NOTICE: Opinions expressed in the Global Journal are those of the individual authors.
They do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or of Patrick Henry College.

This Journal is courteously hosted by Patrick Henry College.

Table of Contents


Robert D. Culver, Th.D

Houston, MN

In this paper I seek to show that through the centuries various aspects of the atonement by Christ's death on the cross were discerned by Christian teachers, yet all the while a doctrine of satisfaction by vicarious sacrifice was understood, even if dimly at times and often stated obscurely. In other words, the evangelical doctrine was never a novelty imposed upon the scriptures. In every age it was at least partially understood. It is not, as some claim, an invention of the former Archbishop of Canterbury.[2]

I propose Anselm's work, especially his tract, Cur Deus Homo? as the breaking point in sound interpretation of Christ's work of atonement for several reasons. For one, he formulated and passed down to later generations the great idea of objective, finished accomplishment--a done deal as my lawyer says. For another he saw that scripture roots both "the sending in the likeness of sinful flesh" and "for sin" in the very nature of God. Anselm found both holiness and justice (righteousness) taking no back seat to His love. Further, he appears to be about the first of the medieval scholastics to become aware of the incompleteness of the ancient creeds with respect to Christ's work of redemption. His proposal of vicarious satisfaction of penal justice toward the infinite majesty of God, though needing some qualification, gave rational coherence to a theology of atonement. Evangelical theology has improved on Anselm but not rejected his accomplishments.

In concluding a sketch and summary of "Anselm's Theory of the Atonement," W. G. T. Shedd says:

[I]t is evident that if his views and experience, as exhibited in the Cur Deus Homo? could have become those of the church . . . the revival of the doctrine of justification by faith in the Lutheran Reformation would not have been needed . . . . But the soteriology of Anselm, though exerting no little influence through his immediate pupils, did not pass into the church at large.[3]

This was because Britain and Normandy , where Anselm served, were then on the perimeter of christendom. The city clergymen of Europe and the Roman bureaucrats were neither very pious nor interested in thoroughgoing theological reflection.

Neve says, "Anselm is gifted with genius."[4] Shedd remarks of Cur Deus Homo? "It is remarkable . . . bursting forth of a new spirit of inquiry, the dawning of a new era after five hundred years of stagnation and darkness."[5] Bromiley claims Anselm's tract was "epoch making."[6] During the first four centuries after the publishing of the last book of the New Testament the catholic (worldwide) church came to consensus about the person of Christ. This was expressed in the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed. Yet, little formulation of theology was directed to definition of Christ's work of redemption. The Nicene Creed (325, 381) simply says the Lord Jesus Christ "for us men and for our salvation" "came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day," etc. The creed does not, however, say how those events in our Lord's career effected "our salvation," even though it states He came "for . . . our salvation."

In a very thorough treatment of "the Pre-Nicene Theology" J. N. D. Kelly finds it "useless to look for any systematic treatment either of man's lost condition, in need of redemption or of how redemption in Christ was brought about" among second century writers. He notes "while taking it for granted that men are sinful, ignorant and in need of true life, they never attempt to account for their wretched plight." They "nowhere co-ordinate their main ideas or attempt to sketch a rationale of salvation."[7]

The second century was a time of severe attacks upon the new faith from at least three quarters--gnostic heretics, Judaism and the pervasive official and popular heathenism. The few of the second century who wrote to defend Christianity and whose writings are extant today wrote in the Greek language and are known to history as “the Greek Apologists." Of these the most important are Justin Martyr, Tatian and Athenagoras. They did not choose to treat doctrines in addressing their adversaries. Hence, "These writers treat Christianity predominantly as a body of teachings relating to religion and morals."[8] Their thoughts therefore on the work of Christ for fallen men were "shot through with ambiguity."[9] Kelly goes on to say, not until the third century, i.e., after AD 200, was there a beginning of a systematic doctrine of salvation, even "the germ of a doctrine of substitution."[10]


[Throughout the rest of this paper "Salvation" alternates with "Atonement" and related words because the ideas were not clearly separated in early Christian times.]

