Substitutionary Atonement and the Church Fathers (my EQ article is now online)

Thursday, April 08, 2010

 UPDATE: I have a new follow-up article (See details below)

The new April issue of Evangelical Quarterly is out (vol. 82 no. 2) with my article Substitutionary Atonement and the Church Fathers: A Reply to the Authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions. I've posted a PDF of the article for folks to read. Here's the abstract:

This paper offers a reply to the claim of the recent book Pierced for Our Transgressions that the doctrine of penal substitution did not originate with Calvin, but was taught by the church fathers. A survey is presented of the writings of Justin Martyr, Eusebius, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus, Ambrose, and Augustine’s respective understandings of the atonement, understood within their larger soteriology. From this it is concluded that the church fathers did not teach penal substitution, rather the dominant pattern found in these patristic writers is substitutionary atonement understood within the conceptual framework of restorative rather than retributive justice.Since I announced the upcoming article in a previous blog post a couple of the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions contacted me. (It still amazes me how connected the internet makes us!) They were quite gracious, and I look forward to being in dialog with them more in the future.
So have a look at the article, and let me know what you think in the comments section below.

 UPDATE: See also part 2: The Abolishment of Retribution in the Church Fathers

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At 6:39 PM, Blogger Josh said...

Hi, Derek--

I'm still reading your paper (with great interest), but my initial question is this: Are the words "substitutionary" and "vicarious" really synonyms? You seem to use them as such; for example, on page 144 you write of "the more general
concept of substitutionary or vicarious atonement." It seems to me that the word "substitutionary" suggests replacement, and that the word "vicarious" suggests sharing. Does Jesus replace us (as in penal substitutionary theory) or does he share with us the consequences of sin?

I find myself increasingly attracted to the idea that Jesus suffered vicariously for us (that is, suffered death with humankind) so that we might live vicariously in him. In view is participation rather than substitution. Just as Jesus shared the death we die, so we share the life he lives. He suffered vicariously in his life and death; we live vicariously by union with his death and resurrection.

At 8:29 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Josh,

I guess the most important thing is that we define what we mean by terms. In the article I use 'vicarious' and 'substitutionary' synonymously. If we want to nuance them a bit I would define vicarious Christ as dying "for us" and substitution as Christ dying "as us", I would also say that Christ dies "in our place" (German: stellvertretend) which is substitutionary, and thus does for us what we could not do.

What I would not affirm (and here I agree with what you say) is the idea that Christ dies "instead of" us since we are (as Paul says) invited to participate in his sufferings and also in his Resurrection. So the way I am understanding substitution is rooted in the incarnation (all of Christ's life, not just his death) and it is ultimately participatory. Christ leads the way, but we all follow.

In short, I'd say we are on the same page. I just decided to retain the word "substitution" whereas you opted to replace it. The main reason I wanted to keep it is that I think it helps a lot of folks to transition from a punitive understanding into a restorative one. But I'm not in love with the word. the big thing is that we are clear on what is meant by our terms. I thought about making the clarification in the article, but decided not to because of space constraints. It is an important point however, so it's good that you bring it up.

At 5:17 PM, Blogger Josh said...

Thanks for the clarification, Derek. I suspect you are right that we are not far apart. I lean toward substituting other words for "substitution" so as not to be heard as espousing "penal substitution."

At 9:16 PM, Blogger Josh said...

Justin Martyr writes, "The Father of all wished his Christ for the whole human family to take upon him the curses of all, knowing that, after he had been crucified and was dead, he would raise him up." Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach claim that this sentence "amounts to a clear statement of penal substitution." Derek, you claim, "[W]hat we in fact have in Justin is a rather ambiguous statement of substitutionary atonement" (pages 144-145). I think you are right to call the statement in question "ambiguous" rather than "clear." Moreover, serious and careful scholars do not claim to know a person's atonement theology from a single sentence.

However, it can reasonably be argued that the sentence in question presents neither a "penal" view nor a "substitutionary" view. Justin makes no mention of divine punishment, much less of God punishing Jesus (which is the kind of language to which many people object). Instead, he speaks of the Son, who has been sent by the Father, suffering "the curses of all"--that is, the consequences of humankind's sin, including death. Justin then adds that the cross is not the end of the story, for the Father raises the Son from the dead.

Does Justin intend to describe the work of Christ as "substitutionary"? The phrase "for the whole human family" may be interpreted to mean "in the place of the whole human family"; but it may also simply mean "for the benefit of the whole human family." In either case, Justin's language will be problematic for persons who espouse both penal substitution and limited atonement.

We may want Jesus to die in our place, but we certainly do not want him to rise in our place. Rather, we hope to share in his resurrection. And even if we do hope that Jesus died in our place, two thousand years of history since suggest that humankind continues to suffer the consequences of sin--including death. Perhaps Justin is suggesting that Jesus shared in humankind's death so that humankind may share in his resurrection.

