A Note on Aquinas and Penal Atonement

by Trevor Anderson

Elsewhere I’ve discussed two aspirations of New Calvinist theology: a commitment to clear thinking and argumentation, and competent engagement with relevant conversations (viz., “scholarship”). Here I’d like to note an instance in one prominent New Calvinist resource that falls short of these two ideals and so illustrates the need for more promising modes of inquiry and argument.

Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach’s Pierced for Our Transgressions (Crossway, 2007, hereafter Pierced) is a defense and exposition of the doctrine of penal substitution. While aimed at evangelicals broadly, it stands squarely on New Calvinist ground, with a forward by John Piper and strong endorsements from figures like Don Carson, Ligon Duncan, Tom Schreiner, Mark Dever, and others. Indeed, Pastor Dever says that the book promises to become “the new standard text on Christ’s atoning work.”

Certainly Pierced is a thorough contemporary exposition of penal substitution that engages extensively and effectively with several mischaracterizations of the doctrine, and responds with vigor to many liberal theological objections. The authors clearly see themselves as presenting an (the?) orthodox Protestant position over against “theological liberalism” broadly speaking. But I think that in this zeal to respond to liberal theology they have neglected giving due diligence to other, non-liberal Christian traditions.

In chapter five of Pierced, the authors propose a survey of the “historical pedigree” of the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement. One of their historical sources is Thomas Aquinas, who the authors say was “without question the greatest of all the medieval theologians” (184). Unfortunately, I think Pierced’s interaction with this greatest of medieval figures exhibits some methodological problems that, if accepted or imitated, will impede fruitful conversation about theological issues of historical importance. I’d like show what I think these problems are, with the hope that such analysis will help us avoid similar mistakes in the future. I should note that it’s not my purpose here to evaluate the “rightness” or “wrongness” of penal substitution or other atonement theories, which have received capable treatment in recent literature.[1] Rather, I want to examine some methodological problems of Pierced’s engagement with its historical sources.

First, here are the texts from which the authors of Pierced conclude that Aquinas believed in penal substitutionary atonement:

[God] was unwilling to remit sin without punishment, as the Apostle intimates when he says, He did not spare even his own Son. But [Christ’s passion] also illustrates God’s goodness, for as man was unable to make sufficient satisfaction through any punishment he might himself suffer, God gave him one who would satisfy for him. (ST III.47, a. 3, ad. 1)

[B]y sin man was held to the debt of punishment according to divine justice…As therefore Christ’s passion provided adequate, and more than adequate satisfaction for man’s sin and debt, his passion was as it were the price of punishment by which we are freed…Satisfaction offered for oneself or for another resembles the price whereby one ransoms himself from sin and from punishment. (ST III.48, a. 4, sed contra)

On the basis of these quotations, the authors say that Aquinas thinks “God must punish sin to maintain his justice,”[2] and that in Aquinas we find an “insistence that God in his justice must and will punish sin.”[3] Further, the authors write that Aquinas’s analysis as presented in these two quotations “amounts to a clear statement of penal substitution.”[4] But I think there are some serious exegetical and methodological problems with these assertions.

1. Necessity 

First, neither of the quotations from Aquinas actually says that God must punish sin; much less does either indicate an “insistence” from him on this point. Although the authors think it is true that “God must punish sin” (81) for the sake of His justice, this is not true of Aquinas. Aquinas says in the first quotation that God was “unwilling” (noluit) to remit sin without punishment, not unable (nequit, or something similar). This word choice is not trivial; elsewhere in his treatment of Christ’s Passion, Aquinas explicitly says that God does not need to require satisfaction for sin to maintain His justice:

[T]his justice depends on the Divine will, requiring satisfaction for sin from the human race. But if He had willed to free man from sin without any satisfaction, He would not have acted against justice. God has no one higher than Himself, for He is the sovereign and common good of the whole universe. Consequently, if He forgive sin, which has the formality of fault in that it is committed against Himself, He wrongs no one: just as anyone else, overlooking a personal trespass, without satisfaction, acts mercifully and not unjustly.[5]

