In the early centuries, the battleground for Christian theology centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ. One of the heresies that sought to undermine the foundation of Christianity was called Gnosticism. It presented several challenges to the Christian faith because its proponents used their heretical writings and the Scriptures to support their views.[1] In Against Heresies, Irenaeus exposed the way the heretics mishandled the word of God:

. . . they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions.[2]

Moreover, Gnosticism was a subtle heresy because it accepted Christ in its philosophical system. The Gnostics did not deny the importance of accepting Christ, however, they denied the deity and humanity of Christ and believed that he was not sufficient for salvation. They argued that additional knowledge needs to be possessed and that only the spiritual elite can have access to this “salvific knowledge.” Denis Minns states:

Possession of this knowledge is salvation. This knowledge is not attained by observation or rational argument, but by revelation: revelation that is not believed but known to be true. . . . To have this knowledge is to be saved. Nevertheless, the gnostic must await the final separation of the divine element from matter so that it can return to the divine realm.[3]

To defend the orthodox view of Christ and to counter the false claims of the heretical Gnostics, Irenaeus employed the Rule of Faith as a hermeneutic strategy. Minns states that Irenaeus used it “as his measuring rod to determine whether what was being alleged as the truth actually measured up.”[4] Moreover, it enabled him to prove that Jesus Christ is the God-Man Messiah who fulfills God’s divine plan of redemption. In this article, I would like to focus on Irenaeus’ doctrine of recapitulation as a way to show how the divine plan of redemption finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. I will examine the development of Irenaeus’ Christology from the Old Testament where Christ is hidden to the New Testament where Christ is revealed as the last Adam who recapitulates all things in himself. David Prince writes:

Irenaeus’s commitment to the unity of the Bible and his doctrine of the recapitulation of all things in Christ Jesus meant that the Son of God, the last Adam, would recover all that was lost in the first Adam. Jesus, the eschatological Adam, was the one in whom the entirety of redemptive history would be summed up. Thus, Jesus Christ was both the center and telos (end) of the biblical drama of redemption because Jesus is the only lens through which the Scriptural witness can be rightly understood.[5]

Hence, to understand the doctrine of recapitulation one must have a Christological lens like Irenaeus when studying the Scriptures.

  1. Christ concealed in the Old Testament

Dr. Manor clarifies that “(Christ) is not hidden in an enigmatic sort of Bible code way. Christ is there all along and when we get to the culminating point where Christ is now incarnate, all of a sudden, these categories open up for us and we see the plan that he has set in motion from the beginning.”[6] Since the Gnostics viewed the creation of the world as a mistake, Irenaeus needed to prove that what God did, in the beginning, was good and that the redemption of his creation would be fulfilled by His Son. In the second article of the Rule of Faith, Irenaeus states:

. . . the Word of God, the Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, who was revealed by the prophets according to the character of their prophecy and according to the nature of the economies of the Father, by whom all things were made, and who in the last times to recapitulate all things became a man amongst men, visible and palpable, in order to abolish death, to demonstrate life and to effect communion between God and man.[7]

While the truth of Christ as creator may seem hidden in the Old Testament, Irenaeus was able to affirm the creative power of Christ through his hermeneutic. Irenaeus rightly concludes, “Thus, since the Word establishes, that is, works bodily and confers existence, while the Spirit arranges and forms the various powers, so rightly is the Son called Word, and the Spirit the Wisdom of God.”[8] Irenaeus is quick to identify Jesus as the Word who ‘establishes’ because He is the Word (logos) that John the Beloved spoke about in John 1:1. This was an important connection that Irenaeus made because the Gnostics believed that the God who created the world was a bad god who had nothing to do with Jesus Christ. To refute this false claim, Irenaeus employed Trinitarian language by affirming there is One (good) God while attributing the work of creation to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.[9] Furthermore, by identifying Jesus as the creator, Irenaeus is able to reject the idea that Christ was created. If Christ, together with the Father and the Spirit created the world then it implies that he is eternal and has always coexisted with the Father and the Spirit before time began. Affirming this truth is crucial because it points to the fact that the central figure of the doctrine of recapitulation is God himself revealed as the God-Man Messiah. Secondly, Irenaeus was able to see Christ through Old Testament typologies. Since he believed that Jesus is hidden in the Old Testament, Irenaeus was able to identify typologies that prefigured Christ. For example, Irenaeus saw Christ being prefigured in the life of Moses:

