Atonement Theory Week: Recapitulation (Part 1)

(Eds. note: Today is the second post in Atonement Theory Week.  Jake covered "Christus Victor" yesterday, which you can read here.  As Ryan will outline in what follows, the "Recapitulation" view of the atonement is the view taught by Eastern Orthodoxy, which is unsurprising given that Ryan is a member of an Eastern Orthodox parish.  Redeemer Church, of course, is not Eastern Orthodox; but we do think that 1) there is a lot to learn from and that is true and beautiful about Recapitulation and 2) that even if and where we disagree, we should interact with deep, theological teachings.  Paul writes about "iron sharpening iron" and "becoming convinced in our minds" about what is true.  Therefore, we hope our members (and others from Protestant traditions) will read and engage with this piece, learn, research the issues more deeply, and above all, be encouraged and challenged.) 

The Recapitulation Model of the Atonement

An Odd Segue

Have you ever noticed anything odd about St. Luke’s transition away from the Annunciation narrative in the first chapter of his Gospel?

As soon as he finishes telling us that the Virgin Mary has given her famous fiat (“be it unto me according to thy word”), responding with a resounding “Yes!” to God’s will that she become the Mother of our Lord, there’s an abrupt segue to something entirely different:

“Now Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth."

What’s so odd about that, you might ask? Nothing in particular… unless you grew up steeped in the Old Testament and really knew the geography of ancient Israel. Because then you might recall that the hill country of Judah is the setting of a remarkable story: King David’s retrieval of the Ark of the Covenant from the Philistines in 2 Samuel 6.

We’re told that after Uzzah is struck dead because he touched the Ark, David leaves the Ark where it is in the hill country of Judah for about three months.

“And Mary remained with her about three months, and returned to her house.”

Huh. That’s interesting.

Let’s see, are there any other parallels between Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and David’s retrieval of the Ark? Well, we’re told that David leaped and whirled before the Ark of his Lord…

"And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit."

Alright, well that seem like a coincidence. Is there anything else? We’re told that David questions: “How can the Ark of the Lord come to me?” We’re told, though, that when it comes, the Ark is greeted with shouts of joy.

"Then she spoke out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.”

So we have Elizabeth essentially riffing directly off of King David’s lines: “How can the Ark of the Lord come to me?” has now become “But why is it granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” And shouts in the Old Testament narrative become “speaking out with a loud voice.” I think it’s fair to say that we’ve got a rather intentional and obvious parallel here.

But what does that mean for our discussion of the Atonement? Leaving aside the rather fascinating implications of the fact that in this understanding of Luke’s parallel, Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant (I don’t want to get too Orthodox on you guys all at once), what we see in this narrative is the beginning of a common theme: from the very beginning of His Incarnation, while He is even in His Mother’s womb, Christ begins His work of Recapitulation.

What is Recapitulation?

The Recapitulation Theory is by far the oldest theory of the Atonement. St. Irenaeus first explained the theory in the 2nd century AD. It’s worth pointing out that Irenaeus lived so early in Church history that the ink was barely dry on the last of the New Testament books. Irenaeus studied under St. Polycarp, who in turn had studied under the Apostle John, so it’s fair to think of Irenaeus as being a theological and spiritual grandson of the writer of the 4th Gospel.

Irenaeus argues that a major part of how Jesus saves us is by recapitulating—that is, repeating the main points—the story of mankind. But because He is the perfect God-Man, when He relives the main points of salvation history, He redeems them.

The story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth is just one early example of Christ recapitulating and redeeming major points of salvation history.  Here are some others, among many:

  • When Christ is presented at the Temple after His birth, He repeats a custom that the Jewish firstborns that came before Him had all gone through. He also recapitulates the story of God giving the Law to Moses (see Exodus 13). But He redeems and fulfills it! At what other presentation were there prophesies like Simeon’s and Anna’s?

  • When Christ is baptized in the river Jordan, in a sense He repeats Israel’s crossing of the Jordan. But He redeems and fulfills it! The Holy Spirit descends upon Him, and God the Father voices His approval.

  • When Christ is tempted in the desert by Satan, he walks in the same path that Adam and Eve did—“has God really said…?”—But whereas the old Adam fell into sin and death, Christ obeys His Father perfectly! He redeems and fulfills what Adam and Eve had lost!

  • When Christ dies, His death on a “tree” recalls the tree that Adam and Eve ate fruit from. But by His Resurrection, Christ defeats the death of all of Adam’s descendants!

How Does Recapitulation Save Us?

It’s important to note that to the Church Fathers, sin was not just individual guilt. Sin is the corruption of the entire cosmos, and particularly of human nature. Humanity was created to participate in the very life of God—a fact the Church Fathers called theosis—but that union with God became impossible because of what sin has to done to human nature. We were created to go ever deeper into the mountains of God, as CS Lewis points out in his excellent book The Great Divorce (incidentally, one of the best illustrations of patristic soteriology I’ve ever found), but sin has made us so weak and corrupt that we are unable to ascend even into His foothills.

By uniting Himself completely and fully to human nature, Christ begins the healing process. His Incarnation makes possible the redemption of human nature, so that we can be made well enough to go into the mountains.

The Fathers did not see sin as a legal problem (and here I disagree with Jake, because I do not think that this model of the Atonement is compatible with penal substitution or satisfaction models). They saw sin as an ontological problem, for our very being has been cut off from its intended purpose. Christ solves that problem by reuniting God and Man in Himself. He does this not only by taking on human flesh, but also by recapitulating the moments in salvation history where we had failed. As St. Gregory of Nazianzus has said, “that which He has not assumed He has not healed,” and so Christ assumes our history as well as our flesh.

Join us tomorrow for Part 2, where Ryan explains how Christ's death is actually salvific, and how "Recapitulation" is linked to "Christus Victor." 

Ryan McLaughlin is a math teacher, husband, and father of three. He lives with his family in the Tampa, FL area, and is a member of St. Andrew-the-First-Called Orthodox Church. When not enjoying quality works of Science Fiction, Ryan likes to read Russian novels, Irish poetry, Greek theology, and English political theory, all preferably accompanied by Floridian craft beer

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