Irenaeus of Lyon (120-202) is known for his soteriology of recapitulation, also called assimilation and immitation of Christ. Passages usually cited are from Against Heresies (5.16.2, 3; 2.22.4; 3.18.1 and 7; 3.16.2), a long treatise. Irenaeus engaged "in a life-long struggle against the heresies that . . . came in, like locusts, to devour the harvests of the gospel." [A. C. Cox, I ANF, p. 309] Irenaeus' idea of defense against heresies was defense and exposition of truth, such as is found in his famous work, Against Heresies, a book of 252 pages in ANF Vol. I. In meeting the minds of his time, both pagan and Christian, Irenaeus enlarged upon the central mystery of the faith, the incarnation. God the Logos assimilated (accommodated) himself to Adam (the human race) and in His life, from birth to death, recapitulated every stage of human life. This doctrine was based on a rather shallow exegesis of Paul's doctrine of the first and second Adam. His notion never made much impression, even on Irenaeus himself, for, as he acknowledged, Jesus did not live through middle and old age and He was never a husband or parent. He called for imitation of Christ as our example. God accommodates to us; Jesus' recapitulates Adam (us, all sinful men); he is our example whom we are to imitate.

Yet the energetic bishop must not be accused of anticipating the modernist heresy of salvation by following Christ's good example. For, in book 5, chap. 16, paragraphs 2 and 3, after stating the solidarity of the Logos both with God and man he adds that He, the Lord manifested Himself by His Passion in which by His obedience on a tree (cross) He took away the effects of Adam's disobedience at a tree (in Paradise). He concludes, "In the second Adam, however, we were reconciled, being made obedient even unto death. For we were debtors to none other but to Him whose commandment we had transgressed at the beginning" (Against Heresies XVI, 3, ANF 544). So Irenaeus apparently had at least an inkling of reconciliation (at-one-ment) by the death of Christ, after all. This is vicarious satisfaction obliquely stated in different words.

The relation of Jesus Christ to the Godhead and of the divine and human in His person were matters of intense debate and careful definition in the early church but the saving work--even though it was certainly the chief burden of evangelism and Christian nurture in the churches--was apparently never formally defined.


However we explain the absence of an explicit soteriology, the church pervasively called Jesus Soter, Saviour. We may be sure the meaning of that word was understood as something more profound than victor over Satan, or teacher, prophet, fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies of Messiah, or example, though all those ideas also were present in the writing of the Apostolic Fathers.

The Apostolic Fathers (the first writers after the close of the New Testament) failed "to grasp the significance of the death of Christ."[11] Even Justin (about A. D. 100-165), for example, says little or nothing about it. "Yet as one of the most influential and most critical interpreters of Justin pointed out, 'It is equally certain that Justin's own faith was nourished more by that which the congregation confessed and taught concerning Christ its Lord than by that which he himself interpreted in a theoretical way."[12]


Historians of the period quite regularly point out that the cross, interpreted as substitutionary suffering by reference to the prophecies of the Servant in Isaiah 42-53, especially chapter 53, was imbedded in church's liturgy of the time. It could hardly be otherwise in view of the regular, frequent observance of he Eucharist (or Lord's Supper), always accompanied (as frequently still today) by liberal readings of relevant words of institution, comments on the same in the Epistles and other scripture. The language of the authors of the sub-Apostolic period and on to Nicea (325) reflect liturgical language of the Supper and the story of passion and cross.

