OBJECTOR: Now that Christmas is approaching, a lot of people are thinking about Christ more than they would at other times of the year. It’s too bad that Catholics have to spoil it by focusing so much attention on Mary to the exclusion of Jesus.
CATHOLIC: I must admit that I find it difficult to comprehend what you are saying. How could focusing on Mary ever lead us away from Jesus? The whole purpose of her life was to lead us to Jesus. There may be some Catholics who have a misguided devotion to Mary and almost make her equal to Jesus, but that’s not the official teaching of the Church, nor is it good Marian devotion.
OBJECTOR: Well, doesn’t the Catholic Church officially teach that Mary is the New Eve? That’s certainly putting too much emphasis on Mary. It’s hard for me to know even what it might mean to say that Mary is the New Eve, but it certainly does not occur anywhere in the Bible.
CATHOLIC: No, it doesn’t. But the concept certainly does. There are many terms in our Christian theological vocabulary that are not in the Bible, such as Trinity, Incarnation, and Rapture. But those who believe these doctrines will say that they are taught in the Bible. Do you want to exclude all terms or phrases that are not in the Bible?
OBJECTOR: Well, no. But I don’t find any Scripture passages that support even remotely the idea of Mary as the New Eve.
CATHOLIC: Perhaps, I should first explain what Mary as the New Eve means. Because of Eve’s disobedience to God and Adam’s cooperation with her, they lost sanctifying grace for themselves and their offspring. Like Eve, Mary was created full of grace. But unlike Eve, Mary remained obedient to God, just as Christ, unlike Adam, remained obedient to God. In cooperation with God, Mary became Mother of the Redeemer and, in cooperation with Christ, she became Mother of the redeemed as well.
OBJECTOR: There you have it. The Bible says nothing about Mary cooperating with Jesus to redeem mankind. Where does the Catholic Church get this stuff anyway? Jesus said that he is "the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). Where does the Bible say anything about Mary cooperating with Jesus?
CATHOLIC: The phrase "New Eve" or similar expressions occur in the early Church Fathers. Take, for example, Justin Martyr, who wrote within a couple of generations of the apostles. In his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (ca. A.D. 150), Justin explains that Christ destroyed Satan’s work in the same way evil originally entered the world. Evil entered through Eve while she was still a virgin; so too salvation entered through Mary while she was still a virgin. Each woman willingly participated in the act they performed. Neither was an unconscious instrument. Eve listened to the serpent and conceived death. Mary listened to the angel Gabriel and conceived life. Justin sees this clearly in Luke 1:38 when Mary says, "Let it be to me according to your word." Thus, for Justin, Christ’s becoming a man involved his Mother’s willing cooperation in undoing the tangled web of sin that Eve introduced.
OBJECTOR: While I don’t believe that we can ignore all of Church history, there are times when these early Fathers of the Church went beyond Scripture in their speculations. I see Justin Martyr as going beyond Scripture in his teaching on this point.
CATHOLIC: Then you would have to say the same about one of the greatest defenders of Christian orthodoxy, Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons in the second century. In Against Heresies, Irenaeus expounds the doctrine of recapitulation. He teaches that Christ embodied Adam and all his posterity in order to redeem mankind from sin. Basing his teaching on Paul’s inspired doctrine of Christ as the Last Adam (cf. 1 Cor. 15:45), Irenaeus viewed Jesus as reversing the effects of Adam’s sin by bringing the life and righteousness that Adam lost (cf. Rom. 5:17, 18). Irenaeus saw the obvious implication. As Eve cooperated with Adam, the covenant head of humanity, so Mary cooperated with Jesus Christ, the covenant head of the new humanity. Thus Irenaeus says that Eve "by disobeying became the cause of death for herself and the whole human race, so also Mary . . . was obedient and became the cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race" (Against Heresies 3.22.4). Later he says of these two virgins, "Just as the human race was subject to death by a virgin, it was freed by a virgin, with the virginal disobedience balanced by virginal obedience" (ibid., 5.19.1).
OBJECTOR: I am glad to know Irenaeus’s views on Mary, but, again, citing two Church Fathers is not exactly proof from the early Church.
CATHOLIC: But I think if you look at a wider range of the Church Fathers, you would find the same or similar patterns of teaching emerging. I suggest you read Luigi Gambero’s Mary in the Fathers of the Church, published by Ignatius Press. There you will find widespread support for Mary as the New Eve in the writings of the Fathers.