Note that Aquinas is not merely making the point that “God did not have to save humanity” (but with the implication that once He did, he was bound to do it by satisfaction). Rather, Aquinas is saying that even God’s decision to redeem us does not obligate God to require satisfaction as the means for that redemption. The authors attribute to Aquinas the belief that “God must punish sin to maintain his justice,” but in the quotation above Aquinas actually says the opposite of this. The authors seem to have committed what D.A. Carson calls the fallacy of “unwarranted associative jumps,” when “a word or phrase triggers off an associated idea, concept, or experience that bears no close relation to the text at hand, yet is used to interpret the text.” The authors may associate unwillingness with inability, but the two concepts are not the same, and Aquinas does not think one implies the other.

Rather, Aquinas thinks Christ’s death was the most fitting way (congruentissimus modus)[6] to effect human salvation. John Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied, which is listed in Pierced’s bibliography, makes this same observation, marking Aquinas (along with Augustine) as a theologian who does not align with what Murray takes to be the classic Reformed understanding of the “consequent absolute necessity” of the atonement.[7] Aquinas may be right or wrong in his view, but it is not in keeping with careful thinking to ascribe to him a theological view he nowhere affirms and in fact explicitly denies.

2. Christ and Retributive Justice

Second, we should observe that an essential element of the doctrine of penal substitution for the authors of Pierced is Christ’s enduring the retributive wrath of God in place of humanity. Thus, for instance, they write:

The doctrine of penal substitution states that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity through sin…the Lord Jesus Christ died for us—a shameful death, bearing our curse, enduring our pain, suffering the wrath of his own Father in our place[8]

Jesus died in the place of sinners, bearing the punishment of God’s wrath due to them on account of their rebellion.[9]

[H]e took our sin and guilt upon himself and died a cursed death, suffering in his human nature the infinite torment of the wrath and fury of his Father.[10]

So, a non-negotiable feature of penal substitution for Pierced is that Christ bore “God’s anger and retributive punishment.”[11] Thus when the authors write that Aquinas is a “clear” advocate of penal substitution, they imply that he endorses the substance of the doctrine as they present it in their book (if this were not so, it would be pointless to include him in their historical survey). But difficulties abound in trying to ascribe this view to Aquinas. I of course cannot do full justice to Aquinas’s understanding of Christ’s Passion in this post (see footnote 14 for further resources), but here are a few points.

First, Aquinas nowhere says that Christ was the object of God’s retributive justice or wrath—neither in the quotations from him above nor anywhere else in his corpus. Aquinas does not say that Christ “bore the torment of the Father’s displeasure” (or however one might phrase it), in his human nature or otherwise. Rather, “For [Aquinas], there is no positive abandonment, no antagonism, no wrath on the side of the Father, no infernal punishments on that of the Son.”[12] According to Aquinas, Christ on the cross did experience excruciating bodily pain and humiliation, but at no point was his fellowship with God the Father diminished.[13] This fact alone, given how basic the element of retributive justice and divine wrath is to Pierced’s atonement theory, is a sufficient reason to exclude Aquinas from Pierced’s list. (To say that it was ‘so obvious’ that Aquinas did not need to say it would beg the question.)

Second, there is no Aquinas scholar who agrees with how the authors of Pierced present Aquinas’s atonement theory.[14] Even those (like ViduPeterson, or Johnson) who think there are various categorical moves Aquinas makes that might be used to accommodate something like penal substitution do not think that Aquinas actually held such a view. So Pierced’s interpretation of Aquinas, though stated quite decisively, is entirely idiosyncratic and yet only sixteen lines of text long.

