Recapitulation. Last week Northern Seminary’s Phil Kenyon and I worked over the brochure copy for the upcoming AEF Conference (info here). I noticed that the brochure kept using the word recapitulation—about half a dozen times.
Earlier, Regent College theologian Hans Boersma had noticed that the theme of recapitulation had emerged in our conference plans. He was excited. Here’s part of what he wrote to us:
Already in the second century, St. Irenaeus, ... opposing the narrow-minded Gnostics, ... insisted that the incarnate Word had taken into himself all of humanity—recapitulation. There's nothing quite like an evangelical conference that deliberately wants to assume the same astounding truth for its starting-point.
Enough already, I can hear you saying. What’s this recapitulation stuff all about?
If you’re a little hazy on the concept, don’t be embarrassed. We haven’t talked about it much in our theology books. And we’re only now seeing a renewal of a very old concept.
I looked in quite a few evangelical theology books I have on my shelves, and in the vast majority of them I couldn’t find any reference to the early church’s theology of recapitulation. Some exceptions? Well, the Moody Handbook of Theology briefly mentions it as an example of a false theory of the atonement. But then the book seems to misunderstand the concept.
Stan Grenz was more positive in his 1994 Theology for the Community of God. Stan devoted five or six paragraphs to Irenaeus and the atonement. At the end of the section, he wrote that Irenaeus “never intended that his theory be viewed as a description of a transaction in the history of creation. It was merely a picture of the meaning of the victory of Christ.”
If Stan is correct, then we do well to listen to Irenaeus, but not to press his account of the Atonement into bearing the full weight of the meaning of Jesus’ work. If we do that, we can make it into “a false theory.” But used rightly, it can help us speak of Jesus to ourselves and to our age.
The first theologian I found on my bookshelf who actually devoted an entire chapter to the topic was (drum roll, please) Robert E. Webber. No surprise there for those who knew Bob. And a new book on Atonement theology, Scot McKnight’s A Community Called Atonement, also gives it a full treatment.
What Is Recapitulation?
So what is this “recapitulation”? It simply means “summing up,” and if you were reading Ephesians 1:10 in the Greek New Testament, you would find the word anakephalaiosasthai there. “Ana” is the equivalent of the Latin prefix “re” (again), and “kephale” is the equivalent of the Latin “caput” (or head). If your lawyer has made a case, and then she sums up her argument for the jury by going over her key points (the argument’s main headings), we call that “recapitulation.”
So Paul says that in Christ, God’s plan is “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head” (Eph. 1:10, NIV). Other translations use “sum up” instead of “bring together.” (Amazingly, the “literal” New American Standard Bible and Eugene Peterson’s “dynamic” The Message agree at this point!)
One way that Jesus sums things up is by getting right what Adam got wrong. Adam was supposed to be the head of the human race, but he bungled it and sent the race off course. And so we need a new humanity headed by a new Adam. (Think of Paul’s comparison and contrast of Adam and Christ in his resurrection chapter, 1 Corinthians 15. And remember also how in his discussion of grace in Romans 5 Paul calls Adam “the figure of him that was to come.”)
In the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons wrote:
So the Lord now manifestly came to his own, and born by his own created order which he himself bears, he by his obedience on the tree renewed [and reversed] what was done by disobedience in [connection with] a tree. ... Indeed, the sin of the first-formed man was amended by the chastisement of the First-begotten, the wisdom of the serpent was conquered by the simplicity of the dove, and the chains were broken by which we were in bondage to death.
Therefore he renews these things in himself, uniting man to the Spirit; and placing the Spirit in man, he himself is made the head of the Spirit and gives the Spirit to be the head of man, ...
He therefore completely renewed all things, both taking up the battle against our enemy, and crushing him who at the beginning had led us captive in Adam, tramping on his head ...
Cyril Richardson, who translated the Library of Christian Classics version of Irenaeus, chose to use the word “renew” (or “renew and reverse”) to convey the idea of recapitulation.
This wonderfully positive word hides some word play. Notice the number of times “head” appears in the brief excerpt above. Christ is the head of the Spirit. He gives the Spirit to be the head of man. Christ tramps on the head of the serpent. And the etymological root for “head” is buried in the original each time Richardson translates “renew/reverse” for “recapitulate.” Christ by obedience re-heads what was done by disobedience. He re-heads all these things in himself by tramping on the head of the serpent.
