A Brief Sketch of the Church's Changing Views on Atonement


Predominant thinking about what Jesus’ crucifixion actually accomplished has changed so dramatically throughout church history and across church geography that the story of these developments can be scary to modern Christians. This is especially true for Western evangelicals who have been trained to view the cross largely, if not solely, in terms of a penal substitutionary atonement. For many evangelicals, this penal satisfaction view is the very essence of the gospel. It is the truth, the full truth and nothing but the truth. Therefore, it is understandably disconcerting for those who’ve been trained thus to discover that there is not a single example of this thinking until more than 1500 years into the life of the church. 

Sketching the history of atonement theology in an evangelical context is largely then the task of recovering Christ and his cross from the historically juvenile grip of penal substitution. While that isn’t the express purpose of such a study, it quickly becomes a necessary part of doing any honest history. Therefore, I will seek to sketch an overview of the various atonement motifs that predominated in place of penal substitution before the advent of protestant theology and then briefly show how and why satisfaction theories were privileged in Western evangelical theology. 

This story offers great hope and opportunity in the discovery of very old perspectives that may be found as refreshingly new. But as with all church history, it is also a bleak and tragic story of our historical sins and failures to adequately follow and represent Christ in the world. Particularly, a truthful examination of the roots of American evangelicalism must reckon with the reality that penal substitution and a gospel reduced to passive forgiveness were developed as a conscious and intentional effort to theologically support slavery. For this reason and many others, this sketch is one that will offend and threaten those who are yet unwilling to face these parts of our American church history. May those with ears to hear, hear. 

Pre-Augustine, 0-380 AD

One important aspect of the church’s theological history that we simply do not have space for unpacking here but deserves mentioning is that the church has undergone a slow and steady loss of its Jewish cosmological worldview. This slow loss of worldview memory is visible and traceable in the writings of the great church theologians. This forgetting was triggered by the inclusion of gentiles and their early rise to the majority within the church, and in this sense it was likely unavoidable. However, it was exacerbated by the eventual separation from Jewish worship and especially the church’s increased distance from extra-Biblical Jewish literature. The result is that until the recent theological renaissance set off by a burst of archaeological discoveries, the history of the church was one of a slow decline away from Jewish ways of interpreting Scripture and the gospel. A strong argument can be made, therefore, that the earliest theologies were in many ways the closest to the grain of the Biblical authors themselves.  

The dominant ways of appreciating and memorializing the work of Christ in the first centuries of the church were victory (Christus Victor), ransom and recapitulation. Indeed it is often said, rather fairly, that the first thousand years of the church clearly saw Christ’s life, death and resurrection as a victorious invasion into Satan’s stronghold on earth and included a conquering of death itself.[1]This was the “hub” of atonement thinking from which all the motifs stemmed. I posit that this is because the early church was closer in the cosmological worldview of the New Testament writers and apostles who viewed Satan and Death as the great enemy forces that God sought to overcome for the sake of humanity.

Drawing from Mark 10:45 (and parallel Matt. 20:28 as well as 1 Tim. 2:6), this victory was popularly envisioned as a ransom paid by Christ to liberate humanity from slavery to Satan. Perhaps surprisingly, this was often conceived in terms of a great duping of the devil, drawn largely from the language of Colossians 2:15. In its more cautious forms such as that espoused early on by Irenaeus in Against Heresies, Satan is deceived and overcome by his mistake of accepting the price (death) of One he has no power to actually hold.[2]Later, however, Christ is depicted as having duped Satan with such surprising metaphors as a baited hook catching a fish (Gregory of Nyssa, Rufinus) and a baited noose hidden to catch a bird (Gregory the Great). Later even Augustine preached, “The cross of the Lord was the devil’s mousetrap; the bait by which he was caught was the Lord’s death.”[3]

Though these metaphors may appear to us as crude and the idea of a literal transaction with Satan worth challenging, the clear consensus from these first few centuries is that the main problems dealt with by the cross were mankind’s enemies: Satan, Death and Sin, with an emphasis on the first two. This is perhaps most clearly seen in Origen’s line: “To whom did he [Christ] give his life a ransom for many? It cannot have been to God. Was it not then to the evil one? For he held us until the ransom for us…”[4]This stands in stark contrast to the recent satisfaction theories that suggest God is the recipient of the atonement price and the source of our ultimate problem, which is God’s penalty of wrath. Based on Colossians 2:14, Satan is seen as the legal arbiter of death rather than God. 

