The Medieval Origins of the “Christ paid the penalty for us” Gospel.

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by Neil Godfrey

I was about to start the next post in my series attempting to justify seriously questioning the “bedrock fact” status of the crucifixion of Jesus when I came across a new publication by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon.

There are some interesting enlightening details in it, and, (sorry to say, but Borg and Crossan are big enough to take and deserve it) some incredible howlers of both method and conclusions that I would never have expected in a work by scholars of such high repute. Maybe this is because they were leaning more to accessing a popular reading public than the scholarly guild with this one. I am reminded of earlier posts where I have expressed some disgust against scholars who know better yet see fit to short change their popular readership like this. For my most recent protest, see my remarks on Pagels and King in A Spectrum of Jesus Mythicists and Mythers. I’ll address one of these lower high school level howlers in a future post. But first, something good and interesting from the book. (Anyway, I guess that’s one of the reasons for my blog — to attempt to make a bit more accessible some of the thinking of scholars on these sorts of topics.)

On page 127 they write:

For many centuries, the death of Jesus has been understood by most Christians as a substitutionary sacrifice for sin, as a substitutionary atonement, as this theological understanding is called.

This way of seeing the death of Jesus is very familiar. Most Christians today, and most non-Christians who have heard anything about Christianity, think that the cross means, in slight variations:

Jesus died for our sins.

Jesus is the sacrifice for sin.

Jesus died in our place.

Jesus is the payment for sin.

For this understanding, the notions of punishment, substitution, and payment are central. We deserve to be punished by God for our sins, but Jesus was the substitute who paid the price. The issue is how we may be forgiven by God for our sin and guilt.

Then follows what must be a bombshell for most fundamentalists in particular:

But this understanding is less than a thousand years old. (p.128)

So where did it come from?

Borg and Crossan answer: It came from a theological treatise, Cur Deus Homo? = Why Did God Become Human? by Anselm of Canterbury, first published in 1097.

Anselm of Canterbury

This is Anselm’s argument:

  1. All people have disobeyed God. So all people are sinners.
  2. Someone has to pay for our sin. Forgiveness means that compensation must be made for the offence or crime. If no payment was required for sin, then it would imply God does not think is anything very important.
  3. Since God is infinite, our debt to him is also infinite. But we are finite, so are incapable of paying the price owed.
  4. Jesus is infinite, and when he became human he could pay the full cost of the penalty for us as a substitute sacrifice. So we can be forgiven.

And this has been the understanding of Christianity in general ever since! Well, I never knew that! Just Kipling Just So story, only it’s probably true! 😉

Mel Gibson and his “patron pope”, John-Paul II who apparently loved his The Passion of the Christ movie, have both preached the same Anselm Cur Deus Homo? doctrine.

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23 thoughts on “The Medieval Origins of the “Christ paid the penalty for us” Gospel.”

  1. Interesting. How does that play out with the model of early Christian thinking that April DeConick is sketching? If I’m understanding her correctly, the idea that Jesus died to wash away the sins of Israel goes all the way back to the first Jewish-Christians. I would take that as an early version of substitutionary atonement.

    Are they actually quite different? Did Anselm “rediscover” to concept and add a new gloss to it?

    1. Dying to save us is not what’s in question. The difference is in the explanation of how the death saves. Dying to wash away sins (by his blood?) sounds like a kind of magic ritual more than a business transaction where exact payment had to be compensated before the lawyers and judge were satisfied.

      1. So it’s not the basic theological concept that’s in question, but the terminology and mechanism? Both the early church and Anselm would agree that “Jesus died for our sins,” but only Anselm would use words like debt, payment, and compensations.

    2. I don’t think there is any argument about substitutionary atonement per se — but with the explanation that it is all related to harsh judgmentalism of the father who is demanding his pound of flesh come what may.

  2. Hi there,

    I’m a fundamentalist, so take what I say with a pinch of salt.

