Irenaeus on Recapitulation

As I have said many times before, one of the goals that I hope to accomplish here at Reformissio is to promote Evangelical Calvinism in a way that reveals it to be not new or innovative (as some might suppose) but rather deeply rooted in the faith of the one, Irenæus_af_Lyon_Frederikskirkenholy, catholic, and apostolic church. For this reason, I would like to follow-up my posts on ‘limited atonement’ and on the importance of holding inseparably together Christ’s incarnate person (who he is) and his atoning work (what he did) in the series Reforming Calvinism with a reflection on how the great patristic theologian Irenaeus of Lyons articulated something very similar in his famous work Against Heresies. Irenaeus is remembered not only as one of the great defenders of the Christian faith against various ‘gnostic’ heresies that arose in the second century but also as the disciple of Polycarp of Smyrna who was himself a disciple of the apostle John. Here is Irenaeus as he responds to those who would deny Christ’s incarnation and virgin birth:

For if [Christ] did not receive the substance of flesh from a human being, He neither was made man nor the Son of man; and if He was not made what we were, He did no great thing in what He suffered and endured. But every one will allow that we are [composed of] a body taken from the earth, and a soul receiving spirit from God. This, therefore, the Word of God was made, recapitulating in Himself His own handiwork; and on this account does He confess Himself the Son of man…

Still further, if He had taken nothing of Mary, He would never have availed Himself of those kinds of food which are derived from the earth, by which that body which has been taken from the earth is nourished; nor would He have hungered, fasting those forty days, like Moses and Elias, unless His body was craving after its own proper nourishment; nor, again, would John His disciple have said, when writing of Him, “But Jesus, being wearied with the journey, was sitting [to rest];” nor would David have proclaimed of Him beforehand, “They have added to the grief of my wounds;” nor would He have wept over Lazarus, nor have sweated great drops of blood; nor have declared, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful;” nor, when His side was pierced, would there have come forth blood and water. For all these are tokens of the flesh which had been derived from the earth, which He had recapitulated in Himself, bearing salvation to His own handiwork.

Wherefore Luke points out that the pedigree which traces the generation of our Lord back to Adam contains seventy-two generations, connecting the end with the beginning, and implying that it is He who has summed up in Himself all nations dispersed from Adam downwards, and all languages and generations of men, together with Adam himself. Hence also was Adam himself termed by Paul “the figure of Him that was to come,” because the Word, the Maker of all things, had formed beforehand for Himself the future dispensation of the human race, connected with the Son of God; God having predestined that the first man should be of an animal nature, with this view, that he might be saved by the spiritual One. For inasmuch as He had a pre-existence as a saving Being, it was necessary that what might be saved should also be called into existence, in order that the Being who saves should not exist in vain. [1]

Notice from this how Irenaeus’ uses of the concept of ‘recapitulation’ to describe the redemption accomplished in Christ in a way that necessitates an indissoluble unity between Christ’s person and work. J.N.D. Kelly helpfully explains what Irenaeus meant by this:

What has been said so far gives the clue to the distinctively Irenaean interpretation of the work of Christ. ‘Because of His measureless love,’ he writes, ‘He became what we are in order to enable us to become what He is.’ The method he outlines in the oft-repeated assertion that what we lost in Adam we recovered in Christ; its premiss is the idea that, if we fell through our solidarity with the first man, we can be restored through our solidarity with Christ. The key-conception which Irenaeus employs to explain this is ‘recapitulation’ …which he borrows from St. Paul’s description of the divine purpose as being ‘to sum up all things in Christ’. He understands the Pauline text as implying that the Redeemer gathers together, includes or comprises the whole of reality in Himself, the human race being included.

In close conjunction with this he exploits to the full the parallelism between Adam and Christ which was so dear to St. Paul. Christ is indeed, in his eyes, the ‘second Adam’…and ‘recapitulated’ or reproduced the first even in the manner of His birth, being generated from the Blessed Virgin as he was from virgin earth. Further, just as Adam contained in himself all his descendants, so Christ (as the Lucan genealogy proves) ‘recapitulated in Himself all the dispersed peoples dating back to Adam, all tongues and the whole race of mankind, along with Adam himself’ Thus, when He became incarnate, Christ ‘recapitulated in Himself the long sequence of mankind’, and passed through all the stages of human life, sanctifying each in turn. As a result (and this is Irenaeus’s main point), just as Adam was the originator of a race disobedient and doomed to death, so Christ can be regarded as inaugurating a new, redeemed humanity…

It is often stated that, in the light of this analysis (technically known as the ‘physical’ theory of the atonement), it is the incarnation itself which effects the redemption, but this is a dangerous half-truth… There are passages in which, echoing traditional language, Irenaeus speak of Christ’s dying for us or reconciling us to God by His passion, or of His ‘propitiating for us the Father against Whom we had sinned’, or of God’s offering His Son as ‘a sacrifice for our redemption’, and these are commonly regarded as standing apart from his main theory of recapitulation. In fact, they cohere admirably with it, suggesting as they do that the Lord’s passion and sacrificial death were the supreme and necessary expression of His obedience.[2]

This, in other words, is the soil in which later theologians like T.F. Torrance would cultivate their understanding of the vicarious atonement that Christ accomplished in terms of the vicarious humanity that Christ embodied in his incarnate person, something that we Evangelical Calvinists never tire of emphasizing. Christ did not represent humanity only in his death but also throughout the entire course of his earthly life, and he continues to do so even now as he sits at the right of the Father in heaven. He is the last Adam who ‘recapitulated’ in himself the entire course of human history, the entirety of the human race, and thus all of our own individual lives.

When we properly maintain, as did Irenaeus, the inseparably unity of Christ’s person and work, then we realize that any attempt to limit the atonement’s efficacy to a limited group of people is completely untenable, for it drives a wedge between who Christ represented in his incarnate humanity as the last Adam and what Christ accomplished for humanity descended from the first Adam. Irenaeus captures the heart of New Testament soteriology when he insists that Christ is not only “Saviour” but also “salvation” in himself.[3] That is to say, Christ did not accomplish the work of salvation such that it could be experienced or obtained apart from intimate union with him. As Paul clearly states in Ephesians 1:7, redemption is quite simply “in Christ” and thus can never be separated from who he is in himself.

So again Irenaeus:

As, at the beginning of our formation in Adam, that breath of life which proceeded from God, having been united to what had been fashioned, animated the man, and manifested him as a being endowed with reason; so also, in [the times of] the end, the Word of the Father and the Spirit of God, having become united with the ancient substance of Adam’s formation, rendered man living and perfect, receptive of the perfect Father, in order that as in the natural [Adam] we all were dead, so in the spiritual we may all be made alive. For never at any time did Adam escape the hands of God, to whom the Father speaking, said, “Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness.” And for this reason in the last times (fine), not by the will of the flesh, nor by the will of man, but by the good pleasure of the Father, His hands formed a living man, in order that Adam might be created [again] after the image and likeness of God.[4]

This is truly good news: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” (Rom. 5:18). Amen!


[1] Irenaeus of Lyons, 1885. Irenæus against Heresies. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe, eds. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, pp. 454–455.

[2] Kelly, J.N.D., 1977. Early Christian Doctrines Fifth, Revised., London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury. pp.172-174.

[3] Irenaeus of Lyons, 1885. Irenæus against Heresies. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe, eds. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, p.424.

[4] Ibid., p.527