Third, the authors seem to take ‘satisfaction’ to mean ‘bearing the punishment of retributive justice’, but that would be an exceedingly superficial reading (again, see footnote 14 for more). For Aquinas satisfaction is not synonymous with “bearing retributive punishment.” Aquinas thinks that the satisfaction Christ offered to God was sufficient (in fact, superabundant) not because of “how much” retributive punishment Christ bore (viz., “All of God’s wrath”), but because of the divine dignity of his Person combined with the charity with which he endured the physical sufferings of his Passion. The “load-bearing” elements of Aquinas’s atonement account are Christ’s dignity and love:

He properly atones for an offense who offers something which the offended one loves equally, or even more than he detested the offense. But by suffering out of love and obedience, Christ gave more to God than was required to compensate for the offense of the whole human race. First of all, because of the exceeding charity from which He suffered; secondly, on account of the dignity of His life which He laid down in atonement, for it was the life of one who was God and man; thirdly, on account of the extent of the Passion, and the greatness of the grief endured.[15]

Christ satisfied our debt not by undergoing the wrath of retributive justice, but by offering a sacrifice of love that was a “more than adequate” price for the debt we owed. Indeed, on account of his dignity and charity, “The very least one of Christ’s sufferings was sufficient of itself to redeem the human race from all sins.”[16] It is true that Christ satisfied God’s justice and so redeems us from the penalty for our sin. But because of Christ’s perfect charity and sinless Person, he suffered for us not against his will and as undergoing poena simpliciter (punishment “pure and simple”), but voluntarily and as offering his sufferings as a perfect offering, thus making his satisfaction what Aquinas calls poena secundum quid (punishment “in a sense”). But again, these sufferings, for Aquinas, do not involve the Father pouring wrath out upon the Son, or “turning His face away,” or anything of the sort.

Fourth, in the second of Pierced’s quotations of Aquinas, the authors omit by ellipses the Scriptural illustration Aquinas gives for how Christ satisfied for our sins, Daniel 4:27: “Redeem thou thy sins with alms.” I don’t know how the authors might have dealt with that verse, but it does seem to fit poorly with Pierced’s understanding of penal substitution.

3. Worldview Confusion

Suffice to say that Aquinas’s understanding of Christ’s Passion – its necessity, as well as the relationship between satisfaction and punishment – is very different than that of the authors of Pierced. In my opinion, they have fallen into the problem of “world-view confusion” as described by D.A. Carson, which consists

 in thinking that one’s own experience and interpretation of reality are the proper framework for interpreting the biblical text [or in this case, the text of Aquinas], whereas in fact there may be such deep differences once we probe beyond the superficial level that we find quite different categories are being used, and the law of the excluded middle applies.[17]

The authors’ experience and interpretation of reality, at least as communicated in Pierced, is shaped primarily by contemporary troubles with liberal theology on the one hand, and a vibrant Reformed evangelical environment on the other. There is nothing wrong with this, but Aquinas was not concerned about liberal theology and was not a Reformed evangelical. As I hope my own quotations above show, his categories are not Pierced’s categories. Without more careful work, misrepresentation was bound to occur.

But such misunderstanding seems almost inevitable given the character of Pierced’s historical survey chapter. The authors write of their historical sources that they cannot give “a detailed, nuanced account” of each thinker’s “particular theological emphases.” Rather, their aim “is much more limited: we shall simply demonstrate that all of these writers, without exception, believed the doctrine of penal substitution.”[18] But such a goal is actually remarkably ambitious, especially considering that the greatest of medieval theologians receives roughly a page of analysis, including two substantial block quotations.

And this is not true just of Aquinas. In ~pp. 166-183, given an average of one and a half pages each, we read that a quotation from Justin Martyr communicates “a clear statement of penal substitution”; Eusebius of Caesarea gives “an unequivocal statement of penal substitution”; Hilary of Poitiers possesses “a clear doctrine of penal substitution.” Athanasius in De Incarnatione makes “a straightforward statement of the doctrine of penal substitution” – indeed, “Penal substitution is…central to Athanasius’ thought.” We read also that “Gregory [Nazianzen] believed in penal substitution” and that “Cyril [of Alexandria] plainly affirms the doctrine of penal substitution.”