    Justin Martyr (100-165) said, “If, then, the Father of all wished His Christ for the whole human family to take upon Him the curses of all, knowing that, after He had been crucified and was dead, He would raise Him up, why do you argue about Him, who submitted to suffer these things according to the Father’s will, as if He were accursed, and do not rather bewail yourselves? For although His Father caused Him to suffer these things in behalf of the human family, yet you did not commit the deed as in obedience to the will of God.” 1

    Eusebius of Caesarea (275-339), “And the Lamb of God not only did this, but was chastised on our behalf, and suffered a penalty He did not owe, but which we owed because of the multitude of our sins; and so He became the cause of the forgiveness of our sins, because He received death for us, and transferred to Himself the scourging, the insults, and the dishonour, which were due to us, and drew down upon Himself the appointed curse, being made a curse for us.” 2

    And the list goes on to Augustine and beyond. Substitutionary atonement is taught in Scripture and by the church. It and Christianity are indivisible from one another.

    1 Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, repr. 1969), sect. xcv, p. 247.
    2 Trans. and ed. W. J. Ferrar (London: SPCK; New York: Macmillan, 1920), vol. 2, bk. 10, ch. 1, p. 195.

    1. The difference is subtle. Or else Borg and Crossan are simply wrong. But I opt for the former at this particular moment for the following reasons:

      There is no question that Paul taught that Jesus’ death saves us. (I’ll be elaborating on that in a future post with a different theme altogether from this one.) But how does a death save us? The Justin passage you cite is consistent with that of the Paschal lamb. “Its purpose was not sacrificial but apotropatic” (John Ashton, Understanding the Fourth Gospel.) It saved by decree or a kind of magic — blood seen by the death angel means you get lucky.

      The Eusebius passage, similarly, addresses well known NT tropes, but does not quite go so far as Anselm. Yes, we are the ones deserving death, and Christ graciously suffered what we in fact deserved according to this teaching, but again there is no suggestion that those ironic or tragic or glorious facts are the actual saving mechanism. They are part of the scenery, and the whole story package. But how a death actually saved us is not there.

  3. Humble1: “So it’s not the basic theological concept that’s in question, but the terminology and mechanism? Both the early church and Anselm would agree that “Jesus died for our sins,” but only Anselm would use words like debt, payment, and compensations.”

    Neil: That’s how I understand Anselm’s point via Borg/Crossan. As I Christian I used to look for explanations about how and why Christ’s death saved us. It didn’t seem like a real logical connect. B&C also discuss the different reactions of Christians. The idea the God would require a blood sacrifice, particularly of his Son, seems barbaric to some. The idea that the death had some “magic” power to use the more honest but cruder term also leaves others dissatisfied.

    My church satisfied my logical enquiries at the time by saying,

    1. All mankind had sinned and therefore owed a debt to God.
    2. Jesus’ life was worth more than the whole of mankind.
    3. Therefore the debt was evenly balanced when he died and all mankind are saved

    — only they’re not really unless they also have faith, and even then they have to repent, etc . . . . but that logic was, I now know, derived from Anselm, not Paul or the NT.

  4. I think George Bernard Shaw makes fun of the idea of the innocent paying for the sins of the guilty in the preface to one of his plays – though it’s 50 years since I read them. He compares policemen desperate to fix up someone for a crime justifying themselves by saying that its better that an innocent man pays rather than noone if you can’t nail the guilty person, and that in Christianity its actually better that an innocent pay than a guilty person. If I remember correctly he says that in Hellenistic times, with the dissolution of City states and ethnes people were desperate for salvation, hence all the kings called Soter, and that Christianity gave it cheaper as someone else had already paid the price. I found it interesting at the time : in one equation – Jewish guilt + Hellenistic longing for salvation + Roman Law = salvation theology. Bernard Shaw was excellent at throwing out ideas that stick in your mind.

    1. Living in southeast Asia I have become quite accustomed now to seeing small Buddhist-type shrines in streets and shops and food courts and in fronts of houses and apartments, and seeing all sorts of people regularly praying in front of them with lighted prayer sticks. It is the range of people that strikes me: all ages, all types — not only the elderly and good, but the young and busy, the hookers and their pimps, the successful and the poorest. I am a newcomer and could be wrong, but my impressions are that the notion of guilt is simply not prominent at all: it is all about offering respect and gratitude and holding out hope. It all seems so much healthier than a focus on guilt and sin. And the kindness of the people seems to just fall into place as if by nature.

