Atonement in the Church Fathers

Below is a link to an article by Derek Flood which appeared in the April 2010 issue of the Evangelical Quarterly. The article is a review of Pierced for Our Transgressions, which aims to give a historical and biblical defense of the doctrine of the penal theory of the atonement. I myself haven’t read the book or I should say, I didn’t bother to read the book.  It didn’t seem to warrant it for a few reasons. First, the book was published by Crossway which isn’t, so far as I know a peer reviewed press.  Second, there didn’t seem to be anything particularly new with respect to the argument so far as I could tell. And third, the arguments claiming various church fathers held the theory were prima facia comical. But since the book is making the rounds among Protestants, I figured readers would find Flood’s review article helpful.


  1. Robert, I’ve read enough of semi-popular and academic accounts of universalism to be sufficiently informed about it. I don’t think a pop pastor who can’t seem to find his theological posterior with both hands is going to have much to add to my understanding.

  2. The paper is good, though he clearly ignores most of the relevant material in St Ambrose. St Ambrose uses the term ‘satisfaction’ to refer to the fact that Christ has destroyed death and united us to life. There is no hint of PS in Ambrose (or in any of the Greek or Latin fathers).

  3. nathaniel, Sure, but satisfaction for Ambrose and even as late as Aquinas doesn’t amount to the notion of penalty required for the penal theory. It means mor elike amendment, restoration, etc.

  4. The more I read from the fathers and saints, the more of a broad spectrum I see in understanding the scope of this universe-defining, meaning-of-human-history act of the Son of God for us. The only thing I don’t really see is the pouring out of God’s anger so that He wouldn’t be angry with us, as you get with the Calvinists and other radical protestants. I think there is something in Cabasilas that echoes Anselm’s notion of offended honor, but nothing like what you find later on in Western Europe. I am glad that contemporary teachers like Fr. John Romanides of blessed memory and Met. Hierotheos Vlachos have brought attention to this notable difference that can profoundly affect how we live as Christians.

  5. I read the patristic references in that book awhile ago and came to the same conclusions as Flood. The more I run into claims about patristic precedent for various post-Scholastic doctrines, the more I am convinced that it is important to have a well-developed imagination. If the authors could think of at least one other possible meaning for the claim “The Father of all wished his Christ for the whole human family to take upon him the curses of all…” then they would have realized that they need more exegetical support for the claim that this teaches penal substitution. And if they had their imaginations formed by a deep reading of much patristic theology, they would have been aware that many Fathers speak of Christ taking on a corrupt human nature.

  6. MG — LOL! (thanks!)

    I’m working through Derek Flood’s essay. Is he Orthodox? (He certainly seems [as far as I’ve read] to understand the Orthodox position on the atonement, and I found more along the same line on his blog where he mentions he is developing it into a book.) If he is a Protestant (as one might suspect given the school he is (was?) attending when he wrote the essay, he seems to have an unusual-for-a-Protestant appreciation for patristic thought.

  7. Thomas, No, Derek is not Orthodox. If you search his blog he has a post on why he isn’t. I don’t think his reasons are substantial, but apparently, he thinks so.

  8. Joseph,

    I’ve read them. They are helpful as a springboard for how to articulate why and how the Son had to be incarnate, die, and rise. But ultimately they are unsatisfying, because he does not explain why the incarnation is *necessary* (why couldn’t God just cause us to have virtues/intentional states without an incarnation?) or why Christ must die (why not just do great self-sacrifice?) or rise (how does imparting these intentional states actually deliver us from death, or cause us to resurrect?). There needs to be an added explanation for why Christ must save human nature from within. St. Athanasius and St. Cyril explain that Christ must use the human power of free choice perfectly to actualize the divine energy of incorruptibility within human nature. Christ must “receive as man what He has always given as God”. This is necessary because God cannot receive anything into human nature unless He is already within human nature, using human powers and activities. And if incorruption is not received into human nature, then it will eventually annihilate and will never resurrect. See here:

  9. “He also took up death that the sentence might be fulfilled and satisfaction might be given for the judgement, the curse placed on sinful flesh even to death. Therefore nothing was done contrary to God’s sentence when the terms of that sentence were fulfilled, for the curse was unto death but grace is after death.”

    Reading this quote from Ambrose (which comes up in the book and in the article), I was reminded of something that happens in Virgil’s Aeneid.

    When Aeneas is sailing in search of his destined new homeland, he and his men have a run-in with some harpies. The chief harpy curses them and says that they may reach their new home eventually, but not before suffering to the point that their hunger leads them to gnaw on their tables. Later in the book they get Italy and lay out a meal using hard, flat wheat cakes as platters. When the finish the food, they are still hungry, so they eat the cakes as well. Then one of them says,”Look, how we’ve devoured our tables even.” At this point they all rejoice, realizing that the harpies curse had been fulfilled, and without really having to starve at all.

    I think this may be analogous what Ambrose in mind when he wrote “nothing was done contrary to God’s sentence when the terms of that sentence were fulfilled.” God had laid down a sentence on the human race because of our sins, and now that sentence is fulfilled, but we get of scot-free because of what Christ did on the cross. This is substitution (perhaps it could even be called “penal substitution”) but it is very different from penal substitution in the Calvinist sense.

    Do you think this is helpful analogy, or is it off base? I’ve never actually read Ambrose, I’m just trying to make sense of what he said in that quote.

  10. It’s a good essay. I remember reading it on EBSCO a few months back. I appreciated–IIRC–how he made a distinction between vicarious substitution and penal substitution; the former does not imply the latter.

  11. Perry,

    I don’t think his reasons are substantial …

    Actually, I think they are substantial. I followed your link and found a couple of posts on “Why I’m not Orthodox” which seem to have come to life again a couple of years after they were posted (probably due to your linking to him). I commented on one of the posts and got a little better idea of what he believes.

    Whatever the overlap is between his beliefs and Orthodoxy, it turns out that (a) he’s a charismatic; (b) he doesn’t believe in infant baptism; (c) he doesn’t believe that baptism is salvific; (d) he believes that sacraments (“rituals” as he calls them) exist to be our expression of what our faith is and symbols of our decision to follow Christ; and (e) he says My first concern is to be consistent with Scripture before tradition. I think those are all solid, substantial reasons not to be Orthodox.

    If you are interested, my exchange with Derek is at the tail end of the comment thread on this post on his blog.

  12. Chris,

    I think many of his criticisms are based in misinformation or are based on a skewed picture of sacramental theology. So when I said I didn’t think his reasons were substantial I meant, not substantial in that the criticisms of Orthodoxy had merit or weight, not that he didn’t dissent from the church on signfiicant matters. So here I think we were just talking past each other.

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