Incarnational Penal Substitution

Friday, November 03, 2006

I've been reading Between Cross and resurrection by the late Alan Lewis, and came across this formulation in Calvinist terms

"Christ is not only the Elect in whom humanity is chosed and redeemed, but also the Reprobate on whom is laid God's judgment of humanity."

John Stott in The Cross of Christ speaks how we cannot think of the cross as God demanding an appeasement so that he will be persuaded to love us, but that God is the one offering the sacrifice because he loves us. I think we can take this a step further and say in Trinitarian terms that God is the one on the cross because Jesus is God the Son. Rule number one of Trinitarian thought is that God is one. There is complete unity in the Godhead. So if God the Son is there on the cross, we can truly say that God is up there. So taking that and combining it with the quote above we get

God became accursed and damned, that we might become the righteousness of God.

God took on human flesh, and out of love willingly submitted to all of our sorrow, helplessness, and separation. He "became sin". So that we might likewise inherit his purity. Here we have clearly substitutionary atonement. We can even say that it is a penal substitution is that God took upon Himself the judgment of sin, the curse, that was upon us. Seen from the traditional legal perspective, one cannot take the punishment for another.

Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae, which is recognized as codifying the idea of penal substitution that has become the doctrine of the Catholic church (I'm sure they call it something else) and was later adopted by the Reformation (i.e. the shift from Anselmian Satisfaction where satisfaction (reparation) is an alternative to punishment, to the punishment itself being what satisfied) explicitly denies that the substitution is a legal one:

"If we speak of that satisfactory punishment, which one takes upon oneself voluntarily, one may bear another's punishment... If, however, we speak of punishment inflicted on account of sin, inasmuch as it is penal, then each one is punished for his own sin only, because the sinful act is something personal. But if we speak of a punishment that is medicinal, in this way it does happen that one is punished for another's sin." (FS, Q. 87-A8)

St. Thomas does affirm that one can take the punishment for another, just not in a legal sense. I think anyone with children will understand the wish of a parent to "take the place" of your child when they are suffering or in trouble. We see it all the time in the movies when the hero says "No, let her go. Take me instead".

So have I just agreed with Penal Substitution? Well maybe. If
1) it is thought of in relational-moral terms instead of legal ones,
2) it is understood that it is ultimately God who offers himself
3) satisfaction is understood in its original meaning of "making restitution" rather that the modern meaning of "gratification"

The question I have, is whether a Calvinist would recognize the above as a legitimate understanding of Penal Substitution. Any takers?

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At 2:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


This is Nathan Pitchford here once again. I certainly appreciate your new thoughts. Stott's analysis that God did not demand an appeasement so that he might love us is indisputable -- God displayed his love toward us "when we were still sinners."

As far as your three points go:

Numbers two and three I have absolutely no hesitation accepting. Number one I'm still not sure about. I know you talked about it a little, but I'm not sure I'm completely following you yet. Can you explain a little more fully how you mean to differentiate a legal perspective from a relational/moral one, and why the two are mutually exclusive, and not just complementary? In other words, I'm wondering why, when a loving father says, "No, let me go instead," -- why can that relational substitution not be accepted as legally permissible? Especially since God our loving Father is the Law-giver and Judge as well.


At 9:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan,

The distinction I am making is first of all between God's law and man's law. God's law is the moral order of the universe. It is not an artificially imposed consequence imposed from the outside (as human laws are) but inevitable as gravity and tied in to who we are. So that is the first distinction. In that I think if God's law contradicts human law, that is fine if the human law is wrong. So when I speak of "moral-relational" as opposed to "legal" that can be translated as "God's law" vs. "human law". I think the specific human western legal system is a terrible model to apply to how God runs the universe. Along those lines I submit this quote from JI Packer (from The Logic of Penal Substitution)

"James Denney’s sense of the contrast between personal relations, which are moral, and legal relations, which tend to be impersonal, external and arbitrary, once drew from him an outburst which in isolation might seem parallel to Lampe’s. ‘Few things have astonished me more’ (he wrote) ‘than to be charged with teaching a “forensic” or “legal” or “judicial’ doctrine of Atonement. . . . There is nothing that I should wish to reprobate more whole-heartedly than the conception which is expressed by these words. To say that the relations of God and man are forensic is to say that they are regulated by statute — that sin is a breach of statute — that the sinner is a criminal — and that God adjudicates on him by interpreting the statute in its application to his case. Everybody knows that this is a travesty of the truth."

Secondly, in speaking of God's law and of judgment and wrath I think that God's law is both fulfilled and superseded by God's grace. By way of analogy, think of sickness: Sickness leads to death. But a doctor can heal the sickness. In this they are not denying the laws of medicine, and they would not say tell you to do the stuff that got you sick either. They would say "exercise more, stop smoking..". in short: obey the laws of health that were meant for your good. But they would also "oppose" those laws consequence by giving you medicine and doing surgery. Grace is like an open heart transplant where God is both the doctor and the donor. God does not wish us to die but to live. He desires repentance and recovery not the "fulfillment of our sickness".