  5. mmm,

    If the definition of substitutionary atonement accepted is: “Substitutionary atonement is a doctrine in Christian theology which states that Jesus of Nazareth died – intentionally and willingly – on the cross as a propitiation, or substitute, for sinners.” 1 then Justin Martyr’s phrase, “to take upon Him the curses of all” certainly fulfills the criteria as does Eusebius’, “was chastised on our behalf, and suffered a penalty He did not owe”.

    In additional Augustine said, “But as Christ endured death as man, and for man; so also, Son of God as He was, ever living in His own righteousness, but dying for our offences, He submitted as man, and for man, to bear the curse which accompanies death. And as He died in the flesh which He took in bearing our punishment, so also, while ever blessed in His own righteousness, He was cursed for our offences, in the death which He suffered in bearing our punishment.” 2

    Bottom line is I think there is suffiecient evidence to show that the statement, “But this understanding is less than a thousand years old.” is false.

    1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Substitutionary_atonement
    2 Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ser. I, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), bk. 14, sect. 6, p. 209.

    1. No argument really. But I better be careful here, and after giving B and C a hard time elsewhere, make sure I have my facts straight here . . .

      Have checked Borg and Crossan again to see what they say, and their argument is not against substitutionary atonement per se, but as it is understood by Christianity generally today. Their key point is that Paul stressed that the atoning sacrifice of Christ was a result of God’s love and “passion” for us.

      According to B&C, the way the sacrifice is interpreted by the bulk of Christianity is that it tends to portray a negative character or nature to God. God is seen to be like:

      “a lawgiver and judge who demands payment for sin. It emphasizes God’s wrath. God’s wrath needs to be appeased, placated, satisfied — . . . It suggests that God required the death of Jesus, that it was God’s will, God’s plan, that Jesus be killed.

      “Ponder what all of this suggests about the character of God what God is like. Strict parent? Exacting judge? Demanding monarch? It turns the message of divine generosity, of grace, of God’s character as love, on its head.” (p. 147)

      B&C admit that many Christians strongly defend this view, but they attempt to argue, as above, that it is wrong.

      (I personally have difficulty with accepting a being who understands that love involves a human sacrifice. Would kids still say something like “That is SO B.C.”)

      1. Hi Neil,

        I’m clearly writing about the wrong subjects, I never get this kind of debate.

        Maybe one more quote focused on the appeasement of the wrath of God? Hilary of Poitiers (c. 300-368) concisely said, “Thus He offered Himself to the death of the accursed that He might break the curse of the Law, offering Himself voluntarily a victim to God the Father, in order that by means of a voluntary victim the curse which attended the discontinuance of the regular victim might be removed.”

        We might’ve been barking up the wrong tree though. B&C doesn’t seem to actually have an issue with substitutionary atonement but rather with penal substitution or propitiation? That I’m sure would be better answered by studying the word ἱλασμός in 1 John 2:2 and 1 John 4:10.

        To be honest I’ve exhausted the usefulness of my academic abilities as I’m not a historical theologian. I do still think that there’s a sufficient basis in the comments to debunk the original hypothesis “But this understanding is less than a thousand years old.” (maybe I’ve claimed a subjective victory :)).

        1. This post is recalcitrantly out of order. It is meant to follow in reponse to Mark Penrith’s post of the same date, some posts above. How can technology get things so stubbornly wrong!

          The more I read of B&C in this latest little book the less secure I feel about accepting anything they say. As far as I can see from those topics of theirs where I have had the knowledge and interest to check out, they’ve shown themselves to be so driven by their theological agenda that their “supporting scholarly” exegesis borders on charlatanry. I’m inclined to see you as the winner of the debate solely on their shoddiness in those other areas. When writing for the public it seems they don their evangelistic hats and leave their academic ones back in their cloister.

  6. I found this thread at a remarkable time in my reading. I have not read B&C, so I cannot comment on what they say.

    Rather than repeat another’s arguments, I would point interested readers to a web dissertation on the first millenium doctrine of Christus Victor which I encountered in the last few days.


    I would read with interest the comments of others on the author’s presentation.


