Michael Kruger recently posted an argument for early historical for substitutionary atonement. The whole topic is a big one, I will say up front that substitution is affirmed by most of the patristic writers, I think. But a friend referred me to his article and here’s a few thoughts:
1) I sense a bit of cherry-picking data, here. I don’t have time to chase it down, but something is not quite right (only 1 document looked at and it’s quite short – only about 8 pages in a standard single spaced page, I believe). From this he is making a case about the patristic view of the atonement?
2) Given the size and nature of this work, can one take several different statements and weave together an accurate representation of the author’s system of thought? I am skeptical, especially in a document which is clearly apologetic in focus. It is not really a dogmatic or systematic treatment of any doctrine. So, for example, is a rather generic statement on the seriousness of sin really evidence for a particular view of the atonement? And similar things can be said about some other points he makes.
Kruger gives a bit of it away by saying that “key elements” of the substitutionary view were present and that these ideas [substitution and imputation] were present “in seed form.” [A notion sometimes suggested – ill-advisedly in my view – by dispensationalists about the dispensational system, a claim I would suspect Kruger would dismiss out of hand – and one I am somewhat skeptical of, as well]
3) There’s a bit of hand-waving here and there. Substitution has always been part of the Christian conversation (it’s biblical language, too!), but the Reformed view is penal substitution, which requires a particular configuration of beliefs (substitution, penalty, etc.). I wish that distinction had been more clearly made (I don’t think a lot of the audience will catch this). I’m suspicious when I see that the substitutionary passage he quotes uses ransom language (which is often associated in the early church with other atonement views). And note how Kruger assumes the payment must be made to God because we deserved punishment (hardly the standard view of the payment in the early church). Similar with imputation – use of the language and affirmation of a particular theological construct which includes that language are not the same. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think so.
4) Until the Reformation, it seems to me (and I’ve read a bit), there is more fluidity on the doctrine than some are comfortable with. Even the infamous Abelard had a rather complex view of the atonement. Here’s a hymn text by him (Alone thou goest forth):
1 Alone thou goest forth, O Lord,
in sacrifice to die;
is this thy sorrow naught to us
who pass unheeding by?
2 Our sins, not thine, thou bearest, Lord;
make us thy sorrow feel,
till through our pity and our shame
love answers love’s appeal.
I see in these two stanzas substitution, moral influence, and sacrifice at least (a bit surprising given how we normally describe Abelard’s view). I would suspect the same would be true of almost all the early patristic writers. However, those who wrote more extensively frequently refer to things like mousetraps and fishhooks and payment to Satan, too. Not that I find those ideas helpful, but they are there. Ignoring them will not lead to a full understanding.
I personally find that more complex perspective the best approach today (the kaleidoscope view it is sometimes called; various views, each of which brings out aspects of the great work of the atonement – but none of which by itself fully explains or exhausts it). That doesn’t mean penal substitution can’t be one lens, but it is not by any means the only one – or even one fully actualized in the patristic reflections.
Just my take.