In this article, I interview Drs. Timothy and Faith Pawl on Mary. Tim Pawl is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas. He has published two books In Defense of Conciliar Christology and In Defense of Extended Conciliar Christology, and he will soon release a book in the Cambridge Elements series on the philosophy of the incarnation. Faith is an adjunct instructor in philosophy at the University of St. Thomas. She is the author of numerous academic papers, and along with her husband Tim, she earned her PhD in philosophy from Saint Louis University.
Thank you to Drs. Timothy and Faith Pawl for taking the time out of their schedules to answer these questions for us. My questions and comments appear in bold font, and their responses follow them.
Why should we call Mary the “mother of God” instead of just the “mother of Jesus”?
In the history of the church, there have been some claims that have been theological lightning rods. They took on great importance as tools for demarcating the limits of orthodoxy. For instance, at the first ecumenical council of Nicaea in 325, the promulgated creed included a final anathema which cursed those who, among other things, thought that “there once was [a time] when he [the Son] was not” (Tanner 1990, 5). This sentence, contrary to the full divinity of the Son, was affirmed by the Arian party; the orthodox bishops made use of it to counter Arianism.
So likewise, Nestorius, Archbishop of Constantinople, claimed that while Mary bore the Christ in her womb, she didn’t bear God in her womb – that is, she was not the theotokos – i.e., the Godbearer. At the ecumenical council of Ephesus in 431, the promulgated documents include the claim that Mary is the theotokos. This claim, affirming the singularity of person in the incarnation, was denied by the Nestorian party; the orthodox bishops made use of it to counter Nestorianism.
Why is this affirmation of the singularity of person important? Well, it safeguards the claim that it was really someone divine who became incarnate, really someone divine who entered creation for our redemption, really someone divine who suffered the ignobility of the cross.
Finally, the claim that Mary bore God follows straightforwardly from the orthodox understanding of the incarnation. Not only is it affirmed in the ecumenical councils, as I noted above. One can see how the claim must be included, given the traditional understanding of the incarnation. Whatever happened to the man, Jesus Christ, happened to God, on the traditional view. For that man, Jesus Christ, was no other than the God-man, the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity. And so, given that the man gestated in the womb of Mary, and given that the man is no other person than the Second Person of the Trinity, it must follow that a divine person gestated in the womb of Mary. But a divine person is rightly called “God” on traditional Christian teaching. So, God gestated in the womb of Mary. (For Aquinas on this question, see here.)
If we call Mary the “mother of God”, do we not make her greater than God or at least at the same level as God?
Mary is not greater than God or on the same level as God in any theologically pernicious way, even if we do call her the Mother of God. We must remember that when thinking of Christ, we can consider him with respect to his divinity, but we can also consider him with respect to his humanity. With respect to his divinity, no created thing is greater than him or at the same level as him. None could be.
With respect to his humanity, Mary and Jesus were at the same level in some senses. They were both truly human in a full and complete sense. In some ways, too, she was greater than him – again, with respect to his humanity. As a human son (but not a merely human son) of a human mother, he owed her obedience according to the Law. (For Aquinas’s take on Christ’s submission to the Law, see here.) This should not surprise us, as scripture itself notes Christ’s submission to his parents in Luke 2:51.
We might say that, as her son, she was above him in authority; as her God, he was above her in authority. If we measure greatness all things considered, the whole and entire Christ measured against the whole and entire Mary, we get the answer we expect: Christ is God, and God is greater than Mary in every respect. We should expect that there would be something difficult to wrap our heads around in Jesus’ relationship to Mary. After all, how could a creature be the mother of the Creator? As the 11th century Marian hymn, Alma Redemptoris Mater puts it, “to the wonderment of nature, she bore her creator.” But the fact that this really happened is no more shocking or awe-inspiring than the fact that God became man, that God entered into the ordinary human way of being in the world.
Can we learn anything about God because the Son of God was born of a woman?
Numerous things, no doubt! We see God’s faithfulness to his covenant. This might not be us learning a new thing, but it counts as yet another reason to affirm something we already knew about God. We learn God’s willingness to enter into the quagmire we’ve created for ourselves in being born to a woman, like all of us, and being born to a woman of low standing. (For Aquinas’s take on the value of being born to an espoused virgin, see here; for his take on being born into poverty, see here.) Were he to have simply appeared somewhere, full-formed, one might question his true humanity. Such a birth safeguards his lineage.
Could God have been born a woman?
Yes. Undoubtedly. The medieval disputes about the incarnation were often about whether rationality was required for assumption (“Assumption” is the technical term for what the divine person does to the created nature when that nature is united to the person in a hypostatic union; “hypostatic union” is the technical term for the relation that holds between the divine nature and the assumed nature in a case of incarnation.) This question was disputed. (For Aquinas on what’s required for incarnation, see here.) Whatever the answer to that question, the assumability of a created, rational nature was universally affirmed by Christian thinkers. And so, a female human nature’s being assumed is no more impossible than a male human nature’s being assumed, as both are rational natures.
How is Mary an example for Christian life?
In this time of Advent, we can learn from Mary about saying yes with joy to what God asks of us, and about waiting patiently to see how God will work out His redemptive purposes in our lives and in the world around us. It’s of critical importance that when the angel Gabriel came to Mary, Mary gave God her permission, her fiat, to cooperate with God’s plan for salvation. She used her freedom to offer all she had to be part of God’s work of bringing Christ into the world. There’s a venerable tradition of considering Mary the New Eve, acknowledging the unique way she is able to participate in God’s plan to unravel the harm brought about in the Garden. We see in that tradition both the affirmation of Mary’s freedom and dignity, and her exemplarity in giving her all to God. Twentieth century British author, Caryll Houselander, writes beautifully of Jesus and Mary while Mary was waiting to give birth, “By his own will, Christ was dependent on Mary during Advent: he was absolutely helpless; he could go nowhere but where she chose to take him; he could not speak; her breathing was his breath; his heart beat in the beating of her heart…. In the seasons of our Advent – waking, working, eating, sleeping, being – each breath is a breathing of Christ into the world.” (Houselander, Reed of God) We, like Mary, are called to bring Christ into the corners of the world we inhabit, and to do so with joy and patience.