I appreciate your observation that Justin speaks of atonement as healing. Perhaps he was influenced by the Gospel of Matthew, which describes the healing work of Jesus as the fulfillment of Isaiah 53. Also noteworthy is the fact that Justin frequently uses Christus Victor language.

At 9:05 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Josh,

I agree with your assessment of Justin. Again, when I call his view "substitutionary" I simply mean in the sense that it is in some (undefined) way representational (as opposed to being only exemplary), so where you see "substitutionary" in the article, read "vicarious" or "representational"

The question is: in what sense does this "representation" operate? From what Justin says elsewhere we see that he understands substitution in terms of healing, so the reason Christ dies "for us" is in order to heal us: "He became a man for our sakes, that, becoming a partaker of our sufferings, he might also bring us healing." (Justin does not work out for us exactly how that healing works), and he denies Christ's "was cursed by the law" which does seem to thus deny a penal view. So Justin claims Jesus took on our "curse", but not in a legal way ("Christ was not cursed by the law").

You say that Justin "frequently uses Christus Victor language" which I found interesting. Do you recall where he does this? Also you say "even if we do hope that Jesus died in our place, two thousand years of history since suggest that humankind continues to suffer the consequences of sin--including death" True. I add that the early church was experiencing death on a huge scale because of martyrdom (look at Justin's "last name"!) so they clearly did not expect to have a life free of suffering and death because they were in Christ, but quite the opposite.

The whole idea of suffering plays a big part in how they understood the atonement, and today is especially relevant as many people feel estranged from God because of suffering and injustice in the world. Recovering a view of salvation that addresses not only our own hurtfulness and guilt, but also the suffering and pain and sickness in the world can potentially make the gospel message deeply relevant for people today. As it is, evangelism is often reduced to individual wrong doing which is only fraction of our problem.

At 10:53 PM, Blogger Josh said...

Some examples of Christus Victor thinking from Justin Martyr:

"Our Jesus, without yet appearing in radiant splendor, has sent a rod of power to Jerusalem. This is the Word that summons, the Word of transformation by the Spirit. This Word went out to all nations over which the demons ruled.... And so it happens that many, powerfully gripped by his Word, abandoned the demons whom they had served" (Dialogue with Trypho 83.4).

"It had to be like that after the demons had been unmasked by [Jesus]. And the demons will always carry on like this until they are confined to everlasting fire and suffer just punishment and torment. Even now they are overcome by believers in the name of Jesus Christ" (Second Apology 8).

"[Jesus] was born in accordance with the will of God the Father for the sake of believing men and for the downfall of all demons, as you can see even now in that which takes place before your own eyes. After all, many of our people (the Christians namely) have healed a great number of possessed persons who did not receive healing from any other exorcist, sorcerer, or herb doctor. They did this throughout the whole world, and even in your own capital city, by driving out the demons in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate" (Second Apology 6).

Justin sees Jesus as the conqueror of evil ("of all demons"), and followers of Jesus as participants in the battle and sharers in Christ's victory. Interestingly, he connects healing and exorcism. One of the ways that Christ conquers evil is by healing demon-possessed persons. Among the demons Jesus defeats is sin, and his healing of sinners (his healing or restoration of their relationship with God) is part of this victory.

I agree wholeheartedly that there is a need to contextualize the atonement for our time and place; it is a missional concern for which I share your passion.

At 1:35 PM, Blogger Josh said...

Regarding Eusebius, Derek, I think you are right to call attention to the fact that Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach skip almost two hundred years of early Christian thought to discuss him. You might also have noted that Eusebius is better known as a historian than as a theologian. Of course, even his writings on church history have been impugned; at the very least, his work is onesidedly pro-Constantine. The fact that he writes after the Constantinian shift as an admirer of Constantine raises questions about his attitude toward violence in general and retributive justice in particular; a commitment to nonviolence (after the teaching and example of Jesus) was part of the distinctiveness of Christianity that was largely lost with the blending of church and state under Constantine.

Even giving Eusebius the benefit of the doubt, his mention that Christ "received death for us and transferred to himself the scourging, the insults, and the dishonour, which were due to us, and drew down upon himself the appointed curse, being made a curse for us" is curious. Certainly, Christ died for us (or as Eusebius puts it, "received death for us"); nor is there any doubt that we deserve punishment (the "curse") for sin. But what does Eusebius mean by "transferred to himself the scourging, the insults, and the dishonour, which were due to us"? The meaning of these words is not "unequivocal"--whether as a "statement of penal substitution" (as the aforementioned authors assert) or anything else.

