Athanasius and Substitutionary Atonement

Contrary to the claims of many like Brian Zahnd that Substitionary Atonement (AKA Penal Substitution) is absent from the church fathers, the great Athanasius (298-373) shows very early evidence of Substitutionary Atonement (SA) in his great work “On the Incarnation.” I will provide a small sample of some of his quotations affirming his understanding of the doctrine (all citations come from my Kindle version, the emphasis in each quote is mine). But first, a defition:

The doctrine of SA simply states that there was penal element to the cross of Christ. That Christ died to satisfy a debt, to satisfy justice. The doctrine maintains that men who have broken God’s Law, though loved by God, are under a curse for their sin, and must be judged accordingly. The purpose of the cross then is that Jesus took that curse upon Himself as our substitute. He became our substitute, and drank the cup of God’s wrath (Mat. 26:29) which was due sinners (2 Cor. 5:21), and by dying their death, He redeemed them from the curse. He died in their place, with their sins placed on Him, to satisfy the Law in their stead. The Apostle Paul puts it this way,

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

Colossians 2:13-14

To liberal theologians this is a heinous doctrine. It pits the Son against the Father. It makes God an angry God who needs child sacrifice to be appeased. The claim is that God is able to forgive without sacrifice, He is able to forgive without demanding payment. Many of them will claim that this doctrine is not biblical, and that this is evidenced by its novelty. But is it novel? I believe Athanasius is just one of many examples from the fathers that refutes that claim. The following are three quotations from Athanasius which, in only one chapter, clearly articulate an affirmation of SA.

1. But beyond all this, there was a debt owing which must needs be paid; for, as I said before, all men were due to die. Here, then, is the second reason why the Word dwelt among us, namely, that having proved His Godhead by His works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all, surrendering His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression.

Loc 438

2. Death there had to be, and death for all, so that the due of all might be paid.

Loc 447

3. But if any honest Christian wants to know why He suffered death on the cross and not in some other way, we answer thus: in no other way was it expedient for us, indeed the Lord offered for our sakes the one death that was supremely good. He had come to bear the curse that lay on us; and how could He ‘become a curse” otherwise than by accepting the accursed death? And that death is the cross, for it is written ‘Cursed is everyone that hangs on tree.’ Again, the death of the Lord is the ransom of all.

Loc 512

There are two important elements in these quotations which side with SA.

1. Forensic Categories

First notice that Athanisias speaks of Christ’s atonement in forensic categories; he uses legal language. For Athanasius, the death of Christ is penal. For he describes sin as a debt, “there was a debt owing which must needs be paid.” He even goes so far, contrary to Brian Zahnd, to claim this debt must be paid, that it is “due” which is to be “paid.” Sin cannot, for Athanasius, merely be forgiven and forgotten; justice demands satisfaction.

The forensic language continues as He describes Jesus’ death as “settling man’s account.” Again, Jesus paid our debt; He provided what we owed.

2. Substitution Language

Athanasius also uses substitution language to describe Christ’s Passion. He declares one of the very reasons Christ took on flesh was to offer a “sacrifice” in order to pay the debt “on behalf” of sinners. Christ died on behalf of His people, laying His own life down “in place of all.” This is a clear affirmation of SA. Christ died the death others deserved, in their place, on their behalf.

The last quotation particularly I found to be Athanasius’ strongest and clearest affirmation of SA. He there explains why Jesus had to die a crucifixion rather than any other way of dying. Why could not have Christ merely have died in His sleep? Why did His death have to be so public, so excruciating, so humiliating? Part of the answer to that question is found in Galatians 3, to which Anathasius is here clearly referring.

10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’ 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ 12 But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them.’ 13 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’— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Galatians 3:10-14

The Law of God demanded crucifixion as a divine curse for sin. And since Athanasius knew Christ was bearing the wrath of a broken law, He was dying as a sinner, in the place of sinners, satisfying the Law, He had to die a death the Law required. Athanasius recognized that the curse of the Law “lay on us” but Christ came to “bear” that curse. In other words, Christ bore our sins, He took the punishment we were due.

Paul establishes clearly in Galatians that sinners are those who have broken God’s Law, and God’s Law puts a just curse (divine judgment) over them for their sin. That curse is removed from a sinner through faith in Christ, Who, as Athanasius put it “had come to bear the curse that lay on us.” Clearly there is a legal transfer involved in the atonement according to the great Athanasius. Our curse is legally imputed to Christ Who then becomes the curse and experiences the judgment of the Law so that those united to Him by faith can go free, redeemed.

Athanasius knew Galatians 3 teaches there is a legal, penal, substitutionary element of the atonement of Christ, and that is why he believed in Substitutionary Atonement.

Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.

Isaiah 53:11

2 thoughts on “Athanasius and Substitutionary Atonement

  1. Great quotes from Athanasius. Also, I’ve long pushed back against BZ and Boyd and others who use the child sacrifice argument. It shows such a lack of Trinitarian understanding to even use that line of reasoning.


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