Debunking Postmodern Liberal Claims That Penal Substitutionary Atonement Didn't Exist Until 1,000 Years After Christ

Liberal theology is a funny thing. While claiming to be engaging in Christian theology, modernist liberals and postmodern emergent liberals both appear to be very busy deconstructing, denying and destroying the central doctrines of the Christian faith. One doctrine that is particularly offensive to liberal theologians is the doctrine of Christ’s vicarious penal substitutionary atonement for the sins of the world. Early adopters of postmodernity and recognized thought leaders in the Emergent Church Movement, Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, in their 2003 book The Lost Message of Jesus succinctly explain their disgust with the thought that Jesus’ death on the cross was the punishment for our sins:

The fact is that the cross isn't a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement: ‘God is love’. If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus' own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil. [1]

Describing the belief that Christ died for our sins as a ‘form of cosmic child abuse’ pretty much captures their repulsion at the thought that Jesus death was vicarious. It 's hard to find a more vitriolic description of that doctrine. Along with the vitriol, the postmodern liberals have developed a sophisticated explanation for the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement that includes claims that it is a man-made doctrine developed over a thousand years after Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection.

This paper will examine the veracity of the claims of Emergent postmodern liberals that the understanding that Jesus’ death was a vicarious and penal substitutionary atonement was unknown to the early church and was a late theological development as an explanation of Jesus death on the cross. It will do this by evaluating Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Song in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 and how the Church Father’s understood this passage.

Did the Early Church Have No Concept Penal Substitution?

Tony Jones, one of the prominent leaders of the Emergent Church, a movement committed to redefining and reimagining Christianity for the postmodern generation, in his book The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier expressed his revulsion to penal substitution as a explanation of Jesus’ death on the cross. In the process he claimed that the first 1,000 years of Christianity contained no clear or robust articulations of penal substitution:

the atonement is the Christian doctrine that attempts to explain how Jesus' death on the cross amends for human sin and reconciles human beings to God. This pastor's understanding of the atonement is called penal substitution or propitiation, which is the theory that God's hatred of human sin was imputed to Jesus Christ, who then atoned for that sin with his death. Theologians call it a "forensic theory" since its evolution was concomitant with the development of the Western legal mind. The theory, based primarily on Paul's letter to the Romans and the anonymous letter to the Hebrews, is based on the idea that God's perfect justice demands an atonement for the egregious insult of human sin. Jesus, being sinless, is able to atone for the sins of humanity in his death, and that forgiveness is then available to any human being who accepts it. The first robust articulation of the penal substitution theory was Cur Deus Homo? (Why a God-Man?) by Anselm of Canterbury (1034-1109).(emphasis added)[2]

A few years later, Jones wrote a book dedicated to a discussion of “atonement theories” in which he further developed his claim that penal substitution was not taught or embraced during the first millennium of Christianity and the cultural reasons why he believes that was the case. The context of his discussion of the topic is Jones’ recounting of a face to face conversation that he and his fellow Emergent leader Doug Pagitt had with the famous Reformed pastor, John Piper:

We met on a September afternoon. I brought Doug Pagitt, and Piper brought three of his co-workers. Piper said he’d never heard of me before and that he was only vaguely aware of Emergent Village. His beef is with the writings of Brian McLaren and Steve Chalke. He’s read Chalke’s book, and says that he was “personally hurt” by Steve’s characterization of the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement as “cosmic child abuse.” I didn’t get the impression that Piper has read anything by McLaren, but McLaren’s endorsement of Chalke’s book was enough to concern Piper. The lunch was nearly two hours long, so I am not able to recount everything that took place. I will reiterate what Piper said at the conference: we are all passionate persons, and the dialogue was predictably fiery. But it was also very respectful and generous, on both sides…

I do not think that one theory interpreting that event to be sufficient. Every theory of the atonement is 1) human, and 2) bound to a context. For example, the penal substitution—while there are seeds of it in Pauline writings—is tied to the development of the Western legal mind. Nor am I willing to condemn the billions of faithful Christians who have lived and died in the past two millennia with alternate understandings of the atonement. When I expressed these thoughts at the lunch, Piper looked at me and said, “You should never preach.” His point was that my ideas about historical context would merely confuse listeners. He said this with a smile on his face, but then he turned serious and said that people need “fixed points of doctrine” in order to believe in Christianity. Not only do I disagree with that statement, I most definitely disagree with Piper on which points are most important.

Most of us in Western Christianity were raised with one version of the atonement—the same one that John Piper holds so steadfastly: the penal substitutionary view. There are reasons, both cultural and theological, that this understanding of the atonement has been dominant for the past 1,000 years. While some might argue otherwise, PSA was unknown before its development by Anselm of Canterbury in his 1098 book, Cur Deus Homo (Why a God-Man?). Therein, Anselm introduced the first substitutionary explanation of the atonement. Anselm rejected versions of the atonement that give Satan a hand in the transaction. It’s not Satan from whom we must be rescued, Anselm posited, but our own sin. Or, thinking of it another way, from the anger that God justly holds against us because of our sin.

“Every inclination of the rational creature ought to be subject to the will of God,” Anselm wrote, but our sinfulness precludes this possibility. Further, among God’s eternal characteristics is justice. By this reasoning, God cannot possibly forgive human sin without some recompense, for to do so would undermine the eternal laws of justice. And since every human being is sinful, there’s not one human who can make this payment. Only a perfect, sinless God-man can pay the price. Anything less would be unjust.

