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Substitutionary atonement

Gary Heard wrote:

It gives me pause to wonder why it is that Jesus asks us to forgive… is it an a priori good idea, or does it flow that we forgive because God has first forgiven us? If the former is the case, then the problems with substitutionary atonement persist. If the latter is the case, then there is no conflict.

Nathan: But if it is the latter AND you want to hold to substitutionary atonement (you could have one without the other), there would still be a problem with making sense of Jesus’ command to be merciful AS our Father in heaven is merciful.

Gary: > I wonder also, Nathan, whether you are caricaturing the doctrine of substitutionary atonement somewhat, particularly in the summary given above. I don’t regard the NT expression as being quite so crass in its depiction of God at the cross.

Nathan: Perhaps that is because the NT depictions are not trying to teach the doctrine of substitutionary atonement?

Yes, I am probably caricaturing the doctrine to some extent, but I don’t know that I am doing it unfairly. I guess that is for others to decide. For those who are still interested enough to do another big slab of reading, I’ve pasted below some extracts from a number of articles. Some of them are favourable to the doctrine (I’m trying to be fair!), but I think that they will at least help establish that: 1. The doctrine originates with Anslem in the medieval period; & 2. The doctrine is pretty much as I have been caracaturing it.

Peace and hope,


_____________________________________ Nathan Nettleton Pastor, South Yarra Community Baptist Church Melbourne, Australia

The following comes from WIKIPEDIA, the free on-line encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anselm_of_Canterbury

“Western theologians regard Anselm as important because he originated the idea of substitutionary atonement in his work, Cur Deus Homo? (“Why did God become Man?”). Anselm argues that man’s sin offends God’s righteousness, and that God cannot save man so long as His righteousness is unsatisfied. Since all men are sinful, no man can satisfy God; consequently, God sent Jesus Christ, whose death and resurrection satisfied God’s righteousness and allowed for the salvation of man. In this way Anselm established one of the most prominent atonement theories in the history of western theology. His theory is generally rejected by the Eastern Orthodox Church and is sometimes cited as the core difference between Eastern and Western Christianity.”


The following comes from the entry on Atonement in the SCM New Dictionary of Christian Theology:

In relation to the death of Christ, the most famous enquiry was that of Anselm (c. 1033-1109). He entitled his relatively short book Cur Deus Homo (Why a God-man?). At the centre of his argument he asserted that it was impossible for God to leave his world in a state of disorder. Yet man had disobeyed and dishonoured his creator, and it was impossible for him to make adequate amends. Only God could achieve what man was incapable of doing. The supreme wonder was that the Son of God had not only lived a life of perfect obedience as man but had also offered himself to endure death, an act which won for mankind the means of completely satisfying the righteous demands and rightful honour of God. Within the hierarchical structure of mediaeval society and the growing concern for order in thetradition of Roman law, Anselm’s exposition of satisfaction * as the necessary way to at-one-ment seemed a convincing rational explanation.

(The earlier parts of this article are well worth reading for a summary of the biblical frameworks of a doctrine of atonement and the understandings that prevailed prior to Anslem.)

* and from the linked entry on Satisfaction:

Satisfaction: amends for a wrong done (see Dan. 4.27 NEB). Tertullian On Repentance argued that repentance was open to those who sinned after baptism; this repentance, which consisted of fasting, public mourning, kneeling to the presbyters, and asking for prayers from all, made satisfaction to God for that sin. The Sentences of Lombard summarized Augustine in teaching that repentance consisted of three parts: contrition or compunction of the heart, confession of the lips, and satisfaction by works. Absolution was attached to confession, and satisfaction thus became the subsequent chastisement. This teaching made room for the giving of indulgences. Calvin argued that all penalties are removed by Christ; any subsequent chastisement, as of David (II Sam. 12.13, 14), is not for punishment but for correction. This distinction, perhaps a quibble, goes back to Augustine.

The term satisfaction was made into a prominent part of the doctrine of the atonement * by Anselm, who drew on remarks in the teaching of Athanasius and Augustine that God had just claims against sinful mankind. Anselm argued that, as a result of sin, God’s honour had to be satisfied; sin had either to be punished or atoned for. To the objection that we are commanded to forgive without either of these requirements, Anselm replied that we had to leave vengeance to God or his agents; we were in no position to ask satisfaction. God the Father could only be satisfied by the freely willed death of God the Son, God become man. Only thus could human nature be restored. No one unless he were man ough’ to repay what man owed to God for sin; no one unless he were God could pay it. What the Son did could not be done in vain, it must be given to those for whom he made himself man, ‘his kindred and brethren, whom he sees burdened with so many and so great debts’.


