I Believe in Recapitulation

The doctrine of recapitulation is integral to Scripture and apart from it I believe the Bible cannot properly be understood. Yet, consult your Bible dictionary and the chances are that it will not be mentioned. What follows is in part an attempt to show why this is so. I also hope to set the ball rolling and inspire others to go into far greater detail in their examination of a subject that really requires book-length treatment.

I first became aware of the doctrine in question when I was studying early church history and early Christian doctrine in particular. In his work on the latter J.N.D. Kelly alluded briefly to the teaching of Irenaeus with respect to it. Later I had cause to refer to the idea in a book (unpublished) I was writing. Later still, I read with great interest B.B.Warfield’s essay “The Human Development of Jesus” and was greatly stimulated by it. Subsequently, I caught up with works like J.Lawson’s “The Biblical Theology of St. Irenaeus” and G.Wingren’s “Man and the Incarnation: A Study in the Biblical Theology of Irenaeus.” These works apart, it seemed to me that the notion of recapitulation was fundamental, and I agreed whole-heartedly with James Orr’s observation that “a theology … which sees in Christ the ‘recapitulation’ of humanity … is one regarding which it is not presumptuous to hold that the Church has a long way to travel before it leaves it behind” (p.70). I consider that the same holds as true today in 2006 as when Orr made his comment in 1901.

If the father of theology, Irenaeus (fl. c. 175-c.195), laid such emphasis on recapitulation, why has it to all intents and purposes disappeared from modern theological thought? Briefly, there appear to be two main reasons. First, like the Trinity, unless Ephesians 1:10 and Romans 13:9 are translated in such a way as to bring it out, the word as such, in contrast with the idea which pervades it, does not appear in Scripture. Secondly, the thinking of Irenaeus was largely eclipsed by that of Augustine (354-430) (1*).

Recapitulation in Nature

Perhaps the most obvious way in which Scripture teaches recapitulation (the imitation, repetition, replication or summary of an original model or paradigm) is by its insistence in the first chapter of Genesis that all flora and fauna are procreated according to kind and hence repeat or go through the same process of birth, growth to maturity, decline and death (cf. Mark 4:26-28) like creation itself (Heb. 1:10-12). In mortal man’s case, he is made in the image of God and meant to attain to the likeness of God (Gen. 1:26,28; Mt. 5:48; Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18; Heb. 1:3, etc.) and thus transcend death (Gen. 2:17, cf. Ps. 8:5). Thus Adam is at once the archetypal individual, who produces sons in his own image and that of God (Gen. 5:1-3), and the community or race that stems from him. Since Adam is not simply the name of an individual (Gen. 4:25) but a generic term, mankind as a whole is also destined to attain to the divine likeness and become the bride of Christ, a corporate personality. Again, the race, which is made up of individuals as a wall or building is made up of single bricks, is intended to become a full-grown man epitomized in or by Christ, the second and perfect Adam (cf. Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:15; 4:13). In 1 Corinthians 15:45-49 Paul underscores the distinction between the two Adams who both have God as their Father (Luke 3:38), but while the first derives from the earth the other has his origin heaven (1 Cor. 15:45-49). All of us take on the image of both (cf. Gen. 5:1-3; Rom. 8:29) as we progress towards maturity (cf. 15:46), but this maturity or completeness is only achieved (through faith) in Jesus who alone attained to the perfection (completeness, maturity) of both his physical and spiritual development. He who was the Son of God proved his pedigree by attaining to the likeness of God as a man (Mt. 3:15; 5:48; 19:21; Heb. 1:3; 2:10; 5:9; 6:20; 7:28; 12:2, cf. John 1:14; Rom. 8:3,29; Gal. 4:4) and brought freedom and life to his fellows (John 8:34-36; 2 Tim. 1:10; Heb. 2:10f.).

Original Sin?

