The doctrine of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement of Christ began to come under heavy criticism by Liberal theologians beginning in the late 19th century, only to be more vehemently opposed by Post-modern Progressives who often seek to villainize the doctrine, caricaturizing it with terms such as “cosmic child abuse” or “Jesus saving us from an angry Father.”
Penal Substitutionary Atonement simply means that Christ bore in His own person the just penalty due to us for Adam’s original sin and for all subsequent sins we would commit as our substitute on the cross. I consider the scriptural support for this doctrine in my blog: “Did Christ’s sacrifice on the cross change God’s attitude towards us?” and also in my book: “The Ways of God (As seen through the eyes of a Conservative Restorationist)”
However, in this blog my objective is to examine the historicity of the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. The claim commonly made by the opponents of penal substitution is that the doctrine is the recent invention of the Reformer John Calvin’s legal mind. If this claim could be substantiated, it would certainly bring the validity of the doctrine into doubt, since we would at least expect to find indications that the early Post-Apostolic Fathers believed in it, being that they were so close in time to the original Apostles and their teachings.
While it is true that the Early Fathers had not yet formulated any of the various theories of the atonement we have today, all of the essential elements of penal substitution are present throughout their writings. The atonement to them was more broad than penal substitution, just as it is for the proponents of penal substitution today. Nevertheless, it was central to their understanding of the atonement.
Some opponents of penal substitution, ignoring the clear references to it made by the Fathers which we will be examining shortly, only cite other statements made by them which are more in line with our Christus Victor view of the atonement, as if that excluded penal substitution. Others cite the Father’s references to restorative justice, ignoring their many statements which clearly indicate that they also believed that Christ satisfied God’s legal justice as our substitute. The Early Fathers taught that Christ was victor over Satan and death, but they also taught that Christ bore the just penalty for our sins committed against a holy and just God. They also clearly taught restorative justice, but not at the expense of legal justice.
The following are numerous quotes from the Early Church Fathers, all of which contain one or more essential elements of a penal substitutionary atonement. For a more extensive treatment of the subject I would recommend “Pierced for Our Transgressions” coauthored by Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey and Andrew Sach.
Clement of Rome (96 A.D.)
“Because of the love he felt for us, Jesus Christ our Lord gave his blood for us by the will of God, his body for our bodies, and his soul for our souls.” 
In the Scriptures we see that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins before God (Heb 9:22; Lev 17:11). In the light of that, Clement here presents Jesus as shedding His own blood in our stead, just as was prefigured in the expiatorial lamb of the Old Testament sacrificial system. Here we see Christ suffering the penalty of death for us (penal substitution), thereby making atonement (Heb. kaphar, expiation) for our sins before God.
As a side note, our English word “atonement” is an unfortunate rendering of the Hebrew word kaphar, which literally means “to cover,” but in the context of the sacrificial system means “to remove sin and guilt by sacrifice,” and is akin to propitiation which speaks of “a sacrifice which is satisfactory payment for an offense.” On the other hand, “atonement” is a term which was coined it the 16th century from our English words: “at one + ment” which is more descriptive of the reconciliation brought about by the atoning sacrifice rather than the kaphar or expiatory sacrifice itself.
The error which has resulted from replacing expiation with the word “atonement” is that it has given place for some to divorce the blood sacrifice from it as though there could be forgiveness of sins and reconciliation without the need for the shedding of blood (Heb 9:22; Matt 26:28). In other languages it is more difficult to separate atonement from the sacrifice which makes reconciliation possible (ej: Latin, expiationem; Spanish, expiación; French, propitiation; Italian purgamento). These languages all correctly lay the emphasis upon the sacrifice itself, without which atonement or reconciliation would not be possible. Therefore, when we use our English word atonement, as in Penal Substitutionary Atonement, we must be careful not to think of reconciliation without the prior satisfaction of the justice of God through Christ’s shed blood.
Epistle of Barnabas (70-135 A.D.)
“For to this end their Lord endured to deliver up His flesh to corruption, that we might be sanctified through the remission of sins, which is effected by His blood of sprinkling. For it was written concerning Him… ‘He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities: with His stripes we are healed. He was brought as a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb which is dumb before its shearer.” 
Here we see Christ presented as the substitutionary Lamb of God shedding His blood for our transgressions and iniquities, quoting from Isaiah 53 where it also says of His expiatorial sacrifice:
“it pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin… 11 He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities. (Isa 53:10,11)
Why is the shedding of blood necessary in order for our sins to be remitted or forgiven before God? Because from the beginning – even before sin entered the world through Adam, God said that the wages of sin was death and the soul that sins shall die. When God instituted the blood sacrifices, He explained why the substitutionary shedding of blood was necessary for the remission of sins. He said: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement (expiation) for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement (expiation) for the soul.” (Lev 17:11).
