What Exactly is Satisfaction in Aquinas? A short essay on a long note

by Jonathan Tomes

Trevor does not say anything very controversial in his criticism of Pierced for Our Transgressions, not according to scholarship, but I hope in what follows to raise significant concerns about the state of relevant scholarship on Aquinas’s doctrine of atonement. I will not argue for a model or theory of penal substitutionary atonement in Aquinas, or against other proposed elements in Aquinas’s doctrine, as he clearly argues not from a center but towards an end, and there are very many benefits from Christ’s passion. Trevor has highlighted several key ideas, made a few useful observations, raised several important objections, but a more complete case will demonstrate that there is a sense in which we must say that Christ’s satisfaction is penal and substitutionary.

  1. Why did God become man?

Penal Recompense by Voluntary Satisfaction

Aquinas lists ten benefits of the atonement, and affirms also that there are ‘very many other advantages which accrued, above man’s apprehension’ (ST 3.1.2) The fifth, and final, benefit for our deliverance is freedom from the bondage of sin:

Fifthly, in order to free man from the thraldom of sin, which, as Augustine says (De Trin. xiii, 13), “ought to be done in such a way that the devil should be overcome by the justice of the man Jesus Christ,” and this was done by Christ satisfying for us. Now a mere man could not have satisfied for the whole human race, and God was not bound to satisfy […]. (ST III.1.2)

The devil is overcome by Christ’s ‘satisfying for us’, who is no mere man but God, and able to perfectly satisfy. But why is satisfaction (fittingly) necessary?

Sin has brought disorder, stain, and debt. For our purposes, we are concerned with sin’s third effect.

Sin, however, makes man deserving of punishment, and that is an evil: for Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv) that “punishment is not an evil, but to deserve punishment is.” Consequently the debt of punishment is considered to be directly the effect of sin. (ST I-II.87.1 ad 2)

Punishment as such, for Aquinas, and against modern sensibilities, is not evil. But God does not delight in the punishment of sins but in the order of divine justice, and so he has chosen to be severe (ST I-II.87.3 ad 3) for divine delight.

So the punishment must be proportionate to the sin: ‘a sin committed against God has a kind of infinity from the infinity of the Divine majesty, because the greater the person we offend, the more grievous the offense’ (ST III.1.2).

[…] the act of sin makes man deserving of punishment, in so far as he transgresses the order of Divine justice, to which he cannot return except he pay some sort of penal compensation, which restores him to the equality of justice; so that, according to the order of Divine justice, he who has been too indulgent to his will, by transgressing God’s commandments, suffers, either willingly or unwillingly, something contrary to what he would wish. This restoration of the equality of justice by penal compensation is also to be observed in injuries done to one’s fellow men. Consequently it is evident that when the sinful or injurious act has ceased there still remains the debt of punishment. (ST I-II.87.6)

God desires to execute the debt of penalty with severity, but there is a way of return: penal recompense restores offenders to justice. Two other points, the offender will suffer 1) willingly, or 2) unwillingly, ‘something contrary to what he would wish’. There is an unwilling penal recompense and a voluntary penal recompense, but they are both penal, which demonstrates that one may be in such a position though willingly suffering penalty; if this may be true of the baptized penitent then why not also of the sinless Christ (Lk. 22:42)? But, for now, the point is simply that it is not only the unwilling who undergo punishment for the sake of divine justice.

The unwilling punishment of the sinner is purely penal, but for the baptized penitent, ‘his punishment is not purely penal but is also satisfactory since it is in some respect voluntary.’[1] Penal recompense will come either way, but the latter is satisfaction in the strict sense, being a voluntary payment of the debt of punishment.

It follows from this that Christ’s payment of the debt of penalty is penal,[2] even though not purely because voluntarily: ‘Christ bore a satisfactory punishment, not for His, but for our sins’ (ST I-II.87.8 ad 3), a response which Aquinas gives to the objection that, as Christ is sinless and suffers for us, punishment is not always inflicted by God for sin. The objection does not stand because Christ’s punishment is a ‘satisfactory punishment’, and the objector has misunderstood the nature of Christ’s suffering.

Christ’s passion is not purely penal (pure punishment), but neither is it medicinal, not at this point anyway. Though it would be unjust of God to inflict involuntary punishment on a man for the sins of another, Christ voluntarily and fully suffers the debt of penalty, insofar as ‘He hath borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows’ (Is. 53:4; ST III.22.3).

