By his wounds we are healed: vicarious atonement in the Church Fathers

A recent defense of penal substitutionary atonement (hence PSA), Pierced for our Transgressions, attempts to establish that PSA was the dominant understanding of the atonement among the early Church Fathers, and was not just an innovation of the Reformation. However, a recent article by Derek Flood shows that the authors of PFOT use an overly broad criterion for detecting PSA in the early Fathers and lift quotations that seem to support PSA out of the broader context of the individual Fathers' soteriology. Since a commentator on Triablogue recently asserted that Athanasius actually affirms PSA when I suggested that he was a counter-example, I will reproduce some of Flood's remarks on Athanasius and Augustine.

Flood first distinguishes, as I have done, between the general idea of substitutionary atonement and the more specific idea of penal substitution:
Substitutionary atonement broadly speaks of Christ's death being vicarious: Christ bearing our sin, suffering, sickness, injustice, and brokenness. Penal substitution is a subset of substitutionary atonement which focuses specifically on the penal aspects of that vicarious suffering, understood in the context of fulfilling the demands of judicial retributive punishment, and thus appeasing God's righteous anger. (p.143)
The problem Flood sees with PFOT's citation of the Fathers is that they use a broader criterion to detect PSA than is warranted by the above definition. The authors rely on a dissertation by Garry Williams which states that "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." (quoted on p.143) This might be seen as a necessary, but insufficient criterion, because it does not specify the purpose for which Christ bore that punishment, and for a model of the atonement to qualify as PSA it must explicitly assert that "God's justice, which demands punishment, is satisfied by Christ being punished instead of us." (p.144) But as we will see in the case of Athanasius and Augustine, they do not understand Christ's bearing the punishment for sin in that way.

In his classic treatise On the Incarnation of the Word, Athanasius refers to corruption leading to death as the 'penalty' for sin. Picking up on this the authors of PFOT identify Athanasius as an advocate of PSA. However, this is not borne out by the wider context of his argument:

Instead of externally inflicted judicial punishment, the model Athanasius has is one of natural consequence. In breaking our communion with God, Athanasius says that we have cut ourselves off from the very source of Life. As a result we return to the state we were created out of: nothing, "returning, through corruption, to non-existence again." (ch.4) Being separated from the source of Life, we die. This 'corruption' and resulting 'death' is not understood by Athanasius in terms of a punishment externally inflicted, but as the inevitable consequence of sin: "Inevitably, therefore, when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it." (ch.4) Consequently, because Athanasius does not see sin as simply a transgression of the Law, but involving a sickness of the soul, he says that repentance was not enough: "Had it been the case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough." (ch.7)...What Athanasius is saying here is that the problem of sin goes deeper than mere legal transgression, and therefore cannot be addressed simply through interpersonal legal measures, because neither repentance nor punishment can heal the corruption in us. What we need, Athanasius tells us, is a renewal of our image, the healing of the corruption of sin. (pp.147-148)

Athanasius' understanding is consonant with my own. As I have argued before, the legal aspect of forgiveness is the least problematic part of the atonement. When God forgives, he entirely blots out the transgression, as if it never happened. The real problem is dealing with the corruption of our nature which results from that transgression. For example, a father might forgive a son for drug abuse in the sense that the father will not turn the son in to the police to do jail time, but the son must still undergo rehab to treat the effects of addiction.

The corruption of our nature brought about by sin was such that the only way we could again enjoy eternal life was by the literal re-creation of the divine Image in us by the Word, who had created it in the first place:

"In order to effect this re-creation, however, he had first to do away with death and corruption. Therefore he assumed a human body, in order that in it death might once for all be destroyed, and that men might be renewed according to the Image." (ch.13) As the above quote indicates, the key focus of Christ's substitutionary atonement here is in conquering death in order to bring us new life...Athanasius explains that because Jesus was human he could die, but because he was also God ('the indwelling of the Word') the Life of God in him overpowered Death, setting us free. (pp.148-149)

I still think the best way to understand Athanasius' thinking at this point is the medical analogy I gave earlier. In order to conquer the deadly disease of the corruption of sin, Christ took on a body which could be infected by it, knowing that he had the strength and vitality to neutralize it, thus restoring and renewing human nature.

