The term “New Eve” appears nowhere in Scripture. In fact, I cannot find it among any of the Church Fathers. Yet this does not prevent apologists, such as Catholic.com, from saying things like, “The Fathers of the Church taught that Mary received a number of distinctive blessings…These blessings included her role as the New Eve.”
So, being that the Fathers did not explicitly teach Mary is “the New Eve,” in what sense did the Fathers teach such a thing? Well, let’s define what being a “New Eve” is. From the same source:
The key to understanding all these graces is Mary’s role as the New Eve, which the Fathers proclaimed so forcefully. Because she is the New Eve, she, like the New Adam, was born immaculate, just as the First Adam and Eve were created immaculate. Because she is the New Eve, she is mother of the New Humanity (Christians), just as the first Eve was the mother of humanity. And, because she is the New Eve, she shares the fate of the New Adam. Whereas the First Adam and Eve died and went to dust, the New Adam and Eve were lifted up physically into heaven. Of particular interest in the following quotations from the Fathers are those that speak of Mary’s immaculate nature.
In short being the “New Eve” means that Mary is just like the New Adam in that: 1. No original sin, 2. immaculately conceived, 3. in a sense gave birth to the whole human race, 4. she shares in the resurrection of the New Adam as opposed to the deaths of the original Adam and Eve, and 5. physical ascension into heaven has already occurred.
Apologists such as Joe Heschmeyer lists Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian as early teachers of the above doctrine. He marvels at the idea that “perhaps 60 or 80 years after the death of the Apostle John” such a “well formulated doctrine” on Mary had already been elucidated.
There’s a problem with all of this. It’s not true. I am going to prove this in two ways. First, I am going to quote Irenaeus and explain what he meant when he said things like:
And thus also it was 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 (AH 3.22.4).
Second, I am going to deconstruct the five points above (very briefly) and show that the Fathers were generally not in agreement about point 1-3 and 5. If this is so, we can firmly conclude that there is not only no mention of Mary being the “New Eve” from the Fathers, but more importantly no one taught that Mary was the “New Eve,” the way in which Catholics define it today, in any sense. From this, we must conclude that the Fathers did not teach that Mary was the “New Eve” at all, let alone “forcefully.”
The Curious Case of Irenaeus. While other Church Fathers are listed as adherents to the New Eve doctrine, Irenaeus is the most “explicit” of the bunch. If I can show that he is hardly an explicit proponent of such an idea, we may dismiss the lot of them as supposed proponents.
In Book III, Chapter 22 of Against Heresies, Irenaues is defending his “recapitulation” theory of the atonement. As I already discussed (here and here), Irenaeus was super-serious about Christ redeeming man by literally experiencing every physical and historical contingency imaginable. In short, if Adam lacked a human father, so did Jesus (AH 3.22.1). If men live through infancy, childhood, adulthood and old age, so did Jesus (AH 2.22.4-6). If man has a real human nature, including flesh and a human soul, so did Jesus (AH 3.22.2-3). All of these things have to be literally true (and not allegorically) or Christ could not recapitulate all of humanity, and human history, into Himself and thereby rebuild a new humanity and create a new history.
So, with this in view, Irenaeus moves on to talk about how certain things about Mary recapitulated Eve so that Christ (not Mary) can recapitulate the human race. In short, Mary recapitulated Eve by not sinning when given a prerogative by God (unlike Eve, who disobeyed God’s command). Let’s remove our presuppositions for a second and not presume every glowing thing about Mary written by the Church Fathers meant that they taught doctrines about the “New Eve.” Here’s Irenaeus in Against Heresies 3.22.4, at length, with my comments interdispersed:
In accordance with this design [of recapitulation], Mary the Virgin is found obedient, saying, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to your word. Luke 1:38 But Eve was disobedient; for she did not obey when as yet she was a virgin.
Both Mary and Eve were virgins. Mary followed God’s command, Eve disobeyed God’s command.
