Substitutionary Commotion

[NOTE: This is not to be confused with Substitutiary Locomotion.]

I suppose it’s time to raise my blowhole for a few moments.

Giotto, The Crucifixion

The Crucifixion (ca. 1311), by Giotto (WikiPaintings).

It’s been a hard few weeks, with yet another ugly head rising from the stump of my thesis, just as soon as I thought I’d dealt the death blow. I pray, once again, that I nearly have the thing where I want it and can push to the end very soon. And I’ve been stressed out and struggling and grouchy and in a foul mood, so I apologize to anyone with whom I’ve gotten into an argument recently. And I’ve been staying away from the blogosphere the past week or so, probably to the benefit of getting work done.

I know I still have the series on Baptism on the stove, and the one on Indulgences. Please bear with me. I hope I’ll be able to serve up something worthwhile whenever I have time.

The past week or so there’s been something else on my mind that I wanted to write about, though I have the time neither to research it properly nor write it up fully right now. It’s this debacle recently in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the more mainline, liberal denomination of American Presbyterians, over removal of the modern hymn “In Christ Alone” from their new hymnal — allegedly over an objection to its reference to the “wrath of God,” though now the Presbyterians are saying that the offense was instead because of the reference to God’s wrath being “satisfied,” implying the satisfaction theory of atonement, which, I was surprised to learn, they reject (contrary to historic Presbyterian doctrine).

The offending lyric:

Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid—
Here in the death of Christ I live.

Eugene Delacroix, Christ on the Cross (1853)

Christ on the Cross (1853), by Eugene Delacroix (WikiPaintings).

The truth is, I must confess, I’ve never understood the differences between the various theories of the atonement — neither how they differed from one another, or what the big deal was. I had heard, vaguely, that the Reformed and Evangelicals adhere to the doctrine of penal substitution; while I’d heard that we Catholics did not. But it seemed to me that in this, as in many other areas of doctrine, differing opinions might be compatible with one another and weren’t necessarily contradictory. Christ’s Crucifixion, Death, and Resurrection are the pivotal events of all history; can’t they have done more than one thing, or be validly understood more than one way? Can their mystery even really be comprehended fully by human understanding?

After all, don’t we all believe that Christ died to atone for our sins? Does Scripture not clearly say that Jesus is the propitiation for our sins — not just ours, but those of the whole world (1 John 2:2)? That God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement through the shedding of His Blood (Romans 3:25)? Yes, but beyond this, a number of understandings of the Atonementwhy Christ died for our sins and how the propiation of our sins is accomplished — have been put forward. It’s here that the theological poverty of my upbringing really shows: I had never even heard of this until I began reading deeply into Reformed theology last year. (Thanks to Resting in His Grace for calling the matter to my attention this time around.)

Carl Bloch, The Resurrection of Christ (1875)

The Resurrection of Christ (1875), by Carl Bloch (WikiPaintings)

It is certainly true, as I suspected, that the Christus Victor understanding of Christ’s Death and Resurrection — that Christ conquered death, hell, and the grave (cf. Revelation 20:13–14) — was perfectly scriptural and in no way opposed to the idea, also perfectly scriptural, that Christ died in atonement for our sins (Romans 5:11). But it’s with this idea of atonement proper — how Jesus’s death atones for our sins — about which we have disagreements — in how to interpret Scripture. And these disagreements are compounded by confusion, by appeals and false appeals to the Early Church, by Reformed proponents finding antecedents of their view in Anselm or whomever, and Catholic scholars rejecting such suggestions, with the result that it’s unclear to me who was teaching what or when.

Even as an Evangelical, I didn’t understand this idea of penal substitution. But it truly pervades the Evangelical understanding. I took for granted growing up that Jesus “paid the price for our sins” and “died for our sins so we wouldn’t have to” — and have even thoughtlessly used such language as a Catholic. But the more I read about this doctrine, and learn what it truly rests on, the less I like it. What seemed on the surface to be hair-splitting nuance reflects a much deeper and more troubling misunderstanding of the love and mercy of God.

Bryan Cross has, as usual, a splendid and piercing exposition on the differences between the Catholic and Reformed conceptions of the Atonement. And I begin to understand what is meant by the statement that “as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” In the understanding of Penal Substitution, God the Father punished Christ the Son for all the sins of humanity. Christ literally bore the penalty (poena) for our sins, the penalty we would otherwise suffer. God poured out His wrath, the wrath of judgment on sinners, on Christ the spotless lamb, who knew no sin.

