The Thoughts and Adventures of Sarah Harris

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The Atoning Work of Christ – Recapitulation

This blog post is part of a series on the atonement theories. You can find the first post here.

In going over the theory of recapitulation, we will also be touching on the theory of theosis (man becoming like God)– which is not an atonement theory. However, recapitulation and theosis go hand in hand so it is necessary to touch on it briefly.

What is recapitulation?

Recapitulation is the theory of atonement that follows as such: In Adam all have sinned, and have turned against God, incapable of returning. Christ unites humanity with God at the incarnation when God becomes human. He sums up all created things in himself, entering into every stage of life from birth to adulthood and finally to death, and unites it all to God. In his death he enters Hades and thereby destroys it. Where there is Light there cannot be darkness. In his resurrection he destroys death and thus, through his incarnation, death and resurrection he restores humanity. That is a very simplified version so let’s look at this a little deeper. It is rare you’ll find an evangelical who supports this view (at least as a complete theory) so we’ll mainly look at Vladimir Lossky, an Orthodox scholar but we’ll also look to the works of Jens Zimmermann, a protestant philosopher and theologian.

The theory of Recapitulation, necessarily starts at creation. The whole of humanity (from Adam till the last man) “was created in the image of Christ, who is himself the perfect image of God, and [humanity’s] destiny was to become like Him” (Zimmermann, Bonhoeffer Presentation, Feb 1, 2013). Mankind, from the start, was purposed to become like God but upon evil entering the world, via Adam’s disobedience, hope for unity with God was lost. For sin is the negation of good, the negation of God, and of life and so via sinning mankind was in a state of decay. For without God, even existence is impossible. As sin reigned, death (separation from God) took all of creation captive. Adam failed at his vocation of deification.

As Lossky expounds:

“The infinite distance between the created and uncreated, the natural separation of man from God which ought to have been overcome by deification, became an impassable abyss of sin and death, which was near a state of non-being. In order to reach that union with God, to which the creature is called, it was then necessary to break through a triple barrier of sin, death and nature” (Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 135).

This triple barrier was broken through the second Adam, that is, Christ. Through His becoming man, Christ unites himself with all of creation in order to “lift humanity up to its former destiny” (Zimmermann, Bonhoeffer Presentation). Because Christ was both human and divine, he was able to, in uniting himself with creation, restore the ability for mankind to truly be the image of God.  It is not just human beings who are recapitulated, there are implications for the entire creation (Zimmermann,

But it is not just Christ’s incarnation, his unity with humanity, that brings redemption. It is through his death that sin is destroyed. For no man could reach unity with God while in sin, because sin is the privation of Good. And at Christ’s resurrection, when he is transformed and renewed, He defeats death. Christ lives and death dies so that it no longer has a hold on us. Since humanity is unified with Christ, his entire creation is given hope of new life even after death. All three parts are necessary in the atonement. As Zimmermann states, quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“‘Christ does not cease working in us until he has changed us into Christ’s own image. Our goal is to be shaped into the entire form of the incarnate, the crucified, and the transfigured one’ (Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 284-85).  In other words, as Christians and as church, we cannot say that we have part only in the incarnate Christ, or in the crucified, suffering servant, or in the resurrected victorious Christ. ‘In Jesus Christ we believe in the God who became human, was crucified, and is risen’” (Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 157; Zimmermann, Bonhoeffer Presentation).

Where did it originate?

The simple answer to this is that it originated in the church fathers. Some basic forms of this theory of the atonement are evident in most of the fathers. I will focus on Irenaeus (125-190 AD) because he gives a very thorough explanation.

When Christ comes incarnate, he comes as the second Adam. That is, when he becomes man,  he sums up all created things in himself and recapitulates all of creation, humankind and nature included. In unifying Himself with creation, all of creation endures what He endures.  We see this over and over in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies. For example:

“He did appear [as flesh and] that He also was: God recapitulated in Himself the ancient formation of man, that He might kill sin, deprive death of its power, and vivify man; and therefore His works are true” (Bk III, ch. XVIII, par. 7).

“For as He became man in order to undergo temptation, so also was He the Word that He might be glorified; the Word remaining quiescent, that He might be capable of being tempted, dishonoured, crucified, and of suffering death, but the human nature being swallowed up in it (the divine), when it conquered, and endured [without yielding], and performed acts of kindness, and rose again, and was received up [into heaven]” (III, XIX, 3).