But the real challenge of Athanasius' view to PSA is that, far from arguing that by Jesus' death the law of death is satisfied and thus we are freed from its domination, Athanasius argues that Jesus came to abolish the law itself, so that it could take no further prisoners, not even he himself. To extend the prison analogy, if penal substitution asserts that Jesus descended to the prison of death and served our sentence so that we could go free (which presupposes the legitimacy of the institution itself), in Athanasius' view Jesus came down to the prison and destroyed it entirely, without satisfying its 'just' demands. Or to use a different permutation of the same analogy, instead of going down to the prison and telling the warden that we could go free because he had served our time for us, Jesus went down there and told the warden that we were no longer guilty, because we had been re-created in the divine Image. We had been transformed from transgressors to righteous people. As Flood says:

What we ultimately have in Athanasius is an understanding of salvation that involves a real and profound change in who we are, and one that addresses evil, suffering, and injustice on an ultimate level. It is an understanding of salvation which involves our healing by way of Christ 'abolishing' the very system of death through his death and resurrection. In other words, substitutionary atonement is understood within the conceptual framework of what we might term restorative justice. It is restorative in the sense that salvation is focused on our healing and re-birth (restoring us), and restorative in that it seeks to overturn the system of death (restoring God's reign). This represents a paradigm of justice not based on a punitive model, but one focused on setting us right by transforming us, and setting the world right by overthrowing 'the law of sin and death' (Romans 8:2). In this latter sense it reflects a model of justice that is in fact the opposite of retributive justice, because it seeks ultimately to abolish retribution, not to appease it. (p.149)

I can't resist making one more analogy to the courtroom. It is as if God is our judge, and sees that according to the law of death that now rules over people because of their sin, he has to condemn us to death for sinning. But he doesn't want to condemn us to death, because he loves us. So he needs to find a way to overturn the law itself. He needs to find some way to defeat it at its own game, to de-legitimize it so that it loses its 'just' claim on us. But how exactly did this work? Augustine came up with an intriguing suggestion.

Augustine makes some statements which would seem to put him squarely in the PSA camp. For example, in Contra Faustus he says, "Christ...submitted as man, and for man, to bear the curse that accompanies death. And as he died in the flesh which he took in bearing our punishment...He was cursed for our offenses, in the death which he suffered in bearing our punishment." (quoted on p.154) But as indicated above, we need to ask what the purpose was for Christ bearing our punishment. It only qualifies as PSA if this purpose was to suffer that punishment in our place so that God's retributive justice would be satisfied. But Augustine has a quite different view.

In the same treatise a few paragraphs up Augustine says of Christ's atoning death that "Thus was death condemned that its reign might cease, and cursed that it might be destroyed. By Christ's taking our sin in this sense, its condemnation is our deliverance." (quoted on p.154) Note that on the PSA view death's reign does end, but not because it was 'condemned' and 'cursed', but because it had been satisfied. Again, as with the prison analogy, this presupposes the validity and legitimacy of death's reign. But in Augustine's view, death's reign ends because it has been overturned. Take the case of a kidnapping: if the only way to ransom the victim is by paying off the kidnappers, then ultimately it is they who are victorious, even if the victim goes free. But if the kidnappers are found and apprehended without paying the ransom, they are humiliated and defeated.

Augustine describes how exactly the kidnapper, Satan, was overpowered by Christ's death on the cross:

The devil jumped for joy when Christ died; and by the very death of Christ the devil was overcome: he took, as it were, the bait in the mousetrap. He rejoiced at the death, thinking himself death's commander. But that which caused his joy dangled the bait before him. The Lord's cross was the devil's mousetrap: the bait which caught him was the death of the Lord. (quoted on p.155)
Flood explains further how this worked:
First, Augustine emphasizes that this was not a case of God deceiving the devil. Instead he frames the exchange in terms of God acting in justice: "Death found nothing in him to punish, so the devil might be overcome and conquered not by power and violence but by truth and justice." The devil's downfall was due to his own malice and injustice. In killing Christ who was without sin, Augustine reasons, the devil lost all rights to hold humanity captive. At the same time, Augustine describes the crucifixion, not in terms of the fulfillment of justice, but as an act of the devil who "had most unjustly put Christ to death." Elsewhere Augustine describes our redemption as coming through Christ's "just blood unjustly shed." So we have a complex picture of God acting justly, but the crucifixion seen as an unjust act.

Second, the ransom or redemption price, which Augustine understands as being paid to the devil, should not be understood in the sense of a tyrant oppressing God, because it ultimately leads to the devil's downfall. As Augustine writes, "In this act of redemption the blood of Christ was given for us as a kind of price, and when the devil took it he was not enriched by it but caught and bound." This picture of the devil being "not enriched, but bound" evokes the idea that condemnation and retribution are not satisfied or 'exhausted' as they are in penal substitution's retributive model, rather they are bound, abolished, destroyed.
To tweak the legal imagery a little bit, we can understand God as our lawyer invalidating the witness for the prosecution by showing that there are contradictions in that witness's statement. By unjustly condemning a just person, the devil inadvertently demonstrates that he is not in fact a rightful authority. He is a sham, a con-artist and has lost all credibility. This theme will show up again in Origen's discussion of martyrdom, which I believe has significant implications for understanding Christ's death as well, and which I will blog on soon.

