New Article: The Abolishment of Retribution in the Church Fathers

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

 In 2010 I wrote an article for EQ entitled "Substitutionary atonement in the Church Fathers" (you'll find a link in the Articles section to the right) where I argued that the "substitutionary" aspect of the atonement was not understood by the Fathers in the terms of retributive justice (as the Calvinist doctrine of penal substitution holds) but in terms of God's restorative justice.

Recently, Garry Williams has written a rebuttal of my article in EQ where he argues that the Fathers did understand substitution in terms of the fulfillment of retributive justice. After this came out many of you wrote to me and asked for my response to his critiques. Well, today is your lucky day! I've written a response entitled:

The Abolishment of Retribution in the Church Fathers

In this new article I decided not to reply to every point Garry made in his article (which I thought would just be self-indulgent and tedious to most folks). Instead, I decided to take the strongest points he made, and address those in a deep way. So I've focused the article on two big figures: Athanasius and Augustine.

I dig in deep to their respective understandings of the atonement, getting into a lot of the Greek for Athanasius, but also (and I think perhaps more substantially) using my artist's eye to recognize the broad narrative themes they both paint of God's struggle to save humanity. So there's lots of good stuff for you theology nerds out there to sink your teeth into!

 At the same time, I wanted to go beyond my first article and ask some more probing questions of the Fathers: Beyond their understanding of the atonement--which I maintain are clearly based on a model of God's restorative justice--do the Church Fathers also embrace the way of restorative justice as it applies to our lives together? In other words, is their understanding of God's restorative justice only applied to our individual personal salvation, and the rest of life governed by retributive/punitive justice? Or does that understanding of God's restorative justice inform how we should act in our world--including how we understand the role of civil authority? Considering the history of violence and religion that still shapes our thought today, these are difficult but critical questions to ask.

So give it a read and let me know what you think in the comments below!

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At 8:10 PM, Anonymous Jon said...

Nice job, Derek. I've added the paper to my Favorites.
I've put off looking at the debate for a few years and your explanation was as helpful as the look at the positions of the church fathers.

At 11:29 PM, Anonymous simmmo said...

I'm working my way through the article Derek. Great so far.

Just one question (so far that is!). When you say that death, for Athanasius, is the result of "retributive justice", is this retributive justice a image or metaphor he is using to explain why death has come upon humanity? Most Eastern Orthodox would see death as the consequence of humanity separating themselves from God who is the source of life. So when God told Adam that if he ate of the fruit, he would surely die, this is not a threat of punishment, but a statement of consequence of sin - separating ourselves from Life Himself, i.e. God. God did not say to Adam, "If you eat this fruit, I will kill you as punishment". So I guess I'm a little confused about your characterisation of death as retributive punishment for disobedience.

At 8:52 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


Yes, I think you are exactly right. Athanasius describes our corruption as "the work of God being undone" (ch 6). When we think in terms of divine punishment, this implies that it is God's choice, what God wills. But Athanasius describes it as something that is "intolerably awful" for God. So it would be more accurate to describe this in terms of natural consequence. He says that when we cut ourselves off from God, we cut ourselves off from life "But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death" (ch 4). So we have God who wants us to have life, and the consequences of our actions cutting ourselves off from God's life.

The reason I had said that Athanasius began with the assumption of retributive justice is because he assumes that we get sick and die as a result of our sin. I think Athanasius is wrong here. Leukemia and muscular dystrophy are not divine punishments because of our sin! What a horrible thing to say.

The problem for God (as Athanasius sees it) is one of moral consequence. God cannot simply overlook our sin. There should be consequences to actions. The ultimate solution however is not to ignore our moral (and physical) sickness, but to heal it. I think Athanasius half got this. He still seemed to think that there needed to be punishment that God in Christ bore for us (ch 9: "he fulfilled the debt by his death"). There I think Athanasius was wrong, bound in the fallen logic of his own culture.

Augustine seems to get this concept more, and sees our healing as the sole solution: God heals us and then wrath is removed because sin is gone. As you'll see however, there are some big problems in Augustine's view too, also bound to his fallen culture so that he justifies violence in the name of God.

So the Father's get us part of the way there, but we need to take it all the way. Perhaps we can compare it to how Isaac Newton got us much further towards understanding physics, but science does not stop there, but continues. In the same way, we can learn from the Church Fathers, but we also need to recognize that they got some things wrong.

At 8:01 AM, Blogger ofgrace said...

Thank you so much for this, Derek. I had not realized how much Augustine's writing refutes the underpinnings of Penal Substitution. I find this ironic in that this theory developed in the West, where Augustine was the pre-eminent Church Father on which so much Roman Catholic and Protestant theology was built! I think you addressed this in your earlier paper, but St. Gregory Nanzianzus (one of only three "Fathers" to be dubbed by the Eastern Church "Theologian" because of the profundity of his theological thought, the others being St. John the Apostle and St. Symeon the New Theologian) also specifically refutes and denies that Christ's sacrifice was a payment made to God. He also does not regard it as *legitimately* made to the devil, because the devil, being evil and by nature unjust, has no legitimate claims on God or anyone. And so, in the East, the Ransom Theory, in terms of the Ransom being paid legitimately *to anyone* is denied and refuted as an explanation for the why of Jesus death. Rather, it is simply viewed as the necessary practical means of God overcoming sin and death and thus setting us free from their bondage.

With regard to the failure of so many Christians historically to apply this understanding of the Atonement as restorative justice in their worldly dealings with others, I wonder if you have explored the historic differences in this area between East and West? I note that the Crusades and the Inquisition were instigated and conducted primarily by Western Christians under the Pope, and, along with the Protestant Reformation, were not characteristic of the Eastern Church. I also note that many of the holiest Saints in the Eastern Church were very clear on the necessity of non-violence in the Godhead and in all human relationships. St. Isaac the Syrian perhaps reflects the fullest flowering of this thought, which is also found in some modern "Fathers" in the Eastern Orthodox communion, such as St. Silouan the Athonite.

