Penal-Substitutionary Atonement in Church History

by | Jul 29, 2016 | Theology | 0 comments

In my last blog post entitled “God’s View of Sin,” a commenter took exception with my view endorsing a penal-substitutionary model of the atonement. His claim is very clear and very basic: “that no component of PST exists in any form, kerygmatic or written, until the reformation is a good indication that no one even conceived of it until then.” Now, it seems to me that this statement is filled with numerous problems. First, since the term kerygmatic applies to “preaching” it seems that no one can know if PST was preached for the first thousand years of the church because we do not have a record of everything that was preached during that period. The statement on its face is an extreme exaggeration and the commenter turned critic should have avoided it. Second, that we have no written record of anyone ever espousing any component of PST is, on the face of it, simply mistaken. The basic objective of this blog post is to demonstrate that there were components and more, of the penal-substitutionary model of the atonement embraced by those in the ancient church and that this can be traced throughout the history of the church until it comes into its own in the works of Anselm is not a difficult task.

Now, my critic has set his own bar and that bar is indeed a high one. Because my critic has set a high bar for himself, all that I must do in order to show that he is wrong is demonstrate that just one component of PST was indeed present in the history of the church prior to 1,000. I do not have to show that PST was fully framed out in some confessional form prior to 1,000. Additionally, there is a logical problem with my critic’s argument. Whether or not there is a written argument for PST is not a good enough reason to conclude that no one had ever conceived of it until Anselm. For there are many things that could be argued that would require principles deduced from the belief that PST is biblical doctrine. Finding principles that would require the soundness of PST would be good evidence that, even though there were no direct writings about the doctrine, PST was received by certain theologians making such arguments upon said principles. Even though my critic has issued a proposition that is filled with numerous logical fallacies, it is the lack of historical facts that is the most glaring. And so, it is the historical fact that I shall address for the remainder of this post. My goal is to provide historical proof that the PST was not new to Anselm, but that it has its roots in early Christianity, in fact, in Scripture itself.

It would be remiss for me not to provide a definition of what I mean when I say penal-substitutionary atonement. Wayne Grudem is helpful when he says that Christ’s death was penal in that he bore a penalty when he died. And, Christ’s death was a substitute in that he was a substitute for us when he died. [Grudem, Systematic Theology, 579] One of the issues with which we must grapple where the atonement is concerned is the its multifaceted nature. Gregg Allison identifies several facts: expiation, propitiation, redemption, reconciliation, Christ the Victor, example, and exchange or imputation. Because of this fact alone, the opportunity to focus on these various aspects of the atonement could create the false idea that other facets were not as important. This is a nuance of the doctrine that must be kept in view as one studies its history.

Clement of Rome wrote, “In love has the Lord taken us to Himself. On account of the love He bore us, Jesus Christ our Lord gave His blood for us by the will of God; His flesh for our flesh, and His soul for our souls.” (1 Clement 49) Clearly the idea of substitution is present in the phrases, “his flesh for our flesh, and his soul for our souls.”

The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus also expresses a substitutionary view, “He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal…By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God?” This work was written in the late 2nd century.

Justin clearly thought in a penal-substitutionary way in his dialogue with Trypho, “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…His Father wished Him to suffer this, in order that by His stripes the human race might be healed.” This letter was also written in the second century.

Irenaeus, having been the first to formulate the recapitulation theory, expressed a substitutionary view of the atonement; “For as by the disobedience of the one man who was originally moulded from virgin soil, the many were made sinners, and forfeited life; so was it necessary that, by the obedience of one man, who was originally born from a virgin, many should be justified and receive salvation.”

Athanasius, living in the 4th century expressed a substitutionary view: For when ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ and came to minister and to grant salvation to all, then He became to us salvation, and became life, and became propitiation; then His economy in our behalf became much better than the Angels, and He became the Way and became the Resurrection.” And then again, he wrote, “He next offered up His sacrifice also on behalf of all, yielding His Temple to death in the stead of all, in order firstly to make men quit and free of their old trespass, and further to shew Himself more powerful even than death, displaying His own body incorruptible, as first-fruits of the resurrection of all.”

Ignatius clearly believed that Jesus died on behalf of sinners, “Now, He suffered all these things for our sakes, that we might be saved.”

The Epistle of Barnabas contains similar language, “For to this end the Lord endured to deliver up His flesh to corruption, that we might be sanctified through the remission of sins, which is effected by His blood of sprinkling…He also Himself was to offer in sacrifice for our sins the vessel of the Spirit, in order that the type established in Isaac when he was offered upon the altar might be fully accomplished.”

It is challenging to gain more clarity on this question than is added by reading the early church historian Eusebius, “Thus the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world, became a curse on our behalf.” And again, “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 upon Himself the appointed curse, being made a curse for us.” And finally, “But since being in the likeness of sinful flesh He condemned sin in the flesh, the words quoted are rightly used. And in that He made our sins His own from His love and benevolence towards us.” It seems this statement alone would provide the hammer, the nail, and the coffin by which we could reject and dispense with the view that there was no hint of PST in the first 1,000 years of the church. Surely, the evidence is overwhelmingly stacked against such claims.

I rest my case.

What is even more devastating for the anti-PST view than the historical evidence in church history is a careful exegesis of the text of Scripture. Nothing more is needed than Scripture itself to offer a sound and thorough refutation of any view opposing a Penal-Substitutionary Atonement.







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