Penal Substitution: Theological Innovation or Ancient Doctrine?

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.

23 thoughts on “Penal Substitution: Theological Innovation or Ancient Doctrine?

  1. I don't know whether there remains any momemtum toward continuing the discussion over this posting, but I stumbled upon it today and thought I'd share some observations.

    Addressing the selected excerpts from key figures: Justin — leaving aside for the moment an issue I have with the excerpt itself, I find that the commentary that follows it draws some conclusions not warranted from the excerpt. Primarily, there is nothing in the excerpt claiming the curse on humanity as being “of God” or “from God”. Consequently to conclude that Justin's view of the cross has Christ taking onto himself a curse from God is not warranted. Rather, the message is more simply that Christ took upon himself the same plights that humanity was under.

    Regarding Eusebius, basically the same issue as above applies. The “penalty” spoken of in the excerpt does not appear to be specifically associated with God's action towards humanity, but is instead spoken of as being what simply results from sinfulness. Though entirely sinless, Christ endured the impacts of sinfulness so that in him our sinfulness might be put to death.

    Regarding Athanasius, I would first want to be certain that “in place of all” is an accurate translation of his original words, and if so, that the phrase does indeed indicate a one-for-one substitution rather than some other connotation like inclusive place-taking (the two are significantly different). Secondly, I'm confused by the move to equate the idea of Christ offering himself in “death” with the concept of a “penal” element. There is nothing from the excerpt that suggests Christ's death was the execution of a legal/judicial punishment. The commentary offered in conjunction with these excerpts just seems to be far too invested in finding a very nuanced idea within fairly brief excerpts rather than in really discovering what these figures intended to convey in their writings.


  2. I'd be interested in what you think of this response to the book.

    I think he DIFFUSES the issue, and lets us see that while the language of substitution is certainly there, PENAL in the modern sense, may not have been. I don't think he responds to Chrysostom's quotes well though. Chrysystom is certainly one of the most western of the Eastern Fathers in his theology.

    I guess I see death as the NATURAL punishment and consequence for our sins but not as God having to INFLINCT active punishment on Christ for us. There's definitely a difference.

    If this is penal substitution, which is the type that Wright and others seem to be more comfortable with, I'm all for it.


  3. It's been a pleasure to host this discussion; that's one of the reasons I maintain this site. Thanks to all who've contributed to this discussion.

    With regard to the BOCP, I think this is a good opportunity to recognize how important the prayers & liturgy of the Church can shape our theology. Ecclesial theology is where its at! 😉


  4. Matt, thanks for your hospitality for this stream of comments! I am loving this collegial discussion! Seeking understanding and clarity goes a long way in staying away from unnecessary name-calling and arguing, no? Luke, your distinction of value vs. quantity is very helpful. I now see I was mainly dealing with my reactions to what I associated with the term 'equivalent.' How many arguments would be avoided if we actually took just a few moments to clarify what we mean by certain terms?

    Also props to Matt for busting out the Book of Common Prayer. Indeed, that is the language that was dear to the heart of Wesley, and its counterpart in the articles (Article XXXI) provides the language for my doctoral thesis title – “For all the sins of the whole world”: John Wesley's Anglican Approach to the Atonement.


  5. It occurred to me a little while ago that the language of the liturgy might be a helpful guide:

    “Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by the one offering of himself, a FULL, PERFECT, AND SUFFICIENT SACRIFICE for the sins of the whole world.”

    So, not identical, but full, perfect, and sufficient. I'm comfortable with that.


  6. When I say “equivalent” I mean equivalent in value, not quantity; so I am basically saying “sufficient.” The commercial approach holds the view that it is equivalent in quantity: Christ suffered just enough to purchase the elect (yes, commercial proponents, I hold to a limited atonement, as do I; but that is a debate for another day; nothing that I have said so far demands the limited view). But I certainly don’t mean to imply anything mathematical by the word “equivalent.” So, I am happy to use the word “sufficient.” However, I do want to stress that the penalty paid by Christ really was necessary in order for God to forgive sinners. So, it is equivalent in the sense that God accepted it as the only way for sinners to be forgiven (as Anselm argues in Cur Deus Homo).