“Nor would the Lord have summed up these things in Himself, unless He had Himself been made flesh and blood after the way of the original formation [of man], saving in his own person at the end that which had in the beginning perished in Adam” (V, XIV, 1).

For by summing up in Himself the whole human race from the beginning to the end, He has also summed up its death” (V, XXIII, 2).

(emphasis mine)

Christ is righteous where Adam was sinful.  In a sense he reverses or undoes the wrong that Adam did and makes it right.  By Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, sin and death are also destroyed much like in Christus Victor. Adam had been conquered but when ” the Lord vivifies man, that is, Adam, death is at the same time destroyed” (Ibid. III, XXIII,7).

Death is destroyed, because God became man. And it was necessary for salvation that Christ was both God and man, as Irenaeus states so eloquently:

“Therefore, as I have already said, He caused man (human nature) to cleave to and to become, one with God. For unless man had overcome the enemy of man, the enemy would not have been legitimately vanquished. And again: unless it had been God who had freely given salvation, we could never have possessed it securely. And unless man had been joined to God, he could never have become a partaker of incorruptibility. For it was incumbent upon the Mediator between God and men, by His relationship to both, to bring both to friendship and concord, and present man to God, while He revealed God to man. For, in what way could we be partaken of the adoption of sons, unless we had received from Him through the Son that fellowship which refers to Himself, unless His Word, having been made flesh, had entered into communion with us? Wherefore also He passed through every stage of life, restoring to all communion with God” (III, XVIII, 7).

And in so doing this, Christ has allowed mankind to become unified with God. This is the doctrine of theosis. It is not the idea that we become God in actuality as many may presume. We do not become God in essence but we do become like God. It may be a little confusing how Athanasius and Irenaeus put it: “God became man, that we might become God.” and  “The Word of God, . . . became what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself” (Preface). Like God, we become incorruptible and holy. But this deification does not happen suddenly, rather we are undergoing the process of becoming more and more like God.

What is the cultural context?

In his work, Against Heresies, Irenaeus was responding to a heretical theory called Gnosticism which did not adhere to a fully incarnate God nor the Triune Godhead. Rather, Christ was a sort of demi god.  In his book, Irenaeus was explaining the atonement largely to show that if God did not become man – if Christ was not both God and man – then salvation cannot come to humanity. This is one reason why Irenaeus emphasizes the incarnation of Christ far more than he does the death and resurrection of Christ. The Gnostics were threatening true Christianity and like almost all of the works of the fathers, Irenaeus was responding to the prominent heresy of his day.

Another culturally significant concept that ought to be mentioned is neo-platonism whose main proponent was Plotinus (205-70), a Greek speaking Egyptian. Plotinus believed that the highest principle, called the One, is beyond being and “the source from which being derives, the goal to which it ever strives to return” (Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 21). The One is not subject to any attributes. It does not have the quality goodness, but we can say ‘the One is good’. The fathers were heavily influenced by neo-platonism and it can be seen in many of the theories they held. This idea that every being strives to return to the One is very similar to that of theosis.

What did the cross achieve under this view?

The incarnation, life, death, and resurrection gave all of creation the ability to unite with God and become like Him in His holiness.

What scriptures support this view?

Rom 5:10-19

For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation. Therefore , just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned – for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned ; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.

1 Corinthians 15:20-22

But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.

Ephesians 1:9-10

He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth.

What are some common criticisms?

As I’ve come across blogs and sites  discussing this view, one of the main criticisms is that this theory holds that Christ experienced all phases of Adam’s life even that of sin, but since Christ never sinned, this theory is wrong. The problem with this criticism is that the Recapitulation theory does not hold that Christ sinned. Christ was tempted just like Adam, and did not sin. He did right where Adam did wrong. If the theory held that Christ sinned, it would simply fall apart because Christ would not have perfectly recapitulation all in Himself.

The only critique I could find is that it neglects the atonement by focusing on the incarnation instead of the death or Christ.

If you all have any other critiques or know of any others, please post in the comments and I’ll add them here. In my next post, I intend to give my view of the atonement and thoughts on the previous posts in this series.

Please find my previous posts on the atonement here:

Penal Substitution

Moral Influence

Christus Victor

My next post, which concludes this series, can be found here.


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