Atonement: Recapitulation

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Over the past two weeks we have discussed the views of the early fathers on the atonement. The Christus Victor and ransom themes are both prominent during the patristic era. Before moving on to views popularized during the medieval period, there is one more important theme from the early fathers – recapitulation.  Discussions of the atonement often leave out recapitulation, but due to the Biblical support and the importance of Irenaeus among the early fathers it’s appropriate to look at this theme. The English word “recapitulate” essentially means to “to sum up” or “go over again” and is the longer word from which we derive the shorter and more popular word “recap”. The English word is rooted in the Latin word that means “head”. So, in Latin, recapitulation means “providing a new head”. In a nutshell, the recapitulation theory views the work of Christ as an undoing of all the harm done by Adam and the fall. Christ becomes the new head of the human race and, as the second Adam, Christ succeeds where Adam failed. Pastor Edward Raby sums it as follows:

This view sees Jesus Christ as the second Adam.  Paul seems to talk about this in 1st Corinthians 15:22 and 15:42-49.  The idea being that Christ is the new Adam that succeeded where the first Adam failed.  Because of that success, Christ undoes the wrong (He Recapitulates) that the first Adam started and humanity begins to work backwards toward its original state with God.  Because of Christ’s incarnation and union with humanity he can find eternal life including morality in this life.  In other words human evolution goes from a downward bent to an upward bent because of Christ’s identification with humanity in all things.  Christ reverses humanity’s course from disobedience to obedience (Raby).

Biblical Basis

Irenaeus of Lyons is the man often cited as the originator of the recapitulation view of atonement, but that is obviously not the case in light of what the Bible says on the subject. Irenaeus developed the theme of recapitulation in Christ, but his ideas are firmly rooted in the New Testament.

2 Corinthians 5:21  For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

2 Corinthians 5:21, and similar verses, are key to recapitulation, because they stress the unity of Christ with believers. Recapitulation only works if we can be unified with Christ, so that, what Christ did we also accomplish. Parallels can be drawn between our identification with Adam, in whom we all sinned, and Christ, in whom we all are made righteous.  This brings us to the essential verses on recapitulation found in Roman.

Romans 5:15-21  But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.  (16)  And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification.  (17)  For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.  (18)  Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.  (19)  For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.  (20)  Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,  (21)  so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Paul is obviously comparing Adam and Christ, but Paul seems to confine that comparison to the sin of Adam and the death of Christ. Later writers, like Irenaeus, will greatly expand on this comparison.

2 Peter 1:3-4  His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence,  (4)  by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.

2 Peter 1:4 has become especially important in the Eastern Orthodox which believes that Christians are actually becoming part of the divine. However, even Protestants see an obvious unity between Christ and believers (assuming that John means believers by the pronoun “us”) in these verses. To “partake” of the divine nature is an amazing thought, and indicates the dynamic (and dramatic) union we have with Christ. Again, union is at the heart of recapitulation. Space will not permit a detailed look at the doctrine of divinization, but that doctrine is closely associated with recapitulation and will be mentioned as it relates to the topic at hand.

Justin Martyr (AD c. 110-165) and Irenaeus of Lyons (AD c. 130 – 202)

Justin Martyr and Irenaeus can be discussed together, because Justin’s passing reference to recapitulation survives in a quote by Irenaeus.  In Against Heresies, IV 6, Irenaeus quotes Justin as writing:

And Justin well said in his book against Marcion, that he would not have believed the Lord Himself, if He had announced any other God than the Fashioner and Maker [of the world], and our Nourisher. But since, from the one God, who both made this world and formed us, and contains as well as administers all things, there came to us the only-begotten Son, summing up His own workmanship in Himself, my faith in Him is steadfast, and my love towards the Father is immoveable, God bestowing both upon us (Schaff AH, VI 6). (Emphasis added)

The most enlightening part of the quote, in terms of its influence on Irenaeus, is the way Justin describes Christ as “summing up” His workmanship. The word “recapitulating”  could replace “summing up” in the phrase, “recapitulating (summing up) His own workmanship in Himself”. Justin seems to believe that Jesus was, at the very least, the pinnacle of what humanity was intended to be when God made Adam. This short quote may have had a great impact on Irenaeus development of the theme of recapitulation. In his famous work “Against Heresies” Irenaeus develops this idea in a fairly detailed manner.

…He became incarnate, and was made man, He commenced afresh the long line of human beings, and furnished us, in a brief, comprehensive manner, with salvation; so that what we had lost in Adam–namely, to be according to the image and likeness of God–that we might recover in Christ Jesus (Schaff AH, III 18.1).