Finally, Augustine addresses the question of whether God's anger was appeased by the cross. Augustine asks, "Does this mean then that the Son was already so reconciled to us that he was even prepared to die for us, while the Father was still so angry with us that unless the Son died for us he would not be reconciled to us?" (quoted on p.156) This seems to be implied by advocates of penal substitution, for example when John Piper writes in the introduction to PFOT that "[i]f God did not punish his Son in my place, I am not saved from my greatest peril, the wrath of God." (quoted on p.156) In response, Augustine insists that God loved us before the foundation of the world, and that His redemption was a pure act of love toward us. Now to be fair, advocates of PSA would also insist on this, but the fact remains that they posit an inability on God's part to forgive us unless he vented His wrath on something. This might be termed the 'Firestarter' model of atonement. I'm referring here to Stephen King's novel, in which Charlie McGee is a little girl who has the ability to start fires with her mind. The problem is that when she lets the power out, it takes on a life of its own and can only be extinguished by aiming it at a huge block of ice or another suitable target, which then melts and evaporates as McGee's power slowly subsides. (see the movie trailer for an example)

In contrast,

With Augustine this is reversed. It is not the appeasement of God's wrath that allows God to forgive, it is the healing of our sin that removes the cause of God's righteous anger. In On Nature and Grace, Augustine writes, "God himself spiritually heals the sick and restores the dead to life, that is, justifies the sinner, through the mediator between God and human beings, the man Jesus Christ...God then heals us not only to destroy the sins we have committed, but also to provide us with the means of not sinning." Note here that Augustine makes the idea of God 'healing' and 'restoring to life' synonymous with justification. As with his imagery of sin as bondage in need of a Liberator, because Augustine's view of human sin was so grave, he does not conceptualize of it merely as a crime to be remitted, but as a grave wound to be healed. (p.157)
So ultimately how did Jesus turn God's wrath away from us? Not by focusing it on another target so that it would exhaust itself, but by changing us into something which is no longer the object of God's wrath. To take a rather crude analogy, if we are dressed in red and God's wrath is the bull, Jesus does not distract the Bull by presenting it with another red target, but by covering up our red clothes so that the Bull does not see either of us as a target. This was certainly God's own initiative, but it was not accomplished by means of substitutionary punishment.

In fact, I think the word substitutionary is not the best one for the views of these Fathers of the faith. Substitution implies doing something or undergoing something which the original person could have also done or undergone. But what Christ did for us we could not have done for ourselves. Only on PSA is the word substitution rightly used, because if Christ had not undergone our punishment for us, we would have had to (and would have been able to) ourselves. Instead, we should use the word 'vicarious' in the sense of simply doing something 'for' someone or 'on their behalf'. The Father's scheme of atonement is vicarious, because all that Jesus did, including his suffering and dying was 'for us' and 'on our behalf' and 'because of our sins'.

Now some might protest that, regardless of what these early Fathers taught, we should ultimately take our cues from the Bible itself. Tradition is always supposed to be corrected by Scripture itself. I would say two things to this however: 1) both Athanasius and Augustine were highly competent exegetes of Scripture, and 2) we should wonder, if penal substitution is really the heart and soul of Christian piety, why so many early interpreters of the Gospel understood atonement in such a different fashion (Flood also discusses Justin Martyr, Eusebius, Irenaeus, and Gregory of Nazianzus, none of whom hold to PSA). By all appearances, talk of the 'satisfaction' of God's justice by Jesus' punishment did not explicitly appear (although there are hints of it in some of the early Latin fathers, like Ambrose of Milan) until Anselm, and even there Anselm's view is quite distinct from penal substitution as the Reformers understood it. In fact, Anselm himself rejected the logic which is central to penal substitution:

What man would not be judged deserving of condemnation if he condemned the innocent to free the guilty?...It is surely to be wondered at if God so derives delight from, or has need of, the blood of the innocent that he neither wishes nor is able to spare the guilty without the death of the innocent. (quoted on p.153)

Instead of reading back PSA into phrases like 'Christ bore our punishment' or 'Christ was made a curse for me', we should delve more deeply into the original contexts of those expressions, and I think we will find there a much richer, more satisfactory account of the atonement.


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