Any honest look at the genesis of PSA must take account of the era in which Anselm was writing. He was on the front end of the development of the Western legal mind. Just a century later witnessed the writing of the Magna Carta in 1215, the predecessor of the constitutions that now govern Western democracies. The Magna Carta was an attempt to limit the power of King John of England, and to convince the people that his decisions were based on law, not on the arbitrary whims of a monarch who inherited his thrown. Of course, the English monarchy remained strong for centuries after this, but the beginnings of its eventual devolution to the symbolic function that it holds today were written into the Magna Carta.

It’s not that the belief in Satan, required by the Ransom Captive theory (see below), had weakened in the Middle Ages; instead, Anselm was ahead of his time, articulating a sense of justice that eventually led to us living in the most litigious society in the history of our species.

This isn’t (necessarily) a criticism of PSA or of Anselm. It’s merely an acknowledgement of the obvious: Anselm was a man of his time; and PSA appeals to us in large part because our lives are governed by laws that attempt to instantiate justice. Consequently, PSA also lends itself to metaphors, allegories, and parables that appeal to us. For example, this old standby: A judge passes a sentence of death upon on a criminal who deserves nothing less; the judge then stands, removes his robe, and goes to the electric chair in the criminal’s stead.

Now, overlooking the obvious point that no criminal justice system would allow this to pass as justice, can you imagine a preacher in the Middle Ages using this analogy for the atonement? No, of course not, because they had no sense of courts, laws, or criminal justice. For a majority of Christian history this explanation of the atonement was nonsensical, and it still is in many parts of the world even today, that lack functioning legal systems.

Fortunately for us, there have been many other explanations of the atonement developed over the years. (emphasis added)[3]

Jones’ assertions and their implications are breathtakingly bizarre. The ones this paper will address are as follows:

  1. All Atonement Theories are of human origin and are cultural driven attempts to theologically explain Jesus death on the cross.
  2. Penal substitutionary atonement was unknown before it was developed by Anselm of Canterbury, who was the first to introduce a substitutionary explanation for Jesus’ death.
    • The genesis of Anselm’s explanation was the historical/cultural development of functioning legal systems.

Isaiah’s Explanation of Jesus’ Death

Isaiah’s song of the suffering servant in chapters 52:13-53:12, which predates Anselm of Canterbury by more than 1,600 years, is one of the clearest Biblical explanations for the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ. This passage is graphic in its descriptions and explicit in its explanations that the reason for Christ’s sufferings was due to his substitutionary work. The text reads as follows from the ESV (key phrases that explicitly teach PSA are emphasized):

Is. 52:13         Behold, my servant shall act wisely;
                        he shall be high and lifted up,
                        and shall be exalted.
14        As many were astonished at you—
                        his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
                        and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—

15        so shall he sprinkle many nations;
                        kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
             for that which has not been told them they see,
                        and that which they have not heard they understand.

Is. 53:1           Who has believed what he has heard from us?
                        And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
2          For he grew up before him like a young plant,
                        and like a root out of dry ground;
             he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
                        and no beauty that we should desire him.
3          He was despised and rejected by men;
                        a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
             and as one from whom men hide their faces
                        he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Is. 53:4           Surely he has borne our griefs
                        and carried our sorrows;
             yet we esteemed him stricken,
                        smitten by God, and afflicted.

5          But he was pierced for our transgressions;
                        he was crushed for our iniquities;
             upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
                        and with his wounds we are healed.
         All we like sheep have gone astray;
                        we have turned—every one—to his own way;
             and the LORD has laid on him
                        the iniquity of us all.

Is. 53:7           He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
                        yet he opened not his mouth;
             like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
                        and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
                        so he opened not his mouth.
8          By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
                        and as for his generation, who considered
             that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
                        stricken for the transgression of my people?
9          And they made his grave with the wicked
                        and with a rich man in his death,
             although he had done no violence,
                        and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Is. 53:10         Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him;
                        he has put him to grief;
             when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
                        he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
             the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
11        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.
12        Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
                        and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
             because he poured out his soul to death
                        and was numbered with the transgressors;
             yet he bore the sin of many,
                        and makes intercession for the transgressors.

The phrases “he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (53:5), “his soul makes an offering for guilt” (53:10), he “was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many” (53:12) all are speaking of Christ’s substitutionary work. We will consider each of them in turn. But before that the question that must be answered is how do we know this passage is making reference to Jesus Christ?

Is Isaiah 52:13-53:12 About Jesus?

Isaiah’s prophecies were penned more than six centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ. Modern Jews who reject Jesus as the messiah do not believe that this passage in Isaiah is about Jesus Christ. How do modern Jews interpret this passage and who do they think it is about? The answer to that question is complicated. Michael L. Brown, in his book Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Messianic Prophecy Objections explains how there is no consensus of interpretation among Jewish scholars. Some interpret Isaiah 53 as referring the corporate people of Israel, while others believe it is referring to the messiah. Wrote Brown:

For the last thousand years, religious Jews have often interpreted Isaiah 53 with reference to the people of Israel, but that has by no means been the consensus interpretation, and it is not the interpretation of the Talmudic rabbis. So, for example, the Targum interprets the passage with reference to the Messiah—as a warring, victorious king, even to the point of completely twisting the meaning of key verses—while the Talmud generally interprets the passage with reference to the Messiah, or key individuals (like Moses or Phineas), or the righteous (for details on this, see 4.8). Note also that Saʿadiah Gaon influential ninth-century Rabbinic leader, interpreted Isaiah 53 with reference to Jeremiah. This means that virtually without exception, the earliest traditional Jewish sources—and therefore the most authoritative Jewish sources—interpret Isaiah 52:13–53:12 with reference to an individual, and in some cases, with reference to the Messiah. As stated above (4.5), this is highly significant.

