It is often thought (and taught) that the early church knew nothing of the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. This view seems to have been popularised by Gustav Aulen, in his celebrated book Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement (trans. A. G. Hebert; New York: Collier, 1969 ). Aulen found mere ‘traces’ of this doctrine in the early fathers.
Many modern opponents of the doctrine of penal substitution tend to follow Aulen uncritically at this point: if this doctrine was not ‘discovered’ until about 500 years ago, how can its proponents claim that it provides an inescapable (possibly central) explanation of what God achieved in Christ?
In his book The Wondrous Cross, Stephen Holmes offers his opinion:-
‘People sometimes claim to find penal substitutionary atonement in the church fathers in particular….I can find one isolated passage in Gregory the Great, but nothing else. When I look at the texts where people claim to find the fathers talking in penal substitutionary terms, I almost always find language of ransom or sacrifice. This seems to be read by some modern readers as if it should be understood as penal substitution.’
Holmes adds that, in addition to the clear example of Gregory the Great, Athanasius and Chrysostom come close to espousing a doctrine of penal substitution.
In his Historical Theology, Greg Allison traces the development of the doctrine of the atonement from the early church onwards. As far as this scholar is concerned, it was the Reformers who introduced the penal substitutionary theory, modeling it somewhat on Anselm’s satisfaction theory. The penal view ‘became the standard view of the atonement among Protestants’, although it did not go unchallenged.
In Pierced for our transgressions, Jeffrey, Ovey and Sach offer evidence in support of their view that penal substitution was taught by many of the teachers of the early church. (They do not, of course, claim that it was the only view of the atonement taught at that time).
In an article in Evangelical Quarterly, Derek Flood objected to Jeffrey et al’s treatment of the evidence, protesting that the ancient authors had been misinterpreted. Garry Williams (on whose doctoral thesis Jeffrey et al had relied quite heavily) published a response to Flood in the same journal.
All I can do here is to reproduce some of the relevant statement of the Church Fathers (mainly as presented by Jeffrey et al), in order to suggest that the idea that the doctrine of penal substitution is a theological novelty partakes somewhat of the character of an urban myth.
Clement of Rome (c. 35-99)
“Love knows nothing of division, love does not foment rebellion, love does everything in harmony; in love all the elect of God are made perfect; without love nothing is pleasing to God. In love the Master received us; because of the love he had towards us, our Lord Jesus Christ gave his blood for us in accord with the will of God: his flesh for the sake of our flesh, his life for our lives.”
Justin Martyr (c. 100-165)
“For the whole human race will be found to be under a curse. For it is written in the law of Moses, ‘Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them.’ And no one has accurately done all, nor will you venture to deny this; but some more and some less than others have observed the ordinances enjoined. But if those who are under this law appear to be under a curse for not having observed all the requirements, how much more shall all the nations appear to be under a curse who practice idolatry, who seduce youths, and commit other crimes?
If, then, 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, why do you argue about Him, who submitted to suffer these things according to the Father’s will, as if he were accursed, and do not rather bewail yourselves?”
Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 275-339)
“And the Lamb of God…was chastised on our behalf, and suffered a penalty He did not owe, but which we owed because of the multitude of our sins; and so He became the cause of the forgiveness of our sins, because He received death for us, and transferred to Himself the scourging, the insults, and the dishonor, which were due to us, and drew down upon Himself the appointed curse, being made a curse for us.”
Athanasius (c. 300-373)
“The Word perceived that corruption could not be got rid of otherwise than through death; yet He Himself, as the Word, being immortal and the Father’s Son, was such as could not die. For this reason, therefore, He assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, itself remaining incorruptible through his indwelling, might thereafter put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection. It was by surrendering to death the body which He had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from every stain, that He forthwith abolished death for His human brethren by the offering of the equivalent. For naturally, since the Word of God was above all, when He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled in death all that was required.”
Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 330-390)
“As for my sake He was called a curse, Who destroyed my curse; and sin, who taketh away the sin of the world; and became a new Adam to take the place of the old, just so He makes my disobedience His own as Head of the whole body. As long then as I am disobedient and rebellious, both by denial of God and by my passions, so long Christ is called disobedient on my account.”
Ambrose of Milan (339-397)
“And so then, Jesus took flesh that He might destroy the curse of sinful flesh, and He became for us a curse that a blessing might overwhelm a curse, uprightness might overwhelm sin, forgiveness might overwhelm the sentence, and life might overwhelm death. He also took up death that the sentence might be fulfilled and satisfaction might be given for the judgment, the curse placed on sinful flesh even to death. Therefore, nothing was done contrary to God’s sentence when the terms of that sentence were fulfilled, for the curse was unto death but grace is after death.”
