Monday, August 20, 2007

Theological and cultural assumptions of “Early Church Fathers”

Early Christianity accepted the Hebraic conviction that the world had been created by God and hence was essentially good, as Genesis 1 proclaimed. In Genesis 3 we come across the first sin in the world which is the fall. Who is the cause for the fall? Is it Adam or Eve or the serpent? This is one of the pertinent questions that the church and every individual Christians raise right from then and even now. Pondering over the same, this paper is an attempt to highlight from an historical perspective the ways in which the Early Church Fathers[1] praised and blamed, honored and disparaged the female sex. I would like to highlight the Father’s use of Scripture in their discussions of women.

Theological and cultural assumptions:

The main topics that were discussed by the Fathers are Creation, Fall and Marriage. I would like to present the opinion of the fathers accordingly.

The Church Fathers understood Genesis 1 & 2 as a connected unit written by a single author. They assert that both woman and man was formed by God and hence shared in the goodness of the created order. Augustine, bishop of Hippo argued in his treatise On the Good of Marriage that God created humans as social beings and that the first human “society” was that of man and woman.[2] Every person is a part of the human race and human nature is something social. There is a power of friendship in this human nature. This is the reason that God created all humans from one person so that they might hold fast in their society not only by likeness of descent but by the bond of relationship. Thus the first tie of natural human society is husband and wife. The union of their society resulted in children not of the marriage of man and woman, but of sexual intercourse. Hence Augustine says, there could have been a kind of friendly, genuine relationship between sexes one of them ruling the other even without such sexual intercourse.

Despite this positive view of creation, Augustine reflects on the kind of “help” Eve was supposed to provide for Adam. He puts forward a question. “If the woman was not created to be man’s helper specifically for the production of children, why was she created as a “helper”? He responds that Eve was created as a helper because she could provide the companionship for the man.[3]

The purpose of Woman’s creation in view of her responsibility for the original sin was also considered by Ambrose, bishop of Milan in his treatise On Paradise. He focuses on the Genesis 2:15 and argues that man was in the very land in which he was created. God by his power thus took the man and breathed into him in order to develop and increase the man’s power. In other words, God stationed him in Paradise so that we may know that he was “taken,” breathed on by the divine power. Man was made outside the Paradise but the woman was made inside the paradise. In fact, even though man was created outside the Paradise (i.e. in an inferior place), he is found to be superior, while woman, though created in a better place(i.e. inside Paradise) is found inferior because the woman was the first one to be deceived (I Tim. 2:14). So she who was created to be a helper to man requires male protection and the head of woman is man (I Cor. 11:3).

John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople had two minds about woman’s status at the time of creation. In some of his writings he stretched that there had been an original “equality of honor” between Adam and Eve and argued that Eve’s role as “helper” was much superior that of the animals that God had also made to assist man. Before the sin, the woman was like the man. Indeed, when God molded the woman, he used the words in creating her that he had used when he created man. He does not call her simply a “helper,” but “a helper like him (fit for him),” once more showing the equality of honor.[4] Even though he argues for equality of honor, he also believed that woman did not possess the “image of God” (Gen. 1:26) as man did, and he linked her subordinate status to this deficiency. Eve’s status in other words was not simply a result of the fall, but was an inferior one even at the moment of her creation. He also argues against those who claim that both the man and woman have the “image of God.” He says that the “image” is not meant in regard to essence, but in regard to authority.[5] He quotes Paul’s words in order to substantiate his arguments. “For the man ought not to be veiled, for he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. Therefore she ought to have a veil on her head” (I Cor. 11:7-10). The “image” has rather to do with authority, and this only the man has and the woman has it no longer. For he is subjected to no one, while she is subjected to him; as God said, “Your inclination shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you” (Gen. 3:16). Therefore the man is in the “image of God” since he had no one above him just as God has no superior but rules over everything. The woman, however, is “the glory of man,” since she is subjected to him. Whatever Eve’s original role and purpose, the Church Fathers agreed that she was responsible for the sin of Genesis 3.

