Church Fathers on Atonement


An historic Protestant doctrine has been that God, in the person of Jesus Christ (the incarnate second person of the Trinity) took upon himself the penalty or consequences of man’s rebellion, as our substitute. This cleared the way for restored relationship between God and man. This penal substitutionary aspect of the atonement has long been eschewed by mainline liberal Protestants. It has recently also come under intense attack from within evangelicalism. One claim made by opponents of penal substitution is that it is a comparatively recent theological innovation, dating back only to the time of the Reformation. The early church Fathers, we are told, conceived of Christ’s work as defeating the powers of evil (death, sin, Satan), but never as taking on the legal penalty for our sin. This viewpoint stems largely from Gustav Aulen’s enormously influential book, Christus Victor, published some 90 years ago.

This essay examines the writings of the Christian authors of the second century, along with select other Fathers such as Eusebius of Caesarea and Athanasius, to determine what they actually wrote regarding the atonement. We find that the Christus Victor thesis fails in two significant ways. First, penal substitution is clearly taught by a number of early Fathers. Second, the Fathers did not each hold to just one narrow aspect of the atonement. Humanity is both sick and guilty, so the Greek Fathers dealt in depth with how the work of Christ brings healing to the whole man. It is common to find a given writer affirming multiple aspects of the work of Christ, including defeat of evil powers and ontological substitution, as well as penal substitution. Thus, Aulen’s attempt to narrowly pigeonhole various Christian authors is fundamentally flawed. Finally, some gleanings from the Fathers are noted which may enrich theological discussion within evangelicalism.



  Do We Have To Choose Just One Atonement Theory?

  New Testament Passages Regarding Various Aspects of Atonement:

    (1) Substitutionary sacrifice for our sins [->Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory]

    (2) Victory over death and evil powers [->Christus Victor Theory]

    (3) Experientially participating in the divine life here and now, gives power to  overcome sin tendencies [->Ontological Theories]

    (4) Ransom/redemption [->Ransom Theory]

    (5) Paves way for the indwelling Holy Spirit

    (6) Adoption as Sons and Daughters of God, Co-Heirs

    (7) Moral example [-> Subjective or Moral Influence Theory]





   First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians (c. 96 A.D.)

   Ignatius of Antioch  (Letters written ~107 A. D.)

   Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians (c. 110-140)

   Martyrdom of Polycarp (mid-late 2nd century)

   Epistle of Barnabas (c. 100-130)

   The Didache   (c. 100 A.D.)  

   Shepherd of Hermas (~90-160)

   Letter of “Mathetes” to Diognetus (c. 130-160)


   Justin Martyr (writing c. 150-165)

   Irenaeus, Against Heresies (c. 180 A.D.)

   Redemption from Sin and from Satan in Irenaeus



    Penal Substitution in Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 265-340)

    Ontological and Penal Substitution in Athanasius (c. 297-373)


    Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330 – 395)

    Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389)


    Aulen’s Three-Part Model and Its Impact

    Successes and Failures of Aulen’s Model

    Ongoing Controversy: Derek Flood vs. Garry Williams


    Tabular Summary of Early Fathers’ Views on the Atonement

    Some Further Readings




A central theme of Christianity is that there is a profound relational alienation between humans and God due to our unrighteousness (sin), and that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ solves this problem for those that appropriate his work. On that, nearly all believers can agree. But how exactly does this forgiveness of sins and reconciliation, this “atonement” work? What is the actual problem, and what is the mechanism of the solution? What exactly happened in and through the cross?

The devil, it would appear, is in the details here. Disagreements over the atonement in large measure constitute the fault-lines between the major worldwide segments of the church (e.g. Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant), and also define divisions within Protestant denominations. The importance attached to a position on the atonement is understandable, since that position impacts many other aspects of one’s theological thinking.

Our biblical understanding of the atonement is represented in the figure below. We know much about the “inputs” and the “output”. We are less informed about what happens inside the black box. We are given some information how the atonement works in the books of the New Testament. But understanding how to interpret those passages, and how they all fit together, is an ongoing project in the church.

Atonement as a Black Box

Figure 1. The atonement as a black box

It is often put this way: “salvation” refers to the results of Christ’s reconciling work (forgiveness, empowerment for godly living, eternal life, etc.) and “atonement” refers to how salvation takes place. The various atonement theories are efforts to describe the “mechanism” inside the black box shown above.

Do We Have To Choose Just One Atonement Theory?

Here is a list by Bill Muehlenberg of atonement theories, in a commonly-stated order of appearance:

-The ransom theory (the early church fathers)
-The recapitulation theory (Irenaeus)
-The satisfaction, or commercial theory (Anselm)
-The penal substitution theory (Paul (?) and the reformers)
-The moral example, or subjective, or moral influence theory (Abelard)
-The governmental theory (Grotius)
-The Christus Victor, or dramatic theory (Aulen)

See Theopedia for an expanded list of atonement theories, with brief definitions.

In his classic Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis advised against placing too much weight on any particular theory or theories, noting that one can appropriate the benefits of the atonement without knowing the mechanistic details:

The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work. …

Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works. Christians would not all agree as to how important these theories are….But I think they will all agree that the thing itself is infinitely more important than any explanations that theologians have produced. …..You may ask what good it will be to us if we do not understand it. But that is easily answered. A man can eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it. We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ’s death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself.

Supporters of some particular theory often work to prove that their particular viewpoint is right and all others are wrong. However, it seems obvious that multiple aspects of the atonement are in play in the New Testament. Some of these aspects are listed below, with relevant passages. In brackets are noted the names of some of the better-known atonement “theories”, which are typically derived from the biblical passages cited.

New Testament Passages Regarding Various Aspects of Atonement:

(1) Substitutionary sacrifice for our sins [-> Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory]

Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29); Expiation/propitiation of our sin against God via his sacrificial death (Romans 3:25;  Heb. 2:17; I John 2:1 and 4:9-10); his blood poured out for forgiveness of sins (Mat 26:28); his death and resurrection leading to remission of sins (Luke 24:46-47; cf. Heb. 9:22  – no remission without shedding blood); purchased church with his blood (Acts 20:28); delivered to death for our sins and raised for our justification (Rom 4:25); justified, peace with God (Rom 5:1); God demonstrates his love in Christ dying for the ungodly (Rom 5:6-8); justified by his blood, saved from wrath by his life (Rom 5:9); enemies now reconciled to God through death of his son (Rom. 5:10-11); his obedient “righteous act” brought justification, life, made many righteous (Rom 5:18-19);

Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed (I  Cor 5:7); God in Christ reconciled world to himself, not counting people’s sins (II Cor 5:18-19); Christ became sin for us so we might be considered righteous (II Cor 5:21); gave himself for our sins, rescued us from present evil age (Gal. 1:4); becoming a curse in our place (Gal. 3:13); redemption, forgiveness of sins through his blood ( Eph 1:7; Col. 1:14); people without/far from God were brought near by Christ’s blood (Eph. 2:13); set aside the law in his flesh, reconcile Jews and Gentiles together to God through cross, provide access to the Father through Spirit (Eph. 2:14-17); loved us, gave self for us as offering/sacrifice to God (Eph 5:2); reconciled to himself all things, on earth and in heaven, by making peace through his blood on cross (Col. 1:20); reconciled us by Christ’s body through death to present us holy in his sight (Col. 1:22); forgave all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, nailing it to the cross (Col. 2:14); died for us that we may live together with him (I Thess. 5:10);

His work cleansed our sins (Heb. 1:3);  offered himself as a once for all sacrifice for our sins (Heb. 7:27); his blood cleanses our conscience from sins (Heb. 9:14) and obtains eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12); his death is a ransom to set us free from sins (Heb. 9:15); sacrificed self to bear/take away our sins (Heb. 9:26,28); his sacrifice for sins perfects us forever (Heb. 9:12-14); we were made holy through the one sacrifice of his body for sins (Heb. 10:10-14);  we enter Most Holy Place by blood of Jesus, a new & living way opened through the curtain = his body (Heb. 10:19-20);  draw near in assurance, our hearts sprinkled to cleanse of guilty conscience (Heb. 10:22);   Suffered for our sins, the just for the unjust (I Peter 3:18); bearing our sins in his body (I Peter 2:24);  his blood purifies us from our sins (I John 1:7); he appeared to take away our sins (I John 3:5); he loved us and freed us from our sins by his blood (Rev. 1:5);  was slain, with his blood purchased persons from every ethnic group to be kingdom and priests (Rev 5:9-10).

God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.  Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.  But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation. (Col. 1:18-22)

(2) Victory over death and evil powers [-> Christus Victor Theory]

Christ triumphing over death (I Cor. 15:26; Heb. 2:9, 14), and over the devil (John 12:31; Heb. 2:14; I John 3:8) and demonic powers (Col. 2:15); we overcome Satan by the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony (Rev 12:11)

(3) Participating in the trajectory of Jesus’ life/death/resurrection gives power to overcome sin tendencies and to experience the divine life now and later [-> Ontological Substitution Theories]

Identification with Christ’s death and his resurrection, such that we can experientially “walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4), and  have “participation in the divine nature” so as to escape “corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (II Peter 1:4); knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection and fellowship of his sufferings (Phil. 2:10); “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20); we are inwardly renewed day by day; in Christ, we are each a “new creation” (II Cor. 4:16, 5:17); we have died with Christ to the spiritual forces of this world, and have been raised with Christ and have put on the new self, and live by the Spirit, not the flesh (Eph. 2:5-6; Col. 2:11-12, 2:20-3:10; Rom. 8:9-14)

(4) Ransom/redemption [-> Ransom Theory]

Being rescued/bought out from slavery or captivity, typically at the price of Christ’s blood and death; the prior bondage was to the penalty or experiential power of sin, or to satanic influence (Mark 10:45 ; Romans 3:24; I Cor 6:20; Gal. 1:4; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:13-14; I Tim 2:5-6; Heb. 9:15; I Peter 1:18-19; Rev. 5:9)

(5) Paves way for the indwelling Holy Spirit

As a result of Jesus’s death/resurrection/ascension, the Holy Spirit comes in a new way, to indwell, guide, illumine, empower believers (John 14:16-17; 15:26, 16:7; Luke 24:46-49; Acts 2:38; Romans 8:9-16, 23-27; Gal. 3:2-5, 5:16; Heb. 6:4).   The Spirit is Christ’s representative presence in us; this presence is a foretaste and guarantee of our ultimate transformation so we can enter into the glorious fellowship of the Trinity (II Cor. 1:22, 5:5; Eph. 1:14; “Christ in you, the hope of glory” Col. 1:27).

(6) Adoption as Sons and Daughters of God, Co-Heirs

“Legal” adoption (analogous to Roman custom) as children of God, co-heirs with Christ for glorious future, address God with familiarity ( John 20:17; Rom. 8:14-23, 29; II Cor 6:18; Gal. 3:20,26, 4:5-6,28; Eph. 1:5, 5:1; Heb. 2:10, 12:5-8; Rev. 21:7 ); “Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Rom 8:17); died for us so we can live together forever with him (I Thes. 5:10); new birth into “living hope” through Christ’s resurrection, inheritance kept in heaven for us (I Peter 1:3-4)

(7) Moral example [-> Subjective or Moral Influence Theory]

In addition to the various “objective” results of the work of Christ [items (1)-(5) above], his teachings and conduct (particularly in sacrificial service) provide an inspiring moral standard which can work a subjective change in people who hear about it. (John 13:14; Eph. 5:2; Phil. 2:5; I Pet. 2:21; I John 2:6, 4:11).

It is worth noting here that there are far more references to Jesus’ death as a substitutionary sacrifice for our sins than to any other aspect of the atonement.  There are other ways to categorize the various passages on the saving work of Christ, but it is clear that there are multiple aspects involved. While extreme versions of some theories of the atonement may be logically incompatible with one another, no single humanly-devised theory should be expected to capture all aspects of the atonement. Adam Johnson suggests that the task of the church “is not to determine which is the theory of the atonement, or which theory of the atonement has pride of place among the others. Rather…we ought to witness to the fittingness of the atonement to demonstrate how the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ brings together a wide range of benefits for the reconciliation of all things to God” [1].

The Modern Loathing of Penal Substitution

A dominant atonement view in historic Protestantism has been penal substitution. In this view, because God is holy and just, he does not simply forgive sin in the sense of shrugging it off and saying, “Ahh, no big deal. I didn’t really mean it with all those commands and expectations of living under my sovereignty. Let’s just forget about it.”  From God’s perspective, the ongoing breach in relationship caused by our ongoing unfaithfulness is akin to having one’s spouse be constantly unfaithful. It is not the sort of thing that is just casually forgiven as though nothing significant is going on.

God’s laws were understood to be good, and to carry with them blessings for obedience and sanctions for disobedience: “The soul that sins, it will die” (Ezek. 18:20).  Rebellion against an infinite Creator and abuse of his creation (including abuse of other people) in defiance of his commands merits judgment. Since we owe our very existence to the Creator, he would seem to have the right to decree not only what our behavior and attitude should be, but also the penalties for defying his standards. Theologians have long noted that if God does not apply the sanctions he said he would, that would make him a liar.

“There is no one who does good, not even one” (Ps. 53:3), and “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).  In the afterlife, there will be piercing clarity as the veil of physical existence which separates our consciousness from God’s perceptible presence is removed; this will not end well for those in a state of rebellion against God and his ways.

This alienation from God is not a problem which we can fix ourselves, since we are the problem. It is not merely that we transgress this or that rule now and then. Rather, our overall orientation (“the heart”) is incompatible with a holy God. The problem is sin, not just sins. However, God has graciously taken the initiative to provide a solution: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).  Although Jesus was sinless, he voluntarily took upon himself the penalty or judgment which was due us for our sins. This is why Paul can proclaim that God is both just (because the just demands of the law were satisfied through Christ’s voluntary death in our place) and the one who justifies the ungodly (Romans 3:26; 4:5).  In sum: “The wages [i.e. the just penalty or outworking] of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord [thanks to his vicarious sacrifice]” (Rom 6:23).

This penal substitution approach was explicitly articulated by the Protestant Reformers such as Luther and Calvin. They did not feel they were inventing something new, but that they were merely developing the straightforward implications of statements in the New Testament. Later Reformed scholastics pursued more detailed lines of thought around the satisfaction of God’s justice. Those later speculations may or may not be helpful in illuminating the basic concept, which is that Jesus Christ took on himself the divinely-instituted penalty of death which we had incurred, so as to cancel the separation between us and God which was caused by our rejection of him and his ways. This is part of the inherently mysterious transaction whereby Christ takes on our sin, and in turn his righteousness is imputed to us.  Penal substitutionary atonement is widely subscribed to in evangelical Christianity. Reflection on God’s gracious, costly, and effective solution to the problem of our sinfulness has for centuries evoked gratitude and wonder.

This view, though, has come under sustained attack in recent years. C. S. Lewis noted in his essay “God in the Dock” that modern man no longer feels he is subject to God’s judgment; rather, it is God who is on trial for having created a world with many displeasing aspects. We don’t take sin seriously because we don’t take God seriously.  It is understandable that nonbelievers would chafe at the concept that we are accountable to a Creator and are thus liable to be judged and sentenced according to his rules, not ours. It is not hard to find scathing ridicule heaped on penal substitutionary atonement from atheist authors.

The idea of penal substitution has also been rejected by what might be considered the liberal wing of mainline Protestant churches. These Christians tend to locate the problem of sin in the collective, in “structures of evil” which propagate injustices in society, rather than in individual accountability to God and his commands. They focus on the horizontal, rather than the vertical, dimension of sin. They are understandably indignant over sins committed by other people (e.g. racial profiling, police brutality) in their nation or community but often evince little alarm over their own personal guilt before a holy, righteous, eternal Judge. Thus, it is not surprising that they hold little value for that Judge’s given solution for their guilt. C. S. Lewis noted in The Problem of Pain that “a man who accepts no guilt can accept no forgiveness”, and Jesus observed someone who is “forgiven little” will have little appreciation for his person and work (Luke 7:47).

What is more surprising is the number of evangelicals, or perhaps ex-evangelicals, who have come out against penal substitutionary atonement, which they say portrays God as a reprehensible “monster”, a “cosmic child abuser”. These are typically men and women who identify as devout disciples of Jesus, and who still see the Bible as an inspired source of teachings. They often based their arguments on the Scriptures, albeit with highly selective readings which celebrate passages which portray God’s love and which evade the passages which just as clearly portray his judgment [2]. These folks are sometimes termed emergent or post-modern Christians.

It seems that prior to the late nineteenth century (in North America, at least), there was not such an extreme emphasis on penal substitution even among the relatively conservative or evangelical Protestants. Rather, there was more of a balance between the vertical dimension of Christianity (e.g. conversion, forgiveness of sins, personal holiness, hope of heaven) and the horizontal dimension  of blessing society (building hospitals, abolition of slavery, etc.). It was attacks on penal substitution (and devaluing other aspects of the vertical dimension) by “modernists” that led the “fundamentalists” to double down on this doctrine, and become suspicious of anything that smacked of the “social gospel”. It may be that younger evangelicals are now reacting against this fundamentalist over-reaction which often led to lurid preaching of the crucifixion and an unbalanced fixation on penal substitution for the forgiveness of our sins, whereas the gospel comprises much more than that. [3], [4]

There are a number of objections lodged against penal substitution. Some of them are outright misrepresentations, along the lines of:  “It is divine child abuse for the Father to murder his Son so he could get over his rage and hatred toward people.”  This sort of rhetoric may sell books, but this does not honestly frame the position in question. No serious proponent of penal substitutionary atonement teaches anything like that.  Anyone acquainted with the Bible knows that:

( a ) The atonement was a cooperative affair among all three members of the Trinity.(Heb 9:14).  God was “in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” (II Cor 5:17).

( b ) (Per Derek Rishmawy) “The Son is not some weak child subject to an all-dominating Father. He is the Eternal Son who willingly and authoritatively laid down his life, offering himself up through the Spirit. The Son is an active, willing adult. No one takes his life from him, but he lays it down willingly (Mk. 10:45; Lk. 23:46; John 10:11, 15, 17-18; 13:1; Gal. 2:20). He heroically gives up his life for others and is not simply a victim of violent forces beyond his control.”

( c ) God may hate sin and what it does to people, but he loves people. His motive in the atonement was love towards sinners, not hatred: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16); “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8), etc.   It is because he desired the highest good for us that he devised and implemented this plan of salvation, so that we would not “die in our sins”.

( d ) God did not kill Jesus, humans did. (As with millions of other evil deeds that occur, God of course knew this unjust execution would happen and allowed it to happen; this is just another example of the general “mystery of iniquity”, which we are not going solve here.)

Also, there is a popular misconception that the atonement involved God the Father “pouring out his anger on his Son” and “turning his face away from his Son” on the cross. There is no Scriptural warrant for this disturbing notion, and indeed there is much in the Bible that teaches away from this concept [5].  Another misrepresentation is the penal substitution implies God hated humans prior to the atonement. The reality, affirmed in Scripture as well as by Reformers such as John Calvin, is that God has always loved (not hated) humans, even though their sins had separated them from him. [6]

Putting aside partisan caricatures, the vicarious atonement does raise a number of legitimate questions in our minds: Why is some sort of atonement necessary? Does it make any logical sense to punish an innocent man for someone else’s sins? Is there a contradiction in God executing judgment on sin while telling us not to take vengeance? Shouldn’t a loving God want restorative, not retributive justice?  How can God be angry at people and yet claim to love them? Reasonable answers to these questions are provided by Reformed writers such as Rishmawy [7, 8] and J. I. Packer.  Rishmawy has provided brief but cogent answers for most of the objections to penal substitution in his article The Beauty of the Cross: 19 Objections and Answers on Penal Substitutionary Atonement. Rishmawy notes that penal substitutionary atonement is “not a denial that God forgives, but an explanation of how God forgives justly.” I have explored these challenging issues in more depth in a companion essay.

What About the Early Church Fathers?

My point here is not to argue that penal substitution is the best or only way to understand the atonement.  My immediate interest is historical: What did the earliest (100-180 A.D.) post-New Testament Christian writers actually teach about the atonement?

One of the challenges to the legitimacy of the penal substitution view of the atonement is the allegation that it was unknown in Christian thought prior being articulated by the Reformers in the sixteenth century. It is claimed that even the general notion of “satisfaction” of our offences against God only surfaced with Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo?, written around 1100. Anselm was concerned with satisfaction for God’s offended honor, whereas the Reformers focused on satisfaction of the just penalty for sin.

The Theogeek blogger states this case as:

The writers from this period [i.e. the early Church Fathers] teach quite strongly various views of the atonement, and they are Ransom from Satan, Moral Exemplar, Christus Victor, and Recapitulation. What is not in that list, of course, is Satisfaction and Penal Substitution….. this historical evolution of Christian thought is the single strongest and most compelling evidence against Penal Substitutionary atonement. Namely its virtually complete absense in the Greek Christian writings of the period 100-500 AD seems pretty decisive. If the apostles taught Penal Substitution as a central part of their gospel, then it seems almost entirely inconceivable that the generations that came after them and spoke the same language had, worldwide, managed to universally forget the major and central part of the gospel and replace it with something else entirely.

Other sources I have read likewise assert that the early Church Fathers did not teach a vicarious sacrifice to God for the guilt or penalty of sin. Rather, the Fathers allegedly held to some sort of “ransom” theory of the atonement, where mankind is seen as held in bondage to evil powers and particularly to Satan, as a slave or prisoner. Jesus’ death served to pay the ransom price to these powers of setting us free from that bondage. Slavery was common in the Greco-Roman world, so redemption from bondage and redemption of prisoners of war would have been a familiar concept.