Perhaps, as some say, the soteriology of Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria did draw much from the prevalent platonism in interpreting the scriptures. Similarities to modern neo-orthodoxy's doctrine of salvation by the incarnation of the Son of God rather than by his sacrificial death are present in their writings. There was also an early appearance of what not long ago was called "modernism." "The Logos assimilated himself to man and man to himself in his life and passion," etc., etc. These notions have reappeared with differing emphases from time to time, but blessedly never were widely endorsed. It was probably more "private speculation"[13] than church dogma. Yet the language of leading proponents shows "that neither the teaching nor the example of Christ could be isolated from the message of the cross."[14] and according to Pelikan, there is reason to believe that the saving power of the suffering and death of Christ was more explicitly celebrated in the worship of the second century than formulated in the faltering, initial attempts at theologizing of the time.[15]


Tertullian (160-230) seems to have introduced the important word "satisfaction" to Christian theological language in a treatise on repentance. He did not, however, use the word in connection with the Calvary work of Christ. He probably derived the term and the idea it represented from Roman law (Tertullian had been a lawyer) "where it referred to the amends one made to another for failing to discharge an obligation." In one of Tertullian's treatises he spoke of God as one to whom in repentance "you may make satisfaction" (On Penitance 7.14) and desire to make satisfaction is a reason for confession (On Penitance 8.9). Though Tertullian did not use "satisfaction" in explaining the Godward meaning of Christ's sacrifice on the cross he apparently introduced this heavily freighted word into the vocabulary of Christian theology. Furthermore, Tertullian understood what later was implied in "satisfaction" saying in his treatise On Modesty (22.4), "Who has ever redeemed the death of another by his own, except the Son of God alone? . . . Indeed, it was for this purpose that he came--to die for sinners." Only a little later than Tertullian, Hilary of Poitiers (300?-367) a most competent and articulate theologian, became the first known to equate "satisfaction" with "sacrifice" of Christ and to interpret the death of Christ as the "act of reparation to God on behalf of sinners" (Exposition of the Psalms, on 53:12-13). Here in the translation of H. F. Stewart are the significant statements of one of the greatest of the early Christian theologians. Hilary said Jesus' suffering on the cross "was intended to fulfill a penal function" and he received "penalty." He relates the penalty to "the sacrifices of the Law and then, interprets the work of Christ in these words,

It was from this curse that our Lord Jesus Christ redeemed us, when as the Apostle says: "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us, for it is written: cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree [Gal 3:13 ]." Thus He offered Himself to the death of the accursed that He might break the curse of the law, offering Himself voluntarily a victim to God the Father . . . offering to God the Father." [NPNF, IX pp. 246, 247]

This is the doctrine of satisfaction by substitionary sacrifice many centuries before Anselm, Thomas and Calvin. [See page xcv (95) of Introduction, "The Theology f St. Hilary of Poitiers " NPNF for competent evaluation of Hilary's insight.]


References to the death of Christ as a sacrifice appear among the Apostolic Fathers. The Epistles of Barnabas (about A.D. 100) sees in the sacrifice of the red heifer, without blemish, slaughtered outside the camp, its blood sprinkled before the sanctuary, the flesh, blood and offal burned, its ashes mingled with water employed for purifying (Num 17:1-22) a type of Christ's death. [Epistle of Barnabas, chap 8, ANF I, p. 142] He even has an incipient phraseology for imputation.

Cyprian of Carthge (died 250) in his 63rd Epistle was already calling ministers of the Word, priests and the elements of the Lord's Supper, oblations and sacrifices (ANF.364,365), so his reference therein to the death of Christ as a "sacrifice" may be faint support for this term. I do not think it likely, however, as some do, that he derived the term from the "liturgy of the altar" considering how the Old Testament ritual sacrifices were regarded widely as types of Christ's offering of His life to God. [In Scorpiace (Antidote for the Scorpion's Sting) Tertullian produces some shaky theology on the basis of the LXX rendering of Proverbs 9:2, praising martyrdom.]

