Reclaiming the Medieval Atonement

The Middle Ages remain largely unknown territory to Evangelicals. The typical Protestant narrative of church history is strong indeed, however much it may be hedged with caveats: a pure early church, then a slightly less pure but still orthodox patristic church, then a collapse into darkness, then a revival in the Reformation.. But this is a superficial understanding of medieval history and society, which results in either unfair demonization or, as a counter-reaction, ridiculous romanticization.

This superficial approach to medieval history also results in certain narratives about the history of Christian doctrine going unchallenged. One particularly enduring example is the history of the doctrine of the atonement. The usual account holds that the mainstream medieval Church held to the framework of Christus Victor, in which Christ’s victory over the Devil through the payment of a ransom was the principle work of the crucifixion. Anselm then introduced the idea of satisfaction, influenced by his feudal surroundings, thereby shifting the emphasis to the effect the crucifixion had on our relationship with God. The Protestant theologians then developed penal substitutionary approaches to the atonement that endure to this day. I believe, however, that this narrative is substantially untrue.

What then is the medieval atonement? What did theologians and mainstream churchmen believe about Christ’s death on the cross? How was the doctrine adjusted over the course of the medieval millenium, and why? To answer these questions requires an historical approach more than a theological one. I wrote my forthcoming book Suffering, Not Power: Atonement in the Middle Ages (Lexham Press, June 2022) in an effort to both show what such an historical approach might look like, and to suggest that the core of the atonement throughout the Middle Ages was always a sacrifice of propitiation and expiation made by God to God on the altar of the cross.

I think there are five things we need to do to undertake a rigorous historical investigation into the theology of the atonement in the Middle Ages: 1) Look at a broad spectrum of authors and literary genres; 2) Lay out the contemporary historical context of texts; 3) Study the reception history of texts; 4) Make use of modern scholarship; and 5) Pay close attention to the primary texts in their original languages.

A Broad Spectrum

We will not get a clear image of what the medieval atonement was if we read only Anselm and Aquinas. Not only does this leave the first half of the Middle Ages untouched (and therefore mythical), but it fails to account for their contemporaries and successors. Anselm did not spring fully armed from the broad Neanderthal brow of the Dark Ages, nor did the church freeze the doctrine of Anselm and Aquinas in amber, regardless of the authority their writings eventually came to possess. They were questioned, expanded, developed, and ornamented in ways both good and bad. Two things are therefore necessary: texts and authors from all periods of the Middle Ages need to be looked at, and a wide variety of genres need to be included. An anonymous early medieval sermon addressing a lay audience says something different from a biblical commentary addressing a clerical audience. Each proceeds from a different framework and thus presents the atonement with different emphases.

In Suffering, Not Power, I have chosen to focus my investigation on three very different figures from three different periods: Dante Alighieri (c.1265-1321), Caesarius of Arles (c.470-542), and Haimo of Auxerre (d.c. 865). None of them come immediately to mind when thinking about great medieval theologians (note I have studiously avoided Anselm), yet all were influential and mainstream expositors of medieval Christianity. Dante was a dynamic lay intellectual from early fourteenth-century Italy; Caesarius was a powerful bishop from early sixth-century Gaul; and Haimo was a studious and quiet monk from the ninth-century Carolingian empire. I have used Dante’s political pamphlet De Monarchia and his epic poem the Paradiso, a sermon by Caesarius on the crucifixion, and two commentaries by Haimo on Romans and Hebrews. In addition, I have framed these central texts with briefer examinations of contemporary documents related to them.

Contemporary Historical Context

There are many medieval Europes. A thousand years is a very long time, and Europe a very big place. While there were certainly continuities, it is also undeniably the case that there were radical differences in intellectual outlook and political assumptions between the diverse societies of medieval Europe. So too with theology, and in particular the atonement. How medieval Christians reacted to their predecessors’ theology was affected by how they were educated and what challenges they perceived to be facing the faith. The same goes for the literary genres in which the theology appears: they change as time goes on and different people adapt them either out of innate creativity or their immediate needs. We must therefore tarry with the texts, their authors, and the societies in which they worked

I have provided introductions to the historical context of Dante, Caesarius, and Haimo, as well as to the genres in which they wrote, giving a glimpse of the “tarrying” process. But it is also necessary to do these introductions because of the general ignorance of the medieval period. Few have heard of the ninth-century Carolingian Renaissance, and still fewer of Haimo of Auxerre. The precise nature of Haimo’s biblical commentaries and the import of what they say about the atonement is wrapped in a mist that needs dispelling. The same goes for the centrality of preaching to Caesarius of Arles’ ecclesiastical reforms in southern Gaul under the Ostrogoths, or the cultural manifestations of the popularity of Dante’s Divina Commedia in the early fourteenth century Papal States.

Reception History

Reception history, in brief, is the study of how and why ideas and texts are read, transmitted, and adopted by later readers. It enables us not just to understand why ideas were developed and what they were, but why they remained or became popular in different eras. Who rejected them, and why? Who built on them, and how? Reception history for the Middle Ages also includes the study of manuscripts, one of the most important (and plentiful) artifacts coming down to us from that period. The number of manuscripts of each work, who copied them, when they were copied and where, provides a great deal of information about medieval intellectual culture. Reception history is necessary for the study of the theology of the atonement because through it we may see how popular a particular theology was, how it was criticized or adapted, and what it was responding to.

I have sought to give readers of Suffering, Not Power an idea of what reception history can contribute to the history of atonement theology. Dante’s atonement theory in the De monarchia was fiercely criticized a decade after his death by Guido Vernani, a fierce Anselmian: yet the exact same description of the atonement in the Paradiso meets with cheerful affirmation in four fourteenth-century commentators. Caesarius of Arles created a sermon collection that was immensely popular in the early Middle Ages, and was himself a key figure in the transmission of patristic theology to later generations. Haimo of Auxerre’s commentary on the Pauline epistles became the standard textbook for later generations, with more manuscripts surviving than any other comparable work—its popularity on both sides of the Hussite controversy being an especially notable element of its reception.

Modern Scholarship (Secondary Texts)

The modern research university is a gift; I don’t think we fully recognize just how extraordinary this institution is, and we take for granted the intellectual riches produced by it over the years. This is especially the case for the discipline of medieval history, which has transformed our understanding of this period and brought us closer to truly comprehending it and preserving its riches. There is for medieval history and literature an immense amount of superb secondary literature already in existence, and more being produced each year.

It is vitally important when studying a text, person or period to interact with the stored experience of generations of scholars present in books and journal articles. It will prevent you from making