If you look closely at several recent efforts to defend the penal substitution theory of atonement, particularly among popular audiences, there seems to be a (mostly) common argumentative strategy. It consists of three basic moves. The first move is an assertion that penal substitution is true because it is “biblical”. This move is often followed by a rehearsal (and some sort of pastorally enthusiastic exposition) of texts like Romans 3:25-28 and Isaiah 53:1-12, both of which acted as key scriptural shoring for the doctrine since the Reformation. The second move—one which not everyone makes well—is an appeal to the truthfulness of penal substitution based on “tradition”. This move often has two components. The first is an assertion that goes something like this. “Penal substitution appeared in mostly full form in Calvin, but was alive—though under-developed—in the theology of the early Fathers.” The second is an assertion, which, if it appears at all, usually shows up in a footnote, and goes like this. “Anselm’s theory, which is based more on the feudal system of the medieval period than the Bible (which is ironically the very reason that Anselm’s theory is so often dismissed as unsatisfying), is at best, a close cousin to the penal substitution theory.” The third and final move is far more personal than the previous two moves. And it is this move that we’d like to consider more closely in what follows. The third move goes something like this. “The penal substitution theory is true because without it we would not enjoy any of the other benefits of salvation.” Notice the sequence of appeals to authority—Scripture, tradition, and personal experience. This is the argumentative strategy about which we are talking. In what follows, we will not address all of these concerns, but we will focus on the second concern by showing that Anselm’s theory is distinct from penal substitution and has some benefits not naturally at home with penal substitution.
Let’s begin with a problem. What happens when you are searching for the truth about the atonement—this theory or that—and “biblical” arguments just aren’t enough? We’re with you on the initial appeal to Scripture, but there’s a lot of biblical data to consider and, when it comes to the atonement, it’s simply not all saying the same thing. So, where do you turn? Tradition? Again, we’re with you. But which tradition? How about ecumenical councils? Once again, we’re with you. But there’s little to no help there—the Fathers left us no dogmatic statement about the work of Christ like they did his person. Where do we turn next? What about the various canons of the Reformed tradition? Heidelberg? Westminster? Savoy? Dort? We’re still with you. But the period of Reformed confessionalism assumed a plurality of belief, even when it came to the doctrine of atonement. There’s the Anselmianism of Ames, the Hypothetical Universalism of Cameron, and the penal substitution theory of Olevianus. That’s a pretty diverse set of ideas to all be called “Reformed.” Somehow these men did it though (and, as an aside, Reformed folks today ought to take a cue from them and get along a bit better with those who—even with diverse set of commitments about so central a plank of doctrine—can nevertheless happily co-exist under the guise of one Reformed theological tradition). So, if tradition—Reformed or otherwise—is not enough to arrive at “the truth” about which theory of atonement is the theory, there seems to be only one move left, namely, me and my salvation. Really? Are the soteriological benefits—regeneration, sanctification, justification, glorification, amongst others—that we enjoy by believing a thing sufficient to establish the truth of our belief? That seems to be the argument: “penal substitution is true because without it I would not enjoy this and that benefit of salvation, which is mine by virtue of Christ’s work to take the punishment that we are due.” We need not look far in contemporary Reformed circles for assertions like this one. For instance, Kevin DeYoung recently asserted that, “Penal substitution is not a theory—one suggested idea that may or may not be true. Penal substitutionary atonement is the hope of sinners, the heart of the gospel, and the good news without which all other news regarding the cross is null and void.” If we follow this logic a bit further, we’d have to conclude that thinkers such as Augustine or Aquinas or Anselm never enjoyed such benefits for reason of their not believing “the truth” of penal substitution, especially if their understanding is one in which the mechanism for the atonement is quite distinct from the penal theory—even apart from the development of doctrine. But, do we really think that those early Christians held to a gospel that failed to deliver on the benefits of Christ’s atonement? We certainly don’t think so. In fact, it seems to us that the gospel once delivered to the apostles and carried along through the ages is, potentially, compatible with several theories of atonement, and the satisfaction is one which we contend is a quite promising alternative to the penal substitution theory.
Before pressing on to potential benefits with the satisfaction theory contra DeYoung, let us parse out what we take to be a version of Anselmian satisfaction atonement—one that we have elsewhere called reparative substitution—that is consistent with much of what Anselm says.
- Christ’s atonement is necessary to his work.
- Christ’s death is an act of divine self-love.
- Christ’s death procures an infinite merit (i.e., the mechanism).
- The infinite merit of Christ’s death pays the full sum of humanity’s debt of honor to God
- The infinite merit of Christ’s death pays the full sum of humanity’s debt of honor [not a debt of punishment] to God’s moral law.
- Christ’s death is sufficient for all humanity.
- Christ’s death efficiently defers divine wrath for all humanity until the Judgment, whereupon for those who by faith are united to Christ become full beneficiaries of his work and those who are not united to Christ are condemned.
Like penal substitution, the satisfaction theory takes it that Christ’s sacrificial work on the cross is necessary for all the soteriological benefits that follow. An important difference—one that is arguably the motivation on the satisfaction that is less clear on penal substitution—is that Christ is motivated out of love for the Father to bring about atonement. Christ’s sacrifice has infinite merit, a feature consistent with some variants of penal substitution. Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient for all in that he satisfies the demands of the moral law to balance the scales of the moral government. Christ’s death is efficient in that he defers Divine judgement until the eschaton when God judges all people. So also is Christ’s sacrifice sufficient for those who by faith are united to himself. The debt of honor is paid to God and his moral law and there is no need for any other sacrifice to be made or debts to be satisfied. Let’s look a bit closer at these benefits.
Benefit 1: Divine Love is the central motivation of the atonement rather than Divine wrath.
Divine love is the central motivation for Christ’s work of salvation. As we see throughout John’s gospel, the central motivation for God the Son’s becoming incarnated is precisely for the mission of salvation, and that mission is executed by the Son out of love for the Father. Yet, it is not clear that the same can be said for penal substitution. Sure, exponents of penal substitution want to affirm what Scripture asserts as true regarding the mission of Christ. But, when the Scriptural-rubber meet the theoretical-road, on penal substitution, Christ dies centrally to assuage the wrath of God or to pay the debt of punishment which humanity owes to God (or his moral law). Given Christ’s work of absorbing God’s wrath in order to eliminate Divine anger toward humans (or his saints) on penal substitution, it is difficult to ascertain how it is that love is at the center and the motive for making atonement. The picture presented by the satisfaction theory is different. Christ’s mission is chiefly about honoring the Father out of love for him. This is why Christ pays not a debt of punishment rather than a debt of honor, which, as one biblical author states, is “a sweet fragrant aroma.” In the end, what is more loving? Is it more loving of Christ to absorb divine wrath? Or, is it more loving of Christ to offer his life up as a beautiful sacrifice to the Father, by which he eliminates the need to absorb wrath or to absorb a punishment. We think there is a clear answer, and it is quite obviously the latter.
Benefit 2: Christ’s atonement provides a model for how to live life for God’s honor and glory.
One of the practical implications that follows from the previous benefit is that Christ’s action of making atonement gives us an example to follow, which is not found centrally in the assumption of a debt of punishment. Rather, the example is found in the life and resurrection of Christ. Christ gives us an example of how to love and honor the Father. Is this not the purpose for which we were made? To honor him? It seems to us that it is, and for this reason some version of the satisfaction theory appears to be superior to penal substitution on this score.
Benefit 3: Christ’s sacrifice does not face the fiction objection.
One of the most important objections to penal substitution has been dubbed the legal fiction objection. According to the legal fiction objection, Christ’s sacrifice is deemed as anti-real because debts of punishment are accrued from violations of laws. If there is a necessary lawful connection between the action of the perpetrator and the debt that ensues and if the absorption of a debt is necessarily connected to the debtor, then it is not clear that the non-debtor could absorb the same debt. The case is not the same for elimination of a debt by paying a creditor so that the creditor does not absorb a loss (for that would be wrong). It is another thing to say that the lawful connection between a debtor and her debt could be absorbed by another. With that said, there have been a variety of ways to work out the legal fiction objection to penal substitution. Nevertheless, penal substitution continues to face what seems to be an overwhelming burden. The satisfaction theory, on the other hand, averts this problem altogether by establishing a relationship where Christ eliminates the debt for the debtor by satisfying the creditor.
Benefit 4: An Anselmian satisfaction theory satisfies the desirables in the Reformed tradition.
Finally, and we think this is an important point to make. There is a common assumption that the Reformed tradition is monolithic regarding which atonement theory is the Reformed “view.” While the case cannot be made prior to Calvin that penal substitution was the dominant or definitive teaching of the catholic church (although attempts have been made), it is clear that penal substitution was not and is not the monolithic teaching in the Reformed tradition. For there are several examples of important Scholastic Reformed theologians who affirmed views resembling the satisfaction theory. Anyone familiar with New England dogmatics after Jonathan Edwards, for example, is aware that there is a common tendency to endorse either a moral government theory of atonement or a satisfaction theory of atonement or some hybrid of the two. Furthermore, the satisfaction theory (or the modified version of it that we have offered up elsewhere), is able to satisfy what we believe are some of the central dogmatic tenets of the Reformed faith (e.g., sola gratia, sola fide, sola Christus, along with the emphasis on justification alone).
Maybe for these reasons there has never been a creedal statement for one particular brand of the atonement, and this gives us some reason to think the early church fathers willingly overlooked the challenge to give us an ecumenical symbol of the atonement. That there are certain confessional symbols that do affirm penal substitution in the Reformed tradition does not mean that we must presume the tradition is doctrinally monolithic.