And even as she, having indeed a husband, Adam, but being nevertheless as yet a virgin (for in Paradise they were both naked, and were not ashamed, Genesis 2:25 inasmuch as they, having been created a short time previously, had no understanding of the procreation of children: for it was necessary that they should first come to adult age, and then multiply from that time onward), having become disobedient, was made the cause of death, both to herself and to the entire human race; so also did Mary, having a man betrothed [to her],
Both Mary and Eve had husbands whom they had no sexual relations with.
While Eve’s disobeying of God’s command led to Adam’s, and mankind’s, fall, Mary’s obeying God’s command led to Christ’s, and thereby mankind’s, ultimate resurrection. Obviously, Christ had to be born in order to later resurrect from the dead. The resurrection had to occur in the physical realm, and not the spiritual realm as some Gnostics may posit, in order for man to have a real, physical redemption.
And on this account does the law term a woman betrothed to a man, the wife of him who had betrothed her, although she was as yet a virgin; thus indicating the back-reference from Mary to Eve, because what is joined together could not otherwise be put asunder than by inversion of the process by which these bonds of union had arisen…
Though this is vague, Irenaeus is referring to Deut 22:23-24 (“the Law”) which declares that betrothed women are “the wives” of their fiances. The significance of this is that the Law would thereby be testifying to the fact that even a Virgin, like Mary, can be a true wife, as Eve was to Adam. This answers possible objections such as, “Mary had not really been married to Joseph yet.”
For the Lord, having been born the First-begotten of the dead, Revelation 1:5 and receiving into His bosom the ancient fathers, has regenerated them into the life of God, He having been made Himself the beginning of those that live, as Adam became the beginning of those who die. 1 Corinthians 15:20-22 Wherefore also Luke, commencing the genealogy with the Lord, carried it back to Adam, indicating that it was He who regenerated them into the Gospel of life, and not they Him. And thus also it was 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.
So, how was Eve’s disobedience undone by Mary? If we read what immediately preceded the last two sentences, it was Mary’s obedience in giving birth to the Savior, who by virtue of His Resurrection redeems the human race, that she set free mankind.
The Fathers’ Not So Well Formulated Doctrine of the New Eve. Now that we read what Irenaeus actually taught, we can see that while he is definitely insightful, most people today would not buy into all of his conclusions.
For example, while Irenaeus never concludes Mary was sinless or like Eve conceived immaculately, one may infer that Irenaeus’ logic would demand such an interpretation. Of course, this goes beyond what Irenaeus actually taught, but let me concede to Catholics for a moment that one may correctly draw such an inference. If Irenaeus is correct in this, then he is also correct that Jesus literally reached old age. Being that Catholics refuse to affirm this, they then in fact reject the thorough recapitulation theory of the atonement which they claim would have required Irenaeus to draw the inference that Mary, like Eve, was immaculately conceived.
In short, Catholics believe that there are some things that were recapitulated (Mary had to be sinless, immaculately conceived, a virgin; Jesus had to be truly man including body and soul, sinless, etcetera), but other things are not (Jesus lived to be 50 years old, Eve was married to Adam, etcetera).
So, if Catholics can believe in an incomplete view of recapitulation, why couldn’t Irenaeus? Why couldn’t Irenaeus believe that Mary recapitulated some things (the things he just explicitly listed above) but not other things which he never explicitly taught?
For example, in the Catholic definition of the “New Eve,” Mary would have to fall under the following criteria:
1. No original sin.
Nowhere did Irenaeus say that Mary was sinless and compare her to Eve in this respect. Surely, he had the opportunity and neglected to do so. As I have listed elsewhere, other Church Fathers such as Chrysostom and Hilary of Poitiers thought that Mary did things to deserve rebuke and judgement. So, complete sinlessness is not a criteria that every Father would have adhered to, though there were Fathers like Jerome and Augustine that taught Mary was sinless.
