Competing Theories of Christ’s Atonement: Penal Substitution, Economic Transaction, or Obediential Love?

The Passion is understood as an act of a personal God atoning for the personal offense of sin. The personalist understanding of the atonement is deeply linked to the framework of the relationship between Christ and the members of his Mystical Body.

  • Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures … according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.1
  • Christ died for sins once and for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.2
  • You know that you were ransomed … with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. 3

As Catholics, we are called to interpret faithfully the Scriptures in light of the lived tradition of the Church. The mystery of the saving death of Christ by which he conquered sin and deathplanned and foreknown by God from all eternitymust be correctly understood if we are to reap the fruits of this redemption: the eternal beatitude of the indwelling Trinity. What prompted such actions which would call God himself down from Heaven to atone for our sins? Most importantly, how are we to understand this sacrificial death? Did the Father prepare to take out his just anger on humanity when the Son stepped in to take the blow of his wrath, as our substitution? Did he pay a debt of justice, akin to an exterior economic exchange? Or, did the atonement occur at a deeper level, the precise level where sins are rooted, a turning of the mind and heart of man from within by love and obedience to the God whom mankind had abandoned through sin? This latter reading of the atoning death of Christ is a most wholesome reading of the data of Revelation, and most fitting for our understanding of a personal Father who is both infinitely just, and infinitely merciful. This is the theory of the atonement held by Aquinas, which I will describe in this article.

Many contemporary theologians are often hesitant to embrace the soteriology (the study of doctrines of salvation) of St. Thomas. It is considered to be part of a “monstrous version of redemption … (in which) Christ (is presented) as the penal substitute propitiating the divine anger.” 4 From this perspective “attributing redeeming value to the suffering of the Son seems to entail a rather problematic concept of God … evoking the specter of a cruel God whose divine anger had to be appeased by the death of his Son.” 5 However, this is to misread Aquinas, mistaking his personalist theory of the atonement for reductive caricatures of Christ’s act of redemption. I hope to demonstrate that Aquinas’ theory of the atonement is not the “penal substitution” model derived from Calvin, nor is it a theory of a merely external juridical or economic transaction. It is best understood as an interpersonal act of atonement which takes place in his Mystical Body, and is motivated by love. In this brief essay, I will address the basics of Aquinas’ theology of Christ’s suffering and death as an atonement for human sin, and explore alternative theories which are defective, explaining how Aquinas’ theory differs from these, and avoids their difficulties. Finally, I will assess how, in the theology of St. Thomas, the mercy and justice of God are suitably reconciled in the Passion.

What is the essence of Aquinas’ theology of the atonement? Perhaps the most important point to consider is that his theory is profoundly personal. The Passion is understood as an act of a personal God atoning for the personal offense of sin. The personalist understanding of the atonement is deeply linked to the framework of the relationship between Christ and the members of his Mystical Body. In this area, Aquinas develops Anselm’s model, arguing for the “link between Christ’s redemptive activity, and our participation in it in much greater depth, by espousing the Pauline notion of the Body of Christ.” 6 This defends Aquinas’ theory from one of the major weaknesses of Anselm’s in which he “fails to clarify the connection between Christ’s satisfactory activity, and our participation in it, a feature which has given fuel to misunderstanding his teaching in (merely) transactional terms.” 7 St. Thomas teaches that “Christ by his Passion merited salvation, not only for himself, but likewise for all his members.” 8 To suffer justly in grace means that a man merits salvation for himself; to suffer justly in grace means that Christ merits salvation for his members. As will be explored further below, Christ’s act of love and obedience substitutes for our love and obedience through the union in his Mystical Body. “Christ’s satisfaction extends to all the faithful as to his members, because Christ and his Church form, as it were, one single mystical person.” 9

