What Is the Eastern Orthodox View of the Atonement?

Post Author: Darrell

Many of those in the Protestant and Catholic traditions are familiar with the Penal Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement (hereafter referred to as Substitutionary Atonement).  However, I have found many to be unfamiliar with the predominant atonement view held by those in the Eastern Orthodox Church, which is commonly called The Recapitulation Theory.

The Recapitulation Theory dates to very early in the Church.  Many believe it had its beginnings with Saint Irenaeus in the second century.  We find it throughout the writings of the early Church Fathers.   Saint Athanasius, the giant of the Nicaean Council, wrote a wonderful book in AD 318 which explains the overall view very well.  It is titled On The Incarnation and was originally written as a letter to one of his disciples.

Substitutionary Atonement focuses on Christ’s suffering and death as the price for man’s sin.  In many ways, the model for Substitutionary Atonement is a courtroom.  Due to his sin, man needed to be made right with a perfect and just God.  Therefore, Christ came to suffer and pay the price in our place, i.e., He substituted Himself for us.  Now, in the courtroom of God, those who accept Christ as their Lord and Savior are judged innocent.  They have a forensic righteousness imputed upon them.

The Recapitulation Theory agrees that God needed to deal with man’s sin.  Man was separated from God as a result of the fall and, left to his own devices, was incapable of returning to God.  However, Recapitulation sees the model through which God dealt with man’s sin as a hospital rather than a courtroom.  Instead of viewing the atonement as Christ paying the price for sin in order to satisfy a wrathful God, Recapitulation teaches that Christ became human to heal mankind by perfectly uniting the human nature to the Divine Nature in His person.  Through the Incarnation, Christ took on human nature, becoming the Second Adam, and entered into every stage of humanity, from infancy to adulthood, uniting it to God.  He then suffered death to enter Hades and destroy it.  After three days, He resurrected and completed His task by destroying death.

By entering each of these stages and remaining perfectly obedient to the Father, Christ recapitulated every aspect of human nature.  He said “Yes” where Adam said “No” and healed what Adam’s actions had damaged.  This enables all of those who are willing to say yes to God to be perfectly united with the Holy Trinity through Christ’s person.  In addition, by destroying death, Christ reversed the consequence of the fall.  Now, all can be resurrected.  Those who choose to live their life in Christ can be perfectly united to the Holy Trinity, receiving the full love of God as Heavenly bliss.  However, those who reject Christ and choose to live their lives chasing after their passions will receive the love of God as hell.

Because of its focus on unification between God and man in the person of Christ, Recapitulation places great importance on the teaching that Christ is both fully man and fully God.  If Christ did not have both natures, He would have been incapable of uniting humanity to divinity, which was the entire purpose of the Incarnation.  As Saint Gregory of Nazianzus said in the fourth century, “That which is not assumed is not healed, but that which is united to God is saved.”  The doctrine of the dual nature of Christ came to the forefront with the third Ecumenical Council in AD 431.  During this council, the Church answered the Nestorian heresy and affirmed Christ’s humanity and divinity and upheld the title of Theotokos (Mother of God) for Mary.  By giving Mary this title, the Church believed we would preserve the teaching of the dual nature of Christ.  If Mary is the Mother of God, then, by necessity, Christ truly is God.  In addition, since Mary is both human and Christ’s mother, Christ is also fully human.

31 thoughts on “What Is the Eastern Orthodox View of the Atonement?”

  1. Thanks so much for posting! THis is really great. It’s basically the difference between 1 John 4:10 and Isaiah 53:4,5.

    Not that they break the law of noncontradiction, but they do compliment and add a layer of meaning to the Glory of Christ.

  2. “However, those who reject Christ and choose to live their lives chasing after their passions will receive the love of God as hell.”

    “‘Oh, Lord, bless this thy hand grenade that with it thou mayest blow thy enemies to tiny bits, in thy mercy.”


  3. How do you think believers can balance the belief that Christ is fully God and fully man with the belief that because Christ was God it was impossible for Him to sin? The objection is that if it was impossible for Him to sin he couldn’t be FULLY human?

  4. Mark, we once did a debate in our Church on this point: “Was Jesus able to sin?” I led the Yes side, and won the debate. But the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that I was wrong.

    Even now, there are certain sins that I cannot commit, not because I do not have freedom –that my muscles would not obey such a command from my mind, but that the thought is, to me, unthinkable. For instance, I don’t believe I could take an axe and murder my mother, or turn an automatic weapon on a kindergarten class. Mind you, I am not claiming any kind of moral excellence here, or if so, it is with a very low bar!