This all made me curious. And puzzled. It so happens that some years back I read through the extant writings of the very earliest post-New Testament Christian authors. These so-called Apostolic Fathers wrote around 100-160 A.D. These writings include I Clement, letters by Ignatius of Antioch, the Epistles of Barnabus and Polycarp, the Epistle to Diognetus, the Didache, and the Shepherd of Hermas. These men wrote when the New Testament was still in the process of being recognized as such; they cite phrases from the letters of Paul and the Gospels and Acts as being reliable and authoritative, but not necessarily as inspired, inerrant “Scripture”.

I did not recall these Apostolic Fathers talking about paying a ransom to Satan. But I did recall them talking a lot about the death of Christ being a vicarious sacrifice for the remission of our sins – -which is close to, if not precisely identical to, the penal substitution view. This is the opposite of what many modern commentators claim about the views of the early church fathers on the atonement. So I re-read the works of the Apostolic Fathers, and Irenaeus (c. 180 A.D.) plus some fourth century writers (Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus ),  to see what they actually wrote about the atonement and salvation. My findings are given below. I will typically cite extended quotations of the texts (in italics), so the reader can see the contexts and judge for him or herself whether my commentary is reasonable. The multiple, long quotations make this a rather long article. The impatient reader can skip down to Table 1 in the Conclusions for a graphical summary of the findings.

In commenting on the patristic texts, I will use the term “penal substitution” in a broad sense, i.e. indicating that a passage speaks of substitutionary or vicarious aspect and also a penal or legal (including debt) aspect of Christ’s dying for us and for our sins. This does not mean each of these passages teaches a doctrine identical to Reformed penal substitutionary atonement. In the concluding section of this paper I will revisit this distinction.

Sections of the text which deal most specifically with the substitutionary atonement are marked with red font. Roberts-Donaldson translations of the Fathers, available at , is mainly used. [9]

The Early Christian Understanding of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52-53

A key Old Testament passage cited by the Fathers in connection with Jesus is Isaiah 52-53. This passage describes the “Servant of the Lord” who was “pierced for our transgressions” and who “bore the sin of many”:

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds [“stripes”] we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

…After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.

Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors.      For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

(Isa. 53:5-6, 11-12)

This passage from Isaiah is cited repeatedly in the New Testament and in the Church Fathers as applying to Jesus. Chris Rosebrough discusses in some detail these citations. He notes that Jewish writers since about 1000 A.D. have often identified the Servant as the people of Israel or a remnant of the people, but earlier rabbis nearly all took the Servant to be an individual (the Messiah, or some other notable righteous man such as Moses, Phineas, or Jeremiah). Rosebrough argues that the New Testament usage of this passage clearly portrays Jesus’ death as a penal substitutionary sacrifice, citing, for instance, Fronmuller’s commentary on the treatment of Isaiah 53 in I Peter 2:18–25:

All exegetical attempts to explain away the idea of substitution and the system of sacrifice closely connected with it, are altogether futile. As in the Old Testament, the expressions, “to carry one’s sin,” or, “to bear one’s iniquity,” are equivalent to “suffer the punishment and guilt of one’s sin,” Lev. 20:17, 19; 24:15; Ezek. 23:35, so “to carry another’s sin,” denotes “to suffer the punishment and guilt of another,” or “to suffer vicariously,” Lev. 3:19, 17; Numb. 14:33; Lam. 5:7; Ezek. 18:19, 20.

This sense of Isaiah 53 is carried through in the church fathers. For instance, in his Commentary on Isaiah (c. 405-420) Jerome states that Jesus bore the penalty of death which we owed because of our sins [10]. Other references to Isaiah 53 in the earlier Fathers appear in the discussions below.


First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians [c. 96 A.D.]

This letter was written on behalf of the church at Rome to the church at Corinth. Other early Christian writers universally identified the author as Clement, a leader in the early Roman church. The Romans had heard that people in the church at Corinth have slandered and dismissed some elders (“presbyters”) there.  These elders had been doing their duties well, and had been duly appointed by earlier elders who had been appointed by the apostle Paul. So (after starting out by praising the Corinthians) Clement makes some arguments against what they had done. The overall tone of this letter is Pauline. It makes clear reference to Paul’s earlier letter to them (i.e. I Corinthians), which helps to authenticate I Corinthians as a genuine Pauline epistle.

Here we excerpt some passages which bear on the atonement. Again, sections of the text that deal most specifically with the substitutionary atonement are marked with red font, since that is perhaps the most controversial subject.

Let us attend to what is good, pleasing, and acceptable in the sight of Him who formed us. Let us look steadfastly to the blood of Christ, and see how precious that blood is to God, which, having been shed for our salvation, has set the grace of repentance before the whole world. [Ch. 7]

There is nothing here about Jesus offering a ransom to Satan or other evil powers. It is to God, not to Satan, that Jesus’ blood is deemed as “precious”. This is clear language of sacrifice.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Sceptre of the majesty of God, did not come in the pomp of pride or arrogance, although He might have done so, but in a lowly condition, as the Holy Spirit had declared regarding Him.           For He says, “Lord, who has believed our report, and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed? … He has no form nor glory, yea, we saw Him, and He had no form nor comeliness; but His form was without eminence, yea, deficient in comparison with the [ordinary] form of men. … He bears our iniquities, and is in sorrow for our sakes… He was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we were healed. All we, like sheep, have gone astray; [every] man has wandered in his own way; and the Lord has delivered Him up for our sins, while He in the midst of His sufferings opens not His mouth. ….He Himself shall carry their sins. On this account He shall inherit many, and shall divide the spoil of the strong; because His soul was delivered to death, and He was reckoned among the transgressors, and He bare the sins of many, and for their sins was He delivered.”     [Ch. 16]

Clement presents various arguments to urge the Corinthians towards reconciliation. Here he cites Christ as an example of humility.  Clement quotes Isa. 52-53 at great length.  Although the humiliation of Christ is Clement’s main point here, this passage graphically portrays the substitutionary sacrifice of the Servant of God, and Clement clearly identifies Jesus as that Servant.

Let us reverence the Lord Jesus Christ, whose blood was given for us. [Ch. 21]

All these [i.e. patriarchs and priests and rulers in Israel], therefore, were highly honoured, and made great, not for their own sake, or for their own works, or for the righteousness which they wrought, but through the operation of His will. And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. [Ch. 32]

This is a statement of justification by grace though faith alone which is as robust as anything written by Paul. Election and effectual calling are also indicated here.

What shall we do, then, brethren? Shall we become slothful in well-doing, and cease from the practice of love? God forbid that any such course should be followed by us! But rather let us hasten with all energy and readiness of mind to perform every good work. For the Creator and Lord of all Himself rejoices in His works… We see, then, how all righteous men have been adorned with good works, and how the Lord Himself, adorning Himself with His works, rejoiced. Having therefore such an example, let us without delay accede to His will, and let us work the work of righteousness with our whole strength.   [Ch. 33]

Clement is aware that his statement above about salvation by faith could be interpreted as grounds for lazy complacency. Therefore, he immediately argues for good works, not as grounds for justification, but as the appropriate response of a grateful and worshipful heart.   This is similar to Paul’s argument in Romans 6:15, “Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means!”

Who can describe the [blessed] bond of the love of God? What man is able to tell the excellence of its beauty, as it ought to be told? The height to which love exalts is unspeakable. Love unites us to God. Love covers a multitude of sins. Love bears all things, is long-suffering in all things. There is nothing base, nothing arrogant in love. Love admits of no schisms: love gives rise to no seditions: love does all things in harmony. By love have all the elect of God been made perfect; without love nothing is well-pleasing to God. 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.  [Ch. 49]

This chapter extolling love, which echoes New Testament passages such as I Cor. 13 and I Pet. 4:8, concludes with a supreme act of love, which is Jesus giving his blood for us, “His flesh for our flesh, and His soul for our souls”. There is a clear theme of substitutionary atonement here.

You see, beloved, how great and wonderful a thing is love, and there is no declaring its perfection….Blessed are we, beloved, if we keep the commandment of God in the harmony of love; so that through love our sins may be forgiven us. For it is written ‘Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not impute to him, and in whose mouth there is no guile.’ This blessedness cometh upon those who have been chosen by God through Jesus Christ our Lord; to whom be glory for ever and ever. [Ch. 50]

The blessings of God, including the covering of sin, are all given by his grace, though we are expected to cooperate with that grace by living in harmonious love.

Ignatius of Antioch [Letters written ~107 A. D.]

Ignatius was bishop of Antioch, in what is now Syria. He was arrested there, and transported to Rome for execution, being martyred in the arena around 110 A.D.  During his journey to Rome, he wrote several letters to churches, including those at Ephesus, Rome, Smyrna, Magnesia, and Philadelphia, and also a letter to his friend Polycarp. He stressed holy living, obedience to church leaders, and made it clear that he was going willingly to his death for the sake of Christ.

He did not write with the intention of teaching a systematic theology. He did combat some specific problematic teachings of the day, such as the notion that Jesus did not really become a full human and thus did not really die, but only appeared to do so. Ignatius anchors Christianity firmly in actual history (Magnes. 11; Trall. 9-10; Smyr. 1, 3).

In the course of various discussions, he mentions several aspects of the saving work of Christ, including the atonement. Those passages are excerpted below. Unless otherwise noted, the “shorter” extant versions of these epistles will be used, since the “longer” versions are thought to contain later interpolations.


For I have observed that ye are perfected in an immoveable faith, as if ye were nailed to the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, both in the flesh and in the spirit, and are established in love through the blood of Christ, being fully persuaded with respect to our Lord, that He was truly of the seed of David according to the flesh, and the Son of God according to the will and power of God; that He was truly born of a virgin, was baptized by John, in order that all righteousness might be fulfilled by Him; and was truly, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch, nailed [to the cross] for us in His flesh. [Smyr. 1]

Now, He suffered all these things for our sakes, that we might be saved. [Smyr. 2]

Let no man deceive himself. Both the things which are in heaven, and the glorious angels, and rulers, both visible and invisible, if they believe not in the blood of Christ, shall, in consequence, incur condemnation. [Smyr. 5]

They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. [Smyr. 7]

Comment: These four excerpts above from the letter to the Smyrnaeans note that Jesus died: “for us”; “for our sins”;  “for our sakes, that we might be saved”. This all has to do with dealing with our sins, not with defeating the devil. It seems most straightforward to understand this as some sort of substitutionary atonement.  We appropriate these benefits of Christ’s death by faith in his person and work (“being fully persuaded”; “believe”; “confess”).


For, since ye are subject to the bishop as to Jesus Christ, ye appear to me to live not after the manner of men, but according to Jesus Christ, who died for us, in order, by believing in His death, ye may escape from death.   [Trallians, Ch. 2.]

Here Ignatius is mainly exhorting believers to respect and obey their local bishop, but in passing he notes that Jesus died “for us, in order, by believing in His death, ye may escape from death.” This indicates the substitutionary death of Jesus, and salvation by faith in his work on the cross.

Do ye therefore, clothing yourselves with meekness, become the imitators of His sufferings, and of His love, wherewith He loved us when He gave Himself a ransom for us, that He might cleanse us by His blood from our old ungodliness, and bestow life on us when we were almost on the point of perishing through the depravity that was in us.    [Trallians, Ch. 8, Longer Version.]

Since this wording does not appear in the Shorter Version of this epistle, it might be an interpolation made sometime after Ignatius, but still very early, probably in the fourth century. The work of Christ on the cross was that “He gave Himself a ransom for us”. This was not a ransom to Satan, but to “cleanse us by His blood from our old ungodliness”. This would seem to be paying the penalty for sins (penal substitution) but it is possible that it refers to some other aspect of cleansing from our sin.


Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church which is at Ephesus, in Asia, deservedly most happy, being blessed in the greatness and fullness of God the Father, and predestinated before the beginning of time, that it should be always for an enduring and unchangeable glory, being united and elected through the true passion by the will of the Father, and Jesus Christ, our God: Abundant happiness through Jesus Christ, and His undefiled grace.       [Preface to his letter to the Ephesians.]

This joyous statement of gracious election and predestination “before the beginning of time” is thoroughly Pauline, reading much like the opening lines of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

None of these things is hid from you, if you perfectly possess that faith and love towards Christ Jesus which are the beginning and the end of life. For the beginning is faith, and the end is love. Now these two, being inseparably connected together, are of God, while all other things which are requisite for a holy life follow after them. No man [truly] making a profession of faith sinneth; nor does he that possesses love hate any one. The tree is made manifest by its fruit; so those that profess themselves to be Christians shall be recognized by their conduct. For there is not now a demand for mere profession, but that a man be found continuing in the power of faith to the end. [Ephes. 14.]

This summarizes Ignatius’ views on the relations between faith and works. Faith and love towards Christ are “the beginning and the end” of true life, and we don’t earn salvation by good works. As he writes elsewhere (Magnes. 10), “For were he to reward us according to our works, we should cease to be.”  However, as stated throughout the New Testament, genuine faith will necessarily be accompanied by diligence in pursuing holiness, especially love.

Let my spirit be counted as nothing for the sake of the cross, which is a stumbling-block to those that do not believe, but to us salvation and life eternal... For our God, Jesus Christ, was, according to the appointment of God, conceived in the womb by Mary, of the seed of David, but by the Holy Ghost. He was born and baptized, that by His passion He might purify the water. [Ephes., Ch. 18.]

...Hence every kind of magic was destroyed, and every bond of wickedness disappeared; ignorance was removed, and the old kingdom abolished, God Himself being manifested in human form for the renewal of eternal life. And now that took a beginning which had been prepared by God. Henceforth all things were in a state of tumult, because He meditated the abolition of death.           [Ephes., Ch. 19]

Jesus is explicitly identified as being “God Himself, manifested in human form”.   (See also e.g. ch. 7, where Jesus is “God existing in flesh…both of Mary and of God”).  Jesus abolished death, and brought salvation and eternal life, through his incarnation and his further works.    The coming of Christ wrought a sort of spiritual revolution (“every kind of magic was destroyed, and every bond of wickedness disappeared; ignorance was removed, and the old kingdom abolished”). This is Christ as Victor, but it is not framed in terms of combat or negotiation with Satan or other evil powers. In Chapter 13, Ignatius notes that when believers meet together frequently, “the powers of Satan are destroyed” by the unity of their faith.


And let us also love the prophets, because they too have proclaimed the Gospel, and placed their hope in Him, and waited for Him; in whom also believing, they were saved, through union to Jesus Christ, being holy men, worthy of love and admiration, having had witness borne to them by Jesus Christ, and being reckoned along with [us] in the Gospel of the common hope.         [Philadelphians Ch. 5]

The Old Testament prophets were saved by faith in the Christ who was yet to come (cf. Magnesians, ch. 9).

[Certain heretics] confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of his goodness, raised up again. [Ch. 7]

His cross, His death, and resurrection, and the faith which is by Him, are undefiled monuments of antiquity; by which I desire through your prayers to be justified. [Ch. 8]

The basis of justification is not one’s works. Rather, it is the death and resurrection of Christ, and faith in him, the One who “suffered for our sins”.


Stand firm, as does an anvil which is beaten. It is the part of a noble athlete to be wounded, and yet to conquer. And especially, we ought to bear all things for the sake of God, that He also may bear with us. Be ever becoming more zealous than what thou art. Weigh carefully the times. Look for Him who is above all time, eternal and invisible, yet who became visible for our sakes; impalpable and impassible, yet who became passible on our account; and who in every kind of way suffered for our sakes.  [Ch. 3]

Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians (c. 110-140)

Polycarp was a Christian leader in Smyrna, which was located in present-day Turkey. As a young man, he heard Jesus’ disciple John teach in person. (This John may have been one of the twelve apostles, i.e. the son of Zebedee, but it might have been some other disciple of Jesus named John). Polycarp lived into his eighties, so he served as a living link to the Apostles well into the second century. The only writing we have from him is this letter to the church in Philippi. This was the same church to which Paul had written an epistle, many decades earlier. There is little serious historical doubt regarding the authenticity of this letter. The exact date of its composition is not known, but was probably 100-140 A.D.

The strong root of your faith, spoken of in days long gone by, endureth even until now, and bringeth forth fruit to our Lord Jesus Christ, who for our sins suffered even unto death, [but] “whom God raised froth the dead, having loosed the bands of the grave.” “In whom, though now ye see Him not, ye believe, and believing, rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory; ” into which joy many desire to enter, knowing that “by grace ye are saved, not of works,” but by the will of God through Jesus Christ. [Ch. 1]

“Who for our sins suffered even unto death” speaks of a substitutionary atonement for our sins.   “ ‘By grace ye are saved, not of works,’ but by the will of God through Jesus Christ”  is a statement of salvation by grace, containing a direct quote from Paul’s letter to the Ephesian (2:8-9).

“…[God] raised up our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, and gave Him glory,” and a throne at His right hand. To Him all things in heaven and on earth are subject. Him every spirit serves. He comes as the Judge of the living and the dead. His blood will God require of those who do not believe in Him. But He who raised Him up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do His will, and walk in His commandments, and love what He loved, keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness.   [Ch. 2]

“To him all things in heaven and on earth are subject” may have relevance to the Christus Victor theme. Jesus is presented as Lord of all, but here it seems that this lordship is something sovereignly accomplished by God the Father, not as a result of some combat or bargain between Jesus and the Dark Powers.  “… If we do His will, and walk in His commandments, and love what He loved, keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness” is a sort of counterpoint to the “By grace are you saved, not of works” in the paragraph above.  This reflects the common expectation in the Church Fathers that saving faith will always be accompanied by extreme moral seriousness. Regarding the sentence “His blood will God require of those who do not believe in Him”, R. Scott Clark writes, “This declaration makes the most sense when we understand that Polycarp was assuming the legal understanding of Christ’s incarnation and death. God will require the blood of the one who has not believed because righteousness has already been satisfied” (i.e. the unbeliever has spurned the God-provided means of “satisfaction”).

These things, brethren, I write to you concerning righteousness, not because I take anything upon myself, but because you have invited me to do so. For neither I, nor any other such one, can come up to the wisdom of the blessed and glorified Paul. He, when among you, accurately and steadfastly taught the word of truth in the presence of those who were then alive. And when absent from you, he wrote you a letter, which, if you carefully study, you will find to be the means of building you up in that faith which has been given you, and which, being followed by hope, and preceded by love towards God, and Christ, and our neighbour, “is the mother of us all.” For if anyone be inwardly possessed of these graces, he hath fulfilled the command of righteousness, since he that hath love is far from all sin.   [Ch. 3]

Here Polycarp lauds Paul for “accurately and steadfastly” teaching the truth. Polycarp calls attention to Paul’s epistle to the Philippians, which is still in their possession. This reference by Polycarp serves to authenticate the Pauline authorship of Philippians. Faith, accompanied by hope and love, is “the mother of us all” (cf. Gal. 4:26), and the possession of these inward graces fulfills “the command of righteousness”. This seems to continue the theme of salvation by grace through faith from Chapter 1.

… [Be] not severe in judgment, as knowing that we are all under a debt of sin. If then we entreat the Lord to forgive us, we ought also ourselves to forgive; for we are before the eyes of our Lord and God, and “we must all appear at the judgment-seat of Christ, and must every one give an account of himself.” Let us then serve Him in fear, and with all reverence, even as He Himself has commanded us, and as the apostles who preached the Gospel unto us, and the prophets who proclaimed beforehand the coming of the Lord [have alike taught us].     [Ch. 6]

Our sin leaves us “under a debt”. Presumably it is this debt or penalty from which Jesus delivered us when he “suffered for our sins” (Ch. 1), in a penal substitutionary atonement. A proper appreciation of our indebtedness, and of the greatness of God’s mercy in dealing with and forgiving our sins in the face of inevitable judgment, will lead us to diligently serve him and forgive others.

Let us then continually persevere in our hope, and the earnest of our righteousness, which is Jesus Christ, “who bore our sins in His own body on the tree,” “who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth,” but endured all things for us, that we might live in Him. Let us then be imitators of His patience; and if we suffer for His name’s sake, let us glorify Him.   [Ch. 8]

“Earnest” here is used in the older financial sense of “guarantee”, an initial payment (down-payment) which guarantees the full transaction in the future. The ultimate hope of our righteousness is not in our own good works, but in Christ and his saving work. Christ “bore our sins in His own body” on the cross. This is not merely a moral example of how to behave, but a transaction to deal with our sins, presumably by taking the penalty or consequences of our sins upon himself.

For they [Ignatius, Paul, and other martyrs] loved not this present world, but Him who died for us, and for our sakes was raised again by God from the dead.   [Ch. 9.  ]

Martyrdom of Polycarp (mid-late 2nd century)

The Martyrdom of Polycarp describes the arrest, trial, and execution of Polycarp. Scholarly opinion is mixed on its reliability. Whether or not it is completely accurate in its portrayal of events, it is yet another document from the earliest era of the church. It was probably penned in the late second century.

 “It is neither possible for us ever to forsake Christ, who suffered for the salvation of such as shall be saved throughout the whole world (the blameless one for sinners), not to worship another”  [Ch. 17]

This brief sentence describes the vicarious sacrifice of Jesus for our sins: He suffered as “the blameless one for sinners”, for “the salvation of such as shall be saved”, presumably from the consequences of their sins.  This phraseology comports with penal substitution, with Jesus dying for sinners so that they might be saved. Some see in this passage an endorsement of limited atonement.

Epistle of Barnabas (c. 100-130 A.D.)

This letter was probably written around 100-130 A.D. in Alexandria. It offers a Christ-centered interpretation of the Old Testament and presents various arguments against having Christians adopt Jewish practices; Christians are the new covenant people. Although this was traditionally ascribed to a Christian leader named Barnabas, modern scholars consider the actual author to be unknown. This letter was highly regarded in the early church, sometimes being included as part of an appendix to the canonical New Testament books. “Type” is used here in the sense of a prefiguring pattern.

