Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Casual thoughts on Substitutionary Atonement

I was listening to a Sufjan Stevens song today and he mentioned the Substitutionary Atonement, the great dogma of Western Christianity. But I realized today that the doctrine of Penal Substitution - the central key to my lifelong faith - is not compatible with Catholicism... I think this is pretty stupid, as John Calvin pretty much just does a better job than Anselm at explaining the Atonement. I always saw Penal Substitution merely as a further improvement or development of Aquinas, which was a development of Anselm which was a development of Augustine and Athanasius.

I read Isaiah 53 today and Romans 5. There can be nothing clearer than the fact that Christ died in our place, was punished for our sins. St. Anselm just based his theory on some Regal understanding of God's kingship and the need for honour. But this is obviously outdated. Ugh and I found this page that made me feel sick: ... "Acts of Reparation to Jesus Christ" - I've not heard such a blasphemous title in my life. How on earth could any human pay Christ for anything. Penance is a legal fiction.

Yep... well maybe I should just stop reading my bible, as even when doctrines are clearly outlined I'm not allowed to believe them unless someone said something about it in the 3rd or 4th century affirming them.. . stupid church fathers.... gah. I hate my religion. (but of course sola scriptura makes no sense, and protestant ecclesiology is untraditional and bankrupt, and the Orthodox are racist shut ins). I'm also obligated to believe that Christ established the Church, but on days like today I really wish he established a better Church, because his is annoying me.

On a better note I talked with the Monsignor today and he said that Baptist baptisms are valid. So that's cool, because I wouldn't have wanted to affront God's honour by using the wrong water or words or intent.

So in the end the substitutionary atonement makes sense to me and was a pillar in my faith but at the same time I understand Catholic attacks on it:

1. Giving pardon does not square with taking satisfaction;
2. There is nothing that conforms with justice about punishing the innocent and letting the guilty go free;
3. The temporary death of one is not a substitute for the eternal death of many;
4. Perfect substitutionary satisfaction would confer on its beneficiaries an unlimited permission to sin.

So I guess number 3 kinda proves it, but at the same time as i will say that I will stick with what the Church teaches and try to figure out Anselm's formulation, I just feel rather attached to Penal Substitution. It makes so much sense, and it makes me happier, just like sola fide and Lutheran anti-nomianism...

I prophesy that one day I will become an Anglican and indulge myself in all these wonderful biblical heresies and finally be at peace.

this is just me venting, don't bother taking anything too seriously written above.


  1. 3. The temporary death of one is not a substitute for the eternal death of many;

    It does when the temporary death of that one, is the Son of God. Christ is infinite in his divinity is worth more in those hours of taking God's wrath, and his death, than all humanity suffering an infinite eternity of eternities. The readon that Christ's death can atone for the death's of many is as I said, he is God. Otherwise what you wrote is true, as it was first presented in Deuteronomy, that the blood of one cannot atone or the blood of another (humans not goats)...

    Cheers brothers

  2. Ignore those two typos....

    readon = reason
    brothers = brother...

    After studying Hebrew for eight hours today, my mind is destroyed...

  3. that's fine. I guess I understand that - ish. but I just wonder why he spent 3 days then... It was a magic number, but it was also the whole Jonah thing. hmm. Anyway. thanks for responding.

  4. Andrew,

    You need to keep in mind the whole system of Catholic doctrine when approaching things like reparation to Christ for sin. Remember, the Scriptures themselves speak of making up in the body (St. Paul here speaks) for others what is lacking in the sacrifice of Christ. So does Scripture itself contradict Scripture? No, of course not. It does, however, go against some of the pretty little theological notions we derive from certain parts of Scripture.

    This is why Catholic doctrine is so important. Theological models most definitely have their purpose: substitutionary atonement has its use in ILLUSTRATING the spiritual economy of salvation, which at its heart is a divine mystery. But we cannot pretend that the theological models are the actual truths themselves (C.S. Lewis brings out this point beautifully in Mere Christianity). We get into serious trouble when we do. Catholic doctrine steps in when we find such "contradictions" and makes sense of the matter in harmony with the ENTIRE deposit of faith.

    This is a perfect reflection of why in the Church there is a lot of freedom for theological inquiry for the private practice of religion, yet at the same time there is a body of doctrine (which is not determined by private Christians but by the institution of Christ) which holds the reigns and guides the Church into all truth.

    To the specific issue of acts of reparation of Jesus Christ, try looking at it from a Catholic soteriological viewpoint rather than a Protestant one. To the Protestant sensibility, it is indeed a blasphemy. Yet you know very well that the work of Christ on the cross is, while a finished event in time, yet a present reality which continues to work in time through the ministry of the Church in its Sacraments and good works. Can any individual boast and claim those graces are their own? Certainly not: Catholic doctrine leaves no room for that. Yet to deny the role that the body of Christ has to play in the economy of salvation for the world is unscriptural and an offense against Christ and the Church. So the acts of reparation are acts which sprout from the grace and charity of Christ which becomes really present in his body, the Church. We as Christians participate in the sole mediatorship of Christ (which Protestants also do by their prayers for one another).

    I know this is not your personal denial, so this is not a personal rebuke. It is a rebuke against the false teachings of men (private theologies) which, through pride or ignorance, pretend to elevate themselves to the level of doctrine. Sorry, but the instant private theologies cease to be a means to draw men's minds toward the truth and dress themselves up as binding doctrine in opposition to the Church, we have a problem of which all the snake handlers, cults, divisions and heresies deafeningly testify.

    As I have said before, it will take time for your sensibility to shift away from the Protestant set of assumptions to the Catholic ones. It took me a while, too, so be patient with yourself.



  5. Yeah I always wondered about the three days thing as well... my only assumption is that as you said the Jonah reference was just a foreshadow/type of Christ, but even then I don't know why "three" days was a reason...

    I just think often many don't realize that an infinite being, i.e. the God-man's death cannot even be compared to finite being, no matter how many there are...

    I like what you said about the progression of the theology of atonement through the ages, augustine, anselm, aquinas, etc. It really is interesting to see how doctrines develop...