Historical Reflections on Substitutionary Atonement

Arguably, the most well-known, modern scholarly book on the atonement is Gustaf Aulén’s Christus Victor, and its fame is justly deserved for a number of good reasons.1 It compares the three most important conceptions of Christ’s atoning work, and the rigorous comparison contributes to important theological analyses. Aulén argues that the classic view of the atonement, namely, Christ’s triumph over sin and the powers of evil, is the correct and dominant understanding, and he believes that the Latin or substitutionary understanding of the atonement, and the notion of the moral influence of the cross are less important, that they are both historically constructed, and for these reasons that they are ultimately misguided. Indeed, the Latin “legal” view cannot be reconciled with the classic “organic” view, as these different emphases represent irreconcilable trajectories in theology. The thesis of the book is sustained over a vast historical canvas, ranging from biblical materials through the early church fathers, major medieval theologians, and ending with the Protestant Reformers. Aulén’s dismissive handling of the historical evidence for the substitutionary view, however, is seriously flawed and has contributed to two widespread popular myths that this essay seeks to address.

The first myth centers on the timing of the historical development of the substitutionary view. A leading thesis of Christus Victor is that a fully articulated penal substitutionary view of the atonement is not biblical and that it does not appear until Anslem’s Cur Deus Homo in the late eleventh century. To sustain his thesis, Aulén argues that the early fathers emphasized the incarnation and Christ’s triumph over sin, Satan, and death, and he finds little evidence (mere “traces,” in his words) of the idea of Christ paying for the debt we owe to God—a debt that comes about as a result of our sinful disobedience in breaking God’s law. Aulén’s chief exemplar of the classic view is Irenaeus, a highly influential, late-second-century theologian, and there can be little question that Irenaeus does indeed espouse the classic view. But Irenaeus, just as Athanasius, Augustine, Luther, and Calvin in their turn, also articulated a thoroughgoing substitutionary view, and this is a fact that Aulén completely subordinates.2

Irenaeus clearly and repeatedly argues for all the essential elements in what can only be called a penal, substitutionary view of Christ’s atoning work. Several examples, none of which appear in Aulén, should suffice to establish this point. In the incarnation, Christ became “‘the Mediator between God and men’; propitiating indeed for us the Father against whom we had sinned, and cancelling (consolatus) our disobedience by his own obedience; conferring also upon us the gift of communion with, and subjection to, our Maker.”3 And it is precisely Christ’s suffering as a man that is efficacious:

For if no one can forgive sins but God alone, while the Lord remitted them and healed men [people], it is plain that He was Himself the Word of God made the Son of man, receiving from the Father the power of remission of sins; since He was man, and since He was God, in order that since as man He suffered for us, so as God he might have compassion on us, and forgive us our debts, in which we were made debtors to God our Creator.4

A great deal of Anselm’s substitutionary view is already found in these few phrases from the late second century.

Egbert C. Smyth, in an old but penetrating study, argues that the prevalent view of the atonement in the early church was substitutionary, and he sums up the leading ideas of Irenaeus:

His death is a “correction of the First Begotten” [Adam]. It fulfills the Passover. It remits our debt, our debt to God by transgression, a debt to none other but God, whose commandment we had transgressed in the beginning. For this transgression we are “in bonds of condemnation.” Death is a penal evil. Separation from God, antithetic to fellowship of God, is death. Sin is enmity to God. There is broken a friendship. Christ removes all that hinders its complete restoration. This involves not only influence on or for man, but propitiation.

Again, Smyth observes: “His [Irenaeus’] thought moves on the line of a theory of an objective atonement, whose spiritual principle and method are found in Christ’s obedience, an obedience conceived of by him as recapitulatory and propitiatory, as involving death, as meeting the penalty of violated law.”5 Death as the divine penalty for sin and Christ bearing our sins by his death in our stead are the necessary lynchpins for any idea of substitution, and these links are clearly evident in the thought of Irenaeus.

Tertullian-engraving-1000x1206TERTULLIAN (ca. AD 160–225) was a prolific Christian author and apologist from the ancient city of Carthage, and the first to produce an extensive body of Christian literature in Latin. He is often associated with the concept of the Trinity—an idea that was originally rejected as heresy but later proclaimed as orthodoxy in the church. He was an advocate of strict discipline and austerity, and is considered by some to be the “founder of Western theology.” Though little is known of his personal life, it is assumed that he was born into a wealthy class and was exposed to education, which accounts for his immense erudition and resultant corpus of work.

