In the 5th century an Egyptian priest was disciplined by Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, for describing Mary the mother of Jesus as Θεοτόκος, “theotokos”. Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria, decided to use this as a pretext for a bid for supremacy in the eastern church. After much wrangling, a council was scheduled at Ephesus in 431. This was held before Nestorius’ supporters could arrive, and duly pronounced that Cyril was right and Nestorius was wrong. When the other side did arrive, they held their own council and voted the opposite.
Both sides then appealed to the emperor, Theodosius II, who was in fact a cypher. The imperial government was in the hands of the eunuch Chrysaphius. Chrysaphius responded as any rational man would, and sent both combatants into exile. Cyril then carried out a campaign of bribery of important individuals in Constantinople, to be allowed to return. Incredibly a list of bribes is preserved among his correspondence. A vicious political struggle followed, from which Cyril emerged victorious.
Thereafter this word became a watchword, that none might contradict, and to which all must subscribe as a test of loyalty. These days we know something about the use of language to demonise your enemies and seize power. In the jargon of 20th century communist society, Nestorius and his supporters were purged. This word, Θεοτόκος, was the tool used to force them out, to seize their positions and property. They’re still out there, fifteen centuries later. As for Cyril’s supporters, drunk with power and their victory, they ran rampant for a decade, even going so far as to threaten the emperor’s sister, Pulcheria.
But when Theodosius died in 450 AD, Pulcheria married a general named Marcian, who convened the council of Chalcedon. Payback time! Chalcedon duly used the same technique to purge the extreme Cyrillians, and this led to yet another fifteen centuries of schism.
This distasteful series of events is one reason why the councils after Nicaea are never really taken seriously in the English-speaking world. It is one reason why Cyril of Alexandria is regarded with distaste. Nothing about this business has any meaning other than the ambition of a few reckless and greedy people. The word Θεοτόκος is not scriptural, and if it had been, it was plainly simply a pretext for injuring others.
In English Θεοτόκος is usually rendered as “Mother of God”. This does not help its case in any way. The mind instinctively recoils from the idea that God, who is uncreated, has a mother!
But searching the web, I came across something interesting. Is it possible that this is simply a very bad translation of the idea?
The following remarks (here) made me think:
Theotokos derives from the Greek terms: Theos / ‘God’; and tiktein / ‘to give birth’. Mary is the Theotokos, the one who gave birth to God. This single word sums up the meaning of Luke’s phrase: ‘Mother of the Lord’ (Lk 1:43) and represents a counterpoint to John’s teaching that the ‘Word was made flesh’ (Jn 1:14).
I find in Latin, likewise, Dei genetrix, rather than mater dei.
These may seem like small differences, but there is quite a difference between the idea of “one who gave birth to God” and “mother of God”. The first merely summarises that Mary was the mother of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is God the Son incarnate. The latter implies that God did not exist before Mary gave birth to him, any more than you or I existed before we were brought into the world.
If so, possibly we should all stop translating Theotokos as “mother of God”. Whatever it may say in Greek, or may have said at the time, in English it is a huge obstacle to most people.
One thing is certain, from all this. The word Theotokos is a terrible word to describe Mary. By its fruits you shall know it. It is not biblical. It can only be used by the logical reasoning of fallible men. The doctrine is the product of the work of an ambitious fifth century bishop whom none of us like much, and who used it for the most evil purposes possible. It became part of church dogma through a corrupt council and a process of bribery and corruption. Let’s get rid of it.