Irenaeus of Lyons’ doctrine of recapitulation (2nd century)

Detail from an icon of Irenaeus of Lyons. Courtesy of Flickr / bobosh_t (https://www.flickr.com/people/frted/)
Detail from an icon of Irenaeus of Lyons. Courtesy of Flickr / bobosh_t (https://www.flickr.com/people/frted/)

Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons was one of the great theologians of the Christian Church in its first two centuries. He asked the question, “How was it that the Lord Jesus Christ saved the human race?” and came up with the idea (prompted by Paul in Romans chapter 5) that Christ relived obediently every stage of life which Adam’s descendants had lived disobediently — the doctrine of “recapitulation.”

In the extract below from his great work, Against Heresies, we see how vital this was to Irenaeus’ thought. Christ had to re-walk the footsteps of the human race if he were to redeem the human race. Thus, he had to be truly human. Thus Irenaeus staunchly defended the real humanity of Jesus against the various ‘Gnostic’ groups who were teaching that the Saviour never truly became a human being.

The extract below is his Against Heresies, Book III, chapter 18, sec. 7. It was written around A.D. 180. The wording presented here is my modernization of the text presented in Alexander Roberts and Arthur Cleveland Coxe, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325. 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, repr (Edinburgh: Clark, 1993), p.448. I have also added the paragraph numberings for ease of reference (these bear no relation to any printed version of Irenaeus!).

Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.18.7

(i.) Therefore, as I have already said: He [Christ] caused man[1] to cleave to God and become one with him.

(ii.) For unless man had overcome the enemy of man, the enemy would not have been legitimately vanquished.

“For this reason, [Christ] also passed through every stage of life, restoring fellowship with God to all [stages of life]. Therefore those who claim that he appeared only supposedly, and that he neither was born in the flesh nor was truly made man, they are still under the old condemnation: they are holding out a licence to sin.”

Irenaeus, ‘Against Heresies’, 3.18.7

(iii.) And again: Unless it had been God who had freely given salvation, we could never have possessed it securely. And unless man had been joined to God, he could never have partaken in incorruptibility.

(iv.) For it was necessary for the Mediator between God and men,[2] by his relationship to both, to bring both of them into friendship and harmony — presenting man to God, whilst revealing God to man.

(v.) For in what other way could we have partaken in the adoption of sons, unless we had received from him [God the Father] fellowship with himself through the Son? Unless his Word, having been made flesh,[3] had entered into fellowship with us?

(vi.) For this reason, he also passed through every stage of life, restoring fellowship with God to all [stages of life]. Therefore those who claim that he appeared only supposedly, and that he neither was born in the flesh nor was truly made man, they are still under the old condemnation: they are holding out a licence to sin.

(vii.) For according to them, death, which “reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned after the pattern of Adam’s transgression,”[4] has not been vanquished. But the coming of the law, given by Moses, which testified about sin that it is sinful,[5] truly did take away his [death’s] kingdom, showing that he was no king at all, but a robber. It revealed him to be a murderer.

“For it was necessary for him who was to destroy sin and redeem man who was under the power of death, that he himself should be made the very same thing… — that is, man. Man had been drawn by sin into slavery, but was held captive by death, so that sin should be destroyed by man, and man should be released from death.”

‘Against Heresies’, 3.18.7

(viii.) However, it [also] laid a weighty burden upon man, who himself had sin in him, showing that he was susceptible to death. For since the law was spiritual,[6] it merely made sin to stand out in bold relief,[7] but didn’t destroy it.[8] For sin had no dominion over the spirit, but over man.

(ix.) For it was necessary for him who was to destroy sin and redeem man who was under the power of death, that he himself should be made the very same thing as he [man] was — that is, [that he should be made] man. Man had been drawn by sin into slavery, but was held captive by death, so that sin should be destroyed by man, and man should be released from death.

(x.) For as by the disobedience of the one man who was originally moulded from virgin soil, many were made sinners,[9] and forfeited life; so it was necessary that by the obedience of one man, who was originally born of a virgin, many should be justified and receive salvation.[10]

(xi.) In this way, then, was the Word of God made man. As Moses also says: “As for God, true are his works.”[11]

(xii.) But if, not having been made flesh, he appeared as if he were flesh, then his work was not a true one. However: what he appeared to be, he actually was. God recapitulated in himself the ancient formation of man, so that he might kill sin, deprive death of its power, and impart life to man. And therefore his works are true.