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. For it is written concerning Him, partly with reference to Israel, and partly to us; and [the Scripture] saith thus: “He was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities: with His stripes we are healed. He was brought as a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb which is dumb before its shearer.” …And further, my brethren: if the Lord endured to suffer for our soul, He being Lord of all the world, to whom God said at the foundation of the world, “Let us make man after our image, and after our likeness,” understand how it was that He endured to suffer at the hand of men. The prophets, having obtained grace from Him, prophesied concerning Him. And He (since it behooved Him to appear in flesh), that He might abolish death, and reveal the resurrection from the dead, endured [what and as He did], in order that He might fulfill the promise made unto the fathers, and by preparing a new people for Himself, might show, while He dwelt on earth, that He, when He has raised mankind, will also judge them. Moreover, teaching Israel, and doing so great miracles and signs, He preached [the truth] to him, and greatly loved him. But when He chose His own apostles who were to preach His Gospel, [He did so from among those] who were sinners above all sin, that He might show He came “not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Then He manifested Himself to be the Son of God. For if He had not come in the flesh, how could men have been saved by beholding Him? … For this purpose, then, He endured. For God saith, “The stroke of his flesh is from them;” and “when I shall smite the Shepherd, then the sheep of the flock shall be scattered.” He himself willed thus to suffer, for it was necessary that He should suffer on the tree.    [Ch. 5]

The atoning death of Jesus for our sins is clearly taught here. The writer states that Isaiah 53 passage concerning the servant who “was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities” was written “concerning him [Jesus]”. His death accomplished “the remission of our sins”. This seems like clear penal substitution language. Besides remission of our sins, the work of Christ includes the abolition of death and “preparing a new people for Himself.”  At the end, he will raise mankind and judge them. Since he came “in the flesh”, men could be saved “by beholding Him.”

Understand, then, ye children of gladness, that the good Lord has foreshown all things to us, that we might know to whom we ought for everything to render thanksgiving and praise. If therefore the Son of God, who is Lord [of all things], and who will judge the living and the dead, suffered, that His wounding might give us life, let us believe that the Son of God could not have suffered except for our sakes..… Hearken how the priests of the people gave previous indications of this. His commandment having been written, the Lord enjoined, that whosoever did not keep the fast should be put to death, because He also Himself was to offer in sacrifice for our sins the vessel of the Spirit [i.e. his body], in order that the type established in Isaac when he was offered upon the altar might be fully accomplished. What, then, says He in the prophet? “And let them eat of the goat which is offered, with fasting, for all their sins.” Attend carefully: “And let all the priests alone eat the inwards, unwashed with vinegar.” Wherefore? Because to me, who am to offer my flesh for the sins of my new people, ye are to give gall with vinegar to drink: eat ye alone, while the people fast and mourn in sackcloth and ashes. [These things were done] that He might show that it was necessary for Him to suffer for them. How, then, ran the commandment? Give your attention. Take two goats of goodly aspect, and similar to each other, and offer them. And let the priest take one as a burnt-offering for sins. And what should they do with the other? “Accursed,” says He, “is the one.” Mark how the type of Jesus now comes out.” And all of you spit upon it, and pierce it, and encircle its head with scarlet wool, and thus let it be driven into the wilderness.” …. Thus also, says He, “Those who wish to behold Me, and lay hold of My kingdom, must through tribulation and suffering obtain Me.”         [Ch. 7]

In this somewhat convoluted argument, the author teaches that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament “type” of the ram which was sacrificed in place of Isaac, and of the cursing and exile of the “scapegoat” on the Day of Atonement.  Jesus offered his body (“the vessel of the Spirit” or “the vessel of his spirit”) “in sacrifice for our sins”.  This imagery is consistent with a penal substitutionary atonement. The closing citation here may come from Acts 14:22, where Paul told believers that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”

Now what do you suppose this to be a type of, that a command was given to Israel, that men of the greatest wickedness should offer a heifer, and slay and burn it, and, that then boys should take the ashes, and put these into vessels, and bind round a stick purple wool along with hyssop, and that thus the boys should sprinkle the people, one by one, in order that they might be purified from their sins? Consider how He speaks to you with simplicity. The calf is Jesus: the sinful men offering it are those who led Him to the slaughter. But now the men are no longer guilty, are no longer regarded as sinners. And the boys that sprinkle are those that have proclaimed to us the remission of sins and purification of heart.     [Ch. 8]

The reference here is apparently to a Jewish ceremonial sacrifice and burning of a heifer, where the people are then sprinkled with the ashes of the animal. This makes “men of the greatest wickedness” to be considered “no longer guilty, no longer regarded as sinners.”   This particular ritual is not described in the Old Testament. At any rate, Jesus is seen as the fulfillment of this ritual, whereby the sprinkling proclaims to us “the remission of sins and purification of heart.” Remission of sins being accomplished by Jesus suffering the penalty for our sins (i.e. death) seems to entail a penal substitutionary atonement.

Blessed are they who, placing their trust in the cross, have gone down into the water; for, says He, they shall receive their reward in due time… we indeed descend into the water full of sins and defilement, but come up, bearing fruit in our heart, having the fear [of God] and trust in Jesus in our spirit. [Ch. 11]

Baptism brings release from the future consequences of “sins and defilement”, and also an immediate experience of increased godliness.

Let us inquire if the Lord has really given that testament which He swore to the fathers that He would give to the people. He did give it; but they were not worthy to receive it, on account of their sins. … And Moses understood that they had again made molten images; and he threw the tables out of his hands, and the tables of the testament of the Lord were broken. Moses then received it, but they proved themselves unworthy. Learn now how we have received it. Moses, as a servant, received it; but the Lord himself, having suffered in our behalf, hath given it to us, that we should be the people of inheritance. But He was manifested, in order that they might be perfected in their iniquities, and that we, being constituted heirs through Him, might receive the testament of the Lord Jesus, who was prepared for this end, that by His personal manifestation, redeeming our hearts (which were already wasted by death, and given over to the iniquity of error) from darkness, He might by His word enter into a covenant with us. For it is written how the Father, about to redeem us from darkness, commanded Him to prepare a holy people for Himself.     [Ch. 14]

God has given to Christians the “testament” which had first been offered to the Israelites but which they had broken. Jesus gave it to us, having “suffered in our behalf”, and has redeemed our hearts from deep darkness. This passage appears to be concerned with the work of Jesus in enlightening us and establishing a new, holy identity, rather than paying the penalty for our sins.

The Didache   (c. 100 A.D.)  

The Didache (“The Teaching” or “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”) may have been compiled in its present form in the early second century, but sections of it probably date to the first century. It gives various instructions for holy living and for church conduct, but does not deal directly with Christ’s atonement.

Shepherd of Hermas (~90-160 A.D.)

This long book is mainly a set of visions, full of moral admonitions, but has nothing clear about Christ’s atonement. There is a reference to water baptism giving “remission of our former [i.e. pre-baptismal] sins” (Book II, Commandment 4, Ch. 3).

Letter of “Mathetes” to Diognetus (c. 130-160)

This letter was written by a Christian to a pagan acquaintance named Diognetus, in order to explain what Christianity is. Though some scholars date it as late as 200, it was likely written no later than the middle of the second century, since it refers to Christianity as a very recent phenomenon and it seems to assume that even an educated pagan would know almost nothing about Christian beliefs and practices.

Nothing is known of the author. He describes himself as a “disciple” (“mathetes” in the Greek), and so sometimes the author is referred to as “Mathetes”. The final two chapters may be a later addition to the original letter. The spirit of this letter is generally gracious and intelligent, and would be an edifying read for the modern believer. Some representative passages follow:

… [Christians] display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking [lit. “paradoxical”] method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers.

They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.     [Ch. 5]

This passage describes the Christians’ way of life. They live as citizens of heaven, and thus as “sojourners” on this earth.  It is common for them to be viciously persecuted for no good reason, but this does not drag them down. They return love in response to hate, return good in response to evil, and maintain their joy in the midst of suffering.

Truly God Himself, who is almighty, the Creator of all things, and invisible, has sent from heaven, and placed among men, [Him who is] the truth, and the holy and incomprehensible Word, and has firmly established Him in their hearts. He did not, as one might have imagined, send to men any servant, or angel, or ruler, or any one of those who bear sway over earthly things, or one of those to whom the government of things in the heavens has been entrusted, but the very Creator and Fashioner of all things…. This [messenger] He sent to them. Was it then, as one might conceive, for the purpose of exercising tyranny, or of inspiring fear and terror? By no means, but under the influence of clemency and meekness. As a king sends his son, who is also a king, so sent He Him; as God He sent Him; as to men He sent Him; as a Saviour He sent Him, and as seeking to persuade, not to compel us; for violence has no place in the character of God. As calling us He sent Him, not as vengefully pursuing us; as loving us He sent Him, not as judging us. For He will yet send Him to judge us, and who shall endure His appearing?    [Ch. 7]

This poignantly describes the gracious purposes of God in sending his Son, “the holy and incomprehensible Word” to save us.

For, who of men at all understood before His coming what God is? … No man has either seen Him, or made Him known, but He has revealed Himself. And He has manifested Himself through faith, to which alone it is given to behold God. For God, the Lord and Fashioner of all things, who made all things, and assigned them their several positions, proved Himself not merely a friend of mankind, but also long-suffering [in His dealings with them.] Yea, He was always of such a character, and still is, and will ever be, kind and good, and free from wrath, and true, and the only one who is [absolutely] good; and He formed in His mind a great and unspeakable conception, which He communicated to His Son alone.     As long, then, as He held and preserved His own wise counsel in concealment, He appeared to neglect us, and to have no care over us. But after He revealed and laid open, through His beloved Son, the things which had been prepared from the beginning, He conferred every blessing all at once upon us, so that we should both share in His benefits, and see and be active [in His service].     [Ch. 8]

We cannot know God through philosophical speculation, but only by his active self-revelation. It is only by faith that we apprehend this revelation.  God was always good and loving towards man, but this love only became fully known upon the appearance of his Son in the world.

As long then as the former time endured, He permitted us to be borne along by unruly impulses, being drawn away by the desire of pleasure and various lusts. This was not that He at all delighted in our sins, but that He simply endured them; nor that He approved the time of working iniquity which then was, but that He sought to form a mind conscious of righteousness, so that being convinced in that time of our unworthiness of attaining life through our own works, it should now, through the kindness of God, be vouchsafed to us; and having made it manifest that in ourselves we were unable to enter into the kingdom of God, we might through the power of God be made able.          But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power, how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great long-suffering, and bore with us, 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.     For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God?   O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! That the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors! Having therefore convinced us in the former time that our nature was unable to attain to life, and having now revealed the Saviour who is able to save even those things which it was [formerly] impossible to save, by both these facts He desired to lead us to trust in His kindness, to esteem Him our Nourisher, Father, Teacher, Counsellor, Healer, our Wisdom, Light, Honour, Glory, Power, and Life, so that we should not be anxious concerning clothing and food.                      [Ch. 9]

The first half of this chapter seeks to explain why Christ was not sent earlier in history: the reason is that God was seeking to form in humanity “a mind conscious of righteousness” so that people would realize that the inevitable penalty for their wickedness was death, and hence they needed a Savior.  Then, “through exceeding regard for men”, God took on Himself “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”, etc.  This was a “sweet exchange”, by which “the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors.”    This can only be characterized as a penal substitutionary atonement: Jesus dying in our place, to take upon himself the legal consequences (“punishment and death”) for our sins, such that his righteousness is imputed to us.  Believers are so overwhelmed by this demonstration of God’s extravagant love for them in saving them, that they likewise trust God for his care in mundane matters such as clothing and food.

Jordan Cooper stresses that this passage teaches imputed, not imparted righteousness – – Christ’s righteousness is forensically attributed to us, though in practice we are still sinners. Cooper writes:

When one first reads this, he may think it came directly from the pen of Martin Luther or John Calvin. The imputational language in this epistle is obvious. Let us examine the flow of the author’s thought. First of all he makes it clear that all mankind was unable by their own works to be justified. By his wickedness, mankind has merited punishment and death. What makes us able to now enter the kingdom of God is His kindness and power. This kindness and power was revealed at one specific point in history. This point in history was when the Son of God “took upon Himself the burden of our iniquities.” Taking upon the burden of our iniquities refers to the non-imputation of sin. This is why earlier in the paragraph he refers to God’s not “remember[ing] our iniquities against us.”

Not remembering is clearly not transformational. The author is not here saying that through the death of the Son of God we now are no longer transgressors in an actualized sense. It is not that we no longer sin. Rather, he must be referring to a judicial act of pardon. In the author’s mind, what is the ground of our being pardoned? The answer is clear, “His righteousness.” His righteousness covers our sins. This language refers to imputation, not infusion. He then uses justification as a synonymous term for His righteousness covering our sins.

…Being justified is being covered by righteousness, not having righteousness infused. The line “Oh sweet exchange!” implies that the covering of righteousness includes not only the forgiving of sin but also the giving of righteousness. When something is exchanged, something is received on both sides. He shows this by two following statements. “the wickedness of many should be hidden in a single righteous One, that the righteousness of one should justify the many transgressors.” Wickedness is forgiven by its being “hidden in the righteous one.” However, for the author that is not the complete solution. Justification is linked with “the righteousness of one.” One may object that his righteousness justifies us in a transformative rather than forensic sense. This however, breaks down the parallel. If one were to admit that his righteousness given to us actually makes us righteous rather than declaring us righteous, in the same way our wickedness, if the author’s analogy is consistent, must also make Christ a sinner. This would put one in a theological mess.



These two Greco-Roman authors are among the next wave of Christian writers following the Apostolic Fathers.  They defended the Christian faith relative to pagan thought, Judaism, and Gnostic heretics. These formal, rational defenses are known as “Apologies”. The word “apology” today connotes admitting that you were wrong, but these early Christian Apologies were just the opposite: they were robust justifications for Christian beliefs.

Justin Martyr (writing c. 150-165 A.D.)

Justin Martyr, a philosopher who converted to Christianity. Among other factors, he was deeply impressed by the grace and fearlessness displayed by persecuted Christians in the face of death and torture.  Instead of renouncing philosophy, he retained his philosopher’s robes, and proclaimed Christianity to be the true philosophy. Justin, like most of the early prominent churchmen, was martyred for his faith. Although he was acquainted with the Old Testament scriptures and the four Gospels and the letters of Paul, his core thinking seems to have been based on his earlier Greek philosophy. Justin wrote a number of works. The two longest ones are his First Apology and Dialog with Trypho.


The First Apology is directed to the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius. It presents arguments as to why the Roman government should stop executing Christians. Christians are good citizens. They are neither “atheists” nor criminals, and Christianity is a rational intellectual alternative. Jesus is presented mainly as the supreme teacher and moral example. Although he is the Word (Logos) and “the only proper Son who has been begotten by God” (Ch. 23), Christ is considered subordinate to God, and may not have eternally co-existed.

There is little indication in the Apology that Jesus’ death and resurrection “accomplished” anything objective for humans in the way of atonement. Salvation is strictly a future affair (going to eternal life versus hell after death), and seems to be determined by good works alone. Justin does not discuss a present personal relationship with the Lord or the presence of the Holy Spirit in the believer.

Humans have free will and sufficient moral capacity to do good or evil (Ch. 27):    “We hold this view, that it is alike impossible for the wicked, the covetous, the conspirator, and the virtuous, to escape the notice of God, and that each man goes to everlasting  punishment or salvation according to the value of his actions” (Ch. 12), and  “Punishments, and chastisement, and good rewards are rendered according to the merit of each man’s actions…unless the human race have the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions.” (Ch. 43)  Justin held that “the seed of the Logos” was in every man (2nd Apology, Ch. 13), and thus wise and exemplary moral pagans such as Socrates and Heraclitus, who lived according the Logos, should be counted as Christians (Ch. 46).

That said, the sacrament of baptism is a means of “regeneration”, where “the remission of sins formerly committed” is obtained (Apology ,Ch. 61, 66) [11]. Also, there is ongoing grace in the Eucharist, where the fact that the Logos “had both flesh and blood” was instrumental in our salvation:

For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. (Ch. 66)

Justin cites a passage from Isaiah 53, where the Servant of the Lord (whom Justin identifies as Jesus) is humiliated and smitten, but only as an example of fulfilled prophecy. He does not connect this passage with a vicarious sacrifice on Jesus’ part. Perhaps in reacting against the pagan notion of gods who required sacrifices, he downplayed the notion that Jesus died for our sins in this essay to the emperor.

In his Second Apology, Justin mentions that the Word “became man for our sakes, that, becoming a partaker of our sufferings, He might also bring us healing” (Ch. 13). Again, this thought is not developed further there.


In the Dialogue with Trypho, Justin uses the literary device of a lengthy intellectual discussion between himself and a Jew named Trypho. In this supposed dialog, Justin attempts to persuade Trypho to convert to Christianity, arguing that Jesus and his work is the fulfillment or real meaning of numerous Old Testament passages.

In his Apologies, Justin (like Aristides, another second century philosopher turned Christian) was appealing to a Greco-Roman audience on its own philosophical terms. In the Dialogue, presumably aimed at largely Jewish readers, there is more discussion by Justin of matters relating to atonement or redemption:

 The idea of an economy of grace, of a restoration of the union with God which had been destroyed by sin, is not foreign to him. It is noteworthy that in the “Dialogue” he no longer speaks of a “seed of the Word” in every man, and in his non-apologetic works the emphasis is laid upon the redeeming acts of the life of Christ rather than upon the demonstration of the reasonableness and moral value of Christianity, though the fragmentary character of the latter works makes it difficult to determine exactly to what extent this is true. [Wikipedia, “Justin Martyr”].

James Pope cites other commentators who noted that Justin adjusted his arguments according to his audience and his objectives [12]:

Thus, Barnard made allowance for the apologetic context when evaluating the “inconsistencies” in Justin’s writings. In the Dialogue Justin moved within the thought world of the New Testament, while in the apologies he emphasized the rationality of the Christian position. Barnard quoted Moule on the justification for such an approach to Justin: “different formulations have to be enlisted in the service of different affirmations, all of which may prove to be simultaneous aspects of a single great conviction too large to be expressed coherently or singly”.

Thus, we should not take Justin’s presentation of salvation by works in the Apologies as the totality of his thinking on soteriology, or as controlling the interpretation of his statements in the Dialogue. In that work he includes language endorsing the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and the role of faith in appropriating the benefits of that atonement.

For instance, in chapter 13-14 of the Dialogue Justin draws on Isaiah 53 to teach that sins are forgiven through Christ’s blood, his substitutionary sacrifice, and the Christian baptism which based on these things:

For Isaiah did not send you to a bath, there to wash away murder and other sins, which not even all the water of the sea were sufficient to purge; but… by faith through the blood of Christ, and through His death, who died for this very reason, as Isaiah himself said, when he spake thus:.. He bears our sins, and is distressed for us; and we esteemed Him to be in toil and in affliction, and in evil treatment… But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him. With His stripes we are healed. All we, like sheep, have gone astray. Every man has turned to his own way; and the Lord laid on Him our iniquities.... And He shall bear our sins; therefore He shall inherit many, and shall divide the spoil of the strong, because His soul was delivered to death; and He was numbered with the transgressors, and He bore the sins of many, and was delivered for their transgression….

…By reason, therefore, of this laver of repentance and knowledge of God, which has been ordained on account of the transgression of God’s people, as Isaiah cries, we have believed, and testify that that very baptism which he announced is alone able to purify those who have repented; and this is the water of life.

As with other citations of Isaiah 53 in the Fathers, this seems to convey an atonement which is substitutionary, and in some sense penal.

Justin states elsewhere (e.g.  Ch. 141) that simple repentance is effective to obtain forgiveness, but here (Ch. 14) he states that Christian baptism is required to “purify those who have repented”. Consistency is not Justin’s strong point. However, even in the New Testament there are statements which stress salvation by faith/grace and, alternatively, statements which stress human effort/works, often in the same book (cf. Eph 2:8-9 and 5:5) or even in the same passage (Phil. 2:12-13). It was not the style (nor would it be literarily practical) to assiduously qualify every single statement. It is up to the reader to survey all the assertions made in a work in order to discern the author’s overall thought.

For instance, in chapter 45 Justin writes that people living before the time of Christ who lived righteously will be saved through Christ but seemingly on the merit of their good works:  “Since those who did that which is universally, naturally, and eternally good are pleasing to God, they shall be saved through this Christ in the resurrection equally with those righteous men who were before them, namely Noah, and Enoch, and Jacob” (Ch. 45). On the other hand, he affirmed that Abraham was declared by God to be righteous “on account of faith” (Ch. 92), and  “as the blood of the Passover saved those who were in Egypt, so also the blood of Christ will deliver from death those who have believed” (Ch. 111). The scarlet cord hung outside her window in Jericho by the harlot Rahab “also manifested the symbol of the blood of Christ, by which those who were at one  time harlots and unrighteous persons out of all the nations are saved, receiving remission of their sins, and continuing no longer in sin” (Ch. 111).

Some legal transaction seems to be involved here in the shedding of Christ’s blood, since it results in “remission of their sins”.  This may refer to forgiveness of sins (based on the merits of Christ’s death) at the time of baptism, after which believers are expected to be “continuing no longer in sin”.  Both believing and good works are involved in having the blood of Christ save us.