Though I have not touched on Pierced’s treatment of these figures (though others have), such treatments, I think, are bound not to uphold the standards of clear thought and argument or respect for relevant scholarship. What is worrying is that prominent figures like John Frame nevertheless endorse the book by saying that it “presents…historical theology” in a way that “is excellent, both in its exposition and in its argument,” and that the book “makes a real contribution to the academic discussion.” I would argue that we must be much more cautious in engaging with historical sources than is Pierced. But given the book’s ten pages of endorsements from what Tim Challies calls the “who’s who of conservative evangelicals,” this does not seem to be the consensus of Pierced’s intended audience.

One last observation regarding method. In their response to N.T. Wright’s critique of Pierced, the authors address his puzzlement at their not including Anselm in their historical survey by saying this:

The reason is simply that, contrary to (popular?) belief, Anselm did not teach penal substitution. Yes, he brought to prominence the important vocabulary of ‘satisfaction’, which became important in later formulations. But in Anselm’s feudal thought-world, it was God’s honour that needed to be satisfied by substitutionary obedience, not his justice by substitutionary penalty. Thus his omission from our list of those who have endorsed penal substitution was not accidental.

This response makes it seem as though Dr. Wright has made a common, basic, almost embarrassing historical and categorical error that can be corrected by some simple reasoning. But the reason given by the authors is still in fact quite arbitrary, considering that Aquinas’s thought-world is also, as we have seen, foreign to that of Pierced’s particular theology. And if we are excluding people based on thought-worlds, surely Anselm’s satisfaction schema is miles closer to the ‘thought-world’ of penal substitution than are those of the Fathers of the early church cited by Pierced. The exclusion of Anselm remains an ad hoc decision, based more on various “Anselm and feudal thought-worlds” comments that have themselves become a commonplace in atonement literature than on some principled approach to discerning proper forebears or adherents of penal substitution. Ligon Duncan writes of the authors’ response to Dr. Wright that it is a “devastating rejoinder” in which the authors show themselves “superior in their grasp” of penal substitution.[19] At least regarding the judgment that Anselm’s thought is foreign enough to penal substitution to warrant exclusion while that of the Fathers and Aquinas is native, I must disagree with Dr. Duncan.

4. “Reforming” Penal Atonement?

Of course, as I mentioned above, some theologians who recognize the lack of any penal atonement theory in Aquinas have suggested that some of the categorical shifts Aquinas makes in speaking about the atonement, satisfaction, and punishment, allow one to discern, as it were, ‘family resemblances’ to penal substitutionary atonement within the bounds of the catholic tradition. In other words, penal substitutionary atonement as it came to be formulated and articulated by the Reformation traditions is the sort of theory that Aquinas might have endorsed and recognized as a legitimate development of his theology of punishment and satisfaction, though no full-blown theory can be “exegeted” from his texts. On this view, while there is no theory of penal substitutionary atonement in Aquinas, neither is there enough data in his corpus to militate against a development of his penal language towards such a theory. I disagree with this reading, but even granting it, such an approach would not warrant the brief, broad, decisive, and inaccurate statements of Pierced.

This alternate approach tends to avoid the pitfalls of bending textual evidence to fit an existing “world-view” or engaging in conceptual anachronisms. It also has the benefit of working within Aquinas’s positions on divine simplicity, the inseparable operations of the Trinity, and the importance of the concept of fittingness for understanding soteriology. Allowing these Thomistic “rules” to guide the activity of theology helps to ensure that atonement theory does not posit any kind of rupture in the life of the Trinity or a “strife of attributes” within God. Indeed, books like Vidu’s go some distance towards re-working (or for those within historic Reformed traditions, re-presenting) the theory of penal substitution to sweep thinkers like Aquinas into the trajectory of Reformed thought on the atonement, thereby demonstrating the “catholicity” of penal substitution.