It may be asked at this point why it was necessary for there to be a second Adam? The answer lies in the fact that the first man, Adam, having been initially created innocent, that is, without knowledge of good or evil like a baby (Dt. 1:39), broke the commandment that promised life (Gen. 2:17; 3:6f.) and was cast out. As Jesus himself was to point out, in sinning all become the slaves of sin (John 8:34), and as fleshly slaves who lack righteousness (Gen. 3:22-24) they are unable to remain in the house forever (John 8:35). It is thus plain that we all with the notable exception of Jesus himself recapitulate or fall victim to the paradigmatic sin of Adam and are cast out of the house, garden or land. This pattern is graphically illustrated, for example, by the slave Ishmael who, though born in the house, like Adam personified the flesh and was cast out (Gal. 4:29f., cf. 1 Cor. 15:45-50; 2 Cor. 5:1). Other examples are provided by Esau who was disinherited, the Canaanites and the Jews who underwent exile, and most notably Paul who, expressing the issue somewhat differently, claimed that, having experienced ‘life’ in embryonic fellowship with his Creator like Adam in the Garden, ‘died’ when he broke the commandment (Rom. 7:9f.). In sum, all who are created in the image of Adam (cf. Gen. 5:1-3) recapitulate or repeat the sins of Adam and Eve. This is surely what Paul is saying in Romans 5:12. Since all sin, all die and earn their wages (Rom. 6:23). To paint the picture on a broader canvas, all who are without the (Mosaic) law sin without the law and all who are under the law sin under it (Rom. 2:12; 1:18-3:20). This difference is clearly typified by the difference between the respective sins of Adam and Eve (1 Tim. 2:14; 2 Cor. 11:3).


While traditional dogmatic theology frequently maintains that we sin “in Adam”, despite the failure of Romans 5:12 to say so, no one reading the OT with attention can miss noting, first, that babies, like Adam and Eve before they received the commandment, know neither good nor evil (Dt. 1:39; Num. 14:3, 29-33; 1 K. 3:7; Isa. 7:15f.; Rom. 9:11; Heb. 5:12-14, etc.), and, second, that as they grow older they imitate or repeat the sins of their ancestors, including Adam, as the following sample of references makes clear: 1 Samuel 8:8; Ezra 9:7; Nehemiah 1:6f.; Psalm 106:6f.; Jeremiah 3:25; 11:10; 22:21; Isaiah 65:6f.; Ezek. 2:3; 23:8,19,27; Daniel 9:5f.,11,16 and Acts 7:51-53, despite being warned not to do so (2 Chr. 30:7f.; Ps. 78:8; Zech. 1:4). Ultimately, it may be said that in doing good we all imitate God (Mt. 5:48; Eph. 5:1) and in doing evil we imitate the devil (John 8:39-44; 1 John 3:4-10; 3 John 11). Imitation, which pervades the Bible, effectively puts paid to the notion of original sin. If it were true, we would be forced to infer that God created us, and even Jesus himself, evil!

Adam and Israel

The attentive reader can hardly fail to note that certain parallels exist between Adam and Israel. Just as Adam was created from the earth outside Eden and placed there by God, so Israel emanated from Egypt (cf. Ps. 80:8) and was divinely directed to the Promised Land. Again, whereas Adam, the son of God was given a commandment to regulate his immature life, Israel, also collectively the son of God (Ex. 4:22; Hos. 11:1), was given the law of Moses. And it was transgression of the commandment/law which eventually led to exile for both. (It might also be observed in passing that just as Eve’s sin highlighted the lust of the flesh, Gen. 3:6, so did the sins of the heathen, Rom. 1:24ff.) Dumbrell, who notes this, also draws attention to the fact that there is a parallel between Eden and the land flowing with milk and honey (pp.119f.). All in all, repetition, imitation or recapitulation, not to mention typology, appear to be of the essence of Scripture.

