Penal Substitution and Church History

Michael J. Vlach | September 8, 2015

Since the rise of Protestant liberalism in the eighteenth century, it has become common for some to claim that penal substitution, the view that Christ died on behalf of sinners, is not a biblical doctrine. (For a clear refutation of that assertion, see here.)

In recent years this position has been accompanied by assertions that the church of the first fifteen hundred years did not hold to penal substitution.

So in addition to claiming that penal substitution is not found in the Bible, a growing chorus is arguing that this doctrine was not taught by the church of the Patristic and Medieval eras. Instead, the belief that Jesus died on behalf of sinners, becoming a curse on their behalf, was a creation of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.

For example, in his work on the atonement, Paul Fiddes claimed that the doctrine of penal substitution was “developed in the Reformation period” (Past Event and Present Salvation, 89). In addition, some like Gustaf Aulen (in his 1969 work Christus Victor) have argued that objective views of the atonement, of which penal substitution is one example, are a creation of the Latin West church of the early twelfth century.

Aulen and others have claimed that the early church held to a classical view of the atonement in which Christ’s death was primarily a victory over the powers of darkness and a ransom paid to Satan, but the early church did not hold to penal substitution.

This assertion is quite serious. If those like Fiddes and Aulen are correct, those who believe in penal substitutionary atonement are accepting a doctrine that is relatively new, and by implication, something foreign to the church of the first thousand years.

While Protestant Christians have often emphasized that the Bible, not church history, is their authority, they have usually held that new doctrines should be scrutinized. They also believe that Christians should be skeptical of holding positions not believed or addressed in the early church. Is penal substitution one of those novel views? Is it true that many believe a doctrine of the atonement that began with the Protestant Reformation?

The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that penal substitution was taught in the early church. Consequently, it will also refute the claim that penal substitution was not taught in the church of the Patristic and Medieval eras. Though acknowledging that the early church held to a classical view of the atonement, it will argue that critics of penal substitution are in error when they claim that the pre-Reformation church did not also believe in penal substitution. Ample and even overwhelming evidence proves that Christians of the Patristic Era and beyond held that Christ died on behalf of sinners to pay the penalty for their sins.

Before surveying what the early church believed about penal substitution, some clarifying points are necessary.

First, the emphasis will be on the church of the first one thousand years and especially the church of the Patristic Era (A.D. 100–500). This is where the heart of the controversy lies. That after Anselm in the twelfth century an objective view of the atonement was taught is not debated. Also, that Calvin and the Reformation tradition clearly taught penal substitution is established.The controversy is over whether the church of the first thousand years taught penal substitution, so this time period will be the focus.

Second, penal substitution needs to be defined. Penal substitution is the doctrine that Jesus suffered on behalf of sinners the death, punishment, and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin. As Millard Erickson defines the doctrine, “By offering himself as a sacrifice, by substituting himself for us, actually bearing the punishment that should have been ours, Jesus appeased the Father and effected a reconciliation between God and humanity” (Christian Theology, 833).

Penal substitution, then, emphasizes that the punishment from God provoked by human sin was borne by Jesus Christ with His sacrificial death.

Third, this is not to deny that earlier Christians held views of the atonement other than penal substitution or that the early church did not hold to a classical or ransom view of the atonement. When some early Christians emphasized a certain implication of Christ’s death, they could also teach or believe in penal substitution. To claim that because some theologians advocated a classical view of the atonement, they denied or knew nothing about the penal substitution view is a logical fallacy. Yet such error is occurring today.

Some say that because the early church affirmed and emphasized one aspect of the atonement—the classical or Christus Victor view—they knew little or nothing about penal substitution. Even today those who strongly view penal substitution as the primary meaning of the atonement usually affirm other facets of the atonement as well. As Leon Morris has pointed out, “the atonement is vast and deep” “and we need all the theories” (“Theories of the Atonement,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 102).

Thus, the fact that Christ died on behalf of sinners is not inconsistent with the ideas that Christ’s death was a victory over the powers of darkness or that Christ’s death is an example for us.

To read the rest of Dr. Vlach’s article, click here.

Michael J. Vlach avatar
Michael J. Vlach , Professor of Theology, has been teaching full time at TMS since 2006. He specializes in the areas of Systematic Theology, Historical Theology, Apologetics, and World Religions.

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