While it is true that Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Radak all interpreted the passage with reference to Israel, other equally prominent leaders, such as Moses ben Nachman (called Nachmanides or the Ramban), felt compelled to follow the weight of ancient tradition and embrace the individual, Messianic interpretation of the Talmudic rabbis (found in the Midrash, despite his belief that the plain sense of the text supported the national interpretation). Noteworthy also is the oft-quoted comment of Rabbi Moshe Alshech, writing in the sixteenth century, “Our rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the Messiah, and we shall ourselves also adhere to the same view.” This too is highly significant, since Alshech claims that all his contemporaries agreed with the Messianic reading of the text, despite the fact that Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Radak had all come out against that reading. Could it be that Rabbi Alshech and his contemporaries came to their conclusions because the text clearly pointed in that direction? The Messianic interpretation is also found in the Zohar as well as in some later midrashic works.[4]

Brown’s scholarship makes it clear that there is no agreement among Jewish scholars, ancient or modern, regarding who Isaiah was writing about in chapter 53 of his prophecy.

In Christian theological discussion of Isaiah 53 all Jewish debates and uncertainties regarding Isaiah’s referent are inadmissible. The reason for this is that the Apostles, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit explicitly and repeatedly make Jesus the subject of Isaiah’s prophecy. The most explicit New Testament reference to Jesus being the subject of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is found in Acts 8:26–35:

“Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” (cf Is. 53:7-8)

And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.”

In this passage Philip, clearly on a special assignment from God, is prompted by an angel and then Holy Spirit Himself to preach the gospel to visiting Ethiopian. As it just so happens, the visiting dignitary is reading from Isaiah 53 and inquires about whom the prophet is speaking and Philip, jumping on this opportunity explains that the passage is about Jesus. 

If the passage in Acts 8 were not proof enough, in Luke 22:35–37 Jesus Himself, references Isaiah 53 and makes it unmistakably clear that it is about Him:

And he [Jesus] said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment. (cf Is. 53:12)

Since there is no greater authority in Christianity than Jesus Christ, a Christian theologian cannot deny that Isaiah 53 is referring to Jesus without risking discrediting himself. Other New Testament passages that reference portions of Isaiah 53 and connect the subject of that passage to Jesus are Matthew 8:14–17, John 12:36–38, Rom 10:14–17, and 1 Pet 2:18–25. The text from 1st Peter not only identifies Jesus as the referent of Isaiah 53 but also explicitly teaches Jesus’ substitutionary work. The passage states:

Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth (cf. Is. 53:9). When he was reviled, he did not revile in return (cf. Is. 53:7); when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins (cf. Is. 53:11) in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed (cf. Is. 53:5). For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

Peter’s quoting from Isaiah 53 is unique in that he has woven portions of that passage into his own eye-witness narrative about Jesus’ passion. In the resulting text Peter quotes from Isaiah 53 out of order while he filling in eye-witness details from Jesus crucifixion. What Peter produces is the perfect blend of prophecy and fulfillment along with theological commentary on the doctrinal meaning and practical implications for the life of all believers as it pertains to Christ’s suffering. G. F. C. Fronmüller in his commentary on 1st Peter not only writes about the explicit teaching of Christ’s substitutionary work in this passage, he ties Peter’s explicit teaching on substitution back to Peter’s use of Isaiah 53. Wrote Fronmüller:

All exegetical attempts to explain away the idea of substitution and the system of sacrifice closely connected with it, are altogether futile. As in the Old Testament, the expressions, “to carry one’s sin,” or, “to bear one’s iniquity,” are equivalent to “suffer the punishment and guilt of one’s sin,” Lev. 20:17, 19; 24:15; Ezek. 23:35, so “to carry another’s sin,” denotes “to suffer the punishment and guilt of another,” or “to suffer vicariously,” Lev. 3:19, 17; Numb. 14:33; Lam. 5:7; Ezek. 18:19, 20. Can this be done in any other way than by the imputation of the guilt and sin of others, as was the case in the sin and guilt-offerings? Weiss is quite arbitrary in persisting to exclude the idea of sacrifice from Is. 53, for v. 10 clearly refers to it. From a Jewish point of view such a separation of the doctrine of substitution from the idea of sacrifice is simply impossible, cf. Jno. 1:29; Lev. 16:21, 22.—The juxtaposition of ἡμῶν and αὐτός both here and in Is. 53 is not insignificant, but gives prominence to the idea of substitution. Calvin says: “As under the law the sinner, in order to become free from sin, offered a sacrifice in his stead, so Christ took upon Himself the curse which we have merited by our sins in order to expiate it before God.” Calov (emphasis added).[5]

These passages in the New Testament make it unmistakably clear that Jesus is the subject of Isaiah 53 and a careful scholar of 1st Peter has noted the clear connection that has to concept of substitution. In the next section of this paper we will consider the exegesis of three key phrases from the text of Isaiah 53 and demonstrate that they explicitly teach penal substitution.

Exegesis of Key Portions of Isaiah 53

In Isaiah 53 there are three statements that are made that unequivocally teach penal substitution. They are:

1)    “he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (53:5)

2)    “when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days”  (53:10)

3)    he “was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many” (53:12)

We will examine each of these statements and consider what Old Testament commentators have written regarding them.

