The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Thursday, April 25, 2024



If you have read much of the theological works of the older school of Reformed theologians you have probably encountered numerous references to the sophistry of the Socinians.   These were the followers of the thought of Faustus Socinius and his uncle Lelio.  These were a pair of sixteenth century Italian Renaissance humanists who went much further than the Magisterial Reformers or even most of the Anabaptist radicals.   They rejected the basic Christian faith as confessed in the ancient Creeds and taught a form of unitarianism.


Faustus Socinius also formulated a set of basic arguments against the penal substitution theory of the Atonement that have been used by those who object to that theory ever since.   These are found in his De Jesu Christo Servatore (Of Jesus Christ the Saviour), first published in 1578.   The penal substitution theory is one of the theories that purport to explain how the Atonement works.   It is not itself, nor is any other such theory, de fide, that is to say, a basic tenet of the faith once delivered unto the saints.   That Jesus died for us and rose again, and by doing so rescued us from our plight as sinners helpless to save ourselves, is de fide.   While the Apostles’ Creed includes the basic historical facts of the Gospel without commenting on their larger meaning, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the standard of orthodoxy for the entire Church since her first two Ecumenical Councils, affirms that Jesus:


for us men and for our salvation
came down from heaven,
and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary,
and was made man;
and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered and was buried;
and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures,
and ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of the Father;
and he shall come again, with glory,
to judge both the quick and the dead;
whose kingdom shall have no end.


That the entire Gospel history is of events done for our salvation is the import of the first italicized phrase, that His death by crucifixion was particularly so is the import of the second.  This basic fact is de fide, the various theories purporting to explain how it works are not.  


The penal substitution theory is that in the Atonement the guilt for our sins was transferred to Jesus, He took our punishment in our place, and His righteousness is on account of this transferred to us.   This was the understanding of the Atonement stressed by the Protestant Reformers and like all the other theories it is drawn from certain Scriptural texts.   The most obvious ones are 2 Corinthians 5:21 “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him”, 1 Peter 2:24 “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed” and the verse in the Old Testament book of Isaiah to which St. Peter there alludes, Isaiah 53:5 “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”


It is not uncommon for those Catholics – by Catholics I mean those who profess the faith of the ancient Creeds, accept the conciliar interpretation of that faith as developed in the first millennium prior to the Great Schism, and who are part of a Church in organic descent from the Church in Jerusalem, rather than those who are in communion with the Patriarch of Rome – who reject the penal substitution theory to cite the Socinian arguments against them.  It is difficult not to suspect that the real issue these have with the theory is their dislike of the men who promulgated it in the sixteenth century.   Among Anglo-Catholics, for example, that is to say Catholics according to the above description who belong to Church of England, the broader Anglican Communion, or one of the various Anglican groups that are not in communion or full communion with the Church of England/Anglican Communion due to her apostasy into liberalism, acceptance of the Socinian arguments against penal substitution was far more common after the Oxford Movement of the 1830s than before.  This is likely explainable by a change in Anglo-Catholicism brought about the Oxford Movement.  Earlier Anglo-Catholics, like the Caroline Divines, had no problem regarding themselves as Protestant as well as Catholic and were not biased against the Reformers.  The Oxford Movement introduced a romantic view of Rome as the model that exemplifies Catholicism and with it came a more negative attitude towards the Protestant Reformers.  Ironically, by contrast with either Roman Catholics or Anglo-Catholics of the anti-Reformer type, the Catholics of the East, the Eastern Orthodox, are more likely to see penal substitution as the logical outcome of the development of Roman theology on the Atonement since the Schism.   Dr. Luther and John Calvin, in their view, merely took the satisfaction theory put forward by St. Anselm of Canterbury in Cur Deus Homo? (Why Did God Become Man?) and reframed it legal terms rather than those of the feudal honour system.  St. Thomas Aquinas in his discussion of satisfactory Atonement in his Summa Theologica had refused to so translate the theory, otherwise his version of the theory was scarcely distinguishable from that of the Reformers.