Recapitulation and Jesus

Since recapitulation is almost entirely ignored in dogmatic theology, what has just been written needs elaboration. As I have already implied recapitulation is most clearly illustrated in the life of Jesus, the second Adam. While on the one hand as the incarnate Son of God he was truly a son of Adam (Luke 3:38) who grew, as Irenaeus strongly insisted, from infancy to mature physical manhood (Luke 2:41ff.), he also recapitulated or re-enacted the history of his people Israel. Though uniquely emanating from heaven in contrast with Adam who stemmed from the earth (cf. 1 Cor. 15:47-50), like them, as one born of woman he initially knew neither good nor evil (cf. Isa. 7:15f.) became a child of nature and even experienced “slavery” in Egypt (Mt. 2:15 (2*); cf. Gal. 4:1f.). Then, like them, he was a servant subject to the law of Moses, and like them he was called to full or mature sonship in the likeness of God (Gal. 4:4f.). (One might almost say that in Jesus’ case his action, that is, his sinless life, recapitulated his ontology. Certainly his sinlessness proved, ratified, endorsed and established his unique identity.) But whereas his early life under the law was a perfect recapitulation of the imperfect life of his forebears, his acknowledged sonship (Mt. 3:17) arising from his keeping of the law (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5, etc., cf. 1 John 3:22) led to his blazing the trail or his pioneering (or, to coin a word, ‘precapitulating’) the regenerate life of the true Israel under the Spirit (cf. Mt. 3:15; 19:21). In other words, his life under the Spirit after his baptism was paradigmatic and hence one that serves as a model for all who put their trust in him (1 Pet. 2:21). To imitate Jesus is to be like him, to imitate the perfection of God (Lev. 11:44f.; 19:2; 1 Pet. 1:15f.) which is our most basic calling (Gen. 1:26; Mt. 5:48; Eph. 5:1; Col. 3:10). Needless to say, only Jesus achieved that perfection (Mt. 3:15; 19:21; Heb. 1:3; 2:10; 5:9; 7:28) and we achieve it through faith in him (Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 4:4-6; 11:1; 2 Cor. 3:18; Col. 3:10). See further below.

Prophet, Priest and King

We may go further and point out that Jesus recapitulated in his own person three other strands of OT teaching, those of anointed prophet, priest and king (cf. Ps. 110). That he was all three is hardly disputable (cf. Green, 2*). While he was clearly the prophet like Moses referred to in Deuteronomy 18:18 (Acts 3:22), his priesthood and kingship were less obvious. For priesthood on earth he was disqualified on genealogical grounds (Heb. 7:14; 8:4): as a king he never sat on the earthly throne of David whose son he was, but implicitly repudiated it (John 6:15; 18:36). We are left in no doubt, however, that he is our eternal royal high priest like Melchisedek in heaven (cf. Acts 15:16-18; Heb. 2:17; 8:2-6; 9:11; Rom. 8:34) who will rule until he has put all his enemies beneath his feet (1 Cor. 15:24-28).

The Goal of Perfection

So far, so good. But how does this affect us? How are we who are failures to achieve life and perfection? How are we to imitate or recapitulate the perfect life of Jesus and make ourselves acceptable to our holy God who is too pure to see evil (Hab. 1:13) and requires us to be holy as he is holy and righteous as he is righteous (1 Pet. 1:15f., etc.)? We do it first by accepting Christ’s atonement for and consequent forgiveness of our sin. Then, since righteousness is the indispensable precondition of life (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5; Dt. 32:46f.; Ezek. 20:11,13,21; Rom. 5:17,21; 6:16-22, etc.) (3*), we are justified by faith in him who is our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30). This righteousness is not achieved by works but through our faith in him (Phil. 3:9). In other words, our righteousness is his righteousness, the very righteousness of God (Rom. 3:25f.; 2 Cor. 5:21). So, just as Jesus kept the law flawlessly and was accounted righteous, so in him are we. And just as he received the life promised to those who kept the law (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5; Dt. 32:46f.; Mt. 3:17, etc.) in direct contrast to Adam who broke the commandment, so do we who believe in him. Just as he was sealed, consecrated and sanctified by the Spirit (John 6:27), so are we (Eph. 1:13; 4:30). And just as he ascended into heaven, so will we (1 Cor. 15:51ff.); just as he was glorified (Acts 3:13), so will we (Rom. 8:30); and just as he rules, so will we (Rev. 3:21, etc.). For where he is we will be also (John 12:26) and because he lives so will we too (John 14:3,19). In short, just as Jesus initially recapitulated the life of the first Adam in the flesh, now we, after a fashion, recapitulate his (Jesus’) life in the Spirit (cf. Rom. 6:4; 8:2,4). It is not therefore without reason that the author of Hebrews insists that just as we were all related to Adam so now we who are believers are all related to Christ (2:10ff., cf. 1 Cor. 15:45-49; 2 Cor. 5:14f.). And just as Jesus, the man, is the perfected Son of God, so we also are the adopted children of God and fellow heirs with him (Rom. 8:15-17; Gal. 4:6f.; 1 John 3:2). And it is with him that we take our place in the very presence of God (John 14:2f.; 1 Pet. 3:18; Rev. 3:21, etc.).