In turn then, death rather than guilt before God is deemed the primary symptom to be overcome. This is where the recapitulation motifs of the great Eastern fathers such as Athanasius and Irenaeus highlighted the role of Christ’s incarnation and focused on the solidarity and “union with Christ” now enabled. Both scholars famously penned phrases similar to, “God became man so that man might become God.”[5]By entering into the broken world of human experience, even unto the point of death, Christ enabled a whole new opportunity for mystical fellowship between God and man. This in itself was a conquering of death. This emphasis on unity with Christ - particularly through the accomplishments of Christ’s incarnation - form the basis of theosis(“divinization”), which is an idea central to Eastern Orthodoxy even today. 

Also in the early centuries of the church the moral example theory – or the idea that Christ set an example for us to follow - was assumed as foundational to Christian appreciation of Christ’s work. We should also note that inherent in the victory and ransom motifs are a clear appreciation of liberation from bondage at the heart of the gospel. A basic juxtaposition of these early theologies up against the modern emphasis on Christ paying a penal substitution to satisfy (appease) God shows just how different the worldview behind our atonement theories were. The very essence of the problems that Christ sought to resolve are almost in opposition to one another: Today, God’s own character and attribute of holy retributive justice is deemed the great problem, while the early church and its theologians found this thought preposterous and asserted repeatedly that Satan and his great accomplice Death were the enemy we needed to be saved from. 

As we move forward we will examine briefly how each forthcoming era saw changes to these early views. However, the most significant historical fact to draw attention to is first the geographic split between the Greek Eastern church and Latin Western church that had already begun by the 4thcentury. The Eastern Church has essentially always held to the perspective of these early fathers such as Athanasius. Eastern atonement theology actually hasn’t changed much aside from over 1600 years worth of refining and the development of mysticism. As Grensted said a century ago, “In the case of the doctrine of the Atonement, however, we are dealing with a doctrine the developments of which have been almost exclusively Western.”[6]It is not too great an overstatement to say that in the East, the morphing of atonement theology has been successfully halted in order to preserve this early perspective, while the West has undergone an enormous roller coaster of change throughout its complex theological history. The history of atonement theology from this point forward then is largely a history of trial and error in the West.

Post-Augustine Era, 380-800 AD

At this point, in the West, Augustine happens. His influence on the rest of Western theology simply cannot be overstated. He was a cataclysmic turning point in the history of the Western church, for better or worse. Though space here is short, it is of great importance that this vastly influential Augustinian theology was essentially all an attempt to harmonize Christianity with Constantine’s Roman Empire. In other words, at the point of Augustine the history of the Western church swung irrevocably toward a Christianity of the empire, for the empire, from the empire. This stands in stark contrast to the entirety of the Biblical witness as well as the first couple centuries of the church’s existence wherein theology was written from under the thumb of the world empires in subversive opposition to them. 

One of the first theological shifts in Augustine relating to atonement is an increased focus on justice, often in terms of abstract theories of kinds of justice.[7]Secondly, Augustine began an unstoppable momentum in elevating God’s sovereign agency over the world and degrading the agency of others, especially Satan. Though as noted above Augustine clearly held to a cosmic worldview of spiritual powers that Christ overcame, he generally wanted to place more agency on God and less on Satan that previous theologians. My own take is that we can see in Augustine the consequences of a loss of the biblical worldview of how Satan and spiritual powers came to their position in the first place, a central element of the fall rooted largely in the divine council worldview seen in texts like Gen. 6:1-5 and Deut. 32:8. Therefore, Augustine begins a perhaps good-willed but nonetheless very troublesome theological effort to ultimately attribute everything back to some higher sovereignty of God. This is the seed that ultimately gets picked up by Calvin and the reformers and finds its ultimate fulfillment in the Neo-Calvinist Reformed theology that asserts views such as double pre-destination and limited atonement. 