In other words the law... God's righteous law... can become a tyrant that leads to death rather than life. Paul talks about this stuff a lot, especially in Romans. He would stress that the law is good, but that sin can corrupt the law so it leads to death. A part of the work of the cross was to overcome the fallen law and judgment (in the same way as we are overcome) and to bring both fallen humanity and fallen law back to their rightful place under Christ so that law is not an end but points to a relationship with God. So that fallen law is not our master but our servant leading us to Christ. Again Jesus talks about this a lot in respect to Sabbath laws especially. "man is not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man"

I think we could quibble about the details here, but bottom line: I do agree with you that there is not a conflict between God's righteous moral law and relationship but that God must find a way - like a surgeon does - to make us well through the "laws of medicine".

Honestly the part I was expecting you to disagree with me on was #2 since it implies passibilty. Can a Calvinist say in Trinitarian terms that God (the Son who is one with the Father) gave his life for us? The idea that God in humilty willingly takes on our pain, shame, seperation, sin, sorrow, and sickness on the cross.

At 11:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Ok, I think I'm understanding you a little better. If you're big deal is that, the law, as it relates to God, is not an outside, objective, legal code which binds him (as it is with humans), then I certainly agree. God is "ex lex", if I may borrow the phrase from my apologist friends. The very meaning of morality and righteousness derive from who he fundamentally is. He does not conform to the law, the law proceeds from his essence. So in that sense, God did not die because there was an outside principle of morality binding him, but because it was in his own ineffable nature both to show his free grace and love, and at the same time show his hatred and retribution against all which is opposed to him. Would you be able to agree with that anlysis?

As far as your #2 goes, I really have no problem saying that God offered himself. It was the self-sacrifice of God that we see on the cross. I am certainly a Trinitarian, and I think that the bible reveals how different persons of the Trinity effected different elements and played different roles in redemption. But the bottom line is, the cross was God's giving of himself as our substitute, so that we might have his eternal life. The only problem I would have is if you refused to acknowledge the inter-trinitarian distinctions that have been revealed (e.g. Eph. 1:3-14 beautifully describes the various roles that the inter-Trinitarian persons played in Redemption's scheme). But God is one, and what he does, all three persons of the godhead are fully united and participatory in.

Does that make sense?

At 11:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

By the way, by "all which is opposed to him," I just meant sin. I wasn't talking about those for whom Christ died -- just wanted to make sure you didn't take it that way, since in retorspect it was worded in a somewhat misleading manner.

At 1:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes it makes complete sense, and I fully agree with what you say about Trinitarian thinking.

Wow... so did we just agree on the Atonement?... That's kinda crazy :)

At 1:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"and at the same time show his hatred and retribution against all which is opposed to him (i.e. sin)..."

I think I know what you mean by this and probably agree. But I have a problem I think with the language of "hatred and retribution" because they are so directly associated with sinful fleshly things in us. So I think to avoid implying that God is vindicating our sinfulness in hating or in our seeking vengeance, we really need to find less "loaded" words that express that what God is doing is indeed motivated by righteousness not flesh.

Since so often terrible atrocities and death are in history vindicated by calling them "holy wars" that are "in the name of justice" and since "the devil masquerades as and angel of light" and politicians like to co-opt God to justify their grabs at power, I find this very important.

So what we we said instead: God's opposition to sin, hatred, and death (instead of "hatred"), and God's affirmation of the terrible consequence of that sin (instead of "retribution"). Does that work for you?

At 7:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess I can understand where you're coming from, with the history of perverted fleshly atrocities being carried out in the name of holiness. Just so long as we don't shy away from using the terminology the bible uses, when we make clear the scriptural context (e.g. God's wrath against sin, being angry with sin, etc.).

I guess we do agree, as far as I can tell :). Maybe I'll shoot Luther's Stein an e-mail, and see if he has anything to say.

At 7:58 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

Hi Derek,

You disappointed me a little bit when you wrote:

Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae, which is recognized as codifying the idea of penal substitution that has become the doctrine of the Catholic church (I'm sure they call it something else)..

I suppose I can't argue that Aquinas didn't write what you pointed out, but we do call it something else, because we place the emphasis on Christ's freely chosen sacrifice to pour out his grace on us more than God's sense of wrath. I've gone to Mass every week for 47 years and I haven't heard a sermon yet about the reprobate being under God's wrath. When we read the passion story, we are the ones who read the part of the angry crowd. We are the ones who read the part full of anger, not God.

A form of substitution I suppose we do teach, but Aquinas notwithstanding, it is not so simple to say that Catholicism teaches penal substitutionary atonement. To me, that teaching cannot be traced to how much Thomistic scholasticism one holds to, but how much pessimistic Augustinianism one holds to - the view that we are all just massa peccata in the hands of a sovereign God, and furthermore a God known as much for wrath as for mercy.

Calvin had no use for scholastic "sophistry". He was an Augustinian through and through, determined to defend God's sovereignty at all costs. In Catholicism, Augustine is a giant, but there is more mystery in the interplay between predestination and free-will, with points of view running the gamut from Molinism to Thomism to the hyper-Augustinianism of the Jansenists.

I was wondering what you might think of this article, on atonement as liturgy rather than theory?

At 11:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"it is not so simple to say that Catholicism teaches penal substitutionary atonement"

Hi Jeff,

I'll take a look at your article. I did not realize that the above statement that Aquinas had codified the Catholic idea of the Atonement was a controversial one since I had read this in multiple Catholic sources. I am not Catholic and this gives me certain blind spots I'm sure, so I am pleased to have you here to help broaden my understanding.

