Why did the Church Fathers teach christ's atonement was a ransom paid to the devil?


I have recently learned that it was the view of the Church Fathers that Christ's atonement was a ransom paid to the devil and this view was widely held until the middle ages when St Anselm refuted it. Why if fathers know best do we not follow this today? Can anyone explain this to me as i just think it is bizarre that the church fathers taught this and that it was only rejected in the middle-ages. Anyone have any information? ( please note I am a catholic and not an anti-catholic polemicist)

This is what the catholic encyclopedia says newadvent.org/cathen/02055a.htm

(Removed excessively long document quotes as per Forum Rules)

It cannot be questioned that this theory also contains a true principle. For it is founded on the express words of Scripture, and is supported by many of the greatest of the early Fathers and later theologians. But unfortunately, at first, and for a long period of theological history, this truth was somewhat obscured by a strange confusion, which would seem to have arisen from the natural tendency to take a figure too literally, and to apply it in details which were not contemplated by those who first made use of it. It must not be forgotten that the account of our deliverance from sin is set forth in figures. Conquest, captivity, and ransom are familiar facts of human history. Man, having yielded to the temptations of Satan, was like to one overcome in battle. Sin, again, is fitly likened to a state of slavery. And when man was set free by the shedding of Christ's precious Blood, this deliverance would naturally recall (even if it had not been so described in Scripture) the redemption of a captive by the payment of a ransom.



But however useful and illuminating in their proper place, figures of this kind are perilous in the hands of those who press them too far, and forget that they are figures. This is what happened here. When a captive is ransomed the price is naturally paid to the conqueror by whom he is held in bondage. Hence, if this figure were taken and interpreted literally in all its details, it would seem that the price of man's ransom must be paid to Satan. The notion is certainly startling, if not revolting. Even if brave reasons pointed in this direction, we might well shrink from drawing the conclusion. And this is in fact so far from being the case that it seems hard to find any rational explanation of such a payment, or any right on which it could be founded. Yet, strange to say, the bold flight of theological speculation was not checked by these misgivings. In the above-cited passage of St. Irenæus, we read that the Word of God "dealt justly even with the Apostasy itself *, buying back from it the things which were His own." This curious notion, apparently first mooted by St. Irenæus, was taken up by Origen in the next century, and for about a thousand years it played a conspicuous part in the history of theology. In the hands of some of the later Fathers and medieval writers, it takes various forms, and some of its more repulsive features are softened or modified. But the strange notion of some right, or claim, on the part of Satan is still present. A protest was raised by St. Gregory of Nazianzus in the fourth century, as might be expected from that most accurate of the patristic theologians. But it was not till St. Anselm and Abelard had met it with unanswerable arguments that its power was finally broken. It makes a belated appearance in the pages of Peter Lombard.

(c) But it is not only in connection with the theory of ransom that we meet with this notion of "rights" on the part of Satan. Some of the Fathers set the matter in a different aspect. Fallen man, it was said, was justly under the dominion of the devil, in punishment for sin. But when Satan brought suffering and death on the sinless Saviour, he abused his power and exceeded his right, so that he was now justly deprived of his dominion over the captives. This explanation is found especially in the sermons of St. Leo and the "Morals" of St. Gregory the Great. Closely allied to this explanation is the singular "mouse-trap" metaphor of St. Augustine. In this daring figure of speech, the Cross is regarded as the trap in which the bait is set and the enemy is caught. "The Redeemer came and the deceiver was overcome. What did our Redeemer do to our Captor? In payment for us He set the trap, His Cross, with His blood for bait. He [Satan] could indeed shed that blood; but he deserved not to drink it. By shedding the blood of One who was not his debtor, he was forced to release his debtors" (Serm. cxxx, part 2).

(d) These ideas retained their force well into the Middle Ages. But the appearance of St. Anselm's "Cur Deus Homo?" made a new epoch in the theology of the Atonement. It may be said, indeed, that this book marks an epoch in theological literature and doctrinal development. There are not many works, even among those of the greatest teachers, that can compare in this respect with the treatise of St. Anselm. And, with few exceptions, the books that have done as much to influence and guide the growth of theology are the outcome of some great struggle with heresy; while others, again, only summarize the theological learning of the age. But this little book is at once purely pacific and eminently original. Nor could any dogmatic treatise well be more simple and unpretending than this luminous dialogue between the great archbishop and his disciple Boso. There is no parade of learning, and but little in the way of appeal to authorities. The disciple asks and the master answers; and both alike face the great problem before them fearlessly, but at the same time with all due reverence and modesty. Anselm says at the outset that he will not so much show his disciple the truth he needs, as seek it along with him; and that when he says anything that is not confirmed by higher authority, it must be taken as tentative, and provisional. He adds that, though he may in some measure meet the question, one who is wiser could do it better; and that, whatever man may know or say on this subject, there will always remain deeper reasons that are beyond him. In the same spirit he concludes the whole treatise by submitting it to reasonable correction at the hands of others.*


And this, it may be added, is now the ordinary acceptance of the word; to "atone" is to give satisfaction, or make amends, for an offense or an injury.