Calling the language in question "penal" (in the sense of divine punishment) is problematic. With words like "scourging" and "insults," Eusebius calls to mind the literal abuse suffered by Jesus. According to the Gospels, this abuse was inflicted by Roman soldiers, not by God. It would be ahistorical to assert that God punished Jesus with these things. I suppose a hyper-Calvinist could insist that God used Roman soldiers to punish Jesus; but many other Christians would balk at the notion that God is a cosmic puppet-master--an angry deity who pulls strings from the heavens.

Of course, the word "transferred" can be interpreted to mean "substitution." However, this interpretation would imply that had Jesus not suffered "scourging" and "insults" and "dishonour" at the hands of Roman soldiers, then we would! Here is an example of how quickly substitutionary language can devolve into absurdity.

You make clear that whatever else Eusebius thinks about atonement, his primary model for making sense of it is Christus Victor. Your identification of a twofold pattern of healing sinners and conquering death (sin's consequence) is helpful. It seems to me that these two gifts are two sides of the same coin. Moreover, I think they can be understood as two of the contents of Christ's victory.

At 2:16 PM, Blogger Phil said...

Hi Derek,

Thanks for the article. I got quite excited halfway through your article, when you referred to the abolition of the law of sin and death. So I turned up Romans 8:1,2 where it says …

1,2 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.

Suddenly there was the possibility that this verse means that the whole law of sin and death mechanism was nullified by grace and Spirit as a result of Christ's triumph. (I never understood, and am only now dimly aware of why Christ's suffering had to involve actual physical death).

But then I spotted Romans 8 verse 4 -

And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.

And then I got stuck. Does this mean I have to re-read this verse 4 as follows:

And so he condemned (did away with / destroyed) sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirement (inevitable outworking, like the law of gravity, being sin leading to sickness and death) of the law might be fully met in us (outworked in us but actually vicariously in Christ), who do not live … etc.

This is what I want it to mean! But it seems a stretch.

Phil Collins

At 9:07 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Josh, thanks for posting those quotes from Justin. Good stuff!

At 9:07 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Phil,

Looks like you are quoting from the NIV. Perhaps a more literal translation might help a bit. I read this as two thoughts (which the verse make confusing because they split them up wrong). First, Paul says “through Christ Jesus the law of the life-giving Spirit liberated me from the law of sin and death, because what the law was powerless to do, being weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the form of sinful flesh.” That’s the first idea: we are caught in the endless treadmill of reaping and sewing, hurting and being hurt, but God breaks into that cycle of death by giving us life, by making us alive in Christ, and he did this by sending Jesus to take on our broken human form through the incarnation.

Next Paul says, “On behalf of sin [or: as a sin offering], God condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh, walking rather according to the Spirit.” Here he is saying that the purpose God had in doing this was so that we could walk in the Spirit and not sin.

I don’t think Paul is really trying to work out an atonement theory here. His focus here and in all of Romans really is on showing a way for us to be right and good and holy because of and through God’s action in Christ which makes us righteous, and allows us to walk in the the life of the Spirit. Any atonement language here is incidental to that point, so it’s hard to piece together exactly how he understands its function from the little we can see here.

Anyhow, I think you are getting Paul exactly right when you say that “the whole law of sin and death mechanism was nullified by grace and Spirit as a result of Christ's triumph.” I’m not so sure about how you are interpreting verse 4 however. It seems like you are trying to make this all an atonement formula, but I think all he is saying is something like “Jesus died for us so we could live in the Spirit.”

At 3:16 PM, Blogger Phil said...

Dear Derek,

Thanks for your response. So the righteous requirement of the law, is not in this context, that sin must be punished, but that I live a holy life by the Spirit. OK, I get that.

So now I've re-read your article again, and it has thrown completely new light on atonement for me. Specifically in answering the question - How does the suffering of incarnate God save me? How does it work?

And after reading all the stuff about Athanasius and Irenaeus, etc, am I right to conclude that God in Christ takes us by the hand and says - lets walk together this way - there is a route off this treadmill - a route out of this sin>corruption>death mechanism. It's counter-intuitive to you, because of what you have become, but I'll lead the way. There is a route. Follow me. - through an active humbling of self > laying down of life > through death > to resurrection.

Jesus travelled that route, and we, can in Him, travel that same route.

Is that right?


At 3:36 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Yes, I think that sums it up quite well! I might want to add the initial part about new birth, but once we become a new creation, it is absolutely about living that life out by walking with and in Jesus. It's a relationship with God that transforms us into the image of Christ as we walk with him in the way of kenosis. This is I think the main theme of Philippians. Michael Gorman has a nice book on this called "Inhabiting the Cruciform God" that you may find helpful.

At 6:08 PM, Blogger Josh said...

