A small treatise on Theotokos - Mother of God
by the Abbot of Old Forge
Ever since I learned to say formal prayers as a little lad, I have called the
most holy Virgin "Mother of God," and I will continue to do so, by Gods' grace,
for the rest of my life, hoping that even with my last words I will invoke her.
Although I confess to being, as one writer would categorize me, a "lazy former
Roman Catholic", it is not for this reason that I say "Mother of God," but
because such is the normal English for the title Theotokos.
The word "Theotokos" itself appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, but with a
mark indicating that it is a foreign term. The first citation of the word is
only from 1874, from the Tractarian E.B. Pusey, who in using it immediately
clarified it by adding, Mother of God. The writer who alleges use of the term in
the middle ages cites a pre-Reformation prayer in which "otheotocos" appears
(from Eamon Duffy's Stripping of the Altars - the correct reference should be to
p. 274, not p.24). He must be aware that it was only used in a rather
superstitious context, in a prayer of exorcism, in which various other "names of
God" from various languages are used, e.g., Sother, Unigenitus, Adonay and even
(I don't know why) Serpens (Serpent) and Vermis (Worm.) This one dubious
instance surely does not attest to any ancient usage of Theotokos in English.
The Theotokos is she who bore God - His Mother. Some translations have used
Birthgiver, but that sounds barbarous. Imagine: I am introducing my dear old
parent to someone. I certainly wouldn't say, "John, meet my birthgiver." No - my
Theotokos is a beautiful word, but it is Greek. To insist that it be used
habitually for the blessed Virgin would be comparable to saying that we must not
call the Deity "God", but "Theos", or our Saviour "Christos" instead of
"Christ." No! Greek is Greek, and English is English.
If we habitually use Theotokos, we shall have to keep explaining to people what
it means, since, outside of theology students, literate Orthodox or
Greek-speakers it will not be understood.
Every language has its own evolution, its own genius. A writer presents,
untranslated, a lengthy list of Greek words called "Theotokonyms." Nice, but
what does it prove? Only that Greek can form all sorts of compound words.
English is remarkably expressive and has a huge vocabulary, but often it
expresses by a phrase that which another language might express in a single
word. This is not a fault, it is just the nature of the language. When the
church books were translated into Slavonic it was possible to form compounds
that might not have existed previously, since the language was at a formative
stage. But English is already a developed language, and it has its own idiom.
So, we don't have a single word for chelovekoliubets, but we can say Lover of
mankind, He Who loveth man, the Friend of man, etc.
For that matter "homoousios" is in the O.E.D., and it is a theological term of
vital importance, yet no one is contending that we ought to retain it in an
English translation of the Creed. We say " of one essence" or "consubstantial",
because that is English.
I don't think that it is a good principle of literary translation to insist that
every occurrence of a word of the original always be rendered by the same word
in the translation. The translation must fit the context. So, sometimes we can
say God's Mother, or Theotokos, while retaining "Mother of God" as the most
familiar form of our Lady's title.
To the writer who did not understand the Latin word "Deipara" which is an exact
equivalent of Theotokos: The "-para" does not come from the verb paro, parare -
to prepare, but rather from pario, parere, peperci, partus - to give birth, from
which we get such words as parturition - childbirth and post-partum depression -
that which occurs after giving birth. As we shall soon sing, once we have past
the hurdle of the fast, "Ecce quod natura/ Mutat sua jura/ Virgo parit pura/ Dei
filium." (Behold, how nature changes its own laws: A pure Virgin gives birth to
the Son of God.)
I think there is a place for the word Theotokos in English, as an alternate name
for the Mother of God, particularly in such contexts as the hymn "It is truly
meet." But the normal, usual, common, frequent word in English is and should be
Mother of God, because that's English, not Greek, Latin or Slavonic.
Abbot German Ciuba
Russian Orthodox Church Abroad
Old Forge, Pennsylvania