2. The Immaculate Conception.
Irenaues was completely silent on the issue of the Immaculate Conception. The Eastern Orthodox Church rejects the said doctrine as did some men throughout history who later became Roman Popes. For example, Pope Innocent V wrote (16 years before ascending to the Bishopric of Rome):
The nearer any one approaches to the Holy of Holies, so much the greater degree of sanctification ought he to have, for there is no approach to Him, except through sanctification. But the mother approaches more than all to the Son, Who is the Holy of Holies; therefore she ought to have a greater degree of sanctification after her Son. The degree of sanctification may be understood as fourfold: either that one have sanctity (1) before conception and birth; (2) after conception and birth; (3) in the conception itself and birth; (4) in birth, not in conception…The first degree is not possible, both because personal perfection (like knowledge or virtue) is not transfused from the parents…The second degree is common to all, according to the common law of sanctification through sacraments. The third is peculiar to the Holy of Holies [Jesus], in Whom Alone all sanctification took place at once, conception, sanctification, assumption. There remains then the fourth…The second degree was not suitable to the Virgin, because either she would not have contracted original sin, and so would not have needed the universal sanctification and redemption of Christ, or if she had contracted it, grace and fault could not have been in her at once. The fourth degree also was not suitable to the Virgin, because it did suit John and Jeremiah, and because it did not suit so great holiness that she should have lingered long in sin, as others; but John was sanctified in the sixth month (Luke i.). But the third seems suitable and piously credible, although it be not derived from Scripture, that she should have been sanctified, soon after her animation, either on the very day or hour, although not at the same moment.
The teaching common in the 13th century apparently was that Mary was sinless, but not at the moment of conception when her soul infused with her body. Rather, some indeterminate time afterwards, God through a miracle removed this sin. Not being an expert on Marian doctrines, as far as I understand, the Catholic Church teaches now that Mary was sinless upon conception. Further, it is worth pointing out, the recapitulation-parallel between Eve and Mary breaks down to the extent that Mary had human parents (Eve had a human parent, i.e. Adam’s rib) and the New Eve was not married to the New Adam. Further, according to past Catholics, Mary had sin upon conception when Eve obviously did not.
3. In a sense she gave birth to the whole human race.
Again, nowhere did Irenaeus say this either. In fact, he made the point that the second birth was given to the whole human race by Christ’s resurrection. Mary’s obedience in birthing Christ merely made this historical reality possible. Not surprisingly, we are hard pressed to find many mentions of Mary being the “mother of the Church” among the Church Fathers. On the top of my head I cannot think of any and I am not even sure if any are out there.
4. She shares in the resurrection of the New Adam as opposed to the deaths of the original Adam and Eve.
Certainly, Irenaeus would have affirmed this though he did not say it. However, he apparently did not view this parallel as so critical to recapitulating the human race that it required mention. This takes us to:
5. Mary’s physical ascension into heaven has already occurred.
Not a single Church Father mentioned the assumption of Mary. The only Church Father who wrote anything speculating about Mary’s demise was Epiphanius: “Or [maybe] she remained alive, since nothing is impossible with God and he can do whatever he desires; for her end no one knows” (Panarion, 78, 23). This would mean that the only historical evidence we have is “no one” knew whether Mary died, she was buried, she assumed, or anything. “No one knows.” Being that Irenaeus failed to mention what he thought happened to Mary’s body, he likely did not know either.
Conclusion. According to Catholic apologists, the “Fathers proclaimed so forcefully” that Mary is the New Eve that it should be beyond dispute. Further, this doctrine was not a mere shadow of what it was later to become, but rather “well formulated.” However, the fact of the matter is none of the Fathers called Mary the New Eve nor ascribed t0 Mary any aspects of the said doctrine. In short, the Fathers are not only exactly the opposite of being forceful in espousing the said doctrine, but they appeared to have formulated none of the peculiar ideas that Catholics ascribe to today.
Pardon my frankness, but it would appear to me a mark of insanity to ascribe to Mary the title as “New Eve” without radically redefining what a New Eve is. Sure, in some ways Mary recapitulated Eve. But, in some ways she obviously did not. It is intellectually indefensible to ascribe to the Fathers the peculiar Roman Catholic definition that we know today.