וְהוּא֙ מְחֹלָ֣ל מִפְּשָׁעֵ֔נוּ מְדֻכָּ֖א מֵעֲוֹנֹתֵ֑ינוּ מוּסַ֤ר שְׁלוֹמֵ֙נוּ֙ עָלָ֔יו וּבַחֲבֻרָת֖וֹ נִרְפָּא־לָֽנוּ׃

Translation:  and he is pierced for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace [is] upon him, and by his wound is healing to us

This statement from Isaiah’s prophecy is the clearest of the three that we will examine. This statement is also the most well known when it comes to the doctrine of PSA.  J. Alec Motyer in his commentary notes how the grammar and the construction of the sentence, especially as it pertains to the cause and effect implications from the Hebrew preposition min and its attachment to the words pesha and awanote(מִפְּשָׁעֵ֔נוּ and מֵעֲוֹנֹתֵ֑ינוּ) can only be understood according to substitution. Wrote Motyer:

The pronoun he is again emphatic, so as to bring the Servant sharply before us—‘He (and no other)’. Pierced: as in 51:9; when they called on the Arm of the Lord who dealt the monster Rahab a death blow, they did not know they were calling the Arm to his own death. Crushed: used of cruel agonies ending in death (Lam. 3:34). For … for: the preposition min means ‘from’, hence it is used of one thing arising from another, a relationship of cause and effect. Our transgressions were the cause, his suffering to death the effect. Like verse 4, this verse cannot be understood without the idea of substitution to which, here, the adjective ‘penal’ must be attached. Transgressions (peša’), wilful rebellions (1:2, 28; 43:25; 44:22; 46:8; 50:1); iniquities (‘āwōn), the pervertedness, ‘bentness’, of fallen human nature (1:4; 5:18; 6:7; 40:2; 43:24; 50:1). Punishment (mûsār): ‘correction’ by word or act, ‘chastisement’. Just as ‘covenant of peace’ (54:10) means ‘covenant which pledges and secures peace’ so (lit.) ‘punishment of our peace’ means punishment which secured peace with God for us. This peace was lost (48:18) by disobedience, and, since it cannot be enjoyed by the wicked (48:22), the Servant stepped forward (49:1) to bring us back to God (49:6). This is what he achieved by his substitutionary, penal sufferings. Upon: the same preposition as used in Leviticus 16:21–22. By: the particle of price, ‘at the cost of’. Wounds (ḥabbûrâ): used in 1:6 of open, untreated lacerations, hence the actuality of blows inflicted and experienced. Healed: (lit.) ‘there is healing for us’, the accomplished reality of restored wholeness. (emphasis added)[6]

Motyer is far from alone in his assessment of this passage and how it unmistakably is revealing that Christ’s sufferings were penal and substitutionary. Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch in their acclaimed 19th century Old Testament commentary wrote about how this passage is teaching substitution:

The meaning is not merely that the Servant of God entered into the fellowship of our sufferings, but that He took upon Himself the sufferings which we had to bear and deserved to bear, and therefore not only took them away (as Matt. 8:17 might make it appear), but bore them in His own person, that He might deliver us from them. But when one person takes upon himself suffering which another would have had to bear, and therefore not only endures it with him, but in his stead, this is called substitution or representation,—an idea which, however unintelligible to the understanding, belongs to the actual substance of the common consciousness of man, and the realities of the divine government of the world as brought within the range of our experience, and one which has continued even down to the present time to have much greater vigour in the Jewish nation, where it has found it true expression in sacrifice and the kindred institutions, than in any other, at least so far as its nationality has not been entirely annulled. (emphasis added)[7]

It is important to note that Keil and Delitzsch note only identify substitution being expressed in this passage but that they note that understanding, although unintelligible to other cultures was understood very well in the Jewish nation. That is significant because if true, that means that Tony Jones’ contention that PSA only arose as a cultural explanation of Christ’s death a thousand years after the fact is demonstrated to be false. If the citizens of the ancient Jewish nation of Israel understood and practiced substitution long before Christ’s death and resurrection, then PSA has its origins in the Biblical texts not the medieval cultural developments of Canterbury. Keil and Delitzsch in their careful exegesis of Isaiah 53:5 note how the grammar, especially the use of min, can only be understood to mean that Jesus was pierced and crushed for our sins, not His own:

In v. 5, וְהוּא, as contrasted with וַאֲנַחְנוּ, continues the true state of the case as contrasted with their false judgment. V. 5. “Whereas He was pierced for our sins, bruised for our iniquities: the punishment was laid upon Him for our peace; and through His stripes we were healed.” The question is, whether v. 5a describes what He was during His life, or what He was in His death. The words decide in favour of the latter. For although châlâl is applied to a person mortally wounded but not yet dead (Jer. 51:52; Ps. 69:27), and châlal to a heart wounded to death (Ps. 109:22); the pure passives used here, which denote a calamity inflicted by violence from without, more especially mechōlâl, which is not the participle polal of chīl (made to twist one’s self with pain), but the participle poal of châlal (pierced, transfossus, the passive of mechōlēl, Isa. 51:9), and the substantive clauses, which express a fact that has become complete in all its circumstances, can hardly be understood in any other way than as denoting, that “the servant of God” floated before the mind of the speaker in all the sufferings of death, just as was the case with Zechariah in Zech. 12:10. There were no stronger expressions to be found in the language, to denote a violent and painful death. As min, with the passive, does not answer to the Greek ὑπό, but to ἀπό, the meaning is not that it was our sins and iniquities that had pierced Him through like swords, and crushed Him like heavy burdens, but that He was pierced and crushed on account of our sins and iniquities. It was not His own sins and iniquities, but ours, which He had taken upon Himself, that He might make atonement for them in our stead, that were the cause of His having to suffer so cruel and painful a death. (emphasis added)[6]

The grammar of Isaiah 53:5 is inescapably revealing penal substitution. There is simply no way of avoiding it. The grammatical construction of this text cannot be understood any other way. If all we had was this verse from Isaiah 53 we would have all that we needed to demonstrate that Tony Jones’ assertions are false.