For if ye had believed Moses, ye would also have believed Me: for he wrote of Me;“ [saying this,] no doubt, because the Son of God is implanted everywhere throughout his writings. . . . And it would be endless to recount [the occasions] upon which the Son of God is shown forth by Moses. Of the day of His passion, too, he was not ignorant; but foretold Him, after a figurative manner, by the name given to the Passover; and at that very festival, which had been proclaimed such a long time previously by Moses, did our Lord suffer, thus fulfilling the Passover.[10]

It is important to note that not only did Irenaeus see Christ being prefigured by Moses but also by the Passover. By seeing Christ as the fulfillment of the Passover, Irenaeus concluded that Jesus is the ultimate redeemer who sets the captives free not by force but by his sacrifice. Through his work of atonement, Jesus is able to save those who believe in him by absorbing God’s full wrath in their place. Since the recapitulation theory is a view of the atonement, Irenaeus provides a framework that enables the reader of the Old Testament to see Christ as the fulfillment of the Levitical sacrificial system.

            Irenaeus also saw Joshua as someone who prefigured Christ in the Old Testament. Irenaeus states, “For it was proper that Moses should lead the people out of Egypt, but that Jesus (Joshua) should lead them into the inheritance.”[11] I could see why Irenaeus saw Joshua as a type of Christ. Joshua was a man of faith who obeyed the LORD despite the risks involved (Josh. 1:10-11). As the leader of Israel, Joshua successfully brought the Israelites to the Promised Land and led them to several victories (Josh. 3:1-6:27; 8-12). However, Joshua was not able to sustain their victories because of his own limitations and the sins of God’s people (Josh. 7:1-26). But through the leadership and sacrifice of the true Joshua, the greatest victory was won. Ironically, it was accomplished not by him saving his life but by giving it as a ransom for many (Mk. 10:45).  Indeed, Christ’s sacrifice provided the means by which he can “reconcile all things to himself, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Col. 1:20 NIV). At this point, I would like to show how the development of Irenaeus’ Christology led him to conclude that the One whom the Old Testament foreshadowed or typified was the Christ revealed in the New Testament.

  1. Christ revealed in the New Testament

In Ephesians 1:10 Paul says that the will of the Father was to unite all things in Christ. Everette Ferguson notes that Irenaeus applies the idea to Jesus Christ as not only a ‘summing up’ but also the bringing to a head or climax of God’s saving plan. Jesus Christ as the new Adam, both man and God, is the ‘new head’ of humanity who reversed the steps of the old Adam.”[12]

Gregg Allison further explains:

Irenaeus’s view focused on the life of Jesus Christ as the recapitulation, or summation, of all the life events of fallen humanity. However, instead of these being lived out in disobedience to God, Christ lived them obediently. Therefore, he reversed the sinful direction in which people were headed, saved them, and provided them new orientation.[13]

 