Derek, your reading of the thought of Athanasius is the strongest part of your paper. When reading him awhile back, I too was struck by the fact that his primary concern is not sin or guilt or punishment or God's wrath, but death: "The supreme object of [Christ's] coming was to bring about the resurrection of the body" (On the Incarnation of the Word, chapter 22). As you put it, "In breaking our communion with God, Athanasius says that we have cut ourselves off from the very source of Life.... Being separated from the source of Life, we die" (page 147). Your observation that Athanasius thinks repentance would be enough to lead to salvation were our problem solely sin makes clear that he is no proponent of penal substitution--the eisegesis of Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach notwithstanding.

I do have a few suggestions for your future work on this important subject. First, Athanasius (along with other early Christian writers) seems to place more emphasis on incarnation than on atonement. On page 147, you write, "It is not until the fourth century in the works of Athanasius that we encounter a sustained treatise specifically on the atonement which explores the implications of these concerns in depth." It seems to me that the writing in question is in fact about the incarnation, with discussion of atonement part of the doctrine that God has become flesh in Jesus Christ. Put another way, Athanasius and other early Christians see atonement as one of the contents of the incarnation.

Second (and this observation is closely related to the first), Athanasius and other early Christian thinkers see the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as inseparable. To use again my earlier language, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are the contents of the incarnation. For Athanasius, the Word had to become flesh in order to die, and Jesus had to die in order to be raised from the dead--"it was precisely in order to be able to die that [Christ] had taken a body, and to prevent the death would have been to impede the resurrection" (On the Incarnation of the Word, chapter 21). Whereas penal substitutionary proponents think the death of Jesus was necessary in order to propitiate or appease or placate God, Athanasius thinks the whole story (including but not limited to the death) of Jesus was necessary in order to conquer death.

Third, although it is undeniably true that Athanasius occasionally uses substitutionary language (such language might have originated with him), he more often employs Christus Victor language. Jesus has won the victory, but evil continues to kick in its death throes. We fight the good fight of faith with Jesus leading the charge, trusting that we will share in his victory. Since we participate in the battle against evil (in our struggles with sin and death, for example), the language of participation seems to me to be more appropriate than the language of substitution. You yourself use the former language beautifully when you write, "God entered into our humanity, in all of its wretchedness, and because of Christ's participation in our death, we can take part in his Resurrection life" (page 148).

At 10:17 PM, Blogger Josh said...

I think you are right, Derek, to say that Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach are wrong in their assertion that Jesus paid a ransom to God (page 151). And it is not only Gregory of Nazianzus who disagrees with them, but Scripture--the biblical ransom sayings do not say that the ransom is paid to anyone. Of course, many early Christians thought the ransom had been paid to Satan (a variation on the Christus Victor theme); so Origen (late second century) in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew writes: "To whom did he give his life as 'a ransom for many'? Certainly not to God! Was it not then to the evil one?"

At 8:19 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

I wholeheartedly agree with you three points on Athanasius. On your third point I would add these 2 comments:

First, rather than calling it 'participation' or 'substitition' I would prefer to speak of an 'incarnational atonement' in keeping with your point #1. In other words, the 'exchange' that happens is that Christ 'becomes us' not only in his death and suffering, but in his whole human life. We also as a corollary participate in him, but I would prefer to place the emphasis in the primacy of what God has done in Christ through the incarnation. So incarnation is not there alongside atonement as two separate things, incarnation is the means of atonement. This also broadens the idea of what atonement means beyond forgiveness of sins to also include our healing.

Second, rather than seeing this 'incarnational atonement' (sometimes expressed in substitutionary language) as being opposed to a Christus Victor view, I would say that the Christus Victor view functions via that incarnational exchange (what I call substitution in the article). That means that in the paradigm of Christus Victor the exchange takes on a completely different meaning than it does in penal substitution since one is based on retributive justice and the other on restorative justice. In one Christ dies instead of us as a punishment, in the other Christ becomes us in order to restore us.

At 8:37 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Re: ransom, I believe that the context in which the biblical references to ransom are made is a Jewish one that points back to the exodus where God 'ransomed captive Israel from bondage' (think of the song O Come O Come Emanuel which goes back I think to the early church). The point there is not that God pays Pharaoh a ransom, but that God sets his people free. It is a picture of liberation rather than of payment. The early church rightly recognized that now that story of exodus out of captivity had taken on a cosmic significance being about how all of humanity (not just one people) had been redeemed from sin, death, and evil itself (rather than God fighting against other people "for we wrestle not against flesh and blood") and that this had come, not as it did in the OT through violence, but through the cross where God in Christ bore our violence in order to undo it in the resurrection.

From this perspective, it is the devil who receives the ransom since he is our captor, but as Augustine says, in this the devil is not enriched but overcome. It is a story of rescue that is rooted in the central metanarrative of the Jewish people. Because of that obvious connection, no Jew hearing Jesus speak of his life being a "ransom" would have connoted this with God being paid, they would have immediately recalled the hope of Israel and associated the idea with not only their own salvation, but on a bigger level more with the restoration of justice in the world (what Jews call 'tikkun olam' – the healing the world), being brought out of oppression, into a world where God reigns. All of that helps to make sense also of the emphasis Jesus has on the kingdom. It's not just individual, but deeply communal/social/relational.

