Most western Christians, Protestant or Catholic, are familiar with the doctrine of “Atonement by Penal Substitution.” However, very few western Christians are familiar with the earliest view of atonement held by the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Orthodox view has come to be called, "Atonement by Recapitulation.”
What exactly is the Penal Substitution view of the Atonement?
This penal substitution view focuses on Christ’s suffering and death as the price for man’s sin.
The model for Atonement is primarily that of a courtroom. Mankind enters God’s courtroom "guilty of sin, a cosmic crime against God."
Due to his sin, man needed to be made right with a perfect and just God. Therefore, Christ came to suffer and pay the price in our place, i.e., He substituted Himself for us. Now, in the courtroom of God, those who accept Christ as their Lord and Savior are judged innocent. They have a forensic righteousness imputed upon them.
What is the origin of the penal substitution theory?
Penal substitition originated in the fifth century with Augustine's concept of the “seminal” transmission of the guilt and defect of original sin. Augustine taught that humanity was placed into a “lump of sin,” justly condemned to death and damnation by God, and incapable of salvation without the intervention of God’s prevenient Grace. Augustine also posited that Christ’s death offered God a vicarious or substitionary satisfaction of the sentence placed upon humankind by God.
In the eleventh century St. Anselm of
later developed these ideas into legalistic terms: According to Anselm, humanity had “transgressed” God’s law, thereby earning from God a condemnation of death, which death sentence was paid on our behalf by Christ. Canterbury
This concept of Christ’s atoning work was later embraced by the sixteenth century Reformers, and thus became the predominant way of understanding Christ’s saving us. Calvin, Luther, and their followers further developed Augustine’s notions of original sin and predestination in the direction of a denial of human free will.
THE RECAPITULATION [REGATHERING or SUMMING UP] VIEW
What is the Recapitulation View?
The “Recapitulation View” agrees that God needed to deal with man’s sin. Man was separated from God as a result of the fall and, left to his own devices, was incapable of returning to God. However,
The Recapitulation model sees the means through which God dealt with man’s sin as a hospital rather than a courtroom.
Instead of viewing the atonement as Christ paying the price for sin in order to satisfy a wrathful God, the Recapitulation view teaches that Christ became human AND RECAPPED, or gathered all things to himself, in order to heal mankind by perfectly uniting the human nature to the Divine Nature in His person.
What is the origin of the Recapitulation view?
Justin the Martyr (1st cent.)
The “Recapitulation View” dates to very early in the Church. We find its earliest record inthe first century with the writings of Justin the Martyr, a disciple of Saint John the Apostle, and perhaps of
also. In his book against Marcion, Justin writes: Saint Paul
"I would not have believed the Lord Himself, if He had announced any other than He who is our framer, maker, and nourisher. But because the only-begotten Son came to us from the one God, who both made this world and formed us, and contains and administers all things, summing up (recapitulating) His own handiwork in Himself, my faith towards Him is steadfast, and my love to the Father immoveable, God bestowing both upon us."
Saint Iranaeus (2nd cent)
In the second century, there are further treatments of the subject in the writings of Saint Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of
, the Apostle also. Like Saint John , Irenaeus saw the "recapitulation" in Christ as both cosmic and historical. Saint Paul
Since both human existence and all of nature fell in Adam, God sent His Son to be the New Man, who would restore and transform all things. By the Incarnation, "the Word saved that which really existed — the humanity which had perished — effecting by means of Himself that communion which should be held with it, and seeking out its salvation.” Because man fell in the flesh, it was proper that he should be redeemed in the flesh: “But the thing which had perished possessed flesh and blood. For the Lord, taking dust from the earth, molded man; and it was upon his behalf that all the dispensation [oikonomia] of the Lord's advent took place. He Himself, therefore, had flesh and blood, recapitulating in Himself not just anybody, but that original handiwork of the Father, seeking out the very thing which had perished" (Against the Heresies 5.14.2).
According to the tradition (paradosis) passed on to Iranaeus, what humanity lost in Adam, it regained and transformed in Christwhen God's Son became man.
"He commenced afresh the long line of human beings, and furnished us with salvation in a succinct, inclusive manner, so that what we had lost in Adam — namely, to be according to the image and likeness of God — that we might recover in Christ Jesus" (3.18.1).
“But what he did appear, that he also was: God recapitulated in himself the ancient formulation of man, that he might kills in, deprive death of its power, and vivify man; and therefore his works are true” (3.18.7).
“So did he who was the Word, recapitulating Adam in himself, rightly receive a birth, enabling him to gather up Adam [into himself]… making a recapitulation in himself… that the very same formation should be summed up [recapitulated] in Christ” (3.21.10).
Saint Athanasius (early 4thcent.)
We find the same recapitulation view throughout the writings of the early Church Fathers. In AD 318 Saint Athanasius wrote, On The Incarnation wherein he explains the recapitulation view very clearly.
Jesus “surrendered his body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This he did out of sheer love for us, so that in his death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled (recapitulated) in his body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men”(2.8). In this way did he become “in dying a sufficient exchange for all”(2.9).
“For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all” (2.9).
Christ, the incarnate Word, himself offered “the sacrifice on behalf of all, surrendering his own temple [body] to death in place of all, to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression” (4.20).
If then, “any honest Christian wants to know why he suffered death on the cross and not in some other way, we answer thus: in no other way was it expedient for us, indeed the Lord offered for our sakes the one death that was supremely good. He had come to bear the curse that was on us; and how could he ‘become a curse’ otherwise than by accepting the accursed death? And that death is the cross, for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree’” (4.25).
This Orthodox view of the bible’s teaching on the substitionary atonement of Christ by way of recapitulation has been retained by the Orthodox Church throughout history without change or modification. It is also clearly found in the writings of Maximos the Confessor (8th cent.),Symeon the New Theologian (11th cent), Gregory Palamas (14thcent.), and every other prominent defender of Orthodoxy.
How does the recapitulation view work?
Through the Incarnation, Christ took on human nature, becoming the Second Adam, and entered into every stage of humanity, from infancy to adulthood, uniting it to God. He then suffered death to enter Hades and destroy it. After three days, He resurrected and completed His task by destroying death.
Is there a substitution involved?
Yes. By entering and assuming each of these stages of humanity and remaining perfectly obedient to the Father, Christ recapitulated every aspect of human nature. He said “Yes” where Adam said “No” and healed what Adam’s actions had damaged. His substituted the Old Adam for the New Adam, and become our substitute.
What does Christ's recapitulation bring about?
As the new Adam, Christ's enables all of those who are willing to say yes to God to be perfectly united with the Holy Trinity through Christ’s person. In addition, by destroying death, Christ reversed the consequence of the fall. Now, all can be resurrected. Those who choose to live their life in Christ can be perfectly united to the Holy Trinity, receiving the full love of God as Heavenly bliss. However, those who reject Christ and choose to live their lives chasing after their passions will receive the love of God as hell.
Because of its focus on unification between God and man in the person of Christ, Recapitulation places great importance on the teaching that Christ is bothfully man and fully God. If Christ did not have both natures, He would have been incapable of uniting humanity to divinity, which was the entire purpose of the Incarnation. As Saint Gregory of Nazianzus said in the fourth century:
“That which is not assumed is not healed, butthat which is united to God is saved.”