Defending a Penal-Satisfactionary view of the Atonement.
A Thomistic Understanding of the Atonement
In dying on the cross, Christ has given us the means of obtaining salvation, but the question of the atonement concerns how one innocent God-man dying on the cross causes the believer to be absolved of their sins. The model of the Atonement I had held in the past has been Anselm’s Satisfaction Model; however, now I wish to advocate for a Thomistic understanding of the atonement, which I will call the Thomistic Penal-Satisfactionary Atonement.
How does the Atonement work?
Thomas Aquinas is in a sense both a proponent of a penal and a satisfactory atonement because he considers satisfaction to be a form of penalty. Thomas holds that Christ agrees to take upon himself a satisfactory punishment, which then acts as a substitute for the Purificatory punishment we deserve. In doing this, he restores our debt as a violator of God’s law, merits for us forgiveness of sins, frees us from our bondage to the devil, and brings us to a new relationship with God.
Thomas makes a distinction between two types of punishment, purificatory punishment, and satisfactionary punishment. Purificatory punishment is done when you are punished in order to resolve the injustice present in the social order, it is committed against one’s own will, and no one can take your place. Satisfactionary punishment is undertaken under one’s own will to restore the damage a perpetrator of a crime has committed. The first instance is retributive and the second is restorative, and someone can potentially do the work for you.
For scriptural support, Thomas Aquinas cites 1 Corinthians 11:31–32:
if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged, but whilst we are judged, we are chastised by the Lord, that we be not condemned with this world..
The idea here is that judgment in the bounds of the church only renders discipline from God, it doesn’t condemn us to hell like we were a part of the world. The former is satisfactory, while the latter is purificatory.
When Christ dies on the cross, he merits for us the means of absolving us of our debt to God and eliminates our bondage to Satan. He writes;
Man was held captive on account of sin in two ways: first of all, by the bondage of sin, because (John 8:34): “Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin”; and (2 Peter 2:19): “By whom a man is overcome, of the same also he is the slave.” Since, then, the devil had overcome man by inducing him to sin, man was subject to the devil’s bondage. Secondly, as to the debt of punishment, to the payment of which man was held fast by God’s justice: and this, too, is a kind of bondage, since it savors of bondage for a man to suffer what he does not wish, just as it is the free man’s condition to apply himself to what he wills.
Thomas argues that because Christ’s passion was the ultimate act of self-giving, he merits the greatest act of charity which satisfies our debt to God for violating his justice, and releases us from our bondage to Satan. One might ask what claim does Satan have over us in the first place, Thomas responds by saying that it was a psychological bondage God allows us to slip into, but Christ’s act of charity releases us from the devil’s bondage by putting us under the servitude of God again. The first happens all at once, the second happens more gradually.
Was it Just?
The next question concerns problems about one person serving the punishment of another. According to Thomas, one person’s merits and demerits can be shared by one another,
“one man can merit for another as regards release from punishment, and one man’s act becomes another’s, by means of charity whereby we are “all one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28)”.
Jesus serves as the head of the church, much like the King is the head of a nation, when they both take on their office, they are both responsible for what happens in the nation. When they rule properly, the nation benefits. When the nation acts improperly, the head can be punished.
One might ask what is the purpose of punishing the head if he is innocent? Thomas responds by saying the purpose is two-fold,
1. Pays the debt
2. Avoids bondage to sin.
First, a satisfactionary punishment (if it is to be paid by someone else) must be made by someone in a state of grace to the violated, this being God the Son’s relationship to God the Father (although, another innocent person would do). If I were to act as the satisfaction for the world, then it would fail as I myself have a debt to the justice of God for my sins. Secondly, to will satisfaction with the party you have hurt is to will it out of love for that person. If I ruin someone’s home, I can make satisfaction by rebuilding it, but if I want to do it out of greater love, and I can recruit a willing participant out of friendship to do the work I will, so long as he can rebuild the house better than I can. The purpose isn’t just in me to better myself, but also in making restitution, and it would be a travesty for me not to enlist the help of my willing friend, especially if I lack the means to do it on my own.