Whatever one’s view of the Protestant Reformers, or for that matter the penal substitution theory of the Atonement, those who confess the Catholic faith ought to think more carefully about using the Socinian arguments against penal substitution.  Faustus Socinius did not confess the Catholic faith and was a Unitarian.   His arguments are defensible within his framework.   They fall apart within the Catholic framework.


Take, for example, his moral argument against penal substitution.  This argument states that it is unjust to punish an innocent person for crimes he did not commit and unjust to acquit a guilty person, therefore penal substitution is doubly unjust.  This argument sounds pretty strong to a lot of people because in the vast majority of circumstances it is true that to punish an innocent person and let a guilty person off is an injustice.   It is not so strong when applied to the Atonement.   Not when we believe confess the Catholic faith of the ancient Creeds.   For according to the orthodox faith, Jesus Christ is both God and Man.   As the Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, He is God of the same substance or essence with the Father, from eternity.   In time He became Man, “not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the Manhood into God” as the Athanasian Symbol puts it.  So He became a real Man in time, and will be a Man eternally, but without ceasing to be God.   The significance of this is that He Himself is the One against Whom men’s offences have been committed.   If Person A were brought before a Judge and proven to be guilty of a crime it would indeed be an injustice if the Judge were to look into the gallery, see Person B sitting there, and declare that while Person A is guilty, he is sentencing Person B to pay for it.   It is an entirely different situation when the Judge, the Offended Party, and the Innocent who pays for the crime of the guilty – and voluntarily, I might add – are all the same Person.   This situation would never arise in a human court of law since, human imperfection being what it is, we do not generally allow a judge to rule on a case in which he is one of the parties, but no such objection can be made to the infinitely Perfect Being doing this.


Which brings us to Socinius’ forgiveness argument.  The penal substitution theory, he argued, depicts salvation as a cold courtroom transaction rather than a warm, loving act of forgiveness.   This, however, raises the question of what exactly forgiveness is.   If someone does you a harm and you forgive him this means that you abandon your right to retaliate and harm him back.  If you borrow a large sum from a bank and the bank forgives the loan that means that the bank has abandoned its right to demand repayment and you no longer owe the money.  Other examples could be endlessly multiplied, but in each one forgiveness has this common element – the offended party who forgives the offender absorbs the costs of the harm done.  Or to put it another way, the offender party pays for the harm done by the offender.  This is perhaps clearer in the example of the forgiven bank loan.   Therefore, for God to do what the penal substitution theory of the Atonement says He did, to take human nature Himself and become a Man, as the Party against whom man has offended with his sin, and to pay the penalty for the sins of the world Himself, is not contrary to the idea of God forgiving man but the very definition of forgiveness perfectly illustrated.


Socinius also argued that the penal substitutionary theory cannot be right because the penalty paid by Christ differs from the one exacted from sinners themselves if they reject His salvation.   While this might seem like a valid point it is so only superficially.  The penalty sinners pay if they reject the salvation obtained for them by Jesus Christ.  It is to be eternally barred from the Kingdom of God, and hence from the Beatific Vision, the highest Good for which they were created and for which their nature yearns even if they refuse to acknowledge it.   This punishment is what it is, however, not because it is the legal penalty incurred by their temporal sins in their short lifetimes.   It is what is, because to enter the Kingdom of God and attain the Beatific Vision, their character must become such in which all the spiritual as well as earthly virtues are perfected.   Someone whose character is less than that would make a Hell out of Heaven were he to be admitted.  To reject Jesus Christ is to reject the only way provided for a sinner to attain that perfection.   That is why those who do so face endless punishment.   While the Scriptures do not address the matter directly it can be inferred that those who enter the place of everlasting punishment do so unwilling even then to humble themselves, repent of their sins, and seek the forgiveness of God and remain unwilling forever.  God being infinite in mercy, if this were not so, their punishment would not be what it is.  This is what C. S. Lewis had in mind when in The Problem of Pain he wrote “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside. I do not mean that the ghosts may not wish to come out of hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man ‘wishes’ to be happy: but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good. They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved: just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.”  To pay the penalty for man’s sin so as to redeem him and restore him, Jesus Christ did not have to endure the endless suffering of those who forever reject His grace, although the case can be made that being infinite He was able to suffer in a limited time what the damned suffer in eternity.   He paid the penalty that was set for sin at Creation – death.   That He could pay that penalty for all people with a single death is, of course, due to His being both infinite God as well as perfect Man.


