Did the Early Church Believe that Mary is the Mother of God?
It goes without saying that the Catholic Church shows reverence to Mary. Although we are called to honor our fathers and our mothers (Exodus 20:12) and show honor where honor is due (Romans 13:7), some Protestant groups still lack recognition of Mary's significance in both her Son's life and ours.
Further, many groups deny that Mary is the Mother of God and therefore make the claim that Catholics are wrong when they address her as such. They will often follow this denial of attributing such a name to her by claiming that the Catholic Church invented this belief and that it can NOT be traced back to apostles.
But is this true? Is the belief that Mary is that Mary is the Mother of God a new thing, or can it be traced back to the time of Christ?
To unravel what is the truth, let us see what the earliest Christians taught on the matter. To address this, we will see what the Christians from the 4th century all the way to the 1st century taught. We are beginning in the 4th century because there is a common myth about Catholicism that the Church begun in the 4th century. This myth is, well a myth. But even if this myth were true, the teaching of Mary being the Mother of God can be traced back to the time of Christ, then Catholics would be correct in their belief. Catholics 1, Protestants 0. But let us see if that is the case.
AD 382 in his Letter to Cledonius the Priest (101), Gregory of Nazinaz wrote:
“If anyone does not agree that holy Mary is Mother of God, he is at odds with the Godhead”
AD 365 in his writing "The Incarnation of the Word of God" (8) Anthanasius wrote:
“The Word begotten of the Father from on high, inexpressibly, inexplicably, incomprehensibly, and eternally, is he that is born in time here below of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God”
AD 350 in his Catechetical Lectures (10:19) Cyril of Jerusalem wrote:
“The Father bears witness from heaven to his Son. The Holy Spirit bears witness, coming down bodily in the form of a dove. The archangel Gabriel bears witness, bringing the good tidings to Mary. The Virgin Mother of God bears witness”
So it is clear to see that the Christians in the 4th century held the belief that Mary was the Mother of God.
AD 262 in his Four Homilies (1), Gregory the Wonderworker wrote:
“For Luke, in the inspired Gospel narratives, delivers a testimony not to Joseph only, but also to Mary, the Mother of God, and gives this account with reference to the very family and house of David”
AD 217 Hippolytus wrote in his Discourse on the End of the World (1):
“[T]o all generations they [the prophets] have pictured forth the grandest subjects for contemplation and for action. Thus, too, they preached of the advent of God in the flesh to the world, his advent by the spotless and God-bearing (theotokos) Mary in the way of birth and growth”
The 3rd century Christians also had the understanding that Mary was in fact, the Mother of God.
AD 189 we have Ireanaus saying the same thing his fellow Christians said after him, in his writing Against Heresies (5:19:1) wrote:
“The Virgin Mary, being obedient to his word, received from an angel the glad tidings that she would bear God”
AD 110 Ignatius of Antioch (the author of the first written account of the use of the word Catholic in regards to the Church) write in his Letter to the Ephesians:
For our God, Jesus Christ, was, according to the appointment of God, conceived in the womb by Mary, of the seed of David, but by the Holy Ghost. He was born and baptized, that by His passion He might purify the water.
The 2nd century Christians seemed well aware that Mary is the Mother of God.
Now it is understood that although we have quotations from the earliest Christians talking about Mary being the Mother of God, some Protestant groups may still deny the authority of these teachings. So let us take a look at what Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) hold to being the Word of God, the Bible has to say about it.
Luke 1:43 Elizabeth exclaims:
And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
As with the other Christians from the previous centuries we discussed, it seems that Elizabeth was also aware and in agreement that Mary is the Mother of God.
From these quotations, it is clear that the earliest Christians held to the belief that Mary is the Mother of God (just as Catholics still believe today).
Could it be possible that Mary NOT being the Mother of God is a new belief, and not the other way around?
If we aspire to have our beliefs as close to the what the apostles believed and taught, Christians should NOT deny this principle teaching of Mary being the Mother of God.