In Chapter 95 Justin asserts that Christ took upon himself the curse that was due us:

For the whole human race will be found to be under a curse. For it is written in the law of Moses, ‘Cursed is every one that continues not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them.’ And no one has accurately done all, nor will you venture to deny this; but some more and some less than others have observed the ordinances enjoined. But if those who are under this law appear to be under a curse for not having observed all the requirements, how much more shall all the nations appear to be under a curse who practise idolatry, who seduce youths, and commit other crimes? If, then, 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, why do you argue about Him, who submitted to suffer these things according to the Father’s will, as if He were accursed, and do not rather bewail yourselves? For although His Father caused Him to suffer these things in behalf of the human family, yet you did not commit the deed as in obedience to the will of God.

This is clearly penal and substitutionary: Jesus took on himself the curse that we merited due to our sins. The penalty decreed by God for our sin is death, and that is exactly what Jesus submitted to in the course of bearing our sins. [13]  We should not read too much Reformed doctrine into this passage, though. This is not the same as Calvin’s version of penal substitutionary atonement, where Jesus faced the entire scope of punishment we would have faced, including the experience of separation from God’s presence and descent into hell.  Jesus here takes on the curses of the whole human family, which does not fit easily with a limited atonement.

This passage is only a side comment by Justin in his overall argumentation in his Dialogue with Trypho that Jesus fulfills Old Testament typology, not a deliberate formulation of a full-blown atonement theory. And again, Justin on the whole stressed good works, not faith alone, as the basis for salvation. In this passage in Chapter 95 Justin gives a summary exhortation, where he incorporates repentance, faith in Jesus, and command-keeping all in one sentence: “If, indeed, you repent of your sins, and recognize Him to be Christ, and observe His commandments, then… remission of sins shall be yours”.

Like nearly everyone of his time, Justin believed in the existence and widespread power of demons. In a number of passages, he attributes to them and to Satan the power to tempt humans to sin, and to deceive them by promoting false teachings, which include much of Greek mythology and philosophy. In particular, Justin blames the demons for stirring up irrational persecution of Christians.

These evil spirits are on the run from both the Father and the Son: “God will subdue all his enemies under [the Son]…The devils, as much as they can, strive to escape the power of God the Father and Lord of all, and the power of Christ Himself”.  In his role as Savior, Christ was made flesh and suffered “for the sake of believing men and for the destruction of the demons” (2 Apology Ch. 6). An even stronger statement of Christus Victor appears in the Dialogue (Ch. 41), where Christians thank God for “delivering us from the evil in which we were, and for utterly overthrowing principalities and powers by Him who suffered according to His will”.  Christians have notable power to exorcise demons, which is used as an apologetic strong point.  Justin claims that even non-Christians recognize this power (2 Apology Ch. 6; cf. Dialogue Ch. 30).

Even though God has given Christ the power to subdue the demons, they are still very active and pose an ongoing threat to Christians trying to live a holy life. Thus, Christians pray to be kept from “wicked and deceitful spirits”: “For we do continually beseech God by Jesus Christ to preserve us from the demons which are hostile to the worship of God” (Dialogue Ch. 30). The final overthrow and binding of Satan and the demons will not take place until Christ’s second coming, so Christus Victor is partly a work in progress for Justin. There is no hint in his writings of Jesus providing a ransom to Satan for the salvation of mankind.

Several of Justin’s works which are mentioned by other patristic writers have been lost to us. One of these is Against Marcion. Irenaeus, in his Against Heresies (IV.6) approvingly quotes a passage from this work:

I would not have believed the Lord Himself, if He had announced any other than He who is our framer, maker, and nourisher. But because the only-begotten Son came to us from the one God, who both made this world and formed us, and contains and administers all things, summing up His own handiwork in Himself, my faith towards Him is steadfast, and my love to the Father immoveable, God bestowing both upon us.

Justin’s intriguing statement here that God “summed up” his workmanship in [the person and work of] Christ (cf. Eph. 1:10) may have inspired Irenaeus to develop his signature teaching of recapitulation.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies (c. 180 A.D.)

Irenaeus was from Asia Minor (today’s Turkey), but later became bishop of Lyons (today’s France). He was a hearer of Polycarp, who in turn was a disciple of John, a disciple of Jesus. Irenaeus investigated the various strains of Gnosticism that were threatening the church, and argued against them. The Gnostics claimed to possess a secret oral tradition from Jesus himself, which emphasized inward knowledge (“gnosis”) as the means for salvation from the material world which had been created by some being lower than God. Gnostics looked down on the body, which led some of them to rigorous asceticism, and others to practice immorality.

Irenaeus emphasized the unity and goodness of God, as opposed to the Gnostics’ distinction between the utterly transcendent “High God” and the inferior “Demiurge” who created the world. The true “gnosis” is knowledge of Christ, which redeems bodily existence rather than escaping from it. This knowledge of Christ is openly accessible from the descriptions of his life and words which have been passed down in teachings within the churches and in the written gospels. Also, God is working out a redemptive plan in history, which includes humans maturing by having to make moral decisions in an imperfect world.

Irenaeus developed a detailed scheme of how Jesus accomplishes human salvation. Adam was the prototypical man, and his Fall is what got the whole human race on a wrong path. Jesus, in all his earthly experiences (his birth, childhood, adulthood, death) “recapitulated” the life experiences of Adam, and hence, of all mankind [14].  Recapitulation might be thought of as “re-heading” of a new humanity. Jesus was a sort of second Adam, who made right choices at all the junctures where Adam made wrong choices. Christians can now experience victory over the force of sin by participating in this life of the Christ who was victorious over sin. [15]

For it behooved Him who was to destroy sin, and redeem man under the power of death, that He should Himself be made that very same thing which he was, that is, man; who had been drawn by sin into bondage, but was held by death, so that sin should be destroyed by man,  and man should go forth from death. 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. Thus, then, was the Word of God made man, as also Moses says: ‘God, true are His works.’ But if, not having been made flesh, He did appear as if flesh, His work was not a true one. But what He did appear, that He also was: God recapitulated in Himself the ancient formation of man, that He might kill sin, deprive death of its power, and vivify man; and therefore His works are true.  [Against Heresies  3.18.7; see also 2.12.4; 3.18.1; 5.1.3]

For Irenaeus, it is essential for our salvation that our Saviour Jesus is God the Son, both human and divine:

For if a human person had not conquered humanity’s foe, that foe would not have been conquered justly. Conversely, unless it was God who conferred salvation, we should not possess it securely, and unless humanity had been closely united to God, it could not have become a sharer in incorruptibility… On what basis could we be sharers in adoption as God’s sons? We had to receive, through the Son’s agency, participation in him. The Word, having been made flesh, had to share himself with us. That is why he went through every stage of human life, restoring to all of them communion with God. [Against Heresies  3.18.7]

Mako Nagasawa [16] explains that for Irenaeus, salvation was primarily about being experientially delivered from the power of sin, not just being judicially forgiven:

Irenaeus understood human sin as being a physical corruption within human nature, a defacing of the image and likeness of God in physical form, and a breaking in the relationship between God and man internalized into human flesh and reproduced by the human mind. That is why, for Irenaeus, Jesus needed to physically save and redeem his own humanity first. As the Gospels demonstrate, Jesus put the flesh to death through his moment-by-moment choices to always align himself with the love of the Father, never giving into temptation. And as Paul said, God personally condemned, in this way, sin in the flesh of Jesus (Rom.8:3). On the cross, Jesus put to death the old self, the body of sin (Rom.6:6), to raise his body into newness of life. This constitutes salvation of human nature for Irenaeus, even if it only happened in one particular individual, Jesus. For Jesus has become the source of that salvation (Heb.5:9) for the Spirit takes what is his – namely his renewed God-cleansed, God-soaked humanity – and discloses it to us (Jn.16:14). 21 For Jesus represents all other Israelites and all other human beings, and did this on our behalf, that he might share his Spirit with all who believe and trust in him. In the physical body of Jesus, human nature is in principle brought into full union with God by virtue of Jesus overcoming all sin and temptation in his personal choices. We become ‘partakers’ of the Spirit, the ‘earnest of incorruption.’ ….. ‘Salvation’ is not merely the turning aside of the wrath of God, as Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones thought of it, but the purging of the sinful corruption within us by the wrath of God, that God’s life and power might be joined to the whole human person in the love of God.

As Nagasawa points out, the influence of Irenaeus can be seen in C. S. Lewis’ treatment of the atonement in Mere Christianity. This scheme of participating in the life of the righteous and victorious Son of God is an “ontological” substitution to deal with the entire power of sin in humans, rather than (primarily) a legal or penal substitution addressing just the guilt of sin. Much of subsequent Eastern Orthodox theology, such as stressing the Incarnation and Resurrection more than the Crucifixion, and participating in the divine “energies”, is an elaboration of this ontological approach pioneered by Irenaeus.  Gustav Aulen wrote of Irenaeus, “Of all the Fathers there is not one who is more thoroughly representative and typical, or who did more to fix the lines on which Christian thought was to move for centuries after his day.” [17]

Redemption from Sin and from Satan in Irenaeus

All that said, there is some discussion in Against Heresies regarding redemption from sin via Christ’s death:

Now this being is the Creator … by transgressing whose commandment we became His enemies. And therefore in the last times the Lord has restored us into friendship through His incarnation, having become “the Mediator between God and men”;  propitiating indeed for us the Father against whom we had sinned, and cancelling (consolatus) our disobedience by His own obedience; conferring also upon us the gift of communion with, and subjection to, our Maker. For this reason also He has taught us to say in prayer, “And forgive us our debts; ” since indeed He is our Father, whose debtors we were, having transgressed His commandments. …And in what way can sins be truly remitted, unless that He against whom we have sinned has Himself granted remission “through the bowels of mercy of our God,” in which “He has visited us” through His Son? [Against Heresies, 5. 17.1]

Clark comments, “Notice that, for Irenaeus, sin is defined as transgression of the law. The incarnation was to restore enemies to a state of friendship. How? By ‘propitiating’ the wrath of God. Is that not the heart of the penal-substitutionary doctrine of the atonement? Cancelling, propitiation, and obedience for disobedience each point to aspects of the legal basis for a restored friendship with God. For Irenaeus, our intimate relationship with God has a legal premise.”

…Therefore, by remitting sins, He did indeed heal man, while He also manifested Himself who He was. For if no one can forgive sins but God alone, while the Lord remitted them and healed men, it is plain that He was Himself the Word of God made the Son of man, receiving from the Father the power of remission of sins; since He was man, and since He was God, in order that since as man He suffered for us, so as God He might have compassion on us, and forgive us our debts, in which we were made debtors to God our Creator. And therefore David said beforehand, “Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord has not imputed sin; ” pointing out thus that remission of sins which follows upon His advent, by which “He has destroyed the handwriting” of our debt, and “fastened it to the cross; ” so that as by means of a tree we were made debtors to God, [so also] by means of a tree we may obtain the remission of our debt.  [Against Heresies, 5. 17.1]

James Bradley observes that, in addition to his recapitulation scheme of salvation, Irenaeus, “also articulated a thoroughgoing substitutionary view…Irenaeus clearly and repeatedly argues for all the essential elements in what can only be called a penal, substitutionary view of Christ’s atoning work.” Bradley quotes Egbert C. Smyth on Irenaeus:

His death is a “correction of the First Begotten” [Adam]. It fulfills the Passover. It remits our debt, our debt to God by transgression, a debt to none other but God, whose commandment we had transgressed in the beginning. For this transgression we are “in bonds of condemnation.” Death is a penal evil. Separation from God, antithetic to fellowship of God, is death. Sin is enmity to God. There is broken a friendship. Christ removes all that hinders its complete restoration. This involves not only influence on or for man, but propitiation.

Irenaeus states Jesus “suffered for us, so as God He might have compassion on us, and forgive us our debts”, and acknowledges a “debt” we owe God because of our sin, and also that Christ’s work on the cross gives us remission of that debt: “As by means of a tree [i.e. the tree in the Garden of Eden] we were made debtors to God, [so also] by means of a tree [the cross] we may obtain the remission of our debt.” Irenaeus elsewhere makes passing reference to Jesus “propitiating God” and suffering death to deliver man from condemnation:

He did not make void, but fulfilled the law, by performing the offices of the high priest, propitiating God for men, and cleansing the lepers, healing the sick, and Himself suffering death, that exiled man might go forth from condemnation, and might return without fear to his own inheritance. [Against Heresies, 4.8.2]

The language in these passages seems to comprehend Jesus paying the debt we owed by taking upon himself the legal penalty (death) for our sins, thereby propitiating God, as with sacrifices under the Old Testament law. These are the essential elements of penal substitutionary atonement. However, these remarks represent only small portion of Irenaeus’ overall arguments in Against Heresies. Also, Irenaeus is not writing here to develop a systematic theology of atonement. He is continually identifying specific heretical teachings, then coming up with some arguments based on well-accepted Christian beliefs to show that the heretical teachings are at odds with orthodoxy.

Irenaeus repeatedly says that Jesus freed us from our bondage to Satan, sometimes using language of redemption and ransom, but it is never in the context of paying a ransom to the devil. Since Satan had “unjustly” led men into bondage (A.H. 5.21.3), he had no proper legal claim on mankind that deserved to be paid off with a ransom. Jesus simply “crushed” the devil, and thus was able lead the former captives to freedom: “He has therefore, in His work of recapitulation, summed up all things, both waging war against our enemy, and crushing him who had at the beginning led us away captives in Adam, and trampled upon his head” (A. H. 5.21.1).  Jesus wins this victory fairly and justly by facing a range of temptations similar to what Adam faced, but in every case giving a godly response to Satan’s lies that God’s commands are not good and should not be obeyed:

By the words (sententiam) of the law the Lord showed that the law does indeed declare the Word of God from the Father; and the apostate angel of God is destroyed by its voice, being exposed in his true colours, and vanquished by the Son of man keeping the commandment of God. For as in the beginning he enticed man to transgress his Maker’s law, and thereby got him into his power; yet his power consists in transgression and apostasy, and with these he bound man [to himself]; so again, on the other hand, it was necessary that through man himself he should, when conquered, be bound with the same chains with which he had bound man, in order that man, being set free, might return to his Lord, leaving to him (Satan) those bonds by which he himself had been fettered, that is, sin. For when Satan is bound, man is set free; since “none can enter a strong man’s house and spoil his goods, unless he first bind the strong man himself.” [A.H., 5.21.3]

Our bondage was primarily to our own sin.  Because of our sinful nature and our agreement with Satan’s lies, we were, in practical experience, in bondage to the devil, and were “unjustly used for his purposes”. Satan’s power was in having people believe his lies about God and his ways. Thus, in his keeping God’s law Jesus disempowered Satan by vindicating the truth and viability of God’s commands:

The Lord showed that the law does indeed declare the Word of God from the Father; and the apostate angel of God is destroyed by its voice, being exposed in his true colours, and vanquished by the Son of man keeping the commandment of God. For as in the beginning he enticed man to transgress his Maker’s law, and thereby got him into his power; yet his power consists in transgression and apostasy, and with these he bound man [to himself]…

The Lord therefore exposes him as speaking contrary to the word of that God who made all things, and subdues him by means of the commandment. Now the law is the commandment of God. The Man proves him to be a fugitive from and a transgressor of the law, an apostate also from God. After [the Man had done this], the Word bound him securely as a fugitive from Himself, and made spoil of his goods,-namely, those men whom he held in bondage, and whom he unjustly used for his own purposes. And justly indeed is he led captive, who had led men unjustly into bondage; while man, who had been led captive in times past, was rescued from the grasp of his possessor, according to the tender mercy of God the Father, who had compassion on His own handiwork, and gave to it salvation, restoring it by means of the Word. (A.H. 5.21.3)

A passage where Irenaeus uses the terms “ransom” and “redeemed” for our deliverance as he summarizes the saving work of Christ is:

We…have received… [the blessings of salvation] according to the ministration of the Word, who is perfect in all things, as the mighty Word, and very man, who, redeeming us by His own blood in a manner consonant to reason, gave Himself as a redemption for those who had been led into captivity. And since the apostasy tyrannized over us unjustly, and, though we were by nature the property of the omnipotent God, alienated us contrary to nature, rendering us its own disciples, the Word of God, powerful in all things, and not defective with regard to His own justice, did righteously turn against that apostasy, and redeem from it His own property, not by violent means, as the [apostasy] had obtained dominion over us at the beginning, when it insatiably snatched away what was not its own, but by means of persuasion, as became a God of counsel, who does not use violent means to obtain what He desires; so that neither should justice be infringed upon, nor the ancient handiwork of God go to destruction. …the Lord thus has redeemed us through His own blood, giving His soul for our souls, and His flesh for our flesh, and has also poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and man, imparting indeed God to men by means of the Spirit, and, on the other hand, attaching man to God by His own incarnation, and bestowing upon us at His coming immortality durably and truly, by means of communion with God. [A.H.  5.1.1]

There is a strong element of substitutionary sacrifice expressed in “redeemed us through His own blood, giving His soul for our souls, and His flesh for our flesh.” As in the preceding passages cited, there is an emphasis on the justice and appropriateness of this liberation from unjust tyranny “in a manner consistent with reason.”  God accomplished this “by means of persuasion, as became a God of counsel, who does not use violent means to obtain what he desires”.

Gustav Aulen, in his influential Christus Victor, took this language to mean that Christ gave himself to the devil as a ransom: “Behind the somewhat obscure language about ‘persuasion’ (secundum suadelam) lies the thought that Christ gave himself as a ransom paid to the devil for man’s deliverance.” [18] This is unsupported speculation on Aulen’s part, which is at odds with Irenaeus’s explanations elsewhere of how this deliverance from the devil’s unjust “tyranny” was accomplished justly. As we noted above, Jesus resisted Satan’s suggestions where Adam had succumbed, making righteous choices at every stage of his life (including going to the cross), and thus exposing the devil as a lying fraud.

Moreover, it was God, not Satan, who was offended by man’s sin and thus who had a valid claim against humanity. If we push the metaphor of ransom to entail an actual payment to some party, that party would be God.  James Dennison explains :

The protological Adam brought an inversion or reversal in mankind’s relationship with God, our Creator. He brought us into bondage by his original sin; Christ inverts the reversal by delivering us from bondage. I should note that sinful man’s bondage is expressed by Irenaeus in terms of bondage to Satan; and it is this emphasis which has misled some to suggest that Christ’s death for Irenaeus is a ransom paid to Satan to release us from bondage to the prince of darkness. But as Gustav Wingren pointed out, Christ’s death as a ransom is not a payment made to Satan; it is a payment to God the Father to reverse and break the shackles of sin, death, and judgment. There is no ransom to the Devil in Irenaeus’s doctrine of the atonement. When Irenaeus suggests man’s bondage under sin to Satan, he means a willing enlistment of rebellious mankind in the war which Satan himself first waged against heaven. In other words, sinful Adam voluntarily enlists in Satan’s alienation from his Maker. Adam’s bondage to Satan is a willing alliance with the arch-rebel.

Irenaeus continues in Book 5, refuting various heretical teachings by bringing in references to God becoming a physical man and redeeming with his physical blood what is rightfully his possession, to achieve the “remission of sins”:

… Taking possession of His own in a righteous and gracious manner. As far as concerned the apostasy, indeed, He redeems us righteously from it by His own blood; but as regards us who have been redeemed, [He does this] graciously. For we have given nothing to Him previously, nor does He desire anything from us, as if He stood in need of it; but we do stand in need of fellowship with Him. And for this reason it was that He graciously poured Himself out, that He might gather us into the bosom of the Father.  [A.H.   5.2.1]

Blood can only come from veins and flesh, and whatsoever else makes up the substance of man, such as the Word of God was actually made. By His own blood he redeemed us, as also His apostle declares, “In whom we have redemption through His blood, even the remission of sins. [A.H.   5.2.2]

Here he quotes the apostle Paul in Ephesians 1:7, “In whom we have redemption through His blood, even the remission of sins,” a verse paralleled in Colossians 1:14.  Remission of sins has a legal dimension, in satisfying the God who we offended and providing grounds for him to “righteously” forgive us. This language of redemption through Christ’s blood for the forgiveness of sins goes beyond Irenaeus’ main theme of Jesus living through normal human experiences but without sin.  Rather, it is consistent with penal substitutionary sacrifice, with Jesus redeeming us by dying the death which we deserved as sinners.


To recap the findings thus far in this article: we have read through most of the significant Christian writings of the second century, and found not a word about paying a ransom to Satan. We have found numerous references to the penal and substitutionary nature of Christ’s death for the remission of our sins, and, starting with Irenaeus, a robust emphasis on the Incarnation and ontological substitution.

Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus, are all mentioned in discussions of the Ransom Theory [19]. For these three writers, I relied primarily on the secondary literature rather than reading all through their texts myself. I sampled different points of view among commenters to get both sides of controversial issues, and looked up any extensive quotations to be sure they were not taken out of context.  I mainly looked for what they wrote about the ransom theory, but the commentaries also gave a fair idea about their views on the penal aspect and on the incarnational or ontological aspect of the atonement.

The earliest clear articulation of a ransom being paid to the devil is by Origen in On the First Principles, written around 220-230 A.D.  Origen was a brilliant thinker and prolific writer. In his quest for philosophical consistency, he speculated widely on theological matters. Although at the time he was hailed as a powerful defender of orthodoxy, some of the speculations in his writings led to such controversies that his writings were eventually condemned by the church.

In one such speculation, Origen interpreted literally certain verses in the New Testament which state that Christ gave himself (1 Tim 2:5–6) or his life (Mark 10:45) as a ransom for mankind. Origen reasoned that, due to original sin, man had surrendered himself to the devil and become his lawful property. Therefore, a ransom payment must be paid to Satan to legitimately release mankind from his power. Origen taught that the devil was tricked into accepting the death of Christ as the ransom payment for mankind, mistakenly believing that the crucified Christ would remain under his control.  The Resurrection came as a surprise to the self-deceived devil, who now lost dominion over both humans and Christ.

