A Catholic Penal Substitution?


Recently, Reason and Theology had a round table episode on the subject of Christ’s atonement which included members from the Syriac Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Chaldean Catholic, Reformed Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic communions. I was representing the Roman Catholic position, which would be the traditional Latin perspective of the West (although, I would argue, has representation in the East as well). I was the first to open with my 3-minute description of the Catholic view. Below I have given a transcript of my presentation,  which includes 11 points. My attempt was to keep it as short and concise as possible.

Questions have come as to whether Catholics can hold to a Penal Substitution model, where Christ takes upon Himself the punishment due to us for our sins. I argue in the positive. However, a qualified distinction should be applied, and I think it comes from St. Thomas Aquinas’s manner of explaining two ways  of understanding punishment: simply and by way of satisfaction (Summa theologiae, 1-2.87.7). Understood simply, punishment is borne by the sinner and can’t be taken by a vicarious substitute, since the punishment is always in direct relation to the sin, which is committed by the sinner, and not the one who attempts to take on the punishment on the sinner’s behalf. However, understood as “satisfactory punishment”, which means a vicarious substitute offers himself voluntarily to bear the punishment due to another, the vicar has no relation to the sin nor its guilt.

St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of Christ being punished in the way of satisfaction in his commentary on Galatians 3:13

“..it is explained with respect to the evil of punishment. For Christ freed us from punishment by enduring our punishment and our death which came upon us from the very curse of sin. Therefore, inasmuch as He endured this curse of sin by dying for us, He is said to have been made a curse for us. This is similar to what is said in Romans (8:3): “God sent his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and of sin,” i.e., of mortal sin; “Him who knew no sin,” namely, Christ, Who committed no sin, God (namely, the Father) “had made sin for us,” i.e., made Him suffer the punishment of sin, when, namely, He was offered for our sins ….He is saying, therefore: Truly was He made a curse for us, because the death of the cross which He endured is tantamount to a curse—thus explaining the evil of guilt, although it was only in the minds of the Jews—because it is written: Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree. But with respect to the evil of punishment, Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree is explained thus: The punishment itself is a curse, namely, that He should die in this way. Explained in this way, He was truly cursed by God, because God decreed that He endure this punishment in order to set us free.

Lastly, please know that this aspect of the atonement, while emphasized in the Latin West, does not exhaust the reality of what occurred on the holy cross. There is certainly a place to emphasize the ontological restoration of mankind through Christ’s dying and rising. There is also the Christus Victor model, which I don’t interpret as necessarily contradictory. In fact, I see it as necessarily complementary. Much more could be said.

  1. By virtue of us being creatures made in the image of God, we owe to God justice for who He is and for His benevolence in making us.
  2. Justice is to give unto each what is due. In consequence, we owe God something which is His due. We owe God the perfect worship of our souls and bodies. To love God above all things with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.
  3. The just worship we owe God can be understood in two ways: internal and external
  4. Internal worship is the worship of the heart, mind, and soul. External worship manifest the internal worship, and can be seen in external acts such as prayer, liturgy, charitable acts, but most of all by acts of sacrifice.
  5. A sacrifice unto God would be to externally give some good of ours in recognition of His benevolence and omnipotent Lordship over our lives
  6. Just by being creatures made in the image of God, therefore, we owe to God the just worship of sacrifice.
  7. Even in a sinless world, man still owes God the supreme act of worship, i.e. a just sacrifice
  8. When man sins, he fails in his duty to render unto God what is due Him. By doing so, he commits an act of injustice, disrupting the just order of creation. Consequently, he now owes God more than the justice owed naturally. The sinner owes God a complete satisfaction of divine justice in order to compensate for the imbalance caused by his sin.
  9. The sinner must either compensate for this injustice by (1) accepting the punishment inflicted by God for sin, which is death, or He must somehow find a way to give to God some good which fully makes up for the sin he committed.
  10. Because the injustice committed by [mortal] sin destroys the principle by which man could repair the disturbance to creation by an act of justice which far exceeds honoring God than his sin dishonored God, man is left to stand facing the only other alternative, the penalty of death
  11. But God, who is rich and mercy and love, sends His Son who voluntarily gave up His perfect life in violent death on account of paying the debt of our punishment, i.e. death. By dying, Christ does not die for his own sins, but for ours. Moreover, by offering Himself in sacrificial death in obedience to God the Father, Christ gives infinite justice to God by the external worship of the cross, and by one single act of sacrificial worship, he completely satisfies justice and atones for mankind’s sin, which more than sufficiently repairs the injury done to the order of creation. By doing so, He opened the way for sinners to be pardoned for their sins, and restored back into friendship with their Creator

6 thoughts on “A Catholic Penal Substitution?

  1. Catholics and Orthodox who condemn penal substitution as heretical are pitifully ignorant of their own traditions. Shame!

  2. Erick, Came across your work in the exact recent round table you mentioned in this beginning of this article. Also saw your input on a discussion with a young Mormon and it impressed me how well thought out your questions were and especially how respectful you were toward his beliefs.

    Now as far as what you wrote in this article, I agree entirely with the phrasing of point #11. However, I just can’t get it out of my head that penal substitution would mean that a just judge (God the Father) would be punishing an innocent (Jesus) for the crime of another. (mankind) Just does not square with me as to what is both right and just. Substitutionary atonement itself I have no issue with, as there must be a sacrifice to atone for the offense (sin) but I think of the correct look at atonement as being the agape love of Jesus as an acceptable sacrifice (the Lamb of God) going up to the Father rather that the wrath of God coming down to punish the Son for our sins. I personally reject penal substitution, and God is love.

  3. “I argue in the positive. However, a qualified distinction should be applied, and I think it comes from St. Thomas Aquinas’s manner of explaining two ways of understanding punishment: simply and by way of satisfaction (Summa theologiae, 1-2.87.7)…”

    But what you are actually describing becomes no longer penal substitution as understood by Reformed Protestants, but simple substitutionary atonement by satisfaction… In other words, “penal substitution” has no place in our theology…

    • Yes, I wasn’t trying to advertise a Reformation-interpretation. Sorry if that is how you took it. In any case, I think this is still an olive branch to the Protestants for a discussion on this topic.

  4. I love your blog. Now there’s two points that haunt my mind. First, the relationship between this point (penal substitution) and how we partake in the Passion through the Eucharist. What does that “partaking” mean? Are we partaking only in the fruits of the sacrifice? Or does our participation entail something more? (I’m thinking maybe in the manner of St. John, or maybe Simon de Cyrene). And second, how does the Christ’s descent into Hell (or Abraham’s bosom, or whatever it was) relate to the sacrifice?

    Would these questions be legitimate? Or would they mean an attempt to understand that which should be left as mysterious?

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