אִם־תָּשִׂ֤ים אָשָׁם֙ נַפְשׁ֔וֹ יִרְאֶ֥ה זֶ֖רַע יַאֲרִ֣יךְ יָמִ֑ים

Translation:  when his soul makes a guilt offering he will see his offspring, he will prolong his days

Although this statement by Isaiah doesn’t seem as clear regarding its implications regarding Penal Substitution, yet it can only be rightly understood as the servant acting as our substitute. Motyer explains it:

‘When his soul makes a guilt offering’: the precious reality at the heart of the saving work is the person (‘soul’) of the Servant. Because he was so uniquely fitted to be the substitute, his saving work was successful. (c) ‘When you make his soul a guilt-offering’: here ‘you’ is the individual drawing near to the Servant to nominate him as the needed offering for guilt, thus making his personal, individual response to what the Servant has done. Each of these is legitimate as a translation and significant as a truth. If we can see more than one meaning in what he wrote, we may be sure that Isaiah did too, and that he deliberately left it like that. The guilt offering is found in Leviticus 5:1–6:7. The heart of its distinctiveness is its insistence on minute exactness between sin and remedy. It could well be called the ‘satisfaction-offering’. It is used here not so much to affirm that the Servant bore and discharged the guiltiness of our sin, but that what he did is exactly equivalent to what needed to be done. (emphasis added)[9]

Motyer in explaining how this text points out that the type of guilt offering being reference here is found in Leviticus 5 and 6. It is details of this type of offering that highlight the substitutionary work of Isaiah’s suffering servant. Keil and Delitzsch in their exegesis of this verse they not only provide the details of the sacrifice in question, they explain how these details then form the basis of Anselm’s explanation of the Christ’s death. Although their explanation is extremely long, intricate and full of details. What they note regarding the asham (אָשָׁם֙) in this verse makes scholarly denials of penal substitution nearly impossible. Wrote Keil and Delitzsch:

V. 10. “And it pleased Jehovah to bruise Him, to afflict Him with disease; if His soul would pay a trespass-offering, He should see posterity, should live long days, and the purpose of Jehovah should prosper through His hand…

But if we adopt the following rendering, which is the simplest, and the one least open to exception: if His soul offered (placed, i.e., should have placed; cf., Job 14:14, si mortuus fuerit) an ’âshâm,—it is evident that ’âshâm has here a sacrificial meaning, and indeed a very definite one, inasmuch as the ’âshâm (the trespass-offering) was a sacrifice, the character of which was very sharply defined. It is self-evident, however, that the ’âshâm paid by the soul of the Servant must consist in the sacrifice of itself, since He pays it by submitting to a violent death; and a sacrifice presented by the nephesh (the soul, the life, the very self) must be not only one which proceeds from itself, but one which consists in itself. If, then, we would understand the point of view in which the self-sacrifice of the Servant of God is placed when it is called an ’âshâm, we must notice very clearly the characteristic distinction between this kind of sacrifice and every other. Many of the ritual distinctions, however, may be indicated superficially, inasmuch as they have no bearing upon the present subject, where we have to do with an antitypical and personal sacrifice, and not with a typical and animal one. The ’âshâm was a sanctissimum, like that of the sin-offering (Lev. 6:10, 17, and 14:13), and according to Lev. 7:7 there was “one law” for them both. This similarity in the treatment was restricted simply to the fact, that the fat portions of the trespass-offering, as well as of the sin-offering, were placed upon the altar, and that the remainder, as in the case of those sin-offerings the blood of which was not taken into the interior of the holy place, was assigned to the priests and to the male members of the priestly families (see Lev. 6:22; 7:6). There were the following points of contrast, however, between these two kinds of sacrifice: (1.) The material of the sin-offerings varied considerably, consisting sometimes of a bullock, sometimes of a pair of doves, and even of meal without oil or incense; whereas the trespass-offering always consisted of a ram, or at any rate of a male sheep. (2.) The choice of the victim, and the course adopted with its blood, was regulated in the case of the sin-offering according to the condition of the offerer; but in the case of the trespass-offering they were neither of them affected by this in the slightest degree. (3.) Sin-offerings were presented by the congregation, and upon holy days, whereas trespass-offerings were only presented by individuals, and never upon holy days. (4.) In connection with the trespass-offering there was none of the smearing of the blood (nethīnâh) or of the sprinkling of the blood (hazzâ’âh) connected with the sin-offering, and the pouring out of the blood at the foot of the altar (shephīkhâh) is never mentioned. The ritual for the blood consisted purely in the swinging out of the blood (zerīqâh), as in the case of the whole offering and of the peace-offerings…In the sin-offering the priest is always the representative of the offerer; but in the trespass-offering he is generally the representative of God. The trespass-offering was a restitution or compensation made to God in the person of the priest, a payment or penance which made amends for the wrong done, a satisfactio in a disciplinary sense. And this is implied in the name; for just as חַטָּאת denotes first the sin, then the punishment of the sin and the expiation of the sin, and hence the sacrifice which cancels the sin; so ’âshâm signifies first the guilt or debt, then the compensation or penance, and hence (cf., Lev. 5:15) the sacrifice which discharges the debt or guilt, and sets the man free.