That is to jump ahead though. What Augustine did to alter the earlier atonement thinking was largely to assert that if Satan had some power over humanity it must have been because God had ultimately permitted it.[8]He then downplays the idea of a direct ransom transaction between God and Satan. “This transference of the problem to the nature of the Godhead is really Augustine’s greatest contribution to the history of though upon the subject of Atonement. The position of the devil has now become insignificant, and so the way is prepared for Godward theories of Anselm and his successors, who saw the death of Christ as meeting, not the questionable rights of the devil, but the just demands of God’s eternal honour.”[9]To be clear, Augustine nowhere articulates a penal substitutionary view of atonement as many modern proponents have falsely suggested.[10]He still views the entire discussion of atonement through a lens of victory over Satan and liberation from slavery, but he has written down ideas that will live on and give birth to all new ways of theologizing. Indeed the lack of any satisfaction theory until a full 700 years later reveals just how thoroughly the first half of church history was dominated by conceptions of Christ as the Cosmic Victor. Yet, he seed had been laid.

Another key element of these seeds of change was the repositioning of focus within the ransom motif from an appreciation of God’s duping Satan through a kind of bait-and-hook invasion into death to a version focused on Christ’s sinless moral state enacting a thoroughly legal deceit. The emphasis on Christ’s invasion of death is morphed into an emphasis on how Satan acted upon One for whom he had no real legal claim. This legality-oriented modification can be seen elsewhere during this period in the writings of Gregory the Great[11]and Leo the Great.[12]This set the stage for Anselm’s theological developments in the Middle Ages. 

The Middle Ages, 800-1500

There has been much debate as to what Anselm actually said. Regardless of what he meant though, his writing in Cur Deus Homo (Why the God-Man?) provided the next step required for the later Western move away from Christus Victor and toward penal satisfaction theories of atonement. Recently Fleming Rutledge penned a convincing argument that Anselm’s intended point was actually to articulate how the cross enacted effective and restorative justice from every side.[13]David Bentley Hart has made a similar case.[14]However, Anselm’s dramatic writing style and his focus on terms like honornecessity and satisfaction incidentally allowed his writing to be appropriated into a whole new theological trajectory. While the various forms and elements of Christus Victor discussed above predominated still throughout the Middle Ages, Anselm’s words left a binding imprint on the history of theology in the West. Here we will again leave the global church and follow only the thread through Protestantism.

The Reformation, 1500-1650

It wasn’t until the 16thcentury that the stepping stone alterations of Augustine and Anselm were taken up and developed into anything like our modern version of penal substitution. By now, three-quarters of the way into church history, the Jewish cosmological literary worldview elements underlying theology about Satan’s dominion and God’s agency were long forgotten.[15]Even further, the Protestant reformers such as Luther further distanced themselves from many of the books deemed “apocryphal” that contained elements of this worldview. In large part, the most lasting theological effect of the Reformation is the reduction of a worldview based on three primary agents – God, humans, and the other divine beings – to a perspective that is pragmatically bilateral in its view of agency. While even in Luther and Calvin the role of Satan is widely emphasized, the Augustinian move of claiming God as ultimately responsible for even Satan’s agency finds new traction, especially in Calvinistic thought. “No other theologian ever put so great a stress upon the sheer sovereignty of God.”[16]The result is that protestant theology laid the final stepping-stone toward a penal substitutionary view of atonement. 

The root of the reformation modifications to atonement theory lay in the practical concern over potential pitfalls of meritorious ideology, especially that of selling indulgences and developing elaborate systems of penance. Luther’s entire theological life can and should be viewed as a polemic reaction to these issues. The result was a pendulum swing toward a hyper-focus on judicial themes such as legal guilt, retributive punishment, forgiveness and justification. Rather than death and the devil, sin was privileged as the primary enemy. And sin was itself reframed as moral imperfection resulting in legal indebtedness. All these philosophical framework shifts led the reformers to popularize what had never before even been publicly espoused, which was a purely judicial view of atonement wherein God’s wrath was due and needed to be appeased in response to even the most miniscule of moral failures. By and large the shift was an effort to emphasize grace and free Catholics from the yoke of Roman religion. The result was a whole new era of theological thinking. The vague idea in Anselm of a salvation that satisfies God’s desire for justice had been transformed into the theory that Christ died to pay to God the penalty for sin. The objective view of atonement was born. 

