We have seen that according to Holy Scripture our Saviour Jesus Christ is perfect (or fully) God and perfect man. In His person are two natures, the divine and the human. We have indicated that it is the faith of the Church that this doctrine is of crucial importance for the salvation of mankind. We would go so far as to say that the whole structure of the Christian Faith depends on it and that if it is altered or distorted, the Christian message loses all its power, its impact, and its uniqueness. In other words, it loses the very things that makes it different from all religions.
From the earliest times, in the very apostolic age in fact, there have been attempts, either deliberate or because of misunderstanding, to minimize the importance of this doctrine or to change it. This has always been done either by denying the reality of one of the natures or by upsetting the balance between them.
The Holy Fathers of the Church devoted much attention to the explanation of the doctrine of Christ, since St. John the Apostle declares that "whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son." (II Jn. 9) In verse 7, he had already made specific reference to one of the heresies in this regard: "For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh."
Thus, those Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils are commemorated on several occasion during the year as celebrations of the Church's victory over the heresies that arose concerning the very Person of Jesus Christ. I n as m u c h as the same heresies are widespread in the Christian world today, such celebrations are as timely now in the late twentieth century as at any time in the past.
One may ask why it is so important to insist on the purity of this teaching and why the Church cannot tolerate some "little" differences of interpretation or opinion about Christ. After all, we know that the distortion of this doctrine by heretics and the unyielding defense of it by the Orthodox Fathers have been at the heart of the divisions in Christendom.
The key to the Church's position concerning this matter is to be found in several verses of Second Corinthians:
And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to Himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us; we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God. For He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him. (5:18-21)
The life and work of Christ was God's plan for man's reconciliation with Himself put into effect. The Fathers, explaining the necessity for the two natures in Christ, concentrated their attention on three aspects of the work of reconciliation: that of Mediator, that of Revealer, and that of Redeemer. In fact, the principal thesis of the Fathers was that the three roles or aspects of His work would not have been possible if Christ were not both perfect God and perfect Man.
Christ is the Mediator between God and man. "For there is one God, and one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus." (I Tm. 2:5) He is the Revealer of God to men. "No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son which is in the bosom ` the Father, He hath declared Him." (Jn. 1:18) He our Redeemer, "...our Saviour Jesus Christ; who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity..." (Ti. 2:13,14)
Concerning His role as Mediator, St. John Chrysostom writes that "the mediator must have a common origin or relationship with both [God and man]. If He were related to one and not to the other, He could not be mediator. If He had not the same nature as the Father, He would not be a mediator, but a stranger. (St. Paul says that men are strangers without Christ. [cf. Eph. 2:12,19]) Since it was necessary for Him to have human nature, because He came from among men, in the same way, it was necessary for Him to have the divine nature, because He came from God. If He had been only man, He would not have been a mediator, for a mediator must be in intimate relation with God. If He had been only God, He would not have been mediator either, because those for whom He intervened would not have been able to approach Him." (Homily 7, On the First Epistle to Timothy)
As the Revealer of God, St. Irenaeus writes of Christ, saying that "we were unable to know God, except through the divine Word incarnate (made man,) and no other could proclaim the Father to us except His hypostatic Word. We could not be enlightened except in seeing His light with our own eyes and in hearing His words with our own ears, so that seeking to imitate His works and to follow His instructions, we might become capable of entering into communion with Him, and of taking perfection from Him who is perfect and above all conditions and all limits." (Against Heresies, V,1)
Again, as St. Cyril of Jerusalem says, "man could learn only from his peer; the Saviour took a nature resembling man's in order to teach him more easily." (Catechesis, XII,14)
Concerning His role as Redeemer, St. Irenaeus writes, "We would not have been able to receive incorruptibility and immortality, if we had not been united with One who is incorruptible and immortal. But how could we be united to that Incorruptible, Immortal One, if that very Incorruptible, Immortal One had not first made Himself what we are, so that our corruptibility was absorbed by His incorruptibility and our mortality by His immortality?" (Against Heresies, 111,19)
Further, this same Father says, "The Lord became the Son of Man, so that our race, having been subjected to death by a man who was conquered, we might again receive life through the Man who was the Conqueror, and just as death defeated us through one man, it is also through one Man that we have defeated death." (Ibid. V,21)
St. Athanasius, also, writes thus: "The union between God and man could not have been established, if death and corruption had not been destroyed. Thus it is not without reason that the Lord took a mortal body; it was in order to annihilate death completely in Himself and to renew men created in the image of God." (The Incarnation of the Word of God, n. 13)
The circumstances of the birth of Jesus Christ demonstrate the truth of the doctrine of His two natures. He came from the race of man: He was born of a mother at a particular time and place in history. On the other hand, His birth was supernatural in that He became man in the womb of a Virgin Mother by the operation of the Holy Spirit, and that she remained a virgin before, during, and after His birth.
