The MOST Theological Collection: Mary in Our Life
"Chapter I: The Fathers of the Church and the New Eve"
A FASCINATING PROBLEM appears in the writings of the early Fathers of the Church on the Blessed Virgin. For there is a remarkably persistent title for Mary which begins to appear in the works of the Fathers when the Apostolic Age is barely ended, and which swells until it finds a place in the writings of practically all the Fathers of the following centuries. The Fathers love to think of Mary as "the New Eve." A little thought will show that many important truths about Mary and her position in the plans of God may be implied in this tide. The problem is to find out precisely which ideas we may legitimately see as contained in it.
St. Paul in several places in his Epistles had used similar expressions to refer to Our Lord. Thus, for example, in writing to the Corinthians, he says: "The first man Adam was made into a living soul; the last Adam into a quickening spirit."1 Christ is, then, the New Adam. Sin and death came into the world through the first Adam, but abundant restoration came through the New Adam: " ... by one man sin entered into this world and by sin death";2 but " ... as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive."3
It may be that the early Fathers of the Church derived their idea of the New Eve from the oral teaching of the Apostles, or it may be that they took up the very open hints in the writings of St. Paul. Certainly it is not hard to see that if there was a New Adam, Christ, to outbalance the old Adam, there should also be a New Eve, Mary, to outbalance the old Eve. For St. Paul said that the Redemption was superabundant: "... where sin abounded, grace did more abound."4
The Fathers love to dwell on the contrast of Mary and Eve. God had made great plans for the first Eve, but she, in her disobedience, blocked the original design of God. God, however, found a remedy that would more than compensate for Eve: in Mary He would have all that He had desired in the first Eve, and much more.
The possibilities implied in this parallel and contrast are numerous. When God made the first Eve, He created her without any stain of sin on her soul: she was immaculate. Hence we wonder: Does the concept of Mary as the New Eve imply that she, too, was to be conceived immaculate? God had planned that the first Eve should be in the fullest sense "the mother of all the living."5 For she, with Adam, was not only to transmit physical life to all mankind: she, with him, was to hand on also all the other rich gifts of God, including the greatest gift of all, God's grace. If, then, Mary is the New Eve in a superabundant redemption, is she to become the channel through which all graces will come to men? God had planned that Adam and Eve, if they had been victorious over sin, would also have been victorious over death, so that He would take both their bodies and their souls into Heaven immediately after their stay in this world. Therefore we may also ask whether the New Eve, by virtue of her share in the victory of the New Adam over death and sin, should be taken body and soul into Heaven even before the general resurrection.
It would be difficult for us, merely using our own reasoning powers, to be sure that such truths as these really are contained in the Fathers' concept of a New Eve. We can come to certainty only through the interpretations of the Church, the living guardian and interpreter of the revelation given to us in Scripture and Tradition. For before He died, Our Lord promised to send the Holy Spirit to the Church: "... He will teach you all things, and bring all things to your mind, whatsoever I shall have said to you."6
This is not a promise that the Church is to receive any new public revelation7 through the promised guidance of the Holy Spirit What Our Lord meant is that the Church is given an ever deepening appreciation of the truths contained in the original revelation. Truths that were always present, but were seen only dimly, were to be illuminated more and more clearly at opportune times throughout all succeeding ages. Therefore the Church at various times is enabled by the divine guidance to make clear and explicit statements on truths that were only implicitly contained or dimly perceived in the original revelation.
In this way the Church has, in our own day, given us the answers to the questions we have just raised. Yes, Mary, the New Eve, was conceived immaculate: Pope Pius IX in 1854 defined that truth, and in the very bull of definition told us that the Fathers had used the Eve-Mary comparison to show Mary's original innocence.8 And ninety-six years later Pope Pius XII solemnly defined that the New Eve was taken body and soul into Heaven. In the document of definition, the Holy Father gave the New Eve teaching of the Fathers as one of his principal proofs.9 We likewise wondered whether Mary as the New Eve was also to be the new "mother of the living," so that all graces would pass through her hands. Although they have not ye declared it in the form of a solemn definition, many recent Popes have taught in a binding and authoritative manner10 that Mary really is the Mediatrix of all graces.
But there is another, even more striking possibility in the New Eve concept: the Fathers assign to Mary a certain role in redeeming us. Before trying to determine precisely what that role involves, it is well to define a few terms. There are two stages in the Redemption: the first consists in Christ's atonement and once-for-all acquisition of the entire treasury of all grace for mankind.11 This was accomplished through the whole life and death of our Saviour, culminating on Calvary, and is called the objective redemption. The second stage is the distribution of that forgiveness and grace to men; it is called the subjective redemption.
