Saint Athanasius and the ‘Penal Substitutionary’ Atonement Doctrine


I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’ admonition that if we must

“read only the new or the old, I would advise…to read the old.”

His reasoning is that

“A new book is still on trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages.”

This is true, I believe, of Christian doctrines and ideas too: they must be consonant with and tested against ‘the great body of Christian thought down the ages.’ Unfortunately many in the Christian world today accept without reservation ideas that have been passed down to them that do not meet the “great-body-of-Christian-thought-down-the-ages” test. What is even more troublesome is that many Christians do not know (or care) that they are accepting theological innovations of later or modern centuries, some of which are not in keeping with early church teaching (or worse yet, perhaps even contradicting them).

I believe the cardinal Evangelical doctrine of penal substitution of the atonement (Christ’s vicarious punishment for humanity’s sins as the central work or accomplishment of the cross) is one of these. Contemporary Evangelical Protestant theologian J.I. Packer calls it,

“a distinguishing mark of the word-wide evangelical fraternity: namely, the belief that the cross had the character of penal substitution, and that it was in virtue of this fact that it brought salvation to mankind.”[1]

One of the interesting discoveries I made reading St Athanasius’ seminal book, written in the early fourth century, is the complete absence of this notion that for many Evangelical Christians has come to be central to the Gospel message itself: namely the doctrine that Christ paid by vicarious punishment atonement for our individual sins (for which we deserve punishment). Billy Graham is perhaps the most well-known contemporary proponent of this doctrine. I recall hearing him preach many times on television that Christ suffered a horrific death as a punishment (i.e., penalty) for your and my sins. This idea never resonated with me because it raised disturbing issues about the nature of a God Who required such justice served.

However, as theologian J.I. Packer observes, the stark absence of this view in the early church fathers should not come as a surprise since it is a 16th century medieval interpretation:

“…Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Melanchthon and their reforming contemporaries were the pioneers in stating it (my emphasis)… What the Reformers did was to redefine satisfactio (satisfaction), the main mediaeval category for thought about the cross. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo?, which largely determined the mediaeval development, saw Christ’s satisfactio for our sins as the offering of compensation or damages for dishonour done, but the Reformers saw it as the undergoing of vicarious punishment (poena) to meet the claims on us of God’s holy law and wrath (i.e. his punitive justice).”[2]

The problem with this doctrine is not in the idea of “substitution”. Early church fathers, of course, understood the meaning and redemptive work of the cross as a “substitution” (IE. Christ in place of us). St Athanasius himself writes:

“Thus taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death in place of all, and offered it to the Father (an offering, not a penalty – my emphasis). This He did for sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, when He had fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was therefore voided of its power for men.”[3] Later the Saint writes that His death on the Cross was a “sufficient exchange (my emphasis) for all.”[4] Later yet he writes of His death on the cross as “a debt owing (my emphasis) which must be paid”[5] And finally he writes, “He died to ransom all…”[6]

For Saint Athanasius the words exchange, debt, and ransom are used to explain the expiatory work of Our Lord on the Cross on our behalf. Contrast this with the more legalistic and penal (IE punishment) explanation of John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion:

“Thus we perceive Christ representing the character of a sinner and a criminal…and it becomes manifest that he suffers for another’s and not for his own crime.”

What is the problem with the theory of penal substitution? The problem has been expressed well by a contemporary writer:

“The penal satisfaction theory is entirely legalistic. It assumes that the order of law and justice is absolute; free forgiveness would be a violation of this absolute order; God’s love must be carefully limited lest it infringe on the demands of justice. Sin is a crime against God and the penalty must be paid before forgiveness can become available. According to this view God’s love is conditioned and limited by his justice; that is, God cannot exercise His love to save man until His righteousness (justice) is satisfied. Since God’s justice requires that sin be punished, God’s love cannot save man until the penalty of sin has been paid, satisfying His justice. God’s love is set in opposition to His righteousness, creating a tension and problem in God….According to this legalistic theology, this is why Christ needed to die; he died to pay the penalty of man’s sin and to satisfy the justice of God (my emphasis). The necessity of the atonement is the necessity of satisfying the justice of God; this necessity is in God rather than in man. (my emphasis). And since this necessity is in God, it is an absolute necessity. If God is to save man, God must satisfy His justice before He can in love save man.”

For many who want to know Our Lord, the God of love, the idea that God the Father required Christ to suffer punishment in order to somehow appease or satisfy His sense of righteousness or justice is an abhorrent idea, keeping many people from accepting the actual love and mercy of God and perverting a correct understanding of the nature of God the Father.

How do we Eastern Orthodox and the early church tradition understand the debt, the exchange, the ransom and to whom it was paid?

Saint Athanasius writes,

“For by the sacrifice of His own body He did two things: He put an end to the law of death which barred our way; and He made a new beginning of life for us…”[7]

To whom did He make the sacrifice?

“It was by surrendering to death (my emphasis) the body which He had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from every stain, that He forthwith abolished death for his human brethren by the offering of the equivalent.” [8]

The Saint teaches that Christ died, not to appease God the Father, but to rescue mankind (you and me) from death! That was “to whom” he sacrificed himself – the existential/ontological reality of death; that

“through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection. For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all.”

This may seem like small difference, perhaps even a nuance; however it is a difference that is significant, as it correctly represents the nature of God as “the lover of mankind,” rather than a cosmic egotistical despot or a slave to divine legalism, and the work of the cross as a supreme act of sacrificial love by Our Lord, in which the Holy Trinity was acting (and continues to act) in one accord.


[1] What Did the Cross Achieve: The Logic of Penal Substitution: J.I. Packer

[2] Ibid

[3] On The Incarnation; page 34

[4] Ibid; 35

[5] Ibid; 49

[6] Ibid; 51.

[7] Ibid; 37

[8] Ibid; 35

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