Irenaeus, and many of the early fathers following him, placed great importance on the incarnation. He seems to find the incarnation itself as the central event of salvation. In the quote above Irenaeus describes the incarnation as the means by which salvation was furnished.  Just as the entrance of sin into humanity through Adam contaminated the whole race, in Christ the entrance of God into humanity cleanses and restores the whole race.

For as by one man’s disobedience sin entered, and death obtained [a place] through sin; so also by the obedience of one man, righteousness having been introduced, shall cause life to fructify in those persons who in times past were dead (Schaff AH, III 21.10).

Thus far, the above quotations of Irenaeus haven’t contained much that isn’t, in essence, also taught by the apostle Paul. However, Irenaeus pushed the comparison between Adam and Christ a bit further. Although the contemporary views of the Catholic Church on Mary didn’t fully develop until much later, many Protestants don’t realize that the elevation of the Virgin Mary began very early and can be seen in Irenaeus doctrine of recapitulation.  Irenaeus, in Against Heresies III Chapter 21, claims that the birth of Adam from virgin soil is analogous to the birth of Christ from the Virgin Mary. As Adam had no father, but God, so too Jesus had no father, but God (Schaff).  He goes on to compare Mary and Eve. As Eve’s disobedience brought sin into the world, so Mary’s obedience brought salvation. Irenaeus believed Eve was also a virgin prior to the fall.

And thus also it was virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary (Schaff AH, 22.4).

Irenaeus even draws comparison between the source of disobedience being a tree (tree of knowledge of good and evil) and the source of righteousness being a tree (the cross).

. . . 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… (Schaff AH, V, 19.1)

Irenaeus ties together the themes of Christus Victor and recapitulation skillfully. Christ gained victory sin and death through His recapitulation and, thus, brought life to humanity.

…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 (Schaff AH, V, 20.2).

While Irenaeus may have pushed the analogy too far at times, there is powerful truth to be found in viewing Christ through the lens of recapitulation. The incarnation is more important than many contemporary Protestants seem to know. Irenaeus and those who follow him placed continued importance upon the union of God and man in the person of Jesus Christ.  If not for the incarnation there would have been no cross. The death of a man could not save humanity, only the death of the God-man could accomplish that. If we partook of sinful nature through our connection with Adam we partake of the divine nature through our union with Christ. Now, by union with Christ, God dwells within us.

He recapitulated in Himself: by uniting man to the Spirit, and causing the Spirit to dwell in man, He is Himself made the head of the Spirit, and gives the Spirit to be the head of man: for through Him (the Spirit) we see, and hear, and speak (Schaff AH, V, 20.2).

Athanasius (AD c.296-373)

As with the previous two views of the atonement (Ransom and Christus Victor), we next turn to St. Athanasius and his famous “On the Incarnation”.  Athanasius doesn’t speak nearly so fully on the recapitulation of Christ. However, the underlying idea is certainly present.  Athanasius gives an interesting illustration that compares Christ coming into the world to a king arriving in a city. By his presence in the city the king brings honor and hinders the activity of criminals, in the same way, the very presence of God among humanity, destroys the power of corruption in man.

You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be. For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Savior of all the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death (Athanasius Ch. 2, sec. 10).

The most famous quote from Athanasius relating to recapitulation is, “He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God. (Athanasius Ch.4.54)” Later theologians have placed great emphasis on this quote and it is used to support the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of divinization. We will discuss this momentarily. However, Athanasius certainly believed that the union between Christ and humanity was absolutely essential to salvation.  Athanasius saw the work of Christ as “restoring” the divine nature to humanity that it had lost through the fall (Athanasius Ch. 2.10). Athanasius, however, focused much more attention on the death of Christ than Irenaeus before him. In fact, we will return to Athanasius often over the next few weeks as we look at the satisfaction and penal substitutionary views of atonement. Of all the early fathers Athanasius has the clearest presentation of Christ death as an exchange and substitution for humanity that satisfied the requirements of God’s nature.

Gregory of Nazianzus (AD c.329-389)

The themes of both recapitulation, which remains a part of protestant doctrine, and of divination, which remains a part of Eastern Orthodox and Catholic doctrine, are found in Gregory of Nazianzus. He asserts that the purpose of salvation is to:

. . . provide the soul with wings, to rescue it from the world and give it to God, and to watch over that which is in His image, if it abides, to take it by the hand, if it is in danger, or restore it, if ruined, to make Christ to dwell in the heart by the Spirit: and, in short, to deify, and bestow heavenly bliss upon, one who belongs to the heavenly host  . . . This is why God was united to the flesh by means of the soul, and natures so separate were knit together by the affinity to each of the element which mediated between them: so all became one for the sake of all, and for the sake of one, our progenitor, the soul because of the soul which was disobedient, the flesh because of the flesh which co-operated with it and shared in its condemnation, Christ, Who was superior to, and beyond the reach of, sin, because of Adam, who became subject to sin. (Nazianzus Or 2.22-24). (Emphasis Added)

Gregory speaks of man being deified by union with Christ, and he rests all of salvation upon the union of God and man in Christ and of Christians to the God-man – Jesus Christ. He goes on to draw comparisons between Christ and Adam that are very much like the comparisons made by Irenaeus.

