A brief historical overview

Satisfaction for our sins was a major medieval category for defining Jesus’ atoning work. This was developed in a number of ways, so that some spoke of satisfying the devil, while others spoke of satisfying God’s honour or God’s justice.[1]

Returning to the insight of earlier theologians such as Augustine and Gregory the Great, the Reformers of the sixteenth century, including Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Melanchthon, redefined the notion of satisfaction in the light of their own rigorous examination of Scripture. Anselm (Cur Deus Homo I.12,13,15) had written of satisfaction being made so that there is no need for sin to be punished. But the Reformers saw Christ’s death precisely as ‘the undergoing of vicarious punishment (poena) to meet the claims on us of God’s holy law and wrath (i.e. his punitive justice)’.[2]

This penal substitutionary view of the atonement is expressed in the Prayer of Consecration in The Book of Common Prayer, which speaks of Christ’s death as ‘a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world’. Article 31 of the Church of England’s Articles of Religion also states that:

The offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone.

A classic critique of this position was offered by the Unitarian Faustus Socinus in 1578.[3] His polemic held the attention of exponents of the Reformation view for more than a century, ‘and created a tradition of rationalistic prejudice against that view which has effectively shaped debate about it right down to our own day’.[4]

Nevertheless, the penal view of the atonement remained a central element of Protestant orthodoxy in the seventeenth century and became a particular focus of Evangelicalism from the eighteenth century onwards. It has been powerfully reargued and defended in more recent times by writers such as James Denny, Leon Morris, James Packer and John Stott.

See also now S. Jeffery, M. Ovey, & A. Sach, Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity, 2007).

[1] Note the helpful survey of these views in J. R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Leicester: IVP, 1986), 111-132.

[2] J. I. Packer, Celebrating the Saving Work of God: The Collected Shorter Writings of J. I. Packer Vol. 1 (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998), 86.

[3] Socinus, F., ‘De Iesu Christo servatore’, in Opera omnia, volumes 1-2 of Bibliotheca fratrum Polonorum quos unitarios vocant, 8 vols (Irenopoli: post 1656), 2:115-246.

[4] Packer, Celebrating, 86. He goes on to show how Reformed theologians in trying to beat Socinian rationalism at its own game became defensive rather than declaratory, analytic and apologetic rather than doxological and kerygmatic. Packer’s own reworking of the penal substitutionary view of the atonement seeks to avoid the pitfalls he identifies in previous formulations.


2 thoughts on “A brief historical overview

  1. Ibraam Mansour

    Dear Dr David
    I wonder if u have an article or can advise about Anselm and his deviation from the PS doctrine as it is falsely understood that he is the one who created it


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