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Final Paper

Theotokos: a Christological or Mariological dispute on the Council of Ephesus in 431?

Rafael Nerbas

Christology
1

Introduction

Brazil has the largest Roman Catholic population in the world. Brazilian history and

culture cannot be understood without taking in consideration the influence and presence of the

Roman Catholic Church and the popular devotion to the Virgin Mary is a very important aspect

and mark of it. For example, Brazil has a national holyday celebrating the Our Lady Aparecida

(“The One Who Appeared”), the official Brazilian Patroness, in October 12th. Hail Mary is

certainly the second most popular prayer in Brazil and it has in its second half the intercession

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of death”. Both the largest

religious temples in Brazil are dedicated to Mary: the first is the Basilica of the National Shrine

of Our Lady Aparecida for 45.000 people and the second and the newest one is a temple in Sao

Paulo for 20.000 people whose name is The Sanctuary of Theotokos – The Mother of God.

Based on this context and its influence in my ministry as Chaplain in a Lutheran

University in Brazil, my initial interest as a topic for this paper was an investigation on the

implications of Chalcedon's christological emphasis on the title of Theotokos for the later

devotion to Mary, especially in the Roman Catholic Church.

I gave preference to Roman Catholic or Orthodox authors to investigate whether those

who advocate some veneration to Mary pointed to any historical connection with the Council of

Chalcedon. But the readings from these authors directed me to the Council of Ephesus instead

and to its relation to the context of Constantinople before and during Nestorius´ episcopate, as a

striking moment in the propagation of the cult of Mary, initially in Eastern Christianity, but with

consequences also for its later propagation in the West.

These readings also drew my attention to different interpretations of the Council of

Ephesus and a Roman Catholic new approach which tries to comprehend the Nestorian
2

controversy and the Council itself through the lens of an emerging devotion to Mary in the East,

especially in Constantinople. This new approach revealed a tendency to consider Mariology1 and

not Christology as the motivation for the condemnation of Nestorius and the exaltation of the

title of Theotokos as the consolidation of a popular Marian piety. Reactions to that new approach

were also identified from the readings and a tension between Christological and Mariological

emphasis in the dialogue about the Council of Ephesus and even about Cyril of Alexandria´s

theology.

After exposing some points on Mariology and its relationship with the use of Theotokos

as a title for the Virgin Mary even before Ephesus, I will focus on this tension between

Mariology and Christology on discussing the Council and I will try to offer a personal critique of

it. Even if my own context as pastor in Brazil should lead me to a research more focused on the

Western development of Mariolatry, I decided to stay focused on the Council of Ephesus

because it is directly related to the discussions we had in class on Chalcedon and Cyril of

Alexandria, and because it is related to my first purpose on investigating possible consequences

of the emphasis on the Theotokos for the devotion to Mary that probably echoed in the West as

well.

Mariology

According to Lawrence Cunningham2, the first recorded mention to the term “Mariology”

comes from a Sicilian Jesuit named Nigido Placido, who published a Summa Mariologiae in

1602. Cunningham also observes two different ways to deal with Mariology in the history of the

Roman Catholic Church. The first was to define it as a distinct discipline within Catholic

1
In this paper, I use Mariology as a preferred term and not Mariolatry because I am quoting mostly Roman
Catholic authors and their understanding of a Theology of Mary from Scriptures and Tradition.
2
Cunningham, Lawrence S. "Some Recent Books on Mary," Pro Ecclesia 19, no. 1 (Winter 2010): 93-101.
3

theology and it has its roots in the Baroque period, in France and Italy, in the works of Louis

Marie Grignion de Montfort (+1718) and Alphonsus de Liguori (+1778)3. The second one comes

from the Second Vatican Council which decided to not separate Mariology as an isolated issue in

Roman Catholic theology anymore but “to locate the church´s faith in Mary´s place in the

economy of salvation within the larger setting of the dogmatic constitution on the church (Lumen

Gentium).”4

Without discussing if there is or not a distinct section for Mary´s theology in the Roman

Catholic Church, for the purposes of this research, I will use the term “Mariology” meaning the

set of arguments from Scripture and especially Tradition, which justify the devotion to Mary

according to the Roman Catholic understanding. That is the way most authors I have read for this

paper apply the term Mariology to the historical development of the cult of Mary.

Berard Mathaler, in his catechetical exposition of the Nicene Creed, identifies 3 aspects

in the historical development of the devotion to Mary: 1) veneration, and here Marthaler

connects it directly to a special honor in recognition of her unique role as Mother of God; 2)

imitation as a model of holiness; and 3) invocation of her power of intercession5. For the

purposes of this paper, the first and the second are the most important because they are the

mostly quoted by the authors who discuss the Council of Ephesus on the perspective of

Mariology. The third one is considered by most of them a later development even if some of

them identify evidences of intercessions to Mary before Ephesus in the East.

