Atone Deaf Part Six: Atonement After the Bible

Latest in a series of posts about atonement, the question of meaning and accomplishment in the death of Jesus.

In five previous posts we surveyed the key Bible texts which deal with the death of Jesus and paid special attention to any meaning (expressed or implied) that they assigned to that event. We concluded that the Bible’s primary metaphor for interpreting the death of Jesus is a “ransom” model in which Jesus’ death constitutes a payment for the release of captives. The payment is his life, and the captives are human beings enslaved by the powers of sin and death. Perhaps just as common, though, is a “victory” model in which Jesus’ act of will in going to the cross accomplished a decisive defeat over those powers. We might understand these in terms of cause and effect; The powers that enslaved and corrupted us were disarmed and destroyed, with the result that we are liberated from both captivity and guilt.

While most Christians today would give a hearty “amen” to everything in that paragraph, many believers – especially those in Reformed and/or Evangelical traditions – might call this an incomplete view of atonement. Where is Penal Substitution (PSA)? Where is propitiation? Where is punishment and wrath? These are the dominant factors in most conservative formulations of atonement today, and we kept these questions at the forefront as we examined the relevant Bible texts. We concluded that, while vicarious suffering and wrath are indeed elements of the biblical presentation of atonement, they have been seriously misplaced and misrepresented in the PSA model. Jesus’ death is called a substitution, and God is said to exert wrath; But Jesus took his “punishment” from the worldly powers of sin and condemnation, not from God, and God’s wrath burns against those forces of evil, not against their human victims whom He created and loves.

So where did PSA come from? When, how, and why were the ingredients of atonement combined and configured in such a way that this is the only framework in which most Christians today are able to conceptualize and explain the death of Jesus? Here is a brief look at the interpretive history of atonement, from the earliest days of the church until today.

Early Church Fathers and Atonement

For the first several centuries of Christianity, the pastors, thinkers, and apologists we call “church fathers” held almost unanimously to a combination of the ransom and christus victor models of atonement theology. Here are some representative quotes:

[CV = Christus Victor; R = Ransom]

Ignatius (c.105): “I mean him who crucified my sin, along with him who was the inventor of it. Christ has condemned all deceit and malice of the devil under the feet of those who carry him in their hearts.” [CV]

Justin Martyr (c.160): “So it was necessary that he who wished to save us would be someone who destroyed the essential cause of corruption.” [CV]
“Therefore, it was necessary that the logos would become possessed of a body. This was so he could deliver us from the death of natural corruption.” [R]

Melito (c.170): “He suffered for the sake of those who suffer, and he was bound for the sake of Adam’s race, which was imprisoned.” [R]
“When our Lord arose from the place of the dead, and trampled death underfoot, and bound the strong one, and set man free, then the whole creation saw clearly that for man’s sake the Judge was condemned.” [CV + R]

Irenaeus (c.180): “Christ fought and conquered. That is because he was man, contending for the fathers. Through obedience, he completely did away with disobedience.” [CV]
“For he bound the strong man and set free the weak.” [CV + R]
“He endowed his own handiwork with salvation, by destroying sin.” [CV]
“For that reason, he who had led man captive was justly captured in his turn by God. But man, who had been led captive, was loosed from the bonds of condemnation.” [CV + R]
“He has become the mediator between God and men, propitiating indeed for us the Father against whom we had sinned.” [NOTE: I include this quote in the interest of intellectual honesty. While this is perhaps a sort of exception which proves the rule, it is only right and fair to acknowledge this, a clear reference to propitiation from the second century! Most likely a reference to Romans 3:25?]

Clement of Alexandria (c.195): “By his own passion, he rescued us from offenses and sins.” [R]
“About to be offered up and giving himself a ransom, he left for us a new testament: My love I give unto you.” [R]

Hippolytus (c.200): “He is Lord of things under the earth, because he was also reckoned among the dead, preaching the gospel to the souls of the saints. By death, he overcame death.” [CV]

Tertullian (c.211): “You have already been ransomed by Christ – and that at a great price!” [R]
“Should you ransom with money a man whom Christ has ransomed with his blood? … The sun ceded to us the day of our redemption. Hades gave back the right it had on us.” [R]

Origen (c.228): “For the death of Christ reduced to weakness those powers that war against the human race. And it set the life of each believer free from sin through a power beyond our words.” [CV + R]
“He takes away sin until every enemy will be destroyed and death last of all – in order that the whole world may be free from sin.” [CV + R]
“Christ is our redemption because we had become prisoners and needed ransoming.” [R]

Substitution: Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas

At risk of oversimplifying a complex, wide, and multidimensional history of theological debate and evolution, we might trace a sketch of the development of substitutionary atonement through the minds of three key players: St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), and St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

While most scholars categorize Augustine’s understanding of atonement as a “ransom” type model, his particular formulation – colored by his concept of “original sin” – certainly nudges it in a new direction. For Augustine, sin is not primarily a force or power which has enslaved humanity from the outside, it is the product of human will, and thus resides in the human heart. Because of this, humans are separated from God and need to be reconciled. Within this framework, Christ died as a substitution to mediate between sinful people and the God from whom they had been separated. Augustine describes that reconciliation like this:

“Though without guilt Christ took our punishment upon Himself, destroying our guilt and putting an end to our punishment.” (C. Faust. Manich. 14, 4.)

For Augustine, Christ did indeed ransom and redeem us, but from ourselves rather than from some enemy. Our guilt is defeated on the cross, not the devil. At the same time, this is not full-on Penal Substitution. The “punishment” from which we are saved is alienation from God, not a threat of harm from God. For Augustine, the sinner’s predicament is distance from God, not divine wrath. Still, the foundations for new theories of atonement are laid.