The above account is not shared by all Aquinas scholars, perhap not even by many, but the denials of some commentators overshoot what is possible to deny. In what follows, we will consider some objectionable claims, while bringing forward more primary source data, which, I think, complicates the stronger rejections, and favors the above summary.

Punishment and Vindication are a Gross Misunderstanding of Satisfaction

“But if God had decided to restore man solely by an act of His will and power, the order of divine justice would not have been observed. Justice demands satisfaction for sin. But God cannot render satisfaction, just as He cannot merit. Such a service pertains to one who is subject to another. Thus God was not in a position to satisfy for the sin of the whole of human nature; and a mere man was unable to do so, as we have just shown. Hence divine Wisdom judged it fitting that God should become man, so that thus one and the same person would be able both to restore man and to offer satisfaction. This is the reason for the divine Incarnation assigned by the Apostle in 1 Timothy 1:15: “Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners.”” (Compendium Theologiae chapter 200)

Rik Van Nieuwenhove, lecturer in theology at Mary Immaculate College, says, “it is a gross misreading to understand ‘making satisfaction’ in terms of retribution and punishment.”[3] Why? Because punishment is vindictive and satisfaction is voluntary. Nieuwenhove references ST III.q.85.3 ad. 3, which responds to the objection that penance is neither commutative nor distributive, so it is not a species of justice, to which, Aquinas responds:

As there is a kind of commutation in favors, when, to wit, a man gives thanks for a favor received, so also is there commutation in the matter of offenses, when, on account of an offense committed against another, a man is either punished against his will, which pertains to vindictive justice, or makes amends of his own accord, which belongs to penance, which regards the person of the sinner, just as vindictive justice regards the person of the judge. Therefore it is evident that both are comprised under commutative justice.

The punishment of an offender against his will is vindictive justice. So the reasoning goes, Christ’s passion is voluntary, therefore that which pertains to the Father is not vindictive justice, and punishment is excluded from satisfaction. This is an interesting argument, and it warrants some caution, but what has been thus far argued renders the claim suspect. We have seen that there is a voluntary punishment that satisfies the demands for penal recompense, which Aquinas terms ‘satisfactory punishment’, so the claim that punishment is only (and simply) vindictive justice is strange and unwarranted. Satisfactory punishment regards the person of the sinner, either the one sinning who voluntarily submits to penalty, or the perfect/condign satisfaction of Christ who takes on himself the debt of punishment. Divine justice is satisfied by punishment. This is neither gross, nor is it a misreading.

Consider Aquinas’s spiritual interpretation of Christ’s body in the sepulcher:

‘The fact that Christ lay in the sepulcher for one whole day and two whole nights also has its meaning: by the one ancient debt Christ took on Himself, that of punishment, He blotted out our two ancient debts, sin and punishment, which are represented by the two nights’. (CT, chapter 236)

Christ has taken upon himself the ancient debt of punishment and in so doing has blotted out both punishment and sin. The passion concerns the sin, punishment, and debt of another. The debt is not Christ’s; he has taken it on himself. Here we see the language of punishment and voluntarily assuming the ‘one ancient debt… that of punishment.’ It is hard to understand what this could mean apart from the payment of another’s debt through suffering. Christ freely takes the penalty and vindictive justice that belongs to another. Punishment is not excluded, and substitution is implied.

Nieuwenhove also says that the source of merit in Christ’s saving work is ‘not his sufferings as such but rather what these sufferings reveal: his obedience and love.’ I’m not sure why Christ’s sufferings would not also be meritorious. If Christ’s whole life is meritorious, even from the womb, why exclude his sufferings as such?

Even if suffering is excluded from ‘the source of merit’, which I find strange, we have seen above that suffering is not excluded from satisfaction. The recompense is penal and legal, and Christ’s love, obedience, dignity, humility, sacrifice, etc., do not assume a competitive relationship to the former. Aquinas does not present us with a model, and no benefit is allowed to push out other benefits that circle around Christ’s passion as fitting means to God’s desired end, the satisfaction of justice and demonstration of mercy.

There is certainly and always the danger of methodological fallacy, though there is strong reason to consider Nieuwenhove’s claim gross misunderstanding, and one driven by a modern anti-penal bias.

Is the satisfaction of divine justice necessary?