This is the reason for the generation and the virgin, for the manger and Bethlehem; the generation on behalf of the creation, the virgin on behalf of the woman, Bethlehem because of Eden, the manger because of the garden, small and visible things on behalf of great and hidden things (Nazianzus Or 2.24).

All these are a training from God for us, and a healing for our weakness, restoring the old Adam to the place whence he fell, and conducting us to the tree of life, from which the tree of knowledge estranged us, when partaken of unseasonably, and improperly (Nazianzus Or. 2.25).

The prominence of these themes in Gregory (the above quotes are only a sampling) indicates the strength with which they had become ingrained in the theological landscape of the early fathers. Indeed the recapitulation motif remains a part of the way the church views the atonement throughout church history.

Although the doctrine of deification enjoyed greater development in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, recapitulation is present among the protestant reformers.

Reformers (16th Century)

Commenting on Romans 5, Luther writes:

Paul gives us the same thought in Romans 5: 17-18, where he compares Adam and Christ. Adam, he says, by his disobedience in Paradise, became the source of sin and death in the world; by the sin of this one man, condemnation passed upon all men. But on the other hand, Christ, by his obedience and righteousness, has become for us the abundant source wherefrom all may obtain righteousness and the power of obedience. And with respect to the latter source, it is far richer and more abundant than the former. While by the single sin of one man, sin and death passed upon all men, to wax still more powerful with the advent of the Law, of such surpassing strength and greatness, on the other hand, is the grace and bounty which we have in Christ that it not only washes away the particular sin of the one man Adam, which, until Christ came, overwhelmed all men in death, but overwhelms and blots out all sin whatever. Thus they who receive his fullness of grace and bounty unto righteousness are, according to Paul, lords of life through Jesus Christ alone (Luther Devotions 32 ).

In the Reformers, not surprisingly, we see a return to the more narrow view of recapitulation found in St. Paul. Luther’s focus in the above quotation is on what Christ provided by his death. Like Paul, Luther confines the comparison of Adam and Christ to the death vs. life motif. However, the idea of union with Christ is seen often in Luther. In his commentary on Galatians chapter 2 he writes:

Since Christ is now living in me, He abolishes the Law, condemns sin, and destroys death in me. These foes vanish in His presence. Christ abiding in me drives out every evil. This union with Christ delivers me from the demands of the Law, and separates me from my sinful self. As long as I abide in Christ, nothing can hurt me (Luther Commentary on Ga.2).

Calvin has more to say about Christ as the second Adam.

It cannot be doubted that when Adam lost his first estate he became alienated from God. Wherefore, although we grant that the image of God was not utterly effaced and destroyed in him, it was, however, so corrupted, that any thing which remains is fearful deformity; and, therefore, our deliverance begins with that renovation which we obtain from Christ, who is, therefore, called the second Adam, because he restores us to true and substantial integrity. For although Paul, contrasting the quickening Spirit which believers receive from Christ, with the living soul which Adam was created, (1 Cor. 15: 45,) commends the richer measure of grace bestowed in regeneration, he does not, however, contradict the statement, that the end of regeneration is to form us anew in the image of God (Calvin Institutes Ch. 15).

Calvin saw union with Christ as a restoration of what man was created to be, however, the fullness of that recreation would not be completed until Christians partake in resurrection.

Therefore, as the image of God constitutes the entire excellence of human nature, as it shone in Adam before his fall, but was afterwards vitiated and almost destroyed, nothing remaining but a ruin, confused, mutilated, and tainted with impurity, so it is now partly seen in the elect, in so far as they are regenerated by the Spirit. Its full lustre, however, will be displayed in heaven (Calvin Institutes Ch. 15).

Modern Protestants

The protestant church today continues to view the recapitulation of Christ as Luther and Calvin. Christ is the new Adam and has become the new head of humanity. It is in union with Christ that our natures are renovated and we have become partakers of God through the indwelling of the Spirit of God. The famous reformed theologian Louis Berkhof explains:

By His incarnation and human life He thus reverses the course on which Adam, by his sin started humanity and thus becomes a new leaven in the life of mankind. He communicates immortality to those who are united to Him by faith and effects an ethical transformation in their lives, and by His obedience compensates for the disobedience of Adam (Berkhof).