Also of special interest to The Regensburg Forum is exploring the extent to which the problematic methodology at work in Pierced arises from a distance from more historic Reformed roots. Whereas New Calvinism – a movement which foregrounds works like Pierced – insists on the inseparability of “absolute necessity,” penal substitution, and retributive punishment for an orthodox account of the atonement, debates about this inseparability are remarkably variant and speculative in the tradition of magisterial Protestantism, especially in Reformed orthodoxy. Part of the reason for initiating this discussion on Pierced is to see what the range of options and debates are within the Reformed tradition on this question, so as to clarify precisely where the Catholic and Protestant traditions part ways on the specifics of atonement theology. Toward that end, we think it important to highlight where works like Pierced may contribute to further conversation, and where conversation may be prematurely closed down.

Image credit: “Crucifixion?” by Flickr user “nikoreto” under CC Attribution 2.0

[1] The literature on this topic is obviously immense, but see for instance Adonis Vidu, Atonement, Law, and Justice (Baker Academic, 2014) on penal substitution; Adam Johnson, Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark, 2015) on atonement discussions in general; also several of Derek Rishmawy’s capable entries, e.g. here and here.

[2] Pierced, 185.

[3] Pierced, 184. My emphasis.

[4] Pierced, 185.

[5] III, q. 46, a. 2, ad 3.

[6] Compendium Theologiae, cap. 226, n. 470.

[7] Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Eerdmans, 2015), 5-6.

[8] Pierced, 21, repeated at 103.

[9] Pierced, 33.

[10] Pierced, 104. See also 21, 103, 124.

[11] Pierced, 124.

[12] Philippe de la Trinité, What is Redemption?, trans. Anthony Armstrong, O.S.B. (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1961), 103.

[13] Compendium Theologiae, cap. 231-232.

[14] See for instance Eleanore Stump, “Atonement,” in Aquinas (Routledge, 2005): 427-454; Stump, “Atonement according to Aquinas,” in Philosophy and the Christian Faith, ed. Thomas Morris (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988): 61-91; Rik van Nieuwenhove, “St. Anselm and Thomas Aquinas on ‘Satisfaction’: or how Catholic and Protestant understandings of the Cross differ,” Angelicum 80 (2003): 159-176; Philippe de la Trinité, What is Redemption?, trans. Anthony Armstrong, O.S.B. (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1961); Nicholas M. Healy, “Redemption,” in Cambridge Companion to the Summa Theologiae, ed. Philip McCosker and Denys Turner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016): 255-268; Romanus Cesario, Christian Satisfaction in Aquinas: Towards a Personalist Understanding (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982); Cessario, The Godly Image: Christ and Salvation in Catholic Thought from Anselm to Aquinas (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002); Philip L. Quinn, “Aquinas on Atonement,” in Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement: Philosophical and Theological Essays, ed. Ronald J. Feenstra and Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989): 153-177.

[15] ST III, 48, a. 2, co. The “grief” referred to is addressed in ST III, 46, a. 6.

[16] ST III, 46, a. 5, ad. 3.

[17] Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Baker Books, 1997), 103.

[18] Pierced, 163.

[19] In J.I. Packer and Mark Dever, In My Place Condemned He Stood (Crossway, 2007), 171.

3 thoughts on “A Note on Aquinas and Penal Atonement

  1. Hello, there is another Canon from the council of Valence in Denzinger, sources of Catholic Dogma (old numbering) that seems to clearly speak of some limitation in the intention of Christ’s redemption.

    Here we have canon 4:

    323 Can. 4. “Likewise concerning the redemption of the blood of Christ, because of the great error which has arisen from this cause, so that [b]some,[/b] as their writings indicate, [b]declare that it has been shed even for those impious ones who from the beginning of the world even up to the passion of our Lord, have died in their wickedness and have been punished by eternal damnation, contrary to that prophet: “O death, I will be Thy death, O hell, I will be thy bite” [ Hosea 13:14];[/b] it seems right that we should simply and faithfully hold and teach according to the evangelical and apostolic truth, because we hold this price to have been paid for those concerning whom our Lord Himself says: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so it is necessary that the Son of man be lifted up, that all, who believe in Him, may not perish, but may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son: that all, who believe in Him, may not perish but may have eternal life” [John 3:14 ff.], and the Apostle: “Christ,” he said, “once has been offered to exhaust the sins of many” [Heb. 9:28]. Furthermore, although they are becoming widely spread, we completely remove from the pious hearing of the faithful the chapters (four, which by the council of our brothers have been unwisely accepted, because of the uselessness or even the harmfulness, and the error contrary to truth, and other reasons) absurdly concluded with nineteen syllogisms, and not outstanding in learning, in which the machination of the devil rather than any tenet of faith is found, and that such and similar things may be avoided through all (chapters), we by the authority of the Holy Spirit forbid (them); we believe also that those who introduce these novel doctrines must be punished lest they become too harmful.”

    What is the Catholic understanding of the limitation on the redemption being proposed here?

    Also, would it be permissible for a Catholic to hold to the Multi Intentional or Un/Limited Atonement view? I think it is a good synthesis from what I can tell of the biblical passages that seem to indicate universal salvific will, and a more limited will. The basic thesis is:


    1. Statement of the Position
    God’s intentions in the death of Christ are complex not simple, multiple not single: 1) Christ died for the purpose of securing the sure and certain salvation of his own, his elect. 2) Christ died for the purpose of paying the penalty for the sin of all people making it possible for all who believe to be saved. 3) Christ died for the purpose of securing the bone fide offer of salvation to all people everywhere. 4) Christ died for the purpose of providing an additional basis for condemnation for those who hear and reject the gospel that has been genuinely offered to them. 5) Christ died for the purpose of reconciling all things to the Father.

    I am going for an Authentic Catholic Augustinianism here that is not Jansenism, but that approved by Berti and Belleli and Pope Benedict XIV.

  2. In regard to Penal Substitution, as Catholics we should admit it in the larger context of satisfaction. Christ willed to fulfill the law and did such as a substitute in our place assuming the punishment proper to each and every sin. He also atoned for as the Victor over Satan and Hades, and his death was also exemplary, and in ALL these things he made satisfaction to the Father.

    I would even go so far as to say that on the cross he suffered intense spiritual anguish and abandonment, not in the sense of personal sin, but in assuming the state of the sinner who has turned their back on God and from whom God had turned his face. Not in the sense of God being too Holy to look on sin, but that is the just judgment of God against those who willfully persist in sin. God turns away from them for a time. I would say Christ experienced that, not as an internal rupture in the godhead, but in his experiencing the guilt of all our sins, including the sin of impenitence, despair, hardness of heart etc.


  3. Daniel,

    Thanks for your comment. I’m not versed in the Valence councils, but certainly Valence III makes strong statements regarding predestination, and represents one prominent strain within Catholic thought regarding the atonement (I’ve been reading Aquinas on Romans, and his interpretation of chap.9 is predestinarian with the best of them). Of course, Valence III was a regional council and its views on predestination are not binding for any Catholic, though it attests to the availability of that option for a Roman Catholic.

    While I’m obviously not qualified to rule any atonement theories “in or out of bounds,” as it were, I do think a Catholic could hold an “Un/limited” view of the atonement like that proposed by Dr. Ware, though I’m not aware of a Catholic tradition that articulates it the way Ware does (which doesn’t mean there isn’t one; just that I don’t know of any). I don’t get the sense that it is a common view, but that is not per se an argument against it.

    What is important to keep in mind, though, is that Dr. Ware and his colleagues in the evangelical Reformed tradition do have a particular penal substitutionary view of the atonement that connects directly to their understanding of un/limited atonement (see e.g. Garry Williams’s chapter in the 2013 From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, published by Crossway). This penal substitutionary view is substantially the same as that represented in Pierced for Our Transgressions, which I think is not a mainstream Catholic understanding of the atonement–though again, there are certainly Catholic theologians that articulate something along similar lines, for instance Balthasar in Theo-Drama vol. 4.

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