Important ideas in this passage

The passage above, though just a tiny fragment of Irenaeus’ hefty, five-volume work, contains a number of really interesting ideas from Irenaeus’ theology. We should, of course, bear in mind that this was written around A.D. 180, so it represents a really early example of Christian theology.

Here are some of the important ideas:—

1. Christ was true man and true God

“For Irenaeus, Christ was both fully human and fully God. That shouldn’t surprise us. Irenaeus clearly has been reading and imbibing John’s Gospel.”

“For it was necessary for him who was to destroy sin and redeem man who was under the power of death, that he himself should be made the very same thing as he [man] was — that is, [that he should be made] man. Man had been drawn by sin into slavery, but was held captive by death, so that sin should be destroyed by man, and man should be released from death.”

“For it was necessary for the Mediator between God and men, by his relationship to both, to bring both of them into friendship and harmony — presenting man to God, whilst revealing God to man.”

“But if, not having been made flesh, he appeared as if he were flesh, then his work was not a true one. However: what he appeared to be, he actually was. God recapitulated in himself the ancient formation of man, so that he might kill sin, deprive death of its power, and impart life to man. And therefore his works are true.”

For Irenaeus, Christ was both fully human and fully God. That shouldn’t surprise us. Of all the four Gospels, the full, incarnational Christology (i.e., that Christ is God-made-flesh) is most clearly set forth in John’s Gospel (e.g., in the Prologue),[12] and Irenaeus clearly has been reading and imbibing John’s Gospel.

2. It takes a man to save a man

“For in what other way could we have partaken in the adoption of sons, unless we had received from him [God the Father] fellowship with himself through the Son? Unless his Word, having been made flesh, had entered into fellowship with us?”

Or perhaps it were better to say: “It takes a human being to save a human being.”

“For Irenaeus, it was absolutely necessary that the Word of God became truly human. This was the weakness of the Gnostic position: If the Saviour (as they preferred to call him) had only appeared to be human, without really being so, how could he have truly saved us?”

For Irenaeus, it was absolutely necessary that the Word of God became truly human. This was the weakness of the Gnostic position: If the Saviour (as they preferred to call him) had only appeared to be human, without really being so, how could he have truly saved us?

“Therefore those who claim that he appeared only supposedly, and that he neither was born in the flesh nor was truly made man, they are still under the old condemnation: they are holding out a licence to sin.”

Thus the humanness of Christ, as well as his ‘God-ness’, was absolutely necessary for our salvation.

This is not an idea original to Irenaeus. Ignatius bishop of Antioch, around 70 years earlier, also articulated the idea that, unless the Son of God had become truly human, our humanity could not be redeemed:

Now he suffered all these things for our sake, that we might be saved. And he suffered truly, even as also he truly raised himself up — not, as certain unbelievers maintain, that he only seemed to suffer, as they themselves only seem to be [Christians]. And as they believe, so it shall happen to them, when they shall be divested of their bodies and be mere evil spirits.
Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans, chapter 2[13]

3. Mankind is saved by union with God through the Mediator Jesus Christ

“Unless it had been God who had freely given salvation, we could never have possessed it securely. And unless man had been joined to God, he could never have partaken in incorruptibility.”

Irenaeus, ‘Against Heresies’, 3.18.7

“And again: Unless it had been God who had freely given salvation, we could never have possessed it securely. And unless man had been joined to God, he could never have partaken in incorruptibility.

For it was necessary for the Mediator between God and men, by his relationship to both, to bring both of them into friendship and harmony — presenting man to God, whilst revealing God to man.”

A really interesting idea in this passage is that those who believe in Christ Jesus are saved by entering into communion with God through the Lord Jesus.

For who could unite man to God except him who, being both God and man, was perfectly able both to represent mankind to God, and to reveal God to man?

4. As Adam was wrought from virgin soil, so Christ was born of a virgin’s womb

“For as by the disobedience of the one man who was originally moulded from virgin soil, many were made sinners, and forfeited life; so it was necessary that by the obedience of one man, who was originally born of a virgin, many should be justified and receive salvation.”