But just several decades after Irenaeus flourished, another line of thinking emerged that was to have profound implications for the Western church right up to the time of the Reformation. The problem evolved out of the question of what is to be done with respect to sins committed after we are baptized. The early practice of penance introduces another term that is sometimes applied to substitutionary atonement, namely, satisfaction. But there are two radically different meanings given to the term. Beginning early in the third century, satisfaction applied to our own acts of penance, and only later did it refer to Christ’s work on the cross, and precisely here is the source of no little confusion over the nature of the atonement. Tertullian first developed the idea in about AD 200 that if we commit any sin after we are baptized we must perform penitential acts that satisfy God’s righteousness. These penitential acts, including various forms of bodily mortification, such as fasting and wearing sackcloth and ashes, are called by Tertullian acts of satisfaction. Sin is expiated (Tertullian’s word) and God’s righteousness is satisfied by what we do in penance. The essential idea here is that guilt is remitted by Christ’s atoning work thereby granting us salvation, but punishment is still required for sins committed after baptism. These righteous acts of penance are thus known as acts of satisfaction, and they atone for our sins and expiate them, rendering us acceptable before God. The practice assumes that the person is a baptized Christian who possesses salvation and that these acts of satisfaction bear only on temporal punishment, that is, punishment in this life or in the intermediate state (not eternal punishment), but it is clear that by this legal understanding of the cross, a significant question mark (to say the least) had been placed over the matter of the security of one’s salvation.

This understanding of satisfaction was thoroughly elaborated by Cyprian, Augustine, and others, and it was carried down to the eve of the Reformation in treatises on the atonement. For example, deeds of mercy were heavily emphasized by Augustine, and he spoke of them as proper acts of satisfaction that propitiate God for our sin. The practice of penance for post-baptismal sins was thereby understood to consist in the three successive acts of contrition, verbal confession, and acts of satisfaction. Even in Anselm’s treatise on substitutionary atonement, we find the same caveat regarding the necessity of acts of satisfaction for sins committed after baptism. Anselm also used the term “satisfaction” for the atoning work of Christ, understood in a substitutionary sense, thereby applying the same term to both Christ’s work on the cross and our acts of bodily mortification to expunge our own sins. Western theologians in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries worked out the theological rationale for penance and brought the tendency to separate between guilt and punishment to its final, dogmatic expression. On the eve of the Reformation, it was widely held that in the forgiveness of sins God forgives or remits guilt, but because it is fitting for God to punish sin, he commutes eternal punishment to temporal punishment. And thus, while our guilt is forgiven, temporal punishment for our sins is required, and thus we make satisfaction to God through our various acts of penance.

Irenaeus-of-Lyons-illustration-by-D.Klitsie-1200x1453IRENAEUS OF LYONS (ca. AD 202) was an early church father, apologist, and bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul (then a part of the Roman Empire). His authority stemmed from exposure to the teachings of Polycarp of Smyra, a disciple of the apostles themselves, giving him access to an “unadulterated gospel.” His writings, formative in the establishment of the Christian church, emphasized tradition and were directed against Gnosticism, a heresy then spreading throughout the church. The most significant of his writings was Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies: Refutation and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So-Called). He is recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

The second popular myth propounded by Aulén brings us to the Protestant Reformation. Aulén argued that Martin Luther adopted the classic view of the atonement to address the problems inherent in the Latin view, and that Christus Victor is the dominant view in Luther.6 While there are strong elements of the classic view in Luther’s thought, Luther in fact corrects the legalistic aspects of the Latin view of our performing penitential acts of satisfaction by a rigorous articulation of the penal substitutionary viewpoint. Aulén, just as with his treatment of Irenaeus, has forced a false choice upon his readers in that both the classic and the Latin views are at work in Luther’s theology, and the dominant and most important understanding is clearly the Latin view purged of its legalism.

The Reformation began as a debate over the nature of true repentance and the practice of penance. Luther’s well-known agony over his own salvation and his answer to both the abuses of penance and the use of indulgences is located precisely in the cross of Christ and its full efficacy. First, Luther’s substitutionary view is thoroughgoing. Christ in his mediatorial role “is a sinner, who has and bears the sin of Paul, the former blasphemer, persecutor, and assaulter; of Peter, who denied Christ; of David, who was an adulterer and a murderer. . . . He took these sins, committed by us, upon His own body, in order to make satisfaction for them with His own blood.” The term “satisfaction” here is carefully chosen, since the atonement includes punishment for our sins; in other words, the atonement is clearly penal. It was right, says Luther, for Christ “to bear the punishment and the wrath of God—not for his own Person, which was righteous and invincible and therefore could not become guilty, but for our person.” Herein are the grounds of our justification and our assurance of salvation. This doctrine, writes Luther, is “so sweet and so filled with comfort” because it teaches that “Christ became a curse for us, that is, a sinner worthy of the wrath of God; that He clothed Himself in our person, laid our sins upon His own shoulders, and said: ‘I have committed the sins that all men [people] have committed.’”7