On reflection the failure of the Western church in particular to appreciate the import of recapitulation is striking. For example, Jesus insists in John 15 that he is the true vine. A little Bible study will soon reveal that the vine in the OT which takes its start in Egypt is Israel, the redeemed people of God’s own possession (Ps. 80:8ff.; Isa. 5:1ff.; 27:2-6, etc.). In Christ, the very Son of God, we Christians belong to the true vine as its fruit-bearing branches (John 15:5). Thus we are the true Israel (1 Pet. 2:9) or the true circumcision (Phil 3:3), the very Israel of God (Gal. 6:16). While it is true that as Gentiles we may never have been circumcised Jews in a physical sense, we have nonetheless by faith become true children of Abraham (Gal. 3:29) and undergone circumcision in Christ (Col. 2:11). It is with him that we have experienced baptism, death, burial and resurrection from the dead (Rom. 6:1-11) and will finally take our place with him at God’s right hand (Rev. 3:21, cf. Eph. 2:6). As Paul elsewhere expresses it, as those whom God foreknew and predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son (his own image, Heb. 1:3), we have been called, justified and glorified (Rom. 8:29f.). In Christ, the future sums up or repeats the past, hence Paul’s use of what has been called the prophetic perfect. We are already more than conquerors through Christ (Rom. 8:37) for nothing in all creation can separate us from his love (Rom. 8:39).


The author of Hebrews takes a somewhat different tack but arrives at the same port. He points out that it was man’s destiny as one who was created in the image of God from the start to subject the physical creation to his dominion (Heb. 2:8; Gen. 1:26,28) and thus to be crowned with glory and honour (cf. Rom. 2:7,10; Heb. 2:9; 1 Pet. 1:7). The fact that the first Adam and all his posterity like him failed served to highlight the fact that the second succeeded. Though he suffered (Heb. 5:8), he nonetheless achieved perfection (Heb. 2:9-10), and just as we all have one origin so we shall all have one destiny (Heb. 2:11). The One who was perfected thus became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him and identify themselves with him (5:9).

Historical Theology

If recapitulation is at the heart of biblical theology, it calls in question many aspects of received dogmatic theology. For example, it is obvious that if the Augustinian dogma of original sin is true, then Jesus himself was necessarily implicated. (Forlorn attempts to exclude him by reference to the Virgin Birth or to Luke 1:35 simply prompt a whole range of theological problems.) On the other hand, if we reject this idea as a blatant distortion of what the Bible teaches, then it immediately becomes apparent that Paul’s assertion that we all sinned (Rom. 5:12) means not that we sinned “in him” (that is, in Adam, unless this is taken to mean “in the flesh”, cf. 1 Cor. 15:22), which words do not appear in the text, but that we all eventually became guilty of actual sin (as he had made clear in chs. 1-3) with the one exception of Jesus (Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22, etc.). In other words, just as we recapitulate the physical and mental growth of Adam, so we repeat his experience of actually sinning – a fact beyond reasonable dispute. (Pelagius said we imitate him: better, we in our turn repeat his sin, contra Art. 1X of the C of E. Augustine apparently misunderstood his point.) All of us sin from our youth (Gen. 8:21; Dt. 9:7,24; 1 Sam. 8:8; Jer. 3:25, etc.). Prior to that we cannot sin since, like Adam in his innocence, we do not know the law (cf. Gen. 2:17; Dt. 1:39, etc.) apart from which sin does not exist (Rom. 4:15; 7:8; Jas. 2:9-11; 1 John 3:4; 5:17, etc.). And since Jesus as a son of Adam (Luke 3:38), indeed the second Adam, also recapitulated Adam’s experience (Heb. 2:17f.), he was born innocent too (Isa. 7:15f.). But even when he did come to know the commandment, he did not, like Paul (Rom. 7:9f.), break it, rather he kept it even in its mature Mosaic form, inherited the life it promised and went on to fulfil all righteousness (Mt. 3:15) and as the Righteous One (Acts 3:14) to be perfected as the image of God (Heb. 1:3, cf. 2:10; 5:9; 7:28).