Irenaeus believed that the reversal of the sinful direction hinged on the obedience of Christ as a man: “For as by the disobedience of the one man, who was originally formed from virgin soil, the many made sinners and forfeited life; so was it necessary that, by the obedience of one man, who was originally born from a virgin, many would be justified and receive salvation.”[14] It was important for Irenaeus to show why “the Word needed to become incarnate and undertake the economy of salvation in order to recapitulate all things in himself”[15] because if Christ did not come as a man, he would not be able to satisfy the demand of the law and the holy wrath of God. This is the reason why the virgin birth was an essential aspect in the development of Irenaeus’ Christology. Irenaeus states, “The human race which had been bound to death by a virgin’s disobedience found salvation by a virgin’s obedience.”[16] Minns observed that “Mary untangled the skein that Eve had knotted. Eve was seduced by an angel into disobeying the Word of God, from whom she fled. When an angel proclaimed the good news to Mary she obeyed the Word of God, and carried God in her womb.”[17] Indeed, Jesus came into the world as a human being to obey the law perfectly. Irenaeus sought to establish this truth because he saw Jesus as humanity’s representative. By becoming man, Jesus is able to fulfill the legal demand of the law by being “born of a woman and born under the law to redeem those under the law” (Gal. 4:4). Moreover, Minns notes that Christ “recapitulated Adam. . . . by retracing Adam’s temptation and defeat in disobedience and reversing that defeat in the victory of his own obedience.”[18] This is seen when Jesus overcame Satan’s temptations after he fasted for forty days and forty nights (Matt. 4:1). What I find intriguing in this account is that it was the Spirit who led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Matt. 4:1). This shows that one of the purposes of the incarnation is for Jesus to overcome temptation as a man so that he might provide a righteousness that is acceptable to God. Hence, in Matthew 4, we see how Jesus succeeded where Adam failed. It is also interesting to note that the first temptation Jesus faced involved food (Matt. 1:3). Similarly, in the garden of Eden, the serpent tempted Adam and Eve to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3:1-4). The contrast is striking: Adam failed in the garden while Christ overcame all of Satan’s temptations in the wilderness through the power of God’s word (Matt. 4:4-11).

Minns observes:

But, unlike Adam, Christ was not immature and thus easily led to misapprehend the truth and to seek after a false good. He was a human being in whom the rational faculties had reached their perfection. His victory was a human, moral victory, but it was also the victory of a human being as God intended human beings to be, and indeed, the victory of the first such human being to have existed. Because he was, as a human being, stronger than Satan, who had prevailed over the weaker Adam, he was able to remain obedient where Adam disobeyed.[19]

 

Furthermore, Jesus recapitulated Adam by being victorious on a tree. The tree of knowledge of good and evil became the object of temptation to Adam and Eve because they wanted to be like God. It also became the place where they rebelled against their Maker. However, it was on Calvary’s tree where Jesus submitted to the will of his Father so that the debt of sin can be paid in full. Irenaeus expressed the beauty of Christ’s atoning work with these words: “He has destroyed the handwriting of our debt, and fastened it to the cross, so that as by means of a tree we were made debtors to God, [so also] by means of a tree we may obtain the remission of our debt.”[20] Minns concludes, “By his obedience, Christ cast sin and death out of the flesh he shared with Adam and restored it to friendship with God.”[21] A restored friendship with the God who created the world would be an absurd statement for the Gnostics since they viewed the creator of the world as an evil god. But through the redeeming work of Christ, the God of the Bible is presented as a good and gracious God who longs to reconcile his creation to himself. Hence, the doctrine of recapitulation reveals the reason why Jesus came as the second Adam. He came to restore creation to its perfect state and “to unite all things to in him, things in heaven and things on earth" (Eph. 1:10 ESV). 

Through Irenaeus’ doctrine of recapitulation, I have come to know Christ better and appreciate the sufficiency and coherence of Scripture. Irenaeus notes, “For every prophecy, before its fulfillment, is to men [full of] enigmas and ambiguities. But when the time has arrived, and the prediction has come to pass, then the prophecies have a clear and certain exposition.”[22] By interpreting the Scriptures correctly, Irenaeus was able to help Christians develop a Christocentric reading of the Scriptures that enabled them to see Christ hidden in the Old Testament and revealed as the God-Man Messiah in the New Testament. As I reflect on the theology of Irenaeus, I cannot help but see the wisdom God gave him to understand the intricacies of the gospel and the sovereignty of God in fulfilling his divine plan through Christ. Irenaeus knew that there were no random events that took place in the history of the world but only well-ordered events that were orchestrated by a sovereign and gracious God.  Furthermore, the development of Irenaeus’ theology as seen in the doctrine of recapitulation should encourage Christians to read the Scriptures with a Christological lens to equip them to defend the faith.  I believe Irenaeus’ method of refuting his opponents can be a helpful tool in Christian apologetics. While Irenaeus used forceful language to expose the hollow philosophies of the heretics, his writings show that he did it out of love and concern. He sought to correct and expose their errors so that “they may be converted to the truth and saved.”[23] Indeed, the most important second-century theologian[24] was someone who not only mastered the doctrine of Christ but was also a humble servant who was mastered by the love of Christ.