At 8:44 PM, Blogger Josh said...

I prefer "incarnational atonement" to "substitution"--but I still like "participation"!

On the ransom image, Joel Green has made the point that Scripture does not say a ransom was paid "to" anyone (though you are certainly correct that many early Christians thought Jesus was a ransom paid to Satan). Like you, Green traces the image back to the Exodus story. The Septuagint speaks of God "ransoming" the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. Perhaps, then, "ransom" and "deliver" are synonyms, and the point of the ransom image is to show that just as the Hebrews were delivered from slavery in Egypt, so too are we delivered from slavery to sin and death.

At 10:14 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Yup. That's also the biblical context in which to understand words like "redeemed" and "saved" as well. Saved (Greek sozo) is interesting because it has a double meaning of "delivered/healed" which sums up nicely the way the father's conceived of the atonement.

At 12:55 PM, Anonymous Chris said...

I think a fresh look at what "wrath" really means is helpful and sheds further light on the cross and exactly what God was doing there.

Strong's defines the word translated wrath as desire (as a reaching forth or excitement of the mind), violent passion.

I think this describes the cross perfectly. It was not anger or punishment that motivated God but desire and violent passion to free His kids from the sin and death that had entangled them and worked towards their (our) destruction. Anger may have been a part of that, but not anger directed at us, but the anger of a loving parent towards that which would harm His children.

In short the cross was not about God punishing Jesus in our place, but was instead the ultimate act of love in rescuing us. In our stead He took upon Himself the very thing that had enslaved us and it's wages. At the same time, He took us to the cross with Him to free us from the Law which was given that sin would abound. Our death to the law frees us to live to God, not out of duty but in a relationship of love.

At 3:48 AM, Blogger Rev Drew Tweedy said...

A well aimed stone from your sling, Derek! Any response from Goliath yet? Seriously, your article highlights the danger of relying on someone else's research and the importance of reading sources in context. Your evidence about the fathers' understanding of atonement is an important contribution to the debate and I look forward to reading some thoughtful responses from the authors and others within the reformed tradition.

At 3:58 PM, Blogger Josh said...

Hi, Derek--

You hear "the seeds" of Anselm's satisfaction theory of atonement in Ambrose, who writes, "[Jesus] also took up death that the sentence might be fulfilled and satisfaction might be given for the judgement, the curse placed on sinful flesh even to death" (page 152). As you suggest, it is possible and important to distinguish between Anselm's satisfaction of God's honor or justice, on the one hand, and Calvin's placation of God's wrath or anger, on the other hand. It is even more doubtful that Ambrose had in mind what Calvin did, as his thoughts on atonement fall short of (in your words) "a fully developed theory" (Ibid.).

The words of Ambrose above sound impersonal. He does not here say that God is changed, but rather that "judgement" is satisfied. Jesus suffers the consequences of (or penalty for) our sin "even to death" in solidarity with us; he does not suffer direct punishment from God that we would have suffered otherwise.

At 4:17 PM, Blogger Josh said...

In your discussion of Augustine, Derek, you are too kind to the folks whom you are debating. First, you quote John Piper: "[I]f God did not punish his Son in my place, I am not saved from my greatest peril, the wrath of God." (Piper seems to believe that Jesus saves us from God!) Then, you write, "To be fair...most advocates of the Reformed notion of penal substitution have not framed the atonement as a dichotomy between a loving Son and angry Father" (page 156). Yet you just quoted Piper doing just that!

I found this insight interesting: "Augustine can write...that we are 'saved from God's wrath' by God incarnate loosing us from the 'devil's power'" (page 157). This way of putting it makes clear that God in Christ delivers us from the devil, not from God. It is a variation on the Christus Victor theme. Apparently, Augustine uses the phrase "God's wrath" to describe God's decision to allow humankind to enslave itself to the devil through sin.

At 4:25 PM, Blogger Josh said...


I agree with your paper's first conclusion--that the theory of penal substitution, popularized by Calvin in the 16th century, should not be read into the writings of the church fathers.

Your second conclusion reads: "Substitutionary atonement is the common denominator in the church father's various understandings of the atonement" (page 158). I would write, "Christus Victor is the common denominator in the church father's various understandings of the atonement."

I look forward to what I hope will be many conversations about this and other subjects.

At 10:42 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

I did hear a while back from two of the authors requesting a copy of the article (which I sent them), but have not heard back since then.