From what I have read in the Summa, it is very much what I would call "Penal substitution" simply because it has the idea of Jesus taking on the punishment of sin (Aquinas calls it "Satisfactory punishment") instead of us. The central focus of how he understands sin is in terms of a violation of the moral order. He says our sin has imbalanced the "equality of justice" and the only way to set the balances right again is through what he calls "penal compensation". So there is a definite focus in Aquinas on "punishment" and unlike Anselm he understands satisfaction (which means compensation) not as an alternative to punishment, but punishment as the means of satisfaction "there is due satisfaction when the punishment balances the fault".

His idea of "medicinal punishment" and "satisfactory punishment" (both his terms) is pretty much parallel to the idea of penance which played a major roll in Catholic devotional life at the time. I don't think it would be stretching it too far to say that his understanding of the Atonement is about Christ doing penance for us and thus meriting our salvation. I've read his sections on sin and the Atonement again and again and I really dont see how any other conclusion could be reached. Where I am less sure is what has heppened since then, but I do seem to recall that Aquinas' view was adopted by the Council of Trent for instance. When I have read Catholic theolgians on the Atonemnt they also seemed to back this up.

I understand your dislike of Calvin who can be quite nasty, and also appreciate your call to move away from rigid theories towards what you call "Mystery". I am with you on both counts. But I would be curious as to whether you would disagree with my interpretation of Aquinas above, and deny that the above (again understood in non-rigid terms that allow for passion and mystery) is the position of the Catholic church still.

Again I don't claim by any stretch to be an expert on Catholic doctrine or history, and if I am missing something either in how I am interpreting Aquinas or in how the thought has developed further, I would love to learn.

At 8:02 PM, Blogger Jeff said...


Thank you for welcoming my perspective. As you know, I admire a lot of what you’ve written and have recommended it to others. I’m really not interested in doing apologetics. I’m not looking for trouble. It’s not my desire to denigrate Reformed Protestants, Anabaptists, Quakers, or anyone else… I noticed that you had an encounter with someone by the handle of “BKW1’ over on Beliefnet over this topic. I wouldn’t be interested in an invitation to “sock it to you”. :- )

I’d be careful, however, in putting too much stock in a short, selective reference to Aquinas in the wikipedia article on atonement that you referenced. People have their own reasons for updating wikipedia, for their own purposes. The entry stating that Aquinas had “codified” Penal Substitutionary Atonement was probably as puzzling and foreign to BKW1 as it was to me. Most articles I’ve seen that list atonement theories by denomination or tradition list Catholicism under the Satisfaction Theory, and I think this is probably what most Catholics would tell you too.

All the same, I welcome the invitation to offer a point of view. On my blog post where I referenced your essay, I acknowledged that the Satisfaction Model paves the way to slide too easily into Penal Substitutionary Atonement, but I still maintain that this cannot be pinned on St. Thomas Aquinas. I worry about Penal Substitutionary Atonement not only because I think it engenders unnecessary fear and does God a disservice, but also because it fosters a caricaturization of Judaism that can sometimes lead to Jew hatred – a legacy that I am very ashamed of in our history. It was the very last thing Jesus would have wanted. In contemporary biblical scholarship we know a lot more about Second Temple Judaism and Apocalyptic Judaism than Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Beza, Knox, Wesley and Spurgeon probably ever did. In light of what we are learning now, I do think that there is room for development in the teaching.

Consider the salient point in the Lewis quote that you started your post with:

"Christ is not only the Elect in whom humanity is chosed and redeemed, but also the Reprobate on whom is laid God's judgment of humanity."

What is the fundamental principle being annunciated here? It is the fact that we are sinners in the hands of an angry God, held over the abyss like a loathsome insect, as Jonathan Edwards would put it. We are under God’s wrath, but in his mercy His son died to cover the personal sins of many (the elect), but not all. He did not die for the reprobate, condemned from all time under God’s eternal decree.

Contrast this with Aquinas and Trent. Christ sacrificed himself for our sake, out of love for us and out of obedience which pleased the Father. Though he may have died for many, his grace was sufficient for all men.

I hear what you are saying when you maintain that Aquinas introduced the notion of punishment. I’m not sure about that. Anselm may have spoken of in terms of honor rather than punishment, but what are the consequences of dishonoring God? What are the wages of sin? Punishment?

"...without satisfaction, that is, without voluntary payment of the debt, God can neither pass by the sin unpunished, nor can the sinner attain that happiness, or happiness like that, which he had before he sinned..." --Cur Deus Homo

What makes for the fundamental principle in Penal Substitutionary Atonement (IMHO) is not so much the notion of punishment for sin and one bearing it for another, but the character of God that is being taught. A soteriology that emphasizes God’s wrath. I can say with confidence (and most healthy-minded Catholics would back me up on this) that the emphasis in Catholicism is not being under God’s wrath. The emphasis is rather on the freely chosen Sacrifice of Jesus. It is all about sacrife…That is why we celebrate the “Sacrifice of the Mass”

Jesus himself was the best of all biblical sacrifices. He lived in loving obedience and service to the Father, even to suffering death for the sake of all sinners. Truly God and truly human, Jesus by his life, death and resurrection offered a sacrifice which was unique and therefore unrepeatable (Hebrews 9:25-28). According to John's Gospel, Jesus in his public life and in his death was like the Passover lamb. Jesus' life (blood) was poured out completely. Jesus' sacrifice, however, was a voluntary one; he freely went to his death.

