Throughout Church history Christians have meditated upon Jesus’ work on the cross, and inevitably the question arose, “What precisely was accomplished by Jesus on the cross?” The bible uses a number of metaphors to describe the work of Jesus on the cross, and throughout its history the Church emphasized particular metaphors over others, depending upon the different historical and cultural contexts of the Church. Their contextual contemplation of Jesus’ suffering led to different explanations as to what Jesus’ work on the cross accomplished. These different answers became the various theories of the atonement we know and study today, and the earliest theory advanced by the Church was the theory of Recapitulation.
The Recapitulation theory of the atonement is most associated with the written work of Bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus (125 – 202 AD). Irenaeus and the early Church saw Christ as the new or second Adam, who reversed the work of the First Adam, being obedient where Adam was disobedient. Where Adam disobeyed God which led to humanity’s death, Jesus obeyed the Father as unto death to bring life to humanity. So, Christ recapitulated the life and choices of Adam, and thus he was the final expression of true humanity or a summing up of humanity. Our salvation depends upon which humanity with which we identify. If you are “in Christ” you become a new kind of human, sharing in the divine life, but if you remain “in Adam” you have only death.
The early Church emphasized the writings of Paul in developing this theory of the atonement, particularly the passages that drew upon the analogy between Adam and Jesus. One example is from Romans 5:12-21, stating,
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men[e] because all sinned— 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. 17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
18 Therefore, as one trespass[f] led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness[g] leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Passages such as these came to be the primary metaphor or analogy to see and explain the work of Jesus’ entire life which climaxed at the cross. Under the theory of Recapitulation it is the Incarnation, the entire life lived by Jesus, culminating in his obedience at the cross, that represent the salvific work of Jesus our Lord.
The strength of this theory is the connection it makes to the total narrative of scripture, connecting the First Testament narrative to the Second Testament. Also, it helps us see the entirety of Jesus’ ministry and life as having salvific import, and the whole of the gospels become relevant to our salvation rather viewing the early portions of the gospels as the warm up act to the real show, the cross. However, taken by itself it is incomplete. It fails to account for other metaphors used by scripture in describing Jesus’ atoning work, but as culture and history provided new contexts for the Church, the Church discovered and deployed these various biblical metaphors to explain what Jesus accomplished on the cross. And we will take at these other historical attempts to explain the work of Jesus the Messiah throughout the day.