Guest Post: The Doctrine of the Atonement in Reformed History 1

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I would be devoting much of my summer blogging to the subject of the atonement and that if people were interested in participating they should contact me with their suggested contributions. That offer still stands, if anyone would like to take part. The following is the first contribution from Mark Jones. Mark is a member of the Presbyterian Church in America, currently working on his doctoral thesis on the Christology of Thomas Goodwin. He blogs at

John Calvin
Alastair and I go back many years as partners in crime on the Sermonaudio debate boards. Since then he has become somewhat of an authority on N.T. Wright (among others), for good or for bad depending on one’s theological proclivities, whereas I have remained firmly entrenched in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries where I have tried to understand our rich theological heritage, for good or for bad depending …

The topic under discussion is the atonement, a subject that, to use Calvin’s phrase, “cannot be put into words” (ineffabili quodam modo). Yet, the importance of the subject at hand forces me to speak, despite my own trepidation. At Alastair’s suggestion, I have decided to use my knowledge in historical theology to give a descriptive-historical study of the atonement as it was understood by theological luminaries such as Luther, Calvin, Owen, and Goodwin. Tentatively, I will seek to show in two separate posts that the aforementioned men pioneered the doctrine we call penal substitution. While Calvin and Owen, for example, both held to penal substitution, the latter’s writings on the subject were no mere duplication of the former. Moreover, to the surprise of some perhaps, I will seek to show that the Christus Victor motif (Aulen would not call it a theory), is very much an integral part of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century atonement formulations. As sports enthusiasts can appreciate, when something is wrong with the team, a substitution is made in the hope that the substitute will facilitate a victory. Our Reformed forefathers have shown that in Christ we have the substitute par excellence who has brought about the victory over sin, a victory that only a penal substitutionary atonement could make possible.

Between Calvin and Owen stood the Unitarian Pelagian, Faustus Socinus, whose work De Jesu Christo Servatore, “Of Jesus Christ the Savior” (1578), gives us important clues into the content of Calvin’s and Owen’s writings. In this first post I want to spend the majority of my time in the sixteenth century looking at both Calvin and Luther whose writings led to Socinus’ hostile reaction. Socinus referred to the idea of Christ’s undergoing of vicarious punishment on behalf of sinners (i.e. as their substitute) as irrational, incoherent, immoral and impossible. What was it about the Reformation doctrine of the atonement that caused Socinus to respond so negatively? That question will be central to our discussion. Moreover, towards the end I hope to contextualize Owen in order to provide a more significant treatment of his doctrine of the atonement in my second post.

It should be noted that Socinus was not alone in rejecting Luther’s and Calvin’s doctrine of the atonement. With him were the Remonstrants who posited what has become known as the governmental theory (i.e. that Christ suffered for all men). What, then, were they rejecting? This point will serve to contextualize Owen in his seventeenth-century context as an opponent of both Socinianism and Arminianism. But before we discuss Owen’s response to those two groups it seems prudent to give a brief distillation of what fueled Socinian and Arminian polemics.

Calvin’s doctrine of the atonement might be understood as a refinement of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo? To be sure, Anselm understood the atonement in satisfaction terms, but Calvin emphasized the vicarious punishment (poena) aspect of the atonement (space constraints limit me from detailing further differences between the two). “The priestly office belongs to Christ alone because by the sacrifice of his death he blotted out our guilt and made satisfaction for our sins [Heb. 9:22]” (Institutes. II.15.6). Furthermore, in his catechism (section 20, iv) he writes: “For because God was provoked to wrath by man’s disobedience, by Christ’s own obedience he wiped out ours, showing himself obedient to his Father, even unto death. And by his death he offered himself as a sacrifice to his Father, in order that his justice might once for all be appeased for all time, in order that believers might be eternally sanctified, in order that eternal satisfaction might be fulfilled. He poured out his sacred blood in payment for our redemption, in order that God’s anger, kindled against us, might be extinguished, and our iniquity might be cleansed.” Elsewhere, “[a]t every point he substituted himself in our place (in vicem nostram ubique se supposuerit) to pay the price of redemption” (Institutes. II.16.7).