The writers of the New Testament saw Jesus' entire life as a sacrifice. They used the terms common to sacrifice to describe his life, death and resurrection. Jesus commanded his apostles, "Do this in memory of me." This command referred not only to the Eucharist; it included imitating Jesus by handing over their lives in obedience to the Father and in service to the community. In fact, Jesus gave no detailed ritual for the Eucharist. And for up to 40 years after Jesus' resurrection, the Christians around Jerusalem continued to join in the Temple sacrifices at the same time they were celebrating the Eucharist in their homes. These Christians saw no contradiction in this because whether they celebrated the Eucharist or worshiped in the Temple, the goal of sacrifice was the same in each case: honoring the giver of all gifts and being united with him through inner conversion to his ways.

I’ll deal with the Summa passages specifically in a minute. This is not a dodge, but I think that you realize that the Summa, though prized highly in the Catholic Church (at some times more than others) is not the same as dogma. The Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, for example, flies directly in the face of the Summa.

I don’t think there is specific dogma around the atonement, because there have been several competing theories in the life of the Church. Aquinas and the Dominicans took a lot of heat from St. Bonaventure and others for using Aristotelian dialectic. The development of doctrine in the Church comes from many directions and is more fluid and organic than some may imagine.

We always have to be careful about anachronism. The eleventh through the sixteenth centuries were severe times. All I can tell you is the faith that I have lived and seen in the life of my own Church for close to fifty years now. Granted, most of that has been since Vatican II, and elements of legalism have undeniably been lessened from what was there before. I wouldn’t say that Catholicism teaches Penal Substitutionary Atonement, because in addition to the Theology of the Cross, we have an equally strong emphasis on the Theology of the Incarnation. In this Incarnational Theology, there is even an alternative to Anselm as described in the atonement theology of John Duns Scotus. Franciscans tend to have a more joyful spirituality than Dominicans, constantly looking for the good in creation.

In Scotus's view, the Word of God did not become flesh because Adam and Eve sinned, but because from all eternity God wanted Christ to be creation's most perfect work, the model and crown of creation and humanity—the glorious destination toward which all creation is straining. In his view, the divine Word would have been incarnated in Christ even if the first man and woman had never sinned.

Are these my post Vatican II sensibilities talking? Maybe. I’ve notice that some non-Catholics prefer to hear older material when hearing Catholic points of view. To that end, I’ll make some references to the deeply conservative Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) as BKW1 did, even though I don’t especially care for its polemical style, and even though the authors would probably consider me a modernist…

How does the Catholic Church understand the Reformers’ position on atonement to be different from its own?

In the article on Redemption it states (emphases mine)

St. Anselm's famous treatise "Cur Deus homo" may be taken as the first systematic presentation of the doctrine of Redemption, and, apart from the exaggeration noted above, contains the synthesis which became dominant in Catholic theology. Far from being adverse to the satisfactio vicaria popularized by St. Anselm, the early Reformers accepted it without question and even went so far as to suppose that Christ endured the pains of hell in our place.

In the article on the Atonement, , we see the liturgical aspect of the atonement, as was also alluded to in the Alison article I linked to before. Jesus as High Priest:

The perpetual priesthood of Christ in heaven, which occupies a prominent place in nearly all the writings we have examined, is even more emphatically insisted upon by Origen. And this deserves to be remembered, because it is a part of the doctrine which has been almost or altogether dropped out of many Protestant expositions of the Atonement, whereas those most inclining among Catholics to a merely juridical view of the subject have never been able to forget the present and living reality of a sacrifice constantly kept before their eyes, as it were, in the worship which reflects on earth the unfailing liturgy of heaven.

Also in the article on Atonement, we see a critique of the Reformers’ emphasis on vicarious punishment:

Mark Pattison tells us in his "Memoirs" that he came to Oxford with his "home Puritan religion almost narrowed to two points, fear of God's wrath and faith in the doctrine of the Atonement". …

It will be enough to note here the presence of two mistaken tendencies.

The first is indicated in the above words of Pattison in which the Atonement is specially connected with the thought of the wrath of God. It is true of course that sin incurs the anger of the Just Judge, and that this is averted when the debt due to Divine Justice is paid by satisfaction. But it must not be thought that God is only moved to mercy and reconciled to us as a result of this satisfaction. This false conception of the Reconciliation is expressly rejected by St. Augustine (In Joannem, Tract. cx, section 6). God's merciful love is the cause, not the result of that satisfaction.

The second mistake is the tendency to treat the Passion of Christ as being literally a case of vicarious punishment. This is at best a distorted view of the truth that His Atoning Sacrifice took the place of our punishment, and that He took upon Himself the sufferings and death that were due to our sins.

More to follow…

At 9:03 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

Getting down specifically to those passages in the Summa

Regarding FS 87-A8. I don’t really see how it’s relevant to the atonement at all. It seems to deal more with whether or not children can suffer for the sins of their fathers. Is it a setup for the atonement discussion that occurs in TP later? I don’t really think so, because in his atonement articles he doesn’t refer back to the proofs established here.

