Atonement Theory Week: Recapitulation (Part 2)

(Eds. note: Today is the third post in Atonement Theory Week.  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.  Make sure you read Part 1 first.)

So How is Christ’s Death Salvific?

Why did Jesus have to die in order to save us?

Here I think that it’s worth noting that not only is "Recapitulation" theory compatible with the "Christus Victor" theory of the atonement that Jake wrote about in his post, it’s entirely fair to say that Christus Victor is really a subset of Recapitulation Theory. Specifically, it’s the subset that deals with the Crucifixion.

In his book Against Heresies, St. Irenaeus writes:

“He has therefore, in His work of recapitulation, summed up all things, both waging war against our enemy, and crushing him who had at the beginning led us away captives in Adam ...the enemy would not have been fairly vanquished, unless it had been a man [born] of woman who conquered him. ... And therefore does the Lord profess Himself to be the Son of man, comprising in Himself that original man out of whom the woman was fashioned, in order that, as our species went down to death through a vanquished man, so we may ascend to life again through a victorious one; and as through a man death received the palm [of victory] against us, so again by a man we may receive the palm against death.”

Elsewhere in the same book, the Church father writes:
“[Christ] was in these last days, according to the time appointed by the Father, united to His own workmanship, inasmuch as He became a man liable to suffering ... 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.”

I spoke in the previous section of St. Gregory’s view that what is not assumed by Christ is not healed. Christ even goes so far in His assumption of human nature as to die. But everyone who had ever died up that point had stayed rather dead. Christ didn’t.

First, He descended into Hell to free the souls in prison there. The Fathers of the Church referred to this as the "Harrowing of Hell."  He utterly destroys Hell’s power over mankind.

Next, through His glorious Resurrection, He breaks down the doors of death and makes possible the Resurrection of the rest of mankind.

In the words of St. John Chrysostom, in his famous Paschal homily:

"Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free: he that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it.

By descending into hell, he made hell captive.

He embittered it when it tasted of his flesh.

And Isaiah, foretelling this, cried: “Hell was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions.”

It was embittered, for it was abolished.
It was embittered, for it was mocked.

It was embittered, for it was slain.

It was embittered, for it was overthrown.

It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains.

It took a body, and met God face to face.

It took earth, and encountered heaven.

It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen


O Death, where is your sting? 
O Hell, where is your victory?

Christ is risen, and you are overthrown.

Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen.

Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice.

Christ is risen, and life reigns.

Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.

For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen."

Then, through His Ascension, our Lord brings human nature into Heaven itself… He ascend the mountains of God, to go back to CS Lewis’ analogy, so that we might have a path.

Concluding Thoughts

Through His death, Resurrection, and Ascension, Christ accomplishes the Atonement by making a way for human nature to be healed. What we lost with the Garden of Eden was our ability to be united with God— By recapitulating salvation history and assuming human flesh, He united Himself utterly to us.  He heals the relationship between God and man by defeating every obstacle between us, including sin, death, hell, and the devil. Through His Atonement, theosis is once again possible, because human nature has been brought up out of death and hell and set at the right hand of the Father.

This was the dominant view of the Atonement for the first thousand years of Christian history. It is still the theory of the Atonement taught in the Eastern Orthodox Church today.

As I mentioned before, I disagree with Jake that it is compatible with a substitution or satisfaction theory of the Atonement.  Those latter theories, which didn’t originate until the 11th century (nearly a full millennium after Irenaeus wrote his works), rely on a theology of sin that was likewise a later innovation and are heavily influenced by Anselm’s conception of what a king is based on late Roman and early Medieval legal models.  (Eds. note: tomorrow, Joey will be talking about the satisfaction/penal substitution theory of the atonement.)

I hope that all who read this would continue to look into and think about Church History and Patristic thought. For me, they have been life-changing and a continued source of inspiration in my walk with the Lord.


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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