Theories of Atonement: Recapitulation Theory


The recapitulation theory is one that finds much support in patristic literature, and especially that of Irenaeus.  According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church Irenaeus saw the atonement as “both as the restoration of fallen humanity to communion with God through the obedience of Christ and as the summing-up of the previous revelations of God in past ages in the Incarnation[1].”  In this theory Christ went through all the stages of the life of Adam.  This experience included experiencing sin.

In his timeless work, Against Heresies, Irenaeus writes,” It was necessary, therefore, that the Lord, coming to the lost sheep, and making recapitulation of so comprehensive a dispensation, and seeking after His own handiwork, should save that very man who had been created after His image and likeness, that is, Adam, filling up the times of His condemnation, which had been incurred through disobedience,—[times] “which the Father had placed in His own power[2].”  In the book of 1 Corinthians the Apostle Paul describes the Lord Jesus Christ as the new Adam who completed what the first failed to do.  The passage in question is 1 Corinthians 15:45 which states, “And so it is written, the first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit[3].”  Christ and Adam were created by supernatural means, were tempted by Satan, but one succumbed and the other overcame sin and was crucified.  Through the life, death, burial, and resurrection humanity now has a second chance[4].

This theory is very interesting and its importance within the context of church history cannot be understated.  The theory was developed in an effort to combat the Gnostics who were gaining much influence[5].  It brought to mind the reality of the incarnation, and what had to take place for the salvation of mankind.

Though it did much to emphasize the humanity of Christ there was not much emphasis on his death.  This is important because without the death of Christ we are still in sin.  This is emphasized by Hebrews 9:22 which states, “In fact, according to the law of Moses, nearly everything was purified with blood. For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness[6]”.  To be fair the priority of Irenaeus was to emphasize that Christ was flesh and blood and not just a spirit.  Another part of the theory states that Christ experienced everything Adam did including sin and old age[7].  The scriptures tell us that Christ was sinless, but the theory states he experienced the weight of the sin on the cross.  How about old age?  The Genesis account informs us that Adam lived to be over 900 years old, but we can deduct from scripture that Christ died when he was around 33 years of age.  Tough there are some flaws in the theory it was vital in combating the Gnostics, but it is not the biblical option of the atonement.

[1] Cross, F. L., & Livingstone, E. A. (Eds.). (2005). In The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed. rev., p. 1380). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

[2] Irenaeus of Lyons. (1885). Irenæus against Heresies. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, p. 455). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.

[3] 1 Corinthians 15:45 (King James Version).

[4] E. Ferguson, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed, ed. Walter Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 992.

[5] Everett Ferguson, Church History:  From Christ to the Pre-Reformation, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 105.

[6] Hebrews 9:22 (New Living Translation).

[7] Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 129.


2 thoughts on “Theories of Atonement: Recapitulation Theory

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  1. Great piece on this idea from the Patristics. I love the theology from this period, it reflect the early church struggling to provide some level of coherence to the core ideas that become more evident in later church thinking. Thanks for this very well written post.

    Liked by 1 person

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