Part 2: ‘The Early Church’ Chapter 8: Irenaeus and the Recapitulation of Christ

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Irenaeus (c. A.D. 120 – 200) succeeded as Bishop of Lugdunum (now ‘Lyons’ – on the banks of the Rhone in southern France) soon after the martyrdom of Bishop Pothinus in the persecution that occurred during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (c. A.D. 177). Pothinus had been sent to evangelize southern Gaul by the renowned Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, in Asia Minor, who had been a disciple of John, the apostle. Irenaeus, also a disciple of Polycarp in his youth, had joined Pothinus as a presbyter and was on a mission to Rome when Pothinus was killed. The close association he could claim with Polycarp, who was taught by an apostle, gave his own authority, he believed, more validity in matters of received tradition and orthodoxy of belief. Nevertheless, his statement that episcopal authority was to be derived through apostolic succession (cf. Against Heresies, Book III, 3:2) was qualified: ‘inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved’. Apostolic authority depended upon the preservation of the apostolic tradition. Indeed, he urged:

‘… adhere to those who, as I have already observed, do hold the doctrine of the apostles, and who, together with the order of priesthood (presbyterii), display sound speech and blameless conduct for the confirmation and correction of others.’

(Irenaeus: Against Heresies, Book IV, 26:4, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol.1, Roberts & Donaldson, 1884)

At the time he wrote, Irenaeus considered that all faithful churches preserved the same faith as that of Rome for example, in keeping with all churches founded by the apostles. Any ministry not having the approval of an established episcopal church, which held to the apostolic tradition, was one acting in error and outside of the true body of believers. So long as the established churches maintained the original faith, their leaders retained authority in all aspects of Christian ministry.

His great work ‘Against Heresies’ (originally in Greek, but now preserved mostly in Old Latin with Greek fragments) was written to defend the faith against the growing influence of ‘Gnosticism’ – a syncretic belief system that attempted to explain creation in dualistic terms and that combined philosophical and pagan elements with aspects of Christianity. This work is helpful to our study because in it Irenaeus outlines his understanding of the received tradition and elucidates the Word’s recapitulation in the flesh for our salvation, as the Only Begotten Son of the Father.

To understand the meaning of this term, we might consider an assertion of Athanasius, the renowned 4th century bishop of Alexandria:

God has made man, and willed that he should abide in incorruption

(Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 4:4, A. Robertson, P. Schaff, 1891).

This was what God had willed to be man’s offering – a life of faithful obedience, without the corruption of sin. This was the life that mankind, beginning with Adam, had utterly failed to give. This was what man was owing that Jesus offered up for us through His incarnation unto death at the cross, that redeemed mankind may be covered by His life and made at one with God in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, received through faith. Irenaeus was to call our Lord’s offering of His life in the flesh to fulfill this debt and thus restore mankind to God in Him the ‘recapitulation’. His incarnation was as a second Adam, in holiness and without sin, whose offspring inherit everlasting life and fellowship with the Almighty Father. Now, all who look to God’s Son in faith as His disciples are received with Him, covered by His righteousness.

In Adam, there is sin and death. In Christ, there is righteousness and life:

‘For as by the disobedience of the one man who was originally moulded from virgin soil, the many were made sinners, and forfeited life; so was it necessary that, by the obedience of one man, who was originally born from a virgin, many should be justified and receive salvation. Thus, then, was the Word of God made man …: God recapitulated in Himself the ancient formation of man, that He might kill sin, deprive death of its power, and vivify man’

(Irenaeus: Against Heresies, Book III, 18:7, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol.1, Roberts & Donaldson, 1884)