Regarding the Wikipedia references to TP articles on atonement, here are some passages taken from articles 47 though 50:

I answer that, It was befitting that Christ should suffer out of obedience. First of all, because it was in keeping with human justification, that "as by the disobedience of one man, many were made sinners: so also by the obedience of one, many shall be made just," as is written Rm. 5:19. Secondly, it was suitable for reconciling man with God: hence it is written (Romans 5:10): "We are reconciled to God by the death of His Son," in so far as Christ's death was a most acceptable sacrifice to God, according to Eph. 5:2: "He delivered Himself for us an oblation and a sacrifice to God for an odor of sweetness."...

I answer that, He properly atones for an offense who offers something which the offended one loves equally, or even more than he detested the offense. But by suffering out of love and obedience, Christ gave more to God than was required to compensate for the offense of the whole human race. First of all, because of the exceeding charity from which He suffered; secondly, on account of the dignity of His life which He laid down in atonement, for it was the life of one who was God and man; thirdly, on account of the extent of the Passion, and the greatness of the grief endured, as stated above (46, 6). And therefore Christ's Passion was not only a sufficient but a superabundant atonement for the sins of the human race; according to 1 John 2:2: "He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world." ...

I answer that, A sacrifice properly so called is something done for that honor which is properly due to God, in order to appease Him: and hence it is that Augustine says (De Civ. Dei x): "A true sacrifice is every good work done in order that we may cling to God in holy fellowship, yet referred to that consummation of happiness wherein we can be truly blessed." But, as is added in the same place, "Christ offered Himself up for us in the Passion": and this voluntary enduring of the Passion was most acceptable to God, as coming from charity. Therefore it is manifest that Christ's Passion was a true sacrifice...

I answer that, Through Christ's Passion we have been delivered from the debt of punishment in two ways. First of all, directly--namely, inasmuch as Christ's Passion was sufficient and superabundant satisfaction for the sins of the whole human race: but when sufficient satisfaction has been paid, then the debt of punishment is abolished. In another way--indirectly, that is to say--in so far as Christ's Passion is the cause of the forgiveness of sin, upon which the debt of punishment rests.

I answer that, It was fitting for Christ to die. First of all to satisfy for the whole human race, which was sentenced to die on account of sin, according to Gn. 2:17: "In what day soever ye shall [Vulg.: 'thou shalt'] eat of it ye shall [Vulg.: 'thou shalt'] die the death." Now it is a fitting way of satisfying for another to submit oneself to the penalty deserved by that other. And so Christ resolved to die, that by dying He might atone for us, according to 1 Pt. 3:18: "Christ also died once for our sins."

Are these passages indicative of Penal Substitutionary Atonement? I suppose that by your definition of it and the lens you are looking through for it, it may be. Particularly the last one. I don’t think, however, that it can be defined as such by the terms that the Reformers, who coined the phrase, would have understood it. I see descriptions of Christ making an oblation of himself for all mankind in Anselmian satisfaction terms rather than a wrathful God punishing Jesus in our place, making him cursed, as one who hangs on a tree (Deut.). Perhaps it is all a matter of degree and direction of emphasis.

I believe that Aristotelian scholasticism has a more positive view of human will and reason than pessimistic, neo-platonic Augustinianism, which I think is the real root of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, even though Augustine himself didn’t formulate or hold that theory.

The Reformers had little use for the schoolmen and their “sophistries”, and would have scoffed at the notion of condign merit held by Aquinas. I imagine that a rock-ribbed Calvinist today would tell a Catholic that the very existence of the sacrament of penance proves that the Catholic doesn’t understand what Christ accomplished with His perfect “crosswork” at all – that he died for your sins personally if you will just accept it by faith alone.

What I am convinced of is that the progression did not move like this:
Anslem --> Aquinas -->Luther, Calvin, and Other Reformers

Rather, in the case of the Reformers, I think that these men, steeped in a medieval, Anslemian worldview taken for a given, looked back past Aquinas to Augustine, and shaped their view of atonement out of their own soteriology, specifically their views on justification.

In the Latin West, the Greek Dikaiosune is translated as Justificare - Roman Law Court language. It shaped the Western worldview for centuries. In their doctrines on justification, the reformers stressed terms like Dikaiosune and logizomai in legalistic accounting terms. In the Eastern Church these terms are understood in a more holistic way that cushions them from seeing a dichotomy between faith and works that bedeviled and obsessed the West. I maintain that the doctrine of justification – the doctrine upon whcih the Reformers claim their Churches either stand or fall, force them into the most uncompromising and legalistic of atonement theories.

Give the Reformers their due for being somewhat original thinkers. As far as Penal Substitutionary Atonement is concerned, they coined the term, they claim it, they are proud of it, they preach it, and they spread it. They own it.


At 4:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff,

First of all I thought the article was excellent. Please accept the following thoughts not as being "argumentative" but more as a spirited dialog over coffee :)

"Most articles I’ve seen that list atonement theories by denomination or tradition list Catholicism under the Satisfaction Theory"

Yes, and this is also where Wiki lists it. My calling Aquinas' theory "penal substitution" was sloppy and it is fair that you call me on it. I still do think that his view is both "penal" and "substitutionary" but since the term also has a specific Protestant historical connotation it is of course something that needs to be taken with large grain of salt. It should properly be called "Satisfaction"

"I still maintain that this cannot be pinned on St. Thomas Aquinas"

Perhaps you could elaborate on this?

