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Satisfaction theory expressed in the Passions

Like the Christus Victor theory, the satisfaction theory has roots deep in the Old Testament, for example, in the sacrifices the people of Israel were directed to perform [cf. Leviticus 17:11] and in the famous “suffering servant” passage in Isaiah 53:5-6. However, the satisfaction theory did not receive doctrinal formulation until rather late. It was the medieval theologian Anselm (1033-1109) who first formulated it in his treatise entitled, Cur Deus Homo? [Why Did God Become Man?]

“Man, said Anselm, has infinitely offended God’s honor by his sin, and thus owes an infinite satisfaction. He has to pay back with interest the honor he has stolen. In fact, his debt keeps mounting … So, in Christ, God Himself becomes man. Because He is man, He is able to satisfy in the same human nature in which the disobedience was first committed … And, because He is wholly divine, the offering of His sinless life has infinite worth. Thus Christ earns surplus merits which may be credited or imputed’ to our account. In this way, God’s honor and justice are satisfied “vicariously” (i.e., by another).” [A Place to Stand, Cornelius Plantinga Jr., pp. 81-82]

The satisfaction theory became the consensus position of the atonement during the Reformation. It became “more firmly entrenched in Protestant theology than in Roman Catholic theology. By Bach’s time it was the touchstone of authentic [Protestant] orthodoxy.” [Pelikan, pg. 94]

It’s interesting to note that Erdmann Neumeister, the influential author of cantata texts in the early 18th century, wrote a treatise entitled Solid Proof that Christ Jesus Has Rendered Satisfaction for Us and Our Sins. In its preface he wrote that this “most precious doctrine of the satisfaction and merit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” is so fundamental that “without knowledge of it and faith in it we cannot be saved.” [quoted in Pelikan, pg. 94]

Given this historical development, it’s unsurprising that the language of the Heidelberg Catechism heavily reflects on the satisfaction theory [cf. Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 37, 40, 43, 44]. Christ’s suffering was “the only atoning sacrifice.” In His suffering, He sustained “the anger of God against the sin of the whole human race.” He had to suffer all the way to death because “only the death of God’s Son could pay for our sins.”

Christus Victor, however, is not neglected. When the Catechism espouses the truth of Christ setting us free and delivering us, it’s using language that resonates with the Christus Victor perspective.

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