I do think that it is biblical to allow a role to God's "punishment" not as retributive, but as corrective (as in Hebrews 12), and that it is perhaps more correct to read comments on "punishment" in the early Church Fathers as an acknowledgment of this aspect of God's just (corrective) "punishment" of our sin. I know that St. John Chrysostem uses it in this sense. It seems to me these two aspects of the punishment of sin--corrective and retributive--are very much conflated in the thought of those who embrace Penal Substitution. I find this both spiritually dangerous and repugnant. I believe this leads to some very wrong conclusions about the nature and source of the punishment of the wicked in the afterlife in Western Christian thought and seriously distorts our image of God and how we relate to Him.

Thanks again for your work!

At 8:46 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Thanks for your comments ofGrace! I agree that it would be helpful to identify where those in the church (both in the East & West) have forsaken violence.

While I appreciate the idea of "punishment" being seen as corrective as opposed to being retribution, I would want to caution against this being applied to punishment that we humans inflict. Augustine's intent in advocating beating a person or taking their property and home was to "correct" them. That's why his letter advocating the church violently persecuting people in the name of Christ is called The *Correction* of the Donatists." Along those same lines, our society has beaten children, dehumanized prisoners, and caused a lot of harm all in the name of "corrective" punishment. "This is for your own good!" says the father with a belt in his hand.

So if we see natural calamity and hardship being a way that life can "correct" us, then that perhaps can be a helpful perspective (that is how I would read Hebrews). But if we take this as license to inflict harm on others in the name of God (as Augustine did) then we are doing something horribly wrong.

In the end, I think we need to move away from the idea that God punishes (even in a corrective way), and towards the idea that God enters into our pain and hurt in order to overcome it, and calls us to do the same in love. That is the direction I see Jesus moving us in.

At 10:12 PM, Blogger ofgrace said...

I agree we have to be cautious as humans in how we apply punishment even in a corrective sense, and in my comment I was thinking of it in terms of God's punishment of sin, not ours. Like you, I think of that primarily in terms of the fact that dysfunctional behaviors tend to eventually have painful results, spiritually, socially and physically. My chiropractor tells me that by the time you have a physical symptom (i.e., suffering), there has been a disease process already going on for a long time. As C.S. Lewis argues in the problem of pain, pain is God's megaphone to get our attention. In past eras, it seemed the error was in the direction of violence. Some argue today that there is an error of negligence of proper discipline in family and western society. Usually, I find where there is one (i.e, negligence), there is often the other as well (i.e., abusive punishment) in a bit of an ironic twist.

Several years ago I attended a session on parenting and discipline at my state's Christian home school annual convention. My heart sank when I realized the teacher, a home school father, was from the school of thought that takes the OT admonition to "spare the rod, spoil the child" extremely literally--to the point of advocating the use of an actual rod! I was very uncomfortable with where he very quickly headed, but when someone raised the question regarding corporeal punishment as to how much was enough/too much, I started to feel ill as he described in the most emotionless and casual of terms that he believed the Scripture to be teaching that if you struck the face or left an injury that was going to far, but if you didn't leave a welt, that wasn't enough! I left that session feeling sick to my stomach, and to this day I wish I had, had the guts to stand up and challenge him and all those tacitly agreeing parents sitting there so complacently through what I recognize as a satanic misinterpretation of Scripture.

I recently read some quotes from St. John Chrysostem on parenting, and he is very cautious and advocates "correction" even if only with voice or facial expression (and corporeal as a last resort) in the context only of a full parental love and only as truly necessary. His advice seems very much in line with Scripture's admonition for fathers not to exasperate their children. This seems very far from what you describe of his near contemporary in the Latin world, St. Augustine. There is an Orthodox daily prayer that has the line "Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering or embarrassing others." This, I find, is a consistently Orthodox spirit and approach.

I definitely agree with your third paragraph. I would see corrective punishment as something God uses only as a last resort, and perhaps it is more proper and safe from the full perspective of the gospel in Christ to see it as you describe in your last paragraph. After all, the Scripture is clear that good and evil do not befall people in direct proportion to their virtue or vice. Rather, the evil and suffering that befall us, especially that which is not directly related to our own choices--and this I think describes the bulk of suffering we experience in the world--is visited on us by the enemy who seeks, according to the Eastern Orthodox Fathers, to embarrass and shame us and to destroy God's image. He is indeed defeated by our choosing to enter into one another's suffering (even that which is self-inflicted), as Jesus, did, in full solidarity with the sinner and in self-giving love.

At 3:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Derek. I was directed to your blog today, and I'm glad I found it. I am presently blogging on St Athanasius, and you may find my articles of some small interest: As you will discover, I do disagree with your reading on one point specifically: I simply do not see Athanasius as interpreting the atonement as retributive in any fashion whatsoever. I may be wrong (I'm no scholar), but that's what I see.

I also strongly recommend to you my series on St Isaac the Syrian: St Isaac was a strong opponent of attributing retributive punishment to God. You will find in him a comrade in arms.

At 1:02 PM, Blogger Rene Lafaut said...

What I gather from above content is that those who hold to penal substitution are in fact saying that while the Father had anger for us Jesus had love that enabled the Father to eventually love us after He vented his anger for us on the Son in the Passion. I thought the Son could only do what He saw the Father doing? When the Father hates the Son hates; when the Father is angry the Son is angry; when the Fathe loves the Son loves. So how can Jesus love us when the Father is angry with us. Sorry Penal Substitution advocates I don't buy your position.


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