Every species of sacrifice had its own primary idea. The fundamental idea of the ’ōlâh (burnt-offering) was oblatio, or the offering of worship; that of the shelâmīm (peace-offerings), conciliatio, or the knitting of fellowship that of the minchâh (meat-offering), donatio, or sanctifying consecration; that of the chattâ’th (sin-offering), expiatio, or atonement; that of the ’âshâm (trespass-offering), mulcta (satisfactio), or a compensatory payment. The self-sacrifice of the Servant of Jehovah may be presented under all these points of view. It is the complete antitype, the truth, the object, and the end of all the sacrifices. So far as it is the antitype of the “whole offering,” the central point in its antitypical character is to be found in the offering of His entire personality (προσφορὰ τοῦ σώματος, Heb. 10:10) to God for a sweet smelling savour (Eph. 5:2); so far as it is the antitype of the sin-offering, in the shedding of His blood (Heb. 9:13, 14), the “blood of sprinkling” (Heb. 12:24; 1 Pet. 1:2); so far as it is the antitype of the shelâmīm, and especially of the passover, in the sacramental participation in His one self-sacrifice, which He grants to us in His courts, thus applying to us His own redeeming work, and confirming our fellowship of peace with God (Heb. 13:10; 1 Cor. 5:7), since the shelâmīm derive their name from shâlōm, pax, communio; so far as it is the antitype of the trespass-offering, in the equivalent rendered to the justice of God for the sacrileges of our sins. The idea of compensatory payment, which Hofmann extends to the whole sacrifice, understanding by kipper the covering of the guilt in the sense of a debt (debitum), is peculiar to the ’âshâm; and at the same time an idea, which Hofmann cannot find in the sacrifices, is expressed here in the most specific manner, viz., that of satisfaction demanded by the justice of God, and of paena outweighing the guilt contracted (cf., nirtsâh, Isa. 40:2); in other words, the idea of satisfactio vicaria in the sense of Anselm is brought out most distinctly here, where the soul of the Servant of God is said to present such an atoning sacrifice for the whole, that is to say, where He offers Himself as such a sacrifice by laying down the life so highly valued by God (Isa. 42:1; 49:5). As the verb most suitable to the idea of the ’âshâm the writer selects the verb sīm, which is generally used to denote the giving of a pledge (Job 17:3), and is therefore the most suitable word for every kind of satisfactio that represents a direct solutio. (emphasis added)[10]

In other words, Anselm knew what he was doing and he didn’t get his ideas regarding penal substitution from his culture, he instead was rightly understanding Isaiah 53, especially in regard to the אָשָׁם֙.

וְאֶת־פֹּשְׁעִ֖ים נִמְנָ֑ה וְהוּא֙ חֵטְא־רַבִּ֣ים נָשָׂ֔א

Translation:  and with the transgressors he was numbered and the sin of many he carried

This is yet another statement that can only me made sense of through Penal Substitution. In this portion of the text the suffering servant is being numbered with the transgressors. If he himself were a transgressor, then his being numbered with them would be the result of his own sin. Instead, the suffering servant becomes the sin bearer, just like the sacrificial sin offerings. Keil and Delitzsch highlight this fact in their commentary:

because He has suffered Himself to be reckoned with transgressors, i.e., numbered among them (niph. tolerativum), namely, in the judgment of His countrymen, and in the unjust judgment (mishpât) by which He was delivered up to death as a wicked apostate and transgressor of the law. With וְהוּא there is attached to וְאֶת־פֹּשְׁעִים נִמְנָה (He was numbered with the transgressors), if not in a subordinate connection (like והוא in v. 5; compare Isa. 10:7), the following antithesis: He submitted cheerfully to the death of a sinner, and yet He was no sinner, but “bare the sin of many (cf., Heb. 9:28), and made intercession for the transgressors.” (Emphasis added)[11]

Motyer, in his commentary notes that a great victory on the part of the suffering servant is being described in this verse. He then explains the four facts the victory is the result of:

this great victory rests on four facts. (a) He poured out: the Servant’s voluntary self-offering even to the point of death (Phil. 2:8ff.); (b) was numbered: his identification with those in need of salvation (we could translate, ‘He allowed himself to be numbered’); (c) he bore the sin of many (i.e. of all whom he designed to save): his effectiveness as substitute; and (d) made intercession, probably better as ‘interposed’ but, of course, it could refer to his mediatorial intercession whereby he ‘saves to the uttermost’ (Heb. 7:25): his work as mediator. The latter verb, however, is used in verse 6 for ‘caused to meet’ (niv ‘laid’). Just as the Lord placed him in the mediating position, so he personally took it as his own. (emphasis added)[12]

Motyer rightly notes that one of the four pillars of this victory was Christ’s effectiveness as our substitute. His understanding of this passage is based on what it so clearly says.