3
Cunningham, Some Recent Books, 94.
4
Cunningham, Some Recent Books, 94-5.
5
Marthaler, Berard L. The Creed: The Apostolic Faith in Contemporary Theology. (New London: Twenty-
Third Publications, 2010), 131.
4

A New Approach to Mariology

A new approach to Mariology can be identified in Roman Catholic authors after the

Second Vatican Council. That is what Stephen Shoemaker, a Faculty Member at the University

of Oregon, affirms in his recent book Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion6. Shoemaker

describes the Council of Ephesus in 431 as the hallmark for the new approach affirming that the

focus is now in possible evidences of a developing devotion to Mary before Ephesus and its

influence on the Nestorian controversy and on the Council itself. Shoemaker even criticizes some

recent researches from this new perspective which maximize the evidencies of a Marian piety

before Ephesus. But he concludes saying the evidencies of a devotion to Mary before the Council

of Ephesus must be considered to understand better the Council itself and especially the

intensification of the cult of Mary after the Council.

Antonia Atanassova is a Roman Catholic author who identifies two different ways to

interpret the relation between Mariology and the Council of Ephesus7: 1) to assume the existence

of a devotion to Mary, which would be a natural evolution of the cult to pagan goddess, and

forced the Church to adapt the liturgy and theology to accommodate Mariology; 2) to consider

the devotion to Mary not as a significant part of the Church´s life before the Council of Ephesus,

and even for the Council itself because there was a broader and much more important

Christological context. Atanassova proposes a more complex analysis of the question of the

origin of Mariology. She defends a direct relation and an interdependence between a popular

veneration to Mary already existing, and that will increase after Ephesus, and the theoretical

6
Shoemaker, Stephen J. Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion. New Haven: Yale University Press,
2016.
7
Antonia Atanassova. "Theological and Cultic Components of Mariology in the Context of Ephesus." In
Studia Patristica 44: Papers presented at the Fifteenth International Conference on Patristic Studies held in Oxford
2007, edited by J. Baun, A. Cameron, M. Edwards, & M. Vinzent, 447-60. Walpole, MA: Peeters, 2010, 447.
5

disputes about the role of the Virgin in the theology of the incarnation. This way, what

Atanassova defines as her proposition it is a perfect example of what means the new approach to

Mariology: “to reconstruct the possible historical dynamics of the interaction between pious

practice and theological perspective.”8

Possible evidences of an Early Devotion to Mary before Ephesus

As both Shoemaker and Atanassova made clear, the new approach to Mariology uses to

assume an early devotion to Mary in the Early Church even before the Council of Ephesus. And

this assumption will shape the way its authors interpret the Nestorian controversy and the

Council´s decision.

Stephen Shoemaker identifies four emphases on Mary perceived in Christianity prior to

the Council of Ephesus: 1) motherhood as a guarantee of the humanity of Jesus, 2) the virginal

conception as a sign of the exalted status Christ as divine; 3) the obedience of Mary on the

moment of the Annunciation, which compared to Eve's disobedience, makes Mary a New Eve

for the New Adam; 4) persistence in virginity as a model of chastity for other virgins.9

There are many other references from many authors to possible evidences of veneration

to Mary before Ephesus. The following list has the others most quoted or relevant supposed

evidences:

Sub Tuum Praesidium: Maxwell Johnson offers a detailed research on a fragment

published by C. H. Roberts in 1938 of what would be the earliest Marian prayer, the Sub Tuum

Praesidium, whose translation would be: “To your protection we flee, holy Mother of God

(Theotokos): do not despise our prayers in [our] needs, but deliver us from all dangers, glorious

8
Atanassova, “Theological and Cultic Components of Mariology”, 448.
9
Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith, 4.
6

and blessed Virgin.”10 Johnson, in the same part of its article, argues that the prayer was already

used liturgically in the Coptic, Greek, and Ambrosian Rites in the fifth century and in Roman

Rite in the sixth century, but the author advocates the third or at least the fourth century for the

origin of the prayer instead of the presence of Theotokos in it, and he does so because he assumes

the title was already in use liturgically at that time. He quotes a criticism from the Emperor

Julian the Apostate in his text Against the Galileans warning Christians against invocations to

the Theotokos because it would be a kind of superstition.11 Pelikan also quotes the Sub Tuum

Praedidium as an evidence of the litugical use of Theotokos before Ephesus, and he adds that this

prayer is the probable source of Athanasius use of Theotokos in his Orations Against the Arians

III.12

New Eve: As already mentioned, Shoemaker calls the attention to the identification of

Mary as the New Eve, based on her obedience to God´s Word, as a theme present in the Early

Church before the Council of Ephesus. Johnson quotes Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons as

examples of Fathers whose theology calls Mary as the New Eve.13

The Apocryphal Gospel of James – dated by Maxwell Johnson as mid-second to early

third century document and quoted by this author as an evidence of an early interest in narratives

concerning Mary, this text mentions the name of Mary´s parents, advocates her virginity in partu

and post partum, and describes Mary as the weaver of the purple and scarlet veil of the temple in