The following comes from “Why did Jesus Have to Die? A Historical Review of Explanations for Christ’s Death” http://www.nasamike.com/main/book/3gi.htm

For a thousand years the mainline church saw His suffering and death not as salvation’s critical tragedy, but as just one more step in God’s triumphant campaign into the human world and the devil’s domain. The Church Fathers saw Christ’s incarnation and resurrection mainly as a necessary means of overcoming Satan’s hold on and claim to humanity and essential to reconciliation and a new start for humanity. Eastern Orthodox Christians still hold this view. According to writer Fredrica Mathewes-Green, it’s like the firefighter, who comes out of the burning building with the baby in his arms. People tend to ignore his wounds and scars. Christ’s victory was that He snatched everlasting Life out of sin and death.

Other scenarios from the early Church fathers had Christ paying the ransom to the devil for lost humanity. Then, St Augustine likened the devil to a mouse, the cross to a mousetrap, and Christ to the bait. Christ’s mission was to somehow rescue humanity from the legitimate claims of the devil. As others decided to leave the transaction a mystery, they were certain that there was a supernatural battle ongoing in a dimension beyond our direct perception. This conception survives in Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God”. However, the theory developed by Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1098 came to define Christianities majority understanding of the meaning of Christ’s death. He read in the New Testament that Christ’s death was a ransom, but he could not believe that the devil was owed anything, so he restructured the cosmic debt. He posed that humanity owed God the Father a ransom of “satisfaction” for the insult of sin. The problem was that this debt was unpayable. We lacked the means, since everything we have already belongs to God, and we lacked the standing, like the lowly serf in his feudal world was helpless to erase an injury to a great lord. Anselm initiated the concept of substitutionary atonement. Everlasting damnation was unavoidable, except for the miracle of grace. God “recast” Himself somehow into human form (the mystery of the incarnation), Who was both innocent of sin and also God’s social equal. As a human Christ could then suffer Crucifixion’s undeserved agony and dedicate it to the Father on behalf of humanity. Thus Anselm wrote that, “Christ paid for the sinners what He owed not for Himself. Could the Father justly refuse to Man what the Son had willed to give him?” This concept has been restated in many ways since and it has been extended to cover everyone’s transgressions for all of human history. Later, John Calvin the founder of the Presbyterian Church in the 16th century replaced Anselm’s feudal king with a severe judge furious at a deservedly cursed creation. He also introduced the concept that only the “elect” would be saved and they were chosen from before they were born. Here man has no free will, and many are thus predestined to burn in hell without hope that they could ever change that. They can do nothing to secure their salvation and they can do nothing to stay their damnation, so an eternal torture chamber in hell awaits them. Most Christians find this concept, ridiculous in that it casts God as a furious dictator, who would create humans just to burn in hell forever.


The following comes from a book review by J. Scott Horrell in the 159 (January-March 2002) issue of Bibliotheca Sacra and can be found at http://bookcenter.dts.edu/bibsac/default.asp?id=11 The book reviewed is Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in the New Testament and Contemporary Contexts By Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000.

Joel Green, dean of the school of theology at Asbury Theological Seminary, is known for his commentaries on Luke and Acts together with various works including (with John Carroll) The Death of Jesus in Early Christianity (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996). Mark Baker is assistant professor of mission and theology at the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California, and author of Religious No More: Building Communities of Grace and Freedom (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999).

Combining historical-exegetical studies with missiological concern, the authors return to the question of the significance of the Cross. Their purpose is to reground the reader’s understanding of Christ’s death in the biblical witness and to draw fresh, relevant metaphors for communicating the gospel within contemporary cultures, whether in Japan, Tanzania, or New England. However, it is disquieting that they state that the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement as popularized in the United States is “both deficient and disturbing” (p. 92), with “ill effects in the life of the church and . . . little to offer the global church and mission” (p. 220).

Chapter 1, “The Church and the Cross: A Case of Selective Memory,” argues that many biblical metaphors and practical aspects of the Cross have been disregarded for the single theory of penal substitutionary atonement.