    The point, though, is that I am free from even the possibility of a successful temptation to some things; more importantly, this “inability to sin” in these specific ways is not the mark of any particular lack of freedom on my part. It would not be a mark of growing freedom for me to become ambivalent about picking up an axe. Thus, I can contemplate a growth in virtue where more and more sinful actions join these two, and eventually all sinful actions. Of course, the fact that I am incapable of producing this growth on my own is another topic. I can well understand a perfected, or complete humanity as being beyond all sin as I am (one hopes) beyond these two.

    In this scheme, Jesus would be “unable to sin,” but in a way completely different than say, a rock, is unable to sin. The rock obeys the law as set forth for it without variability, rebellion or choice; it has no moral freedom at all. Our Lord retains perfect moral freedom, but is unable to sin because the choices are in the past, he has made them, they are done. One presumes that, had Eve (and Adam) resisted temptation, it would not have continued forever, but at some point they would have been “over the hump” and come through to the other side of freedom.

    It is not foreign to humanity, it is what we were made for.

  5. I agree with just about everything you said and I think you illustrate it well. You’re right that none of us are tempted by every sin, and spiritual growth means, as you said, a growing freedom from even the desire to sin. I would expect that perfected humanity on the New Earth will be beyond temptation.

    But I’m not sure I agree that Jesus was unable to sin. He was tempted while fasting in the wilderness, and the fact that He was tempted means that He could have succumbed to temptation.

    He probably really was hungry while fasting and desired to eat. He probably was tempted to rule “all the kingdoms of the earth” and become King of kings and Lord of lords without having to go through the cross first. And He probably would have liked jumping from the temple and having legions of angels coming to the rescue, thus showing the religious establishment that had rejected Him as a blasphemer and heretic that He was favored by God.

    But obviously it took a lot more to tempt Jesus than it takes to tempt any of us.

    I think Mick Curran is correct that Jesus could not have been fully human if it had been impossible for Him to sin, and I think Hebrews 4:15 makes this point when it says: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin.”

  6. It is funny that this was brought up today, because someone asked me about it last night. I told that I don’t think Jesus could have sinned. However, after thinking through it some more, I question that.

    I do believe a case can be made that Jesus was incapable of sinning.

    1) God is a simple Being who is incapable of change
    2) Jesus is God.
    3) God is perfect
    4) Therefore, Jesus cannot be anything but perfect and cannot sin.

    However, I think we need to be very careful about ascribing any necessity to God.

    Jesus, as God, is perfect and chose, in His human state, to stay completely united with the Father. Was this *by necessity* or was it truly a choice? If it was by necessity, was it even really a choice, or would Jesus have been pulling out the “God card” to assist Him in staying perfect in His human state? If this is the case, Anette’s question is a good one. Can we truly say that we have a High Priest who sympathizes with our temptations?

    Furthermore, if we are going to say, as Saint Gregory of Nazianzus did, that “that which is not assumed is not healed”, how can we hold that Jesus did not completely assume our human nature, along with its capability of sinning? If He didn’t assume that aspect of our nature, how could he heal it and unite it to God?

    I think this question really boils down to a confusion about what Jesus is *capable* of doing versus what He chooses to do. The fact that in His human nature he *could* sin, does not mean He ever would sin.

    I think Eric’s comments are very enlightening as well. . . perhaps Jesus’s “incapability” of sinning is a different kind of “incapability” than we are used to speaking of. It is not that He “couldn’t” do it, but that in His state of perfect unity with the Father it is something that His “truly human” state would never choose to do. This “truly human” state is something that we are all being conformed into if we put on Christ and continue to walk with Him. To be truly human is to be perfectly united to the Holy Trinity. Our state today is less than “truly human”.

  7. Many thanks Eric, Anette, and Darrell for your comments. It’s an interesting question and I’m glad I put it up for discussion as I’ve found your insights very engaging.

    My own thought is that “spiritual growth” or the “journey to holiness” or “sanctification” or “theosis” or whatever term one prefers all describe the same thing: that is, the Christian way of life. Everybody that chooses it knows it’s a huge struggle. And I suppose the very fact that it’s such a struggle tends to suggest that there is something about it that must be UNnatural. That, in turn, would add weight to the idea that to be FULLY or TRULY human is to sin or to do wrong.

    I think this idea is frequently in evidence amongst Christians. I’ve certainly seen it prooftexted more than once: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Sometimes the behavior of children is referenced as even more evidence to “prove the case.” One doesn’t have to teach children to tell lies or to be selfish, so the line goes, because it comes to them NATURALLY. Doubtless convinced by this way of thinking, Alexander Pope wrote that, “to err is human.” Q.E.D. Case closed.

