Is Substitutionary Atonement a Calvinist Doctrine?

Is Substitutionary Atonement a Calvinist Doctrine?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Monday, August 1, 2011 at 11:50am

QUESTION: There are some who say that Jesus was in no way a substitute for our sins because this is Calvinism. I have your book, God the Redeemer, and have read your chapter dealing with the atonement. I believe that Jesus in some way “took our place” as in Gal. 3:13 (substitution does not have to be used), but I am not a Calvinist and would fight Calvinism rigorously.

Can you offer any more help especially in locating materials that would support Jesus taking our place, but not from a Calvinistic standpoint?

ANSWER: It is true that Reformed theology (Calvinism) consistently teaches the concept of the substitutionary atonement—that Jesus died on the cross to satisfy the wrath of God in our place, as our substitute. It is also true that Reformed theology gives this doctrine some unique twists, such as limited atonement. I.e., it concludes that if Jesus truly died as someone’s substitute, that person cannot help but be saved. So if Jesus died in the place of every human being, the result would have to be universal salvation. Ergo, he must have died only for the elect.

But the idea that the substitutionary atonement, as such, is a Calvinist doctrine is seriously false. It is true that this concept was not dominant and was not well formulated until the Protestant Reformation, but it was not absent from pre-Reformation Christian thought either. One of the most famous works on the atonement was called Cur Deus Homo? [ i.e., Why Did God Become Man?], written by the medieval theologian Anselm (1033-1109). His explanation of the atonement is called the satisfaction theory, and is not identical with the later Reformed view; but it does clearly assert that Christ satisfied the justice and wrath of God in our place.

The Arminian theologian H. Orton Wiley summarizes Anselm’s view thus: “Sin violates the divine honor, and deserves infinite punishment since God is infinite. Sin is guilt or a debt, and under the government of God, this debt must be paid. This necessity is grounded in the infinite perfections of God. Either adequate satisfaction must be provided, or vengeance must be exacted. Man cannot pay this debt, for he is not only finite, but morally bankrupt through sin. Adequate satisfaction being impossible from a being so inferior to God as man is, the Son of God became man in order to pay the debt for us. Being divine, He could pay the infinite debt; and being both human and sinless, could properly represent men. But as sinless He was not obliged to die, and owing no debt on His own account, He received as a reward of His merit, the forgiveness of our sins” (Wiley, Christian Theology, Beacon Hill Press 1952, II:235-236).

Wiley himself, a leading Wesleyan (Arminian) theologian, includes the concept of substitution in his explanation of the cross, with emphasis on the concept of propitiation (ibid., 229-230). Wiley does not like the way Reformed theology adapted Anselm’s satisfaction view into the Calvinist system, transforming it into what he calls “the Penal Satisfaction Theory” (241ff.). He himself does not abandon “the vicarious expiation,” however (as he calls it, 282ff.). Christ’s vicarious suffering includes “the two ideas of substitution and satisfaction.” Jesus is the “true Representative” of the human race, and “by His death on the cross, He fully propitiates the divine nature, and thereby expiates human sin. Propitiation, therefore, becomes the dominant idea of the atonement”; it is “the dominant note in the Wesleyan type of Arminian theology” (282-284).

Another example of a non-Calvinist who embraces the substitutionary atonement is J. C. Wenger, a leading Mennonite theologian. The Mennonites are descendants of the 16th century Anabaptists, who were the main branch of the continental Protestant Reformation that rejected the Augustinian theology of the Lutherans and Calvinists. They and their Mennonite heirs interpret sin and salvation in light of a human free will that has not been negated by the false doctrine of Total Depravity.

Like many non-Calvinists, Wenger sees the Bible as describing the atonement in several different ways, but among these, “Scripture represents the death of Jesus as substitutionary and vicarious,” as stated in Isaiah 53:4-6. “Jesus died a substitutionary and vicarious death” (Introduction to Theology, Herald Press 1954, 202-203).

Throughout the nineteenth century theological Liberalism was a-forming, beginning with Freidrich Schleiermacher (d. 1834). It was given a tremendous boost by Darwinism, and was launched into the twentieth century by such theologians as Albrecht Ritschl (d. 1889). Thus at the beginning of the twentieth century, traditional orthodox (conservative) Christian belief was under serious attack. Into the fray stepped a group of conservative believers who began to militantly defend what they called “the fundamentals,” i.e., the most basic Christian beliefs that were being denied by Liberalism, but without which Christianity is simply no longer Christianity. There are various lists of what were considered to be “the fundamentals,” but they all included the substitutionary atonement.

The important point here is that this defense of “the fundamentals” was not a Calvinist crusade, nor an Arminian enterprise, nor limited to any other narrow branch of Christian theology. The doctrines being defended as fundamental were not unique to any one group, such as Calvinists; they were doctrines shared by all Bible-believers. Perhaps the most common if not the most memorable list is the “five points of fundamentalism”: the inspiration and authority of Scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the future visible second coming of Christ. Thus the substitutionary atonement was defended by all forms of conservative Christendom. It was not considered “just” a Calvinist belief.

The most famous polemical writing to come out of this era was a collection of short essays called The Fundamentals, millions of copies of which were distributed free by a couple of wealthy believers in 1909. An updated version was published in two volumes in 1958 as The Fundamentals for Today (Kregel). One chapter on “The Atonement” was originally written by Franklin Johnson, an American Baptist (whether Calvinist or not I cannot discover); it is a thorough defense of the substitutionary atonement (II:341-349). A second chapter, “At-one-ment by Propitiation” (II:351-361) was originally written by Dyson Hague, a conservative Anglican. The latter chapter says, “Christ’s death upon the cross, both as a substitute and as the federal representative of humanity, voluntary, altruistic, vicarious, sinless, sacrificial, purposed not accidental, from the standpoint of love indescribably glorious, not only satisfied all the demands of the divine righteousness, but offered the most powerful incentive to repentance, morality, and self-sacrifice” (357).

Hague says this is “the consensus of all the churches,” i.e., that the cross is “no mere at-one-ment in the Ristschlian sense, but a real vicarious offering; a redemptive death, a reconciling death; a sin-bearing death; a sacrificial death for the guilt and sins of men. His death was the death of the divine victim. It was a satisfaction for man’s guilt. It propitiated God. It satisfied the justice of the Father” (358).

Various individuals and various theological perspectives will undoubtedly present the substitutionary atonement with different nuances, but all agree on the basic point. To say that this belief is a Calvinist doctrine unfortunately demonstrates considerable ignorance of theology in general.

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