In the Old Testament, we find Isaiah's prophecy concerning the birth of the Messiah: "A virgin shall conceive and bear a Son and shall call His name Emmanuel." (Is. 7:14)
When the Evangelist Matthew records the birth of the Saviour, he quotes the above verse and declares that it was in fulfillment of what the Lord had promised through the prophet. Even the name, Emmanuel, which means "God with us," shows that it was God who was born, and that the woman chosen for this high honor would necessarily be absolutely pure.
The angel announced to the all-holy Virgin that she would conceive and bear the Son of the Highest. "Fear not Mary: for thou hast found favour with God... Thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a Son, and shalt call His name Jesus. He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Highest." (Lk. 1:30-32)
When the Virgin expressed her uncertainty by saying, "How shall this be, seeing that I know not a man?" (v.34), the angel answered that she would keep her virginity through conceiving and bearing supernaturally without the intervention of man. "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that Holy Thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God." (v. 35)
Then, in order to prove to her that such a miracle was possible with God, the angel cited to her the example of her cousin Elizabeth. She had conceived, in spite of her old age and sterility, in accordance with the will of God. He added, finally, the general truth that "with God nothing shall be impossible." (vv.36,37)
After these words, the all-holy Virgin gave the most perfect expression of trust and conformity with the will of God. "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word." (vs. 38)
St. Matthew narrates the circumstances of Jesus' birth. "Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as His mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be with child of the Holy Ghost." (1:18)
After that he relates that Joseph did not yet understand the mystery and "was minded to put her away privily." (vs. 19) As he slept an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife; for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins." (vs. 20,21)
Then after having remarked that "all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet," (vs. 22), he concludes thus: "Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife. And he knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son, and he called His name Jesus." (vs.24,25)
That the Church has always expressed her belief in this virgin birth of the Saviour is evident from the creeds that she has used since the earliest times. As quoted in Chapter One, the so-called Nicene Creed, for example, says that the Lord Jesus Christ "was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man."
The Ecumenical Councils served to formalize the doctrine of the virgin birth. The Second Council, which met at Constantinople in 381, inserted these words into its own symbol or creed: "I believe in the Son of God, who was incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary, by the operation of the Holy Spirit." And the acts of the Third Council (Ephesus, 425) contain a 'discourse delivered at its close with this doxology to the Mother of God: "Thou art the crown of virginity ... And who is capable of glorifying worthily the all-praised Virgin?-O Wonder! She is Mother and Virgin at the same time."
Then again, the Fourth Council, meeting at Chalcedon in 451, in its famous definition of the two natures in Christ, teaches that the Son of God was begotten of the Father according to His divinity, and born for us of the Virgin Mary, according to His humanity.
It must be pointed out that this formalizing of the doctrine of the virgin birth in no way indicates the the Church's belief in the virgin birth is co-terminous with the age of the Councils. This is to say, the virgin birth has always been believed in by the Church, even though for several centuries she possessed no written doctrine of the same.
Ample testimony from the Fathers from the earliest centuries testify to this fundamental Christian belief. For example, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote, "The prince of this world was not aware of the virginity of Mary, the birth and the death of the Lord--these three great mysteries, which were accomplished in God's silence." (Epistle to the Ephesians, Ch. 19)
St. Justin Martyr defended the doctrine thus: "The divine power, having descended upon the Virgin, overshadowed her and made her conceive, not by intercourse, but by power." (Apology, I, 33)
As well, St. Irenaeus wrote, "He was born of the Virgin, herself of the lineage of David." (Against Heresies, III, 21, n.5)
St. Gregory of Nyssa declared, "The one and the same is at the same time Mother and Virgin; nor did her virginity prevent her giving birth, nor did her giving birth do harm to her virginity." (Oration on the Day of the Nativity of Christ)
Then again, St. Ambrose wrote, "She who said, 'Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word,' was virgin both after having conceived and after having given birth, for the Prophet had said (Is. 7:14) not only that a virgin would conceive, but also that a virgin would give birth." (Letter to Siricius)
In fact, all the great Fathers had the same doctrine. Among them we find St. Gregory the Theologian, St. John Chrysostom, St. Ephraim the Syrian, St. Leo the Great, St. Cyril of Alexandria, as well as others.
Furthermore, the Fathers taught that the miraculous nature of the birth of Christ was not only possible because of the omnipotence of God, who overturns the order of nature when He wills to do so, but also that it was entirely consistent with the divine plan for man's reconciliation with God. They found such miracles as the bush that burned without being consumed (Ex. 3:2), and Christ's entering through closed doors after His Resurrection On. 20:19), not only illustrative of God's lordship over nature, but even symbolic of Mary's keeping her virginity in the birth of the Saviour.
