Did St. Gregory the Great Teach Penal Substitution?

In my reading of St. Gregory the Great’s Moralia in Iob I recently came across a passage that is famous for (supposedly) anticipating the Reformation era penal substitution theory of atonement:

It is to be explained, however, how God can be just, how he disposes all things wisely, if he condemns the one who does not deserve punishment. Our Redeemer surely should not be punished on his own account, because he did not do anything to bring guilt upon himself. But if he did not accept a death he did not deserve, he would never free us from the death we deserve. The Father is just; he punishes the just one. All his arrangements are just; therefore, he justifies every thing because he condemns the sinless one for the sake of sinners. All the chosen will rise to reach the summit of justice, because he who is above all things accepted the condemnation wrought by our injustice. (3.XIV.27)

He begins with a question that was to dominate later debate “how God can be just… if he condemns the one who does not deserve punishment.” But it is notable that his answer does not give an account of how atonement functions, but simply appeals to the general meaning of divine just: that He makes us just. As it stands Gregory’s reflection could be reconciled with any number of theories of atonement.

11 thoughts on “Did St. Gregory the Great Teach Penal Substitution?

  1. The passage is more specific than that. It says that God punished Jesus, and that we are saved because Christ “accepted the condemnation wrought by our injustice.” Which other theories of atonement make use of the idea of punishment in this way, without explaining away such language as metaphorical?


  2. I think you need a better argument than you’ve made here to take “punishment” and “accepted the condemnation wrought by our injustice” metaphorically. If he is concerned with the question of how a just God could punish one who does not deserve punishment, why not simply say “Oh but he doesn’t. It’s a metaphor.” All done. No problem.


  3. In one of the main volumes of secondary literature in English about Gregory (I believe it was “Consul of God”), a footnote mentions that Gregory was sadly innocent of the nuances of Augustine’s thought, which influenced him greatly. The price of this is on display here: Gregory imagines God and Jesus in a way that potentially puts them at odds, and puts Jesus at the mercy of the Father. Odd, that. Totally incompatible with any developed Trinitarian theology. If the Father and Jesus can be at odds, if the agency of one can be against the agent of the other, then they are not one ουσια, period. Full stop.


        • The references I have seen for St Paul’s verse omit … 2 Samuel 18, ‘Absalom rode on a mule. The mule went under the thick boughs of a great terebinth tree, and his head caught in the terebinth; so he was left hanging between heaven and earth. And the mule which was under him went on. 10 Now a certain man saw it and told Joab, and said, “I just saw Absalom hanging in a terebinth tree!” […] Then Joab said, “I cannot linger with you.” And he took three spears in his hand and thrust them through Absalom’s heart, while he was still alive in the midst of the terebinth tree. 15 And ten young men who bore Joab’s armor surrounded Absalom, and struck and killed him.’; I believe it very likely that the Apostle had this in mind …. I would add that I find very puzzling St Gregory’s idea that ‘he justifies every thing because he condemns the sinless one’ (i.e., He brings justice by being unjust). I would associate this with a taste of the ancients for shocking rhetoric, for the exploitation of paradoxes, etc., sometimes for their sonorous sake.


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