The commentaries on Origen indicate that he subscribed to some form of ontological substitution, and did not stress the penal aspect of the atonement.


Penal Substitution in Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 265-340)

Eusebius was a Christian scholar with wide-ranging interests. He wrote on biblical geography and archaeology, textual criticism, and histories of Constantine, various martyrs, and general world history. Perhaps his most famous work was his history of the Christian church from the time of the apostles till his own day. He also produced commentaries on books of the Bible, and various dogmatic and apologetic works. He served as bishop of Caesarea, a port city for the regions of Judea and Samaria. He favored Arianism against the Nicene understanding of the Trinity, so his standing suffered among later generations of orthodox Christians. The Arians taught that God the Son was not eternal, but had been begotten at some point in time by God the Father.

One of his apologetics works is the Demonstration (or “Proof”) of the Gospel [20]. Here, Eusebius cites the sublime life and teachings of Jesus, his miracles, and his fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies as evidences for his divinity. He explains that Christians no longer are under the Law of Moses, because Jesus’s death was the ultimate sacrifice for the guilt of sins. Instead of continuing to offer animal sacrifices, now we continually celebrate the ultimate sacrifice by means of the Eucharist.

Since then according to the witness of the prophets the great and precious ransom has been found for Jews and Greeks alike, the propitiation for the whole world, the life given for the life of all men, the pure offering for every stain and sin, the Lamb of God, the holy sheep dear to God, the Lamb that was foretold, by Whose inspired and mystic teaching all we Gentiles have procured the forgiveness of our former sins, and such Jews as hope in Him are freed from the curse of Moses, daily celebrating His memorial, the remembrance of His Body and Blood [i.e. the Eucharist], and are admitted to a greater sacrifice than that of the ancient law, we do not reckon it right to fall back upon the first beggarly elements [i.e. the Old Testament sacrifices], which are symbols and likenesses but do not contain the truth itself.

…… He then that was alone of those who ever existed, the Word of God, before all worlds, and High Priest of every creature that has mind and reason, separated One of like passions with us, as a sheep or lamb from the human flock, branded on Him all our sins, and fastened on Him as well the curse that was adjudged by Moses’ law, as Moses foretells: “Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.” This He suffered “being made a curse for us; and making himself sin for our sakes.”  And then “He made him sin for our sakes who knew no sin,” and laid on Him all the punishments due to us for our sins, bonds, insults, contumelies, scourging, and shameful blows, and the crowning trophy of the Cross. And after all this when He had offered such a wondrous offering and choice victim to the Father, and sacrificed for the salvation of us all, He delivered a memorial [i.e. the Eucharist] to us to offer to God continually instead of a sacrifice.   (Demonstration, Book 1, Ch. 10  )

The language here is unmistakably of penal substitution, with God laying on Christ “all the punishments due to us for our sins”, and with propitiation for our offense against God to procure “the forgiveness of all our former sins”, etc., etc. This is a legal transaction, not merely ontological, and not involving any bargain with the devil.

Eusebius goes on, in Book 10 of the Demonstration, to note ways in which the crucifixion fulfilled Old Testament prophecies and foreshadowings:

For it was necessary that the Lamb of God, taken by the great High-Priest on behalf of the other kindred lambs, for all the flock of mankind, should be offered as a sacrifice to God (Book 10, Introduction)

So it is said: “And the Lord hath laid on him our iniquities, and he bears our sins.” Thus the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world, became a curse on our behalf: “Whom, though he knew no sin, God made sin for our sake, giving him as redemption for all, that we might become the righteousness of God in him.

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, He says these words, adding further on in the same Psalm: “Thou hast protected me because of my innocence,” clearly shewing the impeccability of the Lamb of God. And how can He make our sins His own, and be said to bear our iniquities, except by our being regarded as His body, according to the apostle, who says: “Now ye are the body of Christ, and severally members?”     And by the rule that “if one member suffer all the members suffer with it,” so when the many members suffer and sin, He too by the laws of sympathy (since the Word of God was pleased to take the form of a slave and to be knit into the common tabernacle of us all) takes into Himself the labours of the suffering members, and makes our sicknesses His, and suffers all our woes and labours by the laws of love. 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.         (Book 10, Ch. 1)

To wash away our sins He was crucified, suffering what we who were sinful should have suffered, as our sacrifice and ransom, so that we may well say with the prophet, He bears our sins, and is pained for us, and he was wounded for our sins, and bruised for our iniquities, so that by His stripes we might be healed, for the Lord hath given Him for our sins. So, as delivered up by the Father, as bruised, as bearing our sins, He was led as a sheep to the slaughter. With this the apostle agrees when he says, “Who spared not his own Son, but delivered him for us all.” And it is to impel us to ask why the Father forsook Him, that He says, “Why hast thou forsaken me?”    The answer is, to ransom the whole human race, buying them with His precious Blood from their former slavery to their invisible tyrants, the unclean daemons, and the rulers and spirits of evil.  (Book 10, Ch. 8)

It is as clear as it can possibly be that for Eusebius this was a penal substitution. The penalty for our sins was visited on Jesus Christ, instead of on us, as he “made our sins his own” and “wash[ed] away our sins”. The “Lamb of God” was “offered as a sacrifice to God”;  he “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.”

Alongside this vicarious sacrifice to pay the penalty of our sins, Eusebius here mentions Christ’s ransom of the human race, “buying them with His precious Blood from their former slavery to their invisible tyrants, the unclean daemons, and the rulers and spirits of evil.” This “Christus Victor” deliverance from evil powers, however, is not framed as the legal payment of a ransom to the devil or demons. Eusebius does not spell out the mechanism of how Christ’s death in our place accomplishes this deliverance, and he certainly does not place it in opposition to the penal substitutionary aspect.

In Book 4 of the Demonstration, Eusebius pulls together many different elements of the work of Christ, who is termed the “Victor” and the “Saviour of the Universe”. This work includes defeating death and releasing souls bound by death, washing away our sins by his sacrifice as a “victim of God” and empowering his followers to share his teachings throughout the world.

And the Saviour of the Universe, our Lord, the Christ of God, called Victor, is represented in the prophetic predictions as reviling death, and releasing the souls that are bound there, by whom He raises the hymn of victory, and He says these words:

“From the hand of Hades I will save them, and from death I will ransom their souls. O Death, where is thy victory? O Death, where is thy sting? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.”

Such was the dispensation that brought Him even unto death, of which one that wishes to seek for the cause, can find not one reason but many. For firstly, the Word teaches by His death that He is Lord both of dead and living; and secondly, that He will wash away our sins, being slain, and becoming a curse for us; thirdly, that a victim of God and a great sacrifice for the whole world might be offered to Almighty God; fourthly, that thus He might work out the destruction of the deceitful powers of the daemons by unspeakable words; and fifthly also, that shewing the hope of life with God after death to His friends and disciples not by words only by deeds as well, and affording ocular [visual] proof of His message, He might make them of good courage and more eager to preach both to Greeks and Barbarians the holy polity which He had established. And so at once He filled with His own divine power those very friends and followers, whom He had selected for Himself on account of their surpassing all, and had chosen as His apostles and disciples, that they might teach all races of men His message of the knowledge of God, and lay down one way of religion for all the Greeks and Barbarians; a way which announced the defeat and rout of the daemons, and the check of polytheistic error, and the true knowledge of the one Almighty God, and which promised forgiveness of sins before committed, if men no longer continued therein, and one hope of salvation to all by the all-wise and all-good polity that He had instituted. (Demonstration of the Gospel, Book 4, Ch. 12)

This passage by Eusebius demolishes the assumption by some modern writers that the church fathers were incapable of holding more than one aspect about the atonement in their minds.  In the final paragraph here he offers at least five complementary reasons for why Jesus died. Two points here are that Christ “will wash away our sins, being slain, and becoming a curse for us” and “that a victim of God and a great sacrifice for the whole world might be offered to Almighty God”. This is clearly Penal Substitutionary Atonement. A key result of this sacrifice is “the destruction of the deceitful powers of the demons”, which might be termed Christus Victor. Eusebius also calls attention to the “the all-wise and all-good polity that He had instituted”, which honors the Moral Example of Jesus’ way of life. Also, Jesus “fills” his followers “with His own divine power”, which is yet another aspect of his saving work.

Ontological and Penal Substitution in Athanasius (c. 297-373)

Athanasius of Alexandria was one of the most pivotal figures in the history of the Christian church. About 319 A. D., a lower level leader in the Alexandrian church named Arius started teaching that Christ was not eternal and not fully divine. The Son was created by the Father at some time in the past, and so a signature saying of the Arians was, “There was a time when He was not”. This teaching spread very rapidly, and engulfed the Christian world in controversy.

After Constantine emerged victorious from a series of civil wars and became emperor of the whole Roman Empire, he wanted to squelch all this squabbling in order to have a more unified realm. He convened a council of bishops at Nicaea in 325. This council condemned Arianism and declared that the Son was true God, being eternally begotten by the Father. This position was codified in the Nicene Creed. To Athanasius, this was not a minor theological point. To him, salvation was at stake. Only one who was both fully human and fully divine could atone for human sin and deliver us from its power.

The triumph of the Nicene orthodox party was short lived. The Arians soon gained the sympathy of Constantine and of several emperors after him. Because of his uncompromising support for Nicene orthodoxy, Athanasius was exiled from his bishopric at Alexandria five times, starting in 335. Sometimes he took refuge with monks in the Egyptian desert, and other times he had to flee as far away as Gaul. His Arian rivals made vicious accusations against him, and several councils denounced him. The popes at Rome usually supported him, but not always.

Athanasius of Alexandria. Source: Wikipedia article Athanasius of Alexandria . Picture originally from Coptic Church.

Figure 2.  Athanasius of Alexandria.

Because of his lonely stand, the short, dark-skinned Egyptian bishop became known as Athanasius Contra Mundum (Latin for “Athanasius Against the World”). The political situation finally turned in favor of the supporters of Nicaea later in the fourth century. Athanasius, then aged about 69, returned to Alexandria in 366 for his final stint there as bishop.

Athanasius produced many literary works during his long life. We will focus here on what is perhaps his best-known treatise, On the Incarnation of the Word. Here Athanasius reviews the creation of man in the image of God, and then the fall of man into corruption and decay. He makes the case that only through the Incarnation, wherein the Word through which the world and mankind was originally created entered into the physical world, could the image of God be renewed in humanity and our bondage to death and corruption be undone. This treatise is so edifying and enlightening that I would urge any thoughtful Christian to read at least the first third of it, preferably in a modern translation. I cannot do justice to it in a few paragraphs, but will just summarize a few points of special relevance to the controversy under discussion here.

Being good and generous, God lavished humans with a special measure of his own nature and with the potential to live in bliss: “ He did not barely create man, as He did all the irrational creatures on the earth, but made them after His own image, giving them a portion even of the power of His own Word; so that having as it were a kind of reflection of the Word, and being made rational, they might be able to abide ever in blessedness, living the true life which belongs to the saints in paradise.” [Incarnation, Ch. 3] However, God gave them clear warning that if they “transgressed and turned back, and became evil”, they would die. This death went beyond merely the cessation of physical life, but also involved a thorough “corruption” of body and soul, resulting in gross immorality and idolatry.

Athanasius does not present God as acting in anger or “wrath” against mankind, or demanding some arbitrary punishment for sinners merely for the sake of retribution or “satisfaction of justice”. Some wording (cf. Incarnation, Ch. 3) indicates that God originally declared this penalty at least in part for the worthy purpose of helping to incentivize Adam and Eve to not sin in the first place. Also, it seems that death/corruption is in some sense a natural outworking of sin/rebellion against God, as well as a strictly “legal” penalty [21]. At any rate, there is no questioning by Athanasius of the rightness or goodness of this decree; it is just the way things are. [22]

Since God had clearly decreed death as the penalty for sin (e.g. in Genesis 2:15, which Athanasius cites), it would be absurd or “monstrous” for God to not follow through with this sanction and thus be found to be a liar [23]:

For death, as I said above, gained from that time forth a legal hold over us, and it was impossible to evade the law, since it had been laid down by God because of the transgression…For it were monstrous, firstly, that God, having spoken, should prove false — that, when once He had ordained that man, if he transgressed the commandment, should die the death, after the transgression man should not die, but God’s word should be broken. For God would not be true, if, when He had said we should die, man died not. [Incarnation, Ch. 6]

God should appear true to the law He had laid down concerning death. For it were monstrous for God, the Father of truth, to appear a liar for our profit and preservation. [Incarnation, Ch. 7]

On the other hand, it would be also be “monstrous” and “unseemly” for God’s special handiwork, his beloved creatures who still bear his image, to remain forever in this corrupted state: “It were unseemly that creatures once made rational, and having partaken of the Word, should go to ruin, and turn again toward non-existence by the way of corruption. For it were not worthy of God’s goodness that the things He had made should waste away, because of the deceit practiced on men by the devil.” [Incarnation, Ch. 6]

God thus faced a sort of dilemma: how to rescue humanity from its self-inflicted condition of death/corruption while remaining consistent to his prior decree that sinners would inevitably experience death/corruption. Humans were so depraved that they were incapable of simply repenting on their own and ceasing to sin. Athanasius asks plaintively, “What was God in His goodness to do?” [Ch.6] and “What possible course was God to take?” [Ch.7]

Athanasius then presents from a number of angles how God’s stunning intervention in the form of the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection serve to redeem mankind from corruption while honoring the primal penalty for sin. As a sinless human and as a pure Image of God, a second Adam figure, Jesus Christ was a worthy stand-in to experience death in place of all humanity. But even as we can all share in his death, so can we can all share in the new, uncorrupted life represented by his Resurrection:

For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God comes to our realm… seeing, lastly, how all men were under penalty of death: He took pity on our race, and had mercy on our infirmity, and condescended to our corruption, and, unable to bear that death should have the mastery — lest the creature should perish, and His Father’s handiwork in men be spent for nought — He takes unto Himself a body, and that of no different sort from ours….And thus taking from our bodies one of like nature, because all were under penalty of the corruption of death He gave it over to death in the stead of all, and offered it to the Father — doing this, moreover, of His loving-kindness, to the end that, firstly, all being held to have died in Him, the law involving the ruin of men might be undone (inasmuch as its power was fully spent in the Lord’s body, and had no longer holding-ground against men, his peers), and that, secondly, whereas men had turned toward corruption, He might turn them again toward incorruption, and quicken them from death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of the Resurrection, banishing death from them like straw from the fire. [Incarnation, Ch. 8]

For the Word, perceiving that no otherwise could the corruption of men be undone save by death as a necessary condition, while it was impossible for the Word to suffer death, being immortal, and Son of the Father; to this end He takes to Himself a body capable of death, that it, by partaking of the Word Who is above all, might be worthy to die in the stead of all, and might, because of the Word which had come to dwell in it, remain incorruptible, and that thenceforth corruption might be stayed from all by the Grace of the Resurrection. … For being over all, the Word of God naturally by offering His own temple and corporeal instrument for the life of all satisfied the debt by His death. And thus He, the incorruptible Son of God, being conjoined with all by a like nature, naturally clothed all with incorruption, by the promise of the resurrection. For the actual corruption in death has no longer holding-ground against men, by reason of the Word, which by His one body has come to dwell among them. [Incarnation, ch.9]

Athanasius elaborates on these themes and provides some word pictures to help illustrate the underlying principles. For instance, he notes that if a great king comes to a city and takes up residence in just one house of that city, that whole city is considered to be an honored place, and bandits no longer dare to operate there. Even so, writes Athanasius [Ch.9], now that the King above all kings has come to earth and taken up residence in just one human body, “Henceforth the whole conspiracy of the enemy against mankind is checked, and the corruption of death which before was prevailing against them is done away. For the race of men had gone to ruin, had not the Lord and Saviour of all, the Son of God, come among us to meet the end of death.”

In chapters 11-19 Athanasius discusses yet another reason for the Incarnation, which was to renew the knowledge of God among humanity. Athanasius notes that humans have largely lost their primal spiritual or “rational” sensibilities, by which they would directly apprehend or contemplate God, and become dependent on physical sensory inputs. Therefore God has graciously provided revelation of himself on many levels. Plain observation of the grandeur of the physical universe should provide a clue that an awesome Creator lies behind it. God also gave the law and the prophets, to the Jews and through them, to the wider Gentile world, for enlightenment on spiritual matters.

But to provide an even clearer revelation of God to spiritually dull humans, God fully entered into the physical world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Before accomplishing his work of atonement, Jesus demonstrated by his deeds, which were “visible” among men, that he was indeed the Word of the God by his miraculous healings and virtuous life:

For men’s mind having finally fallen to things of sense, the Word disguised Himself by appearing in a body, that He might, as Man, transfer men to Himself, and centre their senses on Himself, and, men seeing Him thenceforth as Man, persuade them by the works He did that He is not Man only, but also God, and the Word and Wisdom of the true God…Now for this cause, also, He did not immediately upon His coming accomplish His sacrifice on behalf of all, by offering His body to death and raising it again, for by this means He would have made Himself invisible. But He made Himself visible enough by what He did, abiding in it, and doing such works, and showing such signs, as made Him known no longer as Man, but as God the Word. For by His becoming Man, the Saviour was to accomplish both works of love; first, in putting away death from us and renewing us again; secondly, being unseen and invisible, in manifesting and making Himself known by His works to be the Word of the Father, and the Ruler and King of the universe. [Incarnation, Ch. 16]

Only a pure, true Image of God, i.e. the Word through which humanity was originally created, could suffice to renew the image of God in mankind. Athanasius compares Christ’s restoring of human nature to a stained portrait being re-painted:

You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself. [24]

Athanasius is best known for his robust explication of ontological substitution: We participate with Jesus in his resurrection and his incorruptible life, and thus are pulled along into a new, glorious mode of existence. Hence Athanasius’ famous, somewhat overstated aphorism, “God became man, so that man could become God” [25].

However, we can see from the passages cited above that Athanasius also had a robust view of penal substitution. All humans, as sinners, were under God’s legal penalty of death. Jesus, as a human, suffered that penalty on behalf of all humans, as their substitute. His offering of his body in death to God as a sacrifice is also described as paying a debt. This all is the very essence of penal substitutionary atonement.

Midway through his treatise, Athanasius summarizes the reasons for the bodily appearing of God in this world:

We have, then, now stated in part, as far as it was possible, and as ourselves had been able to understand, the reason of His bodily appearing; that it was in the power of none other to turn the corruptible to incorruption, except the Saviour Himself, that had at the beginning also made all things out of nought and that none other could create anew the likeness of God’s image for men, save the Image of the Father; and that none other could render the mortal immortal, save our Lord Jesus Christ, Who is the Very Life ; and that none other could teach men of the Father, and destroy the worship of idols, save the Word, that orders all things and is alone the true Only-begotten Son of the Father. But since it was necessary also that the debt owing from all should be paid again: for, as I have already said , it was owing that all should die, for which special cause, indeed, He came among us: to this intent, after the proofs of His Godhead from His works, 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 show Himself more powerful even than death, displaying His own body incorruptible, as first-fruits of the resurrection of all. [Incarnation, Ch. 20]

As with several other Fathers examined here, Athanasius maintains that, in addition to renewing the knowledge of God in us and delivering us from corruption, Jesus died as our substitute to pay the penalty or debt which was decreed for sinners [26].

Further passages by Athanasius demonstrating a penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement appear in his Four Discourses Against the Arians :

Formerly the world, as guilty, was under judgment from the Law; but now the Word has taken on Himself the judgment, and having suffered in the body for all, has bestowed salvation to all.   [Discourse 1, Ch. 13]

He Himself bears our sins, that it might be shown that He has become man for us, and that the body which in Him bore them, was His own body.  [Discourse 3, Ch. 26]

Similarly, in his Letter to Marcellenius, Athanasius states the Jesus bore the “wrath that was the penalty of our transgression”:

Psalms 88 and 69, again speaking in the Lord’s own person, tell us further that He suffered these things, not for His own sake but for ours. Thou has made Thy wrath to rest upon me, says the one; and the other adds, I paid them things I never took. For He did not die as being Himself liable to death: He suffered for us, and bore in Himself the wrath that was the penalty of our transgression, even as Isaiah says, Himself bore our weaknesses. (Letter to Marcellenius).

Finally, from his Personal Letters:

He has not Himself become a curse, but is said to have done so because He took upon Him the curse on our behalf. [27]


Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330 – 395)

Gregory of Nyssa followed Origen in much of his thinking. He agreed with Origen that Satan had obtained legal rights to man due to the fall. He also agreed that Satan had been tricked into accepting Christ’s death as the ransom payment to legitimately free mankind. In order to clear God of the charge of deceit here, Gregory devised the analogy of a fish taking a bait, not knowing it contained a hook. In this picture, Satan was the fish, Christ’s humanity was the bait, which the greedy, grasping Satan took. Christ’s divinity was the hook which, after being gulped down by Satan, was used to defeat and bind him.

Gregory of Nyssa’s overall doctrine of the atonement is reviewed by A. S. Dunstone [28]. There is little or nothing regarding a penal view of the atonement. The focus is on the results of sin (i.e. physical death and spiritual darkness) rather than on culpability for sin. His model is primarily therapeutic: Christ became man and shared in all man’s experiences, including suffering and death, for healing of humanity, rather than to expiate the guilt of sin. In baptism, the baptized person dies with Christ to both sin and death. Our union with Christ leads to sharing in the divine nature, a sort of “divinization”.  All this falls under the general notion of ontological substitution.

Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389)

Gregory of Nazianzus was (among other things) archbishop of Constantinople. A skilled orator, he was famed for his defense of the Nicaean version of the Trinity against Arianism.  Like many other Greek Fathers, he viewed the work of Christ in terms of Incarnation and “assuming” all our experiences (ontological substitution) for the purpose of healing humanity: “Whatever is not assumed is not healed, but whatever is united to God is healed” (To Cledonius Against Apollinaris, Epistle 101.7) .

In his final sermon, Gregory summarized the story of redemption:

We were created that we might be made happy. We were made happy when we were created. We were entrusted with Paradise that we might enjoy life. We received a Commandment that we might obtain a good repute by keeping it; not that God did not know what would take place, but because He had laid down the law of Free Will. We were deceived because we were the objects of envy. We were cast out because we transgressed. … We needed an Incarnate God, a God put to death, that we might live. We were put to death together with Him, that we might be cleansed; we rose again with Him because we were put to death with Him; we were glorified with Him, because we rose again with Him. (Orations 45.28)

…He who gives riches becomes poor; for He assumes the poverty of my flesh, that I may assume the riches of His Godhead. He that is full empties Himself; for He empties Himself of His Glory for a short while, that I may have a share in His Fulness. What is the riches of His Goodness? What is this mystery that is around me? I had a share in the Image and I did not keep it; He partakes of my flesh that He may both save the Image and make the flesh immortal. (Orations 45.9)

He agreed with Origen and Gregory of Nyssa that man had become captive to the devil due to original sin. But he felt it would be an “outrage” for the devil to be paid the precious ransom of God the Son. Since the devil was a robber, he did not have a legal right to be paid to release what he had stolen. Thus, Gregory of Nazianzus explicitly rejected the “Ransom Theory” of the atonement where the devil is paid off:

To Whom was that Blood offered that was shed for us, and why was It shed? I mean the precious and famous Blood of our God and High priest and Sacrifice. We were detained in bondage by the Evil One, sold under sin, and receiving pleasure in exchange for wickedness. Now, since a ransom belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this offered, and for what cause? If to the Evil One, fie upon the outrage! If the robber receives ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God Himself, and has such an illustrious payment for his tyranny, a payment for whose sake it would have been right for him to have left us alone altogether. But if to the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed; and next, On what principle did the Blood of His Only begotten Son delight the Father, Who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being offered by his Father, but changed the sacrifice, putting a ram in the place of the human victim? Is it not evident that the Father accepts Him, but neither asked for Him nor demanded Him; but on account of the Incarnation, and because Humanity must be sanctified by the Humanity of God, that He might deliver us Himself, and overcome the tyrant, and draw us to Himself by the mediation of His Son, Who also arranged this to the honour of the Father, Whom it is manifest that He obeys in all things? (Orations 45.22)

While no ransom was paid to the devil, Gregory also states there was no necessity to pay a ransom to God, since man was not in bondage to God. Moreover, God would not normally accept a human sacrifice. However, in this case the Father did “delight” in the “Blood of His only begotten Son”. How can this be? According to Gregory, the sacrifice of the Incarnate Son is accepted by the Father as an essential means to a worthy end, i.e. to sanctify humanity and to deliver humanity from the power of the Evil One.

Exactly how this sacrificial death, this “mediation”, accomplishes this sanctification is not spelled out in this particular passage; it does not explicitly mention a judicial or legal aspect to Christ’s sacrifice. However, that forensic aspect is mentioned by Gregory in several other passages, where he describes Christ redeeming us from the “curse”, and freeing us from the “condemnation” of our sins:

For my sake He was called a curse, Who destroyed my curse; and sin, who takes away the sin of the world; and became a new Adam to take the place of the old, just so He makes my disobedience His own as Head of the whole body. (Orations 30.5)

Not only does He take to Himself all monstrous and vile names, but even that which is most monstrous of all, even very sin and very curse; not that He is such, but He is called so. For how can He be sin, Who sets us free from sin; and how can He be a curse, Who redeems us from the curse of the Law? But it is in order that He may carry His display of humility even to this extent, and form us to that humility which is the producer of exaltation. (Orations 37.1)

Believe that the Son of God, the Eternal Word, Who was begotten of the Father before all time and without body, was in these latter days for your sake made also Son of Man…that He may bestow salvation on your whole being, having destroyed the whole condemnation of your sins: impassible in His Godhead, passible in that which He assumed; as much Man for your sake as you are made God for His. Believe that for us sinners He was led to death; was crucified and buried, so far as to taste of death; and that He rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven, that He might take you with Him who were lying low; and that He will come again with His glorious Presence to judge the quick and the dead.  (Orations 40.45)

Garry Williams argues that there is an element of legal or penal satisfaction embedded in these passages:

For Gregory the economy of grace is indeed larger than a purely legal economy, since if God’s government were solely based on law then all sinners would simply be condemned. The economy of law, strictly conceived as operating only legally and apart from mercy, is overturned. But there are two ways for an economy of grace to overturn an economy of law: by side-stepping it, or by fulfilling its demands and then transcending it. Like Athanasius, Gregory teaches the fulfillment of the demand rather than its abolition. This is what it means for Christ to become ‘sin itself and the curse itself…’, as Gregory says. This means that Christ became what the law demanded, not that Christ bypassed the requirement of the law…. [If] atonement occurs outside the bounds of legal satisfaction, then no one would have to become curse-itself or sin-itself and the astonishing statement that Christ became the curse itself would be wholly unnecessary: there would simply be no curse.

Thus, the principle of legal satisfaction for our sins seems to be affirmed some extent by Gregory of Nazianzus, though it seems to play only a minor part in his thinking compared to the theme of ontological substitution for the complete restoration of humanity.


Aulen’s Three-Part Model

Every now and then a work is published which molds opinions on a subject for a whole generation or more. Such a work is Gustav Aulen’s Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement [29].  This book was published in Swedish in 1930, with an English translation appearing in 1931. It became seen as the definitive study of the historical development of theories of the atonement, and still wears that mantle some ninety years later. Aulen identified three main understandings of the atonement:

( A ) “Objective” or “Latin” theory

This has, according to Aulen, been an influence in Western (Latin) Christianity since the time of Augustine (c. 400 A.D.), but it was first developed thoroughly by Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1100 A.D.), and then taken up in a different form by the Protestant Reformers. The emphasis here is on “satisfaction” of God’s honor or his justice, which had been offended by man’s sin. Penal substitution would be subsumed under this category. This approach is usually called “objective”, since the work of Christ accomplished an “objective” change in God’s attitude towards man. Aulen preferred to call this the “Latin” theory. Aulen criticized this approach as being legalistic and rationalistic, and for diminishing the Divine operation in favor of the work of a human (Jesus as a man) offering himself as a substitutionary sacrifice.

( B ) “Subjective” or “Moral Exemplar” Theory

In this view, the impact of Jesus’s life and death is the purely changes it works in human attitudes, rather than changing anything objective or external to our psyches. Peter Abelard (1079-1142) taught that the demonstration in Christ of God’s concern for us excites love for God in us. This view has also been a staple of the liberal wing of Protestantism for the last two centuries: Jesus championed the poor and downtrodden, urged social justice and personal integrity, and demonstrated self-giving service to others. His unjust trial and execution exposed the evil practices of human power structures. His moral example inspires people to go and do likewise, in serving others and withstanding social and political evils.

( C ) Christus Victor or “Classic” approach

Prior to Aulen’s work, the discussions in Western theological circles centered largely on debating the merits of the “Objective” (or Latin) versus the “Subjective” approaches. Aulen’s novel contribution was to identify a third approach. He called this the “dramatic” or “Christus Victor” approach, since it stressed Christ’s conflict with, and victory over, the evil powers of the world (e.g. sin, death, devil). In the act of overcoming them, God reconciles the world to himself. There is no need for God to be reconciled to man. Rather than divine love and divine wrath coming to terms of agreement through satisfaction, as in the Latin view, divine love triumphs over divine wrath. Christ as man does not offer satisfaction to God; rather, this is a divine work from start to finish. According to Aulen, this had been the predominant view in the entire church for many centuries. He claims it has always been the view of the Greek Orthodox tradition, and was a strong thread in the medieval Roman Catholic Church, and moreover is also the main way the New Testament itself treats the atonement. Hence Aulen terms this the “classic” approach. [30]

Integral to Aulen’s “classic” model is a radical, though not absolute, dualism, of “opposition between God and that which in his own created world resists his will; between the Divine Love and the rebellion of created wills against Him”. [31]

The impact of Aulen’s work has been monumental. The categories and significance of the various atonement theories are now taken to be as Aulen defined them. The assertions in Christus Victor are usually taken as established facts, as the basis for any further elaboration (see, for instance, the entry  in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy dealing with atonement in Christianity).

It is routinely stated Christ’s victory over evil powers, especially the devil, was the way the early (and early medieval) church understood the impact of his work, and that the notion of Jesus dying to take the penalty for our sins was utterly unknown before the time of Luther or maybe Anselm. We cited earlier a statement that penal substitutionary atonement was completely absent in the Greek Christian writings of 100-500 A.D. The YouTube video The Real History of Penal Substitutionary Atonement includes clips by Christian leaders such as Brian Zahnd and Steve Chalke stating flatly that penal substitutionary atonement was first devised by John Calvin in the 1500s.

It is often claimed more specifically that the Ransom Theory (with payment typically made to the devil) was the main view of the earliest church. This is actually something of a misreading of Aulen, since his “classic” view was not limited to ransom-to-the-devil, but it can nevertheless be traced to his influence. We have shown that this is not true, given that ransom paid to Satan was only mentioned by two notable Fathers in the first four centuries of the church. However, primacy of the Ransom view of the atonement is often stated categorically by various sources, such as Wikipedia , Bill Muehlenberg, and Theopedia.

Assessing the Validity of Aulen’s Model

What can we say about this now-established “orthodoxy” regarding theories of the atonement? First, Aulen has done a great service in reconnecting Western Christians with the Eastern Orthodox traditions. European theologians of the nineteenth century sometimes tended to dismiss the Greek Fathers as purveyors of hopelessly mystical mumbo-jumbo. Also, Aulen helped to give more respectability to the notion of actual spiritual forces of evil. He points out that victory over the powers of evil is a key part of the atonement, but does not necessarily involve paying a ransom to Satan. God permits these powers to exist and oppose him, and yet, paradoxically, they serve to accomplish his purposes in the end. Earlier rationalistic theologians seemed somewhat embarrassed to take seriously a personal devil or devils that needed overcoming.  Further, Aulen does a fine job showing how Anselm’s satisfaction theory is a logical outgrowth of the pervasive concern in the medieval Western church over man offering legally adequate “penance” to God to atone for sins committed after baptism. The handling of penance became a main issue in Martin Luther’s protest against the practices of the contemporary Roman Catholic Church. Penance, however, did not seem to have been a major concern in the earliest Fathers, or in the East.

That said, let us assess how well Aulen’s categories actually describe the writings of the early church fathers. We have reviewed above the writings of some nine authors writing in the early-mid second century, from Clement to Justin. We found many references to Christ’s bearing our sins and dying for our sins, and even clear discussion of our sin being imputed to him while his righteousness is imputed to us. This is the language of “satisfaction”, and indeed of penal substitution, which according to Aulen did not raise its head until many centuries later. There is relatively little mention in these writings of Christ doing combat with evil powers, and no mention of ransom paid to the devil. Justin does mention the activities of demons, but these are very much alive and well and pose on on-going threat to Christians; the real victory over the evil powers will not occur until the Final Judgment.

All of these observations run counter to Aulen’s claim that his “classic” approach was the norm for the early church. How does Aulen deal with all this? He simply ignores these Apostolic Fathers, stating that they only treat the theme of atonement “in a relatively incidental way” [Christus Victor, Ch. 2]. However, these authors are the earliest of the “early church fathers”, the ones with the tightest connection to the oral traditions passed down from the primary disciples of Jesus.  It is fashionable to dismiss these early writers because did not develop a full-fledged systematic theology of the atonement, but they did have some thoughts on the subject which they did write down.

I Clement is as long and theologically rich as nearly any Pauline epistle. While its primary subject matter is the governance of the church at Corinth, there are a number of references to Jesus dying as a substitutionary sacrifice; his shed blood is precious to God, not to Satan.  There is nothing here about Jesus offering a ransom to Satan. Indeed, the dualism which is an essential part of Aulen’s “classic” view is wholly absent.

Ignatius in his letters mentions numerous times that Jesus suffered for our sins, and that believing in his death enables us to escape condemnation and death. He notes that the coming of Christ wrought a sort of spiritual revolution (“every kind of magic was destroyed, and every bond of wickedness disappeared; ignorance was removed, and the old kingdom abolished”, Ephesians, Ch. 19), but this is not framed in terms of combat or negotiation with the evil powers and is not the primary means of salvation for humans.

Barnabas applies the wording of Isaiah 53 to Jesus in a clear expression of penal substitution, which is an “objective”, not “classic, aspect of atonement: “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. For it is written concerning Him… ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities: with His stripes we are healed’ “. (Barnabas, Ch. 5)

The Letter to Diognetus (Ch. 9) includes this sublime description of the saving work of Christ as a fully “objective” atonement of substitution and imputation and satisfaction, clean contrary to Aulen’s “classic” model:

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.     For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God?   O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! That the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!

In the Apologies of Justin and of Aristides, Jesus is presented primary as a great moral teacher, enlightening mankind as to how to live properly so as to find favor with God. This would be classified as a “subjective” (not “classic”) operation of atonement, in Aulen’s schema. In his Dialog with Trypho, Justin draws on Isaiah 53 to teach that sins are forgiven through Christ’s blood, his substitutionary sacrifice, and the Christian baptism which based on these things. And again, “The Father of all wished His Christ for the whole human family to take upon Him the curses of all” (Dialog, Ch. 95). This again is straightforward penal substitution, an “objective” atonement. This salvation does not depend on a defeat of evil “tyrants”.

It is lame for Aulen to make sweeping pronouncements about what the early Fathers believed, and then completely bypass the actual earliest Fathers who so thoroughly disqualify his thesis that the early Fathers all hewed to his “classic” model.

Aulen has a whole chapter devoted to Irenaeus. It has some helpful descriptions of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies. Jesus was a sort of second Adam, who made right choices in all his life experiences where Adam made wrong choices.  Christians can now experience victory over the forces of sin and death by participating in this life of the Christ who was victorious over sin. This recapitulation is the primary aspect of Christ’s saving work presented in Against Heresies. This fits well with Aulen’s classic model.

However, we find Aulen fudging matters to try to make Irenaeus fit Christus Victor model more closely than it actually does. First, and most seriously, we discussed above a number of passages where (in addition to recapitulation) Irenaeus clearly teaches an “objective” satisfaction or remission of the legal debt of sin via Christ’s atoning death. As with the Apostolic Fathers, Aulen finesses this evidence against his thesis by ignoring it. He simply does not engage with these particular passages.

Moreover, we find Aulen making up ransom-to-Satan references that are not really there. We discussed above one instance where Aulen claimed that “Behind the somewhat obscure language about ‘persuasion’ (secundum suadelam) lies the thought that Christ gave himself as a ransom paid to the devil for man’s deliverance.” [32]  This is mere speculation on Aulen’s part, and is almost certainly incorrect. Similarly, Aulen claims that when Irenaeus uses the imagery of ransom, “The ransom is always regarded as paid to the powers of evil, to death or to the devil” [33]. This again is incorrect – – if ransom is actually paid to a specific party, it would be to God, for reasons we have already explained.

We presented references in Eusebius to the “subjective” work of Christ as Moral Example, and detailed references to the “objective” penal substitutionary work of Christ, in addition to the “classic” theme of deliverance from bondage to deceptive demonic powers.

It would be tedious to go on and on regarding the failings of Aulen’s typology of atonement in the Fathers, so we will conclude this section by comparing Athanasius’ theology to Aulen’s model. Aulen’s classic idea of atonement entails dualism (personalized “powers” who oppose God and must be defeated), and a discontinuity in divine justice (i.e. divine justice is NOT satisfied); also, it cannot be captured in a rational scheme. [34]

However, we showed in some detail that Athanasius scrupulously insists that God’s legal decree of death of man as a consequence for man’s sin is fully satisfied by the death of the representative God-man. There is no “discontinuity” in divine justice here. Furthermore, Aulen’s dualism is conspicuously absent. The devil is mentioned on and off in Athanasius’ work, but it is most often in context of his ongoing activity (as in inspiring Arian heretics). Christ’s saving work had little or nothing to do with prying mankind from the devil’s legal grasp. God is large and in charge throughout.  “Death” is mentioned a lot in the Incarnation of the Word, along with “corruption”, but, however horrific, it is simply a condition, which is a consequence of humanity’s choice to rebel against God. Death is an enemy to be defeated (destroyed, abolished, brought to naught, etc.), but is not a personalized agent.

Finally, Athanasius does not present his scheme as a cosmic combat drama which defies rational analysis. On the contrary, he insists that “faith in Christ” is “reasonable” and not unreasonable or irrational [35].  The operations of the Logos are logical. All these considerations put Athanasius firmly in the “objective” category. His teaching on the participation of the believer in the redemptive work of Christ does not suffice to make this non-objective. After all, the most dogmatic of Calvinists hold firmly to the doctrine of the “mystical union” between Christ and the believer as being of prime importance. [36]

All in all, we find Christus Victor’s treatment of the early church Fathers to be a Procrustean hack job. Aulen routinely chops away from, and sometimes speculatively adds to, the writings of the Fathers as needed to try to make them fit his model.

Aulen overreaches in his effort to pigeonhole a given author as presenting Christ’s work as done either as man or as God. There are many instances of the Fathers displaying primarily “objective” (in Aulen’s parlance) and even “subjective” understandings of the atonement, rather than his “classic” Christos Victor, but Aulen waves all this away as not being “Latin” enough to count. Although he insists that the objective view is utterly irreconcilable with the classic view, many of the Fathers, as well as most contemporary Protestants, hold to elements of both satisfaction of divine justice (“objective”) AND triumph of Christ over evil powers (“Christus Victor”), without contradiction. It is simply unrealistic to pry these aspects of Christ’s work apart into two opposing “theories”.

Aulen’s claim that an “objective” satisfaction of God’s justice necessarily pits the Father against the Son, and subordinates divine action to man’s action, is likewise indefensible.  Whatever the rationalistic distortions seen in late medieval scholasticism, a biblical view of the atonement finds it to be a thoroughly Trinitarian enterprise, with Jesus acting as fully God and fully man to deal with the sins of mankind.

Other commentators have come to the same conclusion on Aulen’s treatment of the Fathers.   See, for instance, articles by James Bradley, Kirk Miller, and Ben Myers, and Michael Vlach.  Vlach cites further passages supporting penal substitution from early Christian writers whom we have not discussed, including Hilary of Poitiers (c. 300-368), John Chrysostom (c. 350-407), Augustine of Hippo (354-430), and Cyril of Alexandria (c. 378-444). Derek Rishmawy explicated  another passage from the Eastern Father Chrystostom (“…we all were under sin and punishment. He Himself, through suffering punishment, did away with both the sin and the punishment, and He was punished on the Cross…”) as yet another patristic statement which includes clear penal substitutionary elements.

Craig Trulia has compiled similar lists of passages which also include Jerome’s Commentary of Isaiah, and also include Theodore of Heraclea and Theodoret of Cyrus. Likewise, Peter Ensor analyses an homily by Clement of Alexandria which clearly teaches that Jesus died to pay the debt of death which we owed for our sins. Garry Williams has explained the significance of the passage from Augustine cited by Vlach, as paying the penal debt of mankind. Augustine was a broad thinker, and discussed other aspects of the atonement in his voluminous writings, including redemption from Satan [37].

Jeremy Treat, in The Crucified King, pithily sums up the case with Aulen’s historical treatment of the atonement:

The problem with this historical summary, as heuristically convenient as it may be, is that it is simply not true.

As a side comment on Aulen, his attempts to pit Martin Luther against the other Reformers cannot be sustained. Aulen claims that his hero Luther (“a veritable colossus” [38]) single-handedly recovered the full “classic” view, after centuries of relative neglect in the West, with little or no taint from the “Latins”; all other Reformers, we are told, sank immediately into Latinism.

There were of course differences in emphasis and style between, say, Luther and Calvin, but Aulen vastly overstates his case. Luther gave the devil more lurid attention than Calvin, but both men affirmed the grim reality of the evil one, and Christ’s victory over him. Both men used reason, while acknowledging its limitations [39]. Despite Aulen’s selective readings of Luther, Vlach notes that in fact Luther fully endorsed penal substitution:

Gustaf Aulen claimed that Luther broke with Anselm’s satisfaction view in favor of the Christus Victor view. But Luther did affirm penal substitution also as the following statements show:

“Therefore Christ was not only crucified and died, but by divine love sin was laid upon him. He has and bears all the sins of all men in His body—not in the sense that He has committed them but in the sense that He took these sins, committed by us, upon His own body, in order to make satisfaction for them with His own blood.

“For you do not yet have Christ even though you know that He is God and man. You truly have Him only when you believe that this altogether pure and innocent Person has been granted to you by the Father as your High Priest and Redeemer, yes, as your slave. Putting off His innocence and holiness and putting on your sinful person, He bore your sin, death, and curse; He became a sacrifice and a curse for you, in order thus to set you free from the curse of the Law.”

….Aulen draws too sharp a distinction. Luther was not inconsistent. He saw both views—classical and penal substitution. As Luther’s Larger Catechism says:“He has snatched us, poor lost creatures, from the jaws of hell, won us, made us free, and restored us to the Father’s favor in grace. . . . Christ suffered, died, and was buried that…he might make satisfaction for me and pay for what I owed, not with silver and gold, but with his own precious blood.”

Bradley and Miller make essentially the same points as Vlach regarding Aulen’s treatment of Luther.

