For one reason or another, I’ve been digging around in the Church Fathers in my studies on holiness. Along the way, I’ve run across a couple of useful passages on the atonement in Cyril of Jerusalem and Hilary of Poitiers. The gist of it is this: even though we still commonly hear folks claim that nothing like a satisfaction, or a penal theory of Christ’s work on the cross was present in the Church Fathers, you can still find passages that prove otherwise.
Mind you, these are not exact reproductions of Anselm or Calvin. Doctrinal formulations develop with language and history. Still, it seems easy to see that they’re in the same, conceptual ballpark, insofar as they see part of Christ’s work answering the problem of God’s legal curse upon sin, with Christ voluntarily assuming responsibility for that curse, in order that God might not be made a liar in saving and forgiving us.
So, first, observe these two paragraphs in Cyril’s Catechetical lecture on the clause, “crucified and buried” in the Creed:
And wonder not that the whole world was ransomed; for it was no mere man, but the only-begotten Son of God, who died on its behalf. Moreover one man’s sin, even Adam’s, had power to bring death to the world; but if by the trespass of the one death reigned over the world, how shall not life much rather reign by the righteousness of the One? And if because of the tree of food they were then cast out of paradise, shall not believers now more easily enter into paradise because of the Tree of Jesus? If the first man formed out of the earth brought in universal death, shall not He who formed him out of the earth bring in eternal life, being Himself the Life? If Phinees, when he waxed zealous and slew the evil-doer, staved the wrath of God, shall not Jesus, who slew not another, but gave up Himself for a ransom, put away the wrath which is against mankind?
We see here that at least part of what Jesus came to do was, in a manner similar to Phinehas the zealous priest did in Israel, put away the wrath of God which was against mankind. This he did, not by slaying the offending Israelite, but by offering himself up as a ransoming sacrifice.
Further, he says this:
These things the Saviour endured, and made peace through the Blood of His Cross, for things in heaven, and things in earth. For we were enemies of God through sin, and God had appointed the sinner to die. There must needs therefore have happened one of two things; either that God, in His truth, should destroy all men, or that in His loving-kindness He should cancel the sentence. But behold the wisdom of God; He preserved both the truth of His sentence, and the exercise of His loving-kindness. Christ took our sins in His body on the tree, that we by His death might die to sin, and live unto righteousness. Of no small account was He who died for us; He was not a literal sheep; He was not a mere man; He was more than an Angel; He was God made man. The transgression of sinners was not so great as the righteousness of Him who died for them; the sin which we committed was not so great as the righteousness which He wrought who laid down His life for us,—who laid it down when He pleased, and took it again when He pleased. And wouldest thou know that He laid not down His life by violence, nor yielded up the ghost against His will? He cried to the Father, saying, Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit; I commend it, that I may take it again. And having said these things, He gave up the ghost; but not for any long time, for He quickly rose again from the dead.
Here Cyril sets up a clear dilemma leading to the reconciling blood of the cross (Col. 1): either God could have destroyed us as the sinners we are, justly deserving of his threatened, legal punishment, OR he can cancel the sentence of death. Mind you, this is a clearly legal logic.
But how is the problem solved? God preserved both principles at work behind both options in the death of his Son, which prevents sinners from being destroyed and God’s sentence from being cancelled. The logic is very clearly one where God does not merely forgive and let the sentence go, nor does he simply destroy. He does both at one and the same time in the cross. And of course, the key is that he does this through the Son’s willing sacrifice in laying “down his life for us,” and then taking it up again.
Turning to the great Hilary of Poitiers, we see something similar in his Homily on Psalm 54. Here he offers a Christological reading that makes the Psalm a testimony to the coming work of Christ for our salvation. See what he says in these two paragraphs towards the end of the exposition:
Now in view of our repeated, nay our unbroken assertion both that it was the Only-begotten Son of God Who was uplifted on the cross, and that He was condemned to death Who is eternal by virtue of the origin which is His by the nature which He derives from the eternal Father, it must be clearly understood that He was subjected to suffering of no natural necessity, but to accomplish the mystery of man’s salvation; that He submitted to suffering of His own Will, and not under compulsion. And although this suffering did not belong to His nature as eternal Son, the immutability of God being proof against the assault of any derogatory disturbance, yet it was freely undertaken, and was intended to fulfil a penal function without, however, inflicting the pain of penalty upon the sufferer: not that the suffering in question was not of a kind to cause pain, but because the divine Nature feels no pain. God suffered, then, by voluntarily submitting to suffering; but although He underwent the sufferings in all the fulness of their force, which necessarily causes pain to the sufferers, yet He never so abandoned the powers of His Nature as to feel pain.
Now, again, this isn’t Calvin straight up. Still, you see that Christ, the Eternal Son, was condemned to death on the cross. Yet, Hilary is at pains to confess that this was voluntarily accepted, not imposed upon him from without with respect to the agency of God the Father (presumably the action of the whole Godhead being appropriated to him). Still, what he submitted to was “intended to fuflil (sic) a penal function.”
The business about “without, however, inflicting the pain of penalty upon the sufferer” can be tricky, though. At first it seems to deny the cross was penalty. But that makes no sense of the prior clause. The point Hilary seems to be getting at is that the divine Son did not have pain inflicted upon him unwillingly, nor did he suffer it in a servile way such that he “abandoned the powers of his Nature as to feel pain.” In other words, God submitted to suffering in Christ, but not in such a way that violated his impassible nature.
Continuing on, he says:
For next there follows: I will sacrifice unto Thee freely. The sacrifices of the Law, which consisted of whole burnt-offerings and oblations of goats and of bulls, did not involve an expression of free will, because the sentence of a curse was pronounced on all who broke the Law. Whoever failed to sacrifice laid himself open to the curse. And it was always necessary to go through the whole sacrificial action because the addition of a curse to the commandment forbad any trifling with the obligation of offering. It was from this curse that our Lord Jesus Christ redeemed us, when, as the Apostle says: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made curse for us, for it is written: cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree. 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. Now of this sacrifice mention is made in another passage of the Psalms: Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared for Me; that is, by offering to God the Father, Who refused the legal sacrifices, the acceptable offering of the body which He received. Of which offering the holy Apostle thus speaks: For this He did once for all when He offered Himself up1401, securing complete salvation for the human race by the offering of this holy, perfect victim.
We see here how he is at pains to express the value of Christ’s voluntary offering in contrast to the offering of unwilling beasts. He also clearly notes the connection between the curse of death and the Law. The curse is legal in nature. And that is the curse from which Christ redeemed us, by offering himself as a holy, perfect victim to die the death of the accursed and break it’s hold upon us.
While we don’t have the exact language of Christ suffering the wrath of God as a substitute, or something like that, we do have Christ offering himself to God the Father to suffer the cursed death due sinners according to the Law. This puts us, as I said, in largely the same conceptual ballpark as both satisfaction and penal substitution accounts. And, arguably, it’s closer to penal substitution since there is no mention of satisfying God’s honor, but rather God’s requirement and curse in the Law.
There are more passages, of course. And obviously, none of this is an argument that there isn’t a wide breadth of thought on atonement in the Fathers, nor that this is the only way to think about atonement. All the same, it’s worth highlighting these today, if only to remind ourselves that the history of theology is a stranger, more complicated place than our typical, canned presentations can lead us to suspect.
Soli Deo Gloria