Darakjian was the former pastor of the Armenian Evangelical Church
Illinois, and the former pastor of the First Armenian Evangelical
Church of Glendale, California. He is the former editor of
the official monthly
publication of the Union of the Armenian Evangelical Churches of the
Near East, and the past editor of the Armenian Evangelical Union of
North America's quarterly publication, The Forum.
versed in the history and literature of both the Armenian
Apostolic as well as Evangelical Churches. The
below was published in the AEUNA FORUM, March 2001.
Mary: Mother of God or Mother of Christ?
Rev. Barkev Darakjian
One of the issues separating the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches (including the Armenian Apostolic Church) from the Protestant churches (including the Armenian Evangelical Church) has been the place given to Mary in faith and practice. One of the factors that keeps us reticent on this issue is a matter of principle, that is, we prefer to write about the things that unite us rather than the things which separate us from other Christian creeds, especially from our Mother Church. Another reason is that the subject of Mariology is difficult to deal with objectively and without being misunderstood. In order to be on safe ground we must remain true to one of our reformed and evangelical criteria, that is, having the Bible as our sole reference. This means that Mary’s life should be examined within the context of the Bible.
The four gospels have very little to say about Mary’s background and her life with Jesus. In the narratives about Jesus’ infancy, Mary is mentioned only in Matthew and Luke. Mark and John do not carry the story of Jesus’ birth and, therefore, there is no Mary and no virgin birth in their gospels. The Apostle Paul also does not mention Mary or the virgin birth. Not only are Marian references scarce in the New Testament, some of them are even ambivalent. In some of the references (Matthew 12:46-50; Mark 3:20-35; Luke 8:19-21; John 2:11), Mary represents the unbelieving family or the old Israel. Mark in particular has a strikingly negative portrait of Mary when she and the members of her family conclude that “He [Jesus] is out of his mind.” By contrast, Luke’s infancy narrative makes Mary the first believer and consequently the representative of the church. John mentions Mary only as one of the women present at the crucifixion (19:25-27). Luke’s narrative of the Pentecost event includes Mary among the community of the upper room (Acts 1:14).
Jesus himself does not show much regard for Mary as his mother. He never calls Mary his mother; instead, he addresses her as “woman” twice in the gospel of John (2:4; 19:26). When some people from the crowd inform Jesus that his mother and brothers had come to speak to him, Jesus says: “ ‘Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?’ Then he [Jesus] pointed to his disciples and said, ‘Look! Here are my mother and brothers! Whoever does what my Father in heaven wants him to do is my brother, my sister, and my mother’ ” (Matthew 12:46-50, and parallels).
Mary’s positive image and spiritual insight are revealed only in the infancy narratives, at the time of crucifixion, and at the Pentecost event where Mary is in the company of the disciples with whom she prays. We learn more about Mary’s spirituality by reading about her encounter with the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38), and her hymn of praise, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). Even in this hymn, there is nothing to show that she was aware of the significance of that glorious event. Hans Küng, a renowned contemporary Catholic theologian and author, has this to say about Mary: “Mary is presented here as Virgin, full of humble faith, the object of God’s gracious choice and blessing, and at the same time as the prophetic singer in whom the great deeds of God in the Old Testament are completed.”(1) Another Catholic scholar, Richard P. McBrien, says, “Luke depicts Mary as the spokeswoman and representative of the 'anawim', the poor of Israel. She is a faithful hearer of the word, obedient to it and to the God who utters it.”(2)
In order to confine ourselves to our topic, we will not discuss here the other titles and roles that have been given to Mary by the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church. However, let us keep in mind that those titles and roles have been ascribed to Mary as a result of their assumption that Mary had been, and is, the Mother of God. A few early Church Fathers had used this title to honor both Jesus Christ and His mother without giving much thought to its theological significance and its consequence. They never thought that this designation would create serious Christological (the study of the being and nature of Jesus Christ) problems which eventually would polarize churches within Chistendom. It would also open the way to elevate the status of Mary and to expand her role in the economy of salvation and to bestow additional titles upon her such as Ever-Virgin, Immaculate Conception (preserved immune from all stain of original sin), Bodily Assumption Into Heaven, Advocate, Mediatrix, Queen of Heaven, Redemptrix, Mother of the Church, etc.
The use of theotokos (Mother of God) had its formal beginnings at the Council of Ephesus held in the year 431 A.D. It constituted the Church’s third General Council in order to clarify the Church’s Christological stand vis-à-vis the emerging heresies. In order to understand the nature of the ongoing Christological debates and developments, we must cast a glance at the concerns of the two preceding General Councils.