I would say that the Satisfaction Theory of Aquinas heavily influenced Calvin and the Protestant Reformers. It is Aquinas Satisfaction (with its focus on satisfying justice and satisfaction via punishment) rather that Anselmian Satisfaction that was developed into the protestant Penal Substitution. Would you disagree with that?

"the Satisfaction Model paves the way to slide too easily into Penal Substitutionary Atonement"

Personally I would reject both satisfaction and penal substitution (and instead vote for incarnational vicarious sacrifice). Any satisfaction theory is about compensation. If it was about compensation is the sense of restitution and healing that is one thing, but in the case of Aquinas it is about compensation through punishment which I find objectionable for the same reasons you find Penal Substitution objectionable I think.

"Consider the salient point in the Lewis quote...What is the fundamental principle being annunciated here? It is the fact that we are sinners in the hands of an angry God, held over the abyss like a loathsome insect, as Jonathan Edwards would put it"

Actually the point of Lewis here was radically different. His point is about God's passability. That God in humility takes on our shame and suffering and pain (God suffers) in order to pull us out of it. He does this though vicarious incarnational suffering. This is quite different from any satisfaction theory because it is cannot really be called a "satisfaction doctrine" where God "demands satisfaction" but more of a "humiliation doctrine" where God becomes a servant and loves his enemies taking on their sin sorrow and sickness. Lewis also went on to say that he thought with Karl Barth that because God became cursed (reprobate) EVERYONE became elect though his recapitulation. Perhaps that was not evident from the snippet I posted..

Lewis here is pretty radical (and I think he is right too) but more conservatively I should also point out that while most evangelical protestants (my family) would be for Penal Substitution, they would not be Calvinists nor would they believe in Calvin's ideas of predestination or election. Most evangelicals I have ever met are in fact Armenian. Now this is of course not a statistic. I don't know percentages, I am only saying that for non-calvinist protestant conservative evangelicals, their view of penal substitution is I think nearly identical to a typical Catholic view of Satisfaction. The emphasis in Protestant is not being under God’s wrath either.

Now I still think there is still a lot wrong with this view, but I do want to present it as fairly as I can before I critisize it so as to avoid attacking a straw man.

"I hear what you are saying when you maintain that Aquinas introduced the notion of punishment. I’m not sure about that. Anselm may have spoken of in terms of honor rather than punishment, but what are the consequences of dishonoring God? What are the wages of sin? Punishment?"

Yes both would agree that punishment is the consequence of sin. Where they differ is that Anselm says that satisfaction is an alternative to punishment: Either one makes satisfaction or punishment follows. Either you pay for the vase you broke or you get whipped. Anselm says this in the part you quoted even "without satisfaction, that is, without voluntary payment of the debt, God can neither pass by the sin unpunished". Satisfaction="voluntary payment of the debt" as a way to avoid punishment.

Aquinas in contrast says that what satisfies justice IS punishment. So what Aquinas introduced (I don't think he was the first to say it, Aulen traces the idea back to Tertullian) was the idea of satisfaction through punishment. In other words, the idea of penance.

"I don’t think there is specific dogma around the atonement, because there have been several competing theories in the life of the Church."

This is the same in protestantism, although I think we have more of a tendency to focus on theories rather than embracing mystery. We could perhaps learn from you guys there.

"In his view, the divine Word would have been incarnated in Christ even if the first man and woman had never sinned...Are these my post Vatican II sensibilities talking?"

Actually I think this idea predates Duns Scotus. I think Ireaneus said the above almost verbatim. I can look it up if you are interested.

Re: the quotes from the encyclopedia, I think I am going to need you to parse them for me and tell me what you were wanting to highlight in them.

One thing that did stand out was the following:
"it must not be thought that God is only moved to mercy and reconciled to us as a result of this satisfaction. This false conception of the Reconciliation is expressly rejected by St. Augustine (In Joannem, Tract. cx, section 6)."

to be fair, Calvin quotes this passage from Augustine in his "Institutes" and makes the came point. "Our being reconciled by the death of Christ must not be understood as if the Son reconciled us, in order that the Father, then hating, might begin to love us" (Bk II Ch 16 par 4). So I don't really think that it would be fair to say that this is the difference between a Catholic and Protestant understanding of satisfaction, it is simply an understanding that would be unanimously seen as wrong.

Of course I think, that both you and I tend to have similar views, seeing things more as a dramatic narrative or "liturgy" rather than as a theory, and seeing all of Christ's life as a sacrifice, etc...

At 7:57 PM, Blogger Jeff said...


Thank you for your irenic post. I find great value in your excellent essay, and I’m glad that you found value in the article by Alison as well (btw, Alison was a member of the Dominican order, like Aquinas himself).

I think we share many points of essential agreement on the atonement. I’m not entirely "satisfied" with the Satisfaction Model either, and I openly speculated on my blog if a modified version of Christus Victor could be held by a Catholic in good conscience. I don’t see why not, as it was included in the first millennium of the tradition. I urge you to find allies wherever you can. I think there are a lot of Catholics who would agree with you in the pursuit of the advancement of a theory of non-violent atonement. As your blog appears to be written and intended for a mainly (Arminian) Protestant and Anabaptist audience, I don’t think the Catholic Church poses the biggest obstacle to what you are trying to achieve in your mission, and I think you know that. For whoever is sincerely interested in ecumenism, I think that a modified version of Christus Victor holds the most promise if we are really serious about it.