Another objection that one often hears that is somewhat similar to the last mentioned is that we still suffer and die.   If Jesus by His suffering and death paid the penalty for our sins why do we still suffer and die?   The answer to this is while suffering and death remain the consequences of sin in that we endure them as we never would had we never sinned they are no longer for us punishments for sin.   That Jesus has removed this aspect from death is the import of this famous passage of St. Paul’s towards the end of his discussion of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:


O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 15:55-57)


By taking our sin upon Himself and enduring death for us, He removed the sting of death, it is no longer for us a punishment for our sins.  This is why, for believers at least, death is often referred to as falling asleep in the New Testament.   It is temporary rather than the permanent second death to which the damned consign themselves in their rejection of Christ. “One short sleep past/we wake eternally/and death shall be no more/death thou shalt die” as John Donne put it.   More than this, by removing the penal aspect of suffering and death, Jesus Christ freed them up to serve higher purposes.   This is related to the Patristic concept that Jesus had to enter into every aspect of human existence in order to redeem it.  Against the heresy of Apollinaris of Laodicea, who taught that Jesus did not have a human nous or mind since He had no need of such being the Divine Logos, the Fathers declared that what Christ’s having a full human nature, including a human mind, was necessary for salvation.  As St. Gregory of Nazianzus famously put it, Το γαρ απρόσληπτον και αθεράπευτον, “that which is not taken up is not healed.”   Of course it is not merely the removal of the penal aspect of suffering and death that redeems them for higher purposes, the positive side to that is that Jesus by suffering and dying sanctified suffering and death.


This last point is an important one when it comes to approaching the Atonement of Christ.   There is a reason the Atonement is de fide but no one theory of it is.  No one theory can capture all that Jesus did for us in all of its many facets.   In the penal substitutionary theory the vicarious aspect of Christ’s death and sufferings, clearly present in the Scriptures but shamefully neglected in long periods of Christian history, was brought to the forefront.   It is, as we have seen in this essay, consistent with ancient faith.   It should not be regarded as the only facet of Christ’s saving work.   Nor should it be isolated from other Christian truths that provide the context in which it makes the most sense.   One obvious example is the corporate union of believers with Jesus Christ.   That believers are united to Jesus Christ is stressed in the New Testament.   This is why the Church is called the “body of Christ” in which He is the head and we members.  Viewed in the context of this truth, neither the substitutionary aspect Christ’s death nor the imputation of His righteousness can be regarded as the “legal fiction” that critics of these theories maintain them to be.  We become one with Christ and in this His death and righteousness become ours.   It is also through this union that we are gradually made to conform to Christ in our personal character is accomplished.   When we remember that it is through our union with Christ that His death and righteousness become ours and our eventual perfect conformity to His character is being accomplished by the Holy Ghost there is no need to fear that we have separated justification from sanctification.   That St. Paul in Romans 6 and Galatians 3 identifies baptism as the instrument through which the Holy Ghost accomplishes our union with Christ also provides necessary context.   A point on which the Protestant Reformers can legitimately be faulted is that they, probably unintentionally, helped usher in an era in which Christianity was increasingly interpreted through an individualistic lens.   That St. Paul made a point of identifying baptism through which one becomes a member of the visible, outward, community of the faithful that is the Church, as the means through which union with Christ is effected by the Holy Ghost in the very epistles in which he explains at length that faith rather than works is the means by which we personally appropriate the grace of God and salvation in all of its aspects, is important to remember.  Jesus Christ, despite evangelicalism’s insistence on the unbiblical phrase “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” to summarize what it means to be a Christian, founded a faith community not a do-it-yourself, go-it-alone faith.


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