In order to understand properly Aquinas’ theory of the atonement, it is also helpful to consider his theory of sin. For Aquinas, sin is fundamentally a personal offense, “something that deeply affects the self of the human person, and the way she relates to herself, other people, and above all, God.” 10 It is essentially a disorder in the will, in which the creature turns away from God, and fails to love God as he ought to be loved. Sin is seen as “a spiritual illness, which results from a lack of order within the personality.” 11 Sin, considered as the creature’s personal failure to love, explains Aquinas’ emphasis on the interpersonal love involved in the act of atonement. It is for this reason that “salvation (is) seen as a restoration of the divine order in which the human will is once again turned toward its ultimate end, i.e., a loving relationship between humanity and God.” 12 Christ, in his Passion, reorients the disordered will of human nature from within. Thus “we should resist interpreting the notion of ‘restoration of divine order’ in merely judicial terms.” 13 Since both the sin and the atonement are interpersonal, they are difficult to quantify.  Any economic or judicial metaphors must be reread in a personalist way, or we risk reducing our concept of the Passion from the order of interpersonal friendship to the abstract order of justice.

Aquinas’ understanding of the Passion as atonement, or satisfaction, is not primarily understood as Christ’s substituting himself in suffering the demands of punishment for sin according to the rigors of divine justice, but with reference to the love and obedience Christ offered on our behalf. Aquinas teaches that “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.” 14 Aquinas gives three reasons why Christ’s satisfaction for sin was superabundant. First and formally, the superabundant satisfaction was due to the “exceeding charity” with which his Sacred Heart suffered the Passion. 15 It is the love of Christ which repairs the aversion of the will of all members of the human race in sin’s lack of love. This is a profoundly Catholic interpretation of the merits of Christ, and guards against reductionist metaphors which see the Passion as merely satisfying divine justice, or as an economic exchange. “Christ’s death … atones because of the charity in which he bore it.” 16 Secondly, the infinite satisfaction offered by Christ has, as its foundation, the infinite dignity of his person. Although he suffered in his human nature, it was the suffering of a divine person and, therefore, of infinite merit. 17 Thus, it was enough to atone for the relative infinitude of sin’s offense against the divine dignity. Thirdly, the material superabundance of the satisfaction for sin is derived from “the greatness of the grief endured” in the Passion, which merited enough to atone for all punishment due to sin. 18 It is significant that Aquinas places the satisfactory sufferings of Christ third in his answer, after establishing the love with which the sacrifice was offered, and the dignity of the person offering it. The reductive caricatures of the atonement we have been considering would put a greater emphasis on the sufferings endured by Christ in order to appease divine justice. There is no trace in Aquinas’ explanation of the idea that the Father treats the Son as an object of wrath or vengeance. The obediential suffering of Christ manifests his love for the human race, which is satiated not only by forgiving our sins in mercy, but satisfying for them in justice.

The personalism in Aquinas’ account is far removed from either penal substitution, or transactional theory of the atonement, which imply more of an external material bargain than an act of interpersonal love. For Aquinas, the “satisfaction does not refer to a legalistic transaction,” rather it was an act of love: “the Passion was most acceptable to God, as coming from charity.” 19 Although, it is true that Aquinas uses the economic metaphor of redemption and price, which are helpful and necessary, he couches them in terms of the relationship between Christ and his members. “Christ made satisfaction, not by giving money or anything of the sort, but by bestowing what was of greatest price—himself—for us. And, therefore, Christ’s Passion is called our redemption.” 20 This is a legitimate metaphor only if it avoids reducing the Passion to a mere external, material exchange satisfying the abstract order of justice.

One of the most common reasons why Aquinas’ theory of the atonement is rejected is because it is seen as a manifestation of the sadistic penal substitution theory of atonement. In this view, God’s vengeance must be appeased. It is the “just vengeance (of the Father) which the Son of God transferred to himself.” 21 Jesus steps in to take the blow of the paternal wrath. This offers a misguided view of God’s paternity, and is a sad caricature of the redemption. As we have seen, this excessively juridical understanding of the atonement is foreign to Aquinas. The divine desire for vengeance does not need to be satiated, and the cross was not absolutely necessary to forgive sin without injustice. In addition, although we can say that Christ took on the punishment of our guilt in a metaphorical sense, for Aquinas, there is no sense in which Christ was actually guilty as there is for Calvin.  22 This would involve a disordered will, and would mean true sin in Christ; it is ontologically impossible for Christ to take on our malum culpae. Aquinas shows how far his theory is from penal substitution when, in describing the fittingness of the Passion in order to save the human race, he gives as the first reason that “man knows thereby how much God loves him, and is thereby stirred to love him in return.” 23 The penal substitution theory fails to account for this supremely personal and loving exchange between Christ and his members.