What I Like About Recapitulation Theology
This importance of this idea of “head” brings me to the first reason I like this theology of recapitulation.
1. Recapitulation theology recaptures our corporate identity. We are important to God as individuals, but we are also important to God as a human race. In our Enlightenment-influenced culture, we almost entirely come down on the individualist side of the scales. The novel, for example, emerged in our culture as a way to portray the struggle of the individual self against oppressive and conformist society. And our evangelism and church life has been shaped by the same influences.
Recapitulation theology reminds us that we are not merely saved as individuals, but we are part of God’s project to create a new human race in Christ, just as he originally created the human race in Adam. God did not make Adam as an individual, but immediately gave him a partner and commanded them to multiply and fill the earth. Just so Christ’s triumph is for the purpose of filling his kingdom with a new humanity.
You can immediately see the importance of church, then, as a corporate expression and countercultural context for living out this new reality.
2. Recapitulation theology affirms creation. The second reason I like recapitulation theology is that it affirms the goodness of the created order. Irenaeus wrote at a time when some Christian teachers were denying the Incarnation of the Christ. “Vain are those who say that his appearance on earth was a mere fiction,” wrote Irenaeus; if Jesus was to recapitulate (revisit, renew, and reverse) Adam’s failures, he too had to be fully human.
Other Christians were teaching that Jesus did not come to his own creation but to the creation of some inferior God who messed things up by the very act of creating a material order. “Vain indeed,” wrote Irenaeus, “are they who say that God the Son came to things not his own ... in order to hand over the man who was made by another to the God who neither made nor created him.” Why is it vain? Once again, in Christ God is revisiting, renewing, and reversing. It had to be his own creation.
Still others were teaching that flesh and blood can’t be redeemed. God only redeems our spirits, they taught. But Irenaeus wrote, “Vain above all are they who despise the whole dispensation of God, and deny the salvation of the flesh and reject its rebirth, saying that it is not capable of incorruption.” But then what are we doing in the Eucharist, Irenaeus asked. That wouldn’t make sense unless God redeems us as flesh and blood. “For if this mortal flesh is not saved, then neither did the Lord redeem us by his blood, nor is the cup of the Eucharist the communion of his blood, and the bread which we break the communion of his body.”
It is a commonplace that Christian theology has often been too heavenly minded to be any earthly good, too focused on the spirit and too flesh-denying to experience and preserve the goodness that God has created for us. Recapitulation theology places our Christian lives squarely back in God’s good created order. And it reminds us that Christ redeems not only people but an entire cosmos.
3. Recapitulation theology has a symmetry that keeps us focused on the big idea. The Adam-Christ way of thinking helps to close the circle that was opened when our first ancestors rebelled. It puts back into order that which was disordered. The biblical story is a lot like one of Garrison Keillor’s typical Lake Wobegon monologues. At the beginning of one story, Keillor drops a brief reference to a group of folk going off to Minot for the funeral of an old Lake Wobegon High School English teacher. And then he meanders through a dozen other topics, from an old guy who hunts ducks from his upstairs bedroom window to the arcane rituals of the Sons of Knute Lodge. But in the end, Keillor brings all the strands together into a meaningful whole laden with profound insight.
When you’re listening to a Keillor monologue, it is easy to lose sight of where it all started. But after all the wanderings, he’ll uncover a big idea for you. Just so with Adam and Christ. It is easy to lose sight of Adam amidst all of Israel’s wanderings, but Paul and Irenaeus bring us back to our focus. We are a human race gone bad, but we have renewal and reversal in Jesus.
When I was growing up in a holiness-influenced denomination, I couldn’t have told you what the faith was all about. I knew we didn’t do certain worldly things. But it wasn’t until much later that I grasped the big idea. Recapitulation keeps us from that old tendency to mistake taboos for the Truth. And it keeps us from mistaking any of the church’s cultural accommodation (say, turning Jesus into your very own therapist) into gospel.
That’s enough for now. I hope to see you at the conference where we can spend more time examining the ways we frame the biblical story and how they help us keep the Big Idea in front of the people to whom we minister.