Jerusalem.14

10
Johnson, “Sub Tuum Praesidium”, 62.
11
Johnson, “Sub Tuum Praesidium”, 63.
12
Pelikan, Mary through the Centuries, 64.
13
Johnson, “Sub Tuum Praesidium”, 59.
14
Johnson, “Sub Tuum Praesidium”, 63-64.
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Collyridians: According to Johnson, it was an extreme pro-Marian group who venerated

Mary, and used to dedicate their own made small cakes (the name Collyridians comes from

“cake” in Greek) to Mary before eating; they had a female priesthood also.15 Stephen Shoemaker

says they could be found in Thrace, Scythia and Arabia. He also quotes a criticism from

Epiphanius of Salamis in the fourth century accusing them to replace God with Mary.16

The Six Books Apocryphon: Shoemaker also attributes to Epiphanius of Salamis being the

source who quotes this document. According to Shoemaker, the narrative talks about the

perpetual virginity of Mary, describes rituals dedicated to her and compares Mary compared to

Elijah because both would not have died before going to heaven.17

The Virgin´s Festival or Commemoration: this is the most quoted possible evidence of an

early devotion to Mary. Pelikan talks about a liturgical practice called Commemoration, arguing

that Athanasius already mentions it as a liturgical feast both in the Epistle to Epictetus and the

Epistle to Maximus. Pelikan also defends this liturgical feast as already present in the

Alexandrian calendar.18 Johnson affirms it was "the earliest liturgical festival of Mary –

Theotokos."19 A monk and professor at Harvard, Nicholas Constas, defends that was Atticus,

bishop in Constantinople before the antecessor of Nestorius, Sissinius, who introduced the Feast

of the Virgin in the liturgical calendar of Constantinople20. In his book, Constas affirms that the

15
Johnson, “Sub Tuum Praesidium”, 68.
16
Stephen J. Shoemaker. "The Cult of the Virgin in the Fourth Century: a Fresh Look at Some Old and
New Sources." In The Origins of The Cult of The Virgin Mary, edited by Chris Maunder, 71-88. New York: Burns &
Oates, 2008, 76-8.
17
Shoemaker, “The Cult of the Virgin”, 78-82.
18
Pelikan, Mary through the Centuries, 60.
19
Johnson, “Sub Tuum Praesidium”, 69.
20
Nicholas Constas. "Weaving the Body of God: Proclus of Constantinople, the Theotokos, and the Loom
of the Flesh." Journal of Early Christian Studies 3, no. 2 (Summer 1995): 172.
8

most important evidence of the Feast appears in the beginning of Proclus´ sermon in

Constantinople during the Christmas cycle in 430.21 Constas quotes Proclus´s sermon:

The Virgin´s Festival, my brethen, summons us today to words of praise ... what
we celebrate is the pride of women and the glory of the female, thanks to the one
who was both mother and virgin ... For Holy Mary, the untarnished vessel of
virginity, has called us here together."22

Shoemaker mentions another sermon of Proclus, before the arrival of Nestorius, which

mentions the same liturgical feast: "But even though all the commemorations of the saints are

marvelous, none of them can compare with the glory of the present festival ... there is nothing

exalted as Mary the Theotokos."23

But there are divergent opinions on the importance of these evidences to the Nestorian

controversy and the Council of Ephesus. As already quoted by Antonia Antassanova, there is a

divergent way to approach Mariology which does not put so much emphasis on the importance

of an early veneration to Mary.

Richard Price is one of the key authors of this different tendency, and exactly for this

reason, he has an opposite opinion about these supposed evidences above. He affirms there is

almost no important reference to the cult of Mary before the fifth century. He makes a reference

to the Sub Tuum Praesidium, but argues that it is not prior to the end of the fourth century. He

stands in favor of a liturgical use of Theotokos since the third century, but he does not think it

means an evidence of any significant devotion to Mary before Ephesus. He mentions some sense

of imitation of Mary in a spiritual sense that Christians also receive Christ in the womb of faith,

21
There are different opinions about the date of this sermon. Some authors say it was in 428, others 429.
But all of them affirm it was during the Christmas´ cycle and that it was preached in the presence of Nestorius.
22
Nicholas Constas. Proclus of Constantinople and the Cult of the Virgin in Late Antiquity: Homilies 1-5,
Texts and Translations. Lenden: Brill, 2002, 59.
23
Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith, 4.
9

but he says this imitation is something very far from a cult.24 Richard Price represents authors

who does not tend to minimize or underestimate the centrality of Christology as the most

important criteria to interpret the Nestorian controversy. He seems to offer a criticism to the new

approach inside the Roman Catholic circle and a more correct and balanced interpretation.

So, the problem, as it will become clear in the next paragraphs, it is how much emphasis

the new approach put on Mariology and not Christology. But the new approach to Mariology

may offer important contributions to explain why, according to many authors, there was an

intensification of the cult to Mary after the Council of Ephesus, or according to Maxwell

Johnson, a Lutheran author who teaches at the University of Notre Dame, the Christological

debate in Ephesus may have opened space for a path in which attention will focus on Mary.