As for Thomas Aquinas, I really don’t think he had much influence on the reformers, for the reasons I stated before, but I’ll elaborate further.

Martin Luther was an implacable opponent of the Thomist scholastics, and was openly contemptuous of them. He considered Aquinas’ optimism about human reason to be a dangerous illusion, and dismissed the whole “economy of salvation” of the Catholic Church. Many Catholic apologists have attempted to trace his manner of thinking to William of Ockham’s Nominalism.

As for Calvin, he refers in disparaging terms all over his Institutes to Philosophers and Sophists, which were clear labels he used for the schoolmen at the Sorbonne. Granted, in pointed criticism of Peter Lombard he gives a sort of oblique praise to Aquinas by referring to “sounder schoolmen” than Lombard, but in the one or two instances where he refers to Aquinas directly, it is in less than flattering terms.

I think that the most well known quote from Aquinas among Catholics would probably be “Grace builds upon nature but does not destroy it”. I suppose I would agree somewhat with this statement pulled from here.

“Calvin also agreed with his predecessors Augustine and Aquinas that the creation reveals the knowledge, wisdom and creative artistry of God. The divine Artificer "discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe"; "innumerable evidences both in heaven and on earth…declare his wonderful wisdom" (Inst. I, v, 1, 2; Battles 51-53). Nevertheless the creation also shows the marks of its corruption as a result of Adam's sin. In this respect Calvin departed from the view of Aquinas and the Catholic tradition generally, which understands nature as showing the signs of imperfection that need to be brought to perfection by grace. Calvin went
much further: creation has been corrupted by sin, suffers along with humankind disorder and death, and awaits its final restoration by the redemptive activity of Christ, the savior as well as the creator (McGrath 174-175).”

As for St. Augustine, he is all over the Institutes. I still maintain that Calvin was a man of his time, the waning of the Middle Ages (and therefore Anselmian in broad terms), but that his particular worldview was essentially hearkening back to Augustinianism. Elsewhere, Calvin says:

”In a word, Augustine is so wholly with me, that if I wished to write a confession of my faith, I could do so with all fulness and satisfaction to myself out of his writings.”-- A Treatise Of The Eternal Predestination Of God

I’d venture to guess that if you polled 100 Calvinists, that close to 100 would respond that Calvin owed nothing to Aquinas for his doctrine on atonement or much else besides. I’m sure they’d probably respond that it came directly from Calvin’s own exegesis on the Bible, more specifically, on Romans and Galatians.

Thank you for the clarification on the Lewis article and quote. It sounds very interesting. In the snippet I saw, it looked like a standard Calvinist formulation, and in the truncated sense in which I read it, it seemed to come right down to the heart of the matter between Calvinism and the Catholic view. Whether Christ’s sacrifice is satisfaction doctrine or a humiliation doctrine, we wouldn’t (and I don’t think Aquinas would) see Jesus as * being * the reprobate. Being the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world is not the same as being the reprobate.

The Catholic Encylopedia was written in the last years of the fiercely anti-modernist pontificate of Pius X. It was the high point of neo-scholasticism, so it is clearly a Thomist point of view. To narrow the points of supposed divergence down, I’ll list them again here, but if you feel that Protestants are being traduced in the critique, and that a straw man is being set up, you can let me know:

1) Far from being adverse to the satisfactio vicaria popularized by St. Anselm, the early Reformers accepted it without question and even went so far as to suppose that Christ endured the pains of hell in our place.
2) The (first mistake is specially connecting the atonement) with the thought of the wrath of God… It must not be thought that God is only moved to mercy and reconciled to us as a result of this satisfaction. This false conception of the Reconciliation is expressly rejected by St. Augustine. God's merciful love is the cause, not the result of that satisfaction.
3) The second mistake is the tendency to treat the Passion of Christ as being literally a case of vicarious punishment. This is at best a distorted view of the truth that His Atoning Sacrifice took the place of our punishment, and that He took upon Himself the sufferings and death that were due to our sins.

It also goes on to say:

“Anselm's doctrine of Satisfaction was adopted as the basis. But St. Thomas and the other medieval masters agree with Abelard in rejecting the notion that this full Satisfaction for sin was absolutely necessary. At the most, they are willing to admit a hypothetical or conditional necessity for the Redemption by the death of Christ. The restoration of fallen man was a work of God's free mercy and benevolence. And, even on the hypothesis that the loss was to be repaired, this might have been brought about in many and various ways. The sin might have been remitted freely, without any satisfaction at all, or some lesser satisfaction, however imperfect in itself, might have been accepted as sufficient. But on the hypothesis that God as chosen to restore mankind, and at the same time, to require full satisfaction as a condition of pardon and deliverance, nothing less than the Atonement made by one who was God as well as man could suffice as satisfaction for the offense against the Divine Majesty. And in this case Anselm's argument will hold good. Mankind cannot be restored unless God becomes man to save them…

On looking back at the various theories noticed so far, it will be seen that they are not, for the most part, mutually exclusive, but may be combined and harmonized. It may be said, indeed, that they all help to bring out different aspects of that great doctrine which cannot find adequate expression in any human theory. And in point of fact it will generally be found that the chief Fathers and Schoolmen, though they may at times lay more stress on some favourite theory of their own, do not lose sight of the other explanations.”

