Irenaeus’ Doctrine of Recapitulation

st_irenaeusNow that the quarter is over, I had a free morning to give Irenaeus’ Against Heresies a quick skim. It was interesting to see how other doctrines, such as the Virgin Birth, the Imago Dei, creation by God alone (contra Gnostic views of creation), and the Holy Spirit all play into his understanding of recapitulation, as evidenced by the quotes below. It is evident also from these quotes that Irenaeus places a strong emphasis on Christ’s death as a crucial part of his recapitulation, although I think in the end he leaves the precise role of Christ’s death ambiguous. There is a recurrent contrast throughout the book between not only Adam and Christ, but Eve and Mary, which is interesting. He uses the word “recapitulate” frequently, but can also say “sum up,” “unite into divinity,” or “save in himself” to get the idea across. The following are some of the most relevant quotes, all taken from volume 1 in the Hendrickson Ante-Nicene Fathers series.

Here a several which provide a helpful, brief expression of what Irenaeus means by recapitulation:

“For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God. For by no other means could we have attained to incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be joined to incorruptibility and immortality, unless, first, incorruptibility and immortality had become that which we also are, so that the corruptible might be swallowed up by incorruptibility, and the mortal by immortality, that we might receive the adoption of sons?” (448-449).

“The Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ [did] through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself” (526).

The Word of the Father and the Spirit of God, having become united with the ancient substance of Adam’s formation, rendered man living and perfect, receptive of the perfect Father, in order that as in the natural [Adam] we all were dead, so in the spiritual we may all be made alive” (527).

This quote shows the importance of Christ’s death, and of his assumption of a normal human nature, including both body and soul (Irenaeus was a dualist, like pretty much all pre-modern Christians):

“For if He did not receive the substance of flesh from a human being, He neither was made man nor the Son of man; and if He was not made what we were, He did no great thing in what he suffering and endured. But everyone will know that we are [composed of] a body taken from the earth, and a soul receiving spirit from God. This, therefore, the Word of God was made, recapitulating in Himself His own handiwork” (454).

Here is an interesting quote which shows the significance of the virgin birth for recapitulation:

“Wherefore also the Lord Himself gave us a sign, in the depth below, and in the height above, which man did not ask for, because he never expected that a virgin could conceive, or that it was possible that one remaining a virgin could bring forth a son, and that what was thus born should be ‘God with us,’ and descend to those things which are of the earth beneath, seeking the sheep which had perished, which was indeed His own peculiar handiwork, and ascend to the height above, offering and commending to His Father that human nature (hominem) which had been found, making in His own person the firstfruits of the resurrection of man” (449, italics mine).

This is an interesting quote which shows the significance of the Imago Dei for recapitulation. Irenaeus is responding to the objection that God should have made humanity immortal and perfected from the beginning, and in the course of his response he seems to draw a connection between creation in the image of God and perfection (he actually does this several times in Against Heresies):

“For it was necessary, at first, that nature should be exhibited; then, after that, that what was mortal should be conquered and swallowed up by immortality, and the corruptible by incorruptibility, and that man should be made after the image and likeness of God, having received the knowledge of good and evil” (522, italics mine).

This one draws attention to the Holy Spirit’s role in Irenaeus’ doctrine of recapitulation, as well as the importance of the concept of substitution for Irenaeus:

“The Lord thus has redeemed us through His own blood, giving His soul for our souls, and His flesh for our flesh, and has also poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and man, imparting indeed God to men by means of the Spirit, and, on the other hand, attaching man to God by His own incarnation, and bestowing upon us at His coming immortality durably and truly” (527).

A strong theme that emerges in the later parts of Against Heresies is the redemption of physical creation. Irenaeus argues that if Christ has not become real flesh and blood, He could not truly redeem us; but because His body was real, just like ours, then redemption must include a resurrection of physical creation to immortality.

“But if the Lord became incarnate for any other order of things, and took flesh of any other substance, He has not then summed up human nature in His own person, nor in that case can He be termed flesh…. He had Himself, therefore, flesh and blood, recapitulating in Himself not a certain other, but that original handiwork of the Father, seeking but that thing which had perished…. Through the flesh of our Lord, and through His blood, we have been saved” (541).

Battle, Christus Victor imagery also emerges in Irenaeus’s doctrine of recapitulation. Drawing from Genesis 3:15, he argues that Christ accomplished the defeat of Satan which Adam should have. The Eve-Mary contrast also features here:

“For indeed the enemy would not have been fairly vanquished, unless it had been a man [born] of a woman who conquered him. For it was by means of a woman that he got the advantage over man at first, setting himself up as man’s opponent. And therefore does the Lord process Himself to be the Son of man, comprising in Himself that original man out of whom the woman was fashioned in order that, 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” (549).

One of the more difficult aspects of recapitulation arises at the end of the book, when Irenaeus connects recapitulation to final redemption/heaven. He speaks of human salvation as a kind of climbing up the ladder into divinity, passing through the Trinity from Spirit to Son to Father. He speaks of “the gradation and arrangement of those who are saved,” and claims they “advance through steps of this nature; also that they ascend through the Spirit to the Son, and through the Son to the Father, and that in due time the Son will yield up His work to the Father” (567). I am not sure exactly how to take this last phrase, but it sounds like recapitulation is almost something which the Son contains in Himself until the final resurrection, when He offers this work up to the Father.

My final thought is that it would make a fascinating research paper to compare Anselm and Irenaeus on the incarnation. There are several important points of discontinuity. For example, Anselm does not stress Christ’s recapitulating each stage of human life as Irenaeus does, nor does he hold to a hierarchical view of salvation up into theosis. Irenaeus, for his part, does not have a robust doctrine of the mechanism of Christ’ death. Nevertheless, there is a strong core of common ground between the two concerning the incarnation as the redemption of human nature to immortality and incorruptibility. I think the next step is to bring Athanasius into the discussion.


  1. […] looks at Irenaeus’ doctrine of recapitulation and at Athanasius’ as […]


  2. Anonymous



  3. Anonymous

    What about his doctrine of God?


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