While various Protestant sects have their go-to complaints with what Catholics believe about salvation apart from grace (Catholics don’t believe that), worshiping saints (Catholics don’t do that), or even that the pope is the anti-Christ (he isn’t), there’s probably no one issue that galvanizes them more than the Marian doctrines, that Mary is elevated to the level of a deity. When Protestants hear her called “the mother of God,” they feel that their case is made, that Catholics are indeed pagan idolaters in “Christian clothing.” The real Mary, they think, would be horrified that she has been elevated to the status of a goddess by the Roman Church, since she was probably just a worship team leader in her local congregation. Okay, maybe they wouldn’t go that far, but still, Mary as the mother of God? It certainly sounds suspicious!
If you read the Church’s history, however, you will quickly discover that Mary’s title as the theotokos, the “Mother of God,” is extremely ancient. And, yes, it’s in Greek, the language of the New Testament, not Latin, so far back does her title go. In fact, it was ratified by the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in AD 431 after disputes arose on how to interpret the Nicene Creed of AD 381 where the eternal Son is recognized to have been born “of Mary.” The term theotokos was already widely in use, and employed by major figures of Church history such as St. Athanasius, St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, and even St. Augustine. All of these saints are revered by both the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics, as well as by a great many Protestants to this day. However, a fellow named Nestorius argued that theotokos went too far, that the preferred title of Mary should instead be christotokos, “Mother of Christ.” Protestants would probably nod in agreement that that title much better fits Mary’s status, since she cannot be the Mother of God, but only the mother of Jesus.
What’s interesting, though, is if you read the history of the Nestorian dispute carefully, Nestorius’ concern was not with the notion that calling Mary theotokos implied that she was the cause of God the Son, for the Nicene Creed had already affirmed that the Son was consubstantial with the Father and begotten of the Father before all worlds. Thus, God the Son was eternally God and eternally begotten without any mother! Nobody thought otherwise. Neither the Roman Catholic Church today nor the Eastern Orthodox Church think otherwise either. All agree that God is the uncaused cause of all that is created, that the Son is fully God and uncreated, that it was by means of the Son that all that was created was in fact created, and, finally and crucially, that Mary was created. As such, the Son pre-exists Mary, and Mary is no fourth member of the Trinity. Thus, calling Mary the “Mother of God” never meant and still does not mean that she is the cause of God, in which case, it in no sense suggests that she is divine.
Which brings us to the real question of what the Nestorian heresy was. It wasn’t about Mary at all, but about Christ! The Nestorians rejected the teaching of the Church that Christ was a single person with two natures, one divine and one human. You have probably heard Christ’s natures referred to as “hypostatic,” as two natures (physis in Greek) present in one person (hypostasis in Greek). This means that Christ is not two people, Jesus and God the Son, but instead one person—God the Son—already with the divine nature, but then assuming human nature as well, so that he is at one and the same time fully man and fully God. “Jesus” is the name given to the incarnate Son of God who, you will remember from your theology, shielded his human activity from the full use of his divine nature. But at all times, Jesus was the Son of God, fully man and fully God. Once resurrected, “all authority” was given to him he declared, meaning that most of the aforementioned shielding had been dropped.
Now, if you are a Protestant, you’ll recognize this doctrine, because this is what Protestants believe too. The alternatives to the hypostatic union leave us either with two guys in Christ, so that the Son is “possessing” Jesus, or else, it leaves us with a lack either of divinity or humanity in Jesus. The Nestorians couldn’t figure out how each nature wouldn’t entail a separate person even though Jesus appeared to be a single person. Thus, the Nestorian Church came to say that Christ had two separate natures (physis)—and thus, two separate persons (hypostasis)—but one unifying psychologically natural personality (prosopon)—more or less—the meaning of the Greek terminology mixed with our own contemporary metaphysics and psychology make it somewhat difficult to render, but to those who now say that there was no real difference, we should remember that while we have scant records of the dispute now, the bishops at the time of the Councils were fully engaged in a real argument. Thus, the Nestorians said that Mary did not bear the person/nature of God, but only the person/nature of the man Jesus Christ, and hence, she should only be called christotokos. Therefore, the real issue for the Third Ecumenical Council was recognizing that Jesus was fully God as well as fully man from his conception, that who Mary bore into the world was God the Son. It was, in short, a ratification of the significance of the Incarnation. Thus, to call Mary theotokos, Mother of God, is to say that you believe that Jesus truly was fully God and fully man. And that is something that all Protestants affirm!
So, does God need a mother? If he is born into the world incarnate as man, you bet he does!