In relation to the whole dispensation of man's salvation, St. Ireaeus wrote, "Just as Adam, the first created man, received his body from a virgin, uncultivated soil (Gn. 2:5) and was formed by the hand of God, that is, by the Divine Word, by whom 'all things were made' (Jn. 1:3), so, with the purpose of regenerating Adam in his person, God the Word was Himself born of the Virgin Mary, and truly chose a birth such as was necessary to regenerate Adam." (Against Heresies, 111,21, n.10)
St. Cyril of Jerusalem expresses the same idea in these terms: "It was by a virgin named Eve that death came; it was also through the Virgin that life was to manifest itself, so that, as the first had been seduced by the serpent, in the same way, the second received the message of Gabriel." (Catechetical Lectures, xii, 15)
Finally, we have this testimony from St. Gregory of Nyssa. "It was proper that He who entered into human life in order to recall all men to innocence should be born of the immaculate Virgin, in whose womb He was formed, for, ordinarily, she who is still a virgin is also called innocent and pure." (Oration on the Day of the Nativity of Christ)
"Remembering our all-holy, immaculate, most blessed and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary..." Thus at the Liturgy and other services the deacon completes his litanies. The title and qualities given to the holy virgin in this "commendation" are not just poetic expressions, but they are understood and believed as the Church's teaching concerning her.
Hence, we must ask, what do we mean when we ascribe to Mary the title "ever-virgin"? What is her place in the Tradition of Christendom?
The Holy Fathers considered Mary's perpetual virginity not only a fact but an essential part of the whole doctrine of the Incarnation. In other words, that she was before, during, and after the birth of Christ a virgin is a necessary part of our belief that Our Lord was fully God and fully Man.
St. Ambrose, for example, in On the Institution of Virginity, (Ch. 8, n. 52), cited in support of this truth the words of the Prophet Ezekiel concerning the eastern gate of the temple, which God revealed to him in a vision. " ' And it was closed,' said the Prophet, and the Lord said to me:'this gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter in by it; because the Lord, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it, therefore it shall be shut.' " (Ez. 44:2)
In a mystical sense, following the Holy Fathers, this door designated the all-chaste Virgin Mary, who remained closed, that is in an innocent and unalterable virginity, and so remained forever, not only before the birth and in the birth of the Saviour, but even afterwards,-by which He alone, our Lord God, entered into this world and no other after Him." That the above portion of the Prophecy of Ezekiel is considered to refer to the virgin Mary and her role in the Incarnation is evident from the fact that the section from which it is taken is usually read at Vespers on the eve of a festival of the Theotokos.
St. Augustine, in his On Virginity, (Ch. 4), refers to the question that the Virgin herself asked the angel who announced the birth of Jesus to her: "'How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?' (Lk.1:34) It must be remembered that she asked this question at a time when she was betrothed to Joseph (Lk. 1:27). What would these words mean if before her betrothal, she had not already made a vow to keep her virginity forever, and if she had not been betrothed to Joseph precisely that he might be the guardian of her virginity? Otherwise, betrothed to Joseph, as her future husband, she would not have been able to say, 'Seeing that I know not a man."'
Augustine seems to be saying that it did not even occur to the Virgin that the Angel could have been referring to a child by Joseph from a future relationship. "If it is unquestionable that she had vowed before the Lord to keep her virginity forever, it is impossible for her not to have kept that vow always, especially after having merited the race of becoming the Mother of the Son of God" (Ibid.)
St. John of Damascus (Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, IV, 14) finds the idea that "once her job was done," she should have a normal conjugal relation utterly preposterous. "For could it be possible that she, who had borne God, and, from the experience of subsequent events, had come to recognize the miracle, should receive the embrace of a man. God forbid!"
In fact, he goes on to demonstrate that the righteous Elder Simeon foresaw for her a continued intimate interest in the saving events of Christ's life: "This blessed woman, who was deemed worthy of gifts that are supernatural, suffered those pains, which she escaped at the birth, in the hour of the passion, enduring from motherly sympathy the rending of the bowels, and when she beheld Him, Whom she knew to be God from the manner of his generation, killed as a malefactor, her thoughts pierced her as a sword, and this is the meaning of this verse: 'Yea, a sword shall pierce through thine own soul also,' (Lk.2:35). But the joy of the resurrection transforms the pain, proclaiming Him, Who died in the flesh, to be God." (Ibid.)
Sacred Tradition also confirms the belief that the chaste Mother of God kept her vow of virginity until the end. It is following this tradition that the Church has always proclaimed her to be a virgin in her creeds, beginning with apostolic times, and that the pastors and faithful of the Church have always acknowledged her as such. According to the testimony of St. Epiphanius, the name of virgin became the proper name of Mary. (Heresies, 78, n. 5,8,19) And the list of Fathers that testify to this tradition is long and includes such names as Hippolytus, Athanasius the Great, Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nyssa.