  7. I'm jumping in here a little late, but I wanted to point everyone to some resources regarding a Penal Substitution approach to the atonement that may be helpful in future studies or discussions. I used these in a paper I wrote last semester on the topic:

    I. Howard Marshall's article in which he lays out an understanding of it and helps correct some common misconceptions we fall into while teaching it (this is a great resource):

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

    J.I. Packer's 1973 Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture, “What did the Cross Achieve?: The Logic of Penal Substitution”


  8. I think I see what Luke is getting at by saying that the sacrifice is not identical but it is equivalent. I take this to mean that Christ's death is clearly not the same as the death of a sinner (e.g. not permanent, no permanent hell) but that Christ's sacrifice is equivalent in that it is accepted by God. Correct me if I'm wrong. I wonder, though, if it would not be more helpful to say Christ's sacrifice is not identical but it is sufficient. I think this kind of language may make a better distinction. Help me out here.


  9. Wow! Yes I somehow misread you on that, Matt. Thanks to both of you for bringing that out. I actually agree that a representation-less substitution doesn't make sense. I said earlier that I thought some do try to do that, but perhaps my memory is mistaken on that or I am remembering too many straw men that were set up in earlier days. 🙂 I'll review my notes this evening and see if I can find an example. If not, please accept my apologies for suggesting that an idea is held by some that really isn't.

    But back to “equivalent” and “identical” I see the distinction now, but I guess I'm just finding difficulty with the language of “equivalent” because it sounds too “exacting” or mathematical. Again, I see God accepting the sacrifice as satisfactory, but to say that the punishment is equivalent seems to be making an issue of something that isn't necessary. But perhaps I'm missing the Scriptural message on this. If so, I'll be happy to amend my thoughts on this.

    Thank you, Luke, for the examples you cite and for your graceful response. And thanks to both of you for being graceful to my dufus-ness (I'm pretty sure that's the technical theological term) of missing the point on a substitution w/o representation.


  10. Jeffrey and Luke,

    To clarify, I am saying that it seems to me that substitution requires some sort of representation. I'm not sure what representationless substitution would look like. I don't know how to think of that. If Christ does not represent me, then it seems he could not be my substitute. That strikes me as basically straightforward, though I could be missing something. I thought Jeffrey was saying something similar, though I might have misread him. Jeffrey, you wrote that some conceive of substitution w/out representation; perhaps you could flesh that out a bit more. Who are some people that have held that view?

    Thanks to both of you for engaging in this helpful extended discussion. I'm enjoying all the posts from both of you.


  11. Jeffrey,
    Thanks for the feedback. The distinction I am making between identical and equivalent seems necessary because in providing atonement for and forgiving the sinner, God does not demand payment from the sinner (so the atonement provided is not identical). Instead God accepts an equivalent payment provided by another who represents the sinner(hence the traditional category here is acceptation; see all of the standard Reformed texts: Hodge, Shedd, Berkhof). You are right that the penal view has affinities to Anselm's satisfaction theory; the main difference is the attribute of God which is conceived to be satisfied. In Anselm, it is the divine honor. In Reformation models, it is the divine justice (though this certainly wouldn't exclude divine honor).

    I think I am reading Matt correctly when he says that “substitution seems to imply representation with it.” This is true of every substitutionary view I am aware of. Even those who held to a more commercial view of the atonement (e.g. John Gill) still maintained a strong sense of representation through the category of federal headship.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful responses.


  12. Hi Luke,

    I appreciate your valuable input. Very helpful in clarifying some things! But I'm still confused as to what is the difference between “identical” and “equivalent”? I understand sufficiency and that that is distinct from “identical”, but the language of “sufficient to satisfy” is more Anselmic, which is probably more aptly named “satisfaction” than “substitution” though the two are related and similar. It's almost like saying it's a substitute (satisfying) for the substitute, though that sounds silly I'm sure. 🙂

    As for substitution demanding representation, I'm not sure that's what Matt suggested though I certainly don't want to speak for him. I think it's possible to hold to substitutionary atonement without representation and that some do just that, though as you point out, hopefully this is a “minority report.” I think it's a both/and.

    I appreciate your analysis of (and from?) the Reformed tradition. Wesleyans such as myself would concur with almost everything you suggest in your final paragraph, though we'd likely have differing interpretations of how Christ's passive and active obedience/righteousness is imputed or imparted to believers.


