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Was Penal Substitution Invented in the Reformation?

It is suggested by some theologians that the idea of a God who requires satisfaction for sin was invented in the feudal times of the Reformation (1515-1555). For any crime or disloyalty the feudal lords and petty kings demanded satisfaction – usually by punishment – for the debt incurred against them. It is claimed that this idea was taken from the culture of the time and inserted into Christian thinking on the atonement of Christ rather than the Biblical material itself.

You may have heard it said that Christ received the punishment that we deserved for our sins. In actual fact – or so it is claimed – God is not one for retribution. He makes no demands of satisfaction and has no desire to dish out punishment. Christ died on the cross because of our sins – taking the consequence of them, rather than on account of our sin – to appease God’s justice.

In my previous post, Can a loving God punish the Innocent? we saw this to be false: Penal Substitution was not invented in the Reformation. Isaiah 53 was written about two millennia before the Reformation, and there we find a picture of Servant of the Lord who suffers and dies as a substitute for the sins of the people. Likewise, the New Testament’s account of Christ’s death was interpreted in the light of Isaiah 53 (see Acts 8:26-35; I Peter 2.24; 1 Corinthians 15.3; Romans 4.25; 2 Corinthians 5.21; Mark 10.45) about 1500 years prior to the feudal lords of the middle ages and their view of justice that crimes incurred a penalty.

The context for penal substitution is properly set in the levitical sacrificial system established in the Old Testament. The priest lays his hands on the offering and guilt of the people is transferred to the animal, who is then sacrificed instead. The Jews were very used to the idea of a God of justice who punishes sin, and a God of mercy, who graciously provides a way out. Recall the original Day of Atonement, commemorated in the the Passover Feast, where God instructed the people of Israel, captives in Egypt, to spill the blood of a lamb and paint that blood over the doorway and on their doorposts and lintels. Wherever the blood was painted the angel of death passed over and did not kill the first born son of each household. Here we see; God’s wrath at sin (in the form of a plague), a substitution (the animal), and God’s mercy to those who trust in Him (by providing a way to avoid the consequences of his wrath).

Again, Anselm of Canterbury’s (1033/34–1109) theory of the atonement was entirely punitive. His work Cur Deus Homo? includes what is called today the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement, and was written in the 11th Century. Lest anyone claim that it was Anselm who inserted the medieval culture’s view of justice into Christian thinking on the atonement, he was in fact only articulating things the Church Father had articulated before him. Clement, Justin Martyr, Origen, Cyprian and Eusebius all affirmed the motif of penal substitution.

It is pointed out that wikipedia says something different. 

“In scholarly literature it has been generally recognised for some time that the penal substitution theory was not taught in the Early Church.”


Contrary to the secondary literature and the established wisdom on this historical point, the primary literature reveals that the patristics had a multifaceted view of the atonement that included sacrificial offering, ransom, but also included vicarious suffering and penal substitution as an important aspect in their thinking. 

Numerous quotations can support this. Here are two.

“Men ought to have been punished, but God did not do so. They ought to have perished, but he gave his son in their stead so although we ought to have been punished and perish instead Christ was punished and perished on our behalf.”

John Chrysostom (4th Century).

Here one has the substitutionary punishment sufficient for a Penal Substitutionary Model of the Atonement. 

“What has never been related in any history, is that one suffered death for the whole world and that the whole world was cleansed by this sacrifice whereas without such a sacrifice it must perforce have perish. Christ could only receive on the cross the burden of the sins of all . . . “He took on Him our sins and was smitten for our iniquities . . . the punishment awaiting us fell on Him instead … we are healed by the sufferings of His cross. His Father delivered Him . . . for our misdeeds, He was led to the slaughter for the sins of the people. . . .”

Origen (2nd-3rd Century)

Although Origin is usually associated with the Ransom theory of the atonement, here he actually connects the idea of sacrifice with penal substitution as he found it in Isaiah 53.

In summary, we should be very skeptical of the secondary literature and established wisdom. Neither should we believe that the idea of satisfaction by punishment was not part of the Biblical material and Christian tradition from the earliest times.

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