Notice that Irenaeus emphasized Christ’s obedience as being vital for the justification and salvation of man.  Adam obeyed his carnal desire, contrary to the will of God. Jesus, acting contrary to the will of His flesh, obeyed the will of His Father: that He should patiently endure the pain and suffering of the cross – an injustice of mankind for whom He came, reached out in love, and for whom He willingly gave His life (see 1 Pet.2:19-24). In His body, He bore our sins – the sins of man, etched into His flesh with beatings, scourging and the nails of crucifixion. These were the sins of man against God. These were foreknown of God to occur. Yet, motivated by His desire to save us from the ultimate penalty of our sins, God suffered the incarnate Word to act without resistance in order to achieve the greatest possible expression of His love and desire that mankind should turn from sin and be saved. In effect, therefore, because God had to be true to Himself and act in love for the sake of our salvation, our sins – the sins of all - brought suffering and death to the Son of God. Though unknown to us, our sins tore into His flesh and pierced His hands and feet. On the cross, He bore our sins. Through His obedience, we are justified and saved – should we be His disciples,  covered by His righteousness.

Jesus as the second Adam

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. …And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.’

(John 1:1-14, NKJ)

Paul wrote that the Word, ‘Christ Jesus’, divested Himself of heavenly glory in order to come in our likeness:

‘… who being in the form of God … made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men.’

(Philip.2:5-7, NKJ)

Nevertheless, with the Son of God, there was no inherited sin or sinful nature.  His soul was perfect in righteousness from the very beginning of His incarnation, as it had been throughout all eternity. By contrast, the soul of Adam was newly formed at his creation.  For these reasons, Jesus could not have been anything other than perfect in His integrity throughout his human life. Though possessing human nature and tempted as all men – when He was able to exercise moral decisions in His humanity, the Son of God acted according to the integrity of His eternal divinity in perfect righteousness.

In Hebrews, we read of Him:

‘For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.’

(Heb.4:15, NKJ)

Although, when still an infant, Jesus was immature in His bodily growth and naturally limited in His humanity from taking moral decisions, when He – ‘Immanuel’: God-with-us – began to exercise His freewill, He acted according to the immutable integrity of His immortal soul with perfect divine love.

God chooses to do what is right and good and He gives to man that same freewill to choose right from wrong, according to what is truly godly. The soul of Adam was immature in its integrity from the very beginning. The eternal soul of the incarnate Jesus was not.

We read in the Bible that Adam had received in the garden of God the antidote to death: the tree of life, of which he could eat while he remained without sin. On the day he fell from grace, he was driven away from this tree and thus deprived of living forever,  as we read in Genesis (Gen.3:22-23). So, we also read in Irenaeus:

Wherefore also He drove him out of Paradise, and removed him far from the tree of life, not because He envied him the tree of life, as some venture to assert, but because He pitied him, [and did not desire] that he should continue a sinner for ever, nor that the sin which surrounded him should be immortal, and evil interminable and irremediable. But He set a bound to his [state of] sin, by interposing death, and thus causing sin to cease, putting an end to it by the dissolution of the flesh,which should take place in the earth, so that man, ceasing at length to live to sin, and dying to it, might begin to live to God.

(Irenaeus: Against Heresies, Book III, 23:6, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol.1, Roberts & Donaldson, 1884)

As the second Adam, Jesus is Himself the antidote of life. By receiving the pure Word of God, man can receive everlasting life, once again. If we refuse Him, we remain condemned to die and deny ourselves the only true antidote of life:

But, being ignorant of Him who from the Virgin is Emmanuel, they are deprived of His gift, which is eternal life; and not receiving the incorruptible Word, they remain in mortal flesh, and are debtors to death, not obtaining the antidote of life.

(Irenaeus: Against Heresies, Book III, 19:1, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol.1, Roberts & Donaldson, 1884)

Irenaeus believed that the chief events surrounding man’s creation and his fall had their counterpart in the incarnation of Christ unto His death on a cross. By coming as a second Adam, Jesus was able to fulfill all that God had required of man and so accomplish salvation for everyone reborn in Him through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Paul wrote that the final victory would come when God makes ‘all things’  at one in Him:  that ‘in the dispensation of the fullness of the times, He might gather together in one all things in Christ …’ (Eph.1:10, NKJ).

