Recovering the Classic Concept of Satisfaction: Part II

Dani Ross
Monday 25 October 2021

By: Carl Mosser

In much of the atonement literature, satisfaction is associated almost exclusively with Anselm. It is presented as the hallmark of his “theory” that distinguishes it from competitors. Nothing could be further from the truth. Peter Abelard, the Reformers, and Hugo Grotius are all said to have different theories of atonement, yet they all describe the suffering and death of Jesus as a work of satisfaction. Prior to the nineteenth century, Socinians and Unitarians were the only ones who rejected a satisfaction account of atonement. The major confessions and catechisms of both the Protestant and Catholic Reformations teach that Christ affected redemption by laying down his life to make satisfaction for humanity’s sin. However, the concept was not appropriated directly from Anselm. Rather, early modern formulations were informed by definitions and distinctions developed over the course of the intervening four centuries. Awareness of these developments helps us more accurately understand the teaching of our forebears. They can be helpful resources for the contemporary theological task.

Anselm famously speaks of satisfaction as an alternative to punishment. Yet, he also says divine justice is such that God does not forgive sin without punishment. Anselm presupposes a distinction between simple retributive punishment and satisfaction as a kind of voluntary penalty that averts retribution. Subsequent theologians formalize this distinction in various ways. Their distinctions reflect the fact that the Latin word poena is a flexible term that can refer to different kinds of punishment, penalty, or compensation as well as to pain, hardship, and so forth. While these medieval distinctions are applied to sin against God, they derive ultimately from reflection on the different ways in which wrongdoing can be justly rectified in the interpersonal and civil spheres. In that respect, they invite renewed consideration and further development.

Bonaventure distinguishes between avenging punishment (poena ultionis) and placating or appeasing punishment (poena placationis).[1] The former is simple retribution inflicted to punish wrongdoing. The latter is a penalty freely undertaken by a wrongdoer to rectify his or her offence in order to affect reconciliation. Placating punishment is a compensatory act that renders retribution unnecessary. As satisfaction, the suffering and death Christ took upon himself constitute bearing of a placating punishment that compensates for our sin.

Thomas Aquinas distinguishes between punishment in the strict sense (poena simpliciter) and punishment in a qualified sense (poena secundum quid).[2] The qualified sense admits two species. The first (poena medicina) is voluntary suffering or loss for the sake of healing damage caused by sin. It is akin to tasting bitter medicine to heal a disease or voluntarily undergoing painful surgery to remove cancer. The second species (poena satisfactoria) is a kind of punishment undertaken for the sake of righting wrong, restoring the order of justice, and reconciliation. It is a voluntary work of justice that obviates the need for retribution. Moreover, unlike strictly retributive punishment, satisfactory punishment can be paid on behalf of others. Aquinas says, “Christ bore a satisfactory punishment, not for His, but for our sins.”[3]

Much the same idea was expressed by John Duns Scotus when he distinguished between satisfaction as voluntarily “doing enough” to compensate for wrongdoing and satispassion–making someone involuntarily “suffer enough” to pay for wrongdoing.[4] Satispassion is the punishment inflicted on wrongdoers who fail to make satisfaction. Scotus offered two definitions of satisfaction. According to the first, “satisfaction is voluntarily paying back (redditio) an equivalent thing that is not already owed.” The second says “satisfaction involves voluntarily taking up an external laborious or penal work in order to make up for a sin committed by oneself and doing this to placate an offense against God.”[5] Scotus’ definitions and distinction were especially influential because Jacob Altenstaig quoted Scotus at the beginning of the entry on satisfactio in his Vocabularius vocum (1508). Published on the eve of the Reformation, Altenstaig’s reference work was widely utilized by Protestants and Catholics alike into the late seventeenth century.[6]

Many early Protestant divines explain the work of Christ in accord with these distinctions. In the previous post we saw Calvin identify the death of Christ as “a satisfactory penalty (poena satisfactoria), by which we might be reconciled to God.”[7] This statement shows clear awareness of the Thomistic distinction between poena simpliciter and poena satisfactoria. Bonaventure’s notion of a reconciling or placating penalty may be in view when Calvin elsewhere says Christ “bore the penalty due sins that we would have had to pay before we could become reconciled to God—if he had not taken our place.”[8] While Calvin says Jesus underwent punishment/pain (poena) for our sin and apprehended the wrath of God, he repeatedly insists the Son of God was never the object of his Father’s wrath.[9] According to Calvin, we are justified or acquitted before God because the blood of Christ “corresponds to satisfaction for us” which he defines as “the payment (solutio) or compensation (compensatio) that absolves us of guilt.”[10] But it is not suffering or death as such that satisfies but the obedience manifest in them. “How has Christ abolished sin, banished the separation between us and God, and acquired righteousness to render God favorable and kindly toward us? To this we can in general reply that he has achieved this for us by the whole course of his obedience.”[11]

The early English puritan William Perkins held a similar view.