Since the life is in the blood and God from the beginning said that the wages of sin was death, His justice and truth require the lifeblood of the sinner. The blood of animals was given to expiate the sins of the people. However, it was not possible that the blood of animals should take away their sins. Only the divine Lamb of God who would give His own lifeblood once and for all could actually take away the sins of the world (Jn 1:29). The Lamb of God, slain from the foundation of the world according to the eternal plan of the triune God for the ages, fulfilled that which was prefigured in the Old Testament blood sacrifices (Rev 13:8).
There are some who would deny that the blood of Christ had any salvific value before God. They would say that the sacrificial system, which prefigures Christ’s once and for all sacrifice of Himself for all, was nothing more than a depraved invention of Moses who mistakenly thought that deities required blood for their appeasement. Yet, throughout the New Testament we see that it was established by God Himself, and found its fulfillment in Christ who shed His blood for the remission of sin, presenting it upon the heavenly mercy seat (Matt 26:28; Heb 9:12-15,23-28; 10:1-10). Those who would deny this are guilty of counting the blood of the covenant as a common thing and insulting the Spirit of grace (Heb 10:29).
Epistle to Diognetus (2nd century)
“When our wickedness had reached its height… He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the Holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous… Oh sweet exchange! Oh unsearchable operation! Oh benefits surpassing all expectation that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors.” 
Here we see Christ giving Himself as a ransom for us, taking our transgressions upon Himself. He speaks of this substitution as a sweet exchange. This is a direct allusion to 2Corinthians 5:21 which says: “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
There are those who argue that the forensic, judicial or legal view of the atonement originated with Calvin. However, whenever we see reference to “transgressors” being “justified” in a “judgment,” whether in the Scriptures or in the Early Fathers, it is clearly referring to a legal or judicial transaction. A transgression by definition requires a law to transgress (Rom 4:15; 5:13). Transgressions, in turn, require judgment and its resulting “condemnation” which is another forensic term. That is why “justification,” or the verdict of “no condemnation” could only come through the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ which satisfied the justice of God, thereby making it possible for God to remain just while at the same time justifying sinners (Rom 3:23-26).
Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D.)
“For the whole human race will be found to be under a curse. For it is written in the law of Moses, ‘Cursed is everyone that continues not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them’… If then, the Father of all wished His Christ for the whole human family to take upon Him the curses of all, knowing that after He had been crucified and was dead He would raise Him up, why do you argue about Him who submitted to suffer these things according to the Father’s will as if He were accursed, and do not rather bewail yourselves? For although His Father caused Him to suffer these things in behalf of the human family, yet you did not commit the deed as in obedience to the will of god.” 
Justin Martyr, making reference to Galatians 3:10, says that the whole human race was under the curse of the Law. The Law of God demands perfection. James said: “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.” (James 2:10). The curse is part of God’s Law rather than it being some curse from another source such as the devil.
Because of our disobedience we were all under God’s curse. This was by divine intent, not that man should be eternally cursed, but that we would come to see our need of God’s grace and mercy. Paul said: “For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all.” (Rom 11:32) In the appointed time Jesus came and took our curse upon Himself as our substitute. He suffered the penalty or curse due to us for our sins as our substitute – a clear statement of Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement.
Irenaeus (130-202 A.D.)
“the Mediator between God and men; propitiating indeed for us the Father against whom we had sinned, and cancelling our disobedience by his own obedience; conferring also upon us the gift of communion with, and subjection to, our Maker.” 
“For if no one can forgive sins but God alone, while the Lord remitted them and healed men [people], it is plain that He was Himself the Word of God made the Son of man, receiving from the Father the power of remission of sins; since He was man, and since He was God, in order that since as man He suffered for us, so as God he might have compassion on us, and forgive us our debts, in which we were made debtors to God our Creator.” 
Here we see that, in addition to the fact that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins, it is against God Himself whom we have sinned and therefore it is from Him that we must receive forgiveness. Additionally we see that, in order for God to show compassion on us and forgive us, it was necessary that the Son of God should take to Himself the sins of humanity in order to suffer as our substitute, thereby cancelling our disobedience by His own obedience. Penal substitution is clearly stated here by Irenaeus.
Eusebius of Caesarea (275-339 A.D.)
