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Did Calvin Popularize Penal Substitution?

Some have argued that penal substitution is a recent development in church history. For example, I recently heard the argument that John Calvin popularized the doctrine (1509-1564). What gives me pause is the argument that Calvin was responsible for popularizing a view on the cross of Christ that previously was not widely held. That’s not accurate. The idea that Christ died in our place and received the penalty for our sin existed long before Calvin.

Penal substitution is not new

Michael J. Vlach points out the seriousness of this claim. If Christian leaders hold a similar position on the timeline of this teaching “are correct, those who believe in penal substitutionary atonement are adopting a doctrine that is relatively new, and by implication, something foreign to the church of the first thousand years.”

Vlach continues, “While Protestant Christians have often emphasized that the Bible, not church history, is their authority, they have usually held that new doctrines should be scrutinized. They also believe that Christians should be skeptical of holding positions not believed or addressed in the early church.” And so he asks, “Is penal substitutionary atonement one of those novel views? Is it true that many believe a doctrine of the atonement that began with the Protestant Reformation? (Vlach, TMSJl 20/2 [Fall 2009], 200)”

These questions, given their implications, demand answers. Thankfully, efforts have been made to provide them, and with such help, the following are some pieces of evidence, from both primary and secondary sources, that show that many elements of what we know as penal substitutionary atonement have existed since the early church.

The testimony of the early church

Some readers will recognize these names and the references from other sources. Repeating them here in one sense seems redundant. But they go unnoticed, and so it is helpful to repeat them here. they bear repeating.

Before reading what follows, it is worth noting that the writings on penal substitution in this era of church history were by no means prolific. Yet one author explained, “If a writer makes a passing, but nonetheless explicit reference to the doctrine of penal substitution in a work largely devoted to another subject, this probably indicates that penal substitution was both widely understood and fairly uncontroversial among his contemporaries (Pierced for our Transgressions, 163).” Let us now read carefully and thoughtfully what some of them said.

Clement of Rome (c. 35-99)

“Love knows nothing of division, love does not foment rebellion, love does everything in harmony; in love all the elect of God are made perfect; without love nothing is pleasing to God. In love the Master received us; because of the love he had towards us, our Lord Jesus Christ gave his blood for us in accord with the will of God: his flesh for the sake of our flesh, his life for our lives.”

Justin Martyr (c. 100-165)

“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 continueth 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 practice 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?”

Letter to Diognetus (dated 100-200)

“He took upon himself our sins; he gave his own son as a ransom for us—the holy for the lawless, the good for the evil, the righteous for the unrighteous, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal” (9.2). (See Wyatt Graham’s post here for more interaction with the letter to Diognetus).

Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 275-339)

“And the Lamb of God…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 dishonor, which were due to us, and drew down upon Himself the appointed curse, being made a curse for us.”

Athanasius (c. 300-373)

“The Word perceived that corruption could not be got rid of otherwise than through death; yet He Himself, as the Word, being immortal and the Father’s Son, was such as could not die. For this reason, therefore, He assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, itself remaining incorruptible through his indwelling, might thereafter put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection. It was by surrendering to death the body which He had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from every stain, that He forthwith abolished death for His human brethren by the offering of the equivalent. For naturally, since the Word of God was above all, when He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled in death all that was required.”

Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 330-390)

“As for my sake He was called a curse, Who destroyed my curse; and sin, who taketh 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. As long then as I am disobedient and rebellious, both by denial of God and by my passions, so long Christ is called disobedient on my account.” 

Ambrose of Milan (339-397)

“And so then, Jesus took flesh that He might destroy the curse of sinful flesh, and He became for us a curse that a blessing might overwhelm a curse, uprightness might overwhelm sin, forgiveness might overwhelm the sentence, and life might overwhelm death. He also took up death that the sentence might be fulfilled and satisfaction might be given for the judgment, 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.”

John Chrysostom (c. 349-407)

“If one that was himself a king, beholding a robber and malefactor under punishment, gave his well-beloved son, his only-begotten and true, to be slain; and transferred the death and the guilt as well, from him to his son (who was himself of no such character), that he might both save the condemned man and clear him from his evil reputation; and then if, having subsequently promoted him to great dignity, he had yet, after thus saving him and advancing him to that glory unspeakable, been outraged by the person that had received such treatment: would not that man, if he had any sense, have chosen ten thousand deaths rather than appear guilty of so great ingratitude? This then let us also now consider with ourselves, and groan bitterly for the provocations we have offered our Benefactor; nor let us therefore presume, because though outraged He bears it with long-suffering; but rather for this very reason be full of remorse.”

Augustine of Hippo (c. 354-430)

“But as Christ endured death as man, and for man; so also, Son of God as He was, ever living in His own righteousness, but dying for our offences, He submitted as man, and for man, to bear the curse which accompanies death. And as He died in the flesh which He took in bearing our punishment, so also, while ever blessed in His own righteousness, He was cursed for our offences, in the death which He suffered in bearing our punishment.”

The testimony of the contemporary church

By way of summary, in his book Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition, Hans Boersma writes, “The idea of Christ suffering the curse of the Law is often intimately associated with the scholastic Reformed tradition that began to develop in the late sixteenth century. But penal substitutionary atonement as such was not a Calvinist invention [emphasis mine]. Among the early Church fathers, we find references to the penal character of the cross (160).” In a footnote, he cites many of the primary sources quoted above.

For those wrestling with the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, he writes the following that is worthy of consideration:

“It is important to recognize that penal substitutionary interpretations of the cross had a place from the beginning of the tradition of the Church, so that the Reformers and their successors did not originate an entirely novel understanding of the atonement. The consistent presence of juridical elements of the atonement in the history of the Church should caution us not to discard them too hastily. The tradition has some important theological insights to offer as we struggle with the penal elements in our interpretation of the cross. The historical pedigree of substitutionary and juridical elements of atonement theology means that perhaps we need another look at the possibilities that such elements may offer (163).”

Note carefully his conclusion. Based on the presence of a penal understanding of the cross prior to the Reformation, we should not quickly dismiss today the form of a doctrine that has been held, the evidence suggests, since the first century.

The following conclusion from an additional secondary source interacting with the aforementioned primary sources is an appropriate one: “the myth of the ‘late development’ of penal substitution has persisted quite long enough. It is time to lay it to rest for good (Pierced for our Transgressions, 163-164).”

The real implications

If we lay aside the idea that penal substitution is a modern invention, we should then ask: Why wouldn’t we believe something that the early church and those beyond did? The rejection of penal substitution is a recent development. Where should that leave us? Hopefully with a renewed resolve to return to the Scriptures, and original sources, to search out for ourselves what Christians have believed throughout the centuries regarding the cross where Christ hung condemned in our place.

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