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Augustine on Christ’s Curse-Bearing Death

24 March, 2009

brannansmall1I asked my friend and fellow student at Aberdeen, John Ferguson (Sinclair Ferguson‘s son, who incidentally also received his PhD from Aberdeen), a question the other day: Where’s a good place to go to find a patristic discussion of Christ’s death as penal? John’s doing a PhD on the atonement, so he’s the perfect person to ask.

I know in broad terms that the church fathers considered Jesus’ death on our behalf to be his suffering the wrath of God against sin for us, meriting our forgiveness and salvation through his death (and resurrection). But what about specifics? Concrete examples? I thought this would be useful for those of us who come up against this question every now and again, so here’s a juicy quote John sent me from Augustine, along with some brief comments:

In various places Augustine frames the curse in judicial terms using language of penalty, punishment and john fergusonsentence and in the following (rather lengthy!) passage from Against Faustus (14.4-6) he speaks of Christ as suffering that curse:

  • 4. What does Faustus find strange in the curse pronounced on sin, on death, and on human mortality, which Christ had on account of man’s sin, though He Himself was sinless? Christ’s body was derived from Adam, for His mother the Virgin Mary was a child of Adam. But God said in Paradise, “On the day that ye eat, ye shall surely die.” This is the curse which hung on the tree. A man may deny that Christ was cursed who denies that He died. But the man who believes that Christ died, and acknowledges that death is the fruit of sin, and is itself called sin, will understand who it is that is cursed by Moses, when he hears the apostle saying “For our old man is crucified with Him.” (3) The apostle boldly says of Christ, “He was made a curse for us;” for he could also venture to say, “He died for all.” “He died,” and “He was cursed,” are the same. Death is the effect of the curse; and all sin is cursed, whether it means the action which merits punishment, or the punishment which follows. Christ, though guiltless, took our punishment, that He might cancel our guilt, and do away with our punishment.
  • 5. These things are not my conjectures, but are affirmed constantly by the apostle, with an emphasis sufficient to rouse the careless and to silence the gainsayers. “God,” he says, “sent His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, that by sin He might condemn sin in the flesh.” (4) Christ’s flesh was not sinful, because it was not born of Mary by ordinary generation; but because death is the effect of sin, this flesh, in being mortal, had the likeness of sinful flesh. This is called sin in the following words, “that by sin He might condemn sin in the flesh.” Again he says: “He hath made Him to be sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” (1) Why should not Moses call accursed what Paul calls sin? In this prediction the prophet claims a share with the apostle in the reproach of the heretics. For whoever finds fault with the word cursed in the prophet, must find fault with the word sin in the apostle; for curse and sin go together.
  • 6. If we read, “Cursed of God is every one that hangeth on a tree,” the addition of the words “of God” creates no difficulty. For had not God hated sin and our death, He would not have sent His Son to bear and to abolish it. And there is nothing strange in God’s cursing what He hates. For His readiness to give us the immortality which will be had at the coming of Christ, is in proportion to the compassion with which He hated our death when it hung on the cross at the death of Christ. And if Moses curses every one that hangeth on a tree, it is certainly not because he did not foresee that righteous men would be crucified, but rather because He foresaw that heretics would deny the death of the Lord to be real, and would try to disprove the application of this curse to Christ, in order that they might disprove the reality of His death. For if Christ’s death was not real, nothing cursed hung on the cross when He was crucified, for the crucifixion cannot have been real. Moses cries from the distant past to these heretics: Your evasion in denying the reality of the death of Christ is useless. Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree; not this one or that, but absolutely every one. What! the Son of God? Yes, assuredly. This is the very thing you object to, and that you are so anxious to evade. You will not allow that He was cursed for us, because you will not allow that He died for us. Exemption from Adam’s curse implies exemption from his death. But as Christ endured death as man, and for man; so also, Son of God as He was, ever living in His own righteousness, but dying for our offences, He submitted as man, and for man, to bear the curse which accompanies death. And as He died in the flesh which He took in bearing our punishment, so also, while ever blessed in His own righteousness, He was cursed for our offences, in the death which He suffered in bearing our punishment. And these words “every one” are intended to check the ignorant officiousness which would deny the reference of the curse to Christ, and so, because the curse goes along with death, would lead to the denial of the true death of Christ.

In this passage Augustine traces Christ’s suffering to the curse of Gen 3. He uses language of punishment (if there’s a problem with specific terms, elsewhere Augustine speaks of the curse as penal, A Treatise on the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins, and on the Baptism of Infants, 1.13 – he says the second death is ‘penally eternal’). Augustine makes it clear that this curse – traced through the curse on the person that hangs on the tree – is what Christ suffered. So the curse is penal and Christ suffers the curse.

Thanks John! I’ve interviewed John on C or C before — click here to listen.

  1. Nick permalink
    24 March, 2009 3:00 pm

    You should check out my Penal Substitution debate!
    I deal with that Augustine quote in it.

    You state pretty confidently that: “I know in broad terms that the church fathers considered Jesus’ death on our behalf to be his suffering the wrath of God against sin for us”

    But that is false. They don’t consider Jesus as enduring God’s wrath, especially not in the way Reformed theologians have taught it.

    If that’s the best John has to offer, I don’t believe his embracing of and doctoring in Penal Substitution can hold up to the teaching of Scripture or Church Fathers.

  2. 24 March, 2009 3:01 pm

    Sorry for not providing a link to the Penal Substitution debate against a Calvinist:

  3. 28 March, 2009 3:10 pm

    Very interesting piece from Augustine – thanks for sharing this.

  4. Timothy permalink
    2 April, 2009 10:12 am

    Check out also Athanasius, see, for example, the references in Jeffery, Ovey, & Sach, Pierced for Out Transgressions (the relevant chapter of which is a very helpful starting point for exploring this question).

  5. 2 April, 2009 8:22 pm

    Wow. Good stuff JF. You have some big shoes to fill…and you’re off to a great start. Take care of my brother Brannan.

  6. creedorchaos permalink*
    6 April, 2009 12:19 pm

    If you saw ‘Big’ John Ferguson, then you’d know he already fills some pretty large shoes! I’m tall, and I have to crane my neck when I talk to him.

    From what I’ve seen John’s doing some really great work on the atonement.


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