"...if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10). (Council of Orange: Canon 6)


  • Rev. John Samson
  • Rev. David Thommen (URC)
  • John Hendryx
  • Marco Gonzalez

    We are a community of confessing believers who love the gospel of Jesus Christ, affirm the Biblical and Christ-exalting truths of the Reformation such as the five solas, the doctrines of grace, monergistic regeneration, and the redemptive historical approach to interpreting the Scriptures.


    Community Websites

    Monergism Books on Facebook


    Latest Posts



    Ministry Links

  • « A Preaching/Teaching Pastor | Main | So true... »

    Penal Substitution a Sixteenth-Century Innovation?

    I recently heard again the point of view that, while a substitutionary atonement may have roots in the early church, an explicitly penal substitution was the brain child of the Reformers, who tweaked Anselm's Satisfaction Theory. I've encountered this theory before; and even if it did have some historical basis, it could not overturn the countless scriptures which teach that Jesus suffered the penalty of sin, that is, God's just wrath and punishment, on our behalf – but if that teaching is so biblical, wouldn't it seem strange that no one ever mentioned it until Calvin came along? Frankly, I think these theories must come from people who don't read the Church fathers very much or very carefully; but somehow, they still persist. As I discovered, they're even on Wikipedia:

    "In scholarly literature it has been generally recognised for some time that the penal substitution theory was not taught in the Early Church. The ransom theory of atonement in conjunction with the moral influence view was nearly universally accepted in this early period."


    "It is widely held that the early Church Fathers, including Athanasius and Augustine, taught that through Christ's vicarious suffering in humanity's place, he overcame and liberated humanity from sin, death, and the devil. Thus, while the idea of substitutionary atonement is present in nearly all atonement theories, some argue that the specific idea of satisfaction and penal substitution are later developments in the western Catholic Church and in Calvinism."

    Although the Wikipedia article acknowledges that some scholars see penal substitution in Augustine, they cite J. S. Romanides to assert that the Eastern fathers never accepted any form of Penal Substitution:

    "J. S. Romanides...argues that they, like the Eastern Orthodox Church of today, understood humankind as separating themselves from God and placing themselves under the power of sin and death. The work of Christ is viewed, he says, not as a satisfaction of God's wrath or the satisfaction of justice which God was bound to by necessity, but as the work of rescuing us from death and its power. He argues that the notion of penal substitution was never contemplated until Augustine, and was never accepted in any form in the East."

    Is this really the case? I am by no means a patristics scholar, I merely dabble; but a little dabbling is enough to uncover affirmations of an explicitly penal substitution from many fathers, both from the East and West. Chrysostom and Eusebius, both from the East, taught penal substitution as clearly as Calvin or Luther. I've gathered a few quotes below.


    “And the Lamb of God not only did this, but 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 on Himself the apportioned curse, being made a curse for us. And what is that but the price of our souls? And so the oracle says in our person: “By his stripes we were healed,” and “The Lord delivered him for our sins,” with the result that uniting Himself to us and us to Himself, and appropriating our sufferings, He can say, “I said, Lord, have mercy on me, heal my soul, for I have sinned against thee.” - Eusebius of Caesarea, Demonstratio Evangelica, X.1

    Chrysostom, Homily on Galatians 3:3 (ACD, vol. 3, p. 108)

    The people were liable to punishment since they had not fulfilled the whole Law. Christ satisfied a different curse, the one that says, “Cursed is everyone that is hanged on a tree.” Both the one who is hanged and the one who transgresses the Law are accursed. Christ, who was going to lift that curse, could not properly be made liable to it, yet he had to receive a curse. He received the curse instead of being liable to it, and through this he lifted the curse. Just as, when someone is condemned to death, another innocent person who chooses to die for him releases him from that punishment, so Christ also did.


    “This, the catholic faith has known of the one and only mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who condescended to undergo death—that is, the penalty of sin—without sin, for us. As He alone became the Son of man, in order that we might become through Him sons of God, so He alone, on our behalf, undertook punishment without ill deservings, that we through Him might obtain grace without good deservings. Because as to us nothing good was due so to Him nothing bad was due. Therefore, commending His love to them to whom He was about to give undeserved life, He was willing to suffer for them an undeserved death.” (Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, Book 4, chap. 7)

    Hilary of Poitiers

    He blotted out through death the sentence of death, that by a new creation of our race in Himself He might sweep away the penalty appointed by the former Law. He let them nail Him to the cross that He might nail to the curse of the cross and abolish all the curses to which the world is condemned.” (On the Trinity, Book One, chap. 13)

    John of Damascus

    “Since our Lord Jesus Christ was without sin (for He committed no sin, He Who took away the sin of the world, nor was there any deceit found in His mouth) He was not subject to death, since death came into the world through sin. He dies, therefore, because He took on Himself death on our behalf, and He makes Himself an offering to the Father for our sakes. (Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book Three, chap. 27)