These obvious systematic failures of Aulen’s thesis raise a question: why was Christus Victor taken at all seriously in the first place? Was it never reviewed by scholars who had actually read the early Fathers or Luther and Calvin? Or did it simply pander to intellectuals’ antipathy for penal substitution? It would be an interesting exercise to examine contemporary reviews of this work when it first appeared.

Perhaps Aulen’s most fundamental mistake is the logical error of the false dichotomy. He seems to assume that a Christian writer who stresses one aspect of the atonement (e.g. ontological substitution or defeating the devil) is incapable of simultaneously appropriating an additional aspect, such as penal substitution. But we noted various instances of Fathers affirming both penal substitution and Christ’s victory over evil powers.

Eric Parker critiqued Aulen’s dis-integrative approach on more general theological grounds:

Gustaf Aulen’s dichotomy between what he terms the classic view and the Latin view of the Atonement is unwarranted.  Anselm, for sure, reinterpreted the ransom theory but still saw Christ’s sacrifice as a victory over the devil.  Luther was liberated by the story of Christ overcoming the Law and death, but he also understood Christ’s sacrifice to include punishment for man’s transgressing of the Law.  Because Aulen sets up the classic view as a model in opposition to the other historical understandings of the Atonement he falls into the error of generalization, thus creating false dichotomies between historical figures and their words.  This also leads him to an overall neglect of the humanity of Christ, thus presenting a rather Docetic picture of the Atonement.

…Because Aulen minimizes the importance of legal metaphors he leaves God’s justice hanging in the balance. When the penal aspect is not included in the classic view one is left with a partial victory of an unjust god. When the victory is not included in the Latin view one is left with a purely human act aimed at the appeasement of a purely wrathful god. When either of these two views leaves out the moral exemplary aspect Christ ceases to be the exemplar of the will of God for humanity – thus the Christian identity of “living sacrifice” is modeled after one whom man could and should never imitate. The solution to this problem of competing models has been demonstrated by Martin Luther’s return to the themes he saw prevailing in the biblical text. For Martin Luther and John Calvin the person of Christ is the source of unity between these models. Because Christ’s works cannot be separated from his person neither can his roles as Prophet, Priest, and King (i.e. Exemplar, Mediator, and Victor).

Calvin’s thought is a reminder that Christology is the source of soteriology:

“In short, since neither as God alone could he feel death, nor as man alone could he overcome it, he coupled human nature with divine that to atone for sin he might submit the weakness of the one to death; and that, wrestling with death by the power of the other nature, he might win victory for us.” (Institutes, II.12.3)

See here for a theological critique of Aulen from a Roman Catholic point of view.

One final comment on Aulen, regarding his treatment of the Scriptures: In our listing of New Testament verses near the start of this essay, we do find a number of passages that describe Christ as winning a victory over sin/death/devil. But there are far more passages treating Christ’s work as a substitutionary sacrifice for our sins, including some that explicitly frame this in terms of justification. Aulen’s exegetic attempts to deny their import are unconvincing.

Sam Storms notes that the key way in which Christ defeated Satan “was by offering himself as a penal substitutionary sacrifice for sinners. The grip that Satan exerted on the souls of men was their unforgiven sin and guilt. By making propitiation for sins… Christ broke the legal claim of Satan and liberated from his power those for whom Christ died.” Rishmawy elaborates on this point:

Christ disarms the principalities and powers through exposure, yes, but also by robbing them of the power of accusation. This is how “the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down” and why the saints “have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony” (Rev. 12:10- 11). They no longer fear death—the ultimate threat of the powers—because they no longer fear God, for their sins no longer stand between them.

Example of Ongoing Controversy: Derek Flood vs. Garry Williams

Aulen’s legacy can be seen in the ongoing widespread belief that penal substitutionary atonement was a relatively late development in church theology. References to this effect have been given above.

I find it helpful when studying controversial issues to find instances where there is some level of back-and-forth dialog or debate between two opposing proponents. That way each party gets to respond, at least in part, to the other party, and to correct any misrepresentations. Something like this occurred a few years back between Derek Flood and Garry Williams.

The controversy over penal substitution started to ferment in earnest within the evangelical world just after 2000, particularly in the U.K.   Conferences were held and statements were issued. One response was the book Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution, published in 2007 by three British evangelical scholars, Steve Jeffery, ‎Michael Ovey, and ‎Andrew Sach [40]. They presented a defense of the traditional Reformed doctrine, based primarily on exegesis of biblical texts. The book included a chapter on the historical pedigree of penal substitution, which presented and briefly discussed passages from Justin Martyr, Eusebius, Hilary of Poitiers, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus and later Fathers which seemed to convey a penal substitution understanding of the atonement.

Derek Flood describes himself as an artist and a writer, and as a born again Spirit-filled Christian who is a post-conservative neoevangelical. He has a strong antipathy towards penal substitution, as expressed in a long essay, which he parlayed into a book, Healing the Gospel. There he describes the theology of penal substitution as:

God decided to kill his own Son on the cross to appease his legal need for blood. Now that Jesus has been sacrificed God is no longer mad at us for not doing what we can’t do anyway, so we can now come and live with him forever—as long as we are grateful to him for his “mercy” to us.

With this painfully distorted version as his understanding of penal substitution, Flood naturally wants to do what he can to dispel this notion of “a cruel God who accuses and condemns us for something we cannot help and then murders his own son to appease this bloodlust.”

Accordingly, Flood published a lengthy article in 2010 in the Evangelical Quarterly [41] disputing the claims in Pierced for Our Transgressions that the passages from the church Fathers cited in that book actually taught penal substitutionary atonement. The conclusion which Flood drives to is that “the statements of the church fathers cited have been taken out of their contextual framework, and placed in one foreign to their thought…while the church fathers do clearly teach substitutionary atonement, they do not teach penal substitution as understood by Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach. Rather, the dominant pattern found in these patristic writers is substitutionary atonement understood within the conceptual framework of restorative justice.”

The patristic study in Pierced for Our Transgressions was based primarily on a doctoral thesis by Garry Williams [42], and used Williams’ criterion for inclusion of a patristic author: “An author can be held to teach the Penal doctrine if he plainly states that the punishment deserved by sin from God was borne by Jesus Christ in his death on the Cross.” Flood notes that this definition does not include typical Reformed wording such as “God’s justice, which demands punishment, is satisfied by Christ being punished instead of us.”  Flood wants to hold the readings of the Fathers to this narrower definition, with its more specialized wording typically involving “God’s justice” and “satisfaction”, rather than the more basic definition of penal substitution, which we have used and which was used in the patristics section of Pierced for Our Transgressions. Williams has pointed out, however, that the wording “punishment deserved by sin from God” in his definition in fact implies satisfaction of God’s retributive justice.

In any event, Flood acknowledges that “Both the New Testament and the church fathers teach substitutionary atonement – the idea that Christ took on our suffering and sin and bore it ‘for us’ ”, and even that “We equally can find penal elements in their understanding of sin so that one can say that Christ, in bearing our sin, is also bearing punishment in a certain sense.” The question then becomes: in what sense does Christ bear the penalty of our sins? Flood rightly notes that:

One must look at how a patristic author is using these concepts within their own understanding of the atonement and ask: what salvic purpose does Christ bearing our suffering, sin, and death have for this author? Rather than simply ‘proof-texting’ we need to seek to understand how these statements fit into the larger thought-world of an author.

Flood’s article was one of the first long essays I read in this area. It seemed quite convincing. It is well-written, and cites many passages and meanings of Greek terms. It was only after re-reading the full texts of the Fathers that I recognized the omissions and distortions in this work.

A direct response to Flood appeared in a 2011 article in the Evangelical Quarterly published by Garry Williams [43]. Williams, whose doctoral thesis at Oxford was in patristics, is currently director of The John Owen Centre for Theological Study at London Theological Seminary. It would be a straightforward exercise for the reader to compare Flood’s and Williams’ treatments of each Father. Williams points out instances where Flood omits mention of key passages that demonstrate penal substitution.  For instance, Flood cites a passage from Eusebius, but then cuts his citation short, excluding the rest of the passage, which had been cited in Pierced for Our Transgressions:

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.

This passage so clearly teaches penal substitution (“…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 sinsreceived death for us, and transferred to Himself the scourging, the insults, and the dishonour, which were due to us…”) that its deliberate omission by Flood seems inexcusable.

Williams also pointed out a number of instances where Flood imposes a false choice or dichotomy (e.g. if Eusebius believes that Christ bore our burdens and sicknesses, then Eusebius cannot also hold that Jesus bore the legal penalty for our sins). As noted above, this is a common rhetorical device of those opposed to penal substitution.

Regarding Athanasius, Williams explains:

Unlike Flood, Athanasius in the text of De Incarnatione clearly delineates a double aspect to both the plight of humanity and the solution, one which persistently maintains the legal framework alongside the medical. …On the plight, he distinguishes penal debt from corruption. On the solution, he distinguishes debt payment from triumph. He thus sets out a double necessity in his soteriology: the need is for both the removal of the legal debt of death, and the bringing of life and incorruption. Both needs are met through the cross, but they are persistently distinguished.

Flood had perhaps the last word in this dispute, publishing a paper on his website, “The Abolishment of Retribution in the Church Fathers”, partly in response to Williams’ 2011 article. Flood makes various arguments there on restorative justice, but does not directly engage or rebut Williams’ key points.


Much of the discussion here has been devoted to arguments for and against penal substitution being present in the writings of the early church Fathers, since that issue has become so controversial in recent years. Two items bear repeating as we sum up. First, when an early Father mentions Christ dying on our behalf to pay the debt or the penalty which a just God has decreed for sin, this does imply some sort of penal substitution and concomitant satisfaction of God’s justice. However, there are many nuances here, which even conservative Protestant theologians cannot all agree on, so it is wise not to read too much Reformed theory into the patristic writings. We must let each Father speak for himself.

Second, and more importantly, we see both in the New Testament and in the Fathers a rich view of the atonement, which is not limited to penal substitution or Christus Victor or any other single “theory”[44].  It is unfortunate that Aulen’s truncated proposal has been such a dominant lens for viewing the Fathers over the past hundred years.

For the Fathers who do affirm some form of penal substitution, it is typically not the dominant strand in their thinking. Especially for the Eastern Greek Fathers, there is more attention paid to what we are being saved for (a glorious future of sharing in God’s nature) and relatively less attention to what we have been saved from. Hopefully some of this holistic viewpoint has come through in our survey of the patristic writings above. To illustrate this further, here are some excerpts from a somewhat later Father, John of Damascus   (c. 675-749):

He dies, therefore, because He took on Himself death on our behalf, and He makes Himself an offering to the Father for our sakes. For we had sinned against Him, and it was meet that He should receive the ransom for us, and that we should thus be delivered from the condemnation. God forbid that the blood of the Lord should have been offered to the tyrant. Wherefore death approaches, and swallowing up the body as a bait is transfixed on the hook of divinity, and after tasting of a sinless and life-giving body, perishes, and brings up again all whom of old he swallowed up.  [45]

…For no other thing has subdued death, expiated the sin of the first parent , despoiled Hades, bestowed the resurrection, granted the power to us of contemning the present and even death itself, prepared the return to our former blessedness, opened the gates of Paradise , given our nature a seat at the right hand of God, and made us the children and heirs of God , save the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. For by the Cross all things have been made right. [46]

…He gave us therefore, as I said, a second birth in order that, just as we who are born of Adam are in his image and are the heirs of the curse and corruption, so also being born of Him we may be in His likeness and heirs of His incorruption and blessing and glory. [47]

As Johnson points out [48], these passages convey a multifaceted understanding of the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf: sacrificial offering, ransom (paid to God, not the devil), expiation of sin, victory over death, adoption as children and heirs of God, “incorruption”, glorification, and recovery of Edenic blessedness. Truly, “By the Cross all things have been made right”.

Tabular Summary of Early Fathers’ Views on the Atonement

Various Aspects of Christ’s Atonement Mentioned in the Writings of Select Early Church Fathers.

Figure 3. Various aspects of Christ’s atonement mentioned in the writings of select early Church Fathers. (Click to enlarge)

Figure 3 summarizes key observations from early Christian writings on the atonement in tabular form.  Each of the seven columns corresponds to some aspect of the atonement. These aspects are: Died for Our Sins;  Penal Substitution ;  Defeat Evil Powers;  Ransom, Redeem;  Ransom to Devil;  Ontological Substitution, Participation;  Teacher of Way, Moral Exemplar.  A “Y” (for “Yes”) appears in each column where we found significant support for that aspect in the writings of each Father listed. These seven columns are grouped according to Aulen’s three categories (“Objective/Latin”, “Christus Victor”, and “Subjective”).

The final column (“Subjective”, i.e. Teacher of Way, Moral Exemplar) is treated differently than the others. Whether or not it is explicitly stated in their writings, it is safe to assume that all authors examined here would endorse Jesus as a teacher of God’s ways and as the supreme moral example. However, the Apologies of Aristides and of Justin stand out in that the only saving work attributed to Jesus is that of teaching the moral code by which humans must live by in order to get to heaven.  To draw attention to that specific view of Christ’s work, a “Y” in this column is limited to those two writings, and the column heading specifies Only “Subjective”.

The Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache, two writings which were highly regarded in the early church, were omitted from Table 1 because I did not find anything in them describing the atonement as such.  Other notable Fathers were simply not part of this limited literature survey. We referenced above several studies which expand the list of Fathers who demonstrate a penal substitutionary understanding of Christ’s death to include, for instance, Clement of Alexandria, Hilary of Poitiers, John Chrysostom, Augustine of Hippo, and Cyril of Alexandria. The claim that penal substitution was unknown before the time of Luther or of Anselm is categorically false. This raises interesting questions about why this demonstratively false claim was made in the first place, and why it has continued to be asserted.

This scheme is not the only way to categorize the patristic writings, and readers may well wish to add or subtract some “Y”s from this table. Nevertheless, Figure 3 depicts our core finding:

Contrary to common claims that stem from Aulen’s Christus Victor, there is clear and pervasive presentation of Christ’s death as a substitutionary sacrifice for our sins, indeed a penal substitution, from the earliest Christian writers onward.

That said, a second key observation from this examination of the early Fathers is that satisfaction of God’s justice as such plays a relatively small role in their overall thinking. Particularly with the Greek writers in the eastern half of the Roman Empire, there is more emphasis on the wonder and the significance of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, than there is on the Crucifixion.

Death and “corruption” are key enemies to be overcome. These conditions are a result of man’s sin in a legal sense, in that God decreed them as a penalty for sin. Thus, a legal type of solution (i.e. penal substitution) is essential. However, for these Fathers there is another, often stronger sense in which death and corruption are seen as more or less natural consequences of rejection of God and his ways. Men and women are sick as well as guilty, and the work of Christ extends to healing and restoring the whole person.

Rather than going to heaven versus hell when we die, the focus is on how the work of Christ ushers us into participating in the divine life. This participation can start here and now, though we also continue to grow in experiential godliness. Evangelicals can rightly note that similar themes (new creation, sanctification, etc.) are already comprehended in their doctrinal framework, but they may do well to rethink their relative emphases on experiencing resurrection power and wholeness (in this life and in the next) compared to obtaining judicial justification.


I ran across many informative and edifying articles and books in the course of this examination of the early Fathers. Essentially all of the articles cited here are available on line, so readers can follow up on any article of interest by clicking the embedded hyperlinks.

One book which stood out was Adam Johnson’s Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed. This is a fair-minded examination of the atonement from various perspectives. With its copious footnotes and citations of key theologians, it could serve as a textbook on the subject. However, it is written to be clear and accessible for any interested reader.

Johnson draws mainly from the Bible and from modern theological literature, rather than from the church Fathers. He acknowledges that penal substitution is woven into biblical thought, but he spends little time exegeting proof texts. He focuses on more global issues, such as the atonement and the divine attributes, the Trinitarian nature of the incarnation and atonement, and how the overall life of Christ (not just the crucifixion) enters in. He notes that Christ’s resurrection was not merely a resuscitation, but the manifestation of a whole new mode of existence, which we can ultimately enter into. Here are two representative passages:

We often hear the incarnation described as the downward movement of the Son of God, as he leaves the glory of heaven that was rightfully his, to dwell with us.

This is a fully valid way of exploring the reality of the incarnation, bringing to light certain vital aspects of the glory and life of God, particularly the way that God is capable of self-humiliation. For our present purposes, however, we will take a quite different approach, following an altogether different movement, exploring the incarnation as an ascent – not of the Son of God, but of our human nature. Given that God is omnipresent, it is just as appropriate to think of the descent of the Son of God as it is of the ascent of our human nature in the incarnation, for through the Virgin Birth by the power of the Holy Spirit, God brought human existence into his own proper being and life in the person of the Son. To be more specific, in this event God brought our sinful condition up into his own life, and he might bear this reality in himself so as to deal with it as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. [49]


Why would God bring sin into his own life through the incarnation? The motive of Christ’s saving work is for God to reaffirm his creative purposes in the face of sin, bringing his fallen creatures into a restored relationship with himself, with all the blessings entailed therein.… He can do this, because he is the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and in the space contained within these relationships he has the resources necessary for the work of atonement accomplished in Jesus Christ.

… As Father, God is free to respond to the sin borne by the Son in a way fully in keeping with his nature as God: to deny, reject, punish and destroy that which opposes him. God is free to exercise his love, righteousness and holiness towards sin, which is to say that he is free to hate, judge and cast it away, to destroy and abolish this willful and destructive opposition to and perversion of himself… As the incarnate Son, God is free to bear his own judgment, opposition and destruction of sin, without himself being utterly overthrown and destroyed. As man, God is able to suffer and die, experiencing in himself the full consequences of the sin he bears, the full reality of this curse, while as God he is able to withstand this reality without suffering dissolution, and ceasing to be all together. [50]

Reviewing the patristic writings has reconnected me with the Greek Fathers. Their stress on the therapeutic side of the atonement and on participating in the life of God has been enriching. However, some of their writings seem dry and abstract. The emphasis on our “divinization” as we participate in the divine energies seems somewhat impersonal. I thought I was simply too dull and Western to appreciate these writings, but it turns out at least one scholar has seen and analyzed these two different aspects which I dimly perceived in these Eastern Fathers.

Donald Fairbairn [51] notes that scholars have tended to classify ancient and medieval Christian writers into two main categories regarding what salvation consists of: a juridical or legal Western pattern, which focused on forgiveness of sins, and a more Eastern pattern which saw salvation as man’s participation in God or deification. He argues, however, that it is misleading to lump all Eastern Fathers into a single type. He distinguishes between two very different ways of understanding deification or participation in God, one being borderline impersonal and the other being warmly personal:

On one hand is an understanding that focuses primarily (almost never exclusively) on participation in what later Eastern theology calls God’s “energies” (corresponding to some degree, but far from completely, to what Western theology means by the “attributes” of God). In this understanding, salvation consists of sharing in God’s qualities or characteristics, and in particular, sharing in God’s incorruptible life so as to overcome human mortality and corruption. Because of the focus on sharing in God’s qualities, this soteriological pattern tends to be rather impersonal, and in some cases (but not all), this tendency toward impersonality is pushed to an extreme, in which the distinctions between individual believers are blurred, and, in the most extreme cases, even the distinction between believers and God is blurred. This understanding of participation/deification comes dangerously close to asserting that believers are absorbed into the being of God, and in the minds of most evangelicals, it is extremely problematic.

On the other hand, however, is an understanding of salvation that uses the same words—“participation” and “deification”—but understands these words primarily in personal terms. Church fathers who hold to this view still speak of salvation as sharing in God’s incorruption, but their dominant emphasis falls on our sharing in the personal communion between the persons of the Trinity. To be deified, in this view, is not to be absorbed into God in any sense whatsoever. Rather, it is to be adopted as God’s child, and therefore to share in the warm communion that the natural Son of God has with his Father.

Thus, he proposes a three-fold schema. Alongside the Western “juridical” tradition, he sees  two broad Eastern approaches. These are termed the “personal” trajectory, represented by Irenaeus and Cyril of Alexandria (c. 376 – 444), and the more impersonal “mystical” trajectory, exemplified by Origen and Gregory of Nyssa. Fairbairn suggests that “Cyril represents the high point of the personal trajectory during the patristic period”:

Like virtually all Church fathers, Cyril does see salvation as a participation in God’s qualities: he emphasizes that God grants us to share in his own incorruption and holiness. But like Irenaeus and Athanasius, and unlike Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, he places his dominant emphasis on salvation as personal participation.

Although we were foreign to God, his warm love for us has led him to raise us up to the intimacy of communion which characterizes his own inter-trinitarian relationships, and the only difference is that we possess that fellowship by grace, whereas the Son has it naturally. The idea that Christians can possess by grace the natural communion of the Trinity is a striking one indeed….This arresting language shows the depth of God’s self-giving as he graciously shares his own fellowship with us.

In Fairbairn’s estimation, the mystical tradition eclipsed the personal tradition in the East from about the sixth century on, with Eastern Orthodox Church becoming locked onto “a trajectory in which salvation consists more of participation in God’s qualities, his energies, rather than participation in a relationship.” Fairbairn concludes with some takeaways for evangelicals, noting a dichotomy between their spirituality, which is typically personal (“a personal relationship with Christ”), and their theology, which has historically been dominated by juridical considerations. He notes further that, “when evangelicals do speak of salvation in personal terms, we do not sufficiently ground this personal understanding in the life of the Trinity:”

Evangelicals speak and preach of a relationship with God. But what is the basis of this relationship? Most fall silent when confronted with this question. But Jesus tells us that the love with which he has loved his disciples is the very love with which the Father has loved him (John 15:9). And in his high priestly prayer, he prays that believers might be one in the same way that he and the Father are one (John 17:21–24). Conservative Christians read this latter passage and balk, for we wonder how we can possibly be one with each other or with God in that way. But as Cyril has shown us, there are two kinds of oneness: unity of substance (which God does not share with us at all), and unity of fellowship (which is the heart of what he does share with us). Jesus here is speaking of the second of these, and his words show us that the basis for our relationship with God and with other believers is the relationship between the Father and the Son. We are called to and granted not just a relationship with God, but a share in the very same relationship that God the Son has enjoyed from all eternity with his Father.