Johnson categorically argues that devotion to Theotokos did not come out of nowhere into

Ephesus, nor out of nowhere after Ephesus25.

The origins of Theotokos

As the Christological discussions in Ephesus had as one of the its key points on

discussions the acceptance or not of Theotokos, it is relevant to investigate possible origins of the

title.

One way to approach to it is to assume Theotokos as being part of the process of

accommodation of pagan cults to goddesses in the Early Church. But since that is not a valid

assumption for the new approach to Mariology, it is better to verify other options offered by

those authors.

24
Richard M. Price. "The Theotokos and the Council of Ephesus." In The Origins of The Cult of The Virgin
Mary, edited by Chris Maunder, 89-104. New York: Burns & Oates, 2008.
25
Maxwell E. Johnson, "Sub Tuum Praesidium: The Theotokos in Christian Life and Worship Before
Ephesus." Pro Ecclesia 17, (Winter 2008) no. 1: 52-75.
10

Jaroslav Pelikan rejects the idea of Theotokos having pagan origins. He defends Christian

worship as the origin and argues that Athanasius used it in this sense26. Maxwell Johnson agrees

with Pelikan on the Christian origin of the title and he adds that the origin of the term is not

doctrinal because the term in the fourth century did not necessarily implied a specific

Christological position, but it was used by various authors with different Christological

conceptions, what made of it a common title for Mary in the fourth century.27

Pelikan says the first appearance of Theotokos as a title was in Alexandria when

Alexander referred to Mary the Theotokos in his encyclical of circa 319 about the heresy of

Arius. Pelikan also defends a widespread acceptance of Theotokos in the piety of the faithful at

Alexandria.28 Atanassova argues that Theotokos was not result of a pagan influence or adaption,

and she says it when defending that Mariology has its origins from Scriptures, Christian

Theology and liturgy, and that all these elements, in her opinion, are present in Ephesus´

context.29

Not only the discussions on the origins of Theotokos may influence the new approach to

Mariology but the title itself. Jaroslav Pelikan defines the title Theotokos attributed to the Virgin

as “the most comprehensive and most problematic invented term by Eastern Christianity.”30 For

comprehensive he likely means its presumed liturgical use before Ephesus. As problematic, he

probably takes in account the Christological dispute on it.

But the way Theotokos was translated may be relevant for the development of the

devotion to Mary. For Pelikan, Mother of God is not a precise translation, but “the one who gave

26
Pelikan, Mary through the Centuries, 57-64.
27
Johnson, “Sub Tuum Praesidium”, 54-5.
28
Pelikan, Mary through the Centuries, 57.
29
Atanassova, “Theological and Cultic Components of Mariology”, 459.
30
Jaroslav Pelikan. Mary through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture. New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1996, 55.
11

birth to the one who is God.”31 Eirini Artemi, a Greek Ortodox Biblical Hebrew teacher, also

calls the attention to different ways to translate Theotokos and how it may result in different

interpretations of the title. She says that God-bearer, another term to express a more precise

translation according to Pelikan, it is a way to emphasize the divinity of the One who will born

and to focus on the miracle of the Incarnation of the Son without any prejudice to His eternal

divinity. She also calls the attention to the fact that the translation Mother of God tends to

promote the glory of Mary´s motherhood.32

Even if the focus of this paper is the Eastern roots for Mariology, it is noteworthy that

one of the factors contributing to the later increasing of a Marian veneration in the West may

have been the preference for a Latin translation as Mater Dei. As Eirini Artemi highlighted

above, Mater Dei tends to emphasize the importance of Mary and not the One who was

incarnated. Deipara or Dei Genetrix could have been better options to avoid this problem

keeping a right Scriptural emphasis.

The opposition to Nestorius in Constantinople and the Theotokos

The new approach to Mariology tends to interpret the origins of Nestorian controversy

apart from a Christological motivation. The most frequent way to do it is to emphasize the

opposition to the episcopate of Nestorius and/or the political context of Constantinople as the

real causes for Nestorius´ defeat in Ephesus.

The first aspect contributing to an opposition to Nestorius is his rejection to use of

Theotokos not only because of his own Christological way keep Christ´s divinity preserved.

31
Pelikan, Mary through the Centuries, 55
32
Eirini Artemi. “The Virgin Mary, Theotokos, and Christ, true God and true man: The mystery of
Incarnation according to Cyril of Alexandria.” Mirabilia Journal: Electronic Journal of Antiquity & Middle Ages
17, no. 2 de 2013, 64.
12

In a book wrote by an Anglican and a Jesuit, Nestorius is presented as a bishop concerned

about the liturgical use of Theotokos because it "appeared to deify Mary and threatened to lead

the Constantinopolitans into idolatry.”33 Philip Dancy, even being a Baptist author, has a similar

description of Nestorius as someone who rejected Theotokos not only because of his Christology,

but because of his concerns about the idolatry in Constantinople.34 Nicholas Constas also makes

reference to Nestorius as someone scandalized with the idolatry to Mary in the Capital. Constas

quotes a letter sent by Nestorius to Pope Celestine as an evidence of it35.

