"Substitutionary sacrifice, however, is neither Catholic nor catholic tradition. It was enshrined in popular piety by a tradition of preachers, long before Mel Gibson, who discovered how easy it was to preach and to use in a manipulative way."
In contrast to this erroneous assertion, The Catholic Encyclopedia, in the article on "Sacrifice" (See Part III, Christian Sacrifice), contains the following statement:
(1) The Dogma of the Sacrifice of the Cross
The universal conviction of Christianity was expressed by the Synod of Ephesus (431), when it declared that the Incarnate Logos "offered Himself to God the Father for us for an odour of sweetness" (in Denzinger-Bannwart, "Enchiridion," n. 122), a dogma explicitly confirmed by the Council of Trent (Sess. XXII. cap. i-ii; can. ii-iv). The dogma is indeed nothing else than a clear echo of Holy Writ and tradition. If all the sacrifices of the Old Testament, and especially the bloody sacrifice, were so many types of the bloody sacrifice of the Cross (Cf. Heb., viii-x), and if the idea of vicarious atonement was present in the Mosaic bloody sacrifices, it follows immediately that the death on the Cross, as the antitype, must possess the character of a vicarious sacrifice of atonement. A striking confirmation of this reasoning is found in the pericope of Isaias concerning God's "just servant," wherein three truths are clearly expressed:
(a) the substitution of the innocent Messias for guilty mankind;
(b) the deliverance of the guilty from sin and punishment through the suffering of the Messias;
(c) the manner of this suffering and satisfaction through the bloody death on the Cross (cf. Is., liii, 4 sqq.).
Further, The Catholic Encyclopedia's article on "Atonement" contains this statement:
The Catholic doctrine on this subject [Atonement] is set forth in the sixth Session of the Council of Trent, chapter ii. Having shown the insufficiency of Nature, and of Mosaic Law the Council continues:
"Whence it came to pass, that the Heavenly Father, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort (II Cor., 1, 3), when that blessed fullness of the time was come (Gal., iv, 4) sent unto men Jesus Christ, His own Son who had been, both before the Law and during the time of the Law, to many of the holy fathers announced and promised, that He might both redeem the Jews, who were under the Law and that the Gentiles who followed not after justice might attain to justice and that all men might receive the adoption of sons. Him God had proposed as a propitiator, through faith in His blood (Rom., iii, 25), for our sins, and not for our sins only, but also for those of the whole world (I John ii, 2)."
More than twelve centuries before this, the same dogma was proclaimed in the words of the Nicene Creed, "who for us men and for our salvation, came down, took flesh, was made man; and suffered."
Thus, according to this statement, the words of the Creed "for us and for our salvation" are implicitly substitutionary.
It is noteworthy that this understanding is entirely consistent with that expressed by evangelical author John Stott who writes:
When we review so much Old Testament material (the shedding and sprinkling of blood, the sin offering, the Passover, the meaning of 'sin-bearing', the scapegoat and Isaiah 53), and consider its New Testament application to the death of Christ, we are obliged to conclude that the cross was a substitutionary sacrifice. Christ died for us. Christ died instead of us.
Regarding satisfaction and substitution, Stott writes:
We strongly reject, therefore, every explanation of the death of Christ which does not have at its centre the principle of 'satisfaction through substitution', indeed divine self-satisfaction through divine self-substitution.
The cross was not a commercial bargain with the devil, let alone one which tricked and trapped him; nor an exact equivalent, a *quid pro quo* to satisfy a code of honour or technical point of law; nor a compulsory submission by God to some moral authority above him from which he could not otherwise escape; nor a punishment of a meek Christ by a harsh and punitive Father; nor a procurement of salvation by a loving Christ from a mean and reluctant Father; nor an action of the Father which bypassed Christ as Mediator.
Instead, the righteous, loving Father humbled himself to become in and through his only Son flesh, sin and a curse for us, in order to redeem us without compromising his own character. The theological words 'satisfaction' and 'substitution' need to be carefully defined and safeguarded, but they cannot in any circumstances be given
--From "The Cross of Christ" (Leicester and Downers Grove: IVP, 1986), p. 159.
Thus, between faithful Catholics and Evangelicals there is substantial agreement, because the doctrine of the Atonement is one on which all orthodox Christians have agreed from antiquity.
Dissent from the idea of substitutionary atonement has come from the Socinians, an anti-Trinitarian, heretical sect, who rejected the notion of vicarious suffering and satisfaction as inconsistent with God's justice and mercy. In their eyes the work of Christ consisted simply in His teaching by word and example.
The Socinians held that:
- that there was no Trinity,
- that Christ was not consubstantial with the Father and Holy Spirit,
- that He was not conceived of the Holy Spirit, but begotten by St. Joseph, and
- that His Death and Passion were not undergone to bring about our redemption
Views similar to those of the Socinians have been seen also in the work of liberal theologians such as Horace Bushnell (1802-1876), Albrect Ritschl (1822–1889), and their modern-day descendents. Indeed, among liberals there is, at best, a professed agnosticism regarding the effect of Christ's atonement. At worst, there exists an outright denial of the biblical witness to the precious truth that "Christ died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit..." (I Peter 3:18). (I'll say more about the Atonement in a future post.)