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Irenaeus and two Early Atonement Theories

At long last it is time to launch into one of the theories of the atonement, or more correctly one of the early church Father’s writings about atonement. In study group one of these went down very easily, and the other required a bit more wrestling. I could see that their horizons were being opened up – which is exactly what happened to me when I first heard these ideas too. On reflection though, as I look back, it seems to me that I was being in introduced to ‘a half remembered tune’ playing ‘softly in my mind.’ [1] … See what you think!

The very early church certainly proclaimed the cross, yet seemed to not spill much ink explaining how it provided salvation[2]. Sure, the New Testament (which they didn’t have then of course) mentions various metaphors as we have seen. From the second century Irenaeus (130-202) and others began to think of cross in terms of conflict with the powers of the day. This goes beyond the ‘Jesus is Lord’ vs ‘Caesar is Lord’ that we might think we understand, off into the spiritual, cosmic realm.

christ the champion
thoughts on images[3]

As Above, So Below

The various religions back then thought in terms of a cosmic clash between the supernatural deities in the heavenly realm.[4] That this is a clear idea in scripture is self evident – think ‘principalities and powers’ in Ephesians, or ‘Prince of Persia’ in Daniel – but it goes far beyond Judaism and was a cultural norm of the time. The concept of ‘as above so below’ was important and thus the struggle between the forces of good and evil was considered to be playing out in both the heavenly and earthly realms. This is very different today. Leaving our Christian brains to one side (really?) how many of us think in terms of battles between spirit beings in heaven? Or on earth?

Ransom Theory

Irenaeus framed his discussions of the cross and resurrection around a cosmic struggle between God and Satan, in which the ‘resurrection sealed the victory’.[5] Looking back at his ideas, along with those of other writers, Gustaf Aulen coined the term “Christus Victor” (Christ the Champion) in 1930 to group the early church theories of atonement under one umbrella. However, it would he wrong to assume that Irenaeus didn’t mention the other theories – he did, and so did other writers. However, the victory motif was important; and hotly debated.

In Galatians 3 we read that we were once ‘enslaved to the elementary principles/spirits of the world’ but that now we are ‘no longer a slave’ but an ‘heir through God’. In Colossians 2 Paul further explains that Jesus ‘disarmed the rulers and authorities’ by ‘triumphing over them’. Clear victory language which builds upon the ‘ransom’ ideas found for instance in Mark 8 and 1 Tim 2. Given their history, and the Roman imperialism they were living under, paying a ransom to secure freedom was an idea the people had no problem relating to – which is maybe why Jesus used it in the first place. In a ransom a captive is released because something valuable is given in exchange. But what was ransomed? And to whom?

There are problems though with a simplistic understanding of ‘ransom atonement.’ Gregory The Theologian (329-390), one of the doctors of the church, appears to rail hard against the idea that God was paying the devil off with the blood of Jesus. He writes:

Now, since a ransom belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this offered, and for what cause? If to the Evil One, fie upon the outrage! [6]

So when Jesus spoke of his life as being given as a ransom, there is no agreed explanation of what that means. Trying to find a way out of the theological minefield that paying a ransom to the devil created, Gregory of Nyssa even went as far as describing Jesus the man as being like bait on a fishing line. Satan was hooked by divine trickery into swapping this improved man with all his powers, for boring old humanity, only to discover that he had actually ‘swallowed’ God himself into the ‘place of death’ which naturally couldn’t hold him in much the same way that darkness is dispelled when you turn on the light. And thus was Satan defeated… Unsurprisingly this idea is seen as being not one of Saint Gregory’s best. [7]

So far, nothing to wrestle with …

So far so good. If you have been around churches you will have heard this victory language, and you might be thinking that there is nothing much to wrestle with here. Irenaeus, however, was something of a heavy-weight brawler, and was especially vexed by the Gnostic ideas that the flesh was inherently evil. [8] To counter these claims he wrote ‘Against Heresies’, in which he moves away from the ransom motifs (partially!) to describe how Christ achieved this victory. Notice the link here – it is important. God takes on the what the Gnostics described as ‘inherently evil’ flesh …

Irenaeus’ jumping off point is the concept of the First and Second/Last Adam. In 1 Cor 15 Paul writes that the ‘first man Adam’ bought death to us all, but that the ‘second man’, or ‘last man’, Jesus, is a ‘life giving spirit’ in whom ‘all shall be made alive’. Paul concludes that ‘just as we have borne the image of Adam so we shall also bare the image of the man of heaven.’ Powerful, life affirming stuff! And a clear reference back to Genesis and forward to the restoration of all things.

christ defeating death

A big word – Recapitulation

Irenaeus explains this using the concept of ‘recapitulation.’ This rarely used word is worth pausing on. It has to do with ‘recreating the original’ or ‘summing up’. Thus Jesus can be said to recapitulate humanity – he is what God intended Adam and Eve to be. For Irenaeus Jesus was the fleshly embodiment of the image of God – what you might call the archetypal human. Thus he wrote in Heresies:

God recapitulated in Himself the ancient formation of man and woman, that he might kill sin, deprive death of its power and vivify humanity.[9]

For Irenaeus then we see God making what Paul calls the second man – a reworking of what Adam and Eve should have been, and become (remember how Adam and Eve were to grow?). But notice that God does this ‘in himself ‘. Rather then creating a brand new “Second Adam” he gathers together in himself everything humanity was meant to be. The result of this gathering is of course, the incarnation. The language used here for the benefits of doing this is quite different to how we think today. Sin is killed. Death is deprived of its power. And humanity is vivified. Sin and death(perhaps?) are thought of as being alive, and in the process of them losing that life, humanity passes from death to life. We talked about vivification in the post on how the ancient peoples bought their idols to life – for example by breathing into them – much as God is described as doing in Genesis, and Jesus did again in John 20. See how this ties up so many loose ends, and brings a continuity to the whole of scripture.

But, there’s much, much more to Irenaeus and recapitulation. This post is getting a bit long, so in part two we explain this wonderful way of looking at atonement.


  1. The Chameleons, Second Skin from the album ‘Script of the Bridge’.
  2. Green, Joel B: Recovering the scandal of the cross: atonement in New Testament and contemporary contexts, p117.
  3. There’s been some debate recently about how Jesus is portrayed in art. I used to wonder why ‘old paintings’ showed Jesus being miserable. Now that I am a little older and wiser I begin to understand that these images are packed full of symbolism and are not meant to be likenesses but tools for adoration and worship of the Godhead. This has opened for me a fresh appreciation for such art.
  4. Green, Scandal, p118.
  5. ‘resurrection sealed the victory’ – perhaps Irenaeus actually says this somewhere that I as yet have not read! Otherwise, this direct quote from Green shows us that he is coming from a penal viewpoint.
  6. Gregory the Theologian, Oration 45, accessed 07/10/2019
  7. Gregory of Nyssa, Catechism, 24. Accessed 07/10/2019
  8. It is interesting to me that most of us would automatically say that the flesh is not evil. However, dig a little deeper and people say things like ‘I long to be free of this body’ or at least my mum did. Additionally, a number of podcasts that I listen to regularly feature guests who discuss the need for us to ‘ascend beyond our bodies’ or ‘rises above the physical’. Some also claim that the Gnostic were the true followers of Jesus. There is nothing new under the sun. The old heresies are alive and well.
  9. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 18, para 18. Accessed 07102019

About maxelcat

Moderately into just about everything I live in North London where I am run a tutoring physics/science business and drink a lot of coffee.
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