We realize that all the points listed here require ongoing dialogue and development and that there are other claims deserving some attention, but there is one big question that still stands out. Am I giving up the the gospel if I give up penal substitution?! This is not an insignificant claim with some pretty big psychological hurdles. Reading some popular sources, you might think this is the case. For one of the recent evangelical stories of atonement goes something like this. Penal substitution is the doctrine of atonement, developing from seed form in Anselm’s satisfaction theory, and later flowering in Calvin during the Protestant Reformation since which time it has held unrivaled theological support. So fixed is this story of development among contemporary evangelicals, particularly of the neo-calvinistic and young, restless, and Reformed stripe, that Anselm—if anyone even knows his name or significance to the development of doctrine anymore—and his theory of atonement have become a footnote to Calvin. That said, we are not convinced that giving up penal substitution and adopting a version of Anselmian satisfaction entails a giving up of the gospel for all the reasons listed above.
Joshua R. Farris (PhD, University of Bristol, UK) is Assistant Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University and a Visiting Fellow at The Creation Project, Carl F.H. Henry at TEDS (Spring 2018). Joshua is a chief editor (with Charles Taliaferro) of the Ashgate Research Companion to Theological Anthropology (Ashgate, 2015). He is co-editor (with S. Mark Hamilton) of Idealism and Christianity: Idealism and Christian Theology, Vol. 1 (Bloomsbury, 2016), co-editor of Christian Physicalism: Philosophical-Theological Criticisms (with R. Keith Loftin). Additionally, he has co-edited Being Saved: Explorations in Human Salvation. He has published his monograph, The Soul of Theological Anthropology: A Cartesian Exploration and An Introduction to Theological Anthropology: Humans, Both Creaturely and Divine (Baker Academic, forthcoming Spring 2019). Joshua has written numerous articles and reviews for both philosophical and theological journals. He serves as a referee for Philosophy Compass, Philosophia Christi, European Journal of Philosophy of Religion, Religious Studies, International Journal of Systematic Theology, Perichoresis, Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies and Oxford University Press, Associate editor for JBTS, and advisor for Perichoresis. Joshua has also presented at various academic conferences on inter-disciplinary studies, philosophy, theology, and ethics.
S. Mark Hamilton (PhD, Free University of Amsterdam, NL) is author of Jonathan Edwards on Spirit Christology (Routledge, New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology and Biblical Studies, forthcoming, 2020), co-author (with Joshua Farris) of Re-envisioning Substitutionary Atonement: Toward a Reformed Anselmianism (Eugene, OR: Cascade, Re-envisioning Reformed Dogmatic Series, Vol. 1, forthcoming 2020) and author of A Treatise on Jonathan Edwards, Continuous Creation, and Christology, foreword by Oliver D. Crisp (JESociety Press, A Series of Treatises on Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 1, 2017). He is also a contributor to and co-editor (with Robert Boss and Joshua Farris) of New England Dogmatics: A Systematic Collection of Questions and Answers in Divinity by Maltby Gelston, foreword by Kenneth Minkema (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, Princeton Theological Monograph Series, 2018), contributor to and co-editor (with Marc Cortez and Joshua Farris) of Being Saved: Explorations in Human Salvation, foreword by Michael Horton (SCM Press, 2018, and a contributor to and co-editor (with Joshua Farris) of Idealism and Christianity: Idealism and Christian Theology, Vol. 1 (Bloomsbury, 2016). He has also published a variety of articles in International Journal of Systematic Theology, Irish Theological Quarterly, Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie,Perichoresis, Scottish Journal of Theology, Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology, Jonathan Edwards Studies, Saint Anselm Journal and the Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies.
 William Lane Craig, The Atonement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 7-15.
 These three moves are evident in recent works such as: S. Jeffery, M. Ovey, A. Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007).
 DeYoung, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/place-condemned-stood/) [accessed on July 20, 2018].
 See e.g.: Lee W. Gibbs, “Editor’s Introduction,” in William Ames, Technometry (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979), pp. 51–60. Oliver D. Crisp, Deviant Calvinism (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014), pp. 175-212. R. Scott Clark, Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant: The Double Benefit of Christ (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008), p. 105ff.
 See e.g.: S. Mark Hamilton, “Jonathan Edwards, Anselmic Satisfaction, and God’s Moral Government,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 17:1 (January 2015): 1-22; et al., “Re-thinking Atonement in Jonathan Edwards and New England Theology,” Periochoresis 15:1 (2017): 85-99; Joshua R. Farris and S. Mark Hamilton, “Editor’s Introduction” in Robert L. Boss, Joshua R. Farris & S. Mark Hamilton, eds., New England Dogmatics: A Systematic Collection of Questions and Answers in Divinity by Maltby Gelston [1766-1856] (Eugene, OR: Wipe and Stock, Princeton Theological Monograph Series, forthcoming, 2018).
 Joshua R. Farris and S. Mark Hamilton, “Reparative Substitution and the Efficacy Objection: Toward a Modified Satisfaction theory of Atonement,” in Marc Cortez, Joshua R. Farris & S. Mark Hamilton, eds. Being Saved: Explorations in Soteriology and Human Ontology (London: SCM Press, 2018).