The first Christian pastors and theologians, who were so close to the apex of Christian Revelation when the Word became flesh and died for us, were certainly granted special light by the Spirit of Truth in their preaching and teaching of the Gospel for the early Church. Although none of these on his own can claim an “office” of authority or inspiration, nevertheless taken as a whole and confirmed by the papal office which is led by the Spirit, these early Christian authors (and martyrs in many cases) are rightfully revered in the Church with the titles of “Apostolic Fathers” and “Fathers of the Church.”
When the early Fathers turn their gaze to the redemptive Incarnation, they naturally recognize and reverence the role of the Virgin Mother of Jesus in the design of salvation. For failure to recognize the role of the Virgin of Nazareth as part of the salvific plan of the Heavenly Father to bring us our Redeemer would be to reject the obvious—to insinuate that the Son had no mother; that the angel sent by the Father did not come to ask for her free consent; and that she did not morally and physically co-operate to give to the Savior the instrument of salvation, his human nature.
Many of the early Fathers also perceive the saving act of the Redeemer in terms of the teaching of St. Paul that “He has let us know the mystery of his purpose, the hidden plan he so kindly made known in Christ from the beginning to act upon in the fullness of time, that he would bring everything together under Christ, as head” (Eph. 1:9-10).
This revelation of Christ in becoming the “new head” of creation, in which all else in creation must now be newly understood, is the patristic concept of Recapitulation.
This patristic model of “recapitulatio” (going over again or summing up) based on the Pauline revelation of Christ as the “new head” (re-caput) becomes the principal model in which the Fathers speak of the Redemption. The Redeemer brings together or “recapitulates” in himself all aspects of the first creation and reconciles everything with the Eternal Father. All creation from the beginning of time is now “gone over again” and “brought together” in Christ, now freed from sin and re-created as a type of “second creation.” Through this second creation, God returns to the first plan of creation which was halted by the sin of Adam and restores and unites it in the person of the Redeemer. Since the whole race was lost because of the sin of Adam, first father of the human race, it is necessary that Jesus Christ become man, a second or “New Adam,” in order to restore or buy back the human race (cf. Rom. 5:12-20). “‘The first man Adam became a living being;’ the last Adam became a life-giving spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45). (1)
But if Jesus is the “second” or “New Adam,” sent by the Heavenly Father to make right the “wrong” of Adam, what of a second or new “Eve” in this saving process?
Along with the principle of Recapitulation, there is also the complementary and integrated theory of Recirculation as taught by the Fathers. The principle of Recirculation teaches that the process of salvation accomplished by Christ, the New Adam, must follow step by step the process of the fall accomplished by Adam, although in an essentially opposite way. If the Eternal Father, therefore, planned a restoration of the human family by using the very same, though opposite, means which led to the loss of Adam (as a manifestation of God’s absolute power and glory) then what of the part of the process of the loss of grace enacted by Eve? Does not this divine antithetical parallelism demand a representative in Christian Recirculation for the first Eve, so instrumental in the sin of Adam?
The early Fathers are quick to recognize a new “Mother of the Living” who would reverse and replace the old “Mother of the living” (Gen. 3:20). Within this salvific theology of Recapitulation and Recirculation, they see clearly Mary’s crucial role in the plan of salvation, and their testimonies regarding this are the fruit of contemplation, sacrifice, and even martyrdom. She is for them unquestionably the “Second Eve.” (2)
The early Christian apologist, St. Justin Martyr († c. 165) is the first to speak of the central role of the Virgin Mary in the divine reversal which leads to salvation. Eve conceived the word from the serpent, and gave birth to “disobedience and death”; Mary’s fiat gives birth to the Holy One, who overthrows the evil seed of the serpent and opens the gates to life: