Patristic Evidence for Penal Substitution

Image from jsvalent

I guess JJS’ discussion over at CCC is finished, but obviously I’m not persuaded away from Penal Substitution (PS). Here for your enjoyment is a pile of quotes from early writers on the topic.

Note 1. I did not do the legwork to find these myself; they are from a Reformed friend (who has for a few years been exhaustively studying the notion of the merit of Christ’s sacrifice outweighing the demerit of our sins). Therefore I do not have any links. I can ask my friend for further info if necessary.

Note 2. “Catholics believe that the cross quenches wrath, that Jesus died as a Substitute, and that he bore our curse [but definitely was not cursed] and took what we deserve. But none of that necessitates the logical contradiction and Trinitarian impossibility of the Father judging the Son a guilty sinner.” So what I’m focusing on here, are quotes that point in the direction that Christ not only suffered a punishment that happened to be similar to the punishment due to us for sin, but that he actually suffered the punishment that belonged to us. Therefore, all emphasis is mine, along with [a few interjections].

“He therefore took upon Him your curse, for ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a gibbet.’ He became a curse on the cross so that you might be blessed in the kingdom of God.”
— Ambrose, Letter 46

“He, Who bore our curses, became a curse”
— Ambrose, On the Christian Faith 11:94

“He Who in his flesh bore our flesh, in His body bore our infirmities and our curses . . . He was not cursed Himself, but was cursed in thee.” [there’s the inherent/imputed distinction there, a.k.a. “legal fiction”]
— Ambrose, Sermon against Auxentius

“For even the Lord was subject to death, but not on account of [His own] sin: He took upon Him our punishment, and so looseth our guilt.”

–Augustine, Expositions On The Psalms, 51

“whom, though He had done no sin, God made sin for us”
— Augustine, On Merit and the Forgiveness of Sins, 3:13 (7)

“Christ, though guiltless, took our punishment, that He might cancel our guilt, and do away with our punishment.”
–Augustine, Against Faustus, 14:4

“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.”
–Augustine, Against Faustus, 14:6

“Christ is not reproached by Moses when he speaks of Him as cursed, not in His divine majesty, but as hanging on the tree as our substitute, bearing our punishment . . He, without taking our sin, took its punishment. . . . . The curse is pronounced by divine
justice . . . He bore the curse for us
–Augustine, Against Faustus, 14:7

[How about ‘made sin for us’ = ‘made a sin offering for us’?]

“Indeed, under the old law, sacrifices for sins were often called sins. Yet he of whom those sacrifices were mere shadows was himself actually made sin. Thus, when the apostle said, “For Christ’s sake, we beseech you to be reconciled to God,” he straightway added, “Him, who knew no sin, he made to be sin for us that we might be made to be the righteousness of God in him.” II Cor. 5:20, 21. . . . He himself is therefore sin as we ourselves are righteousness—-not our own but God’s, not in ourselves but in him. Just as he was sin–not his own but ours, not in himself but in us” [beautiful expression of inherent/imputed distinction in both directions]
–Augustine, Handbook [“Enchiridion”] on Faith, Hope, and Love, Chapter 13,
Section 41

I’d like to close with a thought about “what’s the point”? Why all this fuss about the atonement? I mean, no Reformed person is going to object to Christ’s sacrifice being so meritorious that it outweighs our sin in the Father’s sight. So why work so hard to draw the line there, and separate substitution from penal substitution? On the one hand, there’s a cleaner doctrine of the Trinity, if you can somehow wrap your mind around the paradox of the Trinity in the first place, but have trouble with intra-trinitarian wrath for the purpose of providing a ground for mercy for us. (Even on this point however, the extra trinitarian simplicity comes at the cost of an incredible amount of ‘rational’ization in the Original Sin department.)

But really, the point is to avoid imputation. If our sin is not truly imputed to Christ, then his righteousness is not imputed to us; we can’t count on any ‘legal fiction’ to save us, we’ve got work to do to become inherently righteous enough to inherit the Kingdom of God. (Unless, of course, we’re Muslim, then probably we’re OK…)

PS I just looked up Augustine’s Against Faustus. The snippets above don’t do the whole thing justice. Here’s more:

If we read, “Cursed of God is every one that hangs on a tree,” the addition of the words “of God” creates no difficulty. For had not God hated sin and our death, He would not have sent His Son to bear and to abolish it. … Cursed [of God] is every one that hangs on a tree; not this one or that, but absolutely every one. What! The Son of God? Yes, assuredly. This is the very thing you object to, and that you are so anxious to evade. … 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 offenses, in the death which He suffered in bearing our punishment. And these words “every one” are intended to check the ignorant officiousness which would deny the reference of the curse to Christ, and so, because the curse goes along with death, would lead to the denial of the true death of Christ. … If, then, you deny that Christ was cursed, you must deny that He died; and then you have to meet, not Moses, but the apostles. Confess that He died, and you may also confess that He, without taking our sin, took its punishment. Now the punishment of sin cannot be blessed, or else it would be a thing to be desired. The curse is pronounced by divine justice, and it will be well for us if we are redeemed from it.

PPS: My friend sent me also this gem from Athanasius:

Psalm 22, speaking in the Saviour’s own person, describes the manner of His death. Thou has brought me into the dust of death, for many dogs have compassed me, the assembly of the wicked have laid siege to me. They pierced my hands and my feet, they numbered all my bones, they gazed and stared at me, they parted my garments among them and cast lots for my vesture. They pierced my hands and my feet– what else can that mean except the cross? and 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. [Mt 8:17].

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7 Responses to Patristic Evidence for Penal Substitution

  1. Pingback: Patristic Evidence for Penal Substitution |

  2. JohnD says:


    You ought to remove the Aquinas quote because he very clearly outlines the details of his view. He does not view “payment” in a literal way (what was paid is what was owed). Rather, the payment is the thing that satisfies God so that he might wipe out the debtors’ punishment and forgive them.

    It is improper to cite a man in support of PS who so clearly denied it. Question 49 in the summa (especially article 3) and other places in his writings makes this clear.

    An interesting question is: Can Aquinas’ satisfaction theory be reconciled with the rest of Reformed theology? I’m not sure of the answer.

    John D.

  3. RubeRad says:

    OK, thx for the background. I took out Aquinus, and added at the end Athanasius…

  4. Dante says:

    Please do not forget to read, “Pierced For Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution”….

  5. magedmakar says:

    I did the legwork for this research. Enjoy:

  6. RubeRad says:

    Wow, that’s extremely thorough, thanks! I like how you start with laying a foundation that death was for Adam a punishment, not just a consequence. Because the 1st and last Adam are connected. If death on the cross is not penal for Christ, then neither is death a punishment for Adam’s sins (and vice versa)

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