The first four centuries of Christianity were filled with heated debates about how to think of Jesus’ relationship to God. Although the most important of these Christological debates occurred in the 4th and 5th centuries at the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon, many earlier controversies led up to these more decisive councils. Perhaps the most well known of these controversies occurred in the 2nd century when various Gnostic sects began challenging the teachings of the proto-orthodox Christian church. Most of these Gnostics held to a Docetic Christology, which denies the humanity of Jesus and his bodily resurrection. The influential Bishop Irenaeus saw the inherent danger that these ideas posed to the Christian church and wrote a series of books called “Against Heresies” that challenged the entire Gnostic system of belief. Of particular interest to Irenaeus was to refute Gnostic Docetism and assert a doctrine of the Incarnation grounded in an understanding of recapitulation – the “summing up” or “making new” of creation through Jesus. With the doctrine of recapitulation, Irenaeus embraces the entire Old Testament by tying the Incarnation to the narrative history of Israel. Unlike the competing Greek-influenced Gnostic ideas, recapitulation is in impressive continuity with the creation-affirming covenantal Judaism of Jesus and therefore maintains a strong sense of ethical grounding for present material existence.
Irenaeus initially hints at his formulation of recapitulation in the first book of “Against Heresies.” This explanation comes in 10.1 as he is unpacking the orthodox faith that he argues was given to the apostles by Jesus himself and accurately passed down to the bishops. He asserts that the Holy Spirit inspired the Jewish prophets of the Old Testament to predict not only the first coming of Jesus, but his second coming in order “…to ‘recapitulate all things’ (Eph. 1.10) and raise up all flesh of the human race.” While this orthodox understanding of the still-future and complete recapitulation of all things in Jesus explicitly affirms the value of physical flesh, the Docetic Christology of the Gnostics implicitly denies the value of physical flesh by claiming that Jesus only appeared to be physical, and therefore the “resurrection” is only a metaphor for attainment of spiritual Gnosis. Irenaeus thus explains that the Gnostics believe that “the prison is the body”, and some of them go so far as to assert that in order for the soul to permanently escape into eternal bliss, they must not only learn secret Gnosis, but they must also live in every possible way. Indeed, Irenaeus charges these Gnostics with relativism when he claims, “Good and evil, they say, are merely matters of opinion.”
The finer details of the doctrine of recapitulation begin to come into focus in the third book of “Against Heresies” when Irenaeus somewhat creatively relates it to God’s covenants with Israel. While the apostle Paul understood Jesus fulfilling a single older covenant that God made with Israel, Irenaeus sees Jesus as fulfilling three other historical covenants made with Adam, Noah, and Moses. Although this interpretation is motivated by a polemic against the Gnostic gospels, the theological point is clear: the Incarnation in some way climatically summarizes and completes the previous covenants, thereby uniting creation with God. If God’s purposes were truly progressively working themselves out through the nation of Israel, then Jesus, who was believed to have been predicted all throughout the Old Testament, is the one who brings God’s covenantal purposes to completion. This covenantal interpretation of Jesus shows Irenaeus’ commitment to retaining continuity with the creation-affirming Judaism of Jesus. On the Gnostic reading of the Old Testament, they often assert that a lesser god speaks through the patriarchs and prophets rather than the one true God. The higher, more powerful God is not involved in history for the Gnostics, and an imperfect lower god created the world. Christ came into the world in order to save humanity from ignorance through the impartation of secret Gnosis. As Irenaeus forcefully argues, this reading of the Old Testament is both selective in its scope and degrading to material existence.
As he slowly becomes more explicit about his doctrine of Incarnation in book three, Irenaeus first critiques the Gnostics by showing how they fragment Jesus into separate emanated substances: Christ, Only-Begotten, Word, and Savior. For the Gnostics then, Jesus is ultimately only divine and only appeared to be physical. This Gnostic “Christ from above” will not suffice for Irenaeus, so he attempts to make the case for a more earthy Jesus, calling him “Emmanuel who is from the Virgin, who ate butter and honey” and adding that “Paul knew no Christ but the one who suffered and was buried and rose again, who was born, whom he called ‘man’.” For Irenaeus, Jesus was both God and human, and to subtract from either of these would eliminate the power of the intermingling of the divine and physical substances. Although the later church councils would eventually clarify the philosophical categories, it seems clear that for Irenaeus all things in heaven and earth are recapitulated by the intermingling of divine and physical substances in the person of Jesus.