OBJECTOR: Even if you are right, it still doesn’t answer the question about the Bible. You cited a few verses in talking about Irenaeus, but anyone can pull specific verses out of the air to prove something from the Bible. It takes studying the whole Bible and seeing the patterns of teaching.
CATHOLIC: Thank you for saying that. The Bible has been widely misused by well-intentioned Christians. It is vital that we look to those patterns of teaching you mentioned. The concept of the New Eve taught by the Church Fathers is a case in point because it is a summary and natural extension of Paul’s doctrine of Christ as the New Adam. Irenaeus based his teaching on Ephesians 1:10, where Paul says that God sent Christ "as a plan [oikonomia] for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth." For Paul and Irenaeus, God arranged salvation history in such a way that all reality would be incarnated in his Son, Jesus Christ. Everything was put under Christ’s headship (thus re-capitulate). This divine arrangement meant not only that Christ by his obedience reversed the effects of Adam’s sin but also that Mary by her obedience reversed the effects of Eve’s rebellion. The only difference is that Mary’s obedience was derived from her Son’s obedience. She was made a part of his saving plan because Christ made her "full of grace" (Luke 1:28).
OBJECTOR: You will notice that the passages from Paul say nothing about Mary specifically. Romans 5:12–21 speaks of a contrast between Adam and Christ. First Corinthians also speaks of Christ as "the last Adam" (15:45) and as "the second man . . . from heaven" (15:47). Neither text says anything about Mary. And in Ephesians 1:10 again Paul says that all things are summed up in Christ, not Mary.
CATHOLIC: Of course all things are summed up (or recapitulated) in Christ because he alone is the Savior of the human race. The Catholic Church fully affirms what you are saying. Mary could not take the place of Jesus, her Son.
OBJECTOR: Then why do you insist on calling Mary the New Eve? It’s almost as if you were making her equal to her Son.
CATHOLIC: Because while Jesus alone is the Savior, he is never alone. He asks human beings to join him in his saving work. Surely you recognize this when you say that preachers of the Gospel today are working with God to let others know about Christ. Paul himself says this in 1 Corinthians 3:9 when he says that "we are God’s fellow workers [sunergoi]."
OBJECTOR: But there is a crucial difference. Paul and preachers today are merely proclaiming what Jesus alone has done. They aren’t adding anything to his work. I sense that the Catholic Church is saying something more about Mary, something like Mary being an integral part of Jesus’ saving work.
CATHOLIC: You are very perceptive. The Church is saying that Mary worked with Jesus in a greater way than Paul. Paul only proclaimed what Jesus had already done. Mary made what Jesus accomplished possible by giving him a human nature in which he could live and die.
OBJECTOR: I knew it. I knew that Catholics were giving too much credit to Mary.
CATHOLIC: When we give this high honor (in Greek called hyperdulia) to Mary, we do no more than Paul did. In Galatians 4:4–5 Paul says, "When the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons." Why would Paul think it necessary to emphasize that God’s Son was "born of woman"? On a purely physical level, it is obvious that any man is born from a woman. But Paul is saying something deeper. By speaking of the woman, he is alluding to Genesis 3:15, which says, "I will put enmity between you [the serpent] and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel." The woman in Genesis 3:15 is clearly Eve, and Paul is drawing a parallel between Eve and the woman from whom God’s Son was born.
OBJECTOR: How do you know that Paul is saying anything about Mary in Galatians 4:4 beyond the obvious fact that Christ was born from her?
CATHOLIC: Because of what the rest of the verse says. In the first place, the text could be translated "from the woman," even though it lacks the definite article. Greek does not always require the article when it is referring to a specific person. More importantly, Paul emphasizes that Christ came from the woman to show that "we might receive adoption as sons." In Adam and Eve, the human race lost its sonship, and part of Christ’s mission was to restore that filial relationship with the Father. By saying that Christ was born "from the woman," Paul is linking both the Son and the woman with Adam and Eve. Christ the Son is obviously linked to Adam. The only woman who could be linked with Eve is Mary. So, Paul is saying that Mary participated in the Redemption by giving birth to Jesus in the opposite but parallel way that Eve participated in the Fall of man into sin. In our view, the Church Fathers were simply drawing out the implications of what Paul was teaching.