supernatural operation of the Holy Spirit but true humanity it was. Our salvation depends on it.

    • Isn’t it also important that Christ was of the line of David, fulfilling the prophecy that God would make David an everlasting dynasty, through Mary? Isn’t that why the Scripture gives us the pedigree of Jesus to prove that God fulfilled the Davidic covenant by the fact that Christ came from the womb of Mary? He really is who He claims to be, the One prophesied. Mark 12:35-37 Christ’s genetic makeup in his human nature is central in establishing who He is.

      • He is indeed the Seed of the Woman, not just a seed of some independent origin that merely passed through the Woman.
        The Scripture doesn’t tell us that the genealogy in Luke 3 is that of Mary, but it is a reasonable assumption that it is, since the true patrilineal genealogy of Joseph is unambiguously stated to be that in Matthew 1.

    • One source says the genealogy in Luke 3 is Mary’s while the on in Matthew 1 is Joseph’s. Another says they both are Joseph’s. But since Mary was married to Joseph, she was legally in the line to David so her son is the son of David. Either way Jesus is the son of David, the Messiah who was prophesied and looked forward to in the line of the covenants from Adam, Abraham and finally David. What might appear to be a dry genealogy turns out to be incredibly important for our confidence in Christ as the Saviour promised since the beginning,

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