Human Obedience to God and Its Positive Effects

I said something over on Sarah Hoyt’s blog, and got a comment back that showed that my comment needed more explication than was realistic for me to do on anybody else’s blog. So I promised to make a post over here, and I am.

The basic plot of salvation history, and basic doctrine to pretty much all Christians, is the following:

A. Adam and Eve were the first humans. Adam was the head of the whole human race, and Eve was the mother of the human race. They were the head creatures of all Creation on earth (ie, not of the angels). Therefore, their first sin, the Fall, messed up the entire human race and made it more prone to sin (I’m saying it this way because some groups don’t go with “original sin” terminology; but whatever Romans 5:14 means to you, take that as given), lost us a lot of our original abilities and intelligence and longevity, and messed up the animals and plants on earth as well (or at least made them less friendly to us and less under our care and power). God told Adam and Eve what the effects and what their punishment would be for the whole human race, but also promised offspring that would tread on the serpent’s head. Christians traditionally see this bit as “the first Gospel,” the first foreshadowing of Christ’s coming. God then continues to work through human history to create a covenant with Abraham and to teach His Law. Finally He sends His Son to bring us salvation and teaching, make us members of His Body through His Church, and to live and die and rise for us to give us eternal life in Him.

B. Although no normal human being who was only human had the power to redeem Adam and Eve’s sin, or even his or her own sin, salvation history clearly shows that people who obey God’s commands make things better, just as people who disobey make things worse. Noah’s obedience saves the human race and the animals from total destruction. Abraham and Isaac’s obedience and trust are the foundation (on their side of things, anyway) of God’s covenant with His people. Moses’ obedience and trust are used by God to save Israel and bring them out of bondage. Elijah and the remnant refuse to bend the knee to Baal. Esther saves all the Jews of Persia through her brave speaking up for them. God blesses Israel through, and for the sake of, even a few obedient people; and He blesses His disciples and His new Church the same way, in the New Testament. Also, “the prayer of a righteous man avails much.”

C. Jesus Christ’s obedience “unto death, death on a cross,” is the obedience of Someone Who is both true God and true Man. He is the New Adam (1 Cor. 15:45-49), Who not only doesn’t sin, but Who conquers and kills sin and death and its effects – through total obedience and offering Himself, as well as through His suffering and death. He calls all Christians to do likewise in their own little way, becoming part of His Body and then proceeding to take up their crosses and follow Him, suffering and even dying with similar obedience to God. Paul even dares to describe this in Colossians 1:24 as “[I, Paul] who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and in my flesh fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, for His Body which is the Church.” So obviously any human can do things to help with salvation history, and we can be “coworkers of the Truth.” (3 John 1:8)

Now we move to the stuff that not everybody believes.

If there’s a new Adam, obviously there’s a new Eve. In an eschatological way, that’s the Church in Heaven as Christ’s Bride “without spot or wrinkle.” However, pretty much all the early Christians saw Mary as the opposite of Eve in every possible human way, and the Annunciation to Mary by Gabriel as the opposite of Eve’s temptation by the snake. (The opposite to Adam’s fall to Eve’s urging to eat the fruit in the garden was often seen as Jesus’ successful struggle against disobedience in the Garden of Gethsemane, although obviously His entire Passion and Death and Resurrection were the real opposite of the Fall.) “Ave” as the opposite of “Eva” was early Christian Latin-speakers’ joke about the matter. This was reinforced or founded upon Jesus’ calling Mary “Woman,” just as Eve was called “Woman” in Eden before the Fall. Also, Jesus on the Cross told John that Mary would now be his mother and he would be her son. This was seen as the parallel to Adam naming Eve as the “mother of all the living,” (Havah, Eve) and that it indicated that Mary was also the mother of every member of Christ’s body. Early Christian art and monograms also refer to these beliefs.

In the Book of Revelation, the various evil female figures (Babylon, Jezabel) are countered not only by Christ, but also by both the Bride and the Woman clothed in the Sun, who is apparently also the Ark of His Covenant and the mother of the man child. The Woman is primarily identified by early authors with the Church, but she also gets connected to Mary a lot, as Mary being a type of the Church’s motherhood (through Baptism and teaching doctrine) of all the members of Christ’s Body.

All this brings us to Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, a Greek-speaker from Asia Minor who was sent to Lyons (Lugdunum) to be bishop after the entire church hierarchy of Lyons, and many of its lay members, were martyred in the arena in various nasty ways. He describes himself as being the direct disciple of old St. Polycarp, who was the direct disciple of old St. John, who was an apostle of Jesus. You don’t get more direct than that.

If you’ve never read Against Heresies, it’s an interesting book. His basic goal is to explain how various little groups are misusing and abusing Scripture, as if using the bits of mosaic that make a portrait of a King are being moved around and made into a picture of a fox. He then teaches the Christology he learned from his teachers and their apostolic interpretation of the Scriptures. His Christology also leads to saying interesting stuff about Mary, and hence about the Church.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 22:

3. Wherefore Luke points out that the pedigree which traces the generation of our Lord back to Adam contains seventy-two generations, connecting the end with the beginning, and implying that it is He who has summed up in Himself all nations dispersed from Adam downwards, and all languages and generations of men, together with Adam himself. Hence also was Adam himself termed by Paul “the figure of Him Who was to come,” (Rom. 5:14) because the Word, the Maker of all things, had formed beforehand for Himself the future dispensation of the human race, connected with the Son of God; God having predestined that the first man should be of an animal nature, with this view, that he might be saved by the spiritual One. For inasmuch as He had a pre-existence as a saving Being, it was necessary that what might be saved should also be called into existence, in order that the Being who saves should not exist in vain.

4. In accordance with this design, Mary the Virgin is found obedient, saying, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” But Eve was disobedient; for she did not obey when as yet she was a virgin. And even as she… having become disobedient, was made the cause of death, both to herself and to the entire human race; so also did Mary… by yielding obedience, become the cause of salvation, both to herself and the whole human race. … For the Lord, having been born “the First-begotten of the dead,” (Rev. 1:5) 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. (cf. 1 Cor. 15:20-22) 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.

In Book 5, Chapter 19, Irenaeus continues:

1. So 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 (portaret) 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 (protoplasti) 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.

Tertullian, St. Ambrose, St. Peter Chrysologus, St. Jerome, St. Epiphanius, and many other early Christian writers also address Mary’s obedience as the counter to Eve’s disobedience. St. Justin Martyr, who was even earlier than St. Irenaeus, addresses this subject in his Dialogue with Trypho (a dialogue with a Jewish guy which addresses all sorts of Scriptural topics), in Chapter 100:

He became man by the Virgin, in order that the disobedience which proceeded from the serpent might receive its destruction in the same manner in which it derived its origin. For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the serpent’s word, 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 she replied, ‘Be it unto me according to your word.’ (Luke 1:38) And by her has He been born, to whom we have proved so many Scriptures refer, 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 and believe upon Him.

The “Letter to Diognetus” by “Mathetes” is another really early testimony to this idea, as it describes the Church and each individual Christian as a garden of Paradise. A Christian who cultivates both knowledge and love will have a garden where Eve is not corrupted, but a virgin shows her faith.

Here are some more references.

So I hope this helped.

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