The first time someone called me a heretic I was more shocked than offended. The gentleman who employed the word used it very civilly, matter-of-factly, as if everyone in the group (an email discussion group I was part of 15 years ago) were comfortable with the term. For my part, I thought polite Christians had stopped using that word around the same time we had decided to stop killing each other over doctrinal differences. In my mind, heretics were people the Catholic Church burned at the stake a long time ago. Though I was the only Protestant member of this little Catholic discussion group, I was pretty sure none of them wanted to see me burn at the stake. So I humbly asked, "Why did you call me a heretic?"
The answer I received was again straight-forward and civil - heretics were simply people who believed doctrine contrary to Catholic teaching. From this perspective, all Protestants were heretics in varying ways and degrees. I thought this perspective was a little presumptuous, but I understood. I let the word roll off my back confident that I was in good company with many other devout Christian heretics. (I will note here that not all Catholics use the word so broadly. Even in this particular circle, my friends assured me that I was not guilty of the sin of division since I came by my heresies honestly, so to speak. Furthermore, they said, most Catholics were unwittingly guilty of a heretical belief or two. It is hard to avoid them all. ) But I digress. This talk of heresy is preamble to the story I want to tell.
The woman who invited me to this discussion group was a close friend of mine. We had known each other in high school and gone to college together. She was scary smart, a genius, and I would have been terribly intimidated discussing theology with her except that she was also gracious and wise. I knew that she loved me. The longer I participated in the discussion group, the more aware I became of my ignorance of Catholic theology and church history. I grew hungry, ravenous to know more, so this friend took me under her wing and directed my education.
When we came to the topic of Mary, she began with a word I had never heard - Theotokos. It is a Greek title for Mary which means "God-bearer" or "the one who gives birth to God." In the Catholic world Theotokos is commonly translated "Mother of God."
Those words hit me like a slap in the face, shocking me with the scandal of the Incarnation. I understood immediately this title was really a statement about Jesus rather than Mary. In no way was it meant to imply that Mary was the mother of God eternal, the Creator of the Universe. Rather it was a bold statement about the hypostatic union - the unity of divinity and humanity in the person of Jesus.
After Jesus ascended to the Father, it took His followers centuries to come to agreement about His nature. What did it mean to be the Son of God? the Christ? Many early followers of Jesus considered it blasphemous to think of Jesus as God Incarnate. They were good Jews and philosophers who insisted that there is only one God. They believed in Jesus as Messiah, Savior, but not as God. Of course there were many others who did affirm the divinity of Jesus and His oneness with the Father. A few second century writers (Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr) spoke of "Father, Son and Holy Spirit." However, the doctrine of the Trinity was not really hammered out until the Council of Nicaea in 325.
About one hundred years after the Nicene Council, another ecumenical council was held in Ephesus. It was this council which affirmed the title Theotokos. There was a member of the council, Nestorius, who opposed this title. He believed that Mary should be referred to as Christotokos rather than Theotokos, meaning that she gave birth only to Jesus' human nature, not his divinity. But the council disagreed, arguing that the two natures of Christ were so intimately, organically united as to be impossible to separate. Cyril of Alexandria wrote, "Confessing the Word to be united with the flesh according to the hypostasis, we worship one Son and Lord, Jesus Christ. We do not divide him into parts and separate man and God as though they were united with each other [only] through a unity of dignity and authority... "
As I began to meditate on these things, I had a growing sense of dread and a tingle of excitement. If the Catholic Church were right about the hypostatic union (and oh how I hoped it were!) then I had unconsciously held a heretical belief about Jesus. While I always believed that Jesus was God, I didn't really believe he had a mother, at least not like other humans. You see, I had often heard heard Mary referred to as a "vessel" for God. Now it is a beautiful thing to be a vessel, but I had misinterpreted the term. In my mind, this meant that the Second Person of the Trinity used Mary's womb as an incubator. I imagined Jesus dropping down fully formed, but very tiny, programmed, if you will, to grow like a normal human. I couldn't really believe that Mary had conceived a child (even though that is what scripture says.) I had never thought that Jesus might look like Mary because he bore her DNA. I saw Mary more as a surrogate, submitting to God who wanted to present Himself in the form of a man to speak to us, to teach us. It was a kind gesture on God's part, a true act of humility and love for mankind, but fundamentally no different from Greek stories of Zeus appearing as a swan.
I am not sure where these thoughts came from. This particular heresy is not common among Protestants. But the more I contemplated the Incarnation, the more clearly I saw the theological consequences of my beliefs.
If Jesus were just taking on flesh to speak to us humans for awhile, to become relate-able and culturally relevant, then it followed He would discard His humanity at the earliest convenience. Ascension is when I assumed it happened, though He began acting strange after the Resurrection. :) However, if the divine nature of Jesus is truly inseparable from His humanity, then the Incarnation endures forever. Jesus is still a man! He is forever tied to us. The glory of His resurrected body is what I may hope for in mine. He will always have a mother, and brothers and sisters.
Now that is some very good news!