It is interesting to say that in the excerpt from the letter quoted by Constas, Nestorius

focuses only on the Christological discussion of Theotokos from his own perspective. He does

not seem to indicate any devotion to Mary as his motive to write the letter.

But if there was in fact a developing devotion to Mary or an exaggerated liturgical

emphasis on Theotokos in Constantinople at least, it would be reasonable to admit the possibility

of a contribution, even it was not more important than his own Christology in my opinion, to

Nestorius rejection of the title.

Other reason suggested by some authors for the controversy is Nestorius´ unpopularity,

caused by a set of related factors.

One of these factors, according to Nicholas Constas, has its evidence in Nestorius´ first

speech as the Bishop of Constantinople, when he asks for support to the Emperor to be a kind of

hunter of heretics. Constas says it became a reality especially against Arians, Apollinarians, and

Quartodecimans, with even deaths as result.36

33
Tim S. Perry; Daniel Kendall. The Blessed Virgin Mary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015.
34
Phillip Andrew Dancy. "Nestorius and the Rejection of Theotokos: His Political and Social
Condemnation." Fides et Historia 38, (Winter/Spring 2006) no. 1, 153-155.
35
Constas, “Weaving the Body of God”, 174.
36
Constas, Proclus of Constantinople, 47-8.
13

Miri Rubin, professor at Queen Mary University of London, adds that Nestorius became

unpopular by trying to impose limits on circus activities and on the theater of mimes.37 Rubin

also emphasizes Nestorius´s bad relationships with Rome, with Alexandria, with the monks of

Constantinople because he tried to interfere in their affairs and ordered to arrest an important

monk named Basil.38 The same author also quotes a popular reaction to a sermon of Nestorius in

the church of St. Irene as an evidence of such unpopularity: "we have an emperor, not a

bishop."39

The political context of Constantinople is also appointed by many authors as important to

define Nestorius final defeat at Ephesus. Two major figures are highlighted as the hardest

opponents to Nestorius: Pulcheria and Proclus. In both cases, the new approach to Mariology

relates the political and theological opposition to an emergent popular devotion to Mary in

Constantinople, making the discussion on the Theotokos the opportunity to depose Nestorius

attacking the orthodoxy of the former hunt of heretics.

Antonia Atanassova defines the Empress Pulcheria, one of the three daughters of the

Emperor Theodosius II, as “an augusta who had established a quasi-monastic lifestyle at the

court of Constantinople … one of Mary´s most fervent devotees and thus someone who could

have an existential stake in defending her virginity as God-bearing.”40

Nicholas Constas says Pulcheria had made a vow of virginity likely influenced by the

bishop Atticus whose text On Faith and Virginity was dedicated to the three daughters of

Theodosius II, where Atticus highlighed the Virgin Theotokos as the model of chastity to be

37
Miri Rubin. Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009, 44.
38
Rubin, Mother of God, 48-56.
39
Rubin, Mother of God, 54.
40
Atanassova, “Theological and Cultic Components of Mariology”, 450.
14

imitated, and promised that if they keep virginity, they would mystically bear the Son of God as

the Virgin Theotokos had done in her womb.41

The relationship between Nestorius and Pulcheria is described by many authors as

problematic. Divergent versions of incidents between them appear in different texts. Some

authors say Nestorius prohibited Pulcheria to take the Lord´s Supper in the holy place at the

cathedral as it was her habit before him, others say Nestorius questioned Pulcheria´s vow and

accused her of adultery, but the versions are so different than it is hard to say each one is the best

or even trustable.

What seems to be almost unanimous among the authors of the new approach is to suggest

that Pulcheria´s personal devotion to Mary was the major reason for a strong political opposition

against Nestorius with implications to the Council of Ephesus and even Chalcedon.

Rubin even suggests a strong connection between Pulcheria and Cyril of Alexandria

which could have been a political motivation to Cyril´s theological opposition to Nestorius in

order to obtain imperial support to consolidate himself as the theological exponent in the East.42

In Rubin´s discussions on Pulcheria versus Nestorius, it is easy to identify the influence

of a Feminist hermeneutics on some authors who follows the new approach. They reflect a

tendency to exalt Alexandrian theology and especially Cyril as a more inclusive one and

favorable to provide a valorization of women in the cultic life of the Christian church by

promoting Theotokos, and to describe Antiochian theology represented by Nestorius as the other

side of the same coin rejecting Theotokos and trying to attack Pulcheria´s religious dedication to

Mary.

41
Constas, “Weaving the Body of God”, 171-2.
42
Rubin, Mother of God, 47-8.
15

The other major opponent to Nestorius is Proclus, who was a candidate to be the bishop

when the successor of Atticus, Sussinius, died. Proclus had a fierce and shocking competition

against Philip of Side, which could be the reason for the Emperor Theodosius II resolve to bring

Nestorius from Antioch.43

Based on the fact Proclus is described to be very close to Pulcheria, and that he ended up

being the second sucessor of Nestorius, he is appointed by some authors as having strong

political motives to oppose Nestorius.