We have seen that God desires to maintain his justice through satisfaction, and that Christ’s passion is, among a multitude of benefits, a taking of debt of penalty to make satisfaction. The claim thus far, for emphasis, is not that there is a model or theory of penal-substitution in Aquinas, but that there are substitutionary and penal elements in Aquinas; not that they are central, but that they cannot be easily smothered. But is ‘satisfactory punishment’ necessary?

[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.47.3 ad. 1)

God is not willing to remit sin without punishment, and man is unable to make sufficient satisfaction through suffering any kind of punishment. There is a connection between the remission of sin and punishment, and, as man could never suffer enough to make satisfaction, God gives man one who would satisfy for him. God gave to man what man himself could not offer God, so that the conditions would exist (i.e., perfect satisfaction) for God to remit man’s sin.

Thus far, 1) punishment is necessary for remission of sin, 2) mere human punishment is not sufficient for satisfaction, 3) God gives the conditions necessary for remission.

Whether or not God would have been able to remit sins apart from satisfaction is interesting, and the question teases out a useful discussion in the doctrine of God, one which demonstrates a striking differences between some modern evangelicals and Aquinas, but there remains the matter that, though he could have done otherwise, God desires to require satisfaction. So, for Aquinas, the strangeness of God remains unavoidable to sensitive modern ears.  He could have done otherwise but it was not his pleasure.

As things really stand, Christ’s Passion ‘brings together more assets toward the end’ and ‘It was accordingly more fitting that we should be delivered by Christ’s Passion than simply by God’s good-will’ (3.46.3). Punishment for remission of sin is the divine will and ordination, but God also wills redemption and beatific happiness, and, so, Christ’s passion is the most fitting and, therefore, necessary means for God’s desired end.

Is the atonement necessary? No, not hypothetically. And yes, after a certain sense. There is not some externally imposed constraint. God is obligated to himself: ‘God was unwilling to remit sin without punishment.’

And so the Father gave the Son to satisfy his justice and to demonstrate his mercy to great effect:

That man should be delivered by Christ’s Passion was in keeping with both His mercy and His justice. With His justice, because by His Passion Christ made satisfaction for the sin of the human race; and so man was set free by Christ’s justice: and with His mercy, for since man of himself could not satisfy for the sin of all human nature, as was said above, God gave him His Son to satisfy for him. […] And this came of more copious mercy than if He had forgiven sins without satisfaction. […] (ST III. 46.1 ad 3)

Christ’s suffering delivers men; and Christ’s suffering makes satisfaction for sin. Christ’s righteousness in suffering sets men free. Suffering is inseparable from satisfaction and deliverance, as the condition without which the latter will not occur. Why? Because God is unwilling to remit sin without punishment. And so perfect satisfaction by suffering punishment is necessary.


  1. What about Trevor?

The following responses are, I think, warranted, either wholly or mostly, by the above summary.

Must God punish sin to maintain his justice? No, but God desires to punish sin with severity so as to maintain justice, and so he has chosen to punish sin

Does God’s decision to redeem us obligate God to require satisfaction? No, but God desires to require satisfaction as a means for redemption, and so he has chosen to require satisfaction for redemption.

Interestingly, the shift in language from what Trevor notes in Pierced for Our Transgressions to what we have observed in Aquinas better captures the pleasure of God in divine will and ordination. Redemption will not be by God’s good-will alone, even though it was a hypothetical possibility, because it is more pleasing to God that perfect satisfaction answer to infinite transgression.

Does Christ endure the retributive justice of God in place of humanity? Yes, in a sense, yet not as its proper object but in the place of that object. The attribution here is not proper and simple, as Christ voluntarily suffered our debt of penalty, but improper, as God’s retributive justice is precisely what Christ endures in our place, insofar as he has taken upon himself the ancient debt of penalty.

Is there positive abandonment? Antagonism? Wrath? Simply speaking, no, yet in a manner of speaking, yes. Christ is voluntarily in our position, taking our ancient debt, though he is not the proper object of wrath. So the attribution is not proper but improper, not meaning ‘naughty’ but modus loquendi.