Also note that since it is Christ doing this on our behalf, Christ is working as a substitute because all human sinners lack the means of paying off their debt, and it remains penal because Christ takes on a penalty that occurred by God, which is a type of punishment. In scripture, we read of Christ becoming sin (2 Corinthians 5:21) or becoming a curse (Galatians 3:10–13). This is Christ taking on our sins and debts, and paying them off through his satisfaction. Furthermore, we read in Isaiah that Christ’s life was an offering to sin approved by the will of the Father (Isaiah 53:10).
On the Necessity of the Atonement
The question I will now speak to is to whether or not the atonement was chosen because there could be no other way, or if this was the most suitable way. Here I will opt for the latter (breaking away from John Edwards, Anselm, and Luther; instead opting to side with Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and Hugo Grotius) for the following reasons
If God had to do it, it was not out of grace Jesus chose to die, but out of moral obligation. However, as Saint Paul once told Philemon,
But without thy counsel I would do nothing: that thy good deed might not be as it were of necessity, but voluntary (Philemon 1:14)
The greater love is to do something freely, and a better atonement is one where Christ does something freely, not of necessity. Secondly, it makes the vile actions of killers necessary. As Henry Pinkman once stated:
To say that his death was an indispensable condition of human salvation is to say that God’s grace had to call in the aid of murderers in order that it might find a way to human hearts. I am not willing to acknowledge any indebtedness to Judas Iscariot for the forgiveness of my sins. Whatever necessity there was for the death of Jesus lay not in the justice of God, nor in God’s regard for law, but in human sinfulness
Those who believe the atonement was strictly necessary might claim that any evil is infinitely offensive to a God who is infinitely God. However, Duns Scotus makes a distinction between an evil which is intrinsically evil, or an extrinsically evil. The former is evil unto itself, it is a substantive evil akin to a Manichean ultimate principle of evil, which is heretical. Then there is an extrinsic evil, this is an evil that is wrong relative to something else. While this form of evil is infinite in that God decrees it worthy of infinite punishment, it is only evil relative to the degree of God meeting out that degree of punishment.
God’s justice would not be violated if he provided a finite punishment, but out of the counsel of his will and the greatest consideration, opts for an infinite punishment for sin. Since God can remove this infinite degree of punishment by his will, he can atone with a finite punishment.
Although saying the atonement wasn’t necessary might be to make the doctrine gratuitous, I doubt that follows. As Thomas Aquinas says,
a thing may be necessary from some cause quite apart from itself; and should this be either an efficient or a moving cause then it brings about the necessity of compulsion; as, for instance, when a man cannot get away owing to the violence of someone else holding him. But if the external factor which induces necessity be an end, then it will be said to be necessary from presupposing such end — namely, when some particular end cannot exist at all, or not conveniently, except such end be presupposed.
If we consider external factors, Christ’s atonement was necessary because it resulted in the act being required. If, in his omnipotence, he did not want, or had no need of his killers, their evil would not be necessary. However, since Jesus chose to be crucified himself, his action would become required if there are external factors considered to get the most suitable outcome. Those external facts are goals including, but not exclusive to,
- Providing a demonstration of God’s Charity
But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us — Romans 5:8
- Setting the most proper example
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps — 1 Peter 2:21
- Embarrass Satan, since Jesus was both fully God and fully man, it was poetic justice that not only God should defeat him by his goodwill, but also that humanity can join him through the person of Jesus Christ. It was not only God’s victory but also our own derivative victory.
But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ — 1 Corinthians 15:57
- Subverting evil using instruments of humility, rather than power
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. — Matthew 5:10
Notice that these do not give any glory to, or require, evildoers. God could have forgone the most fitting option. For he says to Moses: “I will show mercy to whom I will, I will take pity on whom I will.” (Romans 9:5) — but gave us the greatest sign of mercy by using his son. God could have given us a lesser sacrifice of an Angel or Human Messiah who he himself chose to punish, but that would be less impactful. Saint Augustine tells us why,
For what was so necessary for the building up of our hope, and for the freeing the minds of mortals cast down by the condition of mortality itself, from despair of immortality, than that it should be demonstrated to us at how great a price God rated us, and how greatly He loved us?