“The form of the passion, is that excellent, and meritorious satisfaction which in suffering Christ made unto his Father for man’s sin. We do not rightly consider of the passion, if we conceive it to be a bare and naked suffering of punishment, but withal we must conceive it as a propitiation or a means satisfactory to God’s Justice.”

The suffering of Christ was not retribution inflicted by God but something Christ undertook to satisfy his Father’s justice. Thus, Perkins continues, “The passion considered as a passion, ministers no comfort; but all our joy and rejoicing stands in this, that by faith we apprehend it as it is a satisfaction or a means of reconciliation for our offences.”[12]

A generation later Anthony Burgess defined satisfaction as “a voluntary willing undergoing of such punishment God will have” while “Satispassion is, when the party doth unwillingly suffer such a punishment, as God in his Justice shall inflict on him; hence… the damned in hell, they do satispati, but not satisfacere.”[13] Melanchthon mentioned satispassion in distinction from satisfaction already in his 1531 Apology of the Augsburg Confession (Article VI), so Burgess was not introducing anything new into Protestant theology. The Westminster Confession reflects the learned understanding of satisfaction held by Burgess and other members of the Assembly when it states,

“The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience, and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, has fully satisfied the justice of His Father; and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for those whom the Father has given unto Him (Article 8.5).”

When theologians began to rebut Socinian teaching, they set out to defend a catholic doctrine of satisfaction informed by medieval definitions and distinctions.[14] Over the second half of the seventeenth century, however, Protestant scholastic theologians increasingly embraced the philosophical claim that the perfection of God’s nature requires the exercise of his “vindicatory justice” in punishing every sin (iustitia vindicative sive punitiva). This required them to interpret Christ’s crucifixion in terms of divine retribution. However, because their confessions consistently describe the work of Christ in terms of satisfaction, this terminology could not be abandoned. So, Protestant theologians subtly redefined it. That does not change the fact that the great confessions of the Protestant and Catholic churches both explain the redemptive death of Christ as a work of satisfaction in the classic sense. These formulations presuppose the distinction between satisfaction and retributive punishment, what medieval and early modern theologians referred to as poena ultionis, poena simpliciter, or satispassion.

My next post will attempt to show that the classic concept of satisfaction found in the confessional literature is an especially fitting way to capture the truth conveyed by biblical metaphors in which the death of Christ is interpreted as a ransom, redemption, purchase, and sacrifice. It will also show that biblical scholars sometimes produce fine descriptions of the phenomenon of satisfaction unaware that there is a traditional conceptual term that refers precisely to that phenomenon.


[1] Bonaventure, In III Sent., d. XII, a. 1, q. 2, ad 1.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, q. 87, aa. 6-8.

[3] Summa Theologica, I-II, q. 87, a. 7, ad. 3.

[4] John Duns Scotus, Ordinatio IV, d. 15, q. 1, n. 3 & 11. Translations are from Andrew V. Rosato, “Duns Scotus on the Redemptive Work of Christ,” (PhD. diss., University of Notre Dame, 2009), 88, 90.

[5] Scotus, Ordinatio IV, d. 15, q. 1, n. 3.

[6] It was republished later in the sixteenth century as the Lexicon Theologicum (1576).

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

[8] Institutes, 3.4.30. This does not entail that Calvin read Bonaventure. The distinction was discussed by several late medieval and early modern theologians, e.g., Gabriel Biel and John Driedo.

[9] “We do not admit that God was ever hostile to him, or angry (iratum, wrathful) with him. For how could he be angry with his beloved Son, ‘in whom his soul delighted?’ or how could Christ, by his intercession, appease the Father for others, if the Father were incensed against him?” (Inst. 2.16.11, trans. Allen).

[10] Institutes, 2.17.5.

[11] Institutes 2.16.5. This was central to Calvin’s soteriology from the beginning. For example, his 1538 Catechism states: “[The] disobedience of man having provoked the wrath of God, he [Christ] effaced it by his obedience, rendering himself obedient to the Father even to death. And by his death Jesus offered himself to the Father in sacrifice in order to pacify his justice once for all times, to the end that all believers might be eternally sanctified, and eternal satisfaction accomplished. He has shed his sacred blood for the price of our redemption in order to extinguish the wrath of God inflamed against us and to purge away our iniquity” (20.4). Translation from I. John Hesselink, Calvin’s First Catechism: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 23.

[12] William Perkins, An Exposition of the Symbole or Creede of the Apostles (London: John Legatt, 1631), 154 (spelling updated).

[13] Anthony Burgess, The True Doctrine of Justification Asserted and Vindicated, 2 vols. (London: Thomas Underhill, 1655), 2.86.

[14] This is evident in the title of the most influential of these works, Hugo Grotius’ Defensio fidei catholicae de satisfactione Christi (1617); ET: A Defence of the Catholic Faith concerning the Satisfaction of Christ against Faustus Socinus, trans. Frank Hugh Foster (Andover: Warren F. Draper, 1889). Nearly all subsequent critiques of Socinianism display deep indebtedness to Grotius’ book even when authors disagree with Grotius’ specific positive proposals.


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: Nacho Rochon on Unsplash

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