Half a millennium later, Anselm takes major steps toward a completely new understanding of atonement. The monk rejects the notion of a ransom payment which frees sinners from bondage to an enemy, seeing this as an insult to God’s reputation. Instead, Anselm (in line with the social hierarchies of the medieval world in which he lived) imagined God as an offended and dishonored king, and Jesus as the one who restores His honor. In his Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became a Man), Anselm describes the predicament like this:

“This is the debt which man and angel owe to God, and no one who pays this debt commits sin; but every one who does not pay it sins. … And this is the sole and complete debt of honor which we owe to God, and which God requires of us.” (Cur Deus Homo, I.xi)

For Anselm, it might even be said that it is God who is owed a ransom, and that it is Christ who pays it. Once again, this is not full-blown PSA; It emphasizes debts of honor and the divine reputation rather than wrath and punishment, but does set the stage for new “satisfaction” theories which emphasize the mood or attitude of God. Such models bring us closer yet to the idea of propitiation, and also seem to pit the wills of Father and son against each other in a rather problematic way.

Thomas Aquinas develops a substitutionary theology which is like Augustine and Anselm in the way it eschews the ancient “ransom” models and focuses on the relationship between God and human sinners, but which is quite unique in the way it understands the nature of sin. Unlike Anselm, Aquinas does not view sin as an offense or insult to the honor of God, but sees it rather as a corruption of human nature. And unlike Augustine, Aquinas does not view distance from God as the major consequence of sin. Instead he develops a complex theology of sin and punishment which accommodates both the death of Jesus as a substitutionary atonement for all sin and the Catholic system of penance as an ongoing management of personal sin. Yet even here, it is not that God’s wrath against sinners needs to be satisfied, it is that legal obstructions to salvation must be removed, and only Jesus (and penance) are able to cut through the divine red tape. Aquinas also rejects any notion that Father and son were in conflict at the cross:

“Christ as God delivered Himself up to death by the same will and action as that by which the Father delivered Him up; but as man He gave Himself up by a will inspired of the Father.” (Summa Theologica III Q.47 a.3.)

For many Catholics, this is what ultimately distinguishes their theology of atonement from the Reformed Protestant variety, to which we now turn our attention.

Calvin and the Individualization of Atonement

Influential Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) is the one who takes the notions of substitution and an offended God to new extremes in his development of atonement theology. He applies the substitutionary nature of Jesus’ death on the level of human individuality. For Calvin, God isn’t simply offended or dishonored by sin on general principle or against “powers and principalities,” He burns with wrath against YOU, the sinner. Because of God’s “holiness” and our “depravity,” every isolated human human being stands personally condemned to death and hell, and only Jesus might become one’s substitute and absorb the wrath they deserve. In Calvin’s own words:

“This is our acquittal: the guilt that held us liable for punishment has been transferred to the head of the Son of God. We must, above all, remember this substitution, lest we tremble and remain anxious throughout life – as if God’s righteous vengeance, which the Son of God has taken upon himself, still hung over us.” (Institutes II.xvi.5.)

The sinner’s dilemma, for Calvin, is not alienation from God or bondage to systemic evil. It is the “righteous vengeance” of God which burns against every human being unless they come under the atonement of the cross. And despite the “worry-free” tenor of the above quote, the atonement in question is not freely available to all. This is where Calvin’s doctrine of substitution collides with his doctrine of election to produce a mutant baby called “Limited Atonement.” When he says “this is our acquittal,” he is not talking to the whole human family:

“Through Isaiah he still more openly shows how he directs the promises of salvation specifically to the elect: for he proclaims that they alone, not the whole human race without distinction, are to become his disciples (Isa. 8:16). Hence it is clear that the doctrine of salvation, which is said to be reserved solely and individually for the sons of the church, is falsely debased when presented as effectually profitable to all.” (Institutes III.xxii.10.)

From Calvin’s point of view, ransom-style models of atonement were too vague and might give one the mistaken impression that Jesus died on behalf of the whole world (God forbid!). His fine-tuned theory of Penal Substitution leaves no room for ambiguity; Christ’s death is only effective in saving elect individuals from the vengeance of God. As when we studied inerrancy, Calvin emerges once again as the most pure and vociferous adherent to the most “conservative” and extreme form of an exclusionary doctrine. His thinking has been influential, to say the least, and his theologies of atonement and election have been codified in many corners of modern Christianity, even outside of the traditional Protestant Church, especially in Evangelical circles which identify as “Neo-Reformed” or “New Calvinist.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is where PSA comes from.


As long as this post is (sorry about that!), it does not represent a full and exhaustive investigation of atonement theology after the Bible. We have not named and assessed every type of atonement model proposed by every church father, reformer, or theologian. Nor have we traced the type and role of atonement theology in every Christian tradition or denomination. What we have done, based on my own interests and concerns as the author of this blog, is briefly survey the beliefs of the early church relating to atonement, and sketch out the foundations and evolution of the pervasive western theology labeled Penal Substitution. My hope is that I have demonstrated, even in a cursory way, my own conviction that PSA represents at best an unhelpful departure from the biblical views on atonement, and at worst a mistake which sabotages the hope of the gospel and (apologies to Anselm) defames God.

In the next post I’ll conclude this series with a decidedly less academic and more personal discussion of atonement and its ramifications for Christianity in the twenty-first century. For the purposes of this series, the research is done. It’s time to talk about spiritual instincts and personal feelings.