Christian Relaunch

The Satisfaction Theory of Atonement

"God's character entails that, before transferring wrongdoers to the new humanity, he must receive adequate satisfaction for their wickedness. But such satisfaction would destroy the wrongdoers. God has solved this dilemma by receiving satisfaction from Christ instead."

We who benefit from God's redeeming work are forever grateful that, notwithstanding the cost and in spite of our willingly being his foes, he forgave us, and that the Provider was willing to accept, and the Mediator to undergo, the suffering that unavoidably accompanied that work: that Christ, in this sense, paid the price for our sins. Satisfaction theory takes this metaphor too literally. It has two main variants, which I will call Supererogation and Penal Substitution.

Supererogation seems to have been introduced into atonement theory by Anselm of Canterbury as an element in his honour theory, and retained by Thomas Aquinas when he switched from honour to iustitia as the key concept, and still to be part of Popish thinking. But Aquinas seems also to have initiated Penal Substitution theory, so I am not sure about the current Popish view. The Protestant Reformers developed Penal Substitution theory, and that has been the usual form of Satisfaction theory among Protestants.

My own view is more akin to the classical Eastern Orthodox view than to any Western view, whether Papist or Protestant.

Note that the word "atonement" originally had no connotation of satisfaction; it just means being reconciled, two becoming "at one".

Supererogation theory postulates that Christ made up for man's doing less than his duty by doing more than his duty.

This theory falls with the supererogation on which it depends. Nobody can do more than God requires, not even the man who is God. It is true that God's will is flexible, in the sense that no rule book stipulates exactly what to do in what case; but that is about how we obey God, not about what we do over and above obeying him.

"You shall love Yahweh your god with all your heart and with all your sentience and with all your might."

Deuteronomy 6:5, quoted by Christ in Mark 12:30.

Penal Substitution theory holds that Christ received the proper penalty of man's wickedness.

This theory is morally absurd, as we can see by considering everyday penal processes.

If A imposes a financial penalty (a fine) on B, A is satisfied by extracting the fine from B, and is not concerned with how much C gives to B. If C chooses to reimburse B, we might say that C has chosen to "suffer instead of B", but A is not involved in that transaction.

If A imposes a corporal (in extremis capital) penalty on B, it would be absurd to suppose that C could "suffer instead of B". That would violate the sentence. If C is B's advocate, he is B's representative, in the sense of expressing B's views, but cannot be B's substitute in the penal sense. For C to say "B is now my subject and I accept responsibility for his actions" would not avail; A would say, "that is between B and C; my sentence is on B, and will be executed on B". C may choose to suffer with B, as Sonya follows Raskolnikov in Dostoyesky's Crime and Punishment, and that may help to B endure the penalty, but only B can suffer the penalty.

"It is not a transmissible obligation, which - like, say, a monetary debt (where it is all the same to the creditor whether the debtor himself or someone else pays for him) - can be transferred to someone else, but is the most personal of all obligations, namely a debt of sins, which only the punishable [i.e. culpable, German strafbare] one can bear, not the innocent one, however magnanimous the latter may be in wanting to take it upon himself for the former."

Kant, Religion (1794), 2:1:C. (I do not endorse this book as a whole, I only quote it because Kant makes this particular point especially well.)

Advocates of this theory have made efforts to explain how Christ can represent us in such a way as to be able to act as penal substitute. I find none of them plausible.

It is not unjust for God to punish a wrongdoer. It is not absurd to say that he does so. It is not absurd to say that he remits the punishment, or moderates it and thereby restores the wrongdoer. What is absurd is to say that he inflicts the punishment on someone else.

Elements of truth in Penal Substitution theory. Every choice evokes a divine response, and God's response to wicked choices is an antithetical reaction which tends to hinder further choices and to impel the wrongdoer towards the possibility of godliness. This is divine restribution. And since selves are seldom entirely isolated, the distress imposed on mankind is diffuse, not falling only on the wrongdoer but also, and sometimes mainly, on others. (Irenaeus calls it "indirect").

Christ, entering the corrupted world, stepped into the firing line. God made no separate decision to punish Christ (which would be pointless).

So Christ's suffering can fairly be called retributive, because he suffered retributively imposed distress.

And it can be called vicarious or substitutive, because Christ suffered so that others need not.

But it cannot properly be called penally substitutive.

The Relevant Bible Passages.

"When I [God] see the blood I will pass over you, and there shall no plague be on you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt."

Exodus 12:13. The blood is that of the paschal (i.e. Passover) lamb.

"The life of the flesh is in the blood; and I [God] have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your selves.

Leviticus 17:11.

"The days come, says Yahweh, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel ... not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers. ... I will put my law in their inward parts."

Jeremiah 31:31-33.

"Behold my servant whom I [God] uphold; my chosen, in whom my self delights. I have put my Spirit on him. He will bring propriety to the nations. ...

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way, and Yahweh has laid on him the iniquity of us all."

Isaiah 42:1, 53.6 (from "The Servant Songs")

"The son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many."

Mark 10:45, quoting Christ.

"This [wine which you drink] is my [Christ's] blood of the covenant."

Mark 14:24. (Matt adds "which is poured out for many". Luke and Paul have "the new covenant in my blood".)

"They are made righteous by his grace as a gift through the apolutrosis in Christ Jesus whom God put forward a hilasterion through trust in his slaying, to show his righteousness through the passing over of former sins in the forbearance of God, to show his righteousness in this hour, so as to be righteous and the one who makes him who trusts Jesus righteous."

Romans 3.24-26.

God never tells Israel anything like "I will vent my wrath on the sacrificial animal instead of on you". I know not what Israel was intended to think the mechanism or logic of sacrifice was, but clearly not that. But whatever the logic, and whatever element of truth there was in it, Israel's prophets came to recognise that it was not effective. Jeremiah's message was not that the victim was inadequate, but that the whole idea of having a victim was mistaken; not "I will find a better victim", but "I will put my law in their inward parts". It is true that in The Servant Songs Isaiah speaks of substitution, but this need not be penal.

Christ, being a Hebrew, naturally looked to the Tanakh for metaphors in which to express the significance of his mission, and his apostles further developed this imagery, including the language of sacrifice. But none of this requires a satisfaction theory.

The one N.T. passage which seems to affirm satisfaction is Romans 3. Gustav Aulen, arguing in Christus Victor (1931) that the N.T. contains no satisfaction theory, skips over this passage with undue haste. But even here there is room for doubt for at least two reasons. (1) It is only the reference to "former sins" that causes the problem, for the immediate context is less clear than sometimes supposed. The original sense of apolutrosis is liberation; in some contexts this implied payment but I see no need for that connotation here. And the translation of hilasterion is much debated. (2) Paul does not actually explain how or why putting Christ forward should show God's righteousness regarding former sins. The satisfaction theory is one explanation, but in my view it is not a plausible one, for the reasons given above, and my current inability to think of another one does not change this. If Paul is indeed affirming a satisfaction theory I think he was speculating unduly, led on perhaps by his concern fully to clarify his doctrine of righteousness "apart from law", though it is worth adding that the rest of his doctrine, including that of the surrounding passages, is unaffected.

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