One of the most pervasive of OT teachings is that sons follow in the steps of their forebears of whom Adam was the first. They repeat their sins (Ps. 106:6; Dan. 9:11,16; Acts 7:51, etc., and note especially the books of Judges and Revelation where the repeated pattern of rebellion, retribution, repentance and rescue is plain for all to see). Paul, for example, sees himself as having recapitulated the sin of first Eve then Adam before becoming a true son of Abraham when he accepted Christ (Rom. 7:7ff.). But this also draws attention to the fact that having become sinners like our first forebears we also sometimes follow in the steps of the faithful like Abraham (Heb. 11, etc.) too. (By recapitulation it is possible to be the offspring of either Abraham, Gal. 3:14,29, or of evil fathers, Luke 6:23,26.) As noted above, all this is summed up in John 8:39ff., 1 John 3:4-10 and 3 John 11 where it is made clear that ultimately we imitate either God or the devil. In the final analysis we are the children of light or of darkness.

So again I am insisting that Adam’s sin was paradigmatic. Like all sin it stemmed ultimately from the devil who is too strong for us, frail creatures of dust that we are, and who not surprisingly is overcome by Jesus alone (cf. Mt. 4:10f.; 12:25-29, etc.). Speaking more proximately, the Bible makes it pellucidly clear that the reason all men and women, even in their youth, fall prey to the devil is that they are weak in the flesh. As children we all recapitulate Eve’s experience: we are all tempted like her and we all give way like her (contrast Jesus who was also born of woman but who successfully resisted temptation, Mt. 4:1-11; Heb. 4:15). The same is true with regard to the more specific sin of Adam (cf. 1 Tim. 2:14); as adolescents, males if not actually Jewish ones, we all fail to keep the law in its fullness (John 7:19), even if we do not actually, like Paul, rebel against it (Rom. 7:14-25). As the apostle affirms, we all alike, Jew and Gentile, sin and come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:9,12,23). We all begin like the king of Tyre (Ezek. 28:13,15) and the king of Egypt (Ezek. 31:2ff.) innocent in Eden, the womb of the race, give way to temptation and are cast out (cf. Ezek. 31:11). This is the universal and perennial truth of experience and history and, this being so, only Jesus can meet our need, for he alone of all who ever lived condemned sin in the flesh (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22). It was clearly God’s intention from the start to ensure that before him no flesh should boast (1 Cor. 1:29; Rom. 3:19f.; 11:32; Gal. 2:16; 3:22; Eph. 2:9). He categorically refuses to give his glory to another (Isa. 42:8; 48:11) but guarantees that before him every knee will bow (Isa. 45:23; Phil. 2:9-11).

Universal Death

The doctrine of recapitulation has more to teach us contrary to received dogma. For example, traditional theology would have us believe that death in general stems from sin. But not according to the Bible. For just as we all are born of woman (and hence stem from the earth like Adam from whom Eve derived), become infants, children, adolescents and adults, so we all, man and animal alike (Ps. 49:12,20: Eccl. 3:18-20) experience aging and succumb naturally and finally to death (cf. 2 Cor. 4:16-5:1). In the words of Joshua this is the way of all the earth (Jos. 23:14, cf. 1 K. 2:2), which makes sex and procreation or recapitulation (Gen. 19:31) a necessity (Gen. 1:11, cf. Heb. 7:23; Luke 20:36). Why is this so? Because the earth, indeed, the physical creation as a whole, in contrast with God who has neither beginning nor end (Rom. 1:23; Heb. 7:3), is naturally subject to ageing and death (Rom. 8:19ff.; Heb. 1:10-12; 12:27; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12) and we as its product inexorably follow (recapitulate) its pattern. Throughout the Bible there is a distinction between the apparently “everlasting” hills (Gen. 49:26) or earth and the eternal God (Ps. 89:37; Isa. 40:6-8; 51:6-8; 54:9f.; Jer. 31:35-37; 33:20f., etc.). From this we are compelled to draw the conclusion that Adam was not created immortal as Augustine imagined but was promised life if, and only if, he kept the commandment, that is, achieved righteousness (Gen. 2:17, cf. Ps. 8:5f.). He did not, and so as flesh he lapsed into the dust from which he was taken (3:19, cf. Gal. 6:8) (4*). The same is of course true of Jesus. As one who was born of woman and was therefore earthy, he also was subject to death. Even he got older (Luke 2:41ff.; John 8:57) and would have died even apart from sin had he remained long enough in the flesh. But he inherited life, that is, eternal life, because, unlike the rest of us, he did not sin (Heb. 2:27; 4:15). He was thus born of the Spirit, acknowledged as the Son of God (Mt. 3:13-17) and, apart from his death as our substitute, ascended into heaven transformed in accordance with the original (5*) promise (cf. 1 Cor. 15:51ff.). Thus having brought life and immortality (Gk. incorruption) to light for the first time, he paved the way for all who entrusted themselves to him (2 Tim. 1:10). As Paul intimates, this is the essence of the gospel.