Infernal punishment? In a manner of speaking:

First of all, because He came to bear our penalty in order to free us from penalty, according to Is. 53:4: “Surely He hath borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows.” But through sin man had incurred not only the death of the body, but also descent into hell. Consequently since it was fitting for Christ to die in order to deliver us from death, so it was fitting for Him to descend into hell in order to deliver us also from going down into hell. […]. (ST III.52.1)

Christ descended into hell to deliver us from hell. The formula of fittingness: whatever we incur, Christ bears. He bears our punishment to free us from punishment, our infirmity to free us from infirmity, our death to deliver us from death, our hell to keep us from hell. Christ undergoes what is owing to us, so that we can share in what is owing to him. Or, ‘In our place condemned he stood’. Assuming all of the above qualifications (and modus loquendi), Christ’s life and passion, to include hellish suffering and infernal descent, is penal and vicarious.

Was the eternally happy fellowship of the Trinity broken on the cross? No, but it was increased, as regards Christ’s humanity. Perhaps this particular reflection is not in Aquinas, yet I would argue that the Father was never more satisfied and pleased with the Son than when he suffered on the cross in love and obedience. After all, Christ’s passion is most fitting to God’s pleasing end, so it must be true that the most fitting means that brings about God’s pleasure must be itself a delight to the Father, not as regards punishment as such but insofar as perfect punishment pertains to God’s pleasure.

Does Aquinas affirm penal-substitution? Perhaps not, or not according to most definitions, but it is not clear that he rejects ideas that are important to such a theory, and a few of the basic ideas seem fittingly present.

Does satisfaction mean ‘bearing the punishment of retributive justice’? No, not simply, and yet it does involve suffering for penalty. Christ’s passion is not properly retributive, though it does pertain to those who were at one time absolutely unwilling, making it in some sense retributive, even though not simply so. Christ’s perfect satisfaction is with respect to those who stand under God’s retributive justice. The type of suffering may be one thing with respect to Christ as such, and, in a manner of speaking, spoken of another way as respects Christ for us.

Christ not only ‘satisfied God’s justice and so redeems us from the penalty of sin’, he condignly satisfied God’s justice by voluntarily taking on himself the penalty of our sin.

Christ is not simply receiving retributive justice. But what is he receiving? The ancient debt of sin. Is he the object of the Father’s displeasure? No, but he is in the position of the object of the Father’s displeasure. Is there not some connection, in Aquinas, between what was taken by Christ and what was owing to us?

Is Christ condemned on the cross? No. Christ is sinless and his heavenly Father will not leave him to corruption. And yes. Christ takes a debt that is not his so that those who were sinners can share in his person and reward. The condemnation is not, strictly speaking, his but our own.

Trevor makes an important distinction in his first post, and one which I have made much use of: ‘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”).’ One which has been filled out and co-opted, and to which I have added my own discussion.

It has been sufficiently demonstrated, I hope, that absolute rejection of punishment badly misses the mark, and as bad as if the the language were made too much of. Both reveal methodological faults.

If Aquinas, in some sense, agrees that Christ undergoes a perfectly satisfying punishment, even taking on himself our ancient debt of penalty, then he cannot be said, in an absolute sense, to deny that Christ vicariously endures a satisfying punishment as regards vindicatory justice, though he must be said to deny it in some sense.

A Word on Poetic and Pastoral Language

From all that has been said above, is some of the poetical and pastoral language typically associated with PSA warranted from the perspective of Aquinas? I think so, if we account for the nature of pastoral and poetic language. But we should remember that that is exactly what it is. Some phrases are more appropriate than others, and some are absolutely inappropriate. This is the ancient failing of poetical theology. There are those times even when poetical language is profoundly insightful, even as it is also potentially and dangerously misleading.


So, would Aquinas agree with the phrase ‘in my place condemned he stood?’ I think so. Christ endures a perfectly satisfying (forensic) penalty for us. What else could that mean? But, once again, note the qualifications. As always, we make distinctions.

We have also seen that vindicatory justice is excluded, if by that we mean that God visited retribution on Christ for his sins. There is a vindication of God’s justice in Christ’s satisfying punishment.

Through Christ’s satisfaction, God receives back, so to speak, what was taken by sinners. He receives penal recompense by the suffering of Christ for sinners. The retribution is with respect to us, even though Christ has taken our debt of punishment to himself.

Divine justice has been satisfied. It was the pleasure of the Father to crush the Son.

[1] Philip L. Quinn, ‘Aquinas on Atonement’ in Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement: Philosophical and theological essays, 158.

[2] Throughout this essay I alternate between ‘punishment’ and ‘penalty’ for poenae. This is a distinction without a difference.

[3] Rik Van Nieuwenhove, ‘The Saving Work of Christ’ in The Oxford Handbook of Thomas Aquinas, 439.

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