New Logos Series: Recovering the Classic Concept of Satisfaction Part I

Dani Ross
Thursday 30 September 2021

By Carl Mosser

For more than seven centuries after Anselm, Western theologians commonly employed the concept of satisfaction to explain biblical texts related to sin, sacrifice, forgiveness, and the redemptive significance of the death of Christ. Medieval and early modern theologians employed distinctions related to satisfaction which allow greater precision and nuance than is possible using the language of atonement. In my opinion, discourse about the atonement would be greatly improved and more beneficial to Christian communities if theologians and biblical scholars availed themselves of these conceptual tools, especially folks in the Protestant tradition. This is the first of three posts designed to encourage a greater understanding of the classic concept of satisfaction.

To begin, it is often claimed the concept of satisfactio was imported into Christian theology from Roman jurisprudence. Perhaps, but it is important to recognize that satisfaction is a phenomenon observable in a wide variety of interpersonal relationships outside the legal sphere. As with many legal concepts, jurists simply formalized and refined something taken from everyday life. At root, satisfaction is the notion of ‘doing enough’ (satis + facere) to fulfil a duty, meet an obligation, repay a debt, compensate wrongdoing, or make amends in order to uphold or restore the balance of justice, fairness, and equity between parties. Examples of satisfaction can be found in both the Old and New Testaments even if the word is not. More will be said about that in a subsequent post.

Anselm was not the first theologian to conceive of sin as a kind of debt for which Christ made satisfaction on our behalf. Hilary of Portiers already spoke in such terms in the fourth century.[1] If one does not conflate the concept with the word satisfactio or its equivalents, it is easy to find examples of the Greek and Syriac fathers depicting the death of Christ as satisfaction for sin as well.[2] It is even attested in the medieval Byzantine tradition.[3] Where Anselm broke new ground was in the extensive use he made of the concept within a philosophically sophisticated explanation of the purpose of Christ’s incarnation and death. This sparked a centuries-long conversation within the Latin West in which theologians refined and challenged various aspects of Anselm’s specific proposal.

At the time of the Reformation, there was extensive controversy about whether Christians are obliged to engage in works of satisfaction for their sins in cooperation with the satisfaction of Christ. Debates about sacramental penance, indulgences, purgatory, the Mass, and justification all converged around this question. Catholic theologians insisted works of satisfaction are necessary to punish post-baptismal sin, placate the wrath of God, and facilitate healing of the soul in order to avoid more severe punishment in purgatory. Protestant theologians contended that the passion and crucifixion of Christ made complete satisfaction for both original and actual sin. That means the guilt (culpa) and penalty (poena) for all sin – original and actual alike – are fully expiated by the death of Christ, rendering further satisfaction to God unnecessary. They did not, however, dispense with the need for ecclesial and civil satisfaction when appropriate. There was no debate about how to understand the basic concept of satisfaction. Into the seventeenth century, Catholics and Protestants approvingly quoted the exact same classical and medieval definitions.

Thomas Williams has recently lamented the fact that the “standard potted history of atonement theory” taught in seminaries and divinity schools is “largely false” but nonetheless generates debates over such things as ecclesiastical appointments and new hymnals.[4] One of the erroneous commonplaces found in that potted history claims the Reformers reject Anselm’s disjunction ‘satisfaction or punishment’ (satisfactio aut poena) in favor of ‘satisfaction through punishment.’ William Lane Craig echoes that commonplace when he states, “Anselm’s theory ought therefore properly to be called the compensation theory of the atonement, since that is what a satisfactio was…. [The Reformers] also typically held that human salvation requires the satisfaction of divine justice, but this was achieved through substitutionary punishment, not compensation (satisfactio).”[5] While views like that did emerge later in response to Socinianism, it is easy to show that this commonplace misrepresents the teaching of most of the Reformers as well as that of the Protestant confessions. In both cases, the concept of satisfaction we typically encounter is the classical one.