Bibliography

Allison, Gregg. Historical Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Kindle.

Ferguson, Everett. Church History, Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013. Kindle.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies and Fragments. Translated by A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. Buffalo, NY: The Christian Literature Publishing Company, 2012. Kindle. 

Irenaeus. On the Apostolic Preaching. Translated by John Behr. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997. Kindle.

Minns, Denis. Irenaeus: An Introduction. New York, NY: T&T Clark International, 2010. Kindle.

Prince, David. “The Treasure Hid in the Scriptures is Christ — Irenaeus,” Prince on Preaching, March 20, 2015, https://www.davidprince.com/2015/03/20/the-treasure-hid-in-the-scriptures-is-christ-irenaeus/.

 

[1] Irenaeus, Against Heresies and Fragments, trans. A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: The Christian Literature Publishing Company, 2012), 1.8.1, Kindle.

[2] Ibid., 1.8.1, Kindle.  

[3] Denis Minns, Irenaeus: An Introduction (New York, NY: T&T Clark International), chap. 2, Kindle.

[4] Ibid., chap. 1, Kindle.

[5] David Prince, “The Treasure Hid in the Scriptures is Christ — Irenaeus,” Prince on Preaching, March 20, 2015, https://www.davidprince.com/2015/03/20/the-treasure-hid-in-the-scriptures-is-christ-irenaeus/.

[6] Scott Manor, Video Lecture. Knox Theological Seminary, Ft. Lauderdale FL. Lesson 30, March 25, 2022.

[7] Irenaeus, On the Apostolic Preaching, trans. John Behr (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 1.6, Kindle.

[8] Ibid., 1.5, Kindle.

[9] Ibid., 1.4-5, Kindle.

[10] Irenaeus, Against Heresies and Fragments, trans. A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: The Christian Literature Publishing Company, 2012), 5.2.3, Kindle.  

[11] Ibid., chap. 19, Kindle. 

 

[13] Gregg Allison, Historical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), chap. 18, Kindle.

[14] Irenaeus, Against Heresies and Fragments, trans. A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: The Christian Literature Publishing Company, 2012), 3.18.7, Kindle. 

[15] Denis Minns, Irenaeus: An Introduction (New York, NY: T&T Clark International, 2010), chap. 6, Kindle.

[16] Irenaeus, Against Heresies and Fragments, trans. A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: The Christian Literature Publishing Company, 2012), 5.19.1, Kindle. 

[17] Denis Minns, Irenaeus: An Introduction (New York, NY: T&T Clark International, 2010), chap. 6, Kindle.

[18] Ibid. Kindle.

[19] Denis Minns, Irenaeus: An Introduction (New York, NY: T&T Clark International, 2010), chap. 6, Kindle.

[20] Irenaeus, Against Heresies and Fragments, trans. A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: The Christian Literature Publishing Company, 2012), 5.17.3, Kindle.

[21] Denis Minns, Irenaeus: An Introduction (New York, NY: T&T Clark International, 2010), chap. 6, Kindle.

[22] Irenaeus, Against Heresies and Fragments, trans. A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: The Christian Literature Publishing Company, 2012), 4.26.1, Kindle. 

[23] Ibid., 4.41.4, Kindle.