Colonial to Modern America, 1650 to Present

Our journey has already been ruthlessly abbreviated and our conclusion will be even more so. The rise of American religion and evangelicalism[17]in particular is incredibly complex. What I find most important to elucidate in our telling of atonement history is the story of White slaveholding America’s creative use of Christian doctrine in order to justify and support slavery. A truly seminal and heartbreaking academic work on this history is Ibram Kendi’s Stamped From The Beginning.[18]

The ugliest stain on America is also the ugliest stain on the American church: It is the undeniable but often denied fact that American Christian settlers used their Christianity as a tool to exterminate Native Americans and kidnap and enslave Africans for labor. Early multi-genesis doctrines were invented in order to perpetuate the inhumanity of brown and black people, an idea cemented in laws such as the 3/5 Compromise. But Kendi cites numerous sources to show that particular forms of atonement doctrine became especially useful tools in religiously ordaining the oppression and suppression of slaves. 

Throughout the early decades in America, there was a widespread agreement amongst the colonists to refrain from evangelizing slaves. Not only were non-whites deemed unworthy of salvation, sharing the gospel was considered to a threat. Much like the gospel originally empowered the poor and enslaved in the Roman Empire and threatened the status quo of the empire, so too slaveholders deemed it dangerous to share such liberating news with their slaves. That was until the doctrinal creativity that saw in the penal substitutionary views of atonement put forth in the Reformation an opportunity to create a gospel entirely reduced to forgiveness and impunity. All elements of liberation, victory, ransom and justice were eliminated and the good news of Christ was reduced to the faux good news that in Christ God granted a strictly personal salvation for individual sins. This was a gospel that not only didn’t affect socio-political liberation but stood in opposition to it. And it was a gospel that preserved the status quo by suggesting God turned a blind eye to our sins. Kendi traces the shift in slaveholder strategies that occurred once this version and use of the gospel was put forward. 

Convinced, slaveholders throughout the colonies got on board and began to “evangelize” their slaves with this religion in hope of creating a more docile and subservient slave population. Of course, the slaves were wise enough and spiritually astute enough to largely see through this caricature. They developed a beautiful tradition of faithful eschatological resistance that is seen perhaps most clearly in the slave spirituals. But meanwhile, white Christianity in America has been borne entirely out of this foundation of slaveholder religion. Lingering evidence of this heritage can be seen in the war against the “social gospel” that lingers on today as well as in the white church’s utter resistance to Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. In terms of American culture and society, the lingering effects of white supremacy are seen in the mass incarceration and regular police executions of black men combined with the persistent acquittal of white police officers. 

Importantly though, the reductionist form of atonement theology that was invented to support these atrocities perpetuates in evangelicalism today as entire coalitions exist to assert and defend the idea that penal substitution is thegospel. Remnants of the slave-suppressing roots of the theology rear their head in modern evangelical resistance to liberation theology, apathy toward social justice and constant critique of various forms of nonviolent protest. The bleak, tragic truth is that atonement theology became a weapon in the hands of white supremacist Christian colonialists and that our entire American heritage of evangelicalism has been built around this weapon. In order to dismantle the racism, it is likely we will have to dismantle the toxic atonement theology at its center. 

A Conclusion

The travesty of our sketch is that the church’s theological journey pertaining to reverence for Christ’s crucifixion finds an end in American slavery and racism. The good news is that this American tragedy is only one ending. We have told only one story of history, traced only our own American thread. The story reminds us that there were many millennia of Christians who prove there are entirely other ways of construing the good news of Christ. Indeed a look across the globe reveals that many of those ancient faith communities such as the Eastern Orthodox and Egyptian Copts have carried on continuously to today without any of the baggage of racial construction that we carry. Indeed, the Eastern Church has long deemed much of the popular articulations of penal substitution simply heretical. There is trouble in the water, but our wells are deeper than we often recognize, and there is new life to be found as well. 