But the most quoted event is not a political but a theological incident. Many authors

mention the occasion when Proclus was invited by Nestorius to preach during the Christmas´

circle.

Several authors say the Theotokos controversy had started with another sermon, preached

by Anastasius, auxiliary of Nestorius, when Anastasius would have asserted that Mary was a

human being and God could not be born of a human being.

Nicholas Constas affirms Proclus Homily I was preached in the presence of Nestorius in

430 and was.” 44 As already mentioned, Proclus started the sermon exalting a presumed liturgical

feast in honor to the Virgin Mary. And according to many authors, the intention of the sermon

was to be a direct attack to Nestorius´ rejection to the Theotokos.

Nestorius reacted immediately. Just after the end of Proclus´ sermon, Nestorius started a

public response starting with a manifestation of his concern about with an excessive and

idolatrous exaltation of Mary.45 Constas quotes a Latin translation of Nestorius´ reaction by

Marius Mercator which says Nestorius would have said he could not accept two different births

43
Constas, Proclus of Constantinople, 45.
44
Constas, Proclus of Constantinople, 56-57.
45
Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith, 209.
16

to the divine Logos and also would have expressed his concerns about God´s impassibility

denying the possibility of God to be born or die, accusing who affirmed that of Arianism.

According to Constas, Mercator also recorded Nestorius defense of Christ´s 2 hypostases and

two natures.46

The Sermon of Proclus in the Presence of Nestorius

The interpretation that some authors suggest to Proclu´s Homily I is another example of

how this new approach to Mariology tends to remove Christology from the center of the

controversy.

Atanassova offers a kind of feminist or gendered interpretation of the metaphors used by

Proclus to exalt the Virgin and to describe the Incarnation, especially the textile-loom. She says:

[Proclus] discusses the Holy Spirit as the agent of conception ... it makes the Holy
Spirit assume the typical female task of weaving, thus binging gender opposites
together, in a possible allusion to the way in which Christ's virginal conception
transcends the course of Adam and Eve's sexual separation.47

Nicholas Constas, in his article entirely dedicated to discuss Proclus´ sermon in defense

of the Theotokos48, he classifies it as an extravagant praise to Mary and tends to see Proclus

adapting his Christology of the union of natures in Christ as a way of justifying the Theotokos as

an exaltation to Mary. Constas relates the image of the textile-loom to Pulcheria, who used to

spend much of her time spinning and weaving. He highlights the visual impact of this metaphor:

those who saw the loom recalled the womb of Mary and the error of Nestorius. He also states

46
Constas, Proclus of Constantinople, 65-68.
47
Atanassova, “Theological and Cultic Components of Mariology”, 457.
48
Constas. "Weaving the Body of God”, 169-94.
17

that the language of the sermon contributed decisively to the medieval cult of Mary because it

had a typology of Mary never seen before.

But when Constas analyzes the sermon from a theological perspective, he makes good

and even surprising observations highlighting: 1) a connection between soteriology and

Christology in Proclus; 2) Proclus´ language as a kind of anticipation of the Council of

Chaldedon when Proclus affirms two natures and one hypostase; 3) the presence of a paradoxical

language of unity and duality both presents in Christ; 4) the assertion that Christ is not a mere

man nor God alone; 5) that Proclus exalts the mystery of the Incarnation; 6) Proclus´ language of

both impassibility and passibility presents in Christ; 7) that Proclus expresses concerns about the

soteriological implications of separating God from Jesus.

But both Atanassova and Constas affirm Proclus Christology harmonize with his

Mariology, contrasting to Nestorius. Constas says: “the christologies and mariologies of Proclus

and Nestorius stand in marked contrast to one another.”49

Here it is my criticism to this new Mariological approach to the Nestorian controversy

and the Council of Ephesus: the Mariological emphasis diminishes the centrality of Christology

and its soteriological implications. And, in this case, it ignores the text of Proclus´ sermon itself.

As some points of Constas own analyses show clearly, the largest part of Proclus sermon is

totally Christological-oriented, Christocentric, and if it is a direct attack on Nestorius, its focus is

not on the honor of the Virgin Theotokos, but on the Christological problems of Nestorius. If it is

true that Proclus uses an extensive topology to refer the Virgin Mary honored on that day of feast

in the beginning of the sermon, it is also true and clear that all metaphors used by Proclus

49
Constas, Proclus of Constantinople, 68.
18

describe the Virgin Mary as passive in the mystery of the Incarnation. All the metaphors refer

only to the physical function of Mary, though in a marvelous way, in the Incarnation of the

divine Logos. An exception could be the language of the New Eve, but as already mentioned on

this paper, this is nothing new in the language of the Early Fathers and does not necessary

configure any reference to a cult to Mary. If there is something thematically abundant in

Proclus´s sermon is his Christology.

Even so, as part of the investigation about possible consequences of the discussions on

the Theotokos for the veneration to Mary, far from any Mariological interpretation of Ephesus, it

is possible to agree that the extensive typology used referring to the Virgin Mary by Proclus, and

also by Cyril of Alexandria in his sermon on the day of Nestorius´ anathematization in

Ephesus50, which will not be analyzed in this paper, may had inspired later exaltations to Mary in

a cultic way.

The Debate about the Theotokos in Ephesus – Christological or Mariological?

As it has been showed through the paper, the new approach to Mariology leads some

authors to interpret the Council of Ephesus and the Nestorian controversy without much focus on

the Christological motives and implications, but under the influence of a supposed popular early

devotion to the Virgin Mary. The following paragraphs are examples of this new approach

applied to Ephesus and some reactions to them. Some points may contribute to an investigation

on the origins of the cult of Mary and possible connections to the controversy about Theotokos,

but taking care to not maximize the importance of it.

50
“Cyril was an active participant in the process by which the theology of Mary was confirmed as an
integral part of Christian theology by receiving an explicit and official endorsement at Ephesus.” Antonia
Atanassova. “Did Cyril of Alexandria Invent Mariology?" In The Origins of The Cult of The Virgin Mary, edited by
Chris Maunder. New York: Burns & Oates, 2008, 119-120.
19

Maxwell Johnson makes the connection between an early Marian veneration and Ephesus

clear saying that:

Devotion to Mary-Theotokos did not spring out of thin air or merely fail out of
heaven in the context of the Council of Ephesus. Nor did it simply ‘spread like
wildfire’ only after the Council of Ephesus. Rather, such devotion is rooted in
developing piety and devotion from at least the third century. … I believe, that we
must view what happened after the Council of Ephesus … especially in the East,
… as an evolution in piety and devotion [to Mary].51

Antonia Atanassova affirms the devotion to Mary exerted a strong influence in the

context of the Council. For her, intellectual understanding runs parallel with the early

Mariology.52 She also affirms that Ephesus was the greatest center of veneration to Mary in the

Empire, and she quotes Cyril describing that people waited until late for a result of the Council

and went out in procession with torches celebrating the result. Atanassova attributes this popular

reaction to the expectation of a support for the cult of Mary. But a footnote in her own article

observes that Cyril at no time says Mary was the object of the celebration.53

Atanassova clearly makes a Mariological reading of Ephesus a reason for obscuring

Christology´s centrality despite of not denying the Christological debate. She continues

proposing a reading of Ephesus which consolidates Mariology as an essential component of

Christian theology arguing that the controversy about the Theotokos forced a revision of the

theology of the Incarnation which provoked an

Evolution of core theological motifs such as the depiction of Mary as a mediating


Link between God and humanity, the emphasis on her womb as the place where
the incarnation becomes a concrete reality, and the language of paradoxical
appropriation of human and divine properties of which her birthgiving is a prime
example.54

51
Johnson, Johnson, “Sub Tuum Praesidium”, 73-4.
52
Atanassova, “Theological and Cultic Components of Mariology”, 452.
53
Atanassova, “Theological and Cultic Components of Mariology”, 448-50.
54
Atanassova, “Theological and Cultic Components of Mariology”, 459-60.
20

Miri Rubin follows Atanassova´s perspective affirming the argumentation on Ephesus

used a paradoxical language to exalt the rule of Mary in the mystery of the Incanation. 55 But the

paradoxical language applied to Christology is not an exaltation to any human participation on

the Incarnation. Instead, it emphasizes the own paradox of divinity and humanity united in the

same person of Jesus Christ.

Philip Dancy, even without a Catholic background, is an example of an interpretation

which take the focus out from Christology. He defends the political manipulation and popular

pressure as the main reasons for Nestorius' deposition. He affirms the attack on Nestorian

Christology had as its main motivation Nestorius´ attack to the devotion to the Virgin Theotokos.

And he also emphasizes Pulcheria's devotion to Mary saying that attacking the Theotokos,

Nestorius was attacking the Empress herself.56

As an example of the influence of the new approach to Mariology in South America,

especifically in the largest Roman Catholic country in the World, Brazilian professor Ludmila

Campos applies a similar interpretation of Nestorian controversy. She recognizes a

Christological concern, but she points out political rivalry and different exegetical methodologies

between Alexandria and Antioch as grounds of controversy. She says Nestorius tried to

deconstruct devotion to Mary in a context where it was already been vitalized. She supports the

idea that Cyril gravitates between the mystery of the incarnation and the role played by Mary in

context of the Council. For her, Theotokos is the essential vehicle for the coming of the Messiah

and the central agent for the salvation of mankind. The problem is what emphasis is applied to

55
Rubin, Mother of God, 47.
56
Dancy, "Nestorius and the Rejection of Theotokos”, 153.
21

the second part of this statement. The answer comes in one of the following arguments from

Campoos: she says Cyril tried to consolidate a Marianism in process of domestication.57

Some authors like Shoemaker,58 support the idea that a positive confirmation of the

Theotokos that could confirm popular veneration to Mary was the only popular expectation from

the Council, denying any laity perception on the Christological importance of the Council.