  13. “If death, can we really call Christ's death a substitution, since we still die? If hell/eternal punishment, wouldn't it seem that a true penal substitution be Christ being in hell forever?”

    On this point, the penal substitution view has always appealed, in Anselmian fashion, to the deity of Christ. If Christ was merely a human being, he obviously could not pay an infinite/eternal penalty on the cross for one man's sins, much less the sins of the world. But if he is also God, then his atoning work is sufficient to satisfy the justice of God which our sins demanded. The payment is not identical to the one to which we were liable (eternity in hell)but it is equivalent. It is true that some in the Reformed tradition have put this in “mathematical” or commercial terms, but this is a minority report. Most of the classic statements of the penal view have avoided this commercial framework(e.g. John Owen's The Death of Death in the Death of Christ).

    I agree with Matt that substitution demands representation. We need not choose between the two. The Reformed tradition has always maintained both with its emphasis on Christ's federal headship and his active and passive obedience. Furthermore, I don't think we have to choose between “inclusive” and “exclusive” substituion. In one sense, we died with Christ (inclusion) and in another he died instead of us in our place(exclusion). Both are a part of the biblical portrait of substitution.


  14. Jeffrey,

    Thanks very much for your thoughtful comments and questions. I appreciate your attentiveness to the many issues involved in this discussion.

    On theories and what happened, While I think penal sub is what actually happened on the cross, I don't think its the only thing that happened. I also think, among other things, that Christ won a decisive victory over the powers.

    On substitution and represenation, I think I basically agree with the way you've framed the relationship. As to your question, I would say both. God relates to us through Christ taking the divine wrath due to us AS a demonstration of his faithfulness to us. I think I could make this argument exegetically from Romans. I think N.T. Wright probably already has.

    You've certainly read more atonement descriptions than I have, so I defer to your expertise on that. I can only say that I don't think the Hebrew people nor the early Christians really thought about substitution in mathematical formulations. So, I'm not terribly worried about it either.

    Last, I can only say that I think I disagree with your seminary prof.

    Let me say that I really appreciate your tone throughout this conversation. I have found your comments and questions very helpful, and I appreciate the time and energy you've put into writing serious posts in a collegial tone. All too often these blog talks get a little crazy and unhelpful; we've not had that problem. So thanks!


  15. One other note I should mention regarding representation vs. substitution. There are different types of substitution: inclusive and exclusive. Inclusive substitution can very well be equivalent of, include, or be very similar to representation in that it recognizes that Christ in the cross stands in our place as head but the cross is also something that we are called to participate in/follow. Miroslav Volf suggests something along these lines in Free of Charge. I understand Pannenberg makes the same suggestion.


  16. Matt,

    I appreciate your substantive response. That helps clear things up. Just a couple of things to respond to questions you raised and I'll likely raise another one or two.

    On the rightness of “theory,” “model” or whatever other term we use: if you say, “If in the atonement Jesus actually did receive the penalty for my sin…” are you suggesting that that is what atonement is…or just an aspect of it? Put differently, my problem with “theory” is not only the meaning of the word “theory” itself, as you voice concerns, but on the all-encompassing meaning of it, which suggests that all other models/theories/whatever aren't really a part of the atonement. Am I making sense here?

    As for clarifying re: representation and substitution. I would actually tend to say that substitution is only possible where there is representation, though both are integral. Richard Hooker: “the experience of Gal. 3.13 is not simple exchange. It is not that Christ is cursed and we are blessed. Rather, he enters into our experience, and we then enter into his, by sharing in his resurrection.” Representation, as I understand it, is firmly grounded in Adam/Christ typology. Perhaps these questions can help illuminate the difference between the two: Does God relate to us through Christ taking the divine wrath (retributive penal substitution) or as a demonstration of his faithfulness to us (representational solidarity)? Or can it be both?

    I resonate very much with your final paragraph “Fourth…” The difficulty I have found is that in many penal substitutionary atonement descriptions, what is suggested is that Christ is “balancing the scales” to such a degree that the exact punishment must equal the penalty owed. It's almost a mathematical formulation and I just don't see that in Scripture at all.

    In the class I took on the atonement in seminary, the professor made this statement and I'm trying to see how it fits with penal substitutionary atonement:

    There is no place for the popular idea that in the sacrificial ritual God is somehow punishing the animal so that that punishment should not fall on the sinner who presents the sacrifice, or for the inference that something parallel to that is happening in the sacrificial death of Christ. The point is rather that as the sinner identified with the sacrificial victim the sin was transferred to the animal and destroyed through its death.

