Notes on St Irenaeus

Immediately following St Irenaeus’s cryptic statement that God created the world that his Son might save it, he draws the typological comparison between Eve and the Blessed Virgin Mary:

In accordance with this design, Mary the Virgin is found obedient, saying, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to your word.” But Eve was disobedient; for she did not obey when as yet she was a virgin. 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,” 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], and being nevertheless a virgin, by yielding obedience, become the cause of salvation, both to herself and the whole human race. 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; so that the former ties be cancelled by the latter, that the latter may set the former again at liberty. And it has, in fact, happened that the first compact looses from the second tie, but that the second tie takes the position of the first which has been cancelled. For this reason did the Lord declare that the first should in truth be last, and the last first. And the prophet, too, indicates the same, saying, “instead of fathers, children have been born unto you.” For the Lord, having been born “the First-begotten of the dead,” 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. 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. (AH 3.22.3)

My ignorance of second-century gnosticism is posing a real challenge to me in my reading of Against Heresies. Even when Irenaeus simply seems to be setting forth truths of divine revelation, the false teachings of the various gnostic groups are not far behind.  So I wonder why Irenaeus brings in the Virgin Mary at this point. Is he simply laying out the economy of salvation, or is he also responding to something being taught about the Virgin to which he felt he had to respond?

In any case, I note Irenaeus’s claim that by her faith and obedience the Theotokos has undone the faithlessness and disobedience of Eve. I imagine that my Protestant readers will immediately balk. Is Irenaeus making Mary a co-savior or something? Of course not … yet if the Incarnation belongs to God’s eternal predestinating plan, then this means that Mary too belongs to this plan. The mother of the incarnate Son is hardly accidental to the Incarnation. Thus St John of Damascus: “The Father predestined her, the prophets foretold her through the Holy Ghost. His sanctifying power overshadowed her, cleansed and made her holy, and, as it were, predestined her.” None of this language will make sense to us if we keep thinking in sequential historical terms.

Here’s another passage from Irenaeus:

That the Lord then was manifestly coming to His own things, and was sustaining them by means of that creation which is supported by Himself, and was making a recapitulation of that disobedience which had occurred in connection with a tree, through the obedience which was [exhibited by Himself when He hung] upon a tree, [the effects] also of that deception being done away with, by which that virgin Eve, who was already espoused to a man, was unhappily misled—was happily announced, through means of the truth [spoken] by the angel to the Virgin Mary, who was [also espoused] to a man. For just as the former was led astray by the word of an angel, so that she fled from God when she had transgressed His word; so did the latter, by an angelic communication, receive the glad tidings that she should sustain God, being obedient to His word. And if the former did disobey God, yet the latter was persuaded to be obedient to God, in order that the Virgin Mary might become the patroness (advocata) of the virgin Eve. And thus, as the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so is it rescued by a virgin; virginal disobedience having been balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience. For in the same way the sin of the first created man receives amendment by the correction of the First-begotten, and the coming of the serpent is conquered by the harmlessness of the dove, those bonds being unloosed by which we had been fast bound to death. (AH 5.19.1)

Adam/Jesus, Eve/Mary—the typological parallelism comes so easily for Irenaeus. I don’t imagine that this was original to him.

(Go to next note)

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5 Responses to Notes on St Irenaeus

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    For what it is worth, I am very glad to have read – many a year ago – Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (whom, as far as I recall, is appreciative of St. Irenaeus) and Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis (whose first chapter, as glimpsed via Amazon’s “Look Inside!”, seems, however, rather comically unappreciative!).

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  2. “I imagine that my Protestant readers will immediately balk. Is Irenaeus making Mary a co-savior or something? Of course not …” There is no reason to assume things so easily. There are few things that make me happier than respect for the Ever-Virgin, her faith and her purity/strength of heart. And I’m speaking as a Lutheran. I also assume that her dormition/assumption and her reigning in heaven is the first fruits of human apokatastasis. But that’s a larger topic, and may need more explanation.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Perhaps I should have added the qualification “except Petri and a handful of Lutherans and Anglicans.” 🙂

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      • Seriously, you should, especially on this blog! 🙂

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        • But even more seriously, I don’t think there’s anything in what Irenaeus is saying that could not be understood by well-educated Protestants of any kind. The conviction of Mary’s faith is rather obvious; in the context of the Gospel of Luke it contrasts with the doubts of Zechariah. And aren’t we saved through faith alone? So what would be the problem with Mary’s obedience having a crucial role, especially when it’s part of God’s economy of salvation? One must also remember the prophecy about the woman’s seed. Only a forgetful bias against non-familiar formulations would balk at what Irenaeus is saying.

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