Over and again the careful exegete of Isaiah 53 will be confronted with the Biblical revelation that Jesus’ death on the cross was a punishment (penal) for our sins (substitution). Therefore, since doctrine is found in scripture which is the Word of God and since this doctrine was set forth over 600 years before Christ’s death and resurrection and more than 1,600 years before Anselm was born we can definitively conclude that Tony Jones’ contention that PSA is a man-made theory of the atonement that was developed a thousand years after Christ walked the earth is patently false. Technically PSA was revealed more than six centuries before Christ was born of the virgin.

In the next section we will examine some of the writings of the Church Fathers to test the veracity of Jones’ final claim that, “PSA was unknown before its development by Anselm of Canterbury.”

Penal Substitution in the Church Fathers Explicit References to Isaiah 53

Is it true, as Tony Jones contends, that PSA was unknown as an explanation of Christ’s death on the cross prior to the writings of Anselm of Canterbury? Considering the fact that Isaiah 53 clearly reveals PSA, it hardly seems possible that the early Church Fathers and every Christian theologian, bishop, pastor, and apologist for the first 1,000 years of the church never noticed what Isaiah said and taught. The truth of the matter is that the church was fully aware of Isaiah 53 and the doctrine it taught. Case and point, Clement of Rome,  in his 1st Epistle to the Corinthians circa 90 A.D. – 99 A.D. wrote:

For Christ belongs to the humble-minded, not to those who exalt themselves above His flock. 2 The scepter of the majesty of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, came not in the pomp of boasting or of arrogance, though He was mighty; but he was humble-minded, as the Holy Spirit spoke concerning Him. For He says: 3 ‘Lord, who has believed our report, and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed? We announced in his presence—he is as a child, as a root in thirsty ground. There is no beauty in him, nor comeliness, and we have seen him, and he had neither form nor beauty, but his form was without honor, deficient in comparison with the form of men; a man living in stripes and hardships, and knowing how to bear weakness, for his face was turned away, and he was despised and not blessed. 4 This is he who bears our sins and is hurt for us, and we regarded him as subject to pain and stripes and affliction. 5 But he was wounded for our iniquities, he was bruised for our sins. The chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his bruises we are healed. 6 We all went astray like sheep; everyone went astray in his own way. 7 And the Lord delivered him up for our sins, and he did not open his mouth on account of his affliction. As a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and as a lamb dumb before its shearer he opens not his mouth. In humiliation his judgment was taken away. 8 Who shall declare his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth. 9 For the iniquities of my people he has come to death. 10 And I will give the wicked for his burial, and the rich for his death; for he did no iniquity, nor was deceit found in his mouth. And the Lord wills to purify him from his wounds. 11 If you make an offering for sin, your soul shall see a seed with long life. 12 And the Lord wills to take from the labor of his soul, to show him light and to form him in understanding, to justify a righteous man who serves many well. And he himself shall bear their sins. 13 On this account he shall inherit many, and shall share the spoils of the strong; because his soul was delivered to death, and he was counted among the wicked. 14 And he bore the sins of many, and for their sins he was delivered up.’ 15 And again He says Himself: ‘But I am a worm and no man, the reproach of men, and the outcast of the people. 16 All who saw me laughed me to scorn, they spoke with their lips, they shook their heads [saying], “He hoped in the Lord; let Him deliver him, let Him save him, seeing that he delights in Him. (emphasis added )[13]

In this portion of Clement’s epistle he lifts Isaiah 53 right out of the LXX and preaches it straight from the text with practically no commentary. Yet the clear teaching of Christ bearing our sins and dying in our place as our substitute is crystal clear in Clement’s letter. Clement may not have called it penal substituionary atonement but he full well knew he was proclaiming Christ substitutionary work.

Another Church Father who clearly taught PSA was Justin Martyr. In his “Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, a Jew circa early 1st Century Justin wrote:

“For the whole human race will be found to be under a curse. For it is written in the law of Moses, ‘Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them.’ And no one has accurately done all, nor will you venture to deny this; but some more and some less than others have observed the ordinances enjoined. But if those who are under this law appear to be under a curse for not having observed all the requirements, how much more shall all the nations appear to be under a curse who practise idolatry, who seduce youths, and commit other crimes? If, then, the Father of all wished His Christ for the whole human family to take upon Him the curses of all, knowing that, after He had been crucified and was dead, He would raise Him up, why do you argue about Him, who submitted to suffer these things according to the Father’s will, as if He were accursed, and do not rather bewail yourselves? For although His Father caused Him to suffer these things in behalf of the human family, yet you did not commit the deed as in obedience to the will of God. For you did not practise piety when you slew the prophets. And let none of you say: If His Father wished Him to suffer this, in order that by His stripes the human race might be healed, we have done no wrong. If, indeed, you repent of your sins, and recognise Him to be Christ, and observe His commandments, then you may assert this; for, as I have said before, remission of sins shall be yours. But if you curse Him and them that believe on Him, and, when you have the power, put them to death, how is it possible that requisition shall not be made of you, as of unrighteous and sinful men, altogether hard-hearted and without understanding, because you laid your hands on Him? (emphasis added)[14]

In this passage Justin Martyr only makes fleeting mention of Isaiah 53. But the context into which he weaves Isaiah’s words is his clear and concise claim that Jesus’ death was vicarious and His sufferings were the result of the Father will that the Son take our sins upon Himself so that He would suffer for us, in our place. If PSA were unknown to the church prior to Anselm, then why was Justin Martyr so familiar with it?

