at*one*ment: Recapitulation Theory

“Through man’s disobedience the process of the evolution of the human race went wrong, and the course of its wrongness could neither be halted nor reversed by any human means. But in Jesus Christ the whole course of human evolution was perfectly carried out and realized in obedience to the purpose of God.” –William Barclay


“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” How often have you heard that sentiment? People love to see history as patterns. We make connections from the present to the past, as we understand family, work, strife, and wars. After all our advances and inventions, we really aren’t much different from our ancestors. Humanity still struggles with the same basic problems, and, deep down, we all still have the same basic needs—love and acceptance. This is what makes the Recapitulation Theory of Atonement attractive. Jesus’ life reflected Adam’s life. History repeats itself, but with a whole new ending.

What is it?

The Recapitulation Theory of Atonement sees the atonement of Christ as reversing the effects of the sin of Adam. Humanity moves from disobedience to obedience, from Curse to Christ. The theory was first formulated by Irenaeus in the second century. It is based on a Greek word in Ephesians 1:10, anakephalaiosasthai, which means to sum up or recapitulate. Paul says that God’s will in Christ is “the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth.”

Jesus got right what Adam got wrong. Adam disobeyed God’s command concerning the tree. Jesus obeyed God, to the point of death on a tree.

One of the strengths of the Recapitulation Theory is that it expands the understanding of atonement from Christ’s death to his entire life. Many atonement theories focus on the death of Christ and see his birth, life, and teachings and mere counterparts, the part of the story only necessary to get us to the cross. But Recapitulation sees Christ’s death within the larger picture of God’s entire saving work: restoring human nature.

Another strength of this theory is the reminder that we are all connected to each other as part of the human race. While we understand salvation for individuals, and the importance of making your own individual faith commitment, it is also essential to remember that everything we do affects other people. Recapitulation emphasizes Christ’s atonement of humanity as a whole.

Scripture Support

Christ is compared to Adam in these passages:

1 Corinthians 15:21-22 “For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.”

Romans 5:19 “For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” (See also the entire chapter for more comparison.)

The incarnation as essential to atonement:

Philippians 2:7-8 “[Jesus] emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

The far-reaching scope of redemption:

Romans 8:19-21 “ For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

Potential Problems

While searching the internet for information about this theory I came across one website that condemned it as heresy because Jesus never sinned. However, the theory never says Jesus sinned, so their condemnation is based on misinformation.

Although a fascinating look at the interplay of incarnation and atonement, this theory isn’t quite enough to fully explain atonement. It seems like something that needs to be understood alongside another theory of atonement. Gavin Ortlund does just that is his blog. He understands Recapitulation and Satisfaction theories as compatible.


For further study, check out these websites:

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