Atonement Part Two: Recapitulation Theory

As we saw in the previous post, I realised that Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA), and its torturous bedfellow, Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) made me more than a little uneasy, and I set in to illustrate at least some of the reasons why they made me so uncomfortable. Added to those reasons, there’s the simple fact that I don’t see either of them to be compatible with God’s loving nature, nor with his sense of justice, nor with basic fairness. As I hinted, I much prefer another theory of the atonement, which I feel fits God’s character much better. It is usually called Recapitulation Theory or, more colloquially, as the Therapeutic Model.

Recapitulation Theory dates to very early in the Church’s history, being seen alongside the ‘Christus Victor’ model. Many people believe thatRecapitulation Theoryhad its beginnings with Saint Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century. There are references to it throughout the writings of the early Church Fathers. For instance, ‘On the Incarnation’ by St. Athanasius of Alexandria(originally being written as a letter to one of his followers)explains Recapitulation Theory clearly.

PSA treats Christ’s suffering and death as paying the price for humanity’s sin. As we saw, the model for PSA is a courtroom. Due to humanity’s sin, we needed to be made right with a perfectly holy and just God. Therefore, Christ came to suffer and die to pay the price in our place; in other words, He substituted Himself for us. Now, in the great courtroom of God’s judgment, those who accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour are judged innocent. They have righteousness imputed upon them. Those who don’t accept Jesus Christ are sentenced to be tormentedfor all eternity, whilst they remaining conscious throughout.

Recapitulation Theory agrees with PSA that God needed to deal with humanity’s sin. Humanity became separated from God by the fall and was incapable of returning to God through any action it could undertake. However (and this is where Recapitulation Theory begins to diverge strongly from PSA) in this theory, the model which is used is that of a hospital rather than a courtroom. Rather than sin being seen as actions (or even our very nature) requiring judgment and punishment, sin is seen as an ultimately and invariably fatal sickness, which God needs to heal in order to restore humanity and deliver it from death...

Recapitulation Theory teaches us that through the incarnation, Christ became human to heal humanity by perfectly uniting human nature with the divine nature in Him, thereby creating an indissoluble link between God and humanity. By becoming human, Christ took on human nature, becoming in effect a ‘second Adam’, and entering into every stage of human life, right from birth, uniting it with God. Unlike Adam, Christ did not succumb to temptation, but lived a perfect, sinless, life; saying yes to God where Adam rebelled and said no. He then suffered death at the hands of sinful people, and entered Hades, completing His task by being resurrected on the third day and thereby destroying both death and Hades and rescuing those imprisoned therein.

By living through each of the stages of human life, whilst remaining perfectly obedient to His Father, Christ recapitulated every aspect of humanity. By doing so, perfectly, He healed the things which Adam’s rebellion had damaged. In addition, by destroying death through his resurrection, Christ reversed the consequence of the fall. Now, all can be resurrected.

Then those who willingly say yes to Christ are perfectly united with the Holy Trinity through Him, receiving the love of God as bliss; whilst those who (initially at least) reject Him will experience the love of God as hell… Though there is nothing contained within the theory (nor, as far as I’m concerned, in scripture either) to prevent them repenting later.

Through its focus on the unification of God and man in the person of Christ, Recapitulation Theory places a great deal of emphasis on the teaching that Christ is both fully God and fully human. If He didn’t possess both natures, he would not be able to unite divinity and humanity - the entire purpose of the incarnation. I marvel that the godhead, the Holy Trinity, now includes human DNA coming from Mary, the mother of God. That, to my mind, makes permanentthe link between the two, established inChrist’s person. Whether we like it or not, through Christ’s incarnation, humanity is linked with God forever. It is profoundly mysterious, but also almost unbelievably glorious.

Let’s look at all this atonement stuff in yet another way. If we consider the Last Supper (which is, of course, Jesus celebrating the Passover with his disciples), and the institution of the Eucharist by Christ at that point, it becomes clear that Jesus is our Passover lamb.

Why was the Passover lamb sacrificed?

The Passover lamb was not sacrificed to appease God’s wrath but, instead, to cause the Angel of Death to ‘pass over’ the houses of the Israelites, so they didn’t die, but could then begin their exodus towards the freedom of the promised land. The Feast of the Passover commemorates that,and therefore so should the Eucharist.

Jesus dying as our Passover lamb sets us free from our enslavement to sin and its inevitable consequence, death, and allows us to begin our own exodus - towards our own ‘promised land’ - life and freedom.

God bless you.

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2022