Mary in the Theology of the Fathers (Part 1)

Light and Life – Jan.-Feb. 2020, Vol 73, No 1 – A Publication of the Western Dominican Province

Mary in the Theology of the Fathers (Part 1)

By Fr. Ambrose Sigman, O.P.

[Fr. Ambrose Sigman, OP joined the Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus of the Dominican Order in 2006. He made his solemn profession in 2011 and was ordained a priest in 2013. He has served as parochial vicar at St. Raymond’s Catholic Church in Menlo Park, California, a ministry of the Western Dominican Province. Currently, he is a student at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, earning his doctorate in Patrology. He resides in the Convent of Sts. Xystus and Clement, attached to the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome.]

The place of the Virgin Mary in the history of Christian thought is a long and complex one. Since the days of the inspired authors of the New Testament, there has been a great deal of reflection on what role Our Lady played in the providence of God and in the history of our salvation. This is especially true with the period between the 2nd and the 8th centuries, the period of the Fathers of the Church. It is important for us to understand the doctrine that the Fathers taught about the Virgin Mary. We can understand and examine the first steps taken by Christians as they labored to remain faithful to the understanding of the New Testament. During these early centuries, the Fathers rarely spoke about Mary outside of Christ. Allusions to the Virgin almost always arose out of a Christological or a biblical context. The discussion of the mystery of the Incarnate Word becomes clearer when Mary and her role are brought into it.

In the first centuries of the Church the amount of material written about Mary was quite small, especially when compared to later centuries. In the earliest centuries of the Church, references to Our Lady are scattered across a variety of genres and authors, but starting in the second half of the fourth century, Christian authors became more and more interested in Our Lady and her theological import. After the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon in the mid fifth century, there occurs a sharp increase in the level of Marian doctrine and devotion, some of which we will see. Much of this theological and devotional interest is expressed in the form of surviving homilies from great spiritual and theological masters, who preached about Our Lady in the context of some liturgical celebration. By the end of this period, devotion to Mary had become quite widespread, with Our Lady held up as a model for the Christian life, an influence which became especially apparent in the practices of monastic life and consecrated virginity.

The end of this period saw an extraordinary flowering of works on the Virgin Mary, especially homilies. In these early homilies, panegyrics were offered directing the attention of Christians toward the Mother of God. She became not only an object of admiration and veneration, but also a model for imitation with regard to the practice of the Christian life and the living out of the virtues of the Gospel. This period also saw the development of Marian hymns. At their best, these hymns combined the beauty of their composition with the richness of their theological content. Worship and devotion came together in the celebrations of the first Marian feast days. The faithful began to recognize more and more that Mary had an ongoing mission in the Church, among the faithful, a mission that did not end with her role in the Incarnation. The Fathers of the Church gave voice to this recognition, and in doing so, began to work out the Marian theological patrimony that became the basis of later traditions. In these works of the Fathers, we have the seeds of future development.

The Apostolic Fathers

St. Ignatius of Antioch is one of earliest post-Biblical Christian authors. His letters to the various churches he encountered on the way to his martyrdom in Rome offer a wealth of information about the early Church. As was typical at this time, he does not say much about Our Lady, but what he does say is quite revealing. Ignatius’ importance in this regard is his witness to some of the earliest liturgical traditions in the Church. In his letters, he offers various professions of faith, undoubtedly used in many liturgical celebrations. All of these creeds mention Mary and present her as the mother of Christ according to his human nature, as God the Father is his father according to His divine nature. In his letter to the church in Ephesus, he writes, “There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit, both made and not made, God existing in flesh, true life in death, both of Mary and of God, first passible and then impassible, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Ephesians 7.2). The motherhood of Mary becomes a part of God’s plan of salvation, and Mary has the honor of being the one who inserts Christ into the line of David’s descendants, thus allowing him to fulfill the messianic prophesies. He affirms this in his letter to the church in Tralles, “Stop your ears, therefore, when any one speaks to you at variance with Jesus Christ, who was descended from David, and was also of Mary; who was truly born, and ate and drank. He was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate; He was truly crucified, and truly died, in the sight of beings in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth. He was also truly raised from the dead” (Trallians, 9.1).

