Universalism: A Coherent Participatory Ontology

I think it should be assumed that all of the vocabulary of the New Testament describing participation in the Trinity coheres around a singular understanding of God’s relationship to the world.  That is, our overall understanding of the key vocabulary of the New Testament describing being “in Christ” is not dependent on the etymology and context of dozens of different words describing participation in Christ. Aren’t walking as he walked, being “in Christ” or taking on his “likeness” or being “adopted,” “united with,” or part of the body, or being “joined to the head,” or being “baptized into,” or partaking of his body etc., all referring to the same reality?

This presumption of a singular economy is captured in the terms “recapitulation” and “apokatastasis,” both of which bear a sense of the universal. Both words simultaneously refer to the universe and all that it contains (that is, in the first instance the reference is not to “who” but “what”) but it also refers to an economy and ontology. Recapitulation and restoration (apokatastasis) were terms the early church used to express this singular and coherent ontology and economy captured in the notion of participation. These nearly synonymous terms (depending on who is deploying them), were simply a means of summing up the economy of redemption and reality found in Christ and the New Testament. The different words of the New Testament describing participation in Christ must all refer to the same fundamental reality (which does not mean context, etymology etc. can be ignored, but that we are not starting fresh with each new word or description). However, through the processes of church history and theology this singular economy has either gone missing or has been qualified in much theology and Christian understanding.

So, for example, when we come to the crucial passage in Romans 6:3-5 in which Paul is describing being “baptized into Christ Jesus” he uses a series of terms that seem to all be referring to the same reality. Those that are baptized into Christ “walk in newness of life” they have “become united with Him in the manner of His death,” and therefore “in the likeness of His resurrection.” The baptism, the walk, the likeness, or being in Christ are all referring to a singular participatory economy. In turn, the meaning of the Christian’s “dying to sin” (6:2) will depend upon its “likeness” to Christ’s “dying to sin” (6:10). The understanding of the nature of this “likeness” (6:5) determines whether participation or proximity is indicated. That is, determination of the meaning of the word “likeness” is key to understanding what salvation is about and how it works, and one might presume this is not a one-off occurrence but describes what the New Testament consistently describes.

Unfortunately, when we turn to commentaries on Romans to determine the meaning of the word “likeness” (ὁμοιώματι) the meanings have a wide variation. It can be taken as either a “corresponding reality” (which would make baptism a likeness once removed from the original and the death an imitation) or a form of the original (which would mean baptism is not a reduplicated dying but a participation in the singular death of Christ). The similitude is sometimes pictured as an image of an inward event. James Dunn writes, “The thought is not of integration with Christ’s death as such, as though believers could actually participate in a historical event that took place twenty to twenty-five years earlier.”[1]

In Dunn’s description there is a gap between the imaging subject and its archetype or object. He illustrates this understanding with an appeal to Plato in Parmenides in which “finite things are ὁmoίwmata in which the heavenly ideas are expressed.”[2] As Dunn works this out in regard to baptism the question arises as to how one can ever overcome the gap between subject and object. Just as the likeness of the earthly and physical is a representation of the eternal form, so Christ’s death is the transcendent reality or eternal form, while the individual’s conversion is a concrete expression of this form.[3] Though he is using the word “form” he does not have in mind a participatory form but an imitation once removed from the original. As he further illustrates and explains, this “likeness” is that of the idol, “intended to give concrete representation to spiritual and transcendent realities.”[4] He likens the relationship of the believer to Christ’s death, to a “mirror image” and not a direct participation.[5] The likeness of Christ is on the order of the likeness of an idol or mirror image. (Which raises the question as to whether Christ’s “likeness to sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3) is also one step removed from the reality of being human?) Where Irenaeus and the early church understood the economy of Christ to be a defeat of sin, death, and the devil, in and through his real-world assumption of humanity and challenge to sin, one of the prime markers of the loss of this economy involves a loss of a real-world defeat of evil. The question is then, what is the status, not only of baptism, but any event, as all are removed by the passage of time? Is Christ only available on the same terms as other events? Perhaps he operates in some sort of legal fiction, an economy only found in the mind of God, and not pertaining to restoration of the cosmos and a real-world defeat of evil.