True Children of our Ancestors

If it is true that history does not strictly speaking repeat itself, it is nonetheless true that the pattern of human behaviour remains the same or is recapitulated throughout the generations. Just as the law is transgenerational or genealogically continuous, so is sin (cf. Lev. 26:39; Ps. 106:6; Ezr. 9:6f.; Neh. 9:33, etc.). The proverb like mother like daughter (Ezek. 16:44) or like father like son (Jer. 32:18f.; Luke 6:23,26; Acts 7:51) is a general if not an invariable truism set in concrete (Ezek. 18; 2 Chr. 30:7f.; Zech. 1:4). But imitation is basic to Scripture (cf. 3 John 11). And it is not surprising that ultimately we are all, as was noted above, either children of the devil or of God (cf. John 8:44ff.; 1 John 3:1-10). So far as the church is concerned, if there were Sadducees and Pharisees in Jesus’ day, so there will be in our day. If there are reformers, there are also reactionaries, and so on. The modern church is decorated with progressives, traditionalists, conservatives, liberals, sacramentalists, zealots and a host of others who appear in their different guises in the NT. The entire gamut of human conduct re-appears in every age, not least in our own. It is only the superficialities (like cars instead of coaches) that change. While the heathen gods of wood and stone in their crudest form may almost have disappeared, they are nonetheless very much with us in more sophisticated hue and are as much as ever the work of men’s hands. Idolatry and immorality (cf. 1 Cor. 10:2; Rev. 2:20) are still boon companions. So even today, just as there are true believers, true children of Abraham, there are also false ones (John 8:44), and they all remain to be finally distinguished on the Day of Judgement.

Gregory Nazianzen is famous for saying that what was not assumed is not healed (see e.g. Cunliffe-Jones, pp.125f.). We might say then that in order to redeem his people Jesus had to perfectly recapitulate the life of his people. Hebrews 2 is especially relevant here. As the Redeemer he had to fulfill the Scriptures. The point is underscored in the words of Alan Richardson who writes: “Many of the recorded acts of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels are set forth as fulfillments of the story of redemption told in the Law (i.e. the Pentateuch), which the prophets had declared must be fulfilled. ‘The Son of Man goeth as it is written of him’ (Mark 14.21); the Scriptures were fulfilled (Mark 14.49). Each of the Synoptists underlines this truth in his own way. Jesus is baptized in the Jordan as Israel had been in the Red Sea (cf. 1 Cor. 10.2); he sojourns in the Wilderness forty days, being tempted, as Israel was tempted (or tempted God) forty years long; on a mountain he calls a New Israel and appoints the Twelve (Mark 3.13-19) and gives a New Law (Matt. 5.1; Luke 6.12-49); on a mountain he stands transfigured with Moses and Elijah, who each had of old time encountered God on Horeb; he gives the signs of the Bread from Heaven, as Moses and Elisha once had done. Finally he goes up to take his Kingdom, passing as the old Joshua (Gk., Jesus) had done through Jericho; and before he departs he ratifies a new covenant in his blood and institutes a new Passover which his disciples shall keep until his return in glory” (pp.21f.). The relevance of typology – the idea that just as Adam was a type of Christ (Rom. 5:14) so were Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David and so forth – to our understanding the Bible becomes clear at this point, but it needs to be distinguished from recapitulation in general (6*).