“Thus the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world became a curse on our behalf… And the Lamb of God not only did this but was chastised on our behalf, and suffered a penalty He did not owe, but which we owed because of the multitude of our sins; and so He became the cause of the forgiveness of our sins, because He received death for us and transferred to Himself the scourging, the insults and the dishonor which were due to us, and drew down upon Himself the appointed curse, being made a curse for us.” 
A clearer statement summarizing the Penal Substitutionary Atonement of Christ could hardly be found, even in the writings of John Calvin. Christ became a curse on our behalf, suffering the just penalty for our sins, thereby enabling God to forgive us of our sins.
Eusebius of Emesa (300-360 A.D.)
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed… His wounds became our saviors.” 
Here Eusebius quotes from 1Peter 2:24 which says, “who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness — by whose stripes you were healed.” Peter here, in turn, draws from Isaiah 53, which clearly portrays Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement for our sins.
Hilary of Poitiers (300-368 A.D.)
“the sentence of a curse was pronounced on all who broke the Law… It was from this curse that our Lord Jesus Christ redeemed us, when, as the Apostle says: ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us, for it is written: cursed is everyone that hangs upon a tree. Thus He offered Himself to the death of the accursed that He might break the curse of the Law, offering Himself voluntarily a victim to God the Father, in order that by means of a voluntary victim the curse which attended the discontinuance of the regular victim might be removed.” 
Here again we see Christ redeeming us from the legal sentence of God’s curse for having broken His Law. Christ is presented as having offered Himself up to God the Father and not to the devil as some versions of Christus Victor would have us believe.
Athanasius (300-373 A.D.)
“He surrendered His body to death in place of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men.” 
“It was by surrendering to death the body which He had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from every stain, that He forthwith abolished death for His human brethren by the offering of the equivalent. For naturally, since the Word of God was above all, when He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled in death all that was required.” 
“Formerly, the world, as guilty, was under judgment from the Law, but now the Word has taken on Himself the judgment, and having suffered in the body for all, has bestowed salvation to all.” 
“For, as when John says, ‘The Word was made flesh we do not conceive the whole Word Himself to be flesh, but to have put on flesh and become man, and on hearing, ‘ Christ hath become a curse for us,’ and ‘He hath made Him sin for us who knew no sin,’ we do not simply conceive this, that whole Christ has become curse and sin, but that He has taken on Him the curse which lay against us (as the Apostle has said, ‘Has redeemed us from the curse,’ and ‘has carried,’ as Isaiah has said, ‘our sins,’ and as Peter has written, ‘has borne them in the body on the wood.’” 
Contrary to the distorted depictions of the opponents of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement where God is presented as an angry Father murdering His Son after using Him as a whipping boy, we see that Christ took on Himself our judgment, suffering in our place out of sheer love for us. The wrath of God against sin was shared equally by all members of the trinity and was not merely the wrath of the Father. And it was out of the love of the triune God for us that the offering for sin was made. It was God in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself and not a loving Savior saving us from an angry vengeful Father, as it is often blasphemously depicted by the opponents of Penal Substitutionary Atonement.
Basil the Great (330-379 A.D.)
“By the blood of Christ, through faith, we have been cleansed from all sin.” 
This statement is based upon passages such as Matthew 26:28 which says, “this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins,” and Hebrews 9:22: “without shedding of blood there is no remission.” If God could simply forgive without first satisfying His justice, then Christ’s death would have been in vain. And to say that His blood has no power to remit our sins is tantamount to counting the blood of Christ as a common thing (Heb 10:29; 2Pet 2:1).
Gregory of Nazianzus (330-390 A.D.)
“for my sake He was called a curse, who destroyed my curse and sin – who taketh away the sin of the world. And became a new Adam to take the place of the old. Just so, He makes my disobedience His own as Head of the whole body.” 
Here again, we clearly see Christ suffering the curse in our place for our disobedience as our representative Head.
Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.)
“Cursed is everyone that hangs on a tree… 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…He submitted as man and for man, to bear the curse which accomplishes 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.” 
“For then that blood, since it was His who had no sin at all, was poured out for the remission of our sins.” 
“For even the Lord was subject to death, but not on account of sin: He took upon Him our punishment, and so looseth our guilt.” 