It is obvious at once that Mary co-operated in the objective redemption, at least remotely, by being the Mother of the Redeemer. But did she also share immediately in the objective redemption by serving in the role of the New Eve on Calvary itself? If she co-operated immediately in the objective redemption on Calvary, then what the Eternal Father accepted was a JOINT OFFERING, made by the New Adam, and, through Him, with Him, and subordinate to Him, by the New Eve. We shall try to find out, therefore, if the Fathers really do extend their idea of the New Eve to Calvary itself.
One of the earliest writers to compare Mary to Eve is St. Justin the Martyr. This learned saint-for he was a philosopher before he became a Christian-was born in Palestine not long after the year A.D. 100. Thus he was probably born not long after the teeth of the Apostle St. John; certainly he lived in an age when memories of the preaching of the Apostles were fresh. In his Dialogue with Trypho he says that Christ
St. Justin continues, contrasting the disobedience of Eve with the obedience of Mary:
We notice that St. Justin not only thinks of Mary as the New Eve; he considers it part of God's plan that the disobedience of Adam and Eve should "be cancelled out in the same manner in which it had begun." This statement is of crucial importance. In the fall of our first parents, two persons had taken part. One was Adam, the real head of the human race. If he alone had fallen, it would have been enough to plunge mankind into original sin. Eve, on the other hand, was not head of the race. If she alone had sinned, we would have had a bad example but would not have contracted original sin.13 But the actual fact is that original sin was a joint work; both Adam and Eve co-operated in it, if in different ways. Only Adam could ruin us-but Eve did what she could. In her inferior way she shared in the fall.... It seems quite possible that St. Justin is implying that the objective redemption was also a joint work, in which the New Eve shared as immediately as the first Eve had shared in the fall.
The words of another Father of the second century, St. Irenaeus, carry special weight. For St. Irenaeus not only traveled widely throughout the Christian world, residing at different times in both Asia Minor and in Gaul, but he was also a friend of St. Polycarp-and St. Polycarp had been a disciple of St. John the Apostle. Thus St. Irenaeus is but one step removed from the Apostle. Moreover, he is known to have listened eagerly to St. Polycarp's recollections of St. John.14 There are several passages15 in the writings of St. Irenaeus in which Mary is compared to Eve. Probably the most important of these is found in his work Against Heresies:
Just as she ... being disobedient, became a cause of death for herself and the whole human race: so Mary ... being obedient, became a cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race.16
These words of St. Irenaeus could imply that Mary was associated with Christ as the New Eve even on Calvary. But he continues with a comparison that is even more suggestive:
We are asked to imagine a complex knot. To untie it, we must make the rope pass through the same movements that were used in tying the knot-but in reverse. Mary, says St Irenaeus, undoes the work of Eve. Now it was not just in a remote way that Eve had been involved in original sin: she shared in the very ruinous act itself. Similarly, it would seem, Mary ought to share m the very act by which the knot is untied-that is, in Calvary itself.
St. Irenaeus and St. Justin are witnesses of what was believed in the second century in the Church in Asia Minor, Gaul, and Palestine. In addition, St. Irenaeus provides us, through St. Polycarp, with an especially close link to the Apostle St. John. The belief of the Church in Africa during the same period is attested to by Tertullian, who, in his work On the Flesh of Christ, also compares and contrasts Mary and Eve, and, like St. Justin and St. Irenaeus, points out the similarity between the manner of the fall and the manner of the restoration:
The compact expression "by a rival method" means that the method that God intended to use in the restoration was one that ran parallel to the way in which the fall had taken place. Now, in the fall there was a joint work shared by two, though in different ways; and the implication is that the same sharing was found in the restoration.
By means of these three witnesses, then, we see that in the second century, when memories of the preaching of the Apostles were still vivid, the Church in every land in which it existed taught that Mary is the New Eve. Each of these three writers, though in different ways, pointed out the parallel between the fall and the restoration. But someone may object that these early Fathers had in mind merely the remote co-operation of Mary in the objective redemption by the fact that she was Mother of the Redeemer. It is true that some of their words do refer especially to the Annunciation, and it is true that Mary shared in the objective redemption at least by being the Mother of Christ. But we must not forget that these early writers were accustomed to think of the Redemption as a unified whole, embracing the entire life of Our Lord, beginning at the Annunciation, and culminating on Calvary. For although the Redemption was not to be accomplished without Calvary, yet we must not forget that Christ merited for us throughout all His life, not only on the Cross. Therefore, since the Fathers had this unified character of the objective redemption so firmly in mind, and since the words they use can easily be understood as applying to the whole process of the restoration, why should we make a restriction or limitation where they make none? Why should we not suppose that the New Eve principle extends even to Calvary?
It is ewe that our own unaided reasoning cannot give us certitude that the Fathers meant to imply that Mary was the New Eve even on Calvary. But, just as the guidance of the Church has solved other questions for us, telling us that Mary was conceived immaculate, that she was assumed into Heaven, that she is the Mediatrix of all graces, so we hope that a study of the papal documents18 will bring us the answer to this remaining question.19