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Joe Mark wrote:

Hi, guys —

I was wondering if this teaching on penal substitution was rejected by the Church.
Here is the quote I am referring to:

"It seems impossible for God to solve the dilemma of justice versus mercy, but
we know from the Gospel account how he does it. The problem is that he cannot,
it seems, do both; he must either exact the just penalty for sin — death — or not. Mercy seems a relaxation of justice, and justice a refusal of mercy. Either you punish or you don't. The laws of logic seem to prevent God from being both just and merciful at the same time. God solves this dilemma on Calvary. Full justice is done: sin is punished with the very punishment of hell itself — being forsaken of God (Matthew 27:46). But mercy and forgiveness are also enacted. The trick is to give us the mercy and him the justice"

Handbook of Christian Apologetics by Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, p. 127

I can't seem to get an answer anywhere and I have tired, believe me!

Thank You for your answer!


  { Has the teaching on penal substitution been rejected by the Catholic Church? }

Paul replied:

Dear Joe,

In my opinion, you have taken an excerpt from an excellent book co-authored by two men who have a firm grasp on orthodox Catholic teaching.

The Church sees the theology of the Cross as multidimensional; there are many complementary ways of explaining what Jesus' crucifixion does for mankind. I do not think the Church has ever officially accepted some explanations while rejecting others but perhaps there was a time
in Church history when she discouraged the substitution model because:

  • it was misunderstood as needing to satisfy vengeance, or
  • it was used by some denominations as the only explanation.

My colleagues can correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think, properly understood, the Church has ever condemned it.

I have no problem with the Kreeft/Tacelli offering of what Jesus' crucifixion meant for us and for justice and mercy, as long as it's understood that this salvific event has other dimensions of meaning for us too, such as His:

  • conquering death, the greatest consequence of original sin, as head of His Mystical Body (the Church) who will also follow Him, and conquer death.
  • winning for the world the gift of the Holy Spirit to dwell within men in order to heal and elevate.
  • divinizing the faithful with supernatural life resulting from the re-union with God that our hearts were originally made for.
  • instituting the mystery of the Eucharist, which took His Death and Resurrection to properly accomplish, and
  • manifesting to mankind the true essence of God who is Pure Love, willing to die for the good of man, His Bride, in the Eternal Covenant that Scripture reveals God has willed from the time of Adam.



Nick commented:

Hello Mike,

I am writing in response to Paul's answer to this question.

Thankfully, the apologist Paul was careful in his response and was open to correction. The truth is, the Penal Substitution view of the Atonement (i.e. the Protestant view of the Cross), has never been endorsed in any way by the Catholic Church.

The Handbook of Christian Apologetics which is quoted in the question is a generally good book, but on this issue, Kreeft is mistaken but he probably didn't know any better. Jesus did not undergo the Father's wrath in our place, as Protestants teach. That idea is directly against the Sacrifice of the Mass and Catholic view of the Cross.

I have written a lot about the Atonement at Nick's Catholic Blog online if you're interested to know more.

Here's a recent post I did on the issue:

God Bless,


Paul replied:

Hi, Nick —

Here is an excerpt from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, verbatim:

Jesus substitutes his obedience for our disobedience

615 "For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man's obedience many will be made righteous." (Romans 5:19) By his obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant, who "makes himself an offering for sin", when "he bore the sin of many", and who "shall make many to be accounted righteous", for "he shall bear their iniquities". (Isaiah 53:10-12) Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father. (cf. Council Of Trent (1547): DS 1529)

The first part was taken from Romans 5:19; the second part from the Council of Trent.


Eric replied:

We have to be careful here.

It is my understanding that the Catholic Church does not have a dogmatic theory of the atonement per se, but it doesn't embrace what I call the divine child abuse theory of atonement, which portrays God the Father pouring out the wrath He has against sinners on Christ instead. Not even Anselm went that far; that was an invention of Calvin. It's important not to read preconceived notions into the Catechism, the Council of Trent, or Kreeft, for that matter.

The Catholic Encyclopedia explains:

Mark Pattison tells us in his Memoirs that he came to Oxford with his home Puritan religion almost narrowed to two points, fear of God's wrath and faith in the doctrine of the Atonement. And his case was possibly no exception among Protestant religionists. In their general conception on the atonement the Reformers and their followers happily preserved the Catholic doctrine, at least in its main lines. And in their explanation of the merit of Christ's sufferings and death we may see the influence of St. Thomas and the other great Schoolmen. But, as might be expected from the isolation of the doctrine and the loss of other portions of Catholic teaching, the truth thus preserved was sometimes insensibly obscured or distorted. It will be enough to note here the presence of two mistaken tendencies.