It is very obvious when one reads this passage, that Irenaeus has been reading Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

Aside from his numerous references to Romans chapter 7 (in which Paul discusses the rôle of the Law of Moses in exposing human sinfulness), Irenaeus here develops Paul’s idea of Christ, the one who reverses the catastrophic act of Adam, in Romans 5.

“In this passage, Irenaeus paves the way for the theological contrast between Mary the mother of Jesus, and Eve: the one by an act of disobedience brought sin and death into the world; the other by an act of obedience brought the Word of Life into the world — an idea which he in fact develops only a few chapters later.”

And in doing so, Irenaeus adds something original. Just as Christ is the righteous, obedient counterpart to disobedient Adam: so his birth from a virgin is the wonderful counterpart of Adam’s ‘virgin creation.’

This paves the way, of course, for the theological contrast between Mary the mother of Jesus, and Eve: the one by an act of disobedience brought sin and death into the world; the other by an act of obedience brought the Word of Life into the world. And in fact, this is an idea which Irenaeus himself develops only a few chapters later.[14]

Notice something really important here: Irenaeus affirms the historicity of the virgin birth. Far from being some theological conception which was deemed expedient for whatever century in Christian thought, Irenaeus shows that in his day — only a century after the apostles — the birth of Christ from a virgin was regarded as both an acknowledged historical fact, and a bulwark against the Gnostic assertion that Christ wasn’t truly human.

Again, this should not surprise us. Irenaeus here is only reflecting the testimony of the New Testament itself in claiming the virgin birth as an historical fact: Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38 (and see also Galatians 4:4-5 which may allude to the same idea).

5. Recapitulation

“For this reason, he also passed through every stage of life, restoring fellowship with God to all [stages of life]. Therefore those who claim that he appeared only supposedly, and that he neither was born in the flesh nor was truly made man, they are still under the old condemnation: they are holding out a licence to sin.”

Irenaeus’ truly original idea here is the notion of recapitulation. He actually uses the word towards the end of our passage, as well as in several other places in his work.

“How did Christ save humanity, according to Irenaeus? By re-treading obediently the same ground trodden disobediently by Adam, and by the descendants of Adam. Thus, to save all humanity, Christ had to partake of every stage of human life. This idea does lead Irenaeus to the curious view that Christ died when an old man.”

How did Christ save humanity, according to Irenaeus? By re-treading obediently the same ground trodden disobediently by Adam, and by the descendants of Adam.

Thus, to save all humanity, Christ had to partake of every stage of human life, from infancy, through adolescence, through adulthood, through to old age and — yes — even death.

The attraction of this doctrine to Irenaeus is obvious: it adds yet further weight to his assertion that Christ must have been truly human in order to save humanity. The Saviour of the Gnostics (who, in their view, never became human) can hardly have taken the time, or even been able, to undergo every stage of human life.

This idea does lead Irenaeus to the curious view that Christ died when an old man.[15]

Nevertheless, the idea that Christ redeemed humanity by treading the path of the humanity in the way that Adam should have trodden it (Romans 5:12-21) — this is a really rich and fruitful idea, and one which causes me great joy whenever I think upon it.

All of us in this life (whether we know it or not) are looking for someone or some thing to save us — wealth, health, a relationship, a career, a philosophy.

How wonderful to know that he to whom Christians look to save them — he has walked the path before us, he walks the path beside us, and he will walk the path with us until we reach eternal life in the new kingdom in the presence of his God and Father, for ever.

Amen.

 

 

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[1] That is, human nature.

[2] 1 Timothy 2:5

[3] John 1:14

[4] Romans 5:14

[5] Literally, “a sinner.” Cf. Romans 7:13

[6] Romans 7:14

[7] Cf. Romans 7:7

[8] Cf. Romans 7:9-10; 8:3

[9] Romans 5:19a

[10] Romans 5:19b

[11] Deuteronomy 32:4 (Septuagint)

[12] That is not to say that the other Gospel-writers did not hold to a full, incarnational Christology; they did. But it is stated far less forcefully in the other three Gospels. I have shown this in my short work, The Divinity of Christ an Original Christian Doctrine, 2017, chap. 1.

[13] From Ignatius of Antioch and Graham Harter, The Shorter and Syriac Epistles of Ignatius, 2018, p.46. This letter was written circa A.D. 107.

[14] In Against Heresies, 3.22.4. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.xxiii.html

[15] See Against Heresies 2.22.4-6. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iii.xxiii.html

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