What Dunn, and those who follow this sort of nominalist ontology are specifically denying or missing is the early church notion of recapitulation. It is precisely in conjunction with this notion of “likeness” that Irenaeus sums up the early church doctrine:

He, too, was made in the likeness of sinful flesh, Romans 8:3 to condemn sin, and to cast it, as now a condemned thing, away beyond the flesh, but that He might call man forth into His own likeness, assigning him as [His own] imitator to God, and imposing on him His Father’s law, in order that he may see God, and granting him power to receive the Father; [being] the Word of God who dwelt in man, and became the Son of man, that He might accustom man to receive God, and God to dwell in man, according to the good pleasure of the Father. (Against Heresies, 3.20.2)

Irenaeus equates each stage of the work of Christ with recapitulation, referring with the term to the underlying and overarching economy. He refers to Eph. 1:10 where we read that God set forth his purpose in Christ “as a plan (oikonomia) for the fullness (pleroma) of time, to recapitulate all things in him” (Eph. 1:10).[6]  He “sums up” (ἀνακεφαλαιώ) all things, and this is the key to recognizing the breadth of Irenaeus use of the term (just as Paul is using “sums up” to encapsulate the economy described in Ephesians).

As Bradley Matthews describes it, “The verb carries the meaning ‘to sum up’, and the noun denotes a ‘summary’ or ‘statement of the main point’.” And “the prefix ἀνα- adds the sense of repetition or renewal. As such, the compound verb ἀνακεφαλαιόω follows the common meaning used in the ancient rhetorical contexts as summing up or recapitulating an argument.”[7] Paul employs the same term to indicate that love “sums up” the law (Rom 13.9 – ἀνακεφαλαιοῦται). “Thus, with respect to its meaning in 1.10, the ἀνακεφαλαίωσις of all things entails the summation of the cosmos in Christ.”[8]

Lest there be any doubt as to whether this recapitulation only applies to the human sphere, Paul specifies, this includes everything (τὰ πάντα), “things in heaven and things on earth.” Throughout the book of Ephesians, Paul explains the “all things” and indicates that all things have been placed under Christ’s feet (1:22); “all things” are derived from the creator (4:9); and there is “one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:6). The recapitulation is cosmic, referring to the universe and the powers behind and beyond the universe which sustain it and renew it and even those that challenge it.

Certainly, the summing up is inclusive, but not limited to, the human realm. According to the TDNT,

The summing up of the totality takes place in its subjection to the Head. The subjection of the totality to the Head takes place in the co-ordinating of the Head and the Church. As the Church receives its Head the totality receives its κεφάλαιον, its definitive, comprehensive and (in the Head) self-repeating summation. In the Head, in Christ, the totality is comprehended afresh as in its sum.[9]

Despite this strong cosmic application some scholars would limit recapitulation to the human realm. Marcus Barth traces this history and locates it with the Lutheran impetus of Rudolf Bultmann.[10] 

For Irenaeus however, there is no question that this economy of salvation is cosmic, while certainly inclusive of the human realm. In his explanation of Colossians 3:10 – “And in saying, “According to the image of him who created him,” he indicates the recapitulation of this man who at the beginning was made after the image of God (Gen. 1:26)” (Against Heresies, 5.12.4) . He describes recapitulation as encapsulating the meaning of Christ’s shedding of blood:

“The blood of every just man shed on the earth will be requited, from the blood of the just Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you killed between the temple and the altar; truly, I tell you, all that will come upon this generation” (Matt. 23:35–36). He was pointing to the future recapitulation in himself of the shedding of the blood of all the just and the prophets from the beginning and the requital of their blood through himself. He would not have demanded requital unless it was to be saved, and the Lord would not have recapitulated these things in himself if he too had not been made flesh and blood in accordance with the first-formed work, thus saving in himself at the end what had perished at the beginning in Adam. (Against Heresies, 5.14.1)

Irenaeus, like Paul, sees recapitulation as engaging the devil and spiritual forces for evil. Christ’s recapitulation defeats Satan:

So in recapitulating everything he recapitulated our war against the enemy. He called forth and defeated the one who at the beginning in Adam had led us captive, and he trod on his head, as in Genesis God said to the serpent: “And I will set enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed; she will watch your head and you will watch her heel” (Gen. 3:15). (Against Heresies, 5.21.1)

But each of the above is true because his death saves as it recapitulates or is the culmination of total or universal recapitulation:  

The Maker of the world is truly the Word of God: he is our Lord, who in the last times was made man, existing in this world (John 1:10), and invisibly contains everything that was made (Wisd. 1:7) and was imprinted in the shape of a Chi in everything, as Word of God governing and disposing everything. Therefore he came in visible form into his own region (John 1:11) and was made flesh (1:14) and was hanged from the wood, in order to recapitulate everything in himself. (Against Heresies, 5.18.3).

