Is The Doctrine Of Penal Substitutionary Atonement A Late, Western Doctrine?

Recently on Twitter, Tim Keller wrote,

The gospel is neither religion nor irreligion it is something else altogether. Religion makes law and moral obedience a means of salvation, while irreligion makes the individual a law to self. The gospel is that Jesus pays the penalty of disobedience so we can be saved by grace.

My interest here is not primarily to engage the contemporary juxtaposition of religion with the gospel except to say that Keller’s characterization is both quite popular and virtually without foundation in the history of Christianity until quite recently. I think I understand the point that he is making and I do not entirely disagree with it but it is unfortunate that so many have chosen to use the noun religion as a foil. Religion is unavoidable. Everyone has one, whether or not they admit it. There is what Paul calls “will-worship” (translated by the NASB as “self-made religion” in Col 2:23). As Keller well knows, James uses religion in a different sense in James 1:26–27:

If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion (θρησκεία) is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion (θρησκεία) in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world (James 1:26–27; NASB).

According to James, there is nothing wrong with being religious. The noun translated “religion” also means “worship.” There is a “pure and undefined” religion. There is a God ordained worship (Col 2:23) and there is “will-worship.” What is wrong with a religion of salvation by works is not that it is a religion but that it teaches salvation by works.

The point of this essay is to engage a reply to Keller’s comment by Stuart Hazeldine, the director of the film version of The Shack, 2017, who wrote:

OR he paid a ransom to the powers of evil to free us from our bondage to sin – as most of the church originally believed before so many Western Christian thinkers fell in love with the idea of penalties and punishment.

I take Hazeldine to be repeating the widely held but erroneous notion that the earliest Christian doctrine of the atonement was some version of the Ransom Theory, whereby Christ died, as Hazeldine wrote, to pay a ransom to the Devil to free us. Think of the scene in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, when Aslan allows himself to be humiliated, placed on a stone table, and killed in order to break the power of the “deep magic.” That is a good picture of the Ransom Theory of the atonement. It has also been argued that the earliest thus most authentic doctrine of the atonement is the “Christus Victor” approach, in which Christ is said to have died to triumph over the power of evil. This view, it is claimed, was the authentic ancient Christian view until it was supplanted by the penal substitutionary doctrine of the atonement taught by Anselm in the late 11th century in Cur Deus Homo? (Why the God-Man?).

About a decade ago I wrote part of the entry on “The Atonement,” for The Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2009). As I researched the question, of course, I read Gustaf Aulén’s Christus Victor. For many this volume has become the standard historical survey of the doctrine of the atonement. I found it quite disappointing. The categories are anachronistic and his principal types simply do not fit his categories neatly. Anselm’s “Satisfaction” (the penal substitutionary view) view was not new to him. Athanasius taught virtually the same doctrine, in the same categories in the 4th century. Abelard’s alleged “Moral Examplar” doctrine of the atonement in his commentary on Romans is not exactly what he wrote in his Sic et Non (This and Not This) his theological textbook. There is substitutionary language in his Romans commentary and text was intended more to give students an opportunity to work through problems than to give his views. Finally, though one certainly sees elements of Christus Victor in the ancient church there is no need to juxtapose that theme with the doctrine of satisfaction nor is it at all clear to me that the latter is not just as ancient and well sourced in the second, third, and fourth-century fathers as the Christus Victor view. Christ was both triumphant and the satisfaction of the divine wrath.

Each fall I have the privilege of reading the Apostolic Fathers along with several other Patristic texts with a group of students in the Patristics Seminar. Each time we go through these texts I am impressed not with the absence of the language about Christ’s satisfaction but with its presence in places where one might expect it and almost always without apology. In other words, the fathers who mention, even in passing, seem to take it for granted that this is apostolic doctrine. Of course, they knew their Old Testament. They knew about the sacrificial system. They understood the significance of the priest placing his hands on the head of a lamb or a goat, that those sacrifices symbolized the transference of sin and guilt and the execution of divine justice upon them in the sacrifice. The early Christians understood the significance of the Baptizer’s declaration: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Further, it is striking how freely and how often the Fathers either assume or say that there is a legal, hence penal aspect to our relationship with God. In the Greco-Roman world it was well understood that relationships were grounded in law. The early Christians did not do, as we often seem to do today, juxtapose relationships with law.