Not much later Tertullian seems to assume everybody should understand the typical connection between many Old Testament people, institutions and events as well as prophecies of the passion and death of Jesus. [An Answer to the Jews, chaps. X-XOOO, ANF III, pp. 164-172] He expounds on the typology of Christ in "wood" and "tree" in the Old Testament, which he invariably traces to the Lord's passion. The wood Isaac carried typified Christ's cross. But unlike Isaac, for whom a ram was substituted, Christ was hung from His "wood," adding this important sentence: "For him it behooved to be made a sacrifice on behalf of all Gentiles, who was led as a sheep for a [sacrificial, piacular] victim." [ANF III, pp. 171, 172] Of course the New Testament says "Christ our passover has been sacrificed for us" and it seems to me was quite sufficient grounds for the scripturally versed fathers of the church to interpret the death of Christ as a sacrifice for sin offered to God. Historians who suppose a late date for New Testament writings find little there to explain the sacrifice interpretation in these early writers. Pelikan calls such descriptions of Christ's death as a sacrifice "liturgical echoes," a meaning derived from the eucharistic liturgy of orthodox Christianity, which in turn, opponents of orthodox Christiaity say, borrowed from heathen language of sacrifice and the Jewish temple worship. In view of the dissemination of Gospels and Epistles before Cypian and Tertullian, and perhaps before Barnabas, I see no need at all to find the source anywhere except in the New Testament.


This way of explaining the meaning of the Lord's death on the cross was common, being based on sayings of Christ (Mt 20:28), Paul's use of the term in this way (I Tim 2:6) and the suggestive language of Isaiah 53:5,6. The Epistle to Deognetus (about 130-150) uses this language in a gospel preachment worthy of George Whitefield, saying "He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us the holy One for transgression . . . . capable of covering our sins [with] His righteousness . . . . we, the wicked . . . . O sweet exchange." [Epistle to Deognetus 9, ANF I, p. 28] The writer of the Epistle to Deognetus does not say to whom the ransom was paid, but many over the second and third centuries, including Origen [Commentary on Matthew, Bk. 16, Chap. 8, ANF IX] said it was paid to the devil.

Gregory Nazianzen (AD 330?-391), while promoting the thoroughly biblical doctrine of the death of Christ as a payment for release or ransom, came very close to defining "the Blood" as an offering to God as a substitutionary sacrifice. He ridiculed the idea that the Blood was offered "to the Evil One." He assumes it was offered to the Father. God the Father accepted the blood of the cross "on account of the incarnation, and because Humanity must be sanctified by the Humanity of God"--in answer to the question, "To whom was that blood offered which was shed for us, and why was it shed? . . . the precious . . . Blood of our God and High priest and Sacrifice"? [Gregory Nazianzen, Second Oration on Easter, NPNF VII, p. 431] In the brief chapter 22 he mingles ransom with, sacrificial and victory metaphors.

No widely accepted creed has come to our attention over the span of centuries before the Reformation of the sixteenth century which affirmed a "Satanic ransom" theory. This is quite amazing, for the Reformation for the first time made soteriology--how one can be saved and know it for certain--because very center of the storm which swept Europe and propelled Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, Cranmer and all the rest into the mighty shaking of 1517-1648.

CHRISTUS VICTOR (Victory over all enemies, His and ours)

As Pelikan observes, modern Western Christians might see some formation of "the orthodox doctrine of vicarious atonement" in these writers of the second and third centuries, but it is "their emphasis on the saving significance of the resurrection of Christ that he will find most unusual."[16]

Irenaeus and Origen were among the earliest advocates. This emphasis in the theology of many early fathers that the victory over all enemies, Christ's and ours, in death and resurrection is sometimes called the classic theory of the atonement.[17] Yet this is an overstatement of its importance.

There is sufficient biblical evidence for this view that Gustaf Aulen's book (Christus Victor, 1969) has received favorable notice from competent, conservative, evangelical quarters (e.g., Walvoord).[18] Oskar Cullmann, as well as Karl Barth (from a neo-orthodox perspective) and J. H. Yoder (from liberal pacifist outlook) have given this view currency in our era. They have found scripture support chiefly in the promise of Genesis 3:15 concerning the crushing of the serpent's head and the bruising of the heel of the woman's seed and supposed similar reference to the binding of the devil ("strong man") at Matthew 12:22-29.