  7. I do agree that the presentation by B & C is being over simplified here. So I’d like to offer some historical perspective. As noted earlier, the church fathers clearly did teach substitutionary atonement. However substitutionary atonement is not equivalent to penal substitution. Penal substitution is what B & C are objecting to, and to be fair Anselm also did not teach penal substitution.

    Substitutionary atonement is a general term. Penal substitution is a certain flavor of substitutionary atonement that focuses on the punitive aspects of that substitution, understood in a paradigm of retributive justice. It is one way to understand substitution, but it is historically not the only way.

    The church fathers, particularly the Greek church fathers, understood substitutionary atonement in the context of Christus Victor. That is, the reason Christ suffered vicariously was in order to heal our sin, and to liberate us from bondage. This is the context in which all of the church fathers quoted above speak of substitutionary atonement. It is not so much about Christ dying “instead of” us, but of Christ dying “as us” and this resulting in our healing and liberation. So it is a view of the atonement tied to the incarnation, and to a resulting ontological transformation in us. This is also known as “recapitulation”.

    Anselm saw Christ’s sacrifice as an alternative to punishment (thus it is not the same as penal substitution) where it is the merit of Christ’s obedience which restores honor to God. Anselm marks a major shift in the Latin (Roman Catholic) church from the Christus Victor view, to a legal view of the atonement. There had been a back and forth going on here which goes as far back as Tertullian, but after Anselm the focus is clearly on legal satisfaction. That’s the big sea-change B & C are eluding to. In the Eastern (Greek Orthodox) church that shift never happened, and they still teach Christus Victor.

    Penal substitution – while related to Anselmian satisfaction, both being legal views that assume a model of retributive justice – is really a specifically Calvinist view of the atonement, and not a Catholic one. So while substitutionary atonement goes way back to the Apostolic fathers, penal substitution itself is specifically Calvinist.

    That’s the complex historical version. Or you could just go with B & C and blame it on Anselm 🙂

    1. I had another look at my post and can see now why most people have focussed on the discussion of “substitutionary atonement” rather than my intended point (of the penal demands being satisfied) that have been attached by many to that. My new Zamanta blogging process pops up links and tags as I type, and I allowed one of these to go through to “subtitutionary atonement” — but the problem is, as a hyperlink is lurking either side of those words, the words appear in a different colour and appear to be a main point of emphasis in my discussion.

      That was not my intent, but I’ll take more note of what I send through as hyperlinks in future.

      What really enticed me to write the post as I did was that what B & C explain was Anselm’s explanation was the exact one that a church to which I had belonged for many years taught and drilled into us.

      Thanks for adding the clarifications here.

      1. Hi Neil,

        The only part of the summary of Anselm you give from C&O above that strikes me as incorrect is point 4

        “Jesus is infinite, and when he became human he could pay the full cost of the penalty for us as a substitute sacrifice. So we can be forgiven.”

        Anselm did not believe that Jesus paid a “penalty” at all. He re-paid a debt of honor to God, not through his death, but through his obedience and sacrificial life.

        The paradigm Anselm is thinking in is an economic one, where if you break something you either pay for it (the price to replace the broken window), or you get a punishment. Only he is applying that idea to the Feudal honor system, where if a Lord is wronged they would “demand satisfaction” (i.e. compensation for being wronged). So Jesus paying our debt that we cannot repay, averts the penalty. It does not “pay” the penalty.

        I’m not exactly sure what the historical legal origins of the associations we have today of “your gonna pay for that” and “justice being served” through pain and punishment are, but they are not how Anselm presents his view. I think they came later, but am not sure.

        The real problem with Anselm is his assumption that God is concerned with upholding his honor. That’s a notion that comes from Anselm’s own Feudal culture, and not at all from the image of who God is as revealed in Jesus in the NT which shows us a picture of a God born into humble circumstances, who associated with the least, and died a shameful death on the cross.

        1. This is a comment on these lines from Derek’s most recent comments:

          “Substitutionary atonement is a general term. Penal substitution is a certain flavor of substitutionary atonement that focuses on the punitive aspects of that substitution, understood in a paradigm of retributive justice. It is one way to understand substitution, but it is historically not the only way.”


          “I’m not exactly sure what the historical legal origins of the associations we have today of “your gonna pay for that” and “justice being served” through pain and punishment are, but they are not how Anselm presents his view. I think they came later, but am not sure.”

