Why do we reject penal substitution?

I was reading earlier today on this forum (I’m sorry I don’t have a link) that we (as Catholics) reject the penal substitution interpretation. If we reject that, why do we reject it? And what do we believe instead? Any comments are welcome!

Thanks in advance! Have a blessed day (or night!)

OK I’ll bite - what do you mean by penal substitution? Even Google has no idea what that is.:confused:

I’m actually not that sure either… I was hoping somebody would know exactly what it means. So here’s the story: last night I was investigating “the new perspective on Paul” because I really want to learn more about Paul and there are many books close to the CC view of Paul written by Protestants who embrace this “new perspective.” I digress… while I was searching I came upon a website set out to undermine this “new perspective.” I said that because some Protestants embrace this view, they will eventually disregard the “penal substitution.” I think the idea comes from Romans where Paul basically says Jesus replaces us in the courtroom? So the penal substitution is the idea that (I’m thinking this) Jesus justified our sins by replacing us by dying on the cross. So no longer does The Father see us when he judges us (because we are Christians) He sees the Son instead.

I hope what I just said makes enough sense that you or someone else can answer this.

The idea seems to come from Reformed Protestant Theology… possibly Calvin?


I found the article! Let me copy and paste the relevant paragraph

“And justification by faith is not the only issue at stake. The next major controversy you can expect to see arising out of the community that has embraced the New Perspective on Paul is will be a debate over the issue of whether Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was actually a penal substitution. So the atonement will also become fodder for debate with those who embrace the New Perspective. I’ll have more to say on that at the end if time permits.”

I hope this helps!!

Penal substitution can be defined in a bunch of ways, some broad, some narrow. I gave a lecture once on Atonement theology at a church, in which I thought I was blasting away at penal substitution, and afterward one of my friends who is a Calvinist told me that he didn’t hear anything that he thought contradicted penal substitution. Similarly, when I summarized to my [Episcopal] priest at my old parish what I believed, based on St. Athanasius, he said that it sounded like penal substitution to him (he doesn’t believe in it).

The broad sense of the term simply means that Jesus suffered the penalty of our sins. In that sense it’s perfectly orthodox.

But in the narrow sense of the term, it refers specifically to the view that God imputed our sins to Jesus and punished Jesus in our place. This is a development of St. Anselm’s theory of “satisfaction” according to which Jesus satisfied God’s justice by His perfect obedience to the point of death. In the Middle Ages, this got combined with the much older idea that Jesus suffered the penalty of our sins (which actually isn’t explicitly part of Anselm’s theory). So in a sense all it took to get full-blown penal substitution was to throw in the idea of imputation. But that is precisely the step that is contrary to Catholic doctrine.

That’s why your source, rightly, thinks that if the New Perspective gets people questioning imputation, penal substitution (in its full-blown form) is right behind.


Look up Theories of the atonement (or redemption)

The Ransom Theory (God deceitfully pays off Satan with a bribe) Introduced by Origen in the third century CE.

The Satisfaction Theory (Jesus appeases God by being a ritual human sacrifice) Introduced by Anselem, in the late 11th century CE.

The Moral Theory: (Jesus’ death is an example for the rest of humanity to emulate) Introduced by Abelard in the 12th century CE.

The Acceptance Theory (Atonement comes from the arbitrary choice of God) Introduced by Scotus circa 1300 CE.

The Penal (a.k.a. Penal-Substitution) Theory (God’s mercy replaces his wrath after the infinite sacrifice of Jesus) Introduced by Reformation theologians circa 1520 CE.

Christus Victor Theory: Jesus voluntarily allowed himself to be executed. This defeated the power of evil and released humanity from its sin. Being written

Narrative Christus Victor Theory: Being written

Non-violent atonement theories: Recent theories primarily by African-American and feminist theologians Being written



So… Which one does the Catholic Church align to?

Yes, but this is a bit misleading, like all lists of theological theories. The theories are more complex than the list indicates and interact with each other. The description of Christus Victor is particularly poor. I wrote two blog posts explicating the theory (and specifically the book that made the term common, Gustav Aulen’s Christus Victor).

Try googling “penal substitution Catholic”.
Here is one of the sites that came up and has some good info.

Ransom, satisfaction, and Christus Victor (including “narrative Christus Victor”) are all fully orthodox, I think. But as I said above, the division into “theories” is a problem in the first place.


I love your blog! But now I’m wondering, why is this even a question? Can’t it just be a Mystery (capital M)? Does this even have to divide people? Jesus died for our sins, why does it matter how?

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Well, the biggest difference is the nature of the sacrifice. Penal substitution indicates that Jesus took God’s wrath in the ELECT’S place. Where as the Catholic Satisfaction view is that Jesus lovingly offered a greater payment than we could and God accepted His offer to satisfy the punishment (death, separation from God). The term :elect also indicates that they believe that it doesn’t apply to everyone, just the Elect. Catholics believe atonment was for everyone.

Note that in penal substitution Jesus is punished for our sins, in the Catholic view he offers himself up as a different form of satisfaction so that we are not punished for them. The reason that is important is that in penal substitution we cannot be forgiven because essentially Jesus being sacrificed (paying the debt) would leave nothing to be forgiven. If a debt is forgiven once paid, there is no debt to be forgiven. In the Catholic view, God accepts the sacrifice of His Son to satisfy punishment requirements but He forgives us.

Or at least that is how I’ve come to understand it, I may be wrong.

I think it does matter in very practical ways.

For instance, many conservative Protestants interpret penal substitution and justification by faith alone in a way that negates our need to follow Jesus’ example. Some Calvinists will even suggest that the whole idea of trying to be like Jesus is blasphemous “works righteousness.” Jesus died for our sins. We aren’t supposed to do what He did. That has huge implications for how Christians live.

But if Jesus’ death is how He overcame death, and we are incorporated into Him as members of His body, living out His victory in the world, then the picture looks very different.


Is THIS why some Protestants hold the position of Once Saved Always Saved? That makes sense to me!!

Well, Once Saved Always Saved was originally an outgrowth of the way the early-sixteenth-century Swiss and South German Reformers (the forerunners of what we now call “Calvinism”) applied Augustine’s teachings. I think there was some influence from more radical theologies as well–a guy named Martin Borrhaus taught an almost Manichean view of “two seeds” according to which people came into the world already with light or darkness within them, and you see the influence of that pretty strongly in the early Reformed guys, until Calvin brought Reformed theology more in line with Lutheranism and with traditional Augustinianism.

But the key move was to take Augustine’s doctrine of predestination (which was the standard view in the West throughout the Middle Ages, with some modifications), link it up with sola fide, and then make this combination the basis of soteriology. That leads to “eternal security” or the “perseverance of the saints.” If faith is a gift of God, and those who have faith are saved, then it makes sense that only the elect would ever have real faith. That required them to abandon baptismal regeneration, but they might have done that anyway because of their tendency to rationalize and spiritualize sacramental theology.

The Reformed today will often distinguish their doctrine of perseverance from the watered down “once saved always saved” doctrine that you find among many American Protestants who aren’t real Calvinists. In the Reformed understanding, faith and works are linked by predestination. If God has chosen you to have faith, God has also chosen you to have works, and like the Lutherans they think that faith will inevitably bear fruit in works. So they don’t play down good works as some modern Protestants do.

But yes, penal substitution plays a role here as well, since in full-blown five-point Calvinism Christ only died for the elect, and so all those for whom Christ died (and only they) will come to faith, persevere in faith and good works, and be saved.


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