Anselm, Irenaeus, and Recapitulation

van_hornthorst_adoration_children_800x583A question that has emerged for me in the final few weeks of my atonement seminar is this: is it possible to affirm both an Irenaean/Athanasian view of Christ’s birth (recapitulation) as well as an Anselmian view of Christ’s death (satisfaction)? If so, what is their logical relation? Within atonement theology, there is a tension between approaches which emphasize Christ’s death exclusively, and approaches which emphasize the entire narrative arc of Christ’s incarnate life, including his death. Can we, for example, say that Christ’s birth, life, and resurrection are not merely saving, but in some sense atoning? Does atonement begin and end on Good Friday, or is a broader narrative? Is it punctual, or more fluid? When we think of atonement, should the symbols which come to mind be simply the cross, or cross + empty tomb, or cross + empty tomb + manger?

I’m not sure that I fully understand Irenaeus’ doctrine of recapitulation, let alone agree with it. (A fun project would be to give Against Heresies a careful read, and seek to integrate with Anselm, or the reformed tradition, highlighting areas of agreement and divergence.) But whether it is teased out in terms of “recapitulation,” or in a more general way, I wonder if someone could do for Christ’s incarnation what Richard Gaffin has done for Christ’s resurrection. I don’t want to take anything away from the exclusive, unrivaled centrality of Christ’s atoning death. And yet I also find myself discontent with the view (which seems too frequently assumed among modern evangelicals) that the incarnation was saving only insofar as it prepared for Christ’s death and resurrection. Does God’s uniting human nature to his own have any intrinsic saving value, or it is only saving in a preparatory, instrumental kind of way? As I’ve worked on the research for my final paper over the last several weeks, there are two things that incline me towards the view that the incarnation has intrinsic saving value.

First, it seems to me that those theologians who have contributed the greatest insights to a satisfaction model of Christ’s death also made some of the boldest statements about the saving significance of the incarnation. Calvin, for example, wrote the following in the Institutes 2.16.3: “now someone asks, how has Christ abolished sin, banished the separation between us and God, and acquired righteousness to render God favorable and kindly toward us? To this we can in general reply that he has achieved this for us by the whole course of his obedience…. From the time when he took on the form of a servant, he began to pay the price of liberation in order to redeem us.” This is a striking assertion because of how Calvin sets up the question at the start of this quote. He seems to present Christ’s entire incarnate life of obedience, not merely as necessary for salvation, but as the answer to the specific question, “what accomplishes atonement?”

But an even more intriguing voice Anselm is himself. Anselm’s atonement theology is frequently caricatured as guilt-obsessed, individualistic, and narrowly focused on juridical concepts. But a careful read of Cur Deus Homo (CDH) reveals that Anselm views Christ’s satisfying death within a larger framework of Christ’s entire saving work as restoring human nature. His summary of the argument of CDH in the preface, for example, claims that what is established in Book II of CDH is that “human nature was established in order that the whole being, both body and soul, should at some time enjoy blessed immortality” and that in order for it to achieve this creational intent, “it was necessary that everything we believe about Christ should take place.” And then in chapter 1, Anselm sets up the question on which the whole book hangs as: “given that God is omnipotent, by what necessity and reason did he assume the lowliness and weakness of human nature, in order to restore human nature?” What is striking about these important summary statements early on in the book is not only by the absence of guilt and recompense themes, but also this repeated emphasis on the restoration of human nature, and Christ’s entire incarnate work. In fact, one must get well into the bulk of CDH until one is able to locate a systematic explanation of why Christ’s death was the fitting mechanism for human redemption (one must wait until 2.11; even 2.6, which I take to the climax of the argument, does not focus specifically on Christ’s death). In the earlier sections of CDH, Anselm’s focus is much broader, and bears certain continuities with an Athanasian/Ireneaen theme of recapitulation, in which God’s very assumption of human nature at the Incarnation unites it with divinity and incorruptibility. So he claims, for example, in 1.4: “It was fitting that just as death entered the human race through the disobedience of a human being, so too life should be restored by the obedience of a human being.” One thinks of Irenaeus’ assertion in Against Heresies V.21.1, “as our species went down to death through a vanquished man, so we may ascend to life again through a victorious one; and as through a man death received the palm [of victory] against us, so again by a man we may receive the palm against death.” Or cf. Anselm’s statement in 1.8: “There was [not] any degradation of God in his Incarnation; rather, we believe that human nature was exalted.”

