Did John Calvin Invent Penal Substitution?

Because I was raised in a tradition that boasted its anti-Calvinist stance, in four years of Bible College and three years of seminary in a variety of institutions, it did not occur to me that the doctrine of atonement taught in all of these institutions was that of John Calvin. As one of my teaching colleagues put it, “I was not aware that there was more than one theory of atonement.” Calvin’s doctrine of penal substitution is the understanding of the atonement most evangelicals were raised on, whether they consider themselves Calvinist or not, and for many this doctrine is so central to their faith that, like prominent pastor John McArthur, they would claim that to relinquish this doctrine is to abandon Christianity. But the reality is that the doctrine is not the teaching of the New Testament nor of the early Church but the conscious invention of John Calvin.

That is, in Book 2 Section 16 of the Institutes, we can pinpoint where Calvin acknowledges his departure from the Apostles’ Creed, the Church’s accepted standard of biblical understanding, and proposes the innovation he claims sums up the gospel. There are elements Calvin borrows and builds upon, such as the Augustinian notion of original sin (based on a mistranslation in the Latin Vulgate – see here), the notion of nominalism (that God in his essence is disconnected from his earthly representation), Anselm’s legal abstractions, and notions of substitution, but Calvin consciously innovates a new reading of that most obscure of passages, I Peter 3:18-22.

 In a sense the biblical reference, taken up in the Apostles Creed and understood to be his descent to the place of the dead, is only the occasion for Calvin to suggest that the true work of Christ pertains, not to death or the grave, but to the place of future punishment (Gehenna or the Lake of Fire). He acknowledges that the Creed refers to the place of the dead to which Christ descended between the crucifixion and his resurrection. He is suggesting that the gradual appearance of the doctrine (he realizes it is not a common teaching in the early church) in the Creed must have significance: “There are some again who think that the article contains nothing new, but is merely a repetition in different words of what was previously said respecting burial, the word Hell (Infernus) being often used in Scripture for sepulcher.”[1] But the question is, why would this peculiar passage with its obscure interpretation find its way into the Creed. He is attaching supreme significance to its gradual appearance and its obscurity.

The argument from incomprehension may not strike modern ears as convincing, but Augustine had made sin inaccessible to explanation with his doctrine of inherited guilt (due to his misunderstanding of Ro 5). The acronym TULIP (summing up Calvin’s theology), beginning with Augustinian total depravity, is logically interconnected but built upon this openly embraced incomprehension. Sin is a mystery in its manner of transmission and it creates its own darkness which admits only enough rationality to know one is a sinner but not enough understanding to do anything about it. Thus, TULIP is an explanation of why humans can do nothing and God does everything. Philosophical nominalism is the atmosphere in which this innovation occurs, and it had become commonplace and expected that the things of God are beyond comprehension.  So, Calvin will reference and depend on, throughout his argument, “incomprehensible vengeance” which implies an incomprehensible payment.

Calvin fully acknowledges he is innovating on the slippage between hell as the place of the dead or the place of eternal torment (in Latin it is descendit ad inferos). The Creed is clearly referencing hades or the grave (as Christ descended to the place of the dead after his crucifixion), but he is going to provide a logical/legal argument for this innovation which appeals to incomprehension. Calvin’s first point is that the very obscurity of I Peter, as it is gradually taken up and explained in the Apostles Creed, speaks to a significance hidden beneath the obscurity. If it were simply a matter of saying Jesus descended into the place of the dead why “illustrate it by clothing it in obscure phraseology?” And here he means the phraseology of the Creed, as I Peter 3:18-22 does not directly reference either hades or hell but speaks of the prison in which the generation of Noah was contained. (I Peter 4:6 says he preached to the dead, not the damned, and it does not reference any place.) Whatever Peter’s argument might be referencing, his primary point is to argue that “baptism now saves you” like the Ark saved the eight from among the generation of Noah. The passage is already obscure and then the Creed, in trying to clear up the obscurity, confounds it, which is Calvin’s point.

The confounded obscurity must contain a significance (an inspired obscurity?), and so Calvin will now clear up what is hidden in the clouds of Peter and the Creed. “When two expressions having the same meaning are placed together, the latter ought to be explanatory of the former. But what kind of explanation would it be to say, the expression, ‘Christ was buried,’ means, that ‘he descended into hell’?”[2] Calvin is presuming a divine pointer in the Creed’s explanation equating the burial of Christ with descent into eternal death.

 It can’t be that the Creed is saying the same thing twice (burial and hell) and though we may not be able to immediately discern the meaning, “the improbability that a superfluous tautology of this description should have crept into this compendium, in which the principal articles of faith are set down summarily in the fewest possible number of words” is itself an argument that something profound is taking place in this obscurity. If hell here, just means the place of the dead, then it is a “superfluous tautology.” He presumes that hell must be taken to convey a different meaning than the grave and that in this obscurity resides a meaning he will now reveal.

In reference to Peter’s Pentecost sermon Calvin notes, “He does not mention death simply, but says that the Son of God endured the pains produced by the curse and wrath of God, the source of death.”[3] What it actually says is that “godless men put him to death” and there is no reference to the wrath of God. Nonetheless, he defends the notion that part of this curse involved a descent into hell, or the place where infernal punishments are carried out:

 Here we must not omit the descent to hell, which was of no little importance to the accomplishment of redemption. For although it is apparent from the writings of the ancient Fathers, that the clause which now stands in the Creed was not formerly so much used in the churches, still, in giving a summary of doctrine, a place must be assigned to it, as containing a matter of great importance which ought not by any means to be disregarded.[4]

He does not simply fuse Gehenna (the place of future punishment) and Hades (the place of the dead), however, he argues that eternal punishment should also be fused with the chastisement of Isaiah 53 and then both of these passages should be moved to the context of the trial and punishment of Christ.