In his time, Ignatius was struggling against the heresy of Docetism, a heresy which denied the reality of the Incarnation. According to this heresy, Jesus was not truly a man, but was rather a kind of spiritual phantasm. They considered it undignified for God to have a human body. Because of his contesting of this heresy, Ignatius emphasizes strongly the fact that Christ was truly born from the Virgin Mary, thus testifying to the Church’s belief in the Incarnation, and the value of Christ’s redemptive action. Mary truly engendered the flesh of Christ, she truly carried him about in her virginal womb, and she truly gave birth to Him. This was all a part of God’s saving plan.

Born in Nablus, in Palestine in the year 100, St. Justin Martyr was a philosopher who converted to Christianity. Only a few of his writings survive, including the Dialogue with Trypho. In this dialogue with a Jewish opponent of Christianity, Justin mounts a strong defense of the virgin birth against Jewish accusations to the contrary, using especially Isaiah 7:14. Justin also moves in some new theological directions by identifying Mary’s response at the Annunciation as an essential moment in the history of salvation. Mary’s willing participation enables the destruction of sin and death brought about through Eve’s disobedience. He writes, “For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her, and the power of the Highest would overshadow her: wherefore also the Holy Thing begotten of her is the Son of God And by her has He been born and by whom God destroys both the serpent and those angels and men who are like him; but works deliverance from death to those who repent of their wickedness.” (Dialogue with Trypho 100).

Saint Irenaes of Lyons

St. Irenaeus of Lyons, who was martyred around the year 202, was one of the earliest dogmatic theologians in the Church. With his works, we have some of the earliest attempts at a more systematic presentation and explanation of the Christian faith. He strongly emphasized the idea of the recapitulation of all things in Christ, a doctrine derived from the writings of Saint Paul. In the letter to the Romans 5:12-21, Paul sets up a contrast between Adam and Christ. Through Adam, sin and death enter the world, but through Christ comes life and grace. The failures of Adam are made up for by the new Adam, Jesus Christ, who restores us to our original purpose and remedies the sin of Adam. Paul’s extended reflection on Adam and Christ become a springboard for much of the theology of St. Irenaeus.

Because of this focus, Irenaeus emphasizes Mary’s role as the new Eve. He writes, “Even though Eve had Adam for a husband, she was still a virgin. By disobeying, she became the cause of death for herself and for the whole human race. In the same way, Mary, though she also had a husband, was still a virgin, and by obeying, she became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race. The knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by Mary’s obedience. What Eve bound through her unbelief, Mary loosed by her faith” (Adv. Her. 3, 22). Irenaeus presses the logic of this theme even further than does Justin. He identifies Mary as “the cause of salvation” who rescues the human race from its slavery to death, whose obedience makes possible the salvation of all of God’s creation.

The writings of Irenaeus also contain one of the earliest possible references to Mary’s role as an intercessor in Adversus Haereses 5.19.1. He writes, “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 carry 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.” St. Irenaeus holds out the possibility that Mary took on the role of an intercessor, at least on behalf of Eve. Mary not only makes good on the failures of Eve, she also seeks God’s mercy for her as well.

According to St. Irenaeus, just as Adam was recapitulated in Christ, so Eve was recapitulated in Mary. So, we can begin to see how theological discussions about the nature of Christ and our salvation, what we call Christology and soteriology, included discussion of Our Blessed Mother, and we can see how integral she was to these discussions in the earliest Christian authors. This trend becomes clearer as the centuries progress. Theologically speaking, Mary comes to serve as a guarantor of the Church’s teachings about Christ.

Stay In Touch

Subscribe to our e-newsletter for the latest from the Confraternity