Origin and Limitation of the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement:

I. ORIGIN OF THE SATISFACTION THEORY OF THE ATONEMENT (from Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan):

“…the processions and the drama of the Middle Ages kept the motif of Christus Victor alive even when Latin theology was no longer able to deal with it adequately because of its preoccupation with interpreting the death of Christ as an act of satisfaction… More than any other treatise between Augustine and the Reformation on any other doctrine of the Christian faith, Anselm’s essay has shaped the outlook not only of Roman Catholics, but of most Protestants, many of whom have paid him the ultimate compliment of not even recognizing that their version of the wisdom of the cross comes from him, but attributing it to the Bible itself [see Pelikan, Christian Tradition Vol. 3, pp. 106-57; 4:23-25, 156-157, 161-163]. Anselm’s Why God Became Man belongs to a consideration of the theme of the “wisdom of the cross” for another reason as well In it he develops his argument, as he says, ‘as though Christ did not exist [remoto Christo],’ claiming to proceed through reason alone. The underlying presupposition of Anselm’s thought was the consistency of God and the universe, which God did not violate by arbitrary acts, for such acts would undermine the moral order of the universe itself. Rightness consisted in rendering to each a due measure of honor. Although created for participation in such rightness, the human race had refused to give God due honor and had fallen into sin. This God could not overlook or forgive by fiat, without thereby violating ‘rightness’ in the moral order; such was the demand of divine justice, which Anselm could have defined as ‘God taking himself seriously.’ Yet both human wisdom and divine revelation made it clear that God was a God not only of justice, but of mercy, who declared ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live’ (Ezek 33:11).” -Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries, pp. 106-107.


The Westminster Confession says the crucifixion of Christ “hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father; and purchased not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven for all those whom the Father hath given unto Him.”[1]

“Satisfaction” in the Reformed Confessions, as Reformed theologian Charles Hodge explains, represents “a perfect satisfaction, so that justice has no further demands…” the crucifixion of Christ alone as a full and absolutely comprehensive satisfaction “met and answered all the demands of God’s law and justice against the sinner… This is what is called the perfection of Christ’s satisfaction. It perfectly, from its own intrinsic worth, satisfies the demands of justice… It follows from the perfection of Christ’s satisfaction that it supersedes and renders impossible all other satisfactions for sin” (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol II., Ch 4, “The Satisfaction of Christ”).

According to this model the cross of Christ alone “satisfies” absolutely every divine requirement for reconciliation. Nothing else, absolutely nothing else, needed. One might well expect St. Paul, on this model, should have written “If Christ has not been raised, since the cross alone is “satisfactory” to expiate your sins, you are delivered from your sins regardless.” But St. Paul affirmed the very opposite:

“If Christ has not been raised… you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17). If Christ had only died, but had not been raised, His death alone would not be “satisfactory” for the expiation of sins, according to St. Paul.

This emphasis upon the absolute soteriological necessity of the resurrection is also found in Paul’s letter to the Romans: “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom 4:25).

Joel B Green of Asbury Seminary in Kentucky observes, “because of the singular focus on penal satisfaction, Jesus’ resurrection is not really necessary according to this model” (Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000), p. 148).

But why would the resurrection be such an absolute soteriological necessity, as St. Paul undeniably does present it, for the expiation of sin?

Going back before the medieval origin of the Satisfaction Theory we find the paleo-orthodox / patristic writers had a different, and fuller view of reconciliation with God “in Christ.” It involved actual mystical union, a living fellowship or communion (koinonia), with the living Christ: salvation consisted in His actual glorifying presence. It would on this view be a bizarre contradiction to suggest a dead savior was “satisfactory”; if the savior was merely dead, there would be no one to be in Union with, no glorifying presence, no theosis! (which is what the early fathers conceived salvation to be). On this model it is perfectly understandable to affirm “If Christ has not been raised… you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17).  Without a living Christ there would be no living union with Christ, which is what the early fathers universally understood salvation to be.
We do not worship a dead victim, but a Living Victor, who lives and presently intercedes.

A dead vine can produce no fruit, but only a living one: I am the true vine…” Except our Savior were risen and alive it would be impossible to “Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me” (Jn 15:4).


[1] The Westminister Confession, Ch 8.5. [Reformed/Calvinist; other Reformed Confessions affirming the Satisfaction Theory include Second Helvetic Confession, The Heidelberg Catechism, Formula Consensus Helvetica,  The Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement is also affirmed in The Augsburg Confession and Formula of Concord (Lutheran), and in the Roman Catholic Council of Trent. Since that time many within various trajectories of Protestantism have questioned the Satisfaction Theory

See also the related article: “Propitiation or Expiation: Did Christ Change God’s Attitude?” https://katachriston.wordpress.com/2011/06/22/propitiation-or-expiation-did-christ-change-gods-attitude/

This entry was posted in New Testament, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Origin and Limitation of the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement:

  1. Pingback: Origin and Limitation of the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement | ChristianBookBarn.com

  2. Matthew G says:

    Amen. This is succinctly put, and essentially is what Gustaf Aulen states in his remarkable work “Christus Victor”. This is also what Luther himself preached, and is the full and true gospel, which is truncated in the Protestant penal substitution view. This does not make penal substitution in itself wrong, it is not. It is just not the whole picture. Do you agree?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s