(e) Whatever may be the reason, it is clear that this doctrine was attracting special attention in the age of St. Anselm. His own work bears witness that it was undertaken at the urgent request of others who wished to have some new light on this mystery. To some extent, the solution offered by Anselm seems to have satisfied these desires, though, in the course of further discussion, an important part of his theory, the absolute necessity of Redemption and of satisfaction for sin, was discarded by later theologians, and found few defenders. But meanwhile, within a few years of the appearance of the "Cur Deus Homo?" another theory on the subject had been advanced by Abelard. In common with St. Anselm, Abelard utterly rejected the old and then still prevailing, notion that the devil had some sort of right over fallen man, who could only be justly delivered by means of a ransom paid to his captor. Against this he very rightly urges, with Anselm, that Satan was clearly guilty of injustice in the matter and could have no right to anything but punishment. But, on the other hand, Abelard was unable to accept Anselm's view that an equivalent satisfaction for sin was necessary, and that this debt could only be paid by the death of the Divine Redeerner. He insists that God could have pardoned us without requiring satisfaction. And, in his view, the reason for the Incarnation and the death of Christ was the pure love of God. By no other means could men be so effectually turned from sin and moved to love God. Abelard's teaching on this point, as on others, was vehemently attacked by St. Bernard. But it should be borne in mind that some of the arguments urged in condemnation of Abelard would affect the position of St. Anselm also, not to speak of later Catholic theology.

In St. Bernard's eyes it seemed that Abelard, in denying the rights of Satan, denied the "Sacrament of Redemption" and regarded the teaching and example of Christ as the sole benefit of the Incarnation. "But", as Mr. Oxenham observes,

he had not said so, and he distinctly asserts in his "Apology" that "the Son of God was incarnate to deliver us from the bondage of sin and yoke of the Devil and to open to us by His death the gate of eternal life." And St. Bernard himself, in this very Epistle, distinctly denies any absolute necessity for the method of redemption chosen, and suggests a reason for it not so very unlike Abelard's. "Perhaps that method is the best, whereby in a land of forgetfulness and sloth we might be more powerfully as vividly reminded of our fall, through the so great and so manifold sufferings of Him who repaired it." Elsewhere when not speaking controversially, he says still more plainly: "Could not the Creator have restored His work without that difficulty? He could, but He preferred to do it at his own cost, lest any further occasion should be given for that worst and most odious vice of ingratitude in man" (Bern., Serm. xi, in Cant.). What is this but to say, with Abelard that "He chose the Incarnation as the most effectual method for eliciting His creature's love?" (The Catholic Doctrine of the Atonement, 85, 86).


(f) Although the high authority of St. Bernard was thus against them, the views of St. Anselm and Abelard, the two men who in different ways were the fathers of Scholasticism, shaped the course of later medieval theology. The strange notion of the rights of Satan, against which they had both protested, now disappears from the pages of our theologians. For the rest, the view which ultimately prevailed may be regarded as a combination of the opinions of Anselm and Abelard. In spite of the objections urged by the latter writer, Anselm’s doctrine of Satisfaction was adopted as the basis. But St. Thomas and the other medieval masters agree with Abelard in rejecting the notion that this full Satisfaction for sin was absolutely necessary. At the most, they are willing to admit a hypothetical or conditional necessity for the Redemption by the death of Christ. The restoration of fallen man was a work of God’s free mercy and benevolence. And, even on the hypothesis that the loss was to be repaired, this might have been brought about in many and various ways. The sin might have been remitted freely, without any satisfaction at all, or some lesser satisfaction, however imperfect in itself, might have been accepted as sufficient. But on the hypothesis that God as chosen to restore mankind, and at the same time, to require full satisfaction as a condition of pardon and deliverance, nothing less than the Atonement made by one who was God as well as man could suffice as satisfaction for the offense against the Divine Majesty. And in this case Anselm’s argument will hold good. Mankind cannot be restored unless God becomes man to save them.