There are a number of windows on the way the early fathers considered the legal aspect of our relationship to God, e.g., justification. This is an inherently legal category. To be justified is to be declared righteous. One of the earliest orthodox post-apostolic texts to which we have access is 1 Clement. There we find a brief but clear account of our legal righteousness with God through faith alone in Christ. Another topic under which we see the early Christian pastors and theologians thinking about salvation in legal categories is regarding judgment. Consider this striking sentence in Polycarp’s epistle to the Philippians: “His blood will God require of those who do not believe in Him.” (Polycarp Ad Phil., 2). This declaration makes the most sense when we understand that Polycarp was assuming the legal understanding of Christ’s incarnation and death. God will require the blood of the one who has not believed because righteousness has already been satisfied. One hears echoes of Hebrews 10:26–31:

For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God (NASB).

One of the more striking passages, in early Christian literature, on the atonement and salvation occurs in Ad Diognetus c. AD 150. This is a Greek apologetic or appeal to an unbeliever. In chapter 5 the anonymous author (C. E. Hill argues that it was Polycarp) wrote:

[God] himself took on him the burden of our iniquities, he gave his own Son as a ransom for us, the Holy One for transgressors, the blameless one for the wicked, the righteous one for the unrighteous, the incorruptible one for the corruptible, the immortal one for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than his righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! — that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single Righteous One, and that the righteousness of one should justify many transgressors!

Among the several fascinating aspects of this passage is that we see that another of Aulén’s juxtapositions crumbles. It is clear in context that the “Disciple” who wrote the treatise uses the language of ransom but the payment is not to “the powers of evil” but to God. The payment is due because of sins, which need to be covered. The writer was thinking more about substitution and imputation than ransoming us from Satan. We need to be justified. That is a legal category. Indeed, were we not certain that this was second-century text, we might think that it was written by a sixteenth-century Anselmian Protestant theologian.

So far we all the texts we have considered appeared before or by AD 150 and all of them were Greek writers. In other words, none of them were “Western” and certainly none were late. Is there any evidence among early Greek-writing theologians, however, of any sort of a penal-substitutionary doctrine of the atonement? Certainly.

Ignatius, the pastor of Antioch, who was in Rome to be martyred, wrote to one of the congregations that has sent delegations to greet him on his trip. In passing he wrote, “For [Christ] suffered all these things for us that we might attain salvation, and he truly suffered even as he also truly raised himself…” (Ad Smyrnaeans, 2.1). In context, this sentence makes the most sense when understood in penal substitutionary terms but the picture becomes clearer in Irenaeus. In his great work, Against Heresies (c. AD 170), Irenaeus, the Greek-writing pastor of Lyons, wrote “Learn then, ye foolish men, that Jesus who suffered for us, and who dwelt among us, is Himself the Word of God (Adv. Haer. 9.3).” The prepositional phrase “for us” seems to signal a substitutionary understanding of the atonement. Irenaeus wrote this work to respond to the Gnostics, so his chief interest is not to detail Christian doctrine but he did survey it briefly and he did touch directly on the atonement:

Now this being is the Creator (Demiurgus), who is, in respect of His love, the Father; but in respect of His power, He is Lord; and in respect of His wisdom, our Maker and Fashioner; by transgressing whose commandment we became His enemies. And therefore in the last times the Lord has restored us into friendship through His incarnation, having become “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 (Adv. Haer. 17.1: ).”

When Irenaeus called God a “Demiurge,” he was mocking the Gnostics, who distinguished between a Creator whom they thought of a mere “Demiurge” and the New Testament God of Love. Notice that, for Irenaeus, sin is defined as transgression of the law. The incarnation was to restore enemies to a state of friendship. How? By “propitiating” the wrath of God. Is that not the heart of the penal-substitutionary doctrine of the atonement? Cancelling, propitiation, and obedience for disobedience each point to aspects of the legal basis for a restored friendship with God. For Irenaeus, our intimate relationship with God has a legal premise.

In the fourth century, Athanasius (the pastor of Bishop of Alexandria), in his great work On the Incarnation of the Word, taught at length and explicitly the very same doctrine of the atonement, which Aulén said was to be found first in Anselm, in AD 1095.