“Now, as men were lying under this wrath by reason of their original sin, and as this original sin was the more heavy and deadly in proportion to the number and magnitude of the actual sins which were added to it, there was need for a Mediator, that is, for a reconciler, who, by the offering of one sacrifice, of which all the sacrifices of the law and the prophets were types, should take away this wrath. Wherefore the apostle says: "For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by His life." Now when God is said to be angry, we do not attribute to Him such a disturbed feeling as exists in the mind of an angry man; but we call His just displeasure against sin by the name "anger," a word transferred by analogy from human emotions. But our being reconciled to God through a Mediator, and receiving the Holy Spirit, so that we who were enemies are made sons ("For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God"): this is the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” 
Augustine presents man as being under the wrath of God because of their sins. Being in this state and under the curse of the Law, Christ bore our curse by hanging on a tree and being punished in our place for the remission of our sins. Without discounting other theories such as the Christus Victor and Moral Example, this language is the language of Penal Substitutionary Atonement alone. And without denying the fact that God’s justice is ultimately restorative and not purely punitive, these quotes from the Fathers refer to Christ as having born our penal judgment. Only after having been justified through Christ’s atoning sacrifice can restoration take place.
Cyril of Alexandria (378-444 A.D.)
“The Only-begotten was made man, bore a body by nature at enmity with death, and became flesh, so that, enduring the death which was hanging over us as the result of our sin, He might abolish sin; and further, that He might put an end to the accusations of Satan, inasmuch as we have paid in Christ Himself the penalties for the charges of sin against us: ‘For he bore our sins, and was wounded because of us,’ according to the voice of the prophet. Or are we not healed by His wounds?” 
Cyril says that Christ bore the penalty for our sins, abolishing them. That amounts to penal substitution.
Gregory the Great (540-604 A.D.)
“When then the first man was moved by Satan from the Lord, then the Lord was moved against the second Man… who being made incarnate, had no sins of His own, and yet being without offense took upon Himself the punishment of the carnal.” 
The Lord is said to have been moved against Christ the second Man while He Himself received the punishment due to us.
Severus of Antioch (512 A.D.)
“The one who offered Himself for our sins had no sin of His own. Instead He bore our transgressions in Himself and was made a sacrifice for them. This principal is set out in the Law.” 
Here we see the legal forensic nature of the atonement of Christ clearly stated. He bore in Himself our transgressions as was prescribed in the Law.
Oecumenius (990 A.D.)
“So great was His passion that however often human beings may sin, that one act of suffering is sufficient to take away all our transgressions.” 
Other quotes from the Early Fathers could be cited, but these should be sufficient to demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt that the Fathers uniformly believed in the penal substitutionary death of Christ. While they also believed in elements of other theories, the fact that Christ suffered the penalty for our sins, thereby making it possible for God to be just and at the same time justify sinners and forgive sins, was always central to their beliefs. Therefore, the allegation that it was an invention of John Calvin’s legal mind is unfounded.
 Clement, First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians 49, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers 1:18
 Epistle of Barnabas 5, Ante-Nicene Fathers 1:139
 Mathetes, The Epistle to Diognetus 9, Ante-Nicene Fathers 1:28
 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 95, Ante Nicene Fathers 1:247
 Irenaeus, against heresies 5.17.1, in the Ante-Nicene Fathers 1 (ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979 ). see also 4.8.2 where in performing the offices of the high priest Christ “propitiates” God for people.
 Ibid., 5.17.3
 Eusebius, Demonstratio Evangélica 10.1 trans. W.J. Ferrar,
 Hillary, Homilies on the Psalms 13, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 2, ed. Philip Schaff, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976) 9:246
 Athanasius, De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, trans, and ed., A Religious of C.C.M.V., Intro. By C.C. Lewis (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), 34
 Ibid., 35
 Athanasius, “Four Discourses Against the Arians,” The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 2 4:341
 Ibid., 2 4:374
 Basil, On Baptism, in ACCS NT XI, 96
 Gregory, The Fourth Theological Oration 5, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 2 7:311
 Augustine, Reply to Faustus the Manichaean 6, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 1 4:209
 Augustine, “On the Trinity” 15, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 1 3:177
 Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 1, Volume 8, §10
Cyril of Alexandria (378-444 A.D.)
 Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 1, Volume 3, Chapter 33
 Cyril, De atoratione et cultu in spiritu et verita te iii, 100-102, in JP. Migne (ed.), Patrologiae Cursus Completus: Series Graeca, vol. 68 (Paris, 1857) 293,296
 Gregory, Morals of the Book of Job, in Library of Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (London: Oxford, 1844) 1:148
 Severus of Antioch, Catena, in ACCS NT XI, 96
 Oecumenius, Commentary on 1Peter, in ACCS NT XI. 107