Is the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement a novel idea held mainly by the Reformers and their theological offspring? This is indeed the charge that is sometimes leveled against the argument that penal substitution is an essential element of a biblical view of the atonement. But can the historical evidence bear the weight of the charge? In this post, I want to draw your attention to a few major historical figures whose writings reveal that substitutionary atonement has been an important part of the Church’s understanding of the work of Christ since its earliest years. I intend to offer little in the way of commentary. My aim is primarily to draw attention to a few representative sources to counter the suggestion that substitution is not a truly ancient Christian understanding of the atonement.
The citations below are drawn from Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Crossway, 2007) by Steve Jeffrey, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach. Chapter 5 provides a thorough survey of historical figures which demonstrates that substitutionary atonement has characterized all periods of church history. This is a highly important work with which any serious critic of penal substitution must reckon, and I commend it as a thorough and persuasive defense of a biblical understanding of the atonement. And now, ad fontes.
A key figure from the early second century is Justin Martyr, who was one of the most important Christian writers from that period. In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin writes:
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…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 (Ante-Nicene Fathers I.247, emphasis added).
For Justin, then, the whole of humanity is under the penalty of the curse of God that is the consequence of their sin. The work of Christ is to bear that curse on their behalf.
Eusebius of Caesarea lived and wrote in the late third to early fourth century. While he is best known for his Ecclesiastical History, his penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement appears in his Proof of the Gospel:
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 dishonour, which were due to us, and drew down upon Himself the appointed curse, being made a curse for us (10.1, emphasis added).
Note the precise use of penal substitutionary language: Christ suffered a penalty on our behalf. That penalty was itself death, and Christ’s bearing of that penalty is the cause of our forgiveness. Here we have evidence from none other than perhaps the most well-known church historian writing in the early fourth century using the precise language of penal substitutionary atonement.
Not to be overlooked is the influential Athanasius, who also wrote in the fourth century. In his all-important work On the Incarnation, Athanasius developed the consequences of sin in terms of corruption leading to non-existence. In light of this problem, Christ “surrendered His body to death in place of all, and offered it to the Father” (sec. 7, emphasis added). He then says further:
He assumed a body capable of death, in order that, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for 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 (sec. 9).
As the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions point out, the notion of substitution is present in the use of “in place of all” and “exchange”, while the Son’s offering of himself “in death” establishes the penal element (172).
The fourth century preacher John Chrysostom likewise demonstrated his affirmation of penal substitution in a sermon on 2 Corinthians 5:21:
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, 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 then a 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 (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, set 1, I.12).
Chrysostom’s story of a king who transfers the guilt of a criminal to his own son is a perfect illustration of the doctrine of penal substitution, which, he asserts, should shape our understanding of how God relates to us.
One final quote will firm up the case. The following is from Augustine’s Against Faustus:
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 (14.6, emphasis added).
Augustine could not be more clear; Christ died to bear the curse for our transgressions.
The authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions also draw on the work of Hilary of Poitiers, Gegory Nazianzus, Ambrose of Milan, Cyril of Alexandria, Gelasius of Cyzicus, and Gregory the Great, who all wrote between the second and seventh centuries, to make their case that penal substitution is not only ancient but an ongoing way of understanding the biblical doctrine of the atonement. While penal substitution is certainly not the only way of speaking of atonement, it is certainly one of the most ancient ways the Church has thought about the atoning work of Christ. The idea is neither new nor novel. Rather, some of the greatest minds in the history of early Christian thought have seen in the scriptures the truth that God allowed the penalty of death for human sin to fall upon Christ who stood condemned as a substitute in our place. And those who maintain this truth today do so in accord with the Church through the ages.