“But just as this consequence must needs hold, so, too, on the other side the just claims of God lie against it: that God should appear true to the law He had laid down concerning death. For it were monstrous for God, the Father of truth, to appear a liar for our profit and preservation. 2. So here, once more, what possible course was God to take?” (De incarnatione, 7.1–2)

This simply establishes that Athanasius thought about the Atonement in legal terms. Penalties are imposed only when laws are broken. So, what how did Athanasius apply this category to the atonement?

…seeing, once more, the unseemliness of what was come to pass: that the things whereof He Himself was Artificer were passing away: seeing, further, the exceeding wickedness of men, and how by little and little they had increased it to an intolerable pitch against themselves: and seeing, lastly, how all men were under penalty of death: He took pity on our race, and had mercy on our infirmity, and condescended to our corruption, and, unable to bear that death should have the mastery—lest the creature should perish, and His Father’s handiwork in men be spent for nought—He takes unto Himself a body, and that of no different sort from ours.”

All humans were under what? A penalty. What sort of penalty? Death? Someone had to pay the penalty as our substitute. According to Athanasius, as for Anselm about 750 years later, because mere humans are guilty but unable to bear the weight of God’s wrath, the Son had to become incarnate as our substitute to pay that penalty. That this is what Athanasius intended becomes clearer in 9.1:

Whence, by offering unto death the body He Himself had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from any stain, straightway He put away death from all His peers by the offering of an equivalent.

This passage is arguably clearer about the penal and substitutionary nature of the atonement than was Anselm, who (because of his context) cast the atonement in terms of “fittingness” and “honor.” Athanasius was quite plain about the necessity of satisfying the law, i.e., justice. His was not a “ransom” theory of the atonement:

For by the sacrifice of His own body, He both put an end to the law which was against us, and made a new beginning of life for us, by the hope of resurrection which He has given us (De incarnatione, 10.5).

This is just a brief survey but it is highly suggestive and seems sufficient to refute the notion that it was “the West” that “fell in love” with penal-substitutionary atonement and that only in the 11th century. In this essay I cited not a single “Western” (i.e., Latin) writer and none later that the mid-fourth century. Rather, legal, penal, and substitutionary ideas are all present in early (Greek) Christian accounts of the atonement long before Anselm.


  1. Dr. Clark,

    How much would the pseudo-Arminian “unlimited atonement” view, (e.g. Geisler) which states that the Atonement doesn’t save men but makes them savable, undermine the importance of the atonement?

    • L. C.,

      Do you mean quasi (as in “sort of”)? Pseudo would = “false.” As far as I know, Geisler’s view, as you summarize it, is the Arminian/Remonstrant view.

  2. If “the Atonement doesn’t save men but makes them savable,” then it is by their own effort, or doing their part that they would be saved. First this is impossible for those who have not been born again, and are dead spiritually, since the Fall. Heid. 6,7,8 Second it makes Christ only half a Savior. BC 22

    • LC,

      Piper also believes that there are two stages of justification, initial and final. Saying, as he does, that the Spirit works sufficient sanctification and good works for final salvation doesn’t change the fundamental error. There are not two stages as I’ve shown at length:

      The two-stage scheme is at variance with the whole biblical picture of salvation and with particular passages, which I’ve explained.

      As to Philippians 2:12–13, Paul’s point is not that salvation is “produced” in us but rather that it is manifested, it is demonstrated, the effects of it are wrought in the life of believers. The context is sanctification. We are saved and Paul wants us to manifest our salvation or its effects. This is the point in v. 12 and in vv. 14–18. It is poor exegesis to do a word study and then, on the basis of a global survey of the word, wedge a meaning into a context. Rather, certainly we want to account for its use elsewhere but we must also and most importantly account for its sense in this passage before us. “Produce” makes little sense here. Look at vv. 2–5. What is Paul doing? He is seeking in inculcate in the Philippian congregation certain attitudes, which evidently some of them lacked (e.g., Euodia and Syntyche). There is nothing in here about the Lord producing salvation in us through good works, which qualify us at some imaginary final justification. There is everything about how we treat one another here and why: because we have been saved by grace alone, through faith alone and we ought to manifest that gracious salvation in the body.

    • Notice that the verse says “work out”, not “work for” your salvation. People who have genuine faith in Christ will by definition be doing good works through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:10). Thus, Christians are able to “work out” their salvation. Works are the product, not the cause, of a saving faith. This verse does not address justification, but rather speaks of sanctification. See especially Philippians 2:13.

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