The second part of the work evaluates biblical data, demonstrating “The Mélange of Voices” in the New Testament (chaps. 2-3), and then at-tempting to sort them out in thematic strands (chap. 4). Beginning with the Synoptic Gospels, the authors note the scant evidence regarding Jesus’ view of His own death. Conversely they argue that Paul did much to develop the soteriological significance of the Cross, in part by creatively drawing on the shared experience of his listeners (the purchase of slaves, captives of war, etc.). Interestingly Acts says little about the meaning of the Cross, emphasizing instead Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation. Treadling lightly through Hebrews, Johannine and Petrine literature, the authors conclude, “The impression with which we are left is that the death of Jesus is an historical event of such profundity that we can only do it violence by narrowing its meaning to one interpretation or by privileging one interpretation over all the others” (p. 86). Rather, they insist, there must be creative interpretation of the meaning of the Cross. “After all, writers of the books of the New Testament were not concerned to set forth the con-tent of the faith for all times and what they have written does not provide us with systems of theological thought” (pp. 88-89).

Chapter 5 is an assessment of the historical models of the atonement summarized in four major categories: Ireneaus’s Christus Victor model (including Origen’s ransom theory); Anselm’s satisfaction model (“objective,” laudable for translating New Testament images into a feudal con-text, but taking it too far); Abelard’s moral influence model (“subjective,” but the “why” of Jesus’ death is lacking); and Charles Hodge’s penal substitution model. Hodge’s view is said to be grounded in a nineteenth-century North American view of justice, which then dictates how God must act-that is, by punishing His Son in order to have a relationship with humans. Green and Baker further complain that such a forensic model no longer fits the modern context, dismisses the believer’s need for active righteousness, and ignores the social aspects of atonement. Nevertheless the authors do not negate a substitutionary view as part of the New Testament. What they strongly reject is the common belief that such a view alone is the gospel.


The following comes from “The Cross of Christ” by Robert I Bradshaw http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/article_cross.html

Anselm’s Satisfaction or Commercial Theory

Anselm (1033-1109) AD) was made Archbishop of Canterbury following the Norman conquest. His theory of the atonement relied heavily on the feudal system of his day, in which serfs worked on an estate for an overlord. The overlord – a knight – protected the estate from attack. The knight in turn had to honour the King. The serfs owed the knight a debt of honour for their protection and livelihood. Anselm pictured God as the overlord of the world to whom is owed a debt of honour. Failure to honour God is therefore a sin. God cannot overlook such an offence and demands satisfaction. While it is man who owes such a debt to God, the only person capable of paying the debt is God himself. God therefore became man so that he himself could satisfy God’s offended character. Christ’s death accrued a superabundance of merit (also known as supererogation) which is now available for distribution to those who believe. Anselm’s theory takes seriously the gravity of sin and the holiness of God. Unfortunately it goes beyond what the Bible teaches and reads in too much of a culture foreign to the Scriptures. The satisfaction of God’s character that is described is totally external to the individual believer. There is no personal response involved or any change worked on the individual.

(Bradshaw goes on to make a distinction between this “satisfaction theory” and a “penal substitutionary atonement” theory. Most writers seem to equate them, and I’m not convinced that Bradshaw separates them convincingly, and he doesn’t attempt to explain why the latter theory might not be subject to the same criticisms as the former.)


I meant to add to the list of readings to show whether I am unfairly portraying the doctrine, an extract from JI Packer (I Want to be a Christian, p.46-7.

Here it is:

“The cross of Christ has many facets of meaning. As our sacrifice for sins, it was propitiation; that is, a means of quenching God’s personal penal wrath against us by blotting out our sins from his sight….. As our propitiation, it was reconciliation, the making of peace for us with our offended, estranged, angry Creator. We are not wise to play down God’s hostility against us sinners; what we should do is to magnify our Saviour’s achievement for us in displacing wrath by peace.”


Alan Wright wrote:

The only ‘necessity’ for Jesus to ‘endure the cross’ was the necessity for God-in-Christ to be true to Himself—giving expression to His very nature, thereby confronting evil (only God’s ways work,,,love understanding , integrity, gentleness etc) non-violently and absorbing it into His own infinite goodnesss, and then utterly transcending it in the resurrection–‘it was impossible for the grave to hold him’)

Nathan: I wish I could have said it as succinctly as that! I rest my case!

Peace and hope,


_____________________________________ Nathan Nettleton Pastor, South Yarra Community Baptist Church


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