Irenaeus describes recapitulation in terms of a total “framework” bringing together heaven and earth:

The things in the heavens are spiritual, while those on earth are the dispensation related to man. Therefore he recapitulated these in himself by uniting man to the Spirit and placing the Spirit in man, himself the head of the Spirit and giving the Spirit to be the head of man: for it is by this Spirit that we see and hear and speak (Against Heresies, 5.20.2).

In other words, in this singular, word (recapitulation), which he applies universally, Irenaeus is indicating a singular economy by which to understand the work of Christ and Christian participation in that work. The word refers to all that God is doing in Christ for the cosmos.

Origen will employ the term “restoration” (apocatastasis) for similar purposes. Ilaria Ramelli defines the term as “related to the verb ἀποκαθίστημι, “I restore, reintegrate, reconstitute, return.” She says it, “bears the fundamental meaning of ‘restoration, reintegration, reconstitution” And “came to indicate the theory of universal restoration, that is, of the return of all beings, or at least all rational beings or all humans, to the Good, i.e. God, in the end.”[11]  

Origen apparently inherits the concept, as he indicates in his commentary on John, referring to “the so-called restoration.”[12] Ramelli says, he may be referring to both Clement, who often uses the phrase, and to its biblical employment.[13] The specific term appears in Acts 3:21: “that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you, whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things” (3:20-21). Peter repeats the phrase, announcing the eventual restoration, in Acts 3:24: “all the prophets . . . foretold these days,” that is, those of the universal restoration (apokatastasis). As Ramelli notes, “Origen chose precisely the phrase ἀποκατάστασις πάντων (restitutio omnium) found in Acts 3:21 to indicate his doctrine.”[14] He calls it the “perfect telos” and the “perfecting of all” or “the restitution of all things, when the universe will come to a perfect end” . . . “in which the consummation of all things will take place . . . that is to say, that period when all things are no longer in an age, but when God is all in all” (On First Principles, 2.3.5).

Ramelli tracks Origen’s multiple biblical references, and then traces the reception of restoration through church history. She concludes her study with this summary:

Indeed, the Christian doctrine of apokatastasis is based on the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ, and on God’s being the supreme Good. It is also founded upon God’s grace, which will “bestow mercy upon all,” and the divine will—which these Patristic authors saw as revealed by Scripture—“that all humans be saved and reach the knowledge of Truth.” They also considered it to be revealed in Scripture, and in particular in a prophecy by St. Paul, that in the telos, when all the powers of evil and death will be annihilated and all enemies will submit (for Origen and his followers, in a voluntary submission), “God will be all in all.”[15]

Both recapitulation and restoration express the all-encompassing economy giving meaning to the dozens of words used in the New Testament to describe some aspect of a participatory ontology. Both terms serve at once to picture the economy of salvation in its defeat of sin, death, and evil, and the bringing of all things to full participation in God. Perhaps the mark of a failed theology is lack of this integrating vision, due to a metaphysical understanding which falls short of a full participation in the divine nature.  

[1] James Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1-8. vol. 38 (Dallas: Word Books Publisher, 1988), 330.

[2] Plato, Parmenides 132 D and Phaedrus 250 B quoted in Dunn, Romans , 317.

[3] Dunn, Romans , 317, 331.

[4] Dunn, Romans , 317

[5] James Dunn, “Paul’s Understanding of the Death of Jesus as Sacrifice ’, in Sacrifice and Redemption: Durham Essays in Theology , ed. S. W. Sykes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 37,

[6] Irenaeus, Irenaeus of Lyons, trans. Robert Grant (London: Routledge, 1997) from Grant’s Introduction, 38.

[7] Bradley J. Matthews, (2009) Mature in Christ: the contribution of Ephesians and Colossians to constructing Christian maturity in modernity, Durham theses, Durham University, 76.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Schlier, H. (1964–). κεφαλή, ἀνακεφαλαιόομαι. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 3, p. 682). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[10] M. Barth, ‘Christ and All Things’, in Paul and Paulinism: Essays in Honour of C. K. Barrett, eds. M.D. Hooker and S.G. Wilson (London: SPCK, 1982), 160-72. As Matthews explains, “Bultmann argued for a restricted sense through the theological argument that Christ’s death is existentially efficacious for people only. He also provided a historical-critical argument that τὰ πάντα draws from the Gnostic-redeemer myth, which necessitates that interpreters demythologise NT soteriology communicated through cosmic-naturalistic terms in order to focus on the actual victims of the fall.” Mathews, Ibid., 86.

[11] Ilaria L.E. Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena (Boston: Brill, 2013) 1.

[12] Origen, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, trans. by Ronald Heine (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1989) 1.91.

[13] Ramelli, 4.

[14] Ramelli, 14.

[15] Ramelli, 817.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.