Sunday, April 6, 2008

Atonement and Penal Substitution

Kim asks, "What is your understanding of the differences between Catholics and Reformed Protestants on Christ's atonement coming from a Reformed background like me?"

The answer is: I do not really understand the differences, and would love to hear from others who do. I will share a few things I've read as I've considered this question, but please don't think these thoughts (and sources) are meant to be my attempt at laying out the differences. The differences may be much deeper, or there may be virtually no difference other than in the window dressing (I'm inclined to think the former, though my wife says I'm making much ado about nothing).

Article 21 of the Belgic Confession (a Reformed confession) states that "We believe that Jesus Christ is a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek-- made such by an oath-- and that he presented himself in our name before his Father, to appease his wrath with full satisfaction by offering himself on the tree of the cross and pouring out his precious blood for the cleansing of our sins, as the prophets had predicted. " In other words, Christ satisfied the Father's wrath against us by offering Himself.

This is supported with various Scripture, to wit: ""the chastisement of our peace" was placed on the Son of God and... "we are healed by his wounds." He was "led to death as a lamb"; he was "numbered among sinners" [citing Isa. 53:4-12]... and he suffered-- the "just for the unjust," [citing 1 Pet. 3:18 ] in both his body and his soul".

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a section that starts with "CHRIST OFFERED HIMSELF TO HIS FATHER FOR OUR SINS" (before para. 606).

Paragraph 615 says, "For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man's obedience many will be made righteous."(Rom 5:19) By his obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant, who "makes himself an offering for sin", when "he bore the sin of many", and who "shall make many to be accounted righteous", for "he shall bear their iniquities".(Isa 53:10-12) Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father.(Cf. Council of Trent (1547); DS 1529)"

So right off the comparative bat, both do use language to the effect that Christ's death atoned for our sins. If there's a difference, then, it seems it would be in the "how" of how that atonement was accomplished. One difference I can see, which may be one of emphasis only, is this: in the Reformed articulation, God's wrath demanded our punishment, or Christ's as the substitution for that penalty; in the Catholic articulation, satisfaction of God's judgment was made by the imputation of Christ's obedience onto the believer. In other words, one emphasis is on imputation of our sins onto Christ, another emphasis is on imputation of Christ's obedient righteousness onto sinners.

I can think of a related belief that is clearly different between Reformed and Catholic understandings. I wrote here that Calvin, the Father of Reformed thought, taught this: "If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual (Institutes, Book II, Ch. 16, Sect. 10)" and later, "surely, unless his soul shared in the punishment, he would have been the Redeemer of bodies alone. (ibid., Sect. 12)" The Catholics and Orthodox, of course, believe that when Christ "descended into Hell", it was to preach to those in Abraham's Bosom, not to suffer damnation.

So if the Reformed 'penal substitution' view involves the belief that God's wrath demands his penalized victim to be damned, then that view would seem to have a dramatically different understanding of "atonement" than the Catholic view.

I find it ironic that the atonement's details are so foreign to me, as I've relied upon it all my life. I have personally been reflecting on the Old Testament signs of the scapegoat and the blood-marked door posts of the passover. If each of these prefigures Christ's atonement, they tell me that the atonement is complex, that there are several facets to the way in which Christ's blood cleanses. But this topic is for the scholars. For me, in my own discernment, I am mostly struck by all that I noted in that previous post, that the notion of Christ enduring a suffering damnation to be an effective atonement, was novel to the Middle Ages. Beware of novelties.


Amy said...

Interesting. I never saw God as being so wrathful. His greatest attribute is mercy, so Catholics use that as our primary lens for viewing the Scriptures.

I would add that part of the Catholic view of atonement is based upon the old and new covenants. Jesus' death and resurrection were part of establishing the new and everlasting covenant prophesied by Jeremiah. Every Catholic Mass is a participation in the New Covenant.

Covenants have blessings for both parties when the covenant is kept, and curses when the covenant is broken for the side that breaks the covenant. Each of the covenants with God in the OT is broken by His people, so He makes new ones because He still wants to bless them and eventually bring them to Heaven. The new and everlasting covenant that Jesus established can never be broken, because Jesus will never sin.

When the terms of a covenant aren't kept, the side that breaks the covenant is subject to the curses, but the covenant itself still stands. It only ends when one of the parties dies, which is why marriage vows are "until death do us part."

The first covenant between God and man was with Adam and Eve. The only way to end that covenant would be for either all of humanity to die, or for God to die. Jesus' suffering and death was His taking on the punishments that the first Adam suffered for breaking the covenant (Gen 3), and ending it so that humanity was no longer under the curses resulting from breaking that first covenant. We're still born into the world created by their actions, but we have the opportunity to enter Paradise with Christ's Resurrection. The angel now welcomes us in instead of barring the way, and the gates are open.

Kim said...

Thanks for posting about this subject, Thos. I also look forward to others' responses, especially Bryan's. ;)

I think you have it pretty much down. For the last few days there has been a conversation about this subject on Dave Armstrong's blog (the link is to the combox - not sure if you've been watching it or not). If you read there you will see my struggle to understand the Catholics there who are trying to help me and another person understand the Catholic view. Maybe you can make better sense of it and explain it to me! lol

Thos said...


