Recapitulation theory of atonement

The Recapitulation Theory of Atonement

"sees the atonement of Christ as reversing the course of mankind from disobedience to obedience. It believes that Christ’s life recapitulated all the stages of human life and in doing so reversed the course of disobedience initiated by Adam."^ [1]^

This view originated with Irenaeus (125-202 AD). He sees Christ as the new Adam, who systematically undoes what Adam did. Thus, where Adam was disobedient concerning God's edict concerning the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, Christ was obedient even to death on the wood of a tree. Irenaeus is the first to draw comparisons between Eve and Mary, contrasting the faithlessness of the former with the faithfulness of the latter. In addition to reversing the wrongs done by Adam, Irenaeus thinks of Christ as "recapitulating" or "summing up" human life.^[2]^

According to Peter Leithart: In their recent study of patristic interpretation, John O'Keefe and R R Reno ^[3]^ point out that Irenaeus borrows his notion of recapitulation from ancient rhetoric:

"Recapitulation is an English form of recapitulans, the Latin translation of anakephalaiosis, which means final repetition, summing up, drawing to conclusion. As a term in rhetoric, it refers to the end of a speech, when the speaker drives home the point with a summary of the strongest arguments."

In applying this notion to the life of Jesus, then, Irenaeus is not merely saying that Jesus "repeats" the history of man or of Israel, but that He is "the Father's 'summary statement," as well as the "Logos of the Father, the logic or purpose in and through which the whole divine economy is conceived and implemented." Behind Irenaeus' use, then, is a rhetorical conception of redemptive history as the speech of the Father.^[4]^


  1. What are the various theories on the atonement?
  2. Against Heresies 3.18.7; 3.21.9-10; 3.22.3; 5.21.1; see also, Andrew P. Klager, "Retaining and Reclaiming the Divine: Identification and the Recapitulation of Peace in St. Irenaeus of Lyons' Atonement Narrative." Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ, eds. Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2007), esp. p. 462 n. 158.
  3. Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).
  4. Recapitulation, by Peter Leithart.

See also