The canons and decrees of the Ecumenical Councils are further evidence that the belief of the Church in this regard has always been the same. For example, in the second decree of the Fifth Council (A.D.-553), we read: anyone does not profess two births of God the Word: the first, of the Father before all ages, beyond time and beyond the flesh; the second, in these last days, this same God the Word, having come down from heaven and having been incarnate of the all-holy, most glorious Mother of God and Ever-virgin Mary, let him be anathema."
Again, in the first decree of the Sixth Council (A.D. 680-1), it is said: "We confirm unanimously the doctrine proclaimed by the two hundred God-bearing Fathers [of the Council of Ephesus], as an indestructible source of piety, in professing the one and only Christ the Son of God, who was incarnate, and in confessing her that bare Him without the intervention of man, the chaste Ever-virgin, as properly and truly Mother of God."
As was the case with certain doctrines, the belief of the Church in the perpetual virginity of the Mother of God was fully defined only after it had been questioned by heretics. For example, Eunomius, among others, dared to teach that after having given birth to the Saviour, the all-holy Virgin had other children also, of Joseph.
Scarcely had that doctrine appeared when the pastors of the Church qualified it as "a sacrilege" (Ambrose, On the Institution of Virginity, Ch. 5), as "blasphemy" (Gennadius, Of the Dogmas of Theology, Ch. 69), as "heresy" (Epiphanius, Heresies, 73), and condemned it solemnly at the provincial councils (ie. at Rome, in A.D. 320).
In order to refute it, the Fathers said, among other things: "It is impossible for the Son of God to have chosen for His mother a woman who, after having given birth to Him supernaturally, without the intervention of man, could have consented later to lose her virginity." (Ambrose, op. cit., Ch. 6).
"It is impossible for her who gave birth to God, and who recognized the miracle by the subsequent events to have ever received the embrace of a man." (St. John of Damascus, op. cit.)
"That was even impossible on Joseph's part, that just man (Mt. 1:19), especially after he had been judged worthy of being the guardian of the mystery and the witness to the miraculous birth of the Saviour of the world by a chaste virgin, his betrothed." (St. John Chrysostom, Homily V, On Matthew, n. 3)
"That is why, when He was dying on the cross, the Saviour entrusted her to one of His disciples, saying to him: 'Behold thy mother,' and to her: 'Behold thy son' On. 19:26,27), which things He certainly would not have done if she had had a husband and other children." (Ibid.)
Certain heretics offered biblical texts as proofs of their doctrines. These texts were examined very carefully by the defenders of the Faith, as the following passage from St. John Chrysostom will indicate:
From these words of the Gospel: "Before they were come together," and those that follow: "He knew her not until she brought forth her first-born son" (Mt. 1:18,25), it does not follow that Joseph ceased subsequently to be the guardian of Mary's virginity. The Evangelist speaks only of what was before the Saviour was born of the Virgin, and not of what was after. No more so, certainly, than it follows from these words of the Lord of hosts to the Jews: "And even to your old age I am He; and even to hoar hairs will I carry you" (Is. 46:4), that God ever ceased to be; any more than it follows from what Genesis says concerning the ark: "And he sent forth a raven, which returned not, until the waters of the earth dried up" (Gn. 8:7), that it returned later." (Ibid.)
From the fact that Jesus is called the first-born son of the all-holy Virgin (Mt. 1:25; Lk. 2:7), one should not conclude that after Him she gave birth to others. The name of the first-born in Holy Scripture does not designate only the one after whom other children are born but likewise designates him before whom no one born. The law required the consecration to God of each first-born opening the womb of his mother, soon after his birth, while one could not know if the parents would or would not have other children. (Ex.13; Lv. '8; Num. 8)
If Holy Scripture makes mention of brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ (Mt. 12: 46-49; Mk. 6:3; Jn. 2:12; 1:3; and others), it still does not follow that they were children of the all-holy Virgin. In fact, in Holy Scripture, the children of relatives are sometimes called brothers; thus, for example, Abraham and Lot are called brothers (Gn. 13:8), while actually Lot was only the -on of Abraham's brother Haran. (Compare Gn. 12:4,5; 14:14-16.) Jacob and Laban are also called brothers, while Jacob was the son of the sister of Laban, Rebecca, the wife of Isaac. (Compare Gn. 28 and 29 with 36 and 37.) It is likewise in this sense that one must take the denomination of brothers of the Lord, that is, in the sense of near relatives and not of uterine brothers. They might have been the children that Joseph had had with his first wife. (Epiphanius, Heresies, 28 and 78; Ambrose, On the Institution of Virginity, Ch. 6; and others)