Substitution in the Church Fathers image

Substitution in the Church Fathers

Jesus died as our substitute, argues Fleming Rutledge in her remarkable The Crucifixion. The Bible says so; the fathers said so; the Reformers said so; I say so. This is standard fare in evangelicalism, of course, but given her Episcopalian background, academic context and substitutionophobic audience, it is both interesting and very encouraging that Rutledge is there too (albeit with some differences of emphasis). Yet, as she points out—and as I experienced first-hand on Twitter only minutes before writing this post!—the idea that substitution was invented by Anselm, or even the Reformers, continues to reappear in contemporary discussions like a bad smell. So, in her very kind and Episcopalian way, she goes in for a spot of debunking. It's all over the fathers, she explains:

Athanasius: “Taking a body like our own, because we were all liable to the corruption of death, he surrendered his body to death instead of all and offered it to the Father ... Whence, as I said before, the Word, since it was not possible for him to die, took to himself a body such as could die, that he might offer it as his own in the stead of all.”

Ambrose: “Jesus took flesh so as to abolish the curse of sinful flesh, and was made a curse in our stead to that the curse might be swallowed up in blessing ... He took death, too, upon Himself that the sentence might be carried out, so that He might satisfy the judgment that sinful flesh should be cursed even unto death.”

Cyril of Alexandria: Christ “was stricken because of our transgressions ... this chastisement, which was due to fall on sinners ... descended upon him.”

Melito of Sardis: “The Lord ... suffered for the sake of him who suffered, and was bound for the sake of him who was imprisoned, and was judged for the sake of the condemned, and was buried for the sake of the buried.”

Gregory of Nazianzus: Christ saves us “because He releases us from the power of sin and offers Himself as a ransom in our place to cleanse the whole world.”

John Chrysostom: “Christ has saved us ... by substituting Himself in our place. Though He was righteousness itself, God allowed Him to be condemned as a sinner and to die as one under a curse, transferring to Him not only the death which we owed but our guilt as well.”

Jerome: Christ “endured in our stead the penalty we ought to have suffered for our crimes.”

Rutledge continues through the tradition, by way of Anselm, Thomas, Luther, Calvin and all the way up to Karl Barth (“the Judge judged in our place”), and makes a couple of insightfully acerbic comments in the process:

“It is not an exaggeration to say that in some circles there has been something resembling a campaign of intimidation, so that those who cherish the idea that Jesus offered himself in our place have been made to feel that they are neo-Crusaders, prone to violence, oppressors of women, and enablers of child abuse.”

“A good deal of the opposition to the substitution motif is rooted in an aversion to its fundamental recognition of the rule of Sin and God’s judgment upon it.”

I think she’s probably right.

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