Atonement: Satisfaction or Recapitulation?

If the Satisfaction Theory of Atonement is true, then why hasn’t it been taught before Anselm of Canterbury (1000 A.D.)? According to Wikipedia, the Early Church Fathers taught the Recaptulation and Christus-Victor theory of atonement.

Can I hear the Catholic perspective on this issue? It is the reason I am considering becoming Orthodox, rather than Catholic.


The Apostle Paul clearly teaches (1000 years before Anselm) that Christ’s death is a satisfaction. More than that, both NT and OT teach that Christ’s death is a substitutionary sacrifice: Christ died in our place as our punishment and propitiation.


I’m not sure how one could read Romans without this being abundantly clear.

Romans 1:32 - Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

Romans 6:23 - For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Why haven’t those verses been understood that way by the Early Church Fathers, for the first millennium?

Sometimes I think God uses certain words with us because of our level of understanding, and when we mature more (as individuals, and collectively), we can see things from a higher level and more mature vision of life.

For example, when we are young children, we might stay out of the street because we know our parents will punish ourselves for going there.

As adults, we come to understand that our parents wanted to save us from the destruction that our own ignorance can bring upon us.

I think religious truth works the same way.

I like how Paul write about that idea here:

" When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child.

We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known." - 1 Corinthians 13:11-13, Douay-Rheims

It seems to me that Paul is describing how our spiritual understanding becomes more mature as we grow closer to God, and we see much more clearly.

With regards to “the wages of sin are death”, I would suggest that at one level of understanding, we could see that as God punishing us for our sins, but at another level it could be understood that sinful decisions and actions punish us because they violate the natural order of reality and they harm us as individuals and collectively.

That is, God is not giving us commandments because He wants to be a dictator. Instead, these rules are a protection for us and provide a pattern for living that works for our benefit, both here in this world, and eternally. For example, the command to love our enemies actually makes us become more joyful people as we see that other human beings, even when they are doing evil to us, are still God’s children and they are acting badly because of ignorance and bad decision making. And that all of us are capable of making bad decisions and causing harm. And so we don’t have the pain of hating and despising others weighing on our heart anymore.

Scripture does not teach that.

Just because 20th century theologians have more vocabulary terms in their theology, doesn’t mean that they were more mature than the Early Church Fathers. I hope you’re not saying that 21st century Christians are closer to God than the early Christians.

Now that you point it out, I might have read Indifferently’s post too quickly (that, or he didn’t phrase it as he intended? Perhaps he can clarify).

Christ’s death was not our punishment; rather, He paid our penalty.

Scripture doesn’t teach that either and neither did the Church fathers. :slight_smile:

Just because 20th century theologians have more vocabulary terms in their theology, doesn’t mean that they were more mature than the Early Church Fathers. I hope you’re not saying that 21st century Christians are closer to God than the early Christians.

I would say that humanity as a whole has grown in spiritual understanding over the past 6000 years.

For instance, slavery is now seen to be utterly unacceptable.

Even in the past century we went from general acceptance of the mass bombing of civilians in warfare, to a general recognition of the great moral evil of such behaviors.

People are coming to recognize that the use of forced conversions was and is wrong.

We no longer find it OK for parents to beat up their children.

There are certainly are many, many problem areas, areas of regress, and not all areas of the globe are yet understanding these moral truths yet, but, overall I would say our moral ideals have progressed, if not always our moral practice.

That’s where I’ll disagree. I can understand the argument that the more-specific Penal Substitution Theory was not explicitly taught by the fathers, but a general subscription to Satisfaction Theory seems obvious. We don’t even have to look to the fathers here; Scripture is clear.

I’d be interested in learning how Orthodox Christians can interpret Paul’s letters to promote anything else?


Very good. But how does the death of Jesus relate to those bad decisions. It earns God’s forgivenesss? It appeases?

You’re going to have to narrow down the discussion a little. Tell me what you mean by “satisfaction theory” and what Scripture do you think supports it?

Satisfaction Theory, as my limited layman’s brain understands it, is the idea that:

[A person] could not render to God more than what was due to him. The satisfaction due to God was greater than what all created beings are capable of doing, since they can only do what is already required of them. Therefore, God had to make satisfaction for Himself. Yet if this satisfaction was going to avail for humans, it had to be made by a human. Therefore only a being that was both God and man could satisfy God and give Him the honor that is due Him.

