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.