Christ on the Cross (1665), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

Christ on the Cross (1665), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (WikiPaintings)

Now, Bryan can give this matter much greater theological clarity and detail; what I offer is my gut reaction. I have always been troubled, even as an Evangelical, by the image of “sinners in the hands of an angry God” put forward by Jonathan Edwards — God as an angry, wrath-filled deity, ravenous to punish sinners. Certainly our loving and merciful God, who sent His only Son that we might be saved, does not want to punish sinners. Certainly He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but desires that he turn from his way and live (Ezekiel 33:11). So it seems utterly foreign to the idea of a loving God that He would punish His own Son. In my conception, even as an evangelical, Christ willingly bore our sins, was wounded for our transgressions — but it wasn’t God punishing Him so much as Christ giving Himself up for us. I can find nothing in Scripture to support the view of a wrathful God punishing an innocent Christ. Certainly God’s wrath is reserved for the wicked on the Day of their judgment (cf. Revelation 19:15); and certainly that wrath will not now be turned upon those of us who are saved in Christ Jesus. But the idea of God punishing Christ with our penalty, such that his wrath is satisfied, has an even deeper consequence that I never understood before.

It’s from this that the Reformed and Evangelicals receive their misunderstanding that “salvation” is a one-time thing, that when they have faith in Christ, they are “saved” and their sins are “covered” — not just their past sins, but every sin they will ever commit. Because Christ, in addition to atoning for our sins, purchasing our pardon (what we would call the ransom theory of atonement), paid the penalty that was meant for us, for all our sins forever — such that there is no more penalty left for us to pay. He has already suffered the penalty for any sin we could ever commit, so we will never have to suffer any penalty — ergo, all our sins are effectively already forgiven.

Rembrandt, The Sacrifice of Abraham (1635)

The Sacrifice of Abraham (1635), Rembrandt (WikiPaintings).

There is a fine nuance here: Certainly, we Catholics agree, Christ died to atone for all our sins, ever, for all time — even the sins we had not yet committed — since temporally, all of us sinners had not even been born yet, let alone committed any sins; and His mercy will still be there for many more generations of sinners after we die. We are redeemed — bought with a price — before we are born, before we sin — but we are not forgiven until we present ourselves repentant. There is certainly a limitless flow of the mercy and grace Christ bought for us, to forgive our every sin for all time; but rather than Christ paying a penalty that we will now never have to pay, He bought our redemption, to unshackle us from sin and death, when He calls us to Him to receive it.

I’m giving myself a headache. There is a whole lot more of this where it came from, and another deep hole of theology to fall into.

15 thoughts on “Substitutionary Commotion

  1. An interesting topic, Joseph and yes, we missed your blogging. Hope your thesis goes well.

    It seems to me that this ‘atoning’ death of Jesus made ‘Baptism’ possible: a soul that could be free of sin and capable of being a tabernacle of the Holy Spirit which He was to send. And that is the freedom that we have been given due to the price paid by Christ for our sins. That said, this inward Grace is an ability to confront and defeat temptation to sin and to persevere in our quest to be Christ like and comport ourselves as befitting children of God. But should this Grace be buried (like the servant with the single talent) we have not used our free will as God intended and we have not taken advantage of the Grace given. Both of these things are a turning away from God who gave us both the will and the means to take advantage of the gift of eternal salvation.

    I’m not sure how others see this: but that is a simple version of my thoughts on the subject.

    • I do think the atonement was substitutionary in some sense — for surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, and was pierced for our transgressions, and crushed for our iniquities (Isaiah 53). But I don’t see any of this language as penal — but rather, as we believe in the communion of saints, he took away our sins and our death and our suffering and placed it upon himself. Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world! Christ is triumphant over sin and death! He is our Paschal lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7), our sacrifice for the atonement for our sins. Just as the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb in the Old Covenant was not penal (we were not punishing the lamb for our sins), neither was Christ’s Atonement penal. I could ramble about this for a long time — I have so many thoughts and they are not very well organized.

  2. Of the six major atonement theories, substitutionary atonement is my least favorite, because it binds God to a law that is above God. But, the church has never in the past picked just one theory and declared it to be “the” way in which atonement worked. That’s the beauty of it, that you’re right, the atonement could have done many things at once, or one thing we don’t understand yet.

    • I agree. And neither is there a single understanding of the Atonement in the Catholic Church today. But these Reformed and Evangelical Protestants, in their singleminded insistence that it must be penal substitution, force Catholics, such as Bryan Cross above, to define what they see as error and how Catholic belief is distinguished from it.

  3. It is really of interest to me that this topic surfaced as it did. I have been pursuing an understanding of Catholic and Orthodox doctrine (as best as possible, not being of those bodies), and overheard of Bryan’s site (thanks for the link to his other) on EWTN. By the way, I’m discouraged by our Protestant attempt to turn everything Catholic into heretical doctrines. What I’ve learned is that there are very good and defendable reasons for much of the Liturgical acts of the Catholic Church. (I should be cautious as to not get excommunicated here) I was really impressed with a right understanding of what I assume is considered Marian Doctrine.

