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:
We know that He, before all creatures, proceeded from the Father by His power and will,…and by means of the Virgin became man, in order that the disobedience which began from the serpent might have its undoing in the same way in which it arose. For Eve, being a virgin and undefiled, conceiving the word from the serpent, gave birth to disobedience and to death. The Virgin Mary, however,…replied to the Angel Gabriel who announced the joyous news that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her and that the power of the Most High would overshadow her, and that therefore the Holy One to be born of her would be the Son of God: “Be it done unto me according to thy word.” Of her He was born…through Whom God overthrows the serpent and angels and men like to the serpent. (3)
The erudite Bishop of Lyons, St. Irenaeus († c. 202) is harkened as the first true Mariologist. St. Irenaeus is the first to teach a complete soteriology of Recirculation between the disobedient virgin Eve who is the “cause of death” for herself and the human race, and the obedient virgin Mary who becomes the instrumental cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race:
Just as she…having disobeyed, became the cause of death for herself and for the entire human race, so Mary…being obedient, became the cause of salvation for herself and for the entire human race…Thus the knot of Eve’s disobedience received unloosing through the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve bound by unbelief, that the virgin Mary unfastened by faith. (4)
The “cause of salvation to herself and the whole human race,” constitutes a truly extraordinary profession of Marian Coredemption, written by the “Father of Christian orthodoxy” within the second century of the Church. It is nothing short of an astounding testimony to the Mother’s unparalleled role with Jesus in salvation from the ancient Church—a proclamation of the Virgin Mother as a direct instrumental cause in Redemption, which begins, but does not end, with the redemptive Incarnation. (5)
This tribute by St. Irenaeus does not propose Mary as the essential or “formal” cause of salvation, but as an instrumental cause, anti-parallel to Eve’s instrumental causality in Adam’s formal loss of grace for humanity. As Eve is completely subordinate to Adam in the “death” of the human race, so too is Mary’s instrumental role completely subordinate and dependent upon Jesus Christ, the New Adam. For Christ alone is the formal and ultimate cause of salvation and Recapitulation as “head,” the “mighty Word and true man” who “redeemed us by his own blood.” (6)
The purity of the teaching of St. Irenaeus professes without question that the Virgin Mary, through her obedient “yes,” causes the salvation of the entire human race, which in its first effect applies to her own salvation. Irenaeus further identifies the Virgin Mary as the “advocate” or intercessor for the disobedient virgin, through
whom the disobedience of Eve is destroyed:
It was because of a virgin who was disobedient that man fell, and after his downfall became subject to death. In the same way it is because of a Virgin who was obedient to the word of God that man has been regenerated…It was proper and necessary that Adam be restored in Christ, in order that what is mortal be absorbed and swallowed up by immortality; and that Eve be restored in Mary, in order that a Virgin become the advocate of a virgin, and the disobedience of one be obliterated and destroyed by the obedience of the other. (7)
Another early Christian bishop and apologist, St. Melito of Sardis (c. 170) alludes in an Easter homily to the role of the Virgin Mother in the saving sacrifice of the Son:
He is the slain lamb,
He is born of Mary, the fair ewe lamb,
He is taken from the flock
And delivered over to immolation…
He rose from the dead and raised man from the depth of the grave. (8)
St. Melito uses here the metaphor of the “lamb,” which represents both sacrifice and virginal purity in the Old Testament. (9) When he applies the same metaphor for the Mother as for her Son, the Bishop of Sardis clearly refers to the participation of the Mother in the saving sacrifice of Jesus, the slain lamb of God. (10)
Tertullian († c. 240-250) continues the Eve-Mary Recapitulation model in describing the Virgin’s role through whom we “recovered the way to salvation”:
It was by a rival operation that God recovered his image and likeness which had been snatched away by the devil. For into Eve, yet a virgin, had crept the word that was the framer of death. In like manner, into a Virgin was to be introduced the Word of God, the builder-up of life; that by the same sex whence had come our ruin might also be recovered the way to salvation. Eve had believed the serpent; Mary believed Gabriel. The fault which the former committed by believing, the latter blotted out by believing. (11)
St. Ephraem († 373), Syrian Deacon and Doctor of the Church who is appropriately named the “Harp of the Holy Spirit,” sings of Mary’s “paying of the debt” for humanity: “Eve wrote a bill of debt and the Virgin paid the debt.” (12) St. Ephraem teaches that we are “reconciled” to God through the Mother of God: “My most holy Mistress, Mother of God and full of grace,…Spouse of God through whom we are reconciled to Him.” (13) He proclaims that God chose the Blessed Virgin to be “the instrument of our salvation,” (14) and calls her the “price of redemption for captives.” (15) He is probably the first to invoke Mary under the specific title of “New Eve.” (16)
The prolific Marian author and defender of Nicaea, St. Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis († 403), succinctly summarizes the same instrumental salvific role of Mary as furnishing the “cause of life” for the world: “Since Eve brought the cause of death to the human race, through which death entered the world, Mary furnished the Cause of life, through Whom life was produced for us.” (17)
In the West, during the fourth century “Golden Age” of patristic literature, St. Ambrose, Doctor and spiritual father of St. Augustine, teaches that the Virgin Mother of Christ “brought forth redemption for the human race”; (18) that she “bore in her womb the remission of sins”; (19) and that she “conceived redemption for all.” (20)
St. Ambrose further demonstrates that Mary is the first to be “saved” so as to prepare her to participate in the salvation of all: “Let us not be astonished that the