Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine

John Owen on Mary as “Mother of God”

The Reformed have frequently been accused of having a “Nestorian” Christology in theological polemics. This is macro-level theology-trolling, of course, but it does happen.

How was Nestorius’ alleged heresy diagnosed?1 The usual answer is that he would not call Mary Theotokos, customarily rendered in English as “Mother of God.”

In Vindiciae Evangelicae, his response to John Biddle’s Socinian catechism, John Owen explicitly owns the title “Mother of God,” while criticizing Nestorius, precisely on the grounds of the communicatio idiomatum secured by the hypostatic union of the two natures, divine and human, in the one person of the Incarnate Son.

In response to Biddle’s preface, Owen writes:

“The communication of properties, on which depend two or three of the following instances mentioned by Mr B., is a necessary consequent of the union before asserted; and the thing intended by it is no less clearly delivered in Scripture than the truths before mentioned. It is affirmed of ‘the man Christ Jesus’ that he ‘knew what was in the heart of man,’ that he ‘would be with his unto the end of the world,’ and Thomas, putting his hand into his side, cried out to him, ‘My Lord and my God,’ etc., when Christ neither did nor was so, as he was man. Again, it is said that ‘God redeemed his church with his own blood,’ that the ‘Son of God was made of a woman,’ that ‘the Word was made flesh,’ none of which can properly be spoken of God, his Son, or eternal Word, in respect of that nature whereby he is so; and therefore we say, that look what properties are peculiar to either of his natures (as, to be omniscient, omnipotent, to be the object of divine worship, to the Deity; to be born, to bleed, and die, to the humanity), are spoken of in reference to his person, wherein both those natures are united. So that whereas the Scriptures say that ‘God redeemed his church with his own blood,’ or that he was ‘made flesh;’ or whereas, in a consonancy thereunto, and to obviate the folly of Nestorius, who made two persons of Christ, the ancients called the blessed Virgin the Mother of God,–the intendment of the one and other is no more but that he was truly God, who in his manhood was a son, had a mother, did bleed and die. And such Scripture expressions we affirm to be founded in this ‘communication of properties,’ or the assignment of that unto the person of Christ, however expressly spoken of as God or man, which is proper to him in regard of either of these natures, the one or other, God on this account being said to do what is proper to man, and man what is proper alone to God, because he who is both God and man doth both the one and the other. By what expressions and with what diligence the ancients warded the doctrine of Christ’s personal union against both Nestorius and Eutyches, the one of them dividing his person into two, the other confounding his natures by an absurd confusion and mixture of their respective essential properties (Mr B. not giving occasion), I shall not farther mention.”

  1. I say “alleged” because there remains some debate over whether Nestorius was himself a Nestorian.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.