  1. The first is indicated in the above words of Pattison in which the Atonement is specially connected with the thought of the wrath of God. It is true of course that sin incurs the anger of the Just Judge, and that this is averted when the debt due to Divine Justice is paid by satisfaction. But it must not be thought that God is only moved to mercy and reconciled to us as a result of this satisfaction. This false conception of the Reconciliation is expressly rejected by St. Augustine (In Joannem, Tract. cx, section 6). God's merciful love is the cause, not the result of that satisfaction.

  2. The second mistake is the tendency to treat the Passion of Christ as being literally a case of vicarious punishment. This is at best a distorted view of the truth that His Atoning Sacrifice took the place of our punishment, and that He took upon Himself the sufferings and death that were due to our sins.

Called to Communion, a group of Reformed converts to Catholicism, explains the difference more eloquently:

The Reformed conception of the Atonement is that in Christ's Passion and death, God the Father poured out all of His wrath for the sins of the elect, on Christ the Son. In Christ's Passion and death, Christ bore the punishment of the Father's wrath that the elect deserved for their sins. In the Reformed conception, this is what it means to bear the curse, to bear the Father's wrath for sin. In Reformed thought, at Christ's Passion and death, God the Father transferred all the sins (past, present, and future) of all the elect onto His Son. Then God the Father hated, cursed and damned His Son, who was evil in the Father's sight on account of all the sins of the elect being concentrated in the Son. (R.C. Sproul says that here.) In doing so, God the Father punished Christ for all the sins of the elect of all time. Because the sins of the elect are now paid for, through Christ's having already been punished for them, the elect can never be punished for any sin they might ever commit, because every sin they might ever commit has already been punished. For that reason Reformed theology is required to maintain that Christ died only for the elect. Otherwise, if Christ died for everyone, this would entail universal salvation, since it would entail that all the sins of all people, have already been punished, and therefore cannot be punished again.

The Catholic conception of Christ's Passion and Atonement is that Christ offered Himself up in self-sacrificial love to the Father, obedient even unto death, for the sins of all men. In His human will He offered to God a sacrifice of love that was more pleasing to the Father than the combined sins of all men of all time are displeasing to Him, and thus made satisfaction for our sins. The Father was never angry with Christ. Nor did the Father pour out His wrath on the Son. The Passion is Christ's greatest act of love, the greatest revelation of the heart of God, and the glory of Christ. (This is why Christ retained His five wounds in His resurrected body. And this is why Catholics show Christ on the cross, in the crucifix, because this is Christ's glory. We, with St. Paul, glory in Christ crucified. (1 Corinthians 1:23-24) So when Christ was on the cross, God the Father was not pouring out His wrath on His Son; in Christ's act of self-sacrifice in loving obedience to the Father, Christ was most lovable in the eyes of the Father. Rather, in Christ's Passion we humans poured out our enmity with God on Christ, by what we did to Him in His body and soul. And He freely chose to let us do all this to Him. Deeper still, even our present sins contributed to His suffering, because He, in solidarity with us, grieved over all the sins of the world, not just the sins of the elect. Hence, St. Francis of Assisi said, “Nor did demons crucify Him; it is you who have crucified Him and crucify Him still, when you delight in your vices and sins.” (CCC 598) The Passion is a revelation of the love of God, not the wrath of God. The fundamental difference can be depicted simply in the following drawing: (See the graphic on this page, two paragraphs down from the top.) Of course in the Reformed system Christ also self-sacrificially loves the Father. But what effects propitiation in the Reformed system is the complete pouring out of God's wrath upon the Son. In Catholic doctrine, by contrast, God does not pour out His wrath for our sins onto His Son, and what effects propitiation is Christ's positive gift of love to the Father. Hence the illustration depicts what effects propitiation in the respective theological systems. It is not intended to be an exhaustive illustration of all that is going on during Christ's Passion.

I went back and read the original AskACatholic posting from Kreeft and I have to agree with Nick that it needs nuance. Kreeft says:

"sin is punished with the very punishment of Hell itself — being forsaken of God".

This sounds like the divine child abuse theory of atonement but it is possible it is just poorly worded and just unfortunately uses similar language.

Kreeft is referring to be forsaken by God the Father. Reformed teach posits literal vicarious punishment and wrath. It's somewhat ambiguous whether they are the same thing.

I don't have a problem with Paul's original response to the questioner.


Paul replied:

Hi, guys —

Personally, I think part (if not all) of the problem is in the anthropomorphism of God manifested in the terminology used mostly by non-Catholic versions of substitution theory.

To Catholics, God's wrath is God's loving justice. Since justice and reason are of God's eternal nature and it is reasonable that justice would demand atonement for the great offense of sin in order to effect a reconciliation, we see the need of the (God/Man) substituting for us since we don't have the divine power to fix what we broke in sin.