There are two ways of handling a problem, from within and without. For example, you can end a war by fighting it yourself, or by sending others to fight. A king who sends himself into battle to fight from within is greater than the one who fights it from without. Or, consider a doctor who takes on a virus to cultivate a vaccine rather than use a test subject. Likewise, by taking up the consequences of mortality, disease, and suffering, God is greater than if he was to use his power to take care of the problem from outside the perils of humanity.
One could ask why a king couldn’t just avoid war if it was within their power, but the response there is that there is more virtue in going through the glory and sacrifice of a just war, rather than just staying out of it. The modern liberal mind, born of the enlightenment, might recoil at such a prospect. However, a happy life is not the same as a virtuous one. Furthermore, unlike the view of the materialist who idolizes their life, the view of the Christian is that what hurts the body is not necessarily an attack against the soul.
In terms of being a demonstration rather than a necessity of God’s justice, we need not look further than Romans 3:23–26
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.
It was as a demonstration, not out of the necessity of his nature that God died for us.
Some might claim that this makes Christ’s suffering auxiliary to God’s forgiveness, placing necessity more on man’s psychological need. However, such a claim is silly since (A) if God chooses to forgive and chooses to do so in the most appropriate way, he would take human psychology into account and (B) this does not address the other virtues to be gained in Christ subverting evil, Christ punishing Satan using his own fiendish plans, and God both demonstrating his own while making us a part of it as instruments of his church.
Another claim is that God requires blood for forgiveness (Hebrews 9:22). The problem is that verse concerns the old covenant of the Hebraic law as it was, not as it needed to be by necessity. Some might invoke Romans 6:23, the wages of sin is death, but, again, the wages of sin as God choose to allow, not as he needed to allow. There is no law to which God is confined.
The atonement is like a kingdom in an empire, whose king gave up his thrown to a charlatan. The charlatan rebelled against the empire, and the people capitulated. The prince of the Emperor chose to send himself into the kingdom at the will of his Father, knowing he would be punished. There he attracted followers against the charlatan, claiming that he was to rule. The charlatan punished him, as he and the Emperor knew he would. After attracting many followers, the Emperor drove into the kingdom with the army, punished those who did not join and believe his son, and rewarded those who followed the prince, and forgot their treachery because they suffered along with the prince, who was to become the new king.
Here, the old king is Adam, the charlatan is Satan, the prince is Christ, the Emperor is God the Father, the kingdom is the earth, the empire is heaven, the rebels with the king are his church and the army consists of the angelic hosts.
While the prince and the Emperor could have just forgiven anyone who was repentant, he chose to demonstrate his charity, set a proper example of kingship, embarrass the charlatan, and subvert the power dynamic of the renegade kingdom. Furthermore, his followers share in the prince’s victory, rather than be byproducts of the king’s mercy. It attaches them to the Emperor’s act of charity and makes them less likely to rebel.
 Summa Contra-Gentiles, Book Three: Providence Part II: Question 158, Paragraph 5
 Summa Theologia, Third Part, Question 48, Article 4, I Answer that <http://www.newadvent.org/summa/4048.htm#article4>
 Summa Theologia, Third Part, Question 48, Article 4 response 2 <http://www.newadvent.org/summa/4048.htm#article4>
 “The possibility of satisfaction”, Article 2, Question 13, Supplement, reply to objection 1 < http://www.newadvent.org/summa/5013.htm#article2>
 “The Atonement,” in Theology at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century, ed. John Morgan, p. 295
 Andrew S. Yang, Scotus’ voluntarist approach to the atonement reconsidered, 426–427
 Summa Theologia, Question 46, Article 1, I Answer that < http://www.newadvent.org/summa/4046.htm#article1>
 Summa Theologia, Third Part, Question 46, Article 3, I Answer that < http://www.newadvent.org/summa/4046.htm#article3>
 Summa Theologia, Third Part, Question 48, Article 1, I Answer that <http://www.newadvent.org/summa/4048.htm#article1>
 Saint Augustine, On the Trinity, Book 13, Chapter 10 < http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/130113.htm >