The Poetic Shape of the Doctrine of Recapitulation

Christianity, when viewed in terms of its form or shape, is essentially made up of lines and circles. On the one hand, it includes narrative, a kind of intra-historical line from Abraham to slightly after Christ. Genealogical lines are drawn, geographical lines from point A to point B can be mapped and are considered religiously significant. Jurgen Moltmann argues that Judaism was the first historical religion in that it is based on events in space and time rather than cosmological cycles. David Abram argues something similar on account of the Hebrew development of non-pictographic writing, which lends itself to a linear way of thinking. For Moltmann this is a virtue, for Abram it is not, but both think that this linear, historical impulse became as much a part of Christianity as Judaism.

On the other hand, Christianity also includes a significant circular dimension that is often overlooked in attempts to identify Judeo-Christian distinctiveness as a virtue or an ill. The historical lines are almost never significant as lines, but only gain their significance by being bent into circles. Perhaps the most fundamental of such circles is Irenaeus of Lyon’s doctrine of recapitulation.


Rather than mere repetition, recapitulation is a kind of repetition that also summarizes, revealing new connections or a latent reality. It is both new and not new, both linear (new development) and circular (restatement). While most Christians know something about the idea of recapitulation (Christ is the new Adam, for example) even if they are not familiar with the term, Irenaeus develops this idea into an entire doctrine about the cosmological significance of Christ. This cosmology is the circular, “not new” part of recapitulation. Christ is not an emergency effort in response to sin but a summary of the purposive action of the Creator in relation to creation. All of the movements and purposes of creation, understood as God’s ongoing creative and sustaining work, are made visible in Christ. The Logos is always at work, the incarnate Christ is simply a recapitulation of that work.

Paul M. Blowers, following Eric Osborn, identifies ten different movements that are part of this recapitulation (Drama of the Divine Economy, 88-89). These movements include both circular and linear forms. The circular include: unification of God and creation, repetition of God’s gracious initiatives, and God containing all things in God’s plan; the linear include: correction, inauguration and consummation of new heaven and earth, fulfillment of God’s purposes, effecting a change in creaturely being, revealing the unknowable God, and the perfecting of love. However, even some of these “linear” movements involve the circular. The fulfillment of God’s purposes and the revelation of the unknowable God, for example, involve a kind of re-presentation of those purposes and revelations that already exist in a new key (think here of typology – Christ is always thought to reveal the true meaning of Old Testament people and events) such that one is compelled to circle back to Old Testament events to understand their significance in the light of Christ.

The recapitulative dimension of the cosmic Christ is perhaps even more visible in the way that the church moves forward after Christ. Very little of cosmic significance that is not simply a repetition of the resurrected Christ happens after the ascension. While there is the eschatological promise of new heaven and new earth, the way in which the church moves towards this is not through a kind of linear progress forward but by living into Christ backwards. Repetition is significant for unification with Christ in the letters of Paul, for example. In Ephesians 1:10, Paul says “as for the economy of the fullness of the times, all things are recapitulated in him.” In this recapitulation, each instant is related to Christ and thereby saved because it is related to its end in the eschaton. This is effected in particular through living the cosmic significance of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection in the church calendar, year after year, and week after week. In this way, temporal cycles are given cosmic significance.


One form that is particularly appropriate to recapitulation is the poetic rhythm of the sestina. The philosopher Giorgio Agamben makes this connection in his book The Time that Remains. Agamben compares recapitulation to the poetic structure of the sestina in which the end word of each stanza is repeated as the first end word of the next stanza and moves down the lines in each successive stanza (six in all) until the pattern would, in theory. begin back at the beginning if the poem went on. Instead of beginning again, however, a coda repeats each of the end words in a new sequence. “Through this complicated to-and-fro directed both forward and backward, the chronological sequence of linear homogeneous time is completely transformed into rhythmic constellations themselves in movement” (82). In the poem, time organizes itself according the pulses emerging out of this process of recapitulation. Agamben associates this pattern with the week of six days, with the seventh day recapitulating the previous days in a unique way. Through the repetition of the seventh day, the whole of life and of time is brought into relation with Christ, and therewith into the harmonious relations of the Trinity.

Notice that recapitulation here is not a simple repetition but involves the opening of new possibilities. Cyclicity and repetition demonstrate how every moment is transformed by being brought into a larger pattern that holds together the fabric of time. While we often think of repetition as opposed to surprise, in poetry recurrence and allusion can create a saturation that deepens surprise by making it an experience of recognizing what was in fact always there to be seen. Likewise, while incarnation and resurrection are genuinely new possibilities for human experience, and do not follow from the human experience of the progression of things, they are also possibilities that are in part based in human life in the sense that they are meaningful to human life. This deepens surprise in the sense that these events are not simply shocks, but momentary illuminations of the pattern of eschatological meaning.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s