Mother of God Defeats Early Church Heresy

Author: Monica & George Bonina


Monica and George Bonina

In the early part of the fifth century the Catholic Church turned to Mary, the Mother of God, to refute a heresy taught by Nestorius. the bishop of Constantinople.

Nestorius taught that the man Jesus Christ was not God. He taught that Jesus was only a physical vessel in which God dwelled. This was a very serious heresy since it attacked the very person of Jesus. Nestorius said that Jesus' divine and human natures were totally separate rather than united. If you believe this heresy, you have an incorrect view of both Jesus' nature and of salvation. You would believe that only Jesus, the man, suffered and died, not Jesus, God.

The heresy spread and the Church had to deal with it. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to stop Nestorius from preaching the heresy, the Church called a general, or ecumenical, council at Ephesus in 431 A.D.

The council reasoned that if Jesus' human and divine natures were united, Mary would be the mother of Jesus, the man, and Jesus, God. The council therefore declared Mary to be the Mother of God. The Greek word for this is "Theotokos" which means "Birth-giver of God." Hence, Nestorius' fallacy was refuted by a formal doctrine of the Catholic Faith.

But did the council invent the doctrine of Mary as the Mother of God? We have only to look back to beliefs of the early Church, Apostolic Tradition, and Sacred Scripture to find out.

There is historical evidence that the early church practiced devotion to Mary. A fresco in a catacomb dating back to the end of the first century shows Mary between St. Peter and St. Paul. This symbolizes Mary's central role in the early Church. Other images show Mary as a sign of protection, defense and intercession.

The earliest prayer we have referring to Mary as the Mother of God dates to about 250 A.D. It is called "Sub Tuum Praesidium" ("Under Your Protection") and begins, "We fly to your patronage, O Holy Mother of God..."

But the understanding of Mary, Mother of God, goes back even further to St. Ignatius of Antioch. St. Ignatius was the third bishop of Antioch (St. Peter was the first) and was martyred around 110 A.D. He had heard the preaching of St. John the Apostle with whom Mary lived after the crucifixion (John, 19:26-27). Ignatius wrote, "For our God, Jesus Christ, was conceived by Mary in accord with God's plan..."

Other early Church fathers, including St. Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus of Lyon, and St. Ambrose wrote about Mary. Clearly, the early Church had a special devotion to Mary and considered her to be the Mother of God.

But we don't have to rely solely on early prayers and the writings of the Church fathers. We can also go directly to Scripture to see that Mary is the Mother of God. When Mary visited Elizabeth, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And Elizabeth said to Mary, "And why is this granted me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?" (Luke 1:43)

What we have here is a demonstration of how the Catholic Church, relying on Scripture and Apostolic Tradition, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, brought the doctrine of Mary, the Mother of God, to its fullness at the appropriate time. Nothing was invented. The doctrine was believed by the faithful from Apostolic times and was formally and officially declared to be a truth of the Faith when it was needed.

(Monica and George Bonina are active in Catholic evangelization and are officers in the Legion of Mary.)