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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Faustus Socinus on Penal Substitution

Faustus Socinus (1539-1604), an Italian theologian, is one of the most important figures of the 16th century Reformation. He took the rejection of Roman Catholic doctrines much further than Martin Luther, John Calvin or any of the other Reformers. He rejected the deity of Christ, the Trinity, and the Satisfaction theories of the atonement. While he is sometimes called a "rationalist" by his opponents, he did not reject the divine origin of the Bible but merely believed that its teachings could not contradict sound reason (See Alan W. Gomes, "Some Observations On The Theological Method Of Faustus Socinus," Westminster Theological Journal, 70 [2008]: 49-71).

Socinus wrote De Jesu Christo Servatore (The Savior Jesus Christ) in 1574 and it was published in 1598. In this work he laid out a number of arguments against the Satisfaction Theories of the Atonement including the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the Atonement. His treatment of the subject is so thorough that some have said that every argument against the PST has its origin in the writings of Socinus. Unfortunately, his writings have not been readily available in English translation. So much of his teaching for the English reader has to be gleaned from secondary sources, usually written by those who opposed his views. Recently, Alan W. Gomes, did an English translation of De Jesu Christo Servatore as a Ph.D dissertation and he graciously sent me a copy (Faustus Socinus’ De Jesu Christo Servatore, Part III: Historical Introduction, Translation and Critical Notes. Pasadena: Fuller Theological Seminary, June 1990). My quotations from Socinus will be from Gomes' translation.

In Part III of De Jesu Christo Servatore, Socinus
"presents arguments and evidence that disprove the idea that Christ, by his death, made satisfaction for our sins to God or to his justice." In this eleven-chapter section, Socinus tries to show the logical and moral—as well as scriptural—impossibilities involved in the theory of satisfaction. He begins (chap. 1) by arguing that God could forgive sins without satisfaction; such an action would not be contrary to his nature or to justice. Next, he attempts to establish that God "was in fact willing" to do so (chap. 2). In chaps. 3-6, Socinus seeks to prove that even if one grants the necessity of satisfaction, Christ could not in any way offer the kind of satisfaction required to satisfy the demands of the punitive justice postulated by the orthodox theory. He could not satisfy justice either through his passive obedience (chap. 4) or through his active obedience (chap. 5). Following this, Socinus assails an argument based on the notion that death is the punishment for sin (chaps. 7-9). According to this argument, since Christ had no sins of his own, he must have died in punishment for our sins. Socinus considers all possible variants of this argument, and rejects all of them as absurd. He then (chap. 10) considers whether it would be moral—or even possible—for God to impute our sins to Christ. Finally, he finishes part three (chap. 11) by arguing that the orthodox theory results in moral laxity, since people regard themselves as already righteous. (Alan W. Gomes, "De Jesu Christo Servatore: Faustus Socinus On The Satisfaction Of Christ," Westminster Theological Journal, 55 [1993], 213-14).

I intend to carefully lay out Socinus' arguments against the PST in a series of posts, beginning today with chapter 1 of Part III of De Jesu Christo Servatore.

1. Man can forgive without exacting a penalty, why can't God?

Now, if a human being can be just in exacting the highest degree of revenge for wrongs suffered but yet may choose not to exact any, we not only say he has the right to forgo revenge but we even praise him to the skies for doing so! If we allow people to do this, we dare not deprive God of that right and power. We shudder at the thought of committing such an abominable sacrilege (pp. 3-4).

2. Punitive justice and mercy are acts of God's will not components of his nature.

[T]he sort of justice, which you claim must be completely satisfied, is not an essential property of God; it is merely an effect of his will. The reason we say that God exercises “justice” when he punishes sinners is so that we might call his action by a worthy name. Likewise, when he spares someone who is guilty, the Scriptures say that he exercises “mercy.” Concerning this punitive justice, God may either satisfy it or not as he sees fit. Consider this additional argument. The fact that God forgives shows that this punitive justice is not one of his essential attributes. If it were, he could never forgive anyone even of the least infraction. This is because God does not and cannot commit any act that is contrary to his essential properties (p.4).

3. If punitive justice and mercy were part of God's nature, then they would be infinite as are his other attributes.

First of all, consider justice. Those who wrongly take the word literally do not see that they are really saying that the severity or wrath of God is infinite, which contradicts the plain scriptural evidence. This evidence, as we have already said, proclaims that God is slow to anger. The kind of divine justice that has no limit is not the kind about which we have been speaking (p. 5).

Consider mercy (that is, the forgiveness of sins). How dare my opponents assert that his mercy is infinite? The passages cited above, as well as the entire Scriptures, establish that God does not always exercise mercy but not infrequently employs vengeance and severity (p. 6).

My opponents make such a terrible mistake because they are convinced that vengeance and mercy are essential to God. They do not perceive that vengeance and mercy are only different effects of the divine will and not actual properties. It is hard to imagine how they rationally can convince themselves of it when, as we have said, vengeance and mercy cancel each other out (p. 7).

Thus, in his first chapter, Socinus establishes the point that God does not need to exact a penalty for every sin in order to forgive it. This of course undercuts the foundation of the PST which states that God must punish sin in order to retain his holiness.


  1. When I read the Racovian Catechism, which is a formal statement of Socinian theology, I became a unitarian Christian almost overnight. I was impressed with that document's ability to take orthodoxy apart with so little trouble. Same with the 19th century America unitarians, such as Andrews Norton and William Ellery Channing. Their critiques of the prevailing theology were devastating -- in some cases, unanswerable

  2. I can't wait to see what you say about Abelard's theory, which Randal Rauser and Philip L. Quinn think is sound.

    Quinn's article is "Abelard on Atonement: 'Nothing Unintelligible, Arbitrary, Illogical, or Immoral About it.'"

  3. John,

    I have read that article by Quinn. I will do something on Abelard eventually but the fact is that his theory is not widely held in evangelicalism because it really doesn't deal with the sin problem. According to Abelard, the atonement is not God-focused but man-focused. IOW, it tells man how much God loves him and should result in man being willing to sacrifice all for God like Jesus did. It says nothing about removing the sin that man has already committed. In addition, to me its absurd on its face. Why did God choose such a violent and horrific way to tell us that he loves us?

  4. SteveJ,

    That catechism sounds interesting-gonna look that up.

  5. About Abelard, yes, agreed. But when you write about it I want to link to what you say for Rauser to deal with.

    It's like believers will grasp at any straw to save their faith from refutation, just as a hungry man will eat anything when starving, just like Jason Long wrote about in TCD.

    That's a point I want to make Rauser see since he so easily dismissed Jason's chapter.