Athanasius argues through chapter 21-25 of the Incarnation of the Word that the resurrection after a public death on a cross was intended by God's design to prove victory over death and the prince of the powers of the air. [Athanasius, Incarnation of the Word, chaps. 23-29, NPNF IV, pp. 48-52] Athanasius uses the figure of a good wrestler who lets his public foes choose his opponent (as Jesus,' enemies chose a cross). "He was to prove Conqueror of Death in all of its forms . . . He defeated the 'Prince of the powers of the air' in his own region." [NPNF IV, p. 49] We look to some of the outstanding theologians of the fourth to tenth centuries for clear statements of a doctrine of atonement.


Athanasius (d.373), the paramount exponent of orthodox christology, composed nothing on the atonement, yet in his polemics with Arians he plainly expressed the substitutionary character of Christ's work on the cross. Shedd shows that in his writings on the trinity he incidentally maintained "the expiatory nature of Christ's work" and cites passages containing the substance of that doctrine of plenary satisfaction of divine justice "by the theanthropic sufferings of Christ which acquired full scientific form in . . . Anselm, and which lies under the whole Protestant Church and [its] theology."[19] The modern liberal notion that God sovereignly forgives any sin upon the sinners’ repentance, without the need for any punishment, vicarious or otherwise was already current in the fourth century. The story of the father's forgiveness of the prodigal son is supposed to be illustrative. This was current in the fourth century. And Athanasius utterly rejected it, using language that Calvin might have used (and perhaps did use).

Suppose that God should merely require repentance in order for salvation? This would not in itself be improper did it not conflict with the veracity of God. God cannot be untruthful, even for our benefit. Repentance does not satisfy the demands of truth and justice. If the question pertained solely to the corruption of sin, and not to the quilt and ill-desert of it repentance might be sufficient. But since God is both truthful and just, who can save, in this emergency, but the Logos who is above all created beings. He who created men from nothing could suffer for all and be their substitute. Hence the Logos appeared . . . . He saw how inadmissible it would be for sin to escape the law, except through a fulfillment and satisfaction of the law.[20]

In this quotation I have highlighted the ideas characteristic of the Anselmic-Protestant consensus: God's veracity and law must be honored in forgiveness; penalty must be paid; satisfaction (the key word) of justice must take place. There is no reference to the divine majesty or infinity as in Anselm or to the divine holiness as in Calvin and the Protestant writings on the subject but God's veracity, law and justice (which are similar ideas).

Origen (born at Alexandria 185, died 254) was a rare combination of great learning with little wisdom, deep piety with some truly weird behavior. The church is still greatly in his debt for his work in the text of the New Testament and in translation of the New Testament. His zeal to defend Christianity was unsurpassed. Though the greatest textual scholar of the ancient church, he went to such extremes the church finally denounced him as a heretic. He had a way of carrying good ideas to dangerous extremes. Yet even Origen was one of the many writers of the time who quoted Isaiah 53 to explain the connection between the death of Christ and the forgiveness of sin "healed by the passion of the Savior."[21]


That Christ came to reveal the one true God is a plain fact of scripture. Passages in the writings of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Clement of Alexandria and others seem to refer to Christ's work as Revelator constituting Him the Saviour. It is doubtful if they intended this to exclude his mission to deal with the guilt of sin. Origen was not alone among the Fathers to carry the idea of redemption by Christ to the extreme of universal salvation. He thought even the devil will ultimately be saved.

Church-goers of those times, however, were not forming their theology by reading the erudite writings of the above mentioned scholars. Their theology was formed by what they received from the Bible-readings and liturgy of worship services and catechisms. Popular theology then, even more than today, was so derived, because copies of the Bible were rare and printed study materials non-existent. Therefore, in spite of many rudimentary and confused ideas about Christ's work of redemption, the Bible-centered worship of the church insured widespread understanding that the death of Christ on the cross procured forgiveness of our sins.


Little if any advance in putting together the biblical elements of a comprehensive summary of a doctrine of atonement is to be found in Augustine. Augustine's energetic mind, directed in part by his introspective nature (The Confessions) and the Pelagian controversy, was expended on the doctrines of man and sin. Yet he accepted and promoted what was best in his predecessors. Augustine developed no profound doctrine of atonement to compare with his accomplishments in many other areas. Even so, incidental comments here and there show unmistakably that he was convinced of atonement by vicarious satisfaction, not well defined or free from inconsistencies. He did not always distinguish between the judicial side of redemption and the renewing work of Christ in our sanctification. He does not therefore advance beyond his predecessors and shares some of their confusion. Two of Augustine's best statements follow.