Against this interpretation, Norman Russel´s book59 offers interesting information. He

mentions an opposition to Nestorius from a layman named Eusebius, later bishop of Dorylaeum,

who spread in the capital posters exposing Christological errors of Nestorius. The posters

accused Nestorius of being an Adoptionist like Paul of Samosata, questioning Nestorius´

affirmations that Mary could not give birth to the deity because the Virgin could only give birth

to a man.60 Russel also says Eusebius interrupted a sermon of Nestorius saying that the Eternal

Logos underwent a second birth.61

Susan Wessel also offers some support to the denial of a popular understanding of the

Christological issues involved in the Council. She mentions lay people questioning whether the

divinity of Christ was not being attacked by Anastasius with Nestorius's support: “Many of those

who heard the sermon believed that the very divinity of Christ was at stake. The masses accused

Nestorius of teaching that Christ was merely a man, and compared him to the heretics.”62

57
Ludimila Caliman Campos. “Between Christotokos and Theótokos: the Construction of the Figure of
Mary in Nestorius of Constantinople e Cirilo of Alexandria (IV-V Centuries).” Rev. Hist. 174, (Jan/Jun 2016): 362-
80.
58
Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith.
59
Norman Russel. Cyril of Alexandria. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2003, 210.
60
Russel, Cyril, 34-5.
61
Russel, Cyril, 175.
62
Susan Wessel. Cyril of Alexandria and the Nestorian Controversy: The Making of a Saint and of a
Heretic. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 219.
22

As already mentioned, Richard Price63 offers a different position than the new approach

to Mariology. In his interpretation of Ephesus, he affirms the debate about the Theotokos was

Christological and not about Mary´s dignity or honor. He argues that later devotion to Mary is

more fruit of the defeat of Nestorius than a cause. He also supports Pulcheria would have

supported Nestorius by the Council of Ephesus and that the cult of Mary in Constantinople

would only have been consolidated in the sixth century. Even though Price agrees there is

evidence of some veneration to Mary in Proclus's sermon, he argues that Proclus sermons are

Christological in its emphasis and say nothing about any intercession to Mary.

Price denies the cult of Mary was the main cause of Nestorius' unpopularity, but he says

it was Nestorius´ Christological difficulty. He quotes from part of a comment from the historian

Socrates on the sermon of Anastasius that other authors omit: "These words upset all the clergy

and laity in the place, for they had long been taught to consider Christ divine and by no means to

separate the man of the Economy from the Godhead.”64 His quotation is important since other

authors only mention the first part in which Socrates records the words of Anastasius denying

that Mary could give birth to God.

With a list of possible evidences to deny any influence of an early devotion to Mary,

Price almost denies any importance of the debate about the Theotokos itself in the Council. He

quotes Cyril's second letter to Nestorius and says this document only cites Theotokos at the end

referring to the hypostatic union. Price also mentions the fact that Ephesus affirms that Cyril's

letter is agreeing with the Council of Nicaea, which does not mention Theotokos. He supports

the idea that in the documents from the Fathers read during the Council of Ephesus, the

Theotokos was not the emphasis, but Christology. Price states that from Nestorius´ twenty-five

63
Price, “The Theotokos and the Council of Ephesus”, 89-104.
64
Price, “The Theotokos and the Council of Ephesus”, 93.
23

quotations read and considered as heresies, only three were directly against Theotokos. In sum,

Richard Price affirms the context of Ephesus was Christological and the relevance of the

Theotokos was to express the truth about Christ. So, for him, it is a mistake to say that Ephesus

defined or decreed the cult of the Virgin Theotokos because, for Cyril and for Ephesus, Mary

matters as Theotokos for being the one who gave birth to the Christ, God and man.

Conclusion

Richard Price contributes to my criticism on the new approach to Mariology. I agree with

his conclusion that, if there is some Mariology revealed in the controversy with Nestorius, it is

indeed Christocentric and Mary's contribution to our salvation is a physical and bodily

contribution to the Incarnation, not any moral or spiritual perfection which could inspire

veneration or cult.

I could only add a recognition that the emphasis on the Theotokos during the Council of

Ephesus and in Chalcedon too, even with a Christological motivation and reason, the tipological

language to talk about Mary´s womb, and evidences of some expressions of veneration to Mary

in the Early Church before Ephesus may possibly have consequences for the increasing of the

cult to Mary in the Eastern and especially Western Christianity.

The presence of the Theotokos translated by Mother of God in Roman Catholic prayers

and naming Catholic temples, with its consequent or purposeful emphasis on Mary´s motherhood

instead of the One she bore, may also represent evidences of the unintentional implications from

Ephesus and Chalcedon.

The Roman Catholic new approach to Mariology contributes to trace some important

aspects of the historical development of the cult of Mary, but it certainly obscures the
24

fundamental and central emphasis on the Christological decisions from Ephesus and especially

its soteriological implications.


25

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