At 11:12 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


Re: Ambrose you write "The words of Ambrose above sound impersonal. He does not here say that God is changed, but rather that "judgement" is satisfied." This is interesting since Anselm's theory of God's offended honor is quite personal. Of course Anselm is writing from a very different time centuries later basing his theory on a Feudal model of "honor" and rank. It is really hard to say much about Ambrose since there is only one sentence to work with. I would certainly hate for someone to take one sentence I wrote and build an entire doctrine off of it! In the paper Ambrose is really a placeholder for the entire Latin branch of the fathers who do seem to espouse (alongside the Christus Victor view) a form of satisfaction theory. A better example of this is Chrysostom, but because of space considerations I did not have time to cover him in the article. Perhaps I will blog the section on Chrysostom I edited out of my paper.

Re: Piper. The irony was not lost on me, I do see an inconsistency there. Still, the authors do state (along with John Stott) that God is not made loving by the cross, but initiates.

Re: the conclusion. You write "Your second conclusion reads: 'Substitutionary atonement is the common denominator in the church father's various understandings of the atonement' (page 158). I would write, 'Christus Victor is the common denominator in the church father's various understandings of the atonement.'"

Note that this part continues to say "However, as we have seen, the majority of the church fathers understood this within the conceptual narrative framework of restorative justice on an individual (restoring us to new life), and systemic level (restoring God’s kingdom order)."

In other words, all of the fathers had in common an understanding of the atonement as substitution (or as you like to call it 'participation'), that is, that Jesus did this "for us" and "as us". However (and this is really important) the vast majority understood this "exchange" NOT in the context of a penal judicial exchange, but in the terms of restorative justice, as a type of healing and rescue. In other words, they understood it within the framework of what we would call Christus Victor. The whole idea of substitution takes on a different meaning and purpose in that context.

Note also that I say "the vast majority" because there are some (Chrysostom in part, maybe Ambrose, etc) who alongside of this Christus Victor paradigm of restorative justice also seem to be thinking in terms of retributive justice. Not quite Calvinism (which is of course anachronistic), but it leads there. So I think it is an over simplification to claim that they all believed in Christus Victor (that is, a model of the atonement rooted in restorative justice), but the vast majority did. This is, by the way the same thing that Gustav Aulen claims who also recognizes in the Latin church a minority view that eventually grew in the middle ages with Anselm into the main view of the churches today (a trend which I see shifting now again back to Christus Victor as people become increasingly concerned with issues of injustice, oppression, and suffering).

At 7:21 AM, Blogger Peter Gurry said...

Bummer. I had my comment all ready and then I hit the wrong button. Let's see if I can piece it back together.

Do you think substitution and participation are mutually exclusive categories for understanding the atonement? Can Christ die "instead of" us and die "with us"?

I'm also very interested in learning more about how death is understood in the various conceptions of the atonement. How does Christ's death help me with my death? Whenever I read Athanasius, in particular, I always want to ask him more about how God relates to death. He makes it sound as if God is at the mercy of death and now has to find a way to trick death into destroying itself. I can't help but thinking that Christus Victor models of the atonement really end up saying more about Christ's resurrection than they do about his death. Nothing against talking about the wonder of the resurrection, but perhaps the resurrection does not accomplish the same things that the crucifixion does--and that's a good thing.

Derek, I'd love to hear your thoughts about the nature and origin of death. Where does it come from? How does God relate to is? Is it ever spoken of as a penalty in Scripture? Exactly how does a sinner sin relate to a sinner's death?


At 7:23 AM, Blogger Peter Gurry said...

Sorry, that last question should read, "Exactly how does a sinner's sin relate to a sinner's death?"

At 6:07 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


You ask: "Do you think substitution and participation are mutually exclusive categories for understanding the atonement? Can Christ die "instead of" us and die "with us"?"

If "instead of" means "Christ dies so we do not" (as it does in penal substitution) then it certainly does rule out "with us". That's why a strictly punitive reading simply does not do justice to the Bible. I do think however that we can say at the same time that Christ dies with us (participation), for us (benefaction), as us (incarnation), and in our place (substitution).

"I'm also very interested in learning more about how death is understood in the various conceptions of the atonement."

I get into this quite a bit in my 4 part article "Christus Victor vs Penal Substitution" (link at the top right of this page).

"He makes it sound as if God is at the mercy of death and now has to find a way to trick death into destroying itself."

I'd suggest that you think of it more like a sickness in us that God needs to cure. It think that is what Athanasius is getting at.

"I can't help but thinking that Christus Victor models of the atonement really end up saying more about Christ's resurrection than they do about his death."

Yes, they do. That's why they need to be tied to an incarnational understanding of the cross (which is what you find in Athanasius rather than Christus Victor). Jesus becomes what we are so that we can become what he is. I would also understand this all within Luther's theology of the cross, that is, Christus Victor must not be understood in triumphant terms but as losing your life to find it and dying to self. The wonder of the resurrection cannot truly be itself apart from the shadow of the cross.