For the devil, having deceived the woman, and through her brought about the downfall of the man was laying claim to all the descendants of the first man as sinners by the law of death; in a wicked desire to do harm, indeed, but none the less by a most equitable right. This power of his held good until he put to death the Just One, in whom he could show nothing deserving of death; but also because he was born without that lust [i.e., by virgin conception], to which the devil had subjected those whom he had taken, so that whatever was born of it he would retain as if it were fruit of his tree; by a wicked desire to possess it indeed, but yet with a right that was not unfair. And so he is most justly compelled to let go those who believe in Him whom he put to death unjustly [Adam and all his descendants]; so that dying [in Christ's death] in this world they cancel the debt, living eternally they live in Him who paid for them [us] what He [Christ] did not owe.[22]

Augustine, like his predecessors, was over-persuaded of Satan's claims, but his emphases are justice, the holy character of divine law, substitution and, in a strange way, the sinlessness of the Substitute.

Harnack once remarked that "Whoever looks away from the formulas to the spirit will find everywhere in the writings of Augustine a stream of Pauline faith." [Cited by G. P. Fisher, p. 180] This is apparent in the quote to follow. It is the clearest statement about Christ's redemptive work on the cross from Augustine I know of. He is answering the charge of Faustus the Manichaean that Moses stupidly cursed Christ.

Christ has no sin in the sense of deserving death, but he bore for our sakes sin in the sense of death as brought on human nature of human sin. This is what hung on the tree; this is what was cursed by Moses [Deut 21:23 ]. Thus was death condemned that its reign might cease and cursed that it might be destroyed. By Christ's taking our sin in this sense, in condemnation is our deliverance, while to remain in subjection to sin is to be condemned. [Reply to Faustus the Manichaean, XIV.3, NPNF, IV, p. 208]

These and other passages in his writings show indisputably that Augustine understood the work of Christ on the cross as a substitutionary satisfaction for the sins of mankind. He did not quite shake free from notions of deliverance from Satan and the demonic. The pervasive presence of idolatry, which Paul associates with worship of demons (I Cor. 10), and the remarks of Jesus about Satan's being "cast out" and Jesus' awareness of the powers of darkness with the Hebrews Chapter Two teaching of deliverance from fear of death and "him that has the power of death, that is the devil" account for this. Theologians became aware that the overcoming of death (personalized or no) and power of the devil (whom Jesus said "has nothing in me") are fruits or results of the atonement, not of the essence of it.


Gregory the Great (540-604), bishop of Rome and recognized as pope (590-604), is said to be like the doubleheaded Janus of Rome--looking back upon the patristic age and bringing it to an end while also in the midst of the collapsed civilization of antiquity, stepping out in the dark age that lasted until the beginnings of the revival of learning in the eleventh century. Though he preserved the christological and trinitarian consensus of the ecumenical councils--as medieval folk understood them--he also rendered official and almost unchallengeable many superstitions and practices of the popular culture.

Pope Gregory ruled official thought of the Western Church without serious challenge for the next five hundred years. His theology is still dominant in the Roman Chruch--Trent and Vatican II notwithstanding.

Aptly described as "a wise and energetic churchman, a shrewd politician, a lovable . . . shepherd of souls," his theology is "a hodgepodge."[23] He was not only a man for his time but of it and things did not change for five centuries. It may be laid to the kindness of divine providence that his writings echo an Augustinian doctrine of atonement, partially defective as it was. It was possible for people of Western Europe to hear the theology of Romans chapter three verses 24 and 25 at least on occasion and we may hope many thoughtful folk grounded faith and hope in the finished work of Christ on the cross.