John Chrysostom (c. 349-407)
“If one that was himself a king, beholding a robber and malefactor under punishment, gave his well-beloved son, his only-begotten and true, to be slain; and transferred the death and the guilt as well, from him to his son (who was himself of no such character), that he might both save the condemned man and clear him from his evil reputation; and then if, having subsequently promoted him to great dignity, he had yet, after thus saving him and advancing him to that glory unspeakable, been outraged by the person that had received such treatment: would not that man, if he had any sense, have chosen ten thousand deaths rather than appear guilty of so great ingratitude? This then let us also now consider with ourselves, and groan bitterly for the provocations we have offered our Benefactor; nor let us therefore presume, because though outraged He bears it with long-suffering; but rather for this very reason be full of remorse.”
Augustine of Hippo (c. 354-430)
‘But as Christ endured death as man, and for man; so also, Son of God as He was, ever living in His own righteousness, but dying for our offences, He submitted as man, and for man, to bear the curse which accompanies death. And as He died in the flesh which He took in bearing our punishment, so also, while ever blessed in His own righteousness, He was cursed for our offences, in the death which He suffered in bearing our punishment.’
‘For even the Lord was subject to death, but not on account of sin: He took upon him our punishment, and so looseth our guilt. . . . Now, as men were lying under this wrath by reason of their original sin . . . there was need for a mediator, that is for a reconciler, who by the offering of one sacrifice, of which all the sacrifices of the law and the prophets were types, should take away this wrath. . . . Now when God is said to be angry, we do not attribute to him such a disturbed feeling as exists in the mind of an angry man; but we call his just displeasure against sin by the name “anger,” a word transferred by analogy from human emotions.’ (Exposition of Psalm 51)
Gregory the Great (540-604)
Here (presumably) is the passage that Stephen Holmes says (without actually quoting it) is the isolated instance of penal substitution in the Church Fathers:-
‘It is to be explained, however, how God can be just, how he disposes all things wisely, if he condemns the one who does not deserve punishment. Our Redeemer surely should not be punished on his own account, because he did not do anything to bring guilt upon himself. But if he did not accept a death he did not deserve, he would never free us from the death we deserve. The Father is just; he punishes the just one. All his arrangements are just; therefore, he justifies every thing because he condemns the sinless one for the sake of sinners. All the chosen will rise to reach the summit of justice, because he who is above all things accepted the condemnation wrought by our injustice.’ (Source)
Epistle to Diognetus (circa 200 AD)
A further example is given by says Michael Kruger, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary.
The Epistle to Diognetus dates back to the 2nd century. The following extracts are clear enough, I think, to stand without comment.
Sin and its penalty. ‘And when we had demonstrated that we were powerless to enter the kingdom of God on our own, were were enabled by the power of God. For our unrighteous way of life came to fruition and it became perfectly clear that it could expect only punishment and death as its ultimate reward.’
God’s grace. ‘But then, when the time arrived that God planned to reveal at last his goodness and power (Oh the supreme beneficence and love of God!), he did not hate us, destroy us, or hold a grudge against us.’
God’s self-substitution. ‘But [God] was patient, he bore with us, and out of pity for us took our sins upon himself. He gave up his own Son as a ransom for us, the holy one for the lawless, the innocent one for the wicked, the righteous one for the unrighteous, the imperishable one for the perishable, the immortal one for the mortal.’
Imputation. ‘For what else could hide our sins but the righteousness of that one? How could we who were lawless and impious be made upright except by the son of God alone? Oh the sweet exchange! . . . That the lawless deeds of many should be hidden by the one who was upright, and the righteousness of one should make upright the many who were lawless!’
Penal substitution was not the only – nor even the main – explanation of the atonement in the early centuries of the Christian church. Nor was it worked out with any great precision or coherence. It was not until the time of the Reformation that Calvin and others began to give a more systematic account. Since then has risen to greater prominence in evangelical thinking, such that in some circles it is the dominant view of the atonement.
All I have attempted to show in this article, then, is that the doctrine was quite well known and quite widely taught in the early church.
Garry J Williams, Penal substitutionary atonement in the Church Fathers.
Allison, Gregg. Historical Theology. Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition. Chapter 18.
Sean Sheeran, Did Calvin Popularize Penal Substitution?