Anselm’s understanding of the incarnation is tied to his understanding of the purpose of human nature as to attain what he calls “blessed immortality.” He claims that if Adam and Eve had not sinned, they would have been “transformed into incorruptibility,” but they lost this because of this fall.  The incarnation occurred because “God will complete what he began in human nature or else he made so sublime a nature for so great a good in vain.” So for Anselm, the incarnation accomplished what would have happened if Adam and Eve had not sinned, namely, the completion/exaltation/transformation of human nature (body + soul) into incorruptibility – and it is in this context that satisfaction themes are introduced. He argues in 2.4, for example, that a “perfect recompense for sin” was required in order “that he complete what he began in human nature. Here and elsewhere, recompense for sin serves the larger purpose of restoring human nature to the blessed immortality for which it was originally designed. And this is true as a general observation of the structure and flow of argumentation of CDH: the satisfaction theme (focused primarily on Christ’s death) operates within a larger restoration theme (focused on Christ’s incarnation and obedience, including his death). So, for example, even towards the end of the book, Anselm can argue that when Christ assumed a sinless human being from the sinful mass at the incarnation, “God restored human nature more wonderfully than he first established it.”

Here’s the point: if Anselm can view the incarnation as God’s restoring/exalting (his terms) human nature unto blessed immortality, and if he can do this in the very book which famously argues for a satisfaction theory of atonement, might there not be creative ways in which a satifaction view of Christ’s death and a recapitulation view of Christ’s birth may be integrated?

christredemgoddisp.170165404_stdSecond, there is nothing logically incompatible with emphasizing both the broader incarnate life of Christ as saving in one sense, and his crucifixion as saving in another sense. In fact, given the nature of the incarnation, it would be highly surprising if did not have some kind of intrinsic soteriological value. If God has indeed united human nature to the divine nature, how could this not fundamentally alter human nature for the better? Recapitulation and satisfaction may turn out to be, not merely compatible, but mutually explanatory, so that incarnation helps explain the nature of atonement, and atonement helps explain the nature of incarnation (hence the Cur in Cur Deus Homo?, and hence Anselm’s presenting the book in 2.7 as, most basically, a commentary on Chalcedon). A recapitulation view of Christ’s life as reconstituting fallen humanity may even, so far from redirecting focus away from Christ’s death, particularly accent it. Hans Boersma, for example, in his Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition (Baker 2006) argues for a penal substitutionary view of Christ’s death as a recapitulation of the banishment of failed Adam and fallen Israel from God’s presence (in the garden and temple, respectively). Nor must, in general, a focus on narrative context reduce the climactic significance of particular “moments” or “scenes” in the narrative. Every novel, for example, has crucial turning points – revelation of the bad guy, a dramatic heightening of the conflict or drama, a vital turn in the plot – that function in a climactic way within the narrative. Appreciating the full narrative arc does not mean that there cannot be a pivotal moment on which that narrative arc turns (in this case, Christ’s death, or death + resurrection).

Perhaps we might detect a common element in both recapitulation and satisfaction in the notion of substitution, which seems intrinsic to them both. In fact, one way of encapsulating what I’m trying to get at in this post is with the simple formula I’ve heard Tim Keller repeat in countless sermons: Christ lived the life we should have lived; Christ died the death we should have died. In Christ’s atonement there is positive fulfillment, and negative absorption; there is inclusive substitution, and strict substitution; there is representation (“in Him”) and replacement (“for us”). This seems to cohere with the centrality of union with Christ in Paul’s thought, and his discussion of Christ as the “last Adam” and “second Adam” in Romans 5 and I Corinthians 15. Thus, if this is right, Christ’s earthly life and earthly death are both vicarious and substitutionary; the latter grows organically out of the former, as the climactic expression of it. Hence Luther could speak of the cross as one moment of a larger exchange. Hence also Christians have traditionally celebrated Christmas, not merely as a sort of precursor to Good Friday and Easter, but as the central holiday in the calendar year. And hence C.S. Lewis could write in Miracles:

“The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say God became Man. Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this. It was the central event in the history of the Earth – the very thing the whole story has been about.”


  1. Very good post, Gav.

    Does God’s uniting human nature to his own have any intrinsic saving value, or it is only saving in a preparatory, instrumental kind of way?

    This basically sums up the fifth century Christological debates between Cyril and Nestorius.


  2. Thanks Drew. Hmmm, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts a bit more on that. I think of those debates as more on Christ’s person than the exact nature of his work. Perhaps you could tease out what you mean sometime (if not here, when we do a hike!).


  3. Wow, intense post, Gav. Well done.


  4. […] needs to be understood alongside another theory of atonement. Gavin Ortlund does just that is his blog. He understands Recapitulation and Satisfaction theories as […]


  5. Matthew Porcelli

    I have been painfully grappling with the Eastern & Western views of Atonement for a very long time. Nothing I read gave me the answers I needed to choose one over the other (which I felt I had to do). Thank you for posting this, it helps more than you’ll ever know.


    1. Thanks Matthew, glad it was helpful. I pursue these questions more fully in a forthcoming book on theological retrieval. There is a chapter on the atonement in the book.


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s