It is a providence of God that Gregory carried into the medieval epoch a sound conception of the atonement so far as it had been stated up to his time. Gregory is the first outstanding representative of "the hierarchical spirit which was now to mould and corrupt Christianity for a thousand years, we are naturally surprised to find in the writings of one whom some regard as the first pope, representations of the atoning work of Christ so much in accordance with the Pauline conception of it."[24]

Gregory, though he aided and abetted the errors and abuses that much later brought on the 16th century Reformation, was also a cogent advocate of the central doctrine of scripture we describe as atonement by vicarious satisfaction. Among his voluminous writings is his Moral Discourses of Job, wherein he stresses that "guilt can be extinguished only by a penal offering to justice. But it would contradict the idea of justice, if for the sin of a rational being like a man, the death of an irrational animal should be accepted as a sufficient atonement." He follows, saying the sacrifice must be a man, a man unstained by sin. "Hence the Son of God . . . assumed our nature without corruption . . .made himself a sacrifice for us . . . a victim without sin, and able both to die by virtue of its humanity and to cleanse the guilty, upon the grounds of justice" (Book XVII, 46 as cited by Shedd, Op. Cit., pp. 263, 264). Gregory in thinking of "justice" in the sense implied in vicarious satisfaction--i.e. divine justice. He does not say to whom the sacrifice was offered, but it seems to be implied it was to God, not to the devil as in some older theology.

So down through the generations of the "dark ages"--and there was surely darkness enough--there were bound to be glimmerings, even shafts of the light of the gospel, in spite of ignorance, moralism, formalism, legalism, sacramentalism and corruption. It was received by those whose hearts were touched.

Of course the "dark ages" were not entirely dark at any time. Wherever the word of God is known faith is apt to follow (Rom 10:17 ); "the entrance of thy work giveth light." The ecclesiastical records of those centuries assure that matters of doctrine and scripture interpretation were the subject of many synodical meetings and ecclesiastical decrees.

Atonement received some enlightened attention in the ninth century in the person of Gottschalk of Orbais (ca. 806-868). Gottschalk was a participant in a flurry of serious theological debate in ninth century Europe . Chapter XI, "Conflicts at Corbie" of G. W. Bromiley's Historical Theology: An Introduction provides a dependable summary of this important episode in the development of a theology of the atonement. Through his studies of Augustine this monk (Benedictine), then a secular priest, discovered that the ecclesiastical system of the time had a near Pelagian heart beneath a cloak of professed Augustinian beliefs. Augustine's views, drawn from scripture, regarding the depravity of man, and the priority of the divine at all levels of salvation led Gottschalk to a doctrine of unconditional (i.e. not based on foreseen faith) election and to propose that Christ died only for the elect. Gottschalk came to be a thoroughgoing Augustinian and in spite of suppression preached these views with enough success to receive prelatical rejection and martyrdom. He obviously viewed atonement as vicarious, penal satisfaction. The story of Gottschalk demonstrates that a doctrine that the atonement of Christ satisfied God's justice and law fully was viable if not quite healthy in the darkest period.

Gottschalk aroused sufficient attention to the issues of election, grace and the nature of atonement that the practical semi-Pelagianism of the Roman Church was made official in public pronouncements--from which it has never quite retreated. This is not to say there were not Roman scholars who to a degree embraced true Augustinian views.

For these reasons Roman Catholics can never be certain of salvation, because no one can know when he has sufficient merit--additional to Christ's. Hence--at least in the past--their funerals lack the note of assurance and peace usual in funerals of devout Protestants. Alcuin and even Bede the Venerable are medieval English ecclesiastics who are said to have held notions of soteriology similar to Gottschalk. Not surprisingly the career and writings of Gottschalk have been the subject of modern studies. [See Gottschalk articles in The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 6] The 17th century Jansenist movement within the Roman Church, whose most famous convert was Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), revived these features of doctrine promoted by Gottschalk.