The last citation from the Church Fathers that we will consider is taken from the Demonstratio Evangelica of Eusebius of Cæsarea. In this passage Eusebius weaves together Isaiah 53 and 2 Corinthians 5:21 in order to explain the theological significance of Christ’s death on the cross:

And Aquila is in exact agreement with Symmachus. With regard first to the words which are apparently said in the Person of our Saviour: “Heal my soul, for I have sinned against thee,” you will notice in Symmachus they are not so rendered, but thus: “Heal my soul, even if I have sinned against thee.” And He speaks thus, since He shares our sins. So it is said: “And the Lord hath laid on him our iniquities, and he bears our sins.” [467] Thus the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world, became a curse on our behalf: “Whom, though he knew no sin, God made sin for our sake, giving him as redemption for all, that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” But since being in the likeness of sinful flesh He condemned sin in the flesh, the words quoted are rightly used. [b] And in that He made our sins His own from His love and benevolence towards us, He says these words, adding further on in the same Psalm: “Thou hast protected me because of my innocence,” clearly shewing the impeccability of the Lamb of God. And how can He make our sins His own, and be said to bear our iniquities, except by our being regarded as His body, according to the apostle, who says: “Now ye are the body of Christ, and severally members?” [c] And by the rule that “if one member suffer all the members suffer with it,” so when the many members suffer and sin, He too by the laws of sympathy (since the Word of God was pleased to take the form of a slave and to be knit into the common tabernacle of us all) takes into Himself the labours of the suffering members, and makes our sicknesses His, and suffers all our woes and labours by the laws of love. [d] And the Lamb of God not only did this, but was chastised on our behalf, and suffered a penalty He did not owe, but which we owed because of the multitude of our sins; and so He became the cause of the forgiveness of our sins, because He received death for us, and transferred to Himself the scourging, the insults, and the dishonour, which were due to us, and drew down on Himself the apportioned curse, being made a curse for us. And what is that but the price of our souls? And so the oracle says in our person: “By his stripes we were healed,” and “The Lord delivered him for our sins,” with the result that uniting Himself to us and us to Himself, and appropriating our sufferings, He can say, “I said, Lord, have mercy on me, heal my soul, for I have sinned against thee,” and can cry that they who plot against Him, not men only but invisible dæmons as well, when they see the surpassing power of His Holy Name and title, by means of which He filled the world full of Christians a little after, think that they will be able to extinguish it, if they plot His death. This is what is proved by His saying: “My enemies have spoken evil of me, saying, When shall he die and his name perish?( (emphasis added)[15]

One would be hard pressed to find a clearer and more detailed recounting of the doctrine of PSA in all of the writings of Christendom. Yet this was not written after Anselm of Canterbury it was written 600 years before Anselm’s parents ever met.


Contrary to the claims of postmodern emergent liberals like Tony Jones and Steve Chalke, Penal Substitutionary Atonement is not a man-made explanation of Christ’s death on the cross invented 1,000 years after the fact. This paper as weighed the assertions of men like Jones through a careful exegesis of Isaiah 53 that accords with the best Old Testament scholarship. It has also briefly examined some of the writings of the Church Fathers to see if PSA was unknown prior to Anselm.  What we’ve learned is that PSA is a divine doctrine that was revealed centuries before Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary and that this Biblical doctrine was known and clearly taught in the early church.

End Notes

[1] Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), pp. 182-183

[2] Tony Jones. The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier (Kindle Locations 2825-2831). Kindle Edition.

[3]  Jones, Tony (2012-03-18). A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin (Kindle Locations 364-406). The JoPa Group. Kindle Edition.

[4] Michael L. Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Messianic Prophecy Objections, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003), 49–50.

[5] John Peter Lange, Philip Schaff, G. F. C. Fronmüller, et al., A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: 1 Peter (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008), 47.

[6] J. Alec Motyer, Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 20, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 378.

[7] Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 7 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 508.

[8] Ibid., p. 509

[9] J. Alec Motyer, Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 20, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 382.

[10] Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 7 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 516–520.

[11] Ibid., pp. 522–523

[12] J. Alec Motyer, Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 20, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 383.

[13] Francis X. Glimm, “The Letter of St. Clement of Rome to the Corinthians,” in The Apostolic Fathers, trans. Francis X. Glimm, Joseph M.-F. Marique, and Gerald G. Walsh, vol. 1, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1947), 22–23.

[14] Justin Martyr, “Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, a Jew,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 247.

[15] Eusebius (2015-09-17). The Proof of the Gospel: Being the Demonstratio Evangelica of Eusebius of Cæsarea (Illustrated) (Kindle Locations 7313-7333). Aeterna Press. Kindle Edition.


The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885)

Brown, Michael L., Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Messianic Prophecy Objections, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003)

Chalke , Steve and Mann, Alan, The Lost Message of Jesus, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003)

Eusebius (2015-09-17). The Proof of the Gospel: Being the Demonstratio Evangelica of Eusebius of Cæsarea. Aeterna Press. Kindle Edition.

Glimm , Francis X., “The Letter of St. Clement of Rome to the Corinthians,” in The Apostolic Fathers, trans. Francis X. Glimm, Joseph M.-F. Marique, and Gerald G. Walsh, vol. 1, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1947)

Jones, Tony (2012-03-18). A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin, The JoPa Group. Kindle Edition.

Jones, Tony. The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2008)

Keil , Carl Friedrich and Delitzsch, Franz, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 7 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996)

Motyer , J. Alec, Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 20, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999),

Pieper, Francis, Christian Dogmatics, electronic ed., vol. 1 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1953)

Tappert , Theodore G., ed., The Book of Concord the Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. (Philadelphia: Mühlenberg Press, 1959)