    In the light of Christ’s injunction to His followers to be perfect I suppose Pope’s assertion is in a way slightly comforting but Christians are called upon to follow Christ rather than somebody called Pope (s’cuse the pun and potshot) 🙂 and that means the challenge remains as formidable as ever. Perhaps a better way to approach this question would be to bring to mind that human beings are created in God’s image and likeness. What’s the difference between the two terms? Don’t they mean the same thing? If so, isn’t one of them redundant?

    It’s perhaps not unreasonable to suggest that “God’s image” in human beings means there is something inside every person that is “of God.” No need to got into further detail than that except perhaps to remind ourselves that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. “Know Thyself” was Plato’s notion and anybody who’s had a go at doing so knows that his or her knowledge of himself or herself will probably never be complete. Which of us has not been surprised by what is within, sometimes good and sometimes bad? Which of us can say with absolute certainty, “I know myself so well that I will never… Or I will always… Insert your own chosen word or term.

    So I’ll respectfully suggest that God’s image or “that which shows I belong to God” always remains with each of us in some mysterious and indefinable way. So what about being made in God’s likeness? Am I LIKE God? I think it’s here that I confess, “I fall short or sin or miss the mark.” It is the case, then, that the challenge for each Christian involves becoming more like God or as I’ve sometimes seen it described, “becoming Christlike,” because in Christ one finds humanity perfectly joined with the Triune God.

    How that actually works is clearly beyond human comprehension. Nevertheless it is that link to God – that connection – that unity – that most perfect union, which necessarily excludes all sin. For Christians, overcoming habitual sin constitutes a tremendous challenge and those that take it up know it’s a very slow and very painful process as one struggles to become dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

    But in Christ the unity was always there. He was always at one with God. Hence theologians sometimes point out that the word “atonement” can be understood as “At–One–Ment. And yet, despite this, when His time came Christ struggled with the enormity of what was before Him: so much so that He actually sweated blood.

    My conclusion is that Christ could not sin nor choose to sin because He was God and because He was FULLY or TRULY human.

    Feel free to disagree with anything I’ve written, though. 🙂

  8. I wonder, is sin a requirement of humanity? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a sinless human, it could happen. The odds are just so overwhelmingly unlikely since all humans are brought up within a society that in some promotes some elicit behaviors. I suppose, Mick, I’m questioning just how natural deception really is to children. Are children not surrounded by parents who occasionally tell white lies with seemingly no consequence? If not, then are they not immersed in a culture that mass produces sarcasm, which avoids truth at all costs? I’m not saying I’d stake my life on the claim, but perhaps it should be considered.

    Jesus is the exception because he was not focused on the world around him that he saw with his human eyes, but was rather bound to a heavenly kingdom that compelled him to do what is right in all situation, even when the flesh enticed him. Throughout the sermon on the mount almost every earthly action was linked to an eternal consequence. So, when Jesus saw a white lie with seemingly no consequence, perhaps his childish eyes saw an eternal consequence. Yes, he was human, for a time, even arguably fully human. But he was not only human.

    To put it more plainly: when humans interact directly with God there is an overwhelming response of worship and an understanding of their personal unworthiness. Paul says that since we live by the spirit how can we go on sinning? I would rephrase that, since we have experienced God personally, how can we go on sinning? Jesus had the luxury of knowing God from the beginning with an intimacy that I can only hope to grow near. So, how could he go on sinning?
    The question becomes, if you accept these thoughts, why do we keep on sinning if we have indeed experienced God?
    My answer, which could be wrong, is that Jesus had to keep working at it very hard. He surrounded himself with 12 like minded friends who supported his other-than lifestyle. He frequently got away from people to be alone in prayer with God. At times he verbally rebuked tempters and called Peter satan. I don’t think he said that because he wanted to teach Peter a lesson. Jesus had an ego-complex, understandably, being the son of God and all. When he said hard things that made people leave, or when people wanted to make him an earthly king, he did weird things to keep on his path. Maybe if individuals do that, sin will gradually go away.

    Fill our lives with God = Adios sin.

  9. Thanks, Carly JO, for your thoughtful comments.

    I don’t know whether or not sin is a requirement of humanity but I’ll tentatively suggest that it well might be. After all, sin was evidently somehow rooted amongst the angelic powers (since Satan is a “fallen” angel) so it seems reasonable to suggest that the combination of free will and finite intelligence in any created being may well mean that sin is inevitable. Contrary viewpoints based upon favored theological presuppositions are, of course, possible.