Aulen, Gustaf, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, translated by A.G. Hebert (Wipf& Stock, Eugene; 1931)

Gonzalez, Justo L., A History of Christian Thought in One Volume, (Abingdon Press, Nashville; 2014)

Gonzalez, Justo L., The Story of Christianity Vol. I: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation(HarperOne, New York; 2010)

Gonzalez, Justo L., The Story of Christianity Vol. II: The Reformation to the Present Day(HarperOne, New York; 2011)

Grensted, L.W., A Short History of the Doctrine of Atonement, (The Univerity Press, Manchester; 1920)

Hart, David Bentley, The Story of Christianity: A History of 2,000 Years of the Christian Faith, (Quercus, New York; 2009). 

Kendi, Ibram X., Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, (Nation Books, New York; 2016)

Kingston, Charlotte Emily, “The Devil in the Thought of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604)” (University of York, 2011) http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/14224/1/556274.pdf

Noll, Mark A., Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, 3rded. (Baker Academic, Grand Rapids; 2012)

Prayson, Daniel, “Satanus Victor: Atonement as Ransom to Satan” https://withalliamgod.wordpress.com/tag/origen-of-alexandria/

Scott-Macnab, David, “Augustine’s Trope of the Crucifixion as a Trap for the Devil and its Survival in the English Middle Ages” https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/54198127.pdf

Weinandy, Thomas, In the Likeness of Sinful Flesh: An Essay on the Humanity of Christ, (T&T Clark, Edinburgh; 1993)



[1]For example: Aulen, Gustaf, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, translated by A.G. Hebert (Wipf& Stock, Eugene; 1931)

[2]Grensted, L.W., A Short History of the Doctrine of Atonement, (The Univerity Press, Manchester; 1920) p35

[3]Sermon 263, 396-397. See also Scott-Macnab, David, “Augustine’s Trope of the Crucifixion as a Trap for the Devil and its Survival in the English Middle Ages” https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/54198127.pdf

[4]Commentary on Matthew Book XVI, 8 and also Grensted p38 

[5]Athanasius, On The Incarnation, 54:3, PG 25:192B

[6]Grensted, L.W., A Short History of the Doctrine of Atonement, (The Univerity Press, Manchester; 1920) p88

[7]ibid. p90

[8]Nagasawa, Mako, “Why Nicene Theology? Where Did These Problems Start?” http://www.newhumanityinstitute.org/doctrinal.statement.why2.htm

[9]ibid. p91

[10]For an example of a misleading assertion of penal substitution in the patristics, see: Culver, Robert D., “The Doctrine of Atonement Before Anselm” in the Global Journal of Classic Theology 04:3 (Oct 2004) or Vlach, Michael J., “Penal Substitution in Church History” in The Master’s Seminary Journal (Fall 2009).  

[11]Moralia in Job, xvii. 30

[12]ibid, p96-99

[13]Rutledge, Fleming, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ,(Eerdmans Publishing Co, Grand Rapids; 2015) p146-166

[14]“A Gift Exceeding Every Debt: An Eastern Orthodox Appreciation of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo” Pro Ecclesia 7, no. 3 (Summer 1998): 330-349 

[15]See also Thomas Weinandy’s comment that “Anselm nonetheless lost the broader biblical outlook” in In the Likeness of Sinful Flesh: An Essay on the Humanity of Christ, (T&T Clark, Edinburgh; 1993) p46. 

[16]Hart, David Bentley, The Story of Christianity: A History of 2,000 Years of the Christian Faith, (Quercus, New York; 2009) p263

[17]When I say evangelicalism, I largely mean white evangelicalism. The history and theology of the black church has been dramatically different from that of the white church, regardless of any shared loyalty to tenants of evangelicalism. 

[18]Kendi, Ibram X., Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, (Nation Books, New York; 2016)