The point can be readily illustrated from the writings of John Calvin. In the Institutes, Calvin defines satisfaction as “the payment or compensation that absolves us of guilt” (Inst. 2.17.5). Calvin reaffirms this view in his last will and testament, stating: “With my whole soul I embrace the mercy which he has exercised towards me through Jesus Christ, atoning (compensans) for my sins with the merits of his death and passion, that in this way he might satisfy (satisfiat) for all my crimes and faults, and blot them from his remembrance.”[6] The operative notions are merit, compensation, and satisfaction; retributive punishment is not mentioned. Satisfaction is something the Son of God does in our place which the Father mercifully accepts, it is not something the Father does to the Son.

Calvin certainly speaks of Christ taking upon himself the penalty or punishment for sin decreed by God. However, as Tony Lane observes, he was “careful to avoid ever saying that God punished Christ.”[7] Calvin instead presupposes what Harald Maihold refers to as the “expansive notion of penalty” found in medieval theology rather than the narrower concept we are familiar with in modern criminal law.[8] That narrower concept was only just being formulated in the School of Salamanca when Calvin lived and had not yet affected Protestant theology. Calvin dispels any doubt about this when he rhetorically asks, “What else was Christ’s death, but a sacrifice for expiating our sins – what but a satisfactory penalty (poena satisfactoria), by which we might be reconciled to God – what but the condemnation of one, for the purpose of obtaining forgiveness for us?”[9] Here Calvin draws on the medieval distinction between poena satisfactoria and poena simpliciter. This is one of several distinctions that inform early Protestant teaching about the satisfaction of Christ which hold potential for bringing some measure of reproachment in the so-called “atonement wars.” These distinctions will be discussed in my next post.


[1] Hilary of Poitiers, Tr. ps. 131.4. See further Ellen Scully, Physicalist Soteriology in Hilary of Poitiers (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 110-113.

[2] A ready example from the Greek fathers is found in Athanasius, De Inc., 9. For the Syriac fathers Jacob of Serug and Narsai, see the texts translated and discussed in Gary A. Anderson, Sin: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 120-30.

[3] Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974), 117-120; cf. 58-60; 139-40.

[4] Thomas Williams, “Atonement,” in The Routledge Companion to Medieval Philosophy, ed. Richard Cross and JT Paasch (New York: Routledge, 2021), 363.

[5] William Lane Craig, Atonement and the Death of Christ (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2020), 117.

[6] From Theodore Beza, “Life of Calvin” in Henry Beveridge, ed. Tracts Relating to the Reformation by John Calvin with His Life by Theodore Beza (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1844), lxxxvi. Cf. G. Baum, E. Cunitz and E. Reuss, eds, Ioannis Calvini Opera quae supersunt omnia, 59 vols. (Brunswick & Berlin: C. A. Schwetschke, 1863-1900), 21.162.

[7] Tony Lane, Exploring Christian Doctrine: A Guide to What Christians Believe (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2014), 125; cf. A.N.S. Lane, A Reader’s Guide to Calvin’s Institutes (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 93.

[8] Harald Maihold, “God’s Wrath and Charity: Criminal Law in (Counter-)Reforming Discourse of Redemption and Retribution,” in Law and Religion: The Legal Teachings of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, edited by Wim Decock, et al. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014), 153.

[9] John Calvin, The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, trans. John W. Fraser (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), 314.

Carl Mosser (Ph.D., University of St. Andrews) is a biblical scholar and theologian living in Southern California. He has held academic appointments in both disciplines and spent four years as a visiting research professor and analytic theology fellow at the University of Notre Dame. His publications address such diverse topics as the Christian doctrine of deification, the epistle to the Hebrews, social Trinitarianism, first-century synagogue practices, and Mormonism. He and his wife Elisabeth are the parents of six children.
Feature photo by Igor Lypnytskyi on Unsplash

Share this story