Thank you. I especially enjoyed your point that Covenants do not end upon their being broken, but upon one party to them dying. Somewhere in the past I gave some thoughts on Divorce on this blog, and how mistaken an interpretation of Scripture it is to say that divorce is sometimes permissible. Where your statement about covenants is correct, and marriage is a covenant, we make a slam-dunk case. Also, I always get a kick out of Catholics talking about covenants, because a *major* pillar of Reformed thought is based on God's covenant relationship with His people (we think we own it).


I hadn't seen Dave's post, and will go check it out now. Thanks for sharing.

Peace in Christ,

Thos said...


BTW, I see that there's an "Adomnan" posting in that combox. I spent a good bit of time wrestling with whether or not I wanted to name our newest son Adomnan. In addition to being Scottish, he was St. Columba's biographer... Sorry for the random aside.


Thos said...

In the quite impressive combox Kim pointed me to, one "Nick" said the following:

"One other good example is the phrase "COVERED by the Blood of the Lamb". HOW MANY times have we heard that phrase by Protestants and why they are saved? (google the phrase!)
Guess what!...the phrase NOR concept appears in Scripture! On the contrary, we see the Blood of Christ "CLEANSING US from all unrighteousness" (1 Jn 1:7-9; Heb 9:12f; 10:29; 13:12; Rev 1:5; etc)...this goes against the Protestant idea of "imputed righteousness of Christ" (another unbiblical phrase/concept)."

I characterized the Catholic position as saying this latter thing (the imputation of Rightousness). So I re-read the Catechism paragraph that made me say what I said, and realized that I had read it through a certain lens. So to the extent that Nick is right and I'm wrong, I defer to him. He certainly seems much better equipped to speak for the Catholic position.

I thought "BenM" had a noteworthy conclusion:

"The enormous subtlety and complexity of the sacred mysteries being discussed here have served, I think, to very effectively highlight and to bring into even sharper relief the great deficiencies of those two great Protestant dogmas viz, Sola Scriptura and private interpretation.

"For who could possibly, after reading all that has been said here, come to the conclusion that men, separated from “the bosom of the Church our Mother,” should hold forth even a scintilla of hope of arriving at the fullness of truth in these most sacred matters?"

Thanks, Kim, for wrapping me up in confusion!! Anyway, this reminds me what, early in my debate with a Catholic, I announced that the only debate that mattered was over authority. If the Catholics were right on authority, then that settled all these things. I still hold to that view.

Peace in Christ,

Kim said...

Thanks, Kim, for wrapping me up in confusion!!

My pleasure, Thos! lol Who knew there was all this thinking to be done? Please elaborate as you chew on this. I'd like to hear more from you on it.

Bob said...

I wrote here that Calvin, the Father of Reformed thought, taught this: "If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual (Institutes, Book II, Ch. 16, Sect. 10)" and later, "surely, unless his soul shared in the punishment, he would have been the Redeemer of bodies alone. (ibid., Sect. 12)"

Hmm... this seems to reveal an ontological dualism (I can't believe I'm using the phrase either) that pre-dates DeCartes. The soul is the form of the body in Thomistic thought. That is, the body and soul are one. Lots of theological problems arise out of that error in philosophy.


Kim said...

So, Thos, are you going to name him Adomnan or did you decide against it? Very interesting that you should run across a blogger going by that name! I had never heard of it until recently.

TheDen said...


I’m glad to see you blogging again and I hope we Catholics aren’t confusing you more and more.

I guess my understanding is the same as Amy’s.

When Adam fell, he was separated from the Tree of Life. His eating of the Tree of Life is what gave him eternal life (Gen. 3:22). In true irony that only God could have imagined, the Cross becomes the new Tree of Life and Christ’s body is the fruit of the tree. A Cross where God dies—a symbol of death becomes the Tree of Life for all men. We eat of His Body and drink of His Blood to gain eternal life (John 6). So, through Christ’s sacrifice, God restores the Tree of Life in a way that shows us how much He loves us. The entire Old Testament points to that one event.

Abraham said, "God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." (Genesis 22:8) And so He does…1800 years later.

Thos said...


I think the difference between Calvin's "descended into Hell" understanding and the Catholic or Orthodox one is profound. If I were to disagree with Calvin, I would say that it seems like an artificiality to say that the perfect Being, the God-man, did not suffer in his Spirit when His flesh was nailed to the Cross. I wonder if Calvin considered the anguish Christ obviously endured in the Garden on His death's eve. I suppose, though, that Calvin could attribute (esp. with the help of "modern science") anguish to a neurological chemical phenomenon, ergo, a fleshly sacrifice only. But my opinion and experience is that anguish hurts in the heart as much as the mind. It's deeper than our bio-chemical essence.


No, we didn't use that name, but I was sorely tempted. I am a great admirer of all Saints related to Scotland, where I in part grew up.


Thanks for coming back. I'm glad to see that people who have shared their faith with me and blessed me, have continued to contribute after my pseudo-hiatus.

Your articulation of the tree-cross analogy was well done. I have much to reflect on in considering the eating of the fruit of the new tree that broke the curse. Cursed is he who is nailed to a tree, says the Scripture (roughly). In the context of atonement, this means that Christ took our curse for us, as the scapegoat. Anyway, vis-a-vis fruit, the analogy does lend itself to a Eucharistic conclusion, although the possibility of Christ being "Word" only, and as such, spiritual fruit only, is not foreclosed.

Peace in Christ,

Tim A. Troutman said...

I think Peter Kreeft summarized this whole discussion pretty quickly by saying: The genius of Catholic theology is the non-distinction between justification and sanctification.