It is, thus, also evident that Aquinas’ theory of the atonement sheds profound light upon our understanding of the mercy, love, and justice of God. All three are united—indeed, for God, every act of justice is more deeply an act of mercy, and the act of the atonement embraces this truth as well. In restoring the will of man back to loving God, Christ not only re-establishes the order of divine justice, but offers an act of profound mercy. Christ gives to the Father his own inner justice as man in order to express a deeper order of love and justice, the metaphysical order of divine wisdom, of which human justice is but an analogy. The redemption of mankind was in keeping with the justice of God “because by his Passion, Christ made satisfaction for the sin of the human race; and so man was set free by Christ’s justice.” 24 It was also in keeping with his mercy “for since man of himself could not satisfy for the sin of all human nature … God gave him his Son to satisfy for him.” 25 It expresses a more ultimate mercy to renew all things in Christ, and to atone for sin, not simply by an act of will (which certainly would have been possible for God), but through an act of merciful justice. Since all sin is a personal offense against God, he could forgive sin without any injustice apart from the cross. However, “this would have been less fitting, for in satisfying, we are allowed to put matters right with God.” 26 It was more merciful of God to allow us to participate in the justice of Christ. In this act, “mercy and truth have met each other, justice and peace have kissed.” 27 Although the cross was not necessary, it “came of more copious mercy than if (God) had forgiven sins without satisfaction.” 28 The justice of the Passion is the greater mercy. We also see, in conclusion, how far removed Aquinas’ union between the justice, love, and mercy of God is from a penal substitution, or extrinsic juridical theory of the atonement. God is not constrained by an abstract order of justice, rather, he himself lovingly communicates his justice and mercy to his creatures through the Passion of Christ.

  1. 1 Cor 15:3 and Acts 2:23 (RSV).
  2. 1 Peter 3:18 (RSV).
  3. 1 Peter 1:19 (RSV).
  4. Rik van Nieuwenhove, “Bearing the Marks of Christ’s Passion: Aquinas’ Soteriology” in The Theology of Thomas Aquinas (co-editor with Rik van Nieuwenhove), Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005: 277-302. This quote is from page 290.
  5. Nieuwenhove, pp. 277-278.
  6. Nieuwenhove, p. 288.
  7. Nieuwenhove, p. 299, note 55.
  8. Summa Theologiae III, q. 48, a. 1, c.
  9. Nieuwenhove, p. 290.
  10. Nieuwenhove, p. 282.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Nieuwenhove, p. 283.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Summa Theologiae III, q. 48, a. 2, c.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Nieuwenhove, p. 291.
  17. Summa Theologiae III, q. 48, a. 2, c.
  18. Ibid.
  19. The first quote is from Nieuwenhove, p. 291, and the second is from Summa Theologiae III, q. 48, a. 3, c.
  20. Summa Theologiae III, q. 48, a. 4, c.
  21. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book II, Section 16.5.
  22. Calvin, II.16.5.
  23. Summa Theologiae III, q. 46, a. 3, c. He also states it was fitting because it offered man an example of virtue, merited his bliss and glory, and increased his dignity by a man’s vanquishing the devil in his humanity. Only in his fourth reason he offers an oblique reference to an economic metaphor, quoting 1 Corinthians: “You are bought with a great price,” however, even this is so that men may be sensitized to the gravity and evil of sin, and recognize that they are “all the more bound to refrain from sin.”
  24. Summa Theologiae III, q. 46, a. 1, ad 3.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Nieuwenhove, p. 291.
  27. Psalm 85:10, Douay-Rheims.
  28. Summa Theologiae III, q. 46, a. 1, ad 3.
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