The above only gives half the story however. T.H.L. Parker locates several different motifs in Calvin’s doctrine of the atonement. They are: 1) sacrifice; 2) satisfaction; 3) obedience; 4) expiation; and 5) victory. The fifth is, of course, crucial to my stated intention; namely, that the doctrine of penal substitution cannot be divorced from that of Christus Victor. John F. Jansen speaks of the prominent place of the Christus Victor motif in Calvin’s theology: “the regal conquest of Christ over the devil, death, and sin … is Calvin’s most recurrent theme”. This is certainly true if we are speaking in terms of Christ as King. But as priest he is also the substitute, the one who expiates sin and satisfies the Father. The two elements of Christus Victor and penal substitution are well described in the following: “Our common nature with Christ is the pledge of our fellowship with the Son of God; and clothed with our flesh he vanquished sin and death together that the victory and triumph might be ours. He offered as a sacrifice the flesh he received from us, that he might wipe out our guilt by his act of expiation and appease the Father’s righteous wrath” (emphasis mine) (Institutes. II.12.3; cf. II.12.2; II.16.7). I have purposely refrained from dealing with the much-vexed issue of particular redemption, especially in relation to Calvin. For my own part, it was not an issue that Calvin, unlike Owen, saw the need to address.

Aulen’s famous study on the atonement has several shortcomings, especially with reference to Luther. He places Luther in the Christus Victor camp and there is some merit to this. But, he ignores the obvious presence of penal substitution. Luther’s comments on Gal. 3:13 will prove especially helpful in highlighting both penal substitution and Christus Victor. “[Christ] sustained the person of a sinner … [he] took our sins upon Himself …. This, no doubt, all the prophets foresaw in spirit, that Christ should be accounted the greatest transgressor that could be, having all sins imputed to Him …. The schoolmen spoil us of this knowledge of Christ, namely, that Christ was made a curse that he might deliver us from the curse of the law, when they separate Him from sins and sinners, and only set Him out to us as an example to be followed …” But mixed with the penal element is Christ the victor. “So in Christ all sin is vanquished, killed, and buried, and righteousness remains a conqueror and reigns forever …. The victory of Christ is most certain …” Pannenburg was therefore correct to say that “Luther was probably the first since Paul and his school to have seen with full clarity that Jesus’ death in its genuine sense is to be understood as vicarious penal suffering.”

As I have mentioned, Socinus saw these treatments as irrational, incoherent, immoral and impossible. Three of his criticisms are worthy of attention: 1) Transferring the sins from the guilty to the guiltless (Christ) is not consistent with justice; 2) Christ’s temporary death is not a true substitute for the eternal death of many; and 3) a perfect substitutionary satisfaction would result in an unlimited permission to sin. The result led Socinus to promulgate a doctrine of the atonement that allowed God to forgive – based upon repentance – without requiring satisfaction. This element in Socinus’ thought played a significant role in Owen’s polemics on the necessity of Christ’s death. J I Packer was correct to suggest that Socinus’ work led Owen to adopt a defensive approach rather than doxological and kerygmatic. This approach is one I hope to lay out in more detail in the coming weeks.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Guest Post, The Atonement, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Guest Post: The Doctrine of the Atonement in Reformed History 1

  1. Jon says:

    Thanks Mark –

    Just a couple of notes:

    1 – re. Anselm and Calvin. I always struggle to see how the two relate (I appreciate you didn’t have time to flesh out the relationship) – Anselm is often cited as a catalyst for Calvin’s doctrine of PS but I think this needs to be nuanced careful to be understood properly. Is Anselm’s account truly Penal Substitution? As far as I can see it wasn’t Penal – the famous addage from Cur Deus Homo? is aut poena, aut satisfactio (either punishment or satisfaction. Obviously Anselm goes down the Satisfaction route so technically he ISN’T advocating any penal element. Furthermore, seems to me that he’s not even advocating a substitutionary element to the atonement – for his model to work, Christ must act in solidarity with humanity so that satisfaction can be made.

    2 – that said, I DO think there are links between Anselm and Calvin but is it fair to say, “Calvin’s doctrine of the atonement might be understood as a refinement of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo?” I suspect not – I think, if Anselm’s methodology is appreciated more fully then, although Calvin is influenced by Anselm, his doctrine of Atonement is fairly removed from Anselm’s satisfactio.

    3 – in this respect, Aquinas early doctrine of the atonement (I’m thinking of that posited in the early commentary on Aberlard’s Sentences) is often likened to Anselm’s although I’m not sure this link is warranted. On the other hand, I would like to see Aquinas and Calvin compared to see whether or not there is any influence there.

    Thanks again Mark!