Yes death is seen as the result of sin. Sin is sickness leading to death. God is the healer. Sin is spoken of as a 'penalty' in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament sickness is conceived of as demonic bondage (this is particularly evident if you read the descriptions of physical illness in the gospels). So penal substitution reads like a theory written by people who project an Old Testament view onto the New. The New Testament picture of sickness is very much in line with the idea of liberation from bondage in Christus Victor, which is why you see the early church pick up on this theme so much. The later church that embraces penal substitution is the same one that believes in holy war, capitol punishment, and torture (which the church did in the crusades and the inquisition). It is a church that is captive to the idea of retributive violence, has missed the central gospel message, and replaced the cross with a sword.

At 6:28 AM, Blogger Peter Gurry said...

Mercy, the last few sentences of that last paragraph sure do lump a lot of egregious offenses against the doctrine of penal substitution. I would sure like to see some evidence that the crusaders were singing songs about penal substitution as they sacked Constantinople. Misunderstandings of penal substitution may be at the root of some Christian violence, but they are surely just that, misunderstandings. Don't judge a view by its abusers.

But thanks for the helpful points of clarification. I'm wrestling a lot with whether participation and penal substitution are really incompatible in the way you say they are. You're explanation was very helpful.

"So penal substitution reads like a theory written by people who project an Old Testament view onto the New." Or by people who think the same God wrote both testaments and his view of sin has not changed. How exactly do you understanding God's wrath in the NT? (Off hand, 1 Thess 1:10; Rom 1:18) Is he righteously angry at us for being sick? That seems cruel. I've tipped my hat here, but your view seems to portray sinners as victims of sin but not perpetrators of it. I think the more Biblical view is that we are both: victims and victimizers. As victims we need deliverance; as victimizers we need to be dealt with by a holy God who cannot and should not tolerate offenders.

Two more questions for you: (1) I would be curious to know how you read Is. 53. (2) Related to understanding God's wrath in the NT, how do you understand his vengeance? I'm thinking here of places like Rom 12:19 and some large sections of Revelation.

Thanks for the discussion, Derek. I'm learning lots.

At 8:02 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


I would say that God's wrath is against sin not against us, just as a doctor is against sickness. I say this because God 'loves us first' while we are his 'enemies' so that hatred is not directed towards us, but towards sin. God loves sinners. Not just victims (that is easy) but sinners. God hates sin because sin hurts people whom God loves, even the sinners like me. He is rightfully angry at hurtfulness.

I fully agree that we are both "victims and victimizers" and do not see a paradigm of sickness as a contradiction to this. Doctors will tell you that health has a lot to do with taking responsibility for our life style and changing unhealthy behavior. At the same time, sin is not simply about a choice, it is a bondage. It is deep seated thing that needs to be healed because it effects who we are and not just our behavior.

In 1 Thes and Romans wrath refers to the consequence of sin. The result is that all of us would die since we are all hurtful and hurt broken screw-ups. The solution is for God in Christ to remove the problem of sin in us. God loves his enemies, God loves us offenders, and thus as Paul says in Romans 3 that God chose not to punish us so that he could instead through Christ demonstrate his righteousness by making us righteous.

"in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his loving restoration (dikaiosynē) at the present time, so as to be righteously loving (dikaios) and the one who lovingly sets right (dikaioō) those who have faith in Jesus"

This restoration in Jesus is thus *instead* of wrath/vengeance. Instead of us dying from our sickness, we are healed. As Isa 53 says: "by his stripes we were healed"

At 8:41 AM, Blogger Peter Gurry said...

Good stuff. I don't have time to respond now, but I will try to in a bit.

At 6:00 AM, Anonymous Kevin Blow said...

I am currently reading the book and when I have read it I will read the article as I wish to read both without being too distracted one by the other.

From my own personal view point, It was God who prounounced judgement and sentence on Humanity. Whether we like it or not God is Judge, Jury and Executioner. It is God who must be 'satisfied'.HE is the one who has been 'wronged' The only person who could do that (take our place)was Jesus who was fully man and fully God. There is both Justice and Restoration.

At 10:53 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

What seems absent here is the central message of the NT which is that God has come in Christ to save not condemn (Jn 12:47). God could judge us, yes. But what God does in Jesus instead is to love and save us. God does not need to appeased by us in order to be made loving, rather he initiates this by loving us while we his enemies (Ro 5:8-10). So the whole idea that God needs to be 'satisfied' (a term that appears nowhere in the Bible) is simply not true. God does not need to be made loving, rather we (who are the ones with the problem) need to set right and healed of our sin by God.

God does this through Christ "taking our place" and therefore establishing both justice and restoration. So you are right in saying that there must be justice, but you are leaving grace out of the picture, which is the central narrative of the NT, and of the entire Bible.

At 5:19 PM, Anonymous Kevin Blow said...


You are right Jesus came to save rather than to condemn. He shows us that God is both gracious and loving (amongst many other things).

