10 Things You Should Know about the Recapitulation Theory of the Atonement

Of the many theories of Christ’s atoning sacrifice that emerged in church history, this is the one least known by contemporary Christians.

(1) The principal architect of this theory was Irenaeus (115/125 – 195-202). Irenaeus drew upon the terminology of Ephesians 1:11 (“with a view to an administration suitable to the fulness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ”) for his doctrine of recapitulation. Other words he used were restitution, renewal, and review.

(2) The principle in this theory draws on the concept in biology where an organism during its embryonic development passes through stages in which certain ancestral formations or structures are repeated. Christ is viewed as having passed through every stage of existence, from that of a small child to that of an old man (Irenaeus believed Jesus lived to the age of 50).

(3) What Christ did was to reverse or recapitulate the evil brought about by the fall. His atoning work began with his birth and ended with his resurrection. During his life he renews all that was destroyed and regains all that was lost. In some sense Christ “re-thought” and “re-spoke” and “re-lived” the entire scope of human existence since the fall of Adam.

(4) Irenaeus placed great stress on Jesus being the last Adam, reversing the effects incurred by the first Adam. If Adam descended, Christ ascended. Whereas infants were born in sin, Christ in holiness. Whereas in adolescence we erred, he lived in purity. The sin of the adult was dismissed by the righteousness of the man Jesus.

(5) Irenaeus explains his theory in this way:

“Being a Master, therefore, He also possessed the age of a Master, not despising or evading any condition of humanity, nor setting aside in Himself that law which he had appointed for the human race, but sanctifying every age, by that period corresponding to it which belonged to Himself. For He came to save all through means of Himself – all, I say, who through Him are born again to God – infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, . . . a youth for youths, . . . an old man for old men” (AH, II, 22.4).

“Wherefore also He passed through every stage of life, restoring to all communion with God” (AH, III, 18.7).

(6) Great emphasis is placed on the incarnation and substitutionary life of Jesus. By living and doing successfully what Adam and all his posterity failed to do in every stage of life, Christ effected our deification. His theory has thus been called the physical theory of redemption, in which the primary purpose of the incarnation was to re-create and re-establish man in the image of God. Deification and sanctification are given priority over the removal of guilt.

(7) Irenaeus also asserted that just as Christ rectified the disobedience of Adam, so also Mary rectified the disobedience of Eve! As Eve, being a virgin (!?), brought forth death to the human race through disobedience, “so also did Mary, having a man betrothed to her, and being nevertheless a virgin, by yielding obedience, become the cause of salvation, both to herself and the whole human race” (AH, III, 22.4).

(8) This analogy thus indicates “the back reference from Mary to Eve, because what is joined together could not otherwise be put asunder than by an inversion of the process by which these bonds of union had arisen so that the former ties be cancelled by the latter, that the latter may set the former again at liberty” (AH, III, 22.4). He declares that “what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the Virgin Mary set free through faith” (ibid.).

(9) Thus Irenaeus argues in this way: “for Adam had necessarily to be restored in Christ, that mortality be absorbed in immortality, and Eve in Mary, that a virgin, become the advocate of a virgin, should undo and destroy virginal disobedience by virginal obedience” (Proof, 33:69).

(10) The parallels between Adam and Eve on the one hand and Christ and Mary on the other may be expressed in this way:

Whereas Adam and Eve brought about disobedience and descent, Christ and Mary effected obedience and ascent.

Whereas Adam and Eve engaged in disobedience via a tree, Christ displayed obedience on a tree (the cross).

Whereas Adam was tempted, not being hungry, Christ was tempted while hungry.

Whereas Eve was made (created) from virgin (untilled) earth, Mary gave birth from a virgin womb.

Adam and Even were tempted & defeated by the devil, whereas Christ was tempted but conquered the devil.

Adam had no physical father. Christ had no physical father.

Adam plunged all into death by sin. Christ elevated all to life by obedience.

Adam sinned on 6th day of the week, while Christ was crucified on 6th day of the week.

Eve was a virgin who disobeyed, whereas Mary was a virgin who obeyed.

Whereas Eve brought death via her sin, Mary brought life via her obedience.

Whereas Eve bound all by unbelief, Mary released all via faith.

Whereas Eve was deceived by an angel, Mary received good news via angel.

Needless to say, these supposed parallels are not all equally valid or helpful, but they give you a good sense for what Irenaeus was trying to establish.

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About Sam Storms

Sam Storms is the Lead Pastor for Preaching and Vision at Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Sam is on the Board of Directors of both Desiring God and Bethlehem College & Seminary, and also serves as a member of the Council of The Gospel Coalition. Sam is President of the Evangelical Theological Society. Visit http://www.samstorms.com