    Anyway, I digress. This all happened for me before a knowledge of the Presbyterian fall-out. I would admit though that the topic was probably on EWTN because of the controversy… I was just unaware.

    Although none of my Reformed friends came to converse, I did find an article of interest from the Baptist view of Penal Substitution (actually, my Pastor emailed it to me). It seems even the Baptists argue over stuff such as this. Here’s the link, if interested.

    Man, that’s a serious link. You can wash it if not interested or after reading. From my own Pastor’s take on this, he considers the end of man without the blood of Christ applied as one of eternal hell, or God’s wrath. He sees Jesus’ work on the Cross as having endured our penalty, hence penal substitution.

    Still, I too am getting a headache trying to digest all of this. I’m about ready to revert to our childhood song, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Thanks for the nod.

    • Well, you may anything you want, but as Pope Leo says: “Remember and understand well that where Peter is, there is the Church; that those who refuse to associate in communion with the Chair of Peter belong to Antichrist, not to Christ. He who would separate himself from the Roman Pontiff has no further bond with Christ.” You have to strap yourself to the Chair of Peter and run to the RCC, or else… Christ will forsake you.

        • Truly, I am appreciative of your concern. Might we all be so diligent. Something that is of interest to me though is the RCC elevation of Peter to such high regard. Don’t get me wrong,I too look up to his Apostleship and high calling, but have often wondered why Paul speaks only rarely of him, and once only to let us know that he had to scold him for showing favoritism to Judaistic practices. Just a little curious as I’m in the midst of a dig to find the evidences that Peter ever went to Rome. Blessings.

          • Yes, as Ken said, I think Paul was focused more than anything on his own mission and the mission field. Peter got in his way once, and that’s why we hear about it. He sounds more than a little arrogant with his statement that “those who were of repute added nothing to me” (Galatians 2:6); his resignation that “we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised” (Galatians 2:9) is basically what Ken said: “you do your thing, and let me do mine.” Keep in mind that Galatians was one of the earliest of the Epistles, written certainly before the Acts of the Apostles. I’ve read convincing arguments that the confrontation Paul describes in Galatians was a different episode than the Council of Jerusalem of Acts 15, in which case, according to the Acts account, Peter and Paul reached some agreement, the Lord having revealed directly to Peter what his position should be.

            It is curious that Paul doesn’t mention Peter in 2 Timothy, written at the end of his life, when both Paul and Peter were certainly in Rome — but it’s just as curious that Paul doesn’t mention anybody in Rome, when there certainly was a thriving Christian community there by that time. There are academic arguments that the pastoral epistles were not genuinely Pauline; all I can do to that is shrug. If 2 Timothy is genuinely Pauline, it may indicate that even when they both resided in Rome, Peter and Paul continued not to have a close working relationship. But I have a hard time accepting that there was a definite schism between them — especially if we accept 2 Peter as genuine, in which Peter recommends Paul’s “wisdom” (2 Peter 3:15). We know from Scripture that Peter was in Rome (cf. 1 Peter 5:13), and external historical testimony universally places the deaths of both Peter and Paul in Rome at around the same time, ca. A.D. 67, in the first persecutions of Nero. The Church of Rome ever since has celebrated Peter and Paul as the joint pillars on which the Church is founded, and their names are nearly always mentioned together. Whether that means the two were truly united in partnership, I can’t say.

        • Contrary to the relationship in the Acts of the Apostles, where Peter and Paul are good with each other, Paul’s own letters seem to indicate that the relationship between Paul and Peter was not always amiable. Of course, I get the impression that Paul didn’t have good close relationships with many people, as he was so focused on his mission that anyone who got in the way was left behind (like Barnabbas and John Mark). Paul knew what his message was, and if you didn’t agree with him, he didn’t give you another thought.

      • And to add the previous heretical quotes, here’s some more:
        “To believe that our Lord God the Pope has not the power to decree as he is decreed, is to be deemed heretical.” (The Gloss extravagances of Pope John XXII Cum. Inter, tit XIV Ad Callem Sexti Decretalium, Paris, 1685)

        “Our Lord God the pope; another God upon earth, king of kings, and lord of lords. The same is the dominion of God and the pope. To believe that our Lord God the pope might not decree, as he decreed, it were a matter of heresy. The power of the pope is greater than all created power, and extends itself to things celestial, terrestrial, and infernal.” (Dissertations on the Prophecies, London: B. Blake, Bell-Yard, Temple-Bar, 1831, p. 456)

        Taken from

    • I’m very glad for the discussion, too, since I see now that this is a significant difference between Catholic belief and Reformed — at least, as I was saying, the Reformed like to make an issue of it. As I said, I had never heard of this growing up Evangelical and it never came up in my two years or so of Catholic catechesis.

