As a young Christian woman involved in a research project on the doctrine of original sin, I noticed something was missing. Well, someone.
For all the intense theological speculation about the first man that the early Christian church engaged in so regularly, there was little mention of his companion, the first woman. Many theologians, such as St. Augustine, simply ignored Eve. In their treatises and letters, she goes unmentioned. After all, Paul affirmed Adam's sole importance by linking him with Christ in the New Testament—and, more practically, these theologians lived in a time when men held all social and political power.
To the early Christian leaders who were primarily interested in setting out systems of Christological theology for the church, Adam and Christ were the two most important characters in the biblical narrative: the man who took the blame of sin and died and the man who died to take the blame away. Eve, as a woman, was simply not worth mentioning.
That is not to say that Eve was completely ignored, however. Many theologians did address her. Unfortunately, those who did so took an extremely negative view of her, going so far as to blame her for the fall of humankind and the existence of sin. In this view, Eve was easily corrupted by the Devil and, in turn, caused Adam to stumble, as well.
Ancient church father Tertullian, for example, wrote in On the Apparel of Women that women are, through Eve, "the Devil's gateway." He said, "You are the unsealer of that tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you destroyed so easily God's image, man. On account of [you] even the Son of God had to die" (my emphasis).
It was this view of Eve, and of women, that became the most prevalent throughout church history.
In the Middle Ages, St. Bernard of Clairvaux preached regularly that Eve was the "original cause of all evil," and that all women share her disgrace.
Even John Calvin and Martin Luther, figureheads of the Protestant Reformation, took a grim view of women: according to Calvin, Eve took advantage of her independence and was therefore "cast into servitude" along with the rest of womankind. Luther called this servitude a "gladsome punishment" when coupled with the "honour of motherhood," as women divorce themselves from the image of Eve and align themselves with the image of Mary, mother of Jesus.
(I do not intend to cast doubt on the work done by these men of the church as a whole. I myself go to Calvin College, a school founded on Augustinian and Calvinist theology, so far be it from me to reject church fathers wholesale based on their characterization of Eve. But it's still worth addressing their views on the subject.)
While theologians like the ones I just mentioned differed on the details, they all agreed that Adam, as the representative of humanity, bore the responsibility for sin, as Paul articulated in the New Testament. However, they asserted that the initiating sin was Eve's: she succumbed to the Devil's temptation and then, worst of all, preyed on Adam's self-sacrificial love for her and convinced him to eat of the fruit with her. In other words, according to these theologians, Adam ate the forbidden fruit because he loved Eve too much to live without her, even in the Garden.
In her book Eve: A Biography, writer Pamela Norris sums the state of affairs up nicely:
Eve/Woman stands accused of vanity, moral weakness and sexual frailty, while Adam/Man's role in the transaction can be summarized by the familiar defence: "She led him on."
The early church theologians worked under certain historical limitations that shaped their views on women, and thus, Eve. The anthropology and science of the day was deeply influenced by Greek conceptions of human anatomy, leading theologians in the Augustinian tradition to assume that sin was a biological taint passed on through sex, like a mutated gene might be. Furthermore, they believed that women were biologically weaker than men in the sense that women were more porous and therefore more vulnerable and gullible, apt to "soak up" whatever they came into contact with, or that they were literally "half-baked" men, as Aristotle taught.
These misconceptions about women's physical and mental makeup, coupled with some very deep-seated cultural assumptions about women (the Pandora myth pre-dates the Christian church, to give an example) affected theologians' understanding of Eve's first sin and, subsequently, of women as a whole.
Some of these misconceptions became the norm for Christianity and existed largely uncontested as late as the 1800s. In fact, it was often cited as the main reason for keeping women uneducated and unable to vote: as Eve proved, the argument went, women cannot be trusted with any measure of power or knowledge.
Similar misapprehensions about women exist still in today's church, with the same underlying convictions: Women's sexuality is dangerous. Women aren't to be trusted with power. Women are created to be subordinate. These arguments mark modern church politics, often coloring our convictions about women's role in the hierarchy of church leadership.
This long practice of blaming Eve for sin, and by extension all women, causes both young men and young women to learn distorted views. Even during my contemporary upbringing in the church, I faced a barrage of Joshua Harris books (advocating courtship, where the man has the initiative in a romantic relationship), devotionals telling girls like me to be Naomis and Marys (while boys are told to fantasize about being Davids and Gideons), and purity rings (boys pledge to avoid temptation, whereas we girls pledge to avoid being temptations).
Even now, the modesty debates continue at full-force, which make me as a Christian woman think we remain too caught up in discussions of what women are wearing. In some churches, young women still learn that their sexuality (or lack thereof) determines their worth and status in the church of Christ.
Adam and Eve are examples of human weaknesses. Their descriptions in Genesis reveal more than anything how we rejected God and fell from grace. As a unit, humanity is to blame for sin.
Blaming Eve for sin is wrong. Seeing women only in terms of sexuality is wrong. Young women are not the cause of the modesty wars; they are the victims.
Rather than worrying about what we are wearing, then, worry about how to get us involved. Give us books so we can learn to think critically about our faith, not so we can learn how to dress. Show us that you intend to treat us as Christ would, not as Tertullian or Bernard of Clairvaux would, and the church will reap the benefits.
Rachel Hekman is a senior at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., studying history and religion. When not hitting the books, she lives in Dallas, Texas.