Bearing shame and scoffing rude
In my place condemned He stood,
Sealed my pardon with His blood --
Hallelujah! What a Saviour!
I was reading a comment thread on a post over on the blog Stand Firm on Good Friday and I saw a claim being made there that I've seen made in other forums and have heard in many conversations. It is first said that the church fathers, the earliest Christian writers outside the New Testament, did not dwell much on the atonement or have a well-formulated view of this doctrine. That claim may be true. I know that some early writers, such as Origen, believed in a "ransom theory" of the atonement.
It is then assumed that because some patristic writers did not elevate the doctrine of the atonement to a high level of importance that it is alright today to have many different views of the atonement and that it is wrong to judge and say that one of these views is the correct view.
What amazes me is that these debaters, who mostly have a strong dislike of penal substitution or satisfaction, often claim that this view was not even formulated until St. Anselm of Canterbury writing in the 11th Century, and was not believed by many to be central to the Christian faith until the Reformation and therefore a penal substitutionary view is either unimportant or wrong.
The reason that this amazes me is that these deniers of a penal substitutionary atonement seem to completely ignore the inspired writings of Paul or the even earlier writings of the prophet Isaiah, both of whom were writing long before the church fathers, Anselm or the Reformers. Paul wrote, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God," and also, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us - for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree (2 Cor 5:21 and Galatians 3:13).'" Keeping in mind that Christ became both sin and a curse in order to redeem and save us, we also read that Christ was, "put forward as a propitiation by his blood," by God (Romans 3:25). And as a propitiation by His blood Paul tells us what Christ was saving us from, "we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9)." Here the Apostle Paul does not say that the elect are saved primarily from "the devil" or "from corruption" or even "from our sins." Paul says we are saved from the wrath of God by Christ. That is not to say that we aren't also saved from bondage to the devil or corruption or our sins, but we are primarily saved from God's wrath and it is the wrath of God which is the primary problem for those who are outside of Christ.
And if there were any doubt about what Paul might mean by his use of the word "propitiation" or how exactly Christ saved us from God's wrath I think Isaiah makes it clear in his prophecy concerning the Messiah. I've heard some argue that what Isaiah wrote in the 53rd chapter of his book could be written concerning the prophet himself and not about Christ. But if one were to take this view they would be disagreeing with all four gospel writers, with Luke writing in Acts and with St. Peter. The 53rd chapter of Isaiah is quoted as having predicted things concerning Christ in Matthew 8:17, Mark 15:28, Luke 22:37, John 12:38, Acts 8:32 and 1st Peter 2:22. These are places where the 53rd chapter of Isaiah is applied to Christ in the New Testament but other parts of the book of Isaiah are quoted in numerous other places, including by Paul as having foretold aspects of Christ's life and ministry. So to deny that Isaiah 53 applies to Christ and His sufferings is to reject the witness of almost the entire New Testament.
And what does Isaiah tell us about the Messiah's sufferings? Isaiah writes that He "was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace(53:5)." Verse 6 says, "and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all." And whose will was it that Christ be crushed? Who was putting upon Christ the chastisement that brought us peace? Verse 10 reads, "Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief." Ultimately it was not Satan or man who made Christ suffer. No ransom was payed to the devil. To believe such things is to reject the clear teaching of Scripture. Christ suffered in the place of sinful man, having taken upon Himself our sin, being made "to be sin," He bore the wrath that the justice of God demanded sinful humans to receive.
So it may be true that a penal-substitutionary view of the atonement is not clearly taught in the patristic writings. If this is true it is unfortunate but it is only one example among many of doctrines which were taught by the Apostles being obscured by sinful men in the history of the Church. And it is not only the Church where the obscuring of the doctrines of God have occurred. The same had occurred in Ancient Israel when Josiah discovered the Book of the Law in the temple and had it read aloud to the people, re-revealing the truth of God. If God's people Israel were not immune to the obscuring and loss of true doctrine then there is no reason to assume that the Church would somehow be immune to the same evil. But God in His mercy has used men like Anselm and the Reformers to bring us back to the Word of God and the un-tainted truth which is revealed there.