The First General Council was held in 325 A.D. in Nicaea to deal with the Arian heresy. Arius, a churchman in Alexandria (250-336), denied the full Divinity of Jesus Christ, asserting that He was not eternal but created by the Father. Jesus was not God by nature, and His dignity as Son of God was bestowed on Him by the Father because of His righteousness, and obedience to the Father to the end. The Council condemned Arius and his followers as heretics and consequently they were all banished. Athanasius, one of the giants of early Church Fathers, later the Bishop of Alexandria argued that “if Christ was less than God then He could not be our Savior. Only God could restore man to communion with Himself.” For Athanasius and the Nicene fathers, Christ was “of the same substance with God.”
The next General Council was held in 381 in Constantinople. This Council ratified the Nicene formulation, thus putting an end to the Arian heresy. The Council was also called to resolve the Appolinarian controversy over the mode of the union of deity and manhood in Jesus Christ. Appolinarius, Bishop of Laodicea (d. 392) who was a vigorous opponent of Arianism, emphasized the divinity of Jesus Christ at the expense of His full manhood. He denied that Christ possessed a human soul. Gregory of Nazianzus, Archbishop of Constantinople, criticized this position, saying, “We do not separate the Man from the Deity; no, we assert the dogma of the unity and identity of the Person, who aforetime was not man but God , the only Son before all ages, who in these last days has assumed manhood also for our salvation…..”(3)
The third Council, at Ephesus, was held amid the continuing controversies over the being and nature of Jesus Christ. There were two main leading parties emerging during the period of the late 4th and 5th centuries, namely, the Alexandrian and Antiochian Schools. The protagonists this time were Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria (d. 444), and Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople (d. ca. 451). In the tradition of the Alexandrian School, Cyril defended the unity of the Incarnate Word (logos). In his second letter to Nestorius, he concludes his position saying “ …it is one Christ and Lord that we acknowledge, and as one and the same we worship him, not as a man with the addition of the Word…because the body of the Lord is not alien from the Lord; and it is with this body that he sits at the Father’s right hand.”(4) Cyril defended the title theotokos (Mother, or, Bearer of God) ascribed to Mary, on the ground that the Divine and human natures were united in Jesus Christ.
As for Nestorius, following the tradition of the Antiochian School, he stressed the manhood of Christ. For him the Word really and truly became human. For him the expressions such as “God has suffered” or “God was nursed at his mother’s breast” were very offensive. Nestorius upheld the two natures in Christ, one divine and the other human, and that each has its own personal manifestation. In his letter to Pope Celestine, Nestorius has this to say: “If anyone wishes to use this word 'theotokos' with reference to the humanity which was born, joined to God the Word, and not with reference to the parent, we say that this word is not appropriate for her who gave birth, since a true mother should be of the same essence as what is born of her… none gives birth to one older than herself.”(5) Thus Nestorius preferred the term christotokos, or Mother of Christ.
We cannot in this space go into the details of the above arguments. As mentioned above, the whole thing started as a Christological issue. One party emphasized the divine nature in Jesus Christ at the expense of His human nature, and the other emphasized His human nature at the expense of His divinity. We would not be too much concerned with this dichotomy if it did not affect our concept of salvation. The elevation of Mary to the position of Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix, according to which Mary was made an active and potent mediator and a partner to the only Savior, Jesus Christ, in His redeeming work, irked not only the reformed churches (Protestant) but also many Catholics. Marian veneration and worship were practiced so excessively that Jesus as the Christ lost His preeminence as the only Savior of mankind.
The history of theotokos reveals to us two other factors which contributed to its acceptance as a dogma. First, there were the ongoing rivalries between the Alexandrian and Antiochian Patriarchates and personal animosity between Cyril and Nestorius. One Catholic historian suggests that it was more a political and ecclesiastical controversy than a dogmatic one. Second, the religious climate of the city of Ephesus with its temple of Artemis and the worship of this “Great Mother,” originally “the virgin goddess,” became conducive to replacing the pagan Artemis with the Christian Mary. It would be a way to merge paganism into Christianity and would facilitate the conversion of pagans into the new faith and religion.
The Armenian Evangelical Church does not practice Marian veneration and invocation in its worship services because it does not find anything in the Bible about Mary, the mother of our Lord, that would warrant such a belief and practice. The Evangelicals (Protestants) do not follow Nestorius in all his Christological views. However, we see no reason to call Mary theotokos and ask for her mediation to our Lord who is her Savior as well as ours. What we find in the Bible assuredly leads us, with the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit, to the only Savior and Redeemer of mankind.
This does not mean that we do not honor the mother of our Lord, or that there is nothing for us to learn from her exemplary humility and obedience in accepting God’s plans for human salvation. What she was and what she did were the result of the working of the Holy Spirit in her. She was an honored instrument in the hands of God to carry on His plan of salvation through His Son, our Lord Jesus.