      I really, deeply appreciate your attitude and efforts to understand Catholic doctrine and not paint it all as heretical — which I’ve found to be the prevailing view among the Reformed-minded, and I’m really wearying of it. For a year or two I’ve sought out anti-Catholic arguments to argue against, thinking naïvely that such attitudes were rooted solely in ignorance and misunderstanding of what Catholics really believe — but of all the people I’ve talked to, I don’t think a single one has budged. There seems to be a deep, visceral antipathy toward the Catholic Church per se, an historically-rooted prejudice that the Catholic Church is “apostate” and “heretical,” as a tenet of Reformed faith that is unquestionable and sacrosanct. And I’m glad to know not everybody feels that way. If you ever want a discussion about any particular area of Catholic belief, just let me know, and I would be glad to address it.

      I read (or at least scanned) the Mohler piece. What bugs me more than anything about all of this is the near certainty that these ideas were never thought of by anybody prior to Calvin, and yet Reformed people today behave as if it is the only possible view (and therefore, if they follow that argument through, everybody prior to Calvin was sore out of luck).

      • Yes, I agree it seems that most of Reformed thought can only be traced back a few hundred years. Of course, there is Augustine, but it seems the Catholic Church does not hold his teaching in as high esteem as those I have mostly read.

        Yet, I think Reformers will make their argument from Scriptures. The Solas you know.

        On Peter, as always, both sides present evidence on both Peter’s Babylon comments and Clement’s letter. But I would greatly appreciate any other sources you or readers are aware of.

        Packer has written some challenging stuff on PS, I have another piece publishing soon with links. Thanks for the good information and community.

        • I compiled this collection of quotes, which I think includes most of the important testimonies to Peter’s ministry in Rome up to the time of Constantine. I also wrote a series on the archaeological findings under the Vatican of what is believed to be Peter’s tomb.

          The Catholic Church actually holds Augustine in very high esteem. Regarding justification and grace, he is the source from which all theological thought begins — he was the first to really think deeply on the matter. In the section of the Catechism on justification and grace (CCC 1987-2005), he is the Church Father quoted more than any other. I recently read Anglican historian Alister McGrath’s history of the doctrine of justification, Iustitia Dei — and I feel confident that the Catholic understanding of justification today is essentially Augustinian. Protestants like to claim Augustine as a sort of proto-Protestant, but one can’t read very much of Augustine without finding quite a lot that disagrees with especially the Calvinistic understanding of justification. McGrath acknowledges that the Reformers appropriated parts of Augustine’s theology but made significant departures — and that the Protestant understanding of the mode of justification (as a forensic declaration of the imputation of the “righteousness of Christ” to man as something external to him) was a theological novelty. McGrath’s book is a compelling read, and I can especially recommend it in the third edition, in which he actually translated the primary source quotations (the second edition had them all in untranslated Greek and Latin and German!).

          My opinion regarding the solas is that it’s hard to hold them forth as the sine qua non of Christianity — to the point of saying, as R.C. Sproul and company say, that “sola fide is the Gospel” — when one can’t demonstrate that anybody prior to the Reformers held such doctrines. Sola scriptura — in the form many Protestants hold it today, that would hold individuals responsible for their own salvation through personal Scripture study — is unlikely to have ever been held by anybody in the first centuries of Christianity (let alone the first fifteen centuries) when the majority of people could neither read nor afford books. And while the Church Fathers did hold Scripture in the highest esteem — as does the Church today — there’s no evidence that anyone prior to Wycliffe ever rejected teachings from Tradition just because they weren’t spelled out explicitly in Scripture. And while certain passages of the Church Fathers can be quoted out of context to appear to support sola fide, most of these passages are only paraphrasing Paul in agreeing that it is not our own works that save us, but only the working of the grace of God through our faith — which the Church has always believed. Elsewhere Paul is clear that we don’t reach salvation without some degree of working or striving through grace (e.g. Philippians 2:12–13, 1 Corinthians 15:58, 1 Timothy 4:7–10, 6:12) — as is James (James 2:14–17) and Peter (2 Peter 1:5–10, 3:14) and Jesus (Luke 13:24, Matthew 19:16–17). Paul is clear that it is not through “faith alone” that we are saved (a phrase he never used, despite Luther’s interpolation), but “faith working in love” (Galatians 5:6, 1 Corinthians 13:2).

          Anyway, this is long and rambly and I should go to bed. What I was trying to say: if it can’t be demonstrated historically that anybody ever held these solas, then why should we presume that the Reformers were correctly interpreting Scripture? They were breaking from tradition, declaring themselves to be returning to something pure — so they had better be able to demonstrate that. Otherwise, Protestants end up arguing for a “Great Apostasy” that happened more or less immediately, even by the end of the first century, within the very lifetimes of the Apostles — which doesn’t exactly reflect very well on Jesus’s promise that “the gates of Hades would not prevail” against His Church.

  4. Pingback: Some more thoughts on Substitutionary Atonement | The Lonely Pilgrim

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