This is a far more deeply personal way of describing salvation than evangelicals typically employ. It is rooted in Jesus’ self-understanding in John’s Gospel; it formed the basis for the thinking of some of the early Church’s greatest theologians; and it enables us to connect our evangelical soteriology more directly to the life of the Trinity.

Furthermore, speaking of salvation in this way enables us to recognize that, for all the importance of juridical categories, forgiveness of sins is simply the negative side of salvation. It removes the barrier that prevents us from sharing in the Son’s relationship to the Father. Removal of this barrier is absolutely crucial, but God did not remove it just so that we could have a new status before him. He removed it so that we could share in the deepest personal relationship there is, his own relationship between the persons of the Trinity.


[1] Adam J. Johnson, Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed, Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015, p 5.

[2] For discussions how some of these judgment-denying authors simply ignore biblical passages which contradict their arguments, see, for instance, J. W. Hartwick’s short review of Rob Bell’s Love Wins, and Tiberius Rata’s longer review.  Also Rishmawy’s long review of Brian Zahnd’s Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, and this YouTube assessing Zahnd’s hermeneutics.

[3] We have noted in  Exposing the Roots of Young Earth Creationism   how the fundamentalist reaction to liberal attacks on historical Christian doctrines led to suspicion of “scholarship” in general, including rejecting the results of modern science regarding creation. We consider that another example of ill-considered conservative over-reaction to the challenges of modernism in the twentieth century.

[4] See The Atonement Wars: What the Church Fathers Actually Wrote for further discussion of the proper place of penal substitutionary atonement in the broader scope of Christ’s work.

[5] John Calvin argued forcefully that the Father was in fact not angry at, or hostile to, the Son at the crucifixion, even if in the midst of his suffering it may have felt that way to Jesus. (Institutes 2.16.11). This notion seems to have come about by a misunderstanding of Jesus’ cry as he was dying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mat. 27:26, Mark 15:34 ).  However, this should not be taken as the sum total of the end of Jesus’ life. He also said things like “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46) and “It is finished” (John 19:30).

Jesus may well have felt a sense of abandonment, but that does not mean the Father did actually abandon him. The fact that this cry is actually the opening line of Psalm 22 should give us pause. That “Messianic” Psalm describes the experience of a man who seemed to have been rejected by God and was despised by people. “All who see me mock me, they hurl insults, shaking their heads, [saying] ‘He trusts in the Lord, let the Lord rescue him’ “ (Ps. 22:7-8.). Furthermore, “They have pierced my hands and my feet…They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing” (vv.16, 18). That sounds very much like what Jesus was subjected to on the cross. But the Psalm does not end there. It goes on to declare that God in fact “has not despised or disdained the suffering of his afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help” (v. 24). The result will be that “I will declare your name to my brothers; in the congregation I will praise you” (v. 22), and “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord” (v.27).  Thus, far from being a cry of defeat, Jesus with this one line turns the tables on his mockers: by identifying with the Psalmist here, Jesus declares that God will fully and publically vindicate him “to the ends of the earth”, no matter how bad it looks at the moment.

[6] The separation from God comes from our side, not his: “Your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you.” (Isaiah 59:2). And God takes the initiative to overcome that separation:  “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8)

John Calvin states that God has always loved us (not hated us) even before the world began, citing paragraph from Augustine to this effect:

However much we may be sinners by our own fault, we nevertheless remain his creatures. However much we have brought death upon ourselves, yet he has created us unto life. Thus he is moved by pure and freely given love of us to receive us into grace. Since there is a perpetual and irreconcilable disagreement between righteousness and unrighteousness, so long as we remain sinners he cannot receive us completely.

Therefore, to take away all cause for enmity and to reconcile us utterly to himself, he wipes out all evil in us by the expiation set forth in the death of Christ; that we, who were previously unclean and impure, may show ourselves righteous and holy in his sight. Therefore, by his love God the Father goes before and anticipates our reconciliation in Christ. Indeed, “because he first loved us” [1 John 4:19], he afterward reconciles us to himself. But until Christ succors us by his death, the unrighteousness that deserves God’s indignation remains in us, and is accursed and condemned before him. Hence, we can be fully and firmly joined with God only when Christ joins us with him.

… But to render these things more certain among those who require the testimony of the ancient church, I shall quote a passage of Augustine where the very thing is taught:

“God’s love,” says he, “is incomprehensible and unchangeable. For it was not after we were reconciled to him through the blood of his Son that he began to love us. Rather, he has loved us before the world was created, that we also might be his sons along with his only-begotten Son — before we became anything at all. The fact that we were reconciled through Christ’s death must not be understood as if his Son reconciled us to him that he might now begin to love those whom he had hated. Rather, we have already been reconciled him who loves us, with whom we were enemies on account of sin. The apostle will testify whether I am speaking the truth: ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ [Romans 5:8]. Therefore, he loved us even when we practiced enmity toward him and committed wickedness. Thus in a marvelous and divine way he loved us even when he hated us. For he hated us for what we were that he had not made; yet because our wickedness had not entirely consumed his handiwork, he knew how, at the same time, to hate in each one of us what we had made, and to love what he had made.”

-John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 2.16.3-4. Cited by Derek Rishmawy.

[7] For instance, here is Rishmawy on why it is not contradictory for God to have love for people and simultaneously be angry for what they do:

The Bible (and the tradition) seems to say that God is love, therefore God has wrath.

Let me put it this way: Is God love? Yes. Is true love righteous? Well, yes. Is it not righteousness to promote good and oppose evil? To stand against evil? To even hate evil? Yes. I mean, that’s what Paul tells us to do (Rom. 12:9). So if God is the sort of love that is righteous love, will his love not include a white-hot opposition to evil? Yes. Well, there you go. The love that God is involves God’s inherent, innate opposition to, hatred of, and will to oppose sin because the love that is the life of the Triune God is a love which is righteous.

Let me put it this way: Jesus is God in human flesh, come in the power of the Spirit. If you want to know what God’s love is like when translated into a human key, you look at him. Well, Jesus had wrath. When the Pharisees opposed his healing of a man in bondage because it was the Sabbath, “He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts” and healed him anyways (Mark 3:5). That same blindness and self-righteous wickedness provoked him to angrily pronounce woes against them before the people (Matt 23). And that same zealous anger, jealous for God’s name, leads him to pronounce and enact God’s judgment on the Temple (John 2). God’s love in the flesh flips tables.

[8] Rishmawy, again, on retributive justice:

Retribution, as I’ve been saying, is not about vindictiveness, or pettiness, but rather is about notions of desert and truth. Purged of sin [i.e. done properly] it is a matter of reckoning—of naming sin as what it is and treating it as it deserves. When Peter says we call “Father” the One “who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds” (1 Pet. 1:17), retribution is that impartial judgment applied to wicked deeds. As an aspect of distributive justice, it is God paying out what is due.

Looked at from another angle, Oliver O’Donovan has suggested we think of retributive punishment as an aspect of “attributive” justice—as a matter of truth-telling about persons, about acts, about offenses. When society punishes murder with prison time (or even the death penalty) it is saying something about the act of murder, about the value of the victim, and about the status of the victimizer. To leave sin unpunished is to lie about—to say that the victimizer was right to do what they did, that their victim didn’t deserve better, and that the act of taking their life was a lite thing.

[9]   I mainly use the Roberts-Donaldson translations of the Ante-Nicene (c. 100-300 A.D.) church fathers, available at .

This site has annotated links to many sites with additional online texts of Church Fathers translated into English and other languages, including Spanish:

For instance, English translations of many works by fourth century Fathers like Athanasius are available here:

A number of works in English translations that are not included in the standard 38 volume collection of Ante-Nicene, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers are available here:

See here for an introduction to the early church Fathers, and here for a timeline of the second century Fathers.

[10]  Excerpts from Jerome crudely (using Google Translate) translated from the Latin by  Craig Truglia:

He was put to death by God for their sins, who was humbled for us.

For that which we owed to us according to our crimes bear it, so He suffered for us, having made peace [with God] through the blood of His cross… [B]ut the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all, for our sins, or the Lord delivered him; so that what we could not because of the weakness in their numbers to bear, he would carry for us, which will be offered, because Himself willed it.

[11] It was a common belief in the early and medieval church that sins committed prior to baptism were forgiven at baptism. Presumably it was here that the effects of the atonement were most potent. The forgiveness of sins committed after baptism became somewhat problematic. Repentance and acts of penance were prescribed for “satisfaction” for these post-baptismal sins. Men were known to put off baptism until just before their deaths in order to sidestep this problem and guarantee their entrance to heaven. This penance system went through various developments and permutations as the centuries wore on, and its abuses helped to trigger the Protestant Reformation.

[12] This paragraph is from: James Pope, The power of demons: demonology in Justin Martyr’s apologetic. Master’s thesis at Carleton University, 1993.    This monograph gives an exhaustive account of Justin’s treatment of Satan and demons.

[13] Marc Cortez notes:   Justin Martyr talks about all of humanity being under the curse because of their sin. According to him, though, Jesus took the curses and the corresponding suffering that was rightfully ours upon himself so that we might be redeemed (Dialogue with Trypho, 95). Although Justin doesn’t use the explicit language of “punishment” here, it’s hard to see why this would not qualify as a penal substitution view given that Jesus still (1) bears the suffering that we (2) should have rightfully endured so that (3) we might be redeemed.  

[14] Irenaeus’ view of the Fall was quite different than in Western Christianity. For Irenaeus, Adam’s transgression was more an act of childish immaturity and impatience than of defiant rebellion. To fit his scheme of having Jesus recapitulate all the experiences of mankind as exemplified by Adam, Irenaeus had to stretch out the life histories of both Adam and Jesus more than warranted by the Biblical record. Irenaeus has Adam and Eve created as pre-pubescent children; they fell while Eve was still a virgin. On the other end, in order that Jesus experience the full range of human experience, Irenaeus states that he lived into the beginnings of old age (around age 50) before being executed.

[15] In order to make sense out of the Greek Fathers’ emphasis on ontological substitution and seemingly mystical transformation of humans by participation in Christ and divine energies, it is helpful to note that these Fathers generally thought within a Platonic framework, where the nonphysical was more real and significant than the physical world we perceive with our senses. A good explanation of the implications of Platonism in the Fathers and even in the New Testament is here.

[16]  Mako A. Nagasawa,  C.S. Lewis’ Theology of the Atonement,  2015;

[17] Gustav Aulen, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement. Wipf and Stock Publishers, Sep 5, 2003. Ch. 3, p. 17.

[18] Aulen, Ch. 3. p. 28.

[19] Justin Meek has traced the appearance of the ransom theory in the early church: Justin Meek, The Atonement: Ransom Theory.

A somewhat more detailed, though not entirely accurate, discussion of the trajectory of the ransom theory is given in a paper by Nathan Goldbloom,

Some of the other commentaries I used (e.g. by Flood and by Williams on Gregory of Nazianzus) are discussed below.

[20] See this site for links to the individual chapters in Eusebius’ works:

[21] Failing to make God the first priority in one’s life leads inevitably to disorder and corruption.  In Against the Heathen  , which is a prequel to Incarnation of the Word, Athanasius describes the original state of man’s mind as not being constrained to physical matters, but rather being taken up with delight in contemplation of God. However, men began to prefer lower things, and paid more and more attention to the body and its desires and sensations.  In a vicious cycle, humans became more consumed by lusts and unwholesome desires and overall disordered lives, ending up in senseless idolatries:      “ For just as if a charioteer , having mounted his chariot on the race-course, were to pay no attention to the goal, toward which he should be driving, but, ignoring this, simply were to drive the horse as he could, or in other words as he would, and often drive against those he met, and often down steep places, rushing wherever he impelled himself by the speed of the team, thinking that thus running he has not missed the goal — for he regards the running only, and does not see that he has passed wide of the goal — so the soul too, turning from the way toward God, and driving the members of the body beyond what is proper, or rather, driven herself along with them by her own doing, sins and makes mischief for herself, not seeing that she has strayed from the way, and has swerved from the goal of truth.” [Against the Heathen, Part 1]

[22] We may note that the consequence of death upon sinners is stated repeatedly in the Bible, not just in Genesis 2:15. Cf. Exodus 18:20 (“The soul that sinneth, it shall die” [KJV]); Romans 6:23 (“For the wages of sin is death”), etc.

[23] It is perhaps ironic that many Christians today hold that it would be monstrous of God to actually uphold a decree of eternal death upon sinners, whereas Athanasius insisted that it would be “monstrous” for God to not do that.

[24] Incarnation, Ch. 14. Quotation from modern translation, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1997 , as cited by Gavin Ortlund in “Athanasian Atonement = Recapitulation (Irenaeus) + Satisfaction (Anselm)”.

[25] This aphorism, “For He was made man that we might be made God”, is perhaps the most famous quote from Athanasius, perhaps in part because it fits with the later Eastern Orthodox tendency to focus of the divinization of humans that can occur via contemplation of God and sharing in his “energies”.  This is somewhat unfortunate, since this saying as such is not representative of Athanasius’ thought as a whole. This saying is not a grand climax of his treatise on the Incarnation, but is rather an overstated throwaway line in a larger passage where he is simply reaching for superlatives to laud the overall work of Christ:

As, then, if a man should wish to see God, Who is invisible by nature and not seen at all, he may know and apprehend Him from His works: so let him who fails to see Christ with his understanding, at least apprehend Him by the works of His body, and test whether they be human works or God’s works.  And if they be human, let him scoff; but if they are not human, but of God, let him recognize it, and not laugh at what is no matter for scoffing; but rather let him marvel that by so ordinary a means things divine have been manifested to us, and that by death immortality has reached to all, and that by the Word becoming man, the universal Providence has been known, and its Giver and Artificer the very Word of God. For He was made man that we might be made God ; and He manifested Himself by a body that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and He endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality. For while He Himself was in no way injured, being impassible and incorruptible and very Word and God, men who were suffering, and for whose sakes He endured all this, He maintained and preserved in His own impassibility. And, in a word, the achievements of the Saviour, resulting from His becoming man, are of such kind and number, that if one should wish to enumerate them, he may be compared to men who gaze at the expanse of the sea and wish to count its waves. [Incarnation, Ch. 54]

[26] As in modern Protestantism, there are contemporary writers within Eastern Orthodoxy who try to distance their faith from penal substitution, but Brian Ephrem Fitzgerald, teaching at a Syrian Orthodox church, affirms that Athanasius maintained the need for Christ to satisfy the legal penalty of death for sin, in addition to the other aspects of his work. Fitzgerald states that in The Incarnation, “St. Athanasius proceeds to show the rational necessity of the Incarnation for the redemption of mankind. Only through the true Image of God Himself, could the Image of God in man be restored. Only through the death of the human body assumed by the Word Himself could the penalty of death be lifted from mankind without compromising the veracity of God, the Father of Truth. Only through the Incarnation of the Divine Agent, through Whom the universe and man were created, could humanity be saved from corruption and death, and be revitalized through communion with the life-giving Word.”

[27] Athanasius of Alexandria, “Personal Letters,” in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, vol. 4, St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Archibald T. Robertson [New York: Christian Literature Company, 1892], 4573. Cited by Kirk Miller,

[28] A. S. Dunstone, The Atonement in Gregory of Nyssa, The Tyndale Lecture in Historical Theology, 1963.

[29] Various editions of Christus Victor are available from Amazon. Large swathes of this book, including much of the chapter on Irenaeus, may also be read in the Google Books “Preview”. I elected to purchase the Kindle version, which does not retain the pagination of the print version, so in many cases I can only provide chapter numbers in my references.

[30] Kirk Miller provides a solid summary of Aulen’s treatment of these three views of the atonement.

[31] Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, Wipf and Stock Publishers, Sep 5, 2003.    Ch. 1, p. 5

[32] Aulen, Ch. 3. p. 28.

[33] Aulen, Ch. 3. p. 30.

[34]  “The safeguard of the continuity of God’s operation is the dualistic outlook, the divine warfare against the evil that holds mankind in bondage, and the triumph of Christ. But this necessitates a discontinuity of the legal order: there is no satisfaction of God’s justice, for the relation of man to God is viewed in the light, not of merit and justice, but of grace…Justifying men without any consideration of the Divine justice or any consideration of human merit; yet at the same time God’s claim on men is sharpened to the uttermost. Every attempt to force this conception into a purely rational scheme is bound to fail; it could only succeed by robbing it of its religious depth.”  Aulen, Christus Victor, Ch. 8.

[35]  “For although the sacred and inspired Scriptures are sufficient to declare the truth — while there are other works of our blessed teachers compiled for this purpose, if he meet with which a man will gain some knowledge of the interpretation of the Scriptures, and be able to learn what he wishes to know — still, as we have not at present in our hands the compositions of our teachers, we must communicate in writing to you what we learned from them — the faith, namely, of Christ the Saviour; lest any should hold cheap the doctrine taught among us, or think faith in Christ unreasonable.”  [ Athanasius, Against the Heathen, Ch. 1].    Also, “The death on the Cross, then, for us has proved seemly and fitting, and its cause has been shown to be reasonable in every respect; and it may justly be argued that in no other way than by the Cross was it right for the salvation of all to take place.“ [Athanasius, Incarnation of the Word, Ch. 26].

[36] See, for instance, L. Berkhoff, Systematic Theology, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1939, 1941, Fourth Edition, p. 447: “Reformed theology…deals with the union of believers with Christ theologically…In doing so, it employs the term “mystical union” in a broad sense as a designation not only of the subjective union of Christ and believers, but also the union that lies back of it…namely, the federal union of Christ and those who are his in the counsel of redemption…”

Also, from Wikipedia :    In Reformed theology, union with Christ is understood to be a comprehensive category that runs through the entire doctrine of Salvation. John Murray observes: “Union with Christ is a very inclusive subject. It embraces the wide span of salvation from the ultimate source in the eternal election of God to its final fruition in the glorification of the elect.”

Sinclair Ferguson distinguishes six categories of union with Christ. Union with Christ is federal or covenantal in the sense that Christ’s obedience is accounted to believers. It is carnal or fleshly in the sense that Christ became incarnate and thus became one with humanity. Union with Christ is also a faith union in which by faith Christians depend on Christ for nourishment. It is a spiritual union because Christians are united to Christ by the agency of the Holy Spirit. It is an extensive union in that Christians are united with Christ in everything he has done, including his life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and session. It is finally a union of life because Christ lives in Christians and he is visible in their lives.

As a step in the order of salvation, union with Christ was seen by John Calvin to be the basis for both justification and sanctification.

[37] The Catholic Encyclopedia explains Augustine’s view of how Christ’s death redeemed us from our quasi-legitimate bondage to Satan, by provoking the devil to kill someone he had no right to kill:

The Redeemer came and the deceiver was overcome. What did our Redeemer do to our Captor? In payment for us He set the trap, His Cross, with His blood for bait. He [Satan] could indeed shed that blood; but he deserved not to drink it. By shedding the blood of One who was not his debtor, he was forced to release his debtors.

— Doctrine of the Atonement, Catholic Encyclopedia, as cited in Wikipedia “Ransom Theory of Atonement

[38] “Above all, it is necessary to see that in the history of Christian thought Luther stands as a veritable colossus.”    Aulen, Christus Victor, Ch. 7.


…Likewise, Calvin both praised and blamed reason. “Reason is proper to our nature; it distinguishes us from brute beasts.” At the same time, because of sin human reason is not able to understand God nor God’s relation to humanity.  … An alternative category of “mysteries beyond reason” is sometimes employed by Calvin and should be noted. That is, Calvin affirms many divine things that humans do not, and cannot, know. For example, he admits the existence of sin as “adventitious” meaning it has no rational explanation.

[40] The first seventy pages of Pierced for Our Transgressions are displayed in the Google Books preview.

[41] Derek Flood, ‘Substitutionary Atonement and the Church Fathers: A Reply to the Authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions’, Evangelical Quarterly, 82.2 (2010), 142-59.

[42] Garry J. Williams, A Critical Exposition of Hugo Grotius’s Doctrine of the Atonement in De Satisfactione Christi, (doctoral thesis, University of Oxford, 1999).

[43]  Garry J. Williams, “Penal substitutionary atonement in the Church Fathers”, Evangelical Quarterly 83.3 (2011), 195–216.

[44] Marc Cortez states the case as:

 The simple fact is that it’s not hard to find some kind of penal substitution in the early church. They held other views of the atonement as well, of course, several of which were far more important to them than penal substitution. But they had no problem offering multiple perspectives on the atonement, and penal substitution fits just fine with the other things they wanted to say about the cross. And we also shouldn’t confuse their approach to penal substitution with the more fully-developed theories that don’t become common until after the Reformation (as far as I know). But just because they didn’t develop penal substitution with as much rigor as later theologians doesn’t mean that the essential concepts are missing.

[45] John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith; III, 27.

[46] John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith; IV, 11.

[47] John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith; IV, 13.

[48] Adam J. Johnson, Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed, Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015, pp. 32-33.

[49] Johnson, p. 78.

[50] Johnson, pp. 79-81

[51]   Donald Fairbairn, Patristic Soteriology: Three Trajectories, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 50/2 (June 2007) 289–310.