Second, by emphasizing the full satisfaction of Christ’s atoning work, Luther completely rejects the legal notion of our rendering satisfaction for our own sins. The emphasis obviously involves a rejection of our actions being meritorious because Christ is the only one who has merited favor since he alone acted without sin. Christ is “a Propitiator and a Savior” who has “performed a superabundance of works and merits of [all kinds]. . . . He might have made satisfaction for the sins of the world with only one drop of his blood, but now he has made abundant satisfaction.” “Abundant satisfaction” leaves nothing for us to render to God for our own sins. For Luther, when a person attempts “to make satisfaction for his [or her] sins,” the grace of Christ is nullified. Thus, one’s “own works and afflictions” have no bearing whatsoever on salvation or restoration after sin, for if absolution comes through acts of penance, Christ died to no purpose.8

Other Reformers followed this same line of thinking and drew a sharp distinction between the full satisfaction of Christ and any notion of the validity of acts of satisfaction in penance. John Calvin, for example, argues that Christ’s atonement is substitutionary and alone has “the power of expiating, appeasing, and making satisfaction.” The atonement is “penal” in that Christ bore “the punishment” and vengeance due for our sins.” Christ’s sacrifice alone removes both penalty and guilt, and it alone, therefore, is properly a “satisfaction.” Calvin specifically denies the old distinction between eternal and temporal punishment and concludes, “if we are delivered from guilt through Christ, the penalties that arise from it must cease.”9 Just as with Luther, he depicts various forms of punishment in penance as “worthless” and “wretched satisfactions,” and like Luther, he makes the penal, substitutionary atonement the ground of our joyful confidence in God’s gracious and complete forgiveness.10

The identical structure of argument is found in the English Reformers. William Tyndale argues that Christ’s work on the cross “satisfies” God’s righteousness, and he adds, using the phrase in Latin for emphasis, that Christ made “full satisfaction both a poena and a culpa” [for punishment and guilt] and then observes, “with our holy father’s leave,” both for sins that occur before baptism and for those that occur after.11 Thomas Cranmer similarly argues that no punishment is left for us to bear because Christ bore it all, and his understanding of both the substitutionary atonement and the critique of our rendering satisfaction for sins were clearly rendered in the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican Church. Article II indicates that Christ “truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men [people],” and in Article XXXI we find: “The Offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone.” It is scarcely possible to overemphasize the importance of Christ bearing the penalty for our sins in the teaching of sixteenth-century Protestants.

Understanding the longer history of penal substitutionary atonement and how it actually functions historically suggests several important reasons for why the doctrine is still important for us today. First, it was arguably the dominant view in the century following the apostles and in continuity with their teaching; it should therefore not be treated dismissively. Then, once it is placed in the sixteenth-century context of the debate over penance, it becomes clear why the accent comes down on the “penal” side of the atonement. With the Reformers everything changes because this “penalty” for sin is borne, not by the Christian in any sense, but by Christ alone.

It might be argued that because of the doctrine’s historical location and because of the radically different relations between Protestants and Catholics today, that the penal aspects are now less theologically relevant than they once were. But it should be noted that theological ramifications necessarily radiate out from this central doctrine. For example, the doctrine disallows any synergism with respect to our salvation by placing all merit in Christ alone, and it also underscores the radical nature of sin. Crucially, therefore, substitutionary atonement serves as the foundation for our assurance of salvation by undergirding the doctrine of justification. Christ’s completed work on the cross alone gives us confidence on the day of judgment. Additionally, substitutionary atonement is essential for understanding how the Reformers construed the Christian life and everyday spirituality. On the one hand, it leaves no basis for temporal bodily mortifications and hence contributes directly to the rejection of monasticism and the doctrine of the intermediate state. On the other hand, our motivation for Christian living is placed on the new foundation of the assurance of salvation and joyful thanksgiving for all that God has done for us in Christ. Other views of the atonement are certainly biblical and should be embraced today, but none of the other doctrines have accomplished so much in the history of the church as the penal substitutionary view.

1. Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement (trans. A. G. Hebert; New York: Collier, 1969 [1931]).
2. Ibid., 16–35, 84, 86.
3. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.17.1, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers 1 (ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979 [1885]). See also 4.8.2 where in performing the offices of the high priest Christ “propitiates” God for people.
4. Ibid., 5.17.3.
5. Egbert C. Smyth, The Prevalent View, in the Ancient Church, of the Purpose of the Death of Christ: An Historical Study (Boston, 1900), 8–9.
6. Compare Aulén, Christus Victor, 101–22, with Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), 201–23: Luther, writes Althaus, “decisively follows the Latin line” (222).
7. Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians (1535), in Luther’s Works 26 (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 1963), 277, 283–84.
8. Ibid., 132, 182.
9. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; Library of Christian Classics 20–21; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 3.17.4, 3.4.30; see also 3.4.26.
10. Ibid., 3.16.3, 3.4.27.
11. William Tyndale, The Exposition of the First Epistle of St. John, in English Reformers (ed. T. H. L Parker; Library of Christian Classics 26; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966), 113.

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Fall 2012, “No Cross, No Christianity: The Biblical Shape of Atonement Theology.”