I see substitution as divine love satisfying justice rather than divine child abuse.



John replied:

Hi guys,

Let me weigh in here because I have spent a great deal of time on this topic.

What Eric calls the Divine Child Abuse Theory, I have coined as the God the Father, Needs Anger Management Theory.

The issue is that, in the West, we look at things from strictly a juridical perspective. The theory that Eric and I are talking about is actually Anselm's Theory of Satisfaction. The thinking behind it is typically Western. We look at things in terms of right and wrong, guilty and not guilty, where as in the East, they look at things in terms of life and death so it's not unusual that Eastern Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox, approach atonement differently.

That said, let's go back to the earlier models before St. Anselm.

The Greek Father's again, looking at the issue in terms of life and death, adopted a model centered around healing, eternal life, and deification. That is, God became man and, in and through the Incarnation and Christ's Obedience, man can become god by participation in the Divine Nature . . . all being a work of Grace. The starting point from the East is entirely different than in the West. They don't call it Original Sin. They call it Original Death, so if you start from a different point, you ask entirely different questions and you wind up with a different explanation. There is nothing wrong with their explanation. It is indeed quite complementary to all the other ones.

In the West, the first focus was on Redemption and Ransom. Because of our sin, we were debtors to satan so God Himself, paid that debt to satan, in order to ransom us. Now, there is a lot of truth in this but it is not the complete story. People were uncomfortable with the notion of giving satan that much power but clearly the Scriptures and Tradition indicate that ransom paid to satan is, in fact, part of Atonement.

Later St. Augustine proposed what has become known as the Mouse Trap Theory, whereby God tricked satan by having him go so far as killing Jesus. In doing so, Christ liberated the righteous souls in Sheol. Again, this was to make the whole ransom theory more palatable but there are many more aspects to this mystery . . . and that's exactly what it is, a mystery. Each paradigm or human model, (as our colleague Paul alluded to by calling them anthropomorphic), has much truth in it, but is woefully incomplete.

There is also the Marriage model. Paul alludes to it in Ephesians Chapter 5. In Ephesians 3 he also gives us a slightly different model about being One in Christ and that plays off his allusions in Romans 9 through 11 about grafted into Israel. John takes the Marriage Paradigm further in Revelation.

So all these explanations regarding atonement are all true but only in part. As Paul, our colleague stated, we are giving God human qualities and trying to describe a great Mystery in human terms.

In the West, we need to be careful about hanging our hats too much on the juridical models lest we reduce Jesus to Lord and Bails-bondman by describing Salvation as simply a Get Out of Jail Free Card . . . and that's the problem when you take Anselm's Theory of Satisfaction and put it in Luther or Calvin's hands. They further developed it into the Substitutionary Death paradigm.

  • What do you expect?

They, were heavily influenced by the Western reason. Luther was an Augustinian Priest and Calvin a Lawyer. Leave it to a lawyer, right!!

Nevertheless, there are strong elements of truth even in this Substitutionary model.
The difference being that:

  • Anselm argued that our sin offended the honor of God.
  • The Protestants argued that the God's Justice was offended and needed satisfaction.

And again there is some truth there. St. Paul tells us that Jesus fulfilled the righteous requirements of the Law but, in the same breath, St. Paul calls Christ the Second Adam. (1 Corinthians 15:20-22: 1 Corinthians 15:45-49)

Well, that ties in to the Marriage paradigm. Adam should not have sinned in the Garden but have been willing to lay down his life for his bride, Eve, (who was deceived and perhaps threatened into sinning by the serpent). See Hebrews where it says out of fear of death they sinned. (Hebrews 2:14-15); so the Second Adam died out of love for His Church.

To really understand what the Atonement is all about, you need to know the Jewish and Ancient world understanding of Covenant. Covenant, is not just an exchange of promises.

That's a Contract.

A Covenant is an exchange of Persons.

Each person giving themselves completely to the other in an irrevocable bond. When the terms of a contract are broken, the contract is broken but when the terms of a covenant are broken, the people involved are broken. Marriage is a perfect example. When someone is unfaithful in a Marriage, then both the husband and wife are somehow broken and so are the children.

So when Man broke the terms of the Covenant established in Genesis 1, man was broken but the Covenant remained in force. (Note: It would take a whole other discussion of why the inspired author chose seven days to fully understand this.)

When Israel broke the terms of the Sinai Covenant, the Covenant remained in force, and Israel suffered the brokenness described in latter part of Deuteronomy 28 and so Christ also partook in that brokenness, first by completely obeying the terms of the Covenant, and then by undergoing the Curses, so He fulfilled what was required of the First Adam.

Not that I'm a theological Doctor but putting all these models together, I have distilled Atonement to a simple sentence.

Jesus gave Himself for us, in order to give Himself to us.


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