          If we read the whole of Matthew 6:9-15, Christ puts in context 9-13, a text that many collectively recite in every worship service, I believe that 14 and 15 help us to understand what Jesus meant by verse 12.

          “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

          In 6:14-15, He teaches us “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

          How can we insist in ‘retributive justice’ in the face of this teaching.

          Thank you, Derek, for your final clarification.

          “The real problem with Anselm is his assumption that God is concerned with upholding his honor. That’s a notion that comes from Anselm’s own Feudal culture, and not at all from the image of who God is as revealed in Jesus in the NT which shows us a picture of a God born into humble circumstances, who associated with the least, and died a shameful death on the cross.”

          1. Would Anselm have thought that the image of God who was born into humble circumstances and associated with the least and died a shameful death was inconistent with a God who also believed in retributive justice for his honour’s sake? I don’t know, but ask because I understand many Christians today do hold to both notions at the same time.

            Does not the focus on God as concerned with the rights of all, including the poor and least, reflect our culture as much as Anselm’s view of the God of honour might have reflected feudal culture?


  8. There has been for quite some time much discussion about why Jesus was crucified. I think we all should make note that Jesus made the promise that if we would continue in his words that this is the way to discover what is really true about why he was crucified. I was reading my Bible the other day and remembered this verse “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law. Dt. 29:29 There is something very important for us to understand about Jesus’ crucifixion. For the actual true reason why he was to be crucified was a closely held secret and was not revealed to the Lord’s apostles until after he was crucified and had ascended back to his Holy father. Paul tells us the same thing in 1 Cor. 2:7&8, and there is another thing Paul said that is also very very important for us to understand that is part of what had been a secret for so very long.

    “It is not those who hear the law who are righteous
    in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who
    will be declared righteous. Rom 2:13

    Paul is talking about ‘this law’ that was mentioned in Dt. 29:29, and it is only by Jesus crucifixion that this law exist. For another part of this secret that God held to himself that was revealed to Paul by God’s spirit is what Paul said about ‘this law’.

    “The law was added so that the trespass might increase.” Rom. 2:13

    And you know what? Over in Heb. 7:12b it is written that there has been a change of God’s law. And the reason God made a change to his law is because of a binding oath he placed upon himself that requires God to do something by Jesus’ life having been taken by bloodshed. This oath, Heb. 6:17&18, and ‘this law’ are the two immutable things. And what they mean were God’s secret that God’s spirit taught to the apostles of Jesus after Jesus was crucified.

    “And for your life blood, meaning Jesus’ lifeblood,
    I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand
    an accounting from every animal. And from each
    man too, I will demand an accounting for the life
    of his fellow man.” Gen . 9:5 NIV

    These things are the keys into the kingdom of the Living God. And the only Way you can get into God’s kingdom is by faith. Even if your faith is as small as a mustard seed by obeying ‘this law’ confessing with your mouth directly to God that you are truly sorry Jesus life was taken by bloodshed and be baptized into this Way. You will receive the promise of the forgiveness of ALL your sins. But if you refuse obey the Lord this Way you commit a sin for which there is no forgiveness possible. Amen.

  9. All we need is the Bible, and the Apostle Paul certainly viewed and taught Jesus’ death on the cross as substitutionary. The natural man cannot understand the things of God and you need to be born again. Jesus, as the Second Adam died and took the first Adam’s sin upon Himself to the grave, so that in His resurrection we could be reborn spiritually into Christ, the Second Adam. In effect, we change Adams. The substitutionary sacrifice is necessary. It goes all the way back to the Old Testament, where it is pictured in type and shadow and points to Christ’s sacrifice. The offerer would bring a little lamb, lay his head on the head on the animal, passing his sins onto it, and then slay it. Leviticus chapter 1. This was only a temporary covering for sin commited. The book of Hebrews explains how Jesus offered Himself as a one-time perfect, never- to- be- repeated sacrifice for all sin. Once again, this is so we can change Adams, and become a new creation in Christ Jesus. You are wrong in saying this theology was born in medieval times. It goes all the way back to Old Testament law, which is fulfilled in Christ.

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