I’m sure you appreciate that from our point of view, all of these men up through Aquinas, including Irenaeus with his Recapitualtion, Origin with his Universalism, Augustine, Scotus, Anslem, and Abelard with his Moral Influence; that we consider all of them to be Catholics, some in better standing than others (such as Origin and Abelard). I fully appreciate and understand as well, that for you, it is not necessarily the case. :-)
Thanks for giving me the opportunity to participate in your discussion. I wish you good luck and all success in writing your book.


At 10:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


"3) The second mistake is the tendency to treat the Passion of Christ as being literally a case of vicarious punishment. This is at best a distorted view of the truth that His Atoning Sacrifice took the place of our punishment, and that He took upon Himself the sufferings and death that were due to our sins."

So if the truth is Christ's "Atoning Sacrifice took the place of our punishment" how is that different from the false view of the atonement being "literally a case of vicarious punishment"? I'm not really seeing a differnce between "took the place of our punishment" and "vicarious punishment". Could you help me parse though the distinction that they are trying to make here? What am I missing?

At 6:37 PM, Blogger Jeff said...


I think one critical difference from the Calvinist view (although not necessarily from the Arminian point of view) is that the atonement is not limited. According to Aquinas, Christ’s sacrifice merited superabundant grace that is sufficient for all men, and that we share that grace through the sacramental life of the Church. I don’t see anywhere in Aquinas where he is saying that Jesus died to cover my personal sins or your personal sins, standing as a substitute in our place as a legal, forensic requirement to appease a wrathful God. Contrast what Aquinas says in some of the quotes provided above with a sermon like Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. I don’t see Aquinas emphasizing that we are children of wrath as Calvin did.

Also, please note in some of the later paragraphs in my post above that according to the scholastics, this full Satisfaction for sin was not absolutely necessary. There were a number of ways God could have chosen to do this. Aquinas notes that it was “fitting” for it to have happened this way, because it shows God’s immense love for man and gives us an example of what total self-oblation and obedience to the will of the Father looks like. The scholastics were aware that they were using human language to speculate upon a great mystery. Instead of a forensic, legal framework, I guess you could describe it as something more covenantal. As a pilgrim people, we should see God disclosing himself to us over time, which leads to greater depth and clarity in our understanding. The Hebrew scriptures are part of God’s disclosure. God as Creator tells us of our dignity as human beings, created in the image of God. The God of Exodus is the liberator who sets His people free, calls them to fidelity, and makes a Covenant with them. God is in the language of the Prophets, telling us how to deal with each other in light of how God deals with us. The Perfect Revelation of God reaches a climax in the person of Christ. He is Jesus as Mediator, moving the Law out, and placing himself between us and the Father, and due to his human nature, he is the perfect example of what fidelity and obedience to the Father is. Therefore, the Incarnation has to be seen as an important salvific element in addition to the Cross.

There is a professor by the name of Eleonore Stump who has written a book about Aquinas. I don’t claim to have read it, but this review refers to a central part of her thesis, stating:

"the function of satisfaction for Aquinas is not to placate a wrathful God or in some other way remove the constraints which compel God to damn sinners. Instead, the function of satisfaction is to restore a sinner to a state of harmony with God by repairing or restoring in the sinner what sin has damaged"

Stump does have a shorter treatment of this in an article about Aquinas and the Atonement (and how it should not be construed as penal substitutionary) that you might want to read if you get a chance. It’s about twenty pages or so. She could put it into words much better than I can. I don’t want to plagiarize it or bore your correspondents with lengthy excerpts from it, so I’ll give you a couple of links to try if you are interested.

PDF Version

HTML version

At 9:06 AM, Blogger becoming conscious said...

Coming from a Hindu back ground I may say this. Karmic philosophy is very much part of Asian cultures. For every action there is a proportionate reaction, sort of cause effect theory and it is scientifically valid. I would not be surprised Jewish religion also believed in it. Karma has to be paid back somehow!! Death of Jesus has been made as the payment for our/human sin/karmic debt in an indirect way. Human Concept of Jesus dying for our sins appears tobe based on this Karmic ideology. Problem with the ideolgy of Karma is it cannot answer the question How many good Karmas are good enough or vice versa. That is why I came to embrace Grace, the irrational illogical sort of "foolish" act of God. Amen

At 10:05 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi BC,

I would want to propose that grace is not about fulfilling karma, it's about entering into a completely different economy based on the unconditional love from God (God loving us "while we were yet sinners"). That's enemy love, which is force Gandhi called "satyagraha." I don't know much about Hinduism, but Gandhi's embrace of enemy love would indicate that it is comparable with it. However, it necessarily entails liberating people from the grip of the curse of karma.

That does not mean of course that we can just hurt others. Being loved unconditionally by God (what we call grace) heals us, breaking us out of the the vicious cycle of hurting and being hurt. In response to that love, we are then able to love others and ourselves that way too, helping to further the way of grace and enemy love and to thus break people out of the vicious cycle of retaliation.


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