The Satisfaction Theory

Tuesday I presented the Christus Victor view of the cross. The following view is sometimes called Penal Substitution.
St. Anselm of Canterbury first articulated the satisfaction view in his Cur Deus Homo?, as a modification to the ransom theory that was postulated at the time. The then-current ransom view of the atonement held that Jesus' death paid a ransom to Satan, allowing God to rescue those under Satan's bondage. For Anselm, this solution was inadequate. Why should the Son of God have to become a human to pay a ransom? Why should God owe anything at all to Satan?

Instead, Anselm suggested that we (sinful humans) owe God a debt of honor: "This is the debt which man and angel owe to God, and no one who pays this debt commits sin; but every one who does not pay it sins. This is justice, or uprightness of will, which makes a being just or upright in heart, that is, in will; and this is the sole and complete debt of honor which we owe to God, and which God requires of us." This debt creates essentially an imbalance in the moral universe; it could not be satisfied by God's simply ignoring it. In Anselm's view, the only possible way of repaying the debt was for a being of infinite greatness, acting as a man on behalf of men, to repay the debt of honor owed to God. Therefore, when Jesus died, he did not pay a debt to Satan but to God, His Father. In light of this view, the "ransom" that Jesus referred to, in the Gospels, would be a sacrifice and a debt paid only to God the Father, in behalf of "many".

Anselm did not state specifically whether Jesus' payment of debt was for all of mankind as a group or for individual people, but his language leans in the former direction. Thomas Aquinas' later developments specifically attribute the scope of the atonement to be universal in nature.
Following are a few counterpoints that Derek Flood presents on his blog:
  • When we strip the human experience of the language of passion, then we are left with a soulless theology. Love cannot be dissected into a formula without trivializing it. It can only be articulated in the language of the poet.
  • Satisfaction-Doctrine takes the love out of the cross, and turns it into a calculated legal transaction.
  • There is no conflict between God's justice and mercy. Justice is about mercy. Justice comes through mercy and always has.
  • Satisfaction-Doctrine, although it prides itself on facing the gravity of sin, in fact treats sin superficially without dealing with the roots.
  • Love from God is not based on who we are but on who God is. We are justified by God's love, not by law. Likewise sanctification comes through living in God's love.
As I said before, I am drawn more to the Christus Victor view of the cross.

Which view attracts you more? What aspects of that theory appeal the most?


  1. Satisfaction-Doctrine, although it prides itself on facing the gravity of sin, in fact treats sin superficially without dealing with the roots.

    I like what Mr. Flood said there and also the statement about the calculated legal transaction.

    1. Derek say this about that sort of superficiality:

      "while the Satisfaction-Doctrine attempts to take sin seriously, in the end it fails to take it seriously enough because it deals with sin through a legal system instead of though grace. Because of its legal paradigm it only deals superficially with sin and can do nothing to really reform it inwardly. Punishment does not reform, it hardens. Compassion is what reforms a heart. God loves us while we are his enemies and it is this radical love which breaks the hard shell of our calloused hearts"


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