Irenaeus on the Incarnation (4)

This excerpt comes from Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, chap. 33.  The translation is John Behr’s.

And just as through a disobedient virgin man was struck and, falling, died, so also by means of a virgin, who obeyed the word of God, man, being revivified, received life.  For the Lord came to seek back the lost sheep, and it was man who was lost; and, therefore, he did not become any other formation, but being born from her who was of the race of Adam, he maintained the likeness of the formation.  For it was necessary for Adam to be recapitulated in Christ, “that mortality might be swallowed up in immortality”; and Eve in Mary, that a virgin, become an advocate for a virgin, might undo and destroy the virginal disobedience by virginal obedience.

Protestants may find themselves a bit uneasy, and rightly so, with the way Irenaeus has framed things in this paragraph.  It may seem that what Irenaeus says here seems to lead right into the Roman Catholic understanding of Mary as being, in some way, a co-redemptress with Christ.  I will wait to discuss this particular issue till a bit later on, after I have quoted some more paragraphs from Irenaeus that also deal with the virgin Mary.  But, for now, I would like to point out that Irenaeus certainly had good reason to draw his Eve/Mary analogy, especially in light of the information about Mary that Luke has included in his gospel.  Notice the following:

(1) Both Eve and Mary were recipients of a word from God.  Eve may have received her word from God via an intermediary, her husband Adam, but nevertheless, the narrative in Genesis 3 tell us that she had indeed heard this word.  Mary received the word of the Lord via an angel.

(2) With both Eve and Mary, there was the possibility that the word of God might not be received and obeyed.  We see this actually happening with Eve.  But the threat was there with Mary as well.  After, all, hadn’t Mary’s much more “vocationally” religious relative, the priest Zechariah, been visited with a word from God from the very same angel who visited her?  And hadn’t Zechariah failed to believe the word from God, and been struck with dumbness for his failure to believe?  The possibility that this young girl might not believe and obey was very real.

(3) Eve disobeyed the word of the Lord, ultimately because she believed the serpent rather than believing God.  Mary, on the other hand, both believes and obeys the word of the Lord.  Her relative Elizabeth says of her, “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.”  It is also important to note in this connection that Luke, in chapter 2, takes great pains to tell us that after the birth of Jesus, Mary, along with her husband Joseph, carry out various purification and presentation rites “according to the law of Moses” (v. 22), “as it is written in the law of the Lord” (v. 23),  “in keeping with what is said in the law of the Lord” (v. 24), “what the custom of the law required” (v. 27).  Mary is portrayed as being perfectly obedient.

(4) The text of Genesis 4:1 is a bit difficult, leading to several different interpretations.  One of those interpretations is that Eve may have regarded Cain, her firstborn son, as fulfilling the promise, in 3:15, of the seed who would crush the serpent’s head.  If this is the case, she was marvelously disappointed.  Mary, on the other hand, does in fact give birth to the one who would fulfill that promise.

So when Irenaeus argues that Mary “recapitulated” Eve, there is a lot of merit in what he says.  Mary does indeed seem to gather up Eve and subsequent womankind up into herself; she does seem to fulfill the role that the first woman failed to fulfill.  In some way, the obedience of the “Second Woman” does indeed undo and destroy the disobedience of the “First Woman.”

To show God’s love aright
She bore to men a Savior
When half-spent was the night.

Jerry Shepherd
December 7, 2013

2 thoughts on “Irenaeus on the Incarnation (4)

  1. My heart is so blessed by reading these “old guys” and I’m thankful to you and others who bring their words back to us. I’ve been reading Gregory of Nazianzus and while he is not easy to follow, his no-nonsense sarcasm has me laugh out loud and crying at the same time. Good stuff!

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