    Did I clear anything up or am I causing further confusion? If the latter, I apologize. Thanks for your considering my questions and responding so kindly and informatively! 🙂


  17. Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for your comment. I think the language of curse (in Justin, Eusebius, and Augustine) seems to point more to the category of penalty. The curse is from God because God's law has been broken. Thus, satisfaction of the penalty of the transgression is rendered to God. Chrysostom speaks of transferring guilt, which I also think is more about penalty than ransom. Athanasius is probably the least clear.

    Frankly, I've never been a fan of idea of God owing anything to Satan. Satan stands condemned. God owes him nothing. Some might disagree, but that's where I am.

    Thanks very much for reading and commenting.


  18. Jeffrey, thanks for raising these helpful questions. I'll see if I can provide some response.

    First, I'm not a big fan of the term 'theory'. If in the atonement Jesus actually did receive the penalty for my sin, then its no mere theory or model; rather, its simply what happened.

    Second, with regard to representation, perhaps you could spell out the precise difference between representation and substitution. I know there is a difference, but what I'm getting at is that substitution seems to imply representation with it. My substitute represents me to someone else. It seems difficult to me to flesh out substitution without some language of representation.

    Third, with regard to Justin, he seems to indicate just prior to the “as if” statement that Jesus actually does take the curse for all humankind. It's in the form of a conditional statement, though, so some extra contextual work would need to be done. And we would probably need to look at the original language to work out the questions you are raising.

    Fourth, with regard to your last paragraph on language, I would say that its not so important as to whether we can call Christ's death an adequate substitute for our death; rather, the important thing is whether God accepts it as such. Thus, whatever the penalty is (e.g. death, hell) then evidently the penalty that Jesus suffered is sufficient. I see the point you are making, and I'm coming at it from an exegetical approach. I would say that if scripture says that God accepts Jesus' sacrifice as a substitute penalty then it is a sufficient form of atonement even if there is not a perfect and strict definition of the penalty. Am I making sense here?

    Again, thanks for your questions and thanks for reading.


  19. Couldn't all of these quotes also apply to the Ransom view?

    Or put differently, both Ransom and Psub recognize that Christ's death was substitutionary. Ransom says the debt was to Satan, where Psub says the debt was to God.

    By the way, I think Psub makes the best sense too, but don't see evidence here that the church fathers taught that a payment was made to God.


  20. Thanks for this informative and insightful post, Matt! It's very helpful to see how elements of penal substitution exist prior to the Reformation. I'm also glad you stayed away from the term 'theory' since that is a modern construct. So while we see elements associated with penal substitutionary theory present in several figures in Church History, we don't see it spelled out as much as is done in many Reformed (and even Wesleyan) presentations/theories of the atonement.

    One example is the notion of “the Father turning his back on the Son.” While I don't think this is a necessary implication of penal substitution, it is certainly an idea that is part of the theory as it is often presented today. That aspect is certainly not a part of the patristic understanding, as we have seen here and in other posts you, Isaac and I have submitted recently.

    Another point that I think might need some clarity is linguistic cues. For instance, “on our behalf” belongs more to the realm of “representation” rather than “substitution,” in my view. Perhaps the language should be switched (in Eusebius' example) to “in our stead.” Those two convey something different, at least according to most people engaged in the atonement debate(s) today. Another example is the language from Justin of “as if he were accursed.” What is meant by “as if”? How much should we read into that? Should we see that Jesus literally became a curse for us or is it to be taken more in a metaphorical or representative sense?

    My main question about “penal substitution” has to do with the language/terminology. What is the penalty that was due us? If death, can we really call Christ's death a substitution, since we still die? If hell/eternal punishment, wouldn't it seem that a true penal substitution be Christ being in hell forever? If it's a certain type of death, we should note that many early martyrs died in like fashion of Jesus. So it seems to me that in order for it to work we would have to lessen the definition or suspend a strict adherence to the meaning of “penalty” or “substitution” in order for this to “work.” Does that make sense?

    Please don't read these questions as coming from hostility. I'm just trying to seek understanding in this. Thanks again for this post!


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