Christianity and Science

Even in a brief essay such as this, the doctrine of recapitulation raises the question of the relationship between Christianity and science. I suspect that one of the reasons why it has not been examined is out of fear of the Darwinian notion of evolution which is clearly contrary to biblical truth. But if recapitulation is true, it would appear undeniable that the evolutionist’s claim that ontogeny (the development of the individual) recapitulates phylogeny (the racial history or the development of the species) is thoroughly biblical. Why then its rejection? It would appear that part of the problem lies with Ernst Haeckel who is rightly accused of cooking the books (7*). There are two main points. First, Haeckel’s view was idiosyncratic to the extent that he apparently assumed that all species were related not simply as flesh (cf. Gen. 6:17) but that they all developed from one source or ancestor according to Darwin’s Tree of Life, hence the idea that our father was an ape! In the Bible our original ancestor was Adam, man or mankind according to the flesh and we are all, including Jesus who was born of woman, created in his image (Gen. 5:1-3). (That there were prehuman or pre-adamite precursors of human beings as we now know them would seem to follow necessarily from the fact that the embryo and fetus precede the baby in the individual. The fundamentalist notion that Adam was not subject to development but was created full-grown in one day seems to me to contradict the plain teaching of the Bible, not least his mental and moral development as portrayed in Genesis 2. Man was not like Athene who sprang fully mature from the head of Zeus! Adam was as much the product of earthly seed as the rest of us, as David implies, Ps. 139:13-16, cf. 1 Pet. 1:23. If not, then his recapitulation by the rest of us would seem to require that we should also be “born” fully mature, something which is belied, not least, by the story of the Second Adam who underwent nine months of gestation (Luke 2)! It scarcely needs adding that a creature that does not develop is not a human being at all, let alone the archetype of his posterity.) (8*). Secondly, the evidence he produced for his famous drawings was false. Having said this, however, it is difficult to deny that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny in the same species or kind (cf. Gen. 1). Man produces man, dog dog and so forth, but a transgenic animal (or plant), which is usually artificially produced like a mule, remains infertile. In evolutionary terms it is a dead end. In other words, the biblical teaching regarding kinds appears to accord with science. And to posit a contradiction between them is to ignore the evidence.

(Since writing this some years ago, in November 2009 I have watched with interest (on BBC Knowledge) Professor Armand Marie Leroi’s “What Darwin Didn’t Know”. He seems to be more appreciative of Haeckel than some of my informants! Darwin’s Tree of Life may not be as outlandish as I had been led to believe. After all, the Bible lumps all flesh together in Genesis 6:17, cf. 1:24f. 2:7. According to Leroi the DNA evidence in particular would appear to be strong. On the assumption that it is correct, I  find it far more convincing than fundamentalist ideas that owe as much to Augustine’s false worldview as to misinterpretation of the Bible.)


There is much more to be said. However, suffice it to say here that while events like the flood (cf. 1 Pet. 3:21), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the sack of Jerusalem by the Romans are specifically exploited by Jesus to prefigure the end of the world which in some sense recapitulates them on a grand scale (see Mark 13; Luke 17:26-30; 21; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12, etc.), it is Jesus himself who stands as the supreme example of recapitulation as Irenaeus long ago recognized. The race is perfectly summed up in him (cf. Eph. 1:10). Just as Adam was created in the earth (Gen. 2:7; Ps. 139:15) and planted like seed in Eden the womb of mankind (Gen. 2:8,15), so Jesus left heaven and, “contracted to a span” (C.Wesley), was placed in the womb of Mary to gestate like the rest of us (Luke 1:35, cf. Ps. 139:13). Just as the race as a whole was subject to the covenants of nature (Noah), law (Moses) and grace, so Jesus epitomized its covenantal history in himself (Gal. 4:4, cf. 1 Cor. 15:47-49, etc.) (9*). And just as Jesus attained to the glory and perfection of God (Heb. 1:3), so do we in him (Rom. 8:29; Eph. 1:4f.). If this were not so, it is difficult to see how his world atonement (1 John 2:2), indeed his human life and work in general, could have been effective, as the author of Hebrews in particular implies. As an individual, Jesus meets the individual’s need; as a corporate figure, the second Adam, Jesus redeems all who, throughout world history, exercise faith in him (even in shadowy form as in John 8:56 and Hebrews 11) (10*) and who together constitute his bride. In light of this, truly may it be said that in the end a great multitude that no one can number, from every nation, tribe, people and language will stand before the throne and before the Lamb and cry, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9f.).