    Cyril of Jerusalem

    If Phinees, when he waxed zealous and slew the evil-doer, staved the wrath of God, shall not Jesus, who slew not another, but gave up Himself for a ransom, put away the wrath which is against mankind?…Further; if the lamb under Moses drove the destroyer far away, did not much rather the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world, deliver us from our sins? The blood of a silly sheep gave salvation; and shall not the Blood of the Only-begotten much rather save?…Jesus then really suffered for all men; for the Cross was no illusion, otherwise our redemption is an illusion also…These things the Saviour endured, and made peace through the Blood of His Cross, for things in heaven, and things in earth. For we were enemies of God through sin, and God had appointed the sinner to die. There must needs therefore have happened one of two things; either that God, in His truth, should destroy all men, or that in His loving-kindness He should cancel the sentence. But behold the wisdom of God; He preserved both the truth of His sentence, and the exercise of His loving-kindness. Christ took our sins in His body on the tree, that we by His death might die to sin, and live unto righteousness.--St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, XIII

    Gregory Palamas

    “A sacrifice was needed to reconcile the Father on high with us and to sanctify us, since we had been soiled by fellowship with the evil one. There had to be a sacrifice which both cleansed and was clean, and a purified, sinless priest…. God overturned the devil through suffering and His Flesh which He offered as a sacrifice to God the Father, as a pure and altogether holy victim – how great is His gift! – and reconciled God to the human race…Since He gave His Blood, which was sinless and therefore guiltless, as a ransom for us who were liable to punishment because of our sins, He redeemed us from our guilt. He forgave us our sins, tore up the record of them on the Cross and delivered us from the devil’s tyranny." --St. Gregory Palamas, Homily 16, 21, 24, 31

    Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John 2:1 [ACD vol. 3 p. 12]

    For he sends his own Son, who in his nature is changeless and unalterable and wholly unacquainted with sin, in our likeness, in order that, just as through the first disobedience we became liable to divine wrath, so through the second we might both escape the curse and do away with the ills that proceeded from it.

    Posted by Nathan on May 11, 2012 02:20 PM


    Looks as though the ECFs were well aquainted with the gospel of grace and penal substitution. I guess that's what happens when you actually believe the Scriptures.

    Thanks a lot, brother. Please, post more quotes from the Church Fathers about these theological issues.

    Reading penal substation into the Eastern fathers only demonstrates reformational bias. A broader reading of these men reveals an understanding of Christ's work on the cross that was not consistent with the reformers. Varying types of language have always been used of the cross, as different analogies can be convenient at different times for different reasons. A smattering of proof texts is hardly an honest assessment of the mindset of the Eastern fathers in this matter.


    If I wanted to give a brief definition of penal substitution I could do no better than:

    "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 on Himself the apportioned curse, being made a curse for us."

    Of course, an Eastern father would have beaten me to it by a few centuries. It is not Reformational bias to look at an Eastern father who explicitly affirms that the Lamb of God suffered the penalty for our sins, and transferred that penalty to himself, and acknowledge that this much, at least, he does in fact affirm. To read more "broadly," as you put it, would uncover other aspects to the atonement which he taught. I never denied that, it just wasn't the point of the post. The fathers can teach us more about the atonement than that Christ suffered God's wrath and the penalty for our sins in our place. But they certainly don't teach us less than that. All the scholars who confidently assert that penal substitution cannot be found in the Eastern fathers either don't know what penal substitution is or don't know the Eastern fathers, it's as simple as that.

    There are some reasonable points here, but the evidence you cite won't support as strong a conclusion as you suggest.

    Yes, the Eusebius quotation seems clearly to support penal substitution. But some of the others do not. Chrysostom, for example, states that Christ was subject to a curse, not that Christ was subjected to the punishment due to sinners (in fact he explicitly states that Christ suffered a *different* curse). Augustine states that Christ suffered death, which is normally the penalty for sin; he doesn't say that the penalty due to sinners was transferred to Christ who suffered *in their place*. Hilary, similarly, says nothing about substitution, only that Christ removed the penalty due to sinners - not that that penalty was transferred to Christ! Damascene says that Christ was subject to death on our behalf; but this says nothing about why his death helps us - nothing to suggest that his death is the *punishment* which is due to us. Palamas (hardly a "church father" or early Christian by any definition anyway) says only that sinners were liable to punishment - there's nothing in there at all about Christ suffering that punishment in their place. In fact his use of "ransom" language suggests a very different model of the atonement. And finally Cyril is the same: a statement that through Christ sinners escape the divine wrath and curse, but no statement that the punishment due to sinners falls upon Christ as their substitute.

    So, yes, you are right that the idea of penal substitution can be found in the church fathers, including Greek-speaking ones. It's there in Eusebius and in some others too. However, it is by no means as widespread as your citation of all these names suggests; the evidence you give to support it just isn't strong enough. I think the problem here is that you're interpreting language of punishment, curses, death, condemnation, and so on as necessarily implying a doctrine of penal substitution. But this isn't the case, and the use of this language in some of the authors alongside language associated with very different models of the atonement ought to indicate this. The fact that someone thinks that, without Christ, sinners are subject to divine wrath does not, in itself, indicate that they think that Christ acted as a substitute for sinners. It means only that they think that, in some way, Christ allows sinners to escape this punishment. For example, Anselm of Canterbury thought that sinners are subject to divine punishment for their sins, but his "satisfaction" theory did not posit Christ as a substitute; rather, he thought that the satisfaction made by Christ obviates the need for anyone to be punished. The same thing applies here, I think.

    Post a comment

    Please enter the letter "s" in the field below: