Analyzing the Atonement: Recapitulation Theory
The first stop in our tour of differing views on Christ's death is the Recapitulation Theory. This view is undeniably Patristic. This view is also the undergirding of all Eastern Orthodox theology. As can be expected by the name, this view focuses on the ways in which Jesus Christ corrects or perfects the mistakes of "types" in the Old Testament. In simple terms, the recapitulation theory stresses God's desire for restoration through Christ's death. St Athanasius owns my favorite statement aligning with this view when he says, "He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God." (On the Incarnation, 93)
This general concept is clearly seen in the Scriptures. The gospel of Matthews stands out as an obvious attempt to retell the entire story of Israel as being fulfilled faithfully by Jesus Christ. The book of Matthew was intended for the Jews and any Jew who knew their history would immediately notice the way in which Jesus is portrayed as the true Israel or "the seed" of Abraham (Gal 3:16). Thus Jesus became the fulfilled law for all who had fallen short.
But this by itself doesn't fully capture the death of Christ. For that instead, we need to focus in on Paul specifically and Peter briefly. Paul specifically focuses us on how Christ recapitulates the work of Adam. What is most important is then how this work of Christ, fulfilling Adam, is then applied to the Christian. In theory, this is perfectly captured in 2 Corinthians 5:21.
2 Corinthians 5:21
The argument in this text is easy to follow. Just as Christ became sin for us, so we truly become righteous. There are a couple caveats to this line of thinking. The first is that Protestants reject the concept of infused righteousness. A couple brief things can be said about this though. The first is that this all occurs "in Him". One could plausibly escape from the accusation of a Catholic view of justification by clinging to the delimiter "in Him" and making it a relational adjective. The second reasonable means away from any RCC doctrine is that there is no actual completion date of "becoming righteous". No Protestant would deny that eventually at some point we will be truly righteous. Paul can be read in a future righteousness manner.
The second caveat is to what degree Christ became sin. Within the evangelical community, this has almost exclusively been read to mean that Christ became sin on the cross. Many might even attempt to harmonize this with what Paul says to the church at Galatia (Gal 3:13). But those contexts are completely different. The whole of the context (2 Cor 5:16-21) is more about transformation and reconciliation than a simple death on the cross from a legal (OT law orientated) mindset. As an alternative, this text could be read to illustrate the incarnation and Christ coming in the "likeness of sinful flesh" (Rom 8:3).
It is through this approach that Irenaeus became the father of the recapitulation theory. It is through Christ's incarnation that the recapitulation theory gains traction. To its credit, this view often places a more intense focus on the incarnation than other theories.
I must be honest. I am a pretty big fan of N.T. Wright. I don't agree with everything he says...heck I don't even agree with everything I say. But his work in showing how the book of Romans is set out as a defense for the work of Jesus Christ in redeeming the world is spectacular. Not only is the work of Jesus Christ linked back in fulfillment to Abraham (Romans 4) but it even goes back to Adam (Romans 5). This fact coupled with the incarnation lay the groundwork for the recapitulation theory.
Without a question, the primary textual key for this passage is the phrase "one man" (Rom 5:15-17, 19). Everything done in Adam is overturned by the work of Jesus Christ. Adam's introduction of death is contrasted by Christ's introduction of grace. Righteousness is found in the "second Adam". Christ's life and subsequent death are directly set against the fall of Adam.
But didn't death come to all humans and the whole world through Adam? How can universalism be avoided in this context? The obvious question becomes who is in Christ the "second Adam". Nobody would argue that they aren't found in the first Adam. This truth is principal to Paul's argument that Christ redeems all men. But what keys, if any, does Paul provide to determine that someone is in the "second Adam"?
Far from being a simple denial of "keep on sinning", the early portions of this chapter deal with how we are redeemed by the second Adam. Paul seemingly anticipates the question that will conclude the logical thought he was already building.
The whole basis for not continuing in sin is the union we have in Christ (Rom 6:3-11). This is a very practical passage. It is fundamental for the doctrine of sanctification. But it also points the believer to the essential truth that we weren't saved because Christ died at one time at some place. No. We're saved because we were united in His death, burial, and resurrection. At the conclusion of Paul's contrasting with Adam, we find how to become linked to the new Adam. It is this recapitulation of Christ's work and our union with it that saves us.
Some might argue that this makes Christ's work subjective instead of objective. It is our union and not the work that does the saving. And to a degree this is true. But the union is with something and someone very real. It is both our union to Adam and his work that caused our fall. To overly objectify the work of Christ is to save all of Adam's seed. To highlight our union in His recapitulation is to find an Orthodox understanding of salvation.
In the same vein as making this union objective, one must delineate between true union with Christ and covenantal union with Christ. Both are objectively real. But only one, those faithful to their covenantal union, experience the transformation of righteousness described by Paul (2 Cor 5:21). But did Christ "recapitulate" for the unfaithful covenant members? My answer to this is yes. He had to fulfill the role of second Adam. But the effects of this recapitulation are found only in true union.
2 Peter 1
Call it a hunch. But I think most Protestants would prefer is 2 Peter 1:4 was not in the Bible. For many, this passage is beyond difficult to understand. For many, that's because they're attempting to put it into their system. Some Protestants have done a great job of neatly packing it away into their system. But we then have to ask ourselves, why the heck does Peter use this language?
For the Eastern Orthodox, this is a clear indication of Jesus Christ's active work in our salvation bringing about the "deification" of the Christian. But perhaps this language is too strong. Perhaps we would feel better if we said that the believer experiences union with the God-man? I will leave aside how strict a union this really could be.
Peter doesn't go so far as to say what the cause of this "partaking" is (e.g. the death of Christ). I'm going to go out on a limb and force this into my system. I think this could be the covenantal partaking of the Lord's Supper (1 Cor 10:2-4; 11:27; 12:13)
1 John 3
Alright, this one is being thrown in as an extra. It really doesn't describe the recapitulation theory. Instead, it described the expectant hope of the believer. A hope that I think is best suited for explanation through the recapitulation theory. Put in simple terms, I think our glorification is best suited to understanding Christ as bringing us along in His recapitulation to restore creation.
John is quick to give hope that we shall be as Christ is (1 John 3:2). I can understand why/how some would downplay this to simply mean that we'll be resurrected and glorified like Christ. But in the end, we're moving towards a mimicking of Christ. As Christ contrasted against Adam, the Christian finds that they are united with Christ in the whole of His resurrection and glorification.
Modern theologians who work to emphasize our union with Christ have a tendency to allow more recapitulation thinking into their theology. This is not a bad thing. Instead, it helps bring back into focus God's intent of restoration in Christ's death. Christ died to restore all creation. But not all find themselves the seed of the second Adam.
Editor's Note: This blog post was written in 2013 and would recieve significant revision in both personal understanding and representation. And e-mails should be directed to TorreyGazette@gmail.com.