Penal Substitution in Church History

Michael J. Vlach | May 24, 2010

Recently, at least since the eighteenth-century liberalism gained a place in Protestantism, the penal-substitution view of Christ’s atonement has come under attack. The claim that the doctrine was unknown in the ancient church has emerged along with the idea that such a teaching was invented by the Reformers. The fact that the first thousand years of ancient Christianity frequently espoused the teaching that Jesus suffered death, punishment, and a curse for fallen humanity as the penalty for human sin shows the falsity of such a claim. The fact that early Christians supported other views of the atonement did not exclude the possibility of their supporting penal substitution also. Other views of the atonement include the classic/ransom, the satisfaction, the moral influence, and the governmental theories. Without discussing penal substitution thoroughly, the following church fathers and writings expressed their support for the theory: Ignatius, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Epistle to Diognetus, Justin Martyr, Eusebius of Caesarea, Eusebius of Emesa, Hilary of Poitiers, Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose of Milan, John Chrysostom, Augustine of Hippo, Cyril of Alexandria, Severus of Antioch, and Oecumenius. Martin Luther wrote during the second Christian millennium, but he too endorsed penal substitution. Available writings show clearly that the early church supported a penal-substitution view of Christ’s death.

Vol. 20, no. 2 (Fall 2009)

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Vlach, Michael J.. "Penal Substitution in Church History." The Master's Seminary Journal 20, no. 2 (Fall 2009): 199-214.