To show that this theme is true of Evangelicals in general, and not just reformed writers, note the following quotes by Melodist theologian Thomas Oden:

As Adam represented all the human family in its previous history, Christ represented the whole of humanity in its future history under the new covenant (Oden 241).

By one representative human person (Adam) sin appeared in history. This is matched by the deepening irony that by one representative human person (Christ) grace appeared in history (Oden 278).

The temptation that was unresisted by Adam and so led humanity to destruction (Gen. 3) was resisted by Christ so as to lead humanity to redemption (Augustine, CG 13–14; Gen. 22:1; 1 John 3:8). By thwarting Satan’s deceptions, his ministry of reconciling God and humanity began (Didymus the Blind, Comm. on 1 John) (Oden 345).

Notice how Oden speaks not only of the death of Christ, but also of his overcoming the temptation of Satan.  Although Evangelicals stress the cross they also believe that the perfect life of Christ is imputed to believers. The union of Christ with the believer imputes His righteousness while paying for their sins. The doctrine of imputation fits well with the idea of recapitulation. Christ recapitulated Adam, not only in death, but in his victorious life of righteousness.

Eastern Orthodox

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition recapitulation plays a much larger role. However, they often hold this view in opposition to penal satisfaction, rather than in tandem with it as most Evangelicals would do.

Instead of viewing the atonement as Christ paying the price for sin in order to satisfy a wrathful God, Recapitulation teaches that Christ became human to heal mankind by perfectly uniting the human nature to the Divine Nature in His person.  Through the Incarnation, Christ took on human nature, becoming the Second Adam, and entered into every stage of humanity, from infancy to adulthood, uniting it to God.  He then suffered death to enter Hades and destroy it.  After three days, He resurrected and completed His task by destroying death. By entering each of these stages and remaining perfectly obedient to the Father, Christ recapitulated every aspect of human nature.  He said “Yes” where Adam said “No” and healed what Adam’s actions had damaged.  This enables all of those who are willing to say yes to God to be perfectly united with the Holy Trinity through Christ’s person.  In addition, by destroying death, Christ reversed the consequence of the fall (Darrell).

The above quote is excellent and most Evangelicals could agree with all, save its opening sentence. As mentioned earlier, the idea of divinization also plays a large role in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. As we live in union with Christ, in E. O. tradition, we become more like God. They do not believe that people will ever be equal with God, but that we will be like God. Traditionally, Protestants do not speak about deification in this way.


The recapitulation theme has much to commend it. First, it is supported by several key verses found in the Apostle Paul. Secondly, it reminds us of our identity as the people of God that were created by and redeemed through Christ. Jesus is not only our creator, but also the head our race. God’s plan for humanity did not begin at the nativity or at the cross – it began in the garden. Recapitulation helps to explain why God needed to become man in order to save man. However, there have been abuses of this doctrine as well. As with the Christus Victor model, some have followed recapitulation to universalism. Some have claimed that by dyeing as a man for humanity, Jesus secured the salvation of all people regardless of faith. This idea is opposed by a mountain of Biblical texts. As much good as there is in viewing atonement via the lens of recapitulation, it is not a complete story. Atonement can only be fully understood by appreciating the substitutionary aspects of the atonement.

Works Cited

Athanasius. On the Incarnation. Kindle Edition, 2001.

Berkhof, Louis. The History of Christian Doctrine. London: The Banner of Truth, 1996.

Calvin, John. The John Calvin Collection: 12 Classic Works. Kindle Edition, 2012. E-Book.

Darrell. “What Is the Eastern Orthodox View of the Atonement? – See more at:” 19 November 2011. Tough Questions Answered. Blog. 21 September 2013. <>.

Leen, Fr. Edward. “Recapitulation in Christ.” n.d. CatholicCulture.Org. Article. 21 September 2013. <>.

Luther, Martin. The Martin Luther Collection: 15 Calssic Works. Kindle Edition, 2012. E-Book.

Nazianzus, Gregory of. The Orations. Kindle Edition, 2013. E-Book.

Oden, Thomas. Classic Christanity. Harper One, 2009. Kindle Edition.

On the Atonement: Irenaeus vs. Aulén (Round Two). 14 April 2008. 13 September 2013. <>.

Raby, Edward W. Theology for Dummies – Recapitulation Theory of Atonement. 6 April 2013. Blog. 20 September 2013. <>.

Schaff, Phillip. Ante-Nicene Fathers: Fathers of the Early Church (Complete). Library of Alexandria. iBooks, n.d. E-Book.