  2. Jon says:

    Sorry – one more thing:

    You made an off-hand comment that Aulen wouldn’t refer to the Christus Victor theory but to the Christus Victor motif. I think this brings up a REALLY interesting topic – the chic way to talk about the atonement in this day and age is in terms of models or metaphors of atonement etc. Even as historically contemporary as Aulen he seems to be positing one theory of atonement. Also, the reformers never talk about different theories or models – they all seem to suggest one (although you posit 5 in Calvin via THLP he would never divide them up like that.)

    I suppose my question would be how would the particular tendenz of today’s theological community be read back into the history – is it right for us to suppose that Calvin would be happy for us to divide his doctrine of atonement up into 5? And how does this affect our talk NOW of atonement back then without squeezing things into our own mindset?

  3. Al says:


    Helpful questions. Your second comment made me wonder how much we could learn from a ‘history of historical theology’ in this area, something that Ben Myers commented on in a post this morning (GMT). I wonder if anyone has written a very detailed study on the subject. The way that we narrate the past can say as much about us as it does about the past itself.

  4. Mark Jones says:

    Thanks, Jon. I agree re: Anselm and Calvin. What I meant to suggest – perhaps I should have been more clear? – is that Calvin’s doctrine of the atonement took Anselm’s one step further. The whole idea of ‘satisfaction’, to me, is closely linked with ‘penal substitution’ though I would clearly differentiate between the two.

    On Calvin’s doctrine of the atonement I would argue that the five aspects should not be crassly divided, but seen as an organic whole with the various elements all interacting with one another to give one robust doctrine of the atonement. The (five, perhaps more?) emphases are certainly there, but they are all contingent upon one another; indeed, one might draw parallels with how the human body works.

    Hope that clarifies things.


  5. The Scylding says:

    “0rganic whole” – true. The excessive parsing of doctrine in some Reformed circles is a disease that needs rooting out.

    To understand the living whole
    They start by driving out the soul;
    They count the parts, and when all’s done,
    Alas! the spirit bond is gone.

    -Goethe (Faust, part 1)

  6. Andrew W says:

    In the first millennium, multiple simultaneous motifs for the atonement are the norm in Christian writings. Writers tended to be overenthusiastic on the subject, inventing new motifs on an ad hoc basis in addition to holding a number of atonement models.

    The first Christian writer I can think of who deliberately sets out to teach one and only one atonement model is Anselm. I can only speculate that subsequent tendencies within Christian thought on the subject toward one and only one atonement model originate both from him and from the systematic theology type of thought. From Anselm to the present day, systematic theology seems to have been largely dominated by the thought that humanity must have had One Big Problem which has its Solution in the atonement, and therefore the hunt has been on to identify precisely what that problem and solution were, and hence why only one model of the atonement is necessary.

  7. Theodore A. Jones says:

    Well sir what a row! However me thinks there is a bit of difficulty for according to Jesus there remains the residual issue of guilt relative to sin AFTER his crucifixion Jn. 16:8. If it were true that the crucifixion of Jesus was a substiute, i.e. “in place of” why is it true that guilt relative to sin is still outstanding? So then I’ll tell you what the model of atonement is but I doubt you’ll be much impressed.
    Humanity does have one big problem for the only begotten son’s life of the living God was taken by bloodshed! For this reason God by his foreknowledge knew this out come has said “and from EACH man too I will demand an accounting for the life of your fellow man.” The crucifixion of Jesus is the sin of murder caused by bloodshed. Therefore the only Way the Acts 2:38 command can be correctly obeyed is by the faith of REPENTING of the one sin of Jesus’ murder for the forgiveness of ALL sins. This big problem you refer to is that if you refuse to obey this command by not repenting of the one sin of Jesus’ murder your ass is toast. For it only takes one act of disobedience relative to any of God’s commands to earn the eternal penalty of death. Failure to apprise that the crucifixion of Jesus is the only repent-able sin to save yourself by the faith to repent of it is without excuse.
    Any comment or refute, or so be it?

  8. Joshua W.D. Smith says:

    Theo Jones,

    You really took John 16:8 out of context in order to spin out that theory. If you look, the sin concerning which the Spirit will convict the world is that of not believing in Jesus, not being guilty of his death. Besides this, the future convicting by the Spirit can certainly be concerning something that has been fully accomplished: the Spirit will convict men about judgment because “the ruler of this world has been judged” (perfect tense–completed action). So the ruler of this world had already been judged when the Spirit came, and thus the Spirit was convicting the world concerning a completed event. So, your argument–that because the Spirit was still going to come to convict the world of sin after the crucifixion, therefore the crucifixion could not have finally dealt with sin–simply does not hold.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.