The incomprehensibility of the doctrine, in Calvin’s own description, pertains to how Christ could bear eternal punishment in his suffering and death. He concludes that death alone cannot explain what it was that Christ bore on the Cross, so it must be the case that it was eternal suffering in hell or the place of future punishment which he actually bore.

Nothing had been done if Christ had only endured corporeal death. In order to interpose between us and God’s anger, and satisfy his righteous judgment, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance. Whence also it was necessary that he should engage, as it were, at close quarters with the powers of hell and the horrors of eternal death.[5]

Calvin acknowledges that this creates a certain disorder in the sequence of events, with Christ suffering eternal punishment in hell prior to his own death (and one might point out, prior to the inauguration of this category) but Calvin doubles down.

It is frivolous and ridiculous to object that in this way the order is perverted, it being absurd that an event which preceded burial should be placed after it. But after explaining what Christ endured in the sight of man, the Creed appropriately adds the invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he endured before God, to teach us that not only was the body of Christ given up as the price of redemption, but that there was a greater and more excellent price—that he bore in his soul the tortures of condemned and ruined man.[6]

Calvin here subverts the received understanding of the Apostles’ Creed. Up until the sixteenth century, Christians had always confessed Christ’s descent into hades or hell as his victory over the grave. Calvin sets aside the conclusion of the Creed and has Christ descending into eternal torment (Gehenna) while he was still alive. “It was requisite,” he says, “that he should feel the severity of the Divine vengeance, in order to appease the wrath of God . . . necessary for him to contend with the powers of hell and the horror of eternal death.” According to Calvin, even while Christ suffered visibly before men, he also experienced “the invisible and incomprehensible vengeance which he suffered from the hand of God.” In other words, the actual death of Christ comes to mean very little in this system, as it is eternal spiritual suffering which Christ undergoes in his soul which is the reality behind death. (At this point Calvin defensively notes that he makes no scriptural appeal, but even his appeal to the ancient theologian Hilary, is dependent on the ambiguity of the term hell. “The Son of God is in hell, but man is brought back to heaven.”)

One wonders if this spiritual sort of suffering required the incarnation at all – if payment could be made through a pure soulish suffering. But Calvin presumes that it could not have been an ordinary death that Christ feared, as this would reduce him to an effeminate sort of figure.

How shamefully effeminate would it have been (as I have observed) to be so excruciated by the fear of an ordinary death as to sweat drops of blood, and not even be revived by the presence of angels? What? Does not that prayer, thrice repeated, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” (Mt. 26:39), a prayer dictated by incredible bitterness of soul, show that Christ had a fiercer and more arduous struggle than with ordinary death?[7]  

He effectively reduces the object of the fear of death to fear of eternal punishment and makes the real event of the Cross an inward spiritual event. “Thus, by engaging with the power of the devil, the fear of death, and the pains of hell, he gained the victory, and achieved a triumph, so that we now fear not in death those things which our Prince has destroyed.”[8] Though in the popular imagination hell is the place of the devil, the biblical depiction is that death and hades are destroyed in the Lake of Fire. The equation of death (hades), Gehenna (which came to be called hell) and the devil is an odd alignment and one that never occurs in conjunction with the Cross in Scripture. 

In the popular imagination, largely due to Calvin and his various disciples, such as Jonathan Edwards, the idea developed that God punished Jesus the equivalent of an eternity in hell and the primary rescue that he effected was no longer equated with the actual historical events surrounding the Cross but with categories of future and eternal punishment, inward or soulish suffering, and divine wrath. As one of my former professors states it (in spite of his purported Anti-Calvinism), “He bore the equivalent of an eternity of hell for us all. His suffering was much greater than the physical torture of crucifixion. Since God’s wrath is spent on Christ, God is now free to forgive sins without violating His own justice.”

Though we may have all become used to the conjunction of the Cross and eternal punishment, there is nowhere in Scripture that the Cross addresses the category of Gehenna or eternal punishment. Calvin’s choice of, what may be the most obscure passage in the New Testament, and then his examination of the confounding of this obscurity in the Apostles Creed, and then transporting this fusion of the place of the dead with the place of eternal torment to the Cross is, by his own account, an innovation (meaning it is not the received understanding of the New Testament).

Penal substitution subsumes salvation into a problem with God’s anger, as the righteous anger brought on by transgression of God’s law (Calvin depicts the entire transaction as law based) is only satiated by Christ’s soulish suffering. It is an infinite anger, provoked by an infinite offence, satisfied by an infinite payment which, relates to the finite hardly at all. It is an exchange exclusive to the persons of the Trinity, pitting the Father against the Son, and fails to address the finite human circumstance. The exchange between Christ and God is complete in and of itself. Infinite satisfaction for an infinite offence has been made, but it completely bypasses the lived reality of human experience.

The conclusion: John Calvin, by tying the place of the dead to eternal punishment and then linking this with the punishment inflicted on Christ on the Cross so as to achieve forgiveness, invented the doctrine of penal substitution.

[1] Calvin, Institutes 2.16. 8.

[2] Calvin, 2.16.8.

[3] Calvin, 2. 16. 11.

[4] Calvin, 2.16.8.

[5] Calvin, 2:16,10

[6] Calvin, 2.16.10.

[7] Calvin, 2. 16.11.

[8] Calvin, 2. 16.11.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.