The expression ‘gather together’ is taken from the Greek anakephalaiosasthai, meaning ‘to sum up’ or ‘gather up’ (ana: again and kephale: head or chief). From the Latin equivalent: re-caput, we derive recapitulate, in English (meaning to summarize or to state again the chief points). Christ is the head, in whom all are gathered together in the fullness of time.

In Irenaeus, we find the term expressing the ‘re-heading’ of humanity  in the person of Christ – the spiritual head of His body the Church – in whom alone is salvation. Instead of Adam, the physical head of man, we now have Jesus, the spiritual head of all the faithful, reborn in Him through the gift of the Holy Spirit. We read:

‘… He recapitulated in Himself: by uniting man to the Spirit, and causing the Spirit to dwell in man, He is Himself made the head of the Spirit, and gives the Spirit to be the head of man: for through Him (the Spirit) we see, and hear, and speak.’

(Irenaeus: Against Heresies, Book V, 20:2, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol.1, Roberts & Donaldson, 1884)

The coming of Jesus restored man’s hope of receiving everlasting life and reversed the failings of Adam:

‘… the Lord then … was making a recapitulation of that disobedience which had occurred in connection with a tree, through the obedience which was [exhibited by Himself when He hung] upon a tree …’

(Irenaeus: Against Heresies, Book V, 19:1, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol.1, Roberts & Donaldson, 1884)

To Irenaeus, even the failings of Eve in the garden have their counterpart in the ‘antidotal’ faith and obedience of Mary and the angel of God, whom she believed:

‘For just as the former was led astray by the word of an angel, so that she fled from God when she had transgressed His word; so did the latter, by an angelic communication, receive the glad tidings that she should sustain (portaret) God, being obedient to His word. … And thus, as the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so is it rescued by a virgin; virginal disobedience having been balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience.’

(Irenaeus: Against Heresies, Book V, 19:1, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol.1, Roberts & Donaldson, 1884)

Thus, when we read in the same passage concerning the ‘correptionem’ (Latin) of Jesus, we need to understand this term in juxtaposition to the ‘sin’ of Adam, which was to accept and yield to the serpent’s temptations. Jesus had to do the opposite:

‘For in the same way the sin of the first created man (protoplasti) receives amendment by the correction [correptionem] of the First-begotten, and the coming of the serpent is conquered by the harmlessness of the dove, those bonds being unloosed by which we had been fast bound to death.’

(Irenaeus: Against Heresies, Book V, 19:1, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol.1, Roberts & Donaldson, 1884)

‘Correptionem’ was the response of Jesus to the temptations of the devil, whereas Adam chose to sin. In the Latin Vulgate  of Jerome (early fifth century), ‘correptionem’ is most often used to convey rebuke, reproof or admonition (cf. correptio, correptiones, correptioni, correptionis). It was not Jesus that needed correction or rebuke, of course, but the devil:

‘Jesus said to him, “Away with you Satan! For it is written …” ‘

(Matt.4:10, NKJ)

The context of the passage (ibid. 5, 19:1) relates the contrary actions of the righteous: how Jesus obeyed at the tree (i.e. the cross), how the angel of God spoke the truth to Mary, how Mary believed and obeyed God, how Jesus rebuked Satan, and how the coming of the gentle ‘dove’ (the Holy Spirit) gave the Christ power over the serpent (the devil). The reproof that Jesus spoke to Satan was the opposite response to that of Adam, who had succumbed to the serpent’s wiles. Far from advocating a form of penal substitution by suggesting the cancelling out of the sin of Adam by the ‘chastisement’ of Jesus,  Irenaeus was contrasting the response of Adam,  who had sinned by giving way to the temptations of the serpent, with that of the complete opposite response of  Christ, who immediately uttered rebuke. ‘Penal substitution’ is not supported by this passage, but the ‘recapitulation’ of Christ most certainly is. Jesus, ‘the First-begotten’, succeeded where Adam, ‘the first created man’, had failed.

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