One of the earliest models of atonement was Irenaeus’ recapitulation model. In this model, Christ replaces Adam as the head of the human race by obeying and overcoming where Adam sinned and was thus overcome. Irenaeus famously gets his “recapitulation” idea from Ephesians 1:10, which says that God planned to, as the ESV says, “unite all things in [Christ]”. The Greek word for unite, anakephalaiosasthai, is better translated as “sum up”, or “to bring things together”. Paul uses the root cepha in this word, which is “head”. Irenaeus thus translated it as “re-heading all things in Christ”. The idea here is that Christ is the new “head of all things”. Through his life and death, Christ “re-starts” that which was lost in Adam. Christ is the beginning of a new humanity.
Irenaeus got this theme primarily from Paul, who in several letters drew a strong parallel between Christ and Adam. In Romans 5, Paul tells us that death was transmitted to all mankind through Adam, even to those who were not guilty of Adam’s primordial sin; but through Christ’s “one act of righteousness”, death has been defeated and righteousness is thus returned to the human race in him. Paul brings the same parallel to bear in 1 Corinthians 15, saying that Christ is the last adam, the last man who replaces Adam. The point here is that Christ came to undo or overcome or reverse the effects of Adam’s sin. As Irenaeus says, “God recapitulated in Himself the ancient formation of man, that He might kill sin, deprive death of its power, and vivify man; and therefore His works are true”. (Patrick Henry Reardon, Reclaiming the Atonement, Kindle 2209-2210)
The Christ/Adam theme is not unique to Paul, though. Patrick Henry Reardon, in his book Reclaiming the Atonement, argues that Paul’s Christ/Adam theology was actually drawing from a much older tradition evident in other NT writings.
As proof for this, Reardon turns to the gospel narratives. In each of the gospels, the authors are careful (almost unnoticeably) to connect certain narratives with the Genesis creation accounts. For instance, after Christ’s temptation in the wilderness and subsequent victory over Satan, Mark tells us that Christ was with the “wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him” (1:13). Reardon comments on this verse:
[A]n early story transmitted in Mark, precisely in the context of Jesus’ temptations, preserved the tradition of our Lord’s companionship with the animals (1: 13). This story, of course, puts the reader in mind of Adam in the midst of the animals in Genesis. Jesus’ victory over His temptations by Satan thus inaugurates a new state of Paradise, as it were, in which the friendly relations of men and beasts, disrupted since the Fall, are restored. (Kindle Locations 2155-2158)
The verse is so small one could easily miss the significance: Christ was tempted by the “snake”, and yet has overcome! Thus he began to restore the paradise which Adam lost through his sin. The wild animals are no longer “beasts”, but are becoming tamed and under his headship as Lord.
Reardon also brings in Luke’s gospel:
In Luke the Adam/ Christ analogy is subtler, and we discern it in the way the Lord’s genealogy is arranged. To detect this, we may observe two differences between the genealogies in Matthew and Luke.
First, unlike Matthew, Luke traces the Lord’s lineage all the way back to Adam, not just to Abraham. This format emphasizes Jesus’ relationship to the whole human race and not just the Jews. For this reason, in citing the famous Isaian text that begins the ministry of John the Baptist in all the Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 3: 3; Mark 1: 2– 3; Luke 3: 4– 6), Luke alone quotes the words, “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Second, whereas Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus comes at the beginning of his Gospel, Luke places it after the Lord’s Baptism and right before the account of His temptation. This arrangement prompts the reader to make the comparison that Luke has in mind to imply, the temptations of Jesus and the temptation of Adam. (Kindle Locations 2158-2165)
So, Luke carefully situates Christ’s baptism before his temptation, thus alerting us that he is facing the same temptation as Adam. Thus the temptation narratives become a way of retelling the creation story, but under the headship of Christ. Christ is called to reenact, as it were, the temptation of Adam in the garden and to overcome the effects of sin.
From this Reardon argues that Irenaeus’ doctrine is very ancient, and very biblically rooted: Christ has come to reverse the effects of death, to renew the human race in himself as its new head:
He commenced afresh the long line of human beings, and furnished us with salvation in a succinct, inclusive manner, so that what we had lost in Adam— namely, to exist according to the image and likeness of God— that we might recover in Christ Jesus. (Kindle Locations 2199-2201)