Basically, through Adam’s fall and our sin, humanity has offended God. God’s justice and righteousness demands recompense, which humans are unable to pay on their own. Yet God, mercifully, has supplied the Sacrificial Lamb, just as He did when sparing Isaac. Now we Western Christians (Catholics and Protestants) do have important disagreements about the specifics (Theopedia explains: “For [broad Satisfaction Theorists] Christ obeyed where we should have obeyed; for [specific Penal Substitution Theorists], he was punished where we should have been punished.”), but these finer points are irrelevant in this discussion of Eastern and Western approaches to Atonement.

Now, for the benefit of this Western layman, could you please explain the Eastern view on Atonement, and how the process of Theosis works into that?

*Theopedia has an overtly-Calvinistic bent, so read it with a few grains. But the definition is close enough.

Well I’ll give you a few quotations.

But beyond all this, there was a debt owing which must needs be paid; for, as I said before, all men were due to die. Here, then, is the second reason why the Word dwelt among us, namely that having proved His Godhead by His works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all, surrendering His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression. In the same act also He showed Himself mightier than death, displaying His own body incorruptible as the first-fruits of the resurrection. - St Athanasius

For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all. You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be. For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death. - St Athanasius

Now we are to examine another fact and dogma, neglected by most people, but in my judgment well worth enquiring into. To Whom was that Blood offered that was shed for us, and why was It shed? I mean the precious and famous Blood of our God and High priest and Sacrifice. We were detained in bondage by the Evil One, sold under sin, and receiving pleasure in exchange for wickedness. Now, since a ransom belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this offered, and for what cause? If to the Evil One, fie upon the outrage! If the robber receives ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God Himself, and has such an illustrious payment for his tyranny, a payment for whose sake it would have been right for him to have left us alone altogether. But if to the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed; and next, On what principle did the Blood of His Only begotten Son delight the Father, Who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being offered by his Father, but changed the sacrifice, putting a ram in the place of the human victim? Is it not evident that the Father accepts Him, but neither asked for Him nor demanded Him; but on account of the Incarnation, and because Humanity must be sanctified by the Humanity of God, that He might deliver us Himself, and overcome the tyrant, and draw us to Himself by the mediation of His Son, Who also arranged this to the honour of the Father, Whom it is manifest that He obeys in all things? - St Gregory the Theologian

Therefore the Word of God, Himself God, the Son of God who in the beginning was with God, through whom all things were made and without whom was nothing made John 1:1-3, with the purpose of delivering man from eternal death, became man: so bending Himself to take on Him our humility without decrease in His own majesty, that remaining what He was and assuming what He was not, He might unite the true form of a slave to that form in which He is equal to God the Father, and join both natures together by such a compact that the lower should not be swallowed up in its exaltation nor the higher impaired by its new associate. Without detriment therefore to the properties of either substance which then came together in one person, majesty took on humility, strength weakness, eternity mortality: and for the paying off of the debt, belonging to our condition, inviolable nature was united with possible nature, and true God and true man were combined to form one Lord, so that, as suited the needs of our case, one and the same Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, could both die with the one and rise again with the other. - St Leo the Great

Very good. But how does the death of Jesus relate to those bad decisions. It earns God’s forgivenesss? It appeases?

Well, He died for our sins.

That is, we are lost and in error and we put Him to death. Because the Father and the Son loved us so much that They were willing to sacrifice Jesus’s most precious, pure and innocent life in order to save us from our own mistaken embrace of evil.

How does that sacrifice save us?

Well, to me salvation is an internal condition of our soul. The soul who loves God, loves his or her fellow human beings, who harbors hatred for no one - that is salvation. To live from love.

Seeing the Divine Son Jesus in torment and then dying because of our own wickedness and selfishness, and acknowledging that fact - has an immeasurable potency. Even when ordinary followers are martyred for their faith, there is an enormous power and influence from that act. To have the Son of God give up His life on the cross - that act of willing sacrifice has the power to affect and change the lives of billions across countless centuries. To cause the heart hardened by sin to break down, turn away from from selfishness and towards universal love.

To transform a selfish person into a loving person through acknowledgement, recognition, repentance, and atonement through the living example of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice - this is the miracle. We can see how that miracle transforming individuals and society at the time of the Roman Empire, and we can see that miracle at work today in countless acts of love, devotion and service in the world dedicated to the Lord Christ. Many of them performed by the Catholic Church!

Matthew, that is one of the best explanations I have ever seen.
Would you call that Moral Example?

Glad you found it helpful.

Would you call that Moral Example?

Definitely being a moral example is an important part of it.

Suffering and sacrifice in this life are a great mystery. We all suffer, and we are all called to sacrifice our self-centeredness in service of the good, true and beautiful. Jesus Christ showed all of us, forever, the most perfect example of that.

It was. Steido and Seraphim, thanks for contributing to this discussion.

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