I am not suggesting that God needs to be made loving towards us or that we can achieve this by appeasing him (not sure why you read this into my comments). The trouble is God (although he loves us) had already passed sentence on us. We already stood condemned by God because of Sin. The 'just' punishment of God is ultimately both physical death and eternal seperation from Him, of which we will be conscious and it will be eternal and it will involve suffering. It should be remembered that in the old testament there were times when judging specific sinful behaviour in the life of his chosen people (individual/corporate) God deprived them of/took their lives.

Jesus died to meet the demands/requirements of Gods Justice, that is why I used the term 'satisfied'. The Gospel message is one of love but it is also one of judgement on those who reject Him and in rejecting Him, they reject God. The Gospel message we preach must contain both.Fallen humanity has to understand that there are real and eternal consequences in rejecting God and they need to be taken seriously.

Ultimately there are only two types of people in this world, those who have been/are forgiven and those who are unforgiven by God.

At 1:12 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Kevin,
Many people associate "satisfaction" with appeasement. That is the classic Calvinist understanding, and so I thought that was what you intended. You seem to be using it the sense of "fulfilling." I agree that God needs to fulfill the requirements of justice, but think we disagree about what those requirements are.

I agree that there are real consequences for sin, and do not want to suggest that God can just "look the other way" nor do I think everything is just "fine" and God just loves everyone. People are really broken and hurt each other in profound ways and need a real solution. People need to respond to God's gift. On all this we agree.

Where we disagree is in what justice "demands." I disagree that justice demands punishment. What is needed/required is our healing, our sanctification, for us to be "set right." Without that, we will continue on in our trajectory with death.

So God's justice (which is about making things right) demands that we be healed. God in Christ acts to heal/restore us. That is how God brings about justice/justification.

At 7:58 AM, Blogger Peter Gurry said...

Derek, where's the vertical dimension of sin in your system? I can fully agree that we are broken and need healing but your solution only deals with the horizontal brokenness, not the vertical offensiveness. How does your system deal with profoundly horizontal human sins that are nevertheless against God and God alone (Psalm 51:4)?

Second, I struggle to see how your definition of God's righteousness/justice will hold in Rom 3:21-26, especially vv. 25-26. When God passed over previously committed sins, does that mean he never healed people of their brokenness? And if so, how does healing that brokenness now through the cross show that God is, in fact, restoratively just when he restores those who have faith in Christ (3:26)? In other words, I still don't see the need for a blood-stained cross in your system.

I think Paul's logic in this section of Romans makes much more sense if the question he's addressing is not "When will God restore broken, fractured lives" (important as that question is) but rather, "How can God possibly forgive punishment-deserving rebels in a way that doesn't make a mockery of the very retribution they deserve?" In other words, How can God be both just and the justifier? Remember, the question that sets this section going is a question of God's wrath against rebellious humans (1:18-3:20). It's not a question about our fractured human lives. We are victims to be sure, but far more serious is the fact that we are perpetrators and that all our sin is finally directed Godward.

I think the fruit of your view of the atonement is wonderful and accurate it just lacks the root to support it.

Thanks for the interaction, Derek. I'm learning a lot from it.

At 10:46 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Peter, these are good questions. I think I will deal with them in blog posts rather than in the comments here so I can have a bit more space to get into them. The first post will address Psalm 51:4, and the second Paul's argument in Romans 1-3.

At 6:41 AM, Anonymous Garry Williams said...

Derek - as you know I wrote the chapter from which the authors of PFOT draw the patristic examples that you dispute (in my DPhil on Hugo Grotius). So I've written a reply to your article that has come out in EQ. If you haven't seen it, and in case any of your readers want to follow this through to see how the examples can be defended against your criticisms, it is available on the John Owen Centre website, here:

At 9:01 AM, Blogger Peter Gurry said...

Garry, thanks for sharing. I just saw a notice about your article yesterday so the timing is impeccable! I'm told that Peter Ensor has an article in the same issue arguing that Justin Martyr also affirms penal substitution in his Dialogue.

At 10:08 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Thanks for posting Garry, I look forward to reading it.

At 12:01 AM, Anonymous Simon Marc said...

Penal substitution (as formulated by the Reformed) was simply not taught by the Fathers. see for example: ; ;

A quote from one of the blog posts of Father Stephen:

"Orthodoxy comes late to this entire discussion, having been completely absent at the Reformation, and not a party to the debates between liberal and conservative Protestants in the 20th century. The understanding of Christ’s atoning death developed in a very different manner in the Eastern Church. Untouched by the debates of the Reformation, alien to the metaphors that came to dominate in the Latin-Germanic West in the Middle Ages, the atonement never became a matter of debate or conciliar doctrine in the East. The language used in the prayers of the Liturgy were probably the most eloquent statements of Christ’s atoning death, but generally made no mention of the ideas found in the Substitionary model."


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