Augustine’s Theory of Atonement: Divine Child Abuse?

John McGuckin describes the basic premise of Augustine’s theory of atonement, and how that has impacted the Western church ever since. We often hear this Augustinian (and now Calvinist) sentiment derided; i.e. under the charge of God the Father being a cosmic child abuser of his Son in the atoning cross-work. As McGuckin also notes, though, there were multi-valent models of augustine1atonement theories abound during the patristic period; and as he notes (rightly, I believe), this is because of the diffuse nature of Scripture’s witness itself. Here’s what McGuckin has written:

In the West the idea of substitutionary sacrifice, to appease the anger of God, remained the dominate and most vivid idea of the atonement. The idea was prevalent in the North African writers Tertullian and Cyprian, and when it was restated by Augustine (in more balanced and philosophical terms) it was set to enter the Western church as the primary motif of atonement theology for centuries to come. It is conveyed in Augustine’s statement: “Since death was our punishment for sin, Christ’s death was that of sacrificial victim offered up for sins” (De Trinitate 4.12.15). Many modern patristic theorists have attempted to bring some order into the sprawling images of atonement we find in this literature, describing various “schools” or theories (physical theory, Christ the Victor, and so on). The simple fact is that the patristic writing is organically diffuse on the central mystery of Christ’s economiastic preaching. The writers used many images, often a combination of them, all of them devolving in some sense or another from the rich poetic tapestry of scriptural texts about the work of Christ. To impose systematic order on this wildly vivid kerygmatic witness is often anachronistic and inappropriately scholastic.[1]

It is the Augustinian model itself that has so deeply funded what we see taken over in the penal substitutionary theory of atonement given development particularly in the Federal or Covenantal wing of Reformed theology. Often this is also connected to Anselm’s satisfaction theory of the atonement, but really the only relationship there is the idea of satisfaction; i.e. not much material linkage, theologically.

I’m not going to comment too much on all of this, other than to say that those committed to the Augustinian theory, in the main, are going to have a difficulty appreciating the ontological theory of the atonement that we promote as evangelical Calvinists.

[1] John McGuckin, The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology(Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 39.

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2 comments

  1. McGuckin’s account of patristic teaching on atonement, including Augustine’s, is a bit puzzling. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 3.23.6, Methodius of Olympus, From the Discourse on the Resurrection, Part 1.4 – 5, Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation 8.1, and Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 45 all say that Jesus had to die in order to fully participate in the human condition, and also to wield death as an instrument by which to do what no other human being could do: fully resist the corruption of sin and present our human nature to the Father. So Jesus’ death wasn’t a deflection of death (or some kind of forensic punishment) from us, but a sharing in our overall condition in order to undo it. It seems like the ontological theory is fairly well attested. Augustine seems a little less clear at points about Jesus’ death because he seems to waver on whether Jesus instantly cleansed his human nature at conception vs. through his lifelong obedience and death. Is that your understanding? Significantly, Stanley Rosenberg, in his contribution to The Glory of the Atonement (Hill and James, editors), denies that Augustine taught penal substitution. That was a fairly big concession in a book dedicated to penal substitution and Roger Nicole!

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