(1*) On this, see, for example, the work of Catholic theologian Denis Minns OP, “Irenaeus”, especially pages 132ff.
Another factor in the failure of modern evangelical to handle recapitulation is the unwarranted fear of evolution. It is well known that Haeckel had his own idiosyncratic views on it. See further below.

(2*) The comments of W. Hendriksen on Matthew 2:15 (pp.178f.) are both helpful and
instructive. He writes: “The Messiah was, as it were, recapitulating the history of his people Israel. Nevertheless, it is hardly enough to say that Israel was a type of Christ. … when Israel was effectually called out of Egypt, Christ, too, was called out.” Hendriksen goes on to draw attention to a number of the “striking passages” in which Christ and his people are linked together. These include Acts 22:7; John 15:18-21; Col. 1:24; 11:26, etc.
See also Michael Green’s introduction to his BST volume on Matthew, pp.39ff.

(3*) Note here how obedience leads to righteousness (v.16), to sanctification (v.19), to eternal life (v.22).

(4*) While in a sense it is not always wrong to translate ‘flesh’ as ‘sinful nature’ as the NIV does, it is seriously misleading in that it fails to draw attention to the part played by our fleshly earthly nature. The flesh constitutes a major problem for us and like the earth from which it derives has to be overcome (Rom. 8:3). As Romans 8:13 and Galatians 6:8 in particular indicate, the flesh is naturally corruptible.

(5*) Though historically the promise was made first to Adam, it had an eternal origin (2 Tim. 1:1,9; Tit. 1:2): it was clearly inherent in the plan of salvation (Eph. 1:4f.; Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18).

(6*) See, for example, Foulkes’ “The Acts of God”, Nixon’s “The Exodus in the New Testament” and Motyer’s BST Exodus, pp.22f. For rare acknowledgement of recapitulation, see R.G.Gruenler in “The Glory of the Atonement”, ed. Hill & James, pp.100,101,104, and D.L.Bock in “Jesus according to Scripture”, pp.64,71f.,76.

(7*) See, for example, Strobel’s The Case for a Creator, ch. 3.

(8*) It would appear that man follows the pattern of creation. In other words, procreation is a reflection or recapitulation of creation. Just as God took the seed of man (Adam) and placed it in the Garden and so produced Eve (Gen. 2:8,15), so man, who is the image of God (1 Cor. 11:7) places his seed in the garden or womb of his wife to produce children (fruit) in his own image (cf. Gen. 5:1-3; 1 Cor. 11:8).

(9*) It may be objected at this point that only the Jews were circumcised and hence subject to the law of Moses. While this point in its strictness may be conceded, what was exclusively the possession of Israel has in fact made its impression on the race in its maturity in Christ. Even non-Jewish Gentiles in these days of universal education are in a sense subject to what the KJV happily terms a schoolmaster (Gal. 3:24).

(10*) True covenant theology clearly provides for diminished responsibility in both the race and the individual!


D.L.Bock, Jesus According to Scripture, Grand Rapids, 2002.

H.Cunfliffe-Jones, A History of Christian Doctrine, Edinburgh, 1978.

W.J.Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation, Exeter, 1984.

F.Foulkes, The Acts of God, London, 1958.

W.Henriksen, The Gospel of Matthew, Edinburgh, 1974.

J.N.D.Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, London, 19

C.E.Hill & F.A.James eds., The Glory of the Atonement,
Downers Grove, 2004.

Alec Motyer, BST The Message of Exodus, Leicester, 2005.

R.E.Nixon, The Exodus in the New Testament, London, 1963.

L. Strobel, The Case for a Creator, Grand Rapids, 2004.


Our days are modeled on or recapitulate the days of creation described in Genesis
Our physical lives, modeled on God’s action at our creation (or procreation), recapitulate creation. Adam created as seed in the ground, placed in Eden or the womb, etc. On this model a man who is the image and glory of God (1 Cor. 11:7) places his seed in the womb of his wife. In other words, in procreating he repeats the creative action of God. Note how God is still said to create in the womb (Gen. 30:2; Job 31:15, etc.). Just as God reduced chaos to order, so do we. We still have to keep the earth in subjection by tilling, etc. When we fail in this, it becomes a desolation. Thus we imitate God.