Eve’s particular responsibility for the first sin is also pressed home by Augustine in his Literal Commentary on Genesis. Augustine makes much of the Biblical wording that Eve, not Adam, was the one who was led astray. He argues that if Adam was already spiritual (atleast in mind), how could he have believed what the serpent said? For the serpent said that God prohibited them from eating the fruit of that tree because he knew that if they did so, they would become gods by their knowing good and evil (Gen. 3:5). And just because it is impossible to believe it, woman was given to man, woman who was of small intelligence. He asks, is this why the apostle Paul does not attribute the image of God to her? Paul speaks, “The man ought not to cover his head, for he is the image and glory of God, but the woman is the glory of man” (I Cor. 11:7). He further explains that, however, maybe the woman had not yet received this grace that comes with the knowledge of God, but would have acquired it only gradually, under the man’s rule and management. He asserts that the apostle Paul’s words were not meaningless when he said, “For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not led astray, but the woman was, and was made guilty of transgression.”

Interestingly, Irenaeus contrasts Eve’s disobedience with the obedience of Mary but he does not engage in vituperative declamations against women on the basis of Eve’s sin. Irenaeus argues that Eve was disobedient since she did not obey when she was still a virgin. Indeed, she had a husband, Adam, but was still a virgin. Eve having become disobedient was made the cause of death both for herself and for the entire human race. Thus also Mary had a husband selected for her and nonetheless was a virgin, yet by her obedience she was made the cause of salvation both for herself and for the entire human race.

The view that blame for the first sin extended from Eve to all other women soon became a commonplace in early Christian Literature. Tertulian, an important Christian writer was particularly passionate in his denunciations. He accuses women very unkindly in his treatise On the Dress of Women. Once he address a female audience in the third century saying, “you are the devil’s gateway; you are the unsealer of that tree; you are the first foresaker of the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the devil was not brave enough to approach; you silently crushed the image of God, the man Adam; because of your punishment, that is, death, even the Son of God had to die.”[6]

Chrysostom made clear that whatever the inferior position of woman at creation, she was subjected to the man chiefly because of her role in the first sin. He, however, believed that woman’s subjection was all for the good and was not burdensome to women who accepted it s God’s will.

Augustine’s views on the original sin were of prime importance for the development of western theology. He agreed with other Church Fathers that women’s subjection was one result of that sin, but he analyzed in greater detail two other results of that sin, the entrance of death and of lust to the world. Augustine believed that lust, so irrational in its expression, would not have existed in Paradise had the sin not been committed, yet he affirmed that there would have been sexual intercourse and procreation even if the sin had not occurred. Despite Augustine’s despair over the power of lust, his hypothesis that sexual intercourse would have been part of God’s world even if humans had remained sinless opened the way for a stronger appreciation of marriage than did the views of some other Church Fathers. Clement argues against the Gnostics who say that Adam and Eve became like beasts when they began to practice sexual intercourse. He retorts that the first couple performed the sex act “by nature.”

Augustine firmly believed that God had willed women to be subject to their husbands in marriage. Even if they wished to live an ascetic life, one more in keeping with the monastic values of late ancient Christianity, they could not do so unless their husbands agree.

It was not just marriage in general that early Christian writers criticized; special problems associated with marriage might arise for Christian women who lived in a world still dominated by pagan values and customs. When a woman converted to Christianity but her husband did not, thorny difficulties could develop in their relationships.

Reflective Conclusion:
In such ways which we discussed above, the Church Fathers alternately praise the goodness of God’s created order, condemn the woman responsible for the original sin, and consign her female descendants to a life of submission to men. According to them, marriage was a reminder to women of the Paradise they had lost.
One of the problems in the understanding of the Early Church Fathers is that they read the Scriptures selectively to find legitimation for their arguments. It would be desirable that we balance our argument. I strongly believe that God who is the creator of this entire universe is a God of just and there is no partiality in God. We are all God’s children no matter male or female. Thus, each individual in this world is of the image of God which really brings out the love of God for the entire humanity. When we consider the other as not the image of God, there we can find lack of oneness which may lead to social disharmony.


Clark, Elizabeth A. Women In The Early Church. Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1983.
[1] The term “Fathers” is usually reserved for Christian writers by orthodoxy of doctrine, holiness of life, ecclesiastical approval and antiquity. “Antiquity” is generally understood to include writers down to Gregory the Great in the West, and John Damascene in the East. Elizabeth A. Clark, Women In The Early Church (Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1983), 11.
[2] Ibid., 27.
[3] Ibid., 28.
[4] Ibid., 34.
[5] Ibid., 35.
[6] Ibid., 39.

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