Scholars speculate that where and when monasticism existed at its best, soteriological doctrines similar to those of Althanasius and Augustine may have been accepted. Be that as it may, during the eleventh century, the beginning of the age of scholastisim (i.e. formal school theology in the new universities and other centers of revived learning), a wide-spread interest in and adequate understanding of Christ's work of atonement arose. It may be that sholarship and speculation in the monastic period of A.D. 900 to A.D. 1100 were by-passed by devotional practice and piety which in the Rule of Benedict of Nursia put nothing ahead of the love of Christ. Monastic writers vied with one another in promoting just that in literature still read today. Eventually theology caught up with this piety in 1098 when Archbishop Anselm, a Benedictine exiled from Canterbury , composed Why the God-Man?

Anselm's brief work "read as an essay in . . . divinity . . . was a virtuoso performance with few rivals in the history of Christian thought" (Pelikan). Anselm's purpose was to produce a rationally organized and supported view of the person and work of Christ that was in full harmony with the authority of scripture and ancient dogma as well. He succeeded so well that his positive contribution, with one adjustment (divine holiness where Anselm put majesty) and one enlargement (active obedience of Christ) he has not been superceded to the present.

Anselm was not alone at the time or without predecessors in godly endeavor to understand the work of Christ in redemption. Peter Damian, Bruno of Segni, Guilbert of Nogent and to a degree even Abelard (who challenged Anselm's view) created extant works which demonstrate that Anselm's Why the God-Man? was in part the fruit of common theological discussion. Both the piety of the time and speculative theology were synchronously at work and moving in the direction Anselm brilliantly expressed. Theology had treated the work of Christ as prophet, priest and king for a long time. It was in the dogmas (decrees of councils, synods, etc.) but now theologians sought "to make explicit what had been implicit."



[1] Paper presented at the Evangelical Theological Society’s National Conference, Atlanta , Georgia , November 19, 2003 .

[2] It will be noted that our approach and conclusions differ considerably from those of authors such as Alister McGrath; for a detailed critique of his Justicia Dei: A History of the Doctrine of Justification, see John Warwick Montgomery, Christ Our Advocate (Bonn, Germany: Verlag fuer Kultur und Wissenschaft, 2002).

[3] W. G. T. Shedd, The History of Christian Doctrine II, New York : Charles Scribner, 1863, pp. 285, 286.

[4] L. Neve, A History of Christian Thought I, Philadelphia , PA : Muhlenberg Press, 1946, p. 191.

[5] Shedd, Op. Cit., p. 273.

[6] G. W. Bromiley, Historical Theology, Grand Rapids , MI : Eerdmans, 1978, p. 163.

[7] J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, Rev. Ed., New York : Harper Collins, 1978, p. 163.

[8] George P. Fisher, History of Christian Doctrine, 2nd. Ed., Edinburgh : T. & T. Clarke, 1927, p. 61.

[9] Kelly, Op. Cit., p. 168.

[10] Kelly, Op. Cit., p. 177.

[11] T. F. Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers, Reprint, Grand Rapids , MI : 1959, p. 37.

[12] M. V. Engelhardt, cited by Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine I, Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press , 1971, p. 143.

[13] Pelikan, Ibid. p. 141.

[14] Pelikan, Ibid. p. 146.

[15] Pelikan, Ibid. p. 146.

[16] Pelikan, Ibid. p. 149.

[17] John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, pp. 318-321.

[18] See, in particular, John Warwick Montgomery’s review of Aulén’s Christus Victor and analysis of major atonement theories in the Appendix to Chytraeus on Sacrifice: A Reformation Treatise in Biblical Theology, ed. and trans. John Warwick Montgomery, 2d ed.; Malone, Texas: Repristination Press, 2000, pp. 139-46.

[19] Shedd, Op. Cit., p. 242.

[20] Athanasius, as quoted by Shedd, Op. Cit., pp. 242, 243.

[21] Origen, Against Celsus I.54, 55 as quoted by Pelikan, Op. Cit., p. 153.

[22] Augustine, The Freedom of the Will, III.112

[23] Neve, Op. Cit., p. 173.

[24] Shedd, Op. Cit., p. 263.

Table of Contents