In reference to many points of detail the Schoolmen, here as elsewhere, adopted divergent views. One of the chief questions at issue was the intrinsic adequacy of the satisfaction offered by Christ. On this point the majority, with St. Thomas at their head, maintained that, by reason of the infinite dignity of the Divine Person, the least action or suffering of Christ had an infinite value, so that in itself it would suffice as an adequate satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. Scotus and his school, on the other hand, disputed this intrinsic infinitude, and ascribed the all-sufficiency of the satisfaction to the Divine acceptation. As this acceptation was grounded on the infinite dignity of the Divine Person, the difference was not so great as might appear at first sight. But, on this point at any rate the simpler teaching of St. Thomas is more generally accepted by later theologians. Apart from this question, the divergent views of the two schools on the primary motive of the Incarnation naturally have some effect on the Thomist and Scotist theology of the Atonement. On looking back at the various theories noticed so far, it will be seen that they are not, for the most part, mutually exclusive, but may be combined and harmonized. It may be said, indeed, that they all help to bring out different aspects of that great doctrine which cannot find adequate expression in any human theory. And in point of fact it will generally be found that the chief Fathers and Schoolmen, though they may at times lay more stress on some favourite theory of their own, do not lose sight of the other explanations."


Are we supposed to read through these 4 long posts??


They could have done with being broken up into paragraphs, even if they were not so in the original entry.
But that having been said, I found them fascinating, personally, never having heard of the various ideas before.


If you read the article that you posted you should have noticed a few important points.

First of all, in the early development of this theory of atonement, the Fathers were using images familiar to all (as was also done in the New Testament itself.) However, they had no idea how far this thinking might be taken, nor how literally when they first started using them.

Then we see how this doctrine of atonement actually became revolting in some respects, when taken to its logical extreme. Therefore the scholars of the Middle Ages, refuted and developed the doctrine of atonement along another path.

It is noted by the article, that all of the doctrines CAN be harmonized if taken in the right light.

Anyway, the development of doctrine is a study in itself. You see how the doctrine of the Atonement developed over the course of many centuries. It shouldn't be a scandal to you that the Fathers used imagery that IN THEIR OWN DAY helped people to understand the need for the Atonement. ;)


Good insights! Sometimes we humans overthink things. :slight_smile:


I have some questions:confused:. Why if the church fathers all taught this view of atonement did we abandon it in the middle ages? were they misguided? why did the church fathers not teach Anselm’s concept of atonement? why did the church reject the earlier view? but also i find the idea of ransom being paid to the devil to be absurd. Is this literal or metaphorical? what do patrisic scholars say about this?


[quote="Civitate_Dei, post:9, topic:338498"]
I have some questions:confused:. Why if the church fathers all taught this view of atonement did we abandon it in the middle ages? were they misguided? why did the church fathers not teach Anselm's concept of atonement? why did the church reject the earlier view? but also i find the idea of ransom being paid to the devil to be absurd. Is this literal or metaphorical? what do patrisic scholars say about this?


Did you read message #7?


[quote="Civitate_Dei, post:9, topic:338498"]
I have some questions:confused:. Why if the church fathers all taught this view of atonement did we abandon it in the middle ages? were they misguided? why did the church fathers not teach Anselm's concept of atonement? why did the church reject the earlier view? but also i find the idea of ransom being paid to the devil to be absurd. Is this literal or metaphorical? what do patrisic scholars say about this?


Please read AmbroseSJ's post #7. He already answered your question!


[quote="Civitate_Dei, post:9, topic:338498"]
I have some questions:confused:. Why if the church fathers all taught this view of atonement did we abandon it in the middle ages? were they misguided? why did the church fathers not teach Anselm's concept of atonement? why did the church reject the earlier view? but also i find the idea of ransom being paid to the devil to be absurd. Is this literal or metaphorical? what do patrisic scholars say about this?


See post 7.

BTW, Anselm's concept of atonement isn't extremely popular with theologians today either. Even though Anselm was right about the Sacrifice on the Cross satisfying justice, he goes about it the wrong way.





I think they taught it because they felt man was a prisoner of sin, and if a ransom was made it must be made to the personification of sin as such. I think it was abandoned because it gives the devil more respect that he deserves, if any.

In a way I believe something like this is true. Satan has a hold over us by reminding them of how death (or other things ) will rob them of all the have or cherish. Temptation to put ourselves over others.

However, I believe figuratively the ransom was paid to death itself.

Being in Christ, we have died and risen with Him. Death has no hold on us. Death really doesn’t exist (as long as we are In Christ). It has gone away and the devil cannot use it to tempt us to sin. The devil has to resort to trying to wedge himself between us and God directly.

Anyway thats my story and I’m sticking to it. :stuck_out_tongue:



I might also recommend Dr. Gary A. Anderson's book Sin: A History. (review and link to an interview with him at my blog post here). It's been a while since I read it, but there is a section on "Early Christian Thinking on the Atonement" and the whole issue of ransom to the devil in light of the Jewish and Christian understanding of sin in the early Church.


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