Thursday, December 15, 2011

Early Church Fathers on Mary as the New Eve

Last week, I talked about how Mary is presented in Scripture as the New Eve, through a number of remarkable parallels.  In that post, I quoted St. Irenaeus, who wrote in 180 A.D. about what he called “the back-reference from Mary to Eve,” namely, that “the knot of Eve's disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.

But Irenaeus wasn't the only Father to point this out. Nor was he even the first.  Twenty years earlier, in about 160 A.D., St. Justin Martyr wrote:
St. Justin Martyr
For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her, and the power of the Highest would overshadow her: wherefore also the Holy Thing begotten of her is the Son of God; and she replied, 'Be it unto me according to thy word.' And by her has He been born, to whom we have proved so many Scriptures refer, and by whom God destroys both the serpent and those angels and men who are like him; but works deliverance from death to those who repent of their wickedness and believe upon Him.
So add that to the list of parallels between the Fall and the Redemption. Eve was visited by a fallen angel who enticed her to disobedience from God. Mary was visited by an angel, and responded with total obedience. Note also the distinction Justin draws between “virgin and “undefiled.”  That is, Eve was both a virgin and freed from all sin, original and actual, prior to the Fall.

Tertullian (c. 160 - c. 220 A.D.) also picks up on this theme, a few decades after Irenaeus:
Tertullian
For it was while Eve was yet a virgin, that the ensnaring word had crept into her ear which was to build the edifice of death. Into a virgin's soul, in like manner, must be introduced that Word of God which was to raise the fabric of life; so that what had been reduced to ruin by this sex, might by the selfsame sex be recovered to salvation. As Eve had believed the serpent, so Mary believed the angel. The delinquency which the one occasioned by believing, the other by believing effaced. But (it will be said) Eve did not at the devil's word conceive in her womb. Well, she at all events conceived; for the devil's word afterwards became as seed to her that she should conceive as an outcast, and bring forth in sorrow. Indeed she gave birth to a fratricidal devil; while Mary, on the contrary, bare one who was one day to secure salvation to Israel, His own brother after the flesh, and the murderer of Himself. God therefore sent down into the virgin's womb His Word, as the good Brother, who should blot out the memory of the evil brother. Hence it was necessary that Christ should come forth for the salvation of man, in that condition of flesh into which man had entered ever since his condemnation.
So these parallels between the Virgin Mary and the virgin Eve weren't overlooked by the Church Fathers.  This isn't some sort of paganism creeping in, or somebody trying to force-fit their views on Mary into Scripture.  This was solid Scriptural exegesis, as some of the earliest Christians explained the truths of the faith.   Perhaps 60 or 80 years after the death of the Apostle John sounds like a long time. But compare it with the earliest records we have of virtually any other well formulated doctrine (like the Trinity), and you'll see that it's remarkably early.

What About the Church as the New Eve?

The objection has been raised that the Church could also be understood as the New Eve.  This is absolutely true, particularly since the Church is described as the sinless Bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:25-27),  and Christ is clearly the New Adam (1 Cor. 15:22, 45).  Plus, St. Paul explicitly compares the Church with Eve in 2 Corinthians 11:2-3.  So there's sense in which the Church is undeniably the New Eve.  But it's not either / or between Mary and the Church, either here or in the depiction of the Woman in Revelation 12.

There are two reasons.  First, we're dealing with symbolic, allegorical language: it frequently contains layers upon layers of meanings, and if we're not conscious of the meaning being expressed, we can deconstruct it into senselessness. For example, in the short passage I referenced above (Ephesians 5:21-33), St. Paul presents three images of the relationship between Christ and the Church: (a) Christ is the Head of the Church; (b) the entire Church is His Body; and (c) the Church is His Bride.  Those images seem exclusive of one another: is Christ the entire Body, or just the Head?  And in either case, nobody is married to their Head, or to their Body.  But each image is just that: an image, capturing a spiritual reality that Paul ultimately describes as a Mystery (Eph. 5:32).  So there's no reason that if Mary is the New Eve, the Church can't be the New Eve, or vice versa.

St. Ambrose of Milan
But there's an even better reason.  Mary is a living image of the Church, which is why we refer to both Mary and the Church as Mother.  St. Ambrose describes Mary in this way, in explaining Luke 1:27:
Well [does the Gospel say]: married but a virgin; because she is the type of the Church, which is also married but remains immaculate.  The Virgin [Church] conceived us by the Holy Spirit and, as a virgin, gave birth to us without pain.  And perhaps this is why holy Mary, married to one man [Joseph], is made fruitful by another [the Holy Spirit], to show that the individual churches are filled with the Spirit and with grace, even as they are united to the person of a temporal priest.
Lumen Gentium picks up on these themes, showing the New Eve imagery to be a both/and, not an either/or, between Mary and the Church:
63. By reason of the gift and role of divine maternity, by which she is united with her Son, the Redeemer, and with His singular graces and functions, the Blessed Virgin is also intimately united with the Church. As St. Ambrose taught, the Mother of God is a type of the Church in the order of faith, charity and perfect union with Christ.(18*) For in the mystery of the Church, which is itself rightly called mother and virgin, the Blessed Virgin stands out in eminent and singular fashion as exemplar both of virgin and mother. (19*) By her belief and obedience, not knowing man but overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, as the new Eve she brought forth on earth the very Son of the Father, showing an undefiled faith, not in the word of the ancient serpent, but in that of God's messenger. The Son whom she brought forth is He whom God placed as the first-born among many brethren,(299) namely the faithful, in whose birth and education she cooperates with a maternal love.
Michelangelo, Creation of Eve (1508-12)
Now, with that in mind, there are certain areas in which either Mary or the Church seems like a better fit.    The Church is the New Eve in the sense of being the Bride of Christ.  But certain other roles are quite clearly Marian.  For example, there are only two people ever described in Scripture as having a single parent; Eve, whose body is taken completely from Adam (Gen. 2:22-23); and Jesus, who takes on Flesh through the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:34-35). And just as Adam goes from referring to Eve as “Woman” to “Mother” at the moment of the Curse (Gen 3:20), Christ transitions from referring to Mary as “Woman” to “Mother” at the moment He lifts the Curse on the Cross (John 19:26-27).

This is all part of a much larger picture painted in Scripture of Jesus bringing about a New Genesis through His Death and Resurrection.  But to get the full picture, you need to understand the role played by the New Eve, which means understanding the role of Mary, icon of the Church.

3 comments:

  1. My sisters name is Eve Mary - cool huh?

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  2. This thread needs more comments so: if Christ is the new Adam, and Mary is the new Eve, then Mary is in a spiritual sense married to God.

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  3. Well Daniel, often Mary is referred to as the Spouse of the Holy Spirit, so in that sense you are correct.

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