    So how natural is deception to children? Good question. Maybe it’s completely UNnatural? If one proceeds from the assertion that each and every person is created in God’s image and likeness it’s logical to conclude that little babies are born completely innocent. Because of bad examples and negative outside influences children do learn to be deceptive as they get older, of course, but it’s something that is LEARNED and that’s perhaps the central point.

    As for we adults, I agree with your conclusion:

    “Fill our lives with God = Adios sin.”

    The task, then, is to UNLEARN all one’s bad habits and replace habitual sin with continual prayer. The challenge is cheerfully to pick up one’s cross every day and be always determined to do what is right rather than what is easy and seemingly attractive. And when one falls short, one confesses one’s sins to the Divine Physician and gets up to continue on with the struggle.

  10. “It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13 He also says a law has been added. Maybe you need to find out what this law is.

  11. The case you have presented is essentially a pot that is calling the kettle black. In both systems either ‘substitutionary atonement’ or ‘recapitulation’ it is falsely assumed that Jesus’ crucifixion is a direct benefit, but it is not. Your salvation from the consequence of sin, eternal death, is predicated upon:
    “It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13
    The law he is referencing is a law that has been added by Jesus’ crucifixion and it is only those who obey this law to whom righteousness is imputed by God.

  12. Theodore,

    Thanks for your comments. The difference between substiutionary atonement and recapitulation is a difference about how and what Christ’s atonement accomplished. What you are diescribing is a difference in how the atonement is inculcated in the believer’s life. In addition, what you describe as a consequence of the inculcation, i.e., imputed righteousness, is a term that is heavily based upon a substitutionary atonement view.


  13. There is a good book called Deification and Grace written by a Roman Catholic that does an excellent job of showing how the exchange model is Pauline. This point is also made by Patrick Reardon – the early Fathers understood atonement in terms of recapitulation and theosis precisely because they received this as the Scriptural view.

  14. “A possible redemption rather than an accomplished redemption is one such false redemption. In the possible redemption scheme, Christ died for everyone in order to make it possible for a person to be redeemed. In the possible redemption scheme, Christ’s death introduced an immediate condition that must be met in order to fulfill the requirement necessary for redemption. In the possible redemption scheme, this condition is a free will choice made by the recipient of the death. Under this scheme, the choice itself, rather than the death that necessitated it, is the righteousness that secures the redemption. In this scheme, redemption is found in a person’s choice, rather than in Christ.”

    “Christ died to redeem a select few. His death was an act of perfect obedience. In so dying for His chosen few, He accomplished what no goat, no bull, no dove or lamb had ever done or could ever do – that is, He fully satisfied God’s wrath on behalf of His chosen few, thereby atoning for their guilt. His death did not make redemption possible. Rather, His death actually redeemed His people. His death is why His people are brought to faith. His death is why His people are made willing. His death is why not one of His people shall be lost.”

  15. I have always been uncomfortable with the penal substitution theory but the Orthodox theory as you have stated it does not seem to answer the question, why the need for such a horrific death, i.e. the cross?

  16. Pablo,

    That is a great question. One answer that I have seen the Fathers of the Church share is that Christ needed to enter into every aspect of humanity in order to redeem it, and this included the deepest and darkest suffering of human existence.

    Another answer that I have seen is that Christ’s death was part of the cosmic battle with evil, and as such, had to be a spectacle seen by all. Had he simply “died” in His sleep, it would not have been part of the dramatic battle with evil, and it would not have been mankind’s rejection of Him. Since His incarnation and entrance into Hades were for the purpose of defeating death and the devil, they necessitated evil’s pursuit of and murder of Him.

    I think both of these answers carry truth, but we must keep in mind that the atonement is like a prism. It can be viewed from many different angles, and each angle sheds light on the truth of it, but not “one” single angle that captures *all* of its beauty. We have to be careful about being too myopic.

  17. Can I copy a big part of the article on Recapitulation to my blog?
    It would be very helpful 🙂 🙂

  18. Another way to answer is that this is simply what God entering fully and truly into our human condition at that time and place in history looks like. This is what evil principalities and powers will do when confronted with Truth incarnate.

  19. Yes, Jesus became man and took on everything. That which is not assumed is not healed.

    Including sin. Including our guilt due to sin. Your explanation of the recapitulation theory provides no way for our sin and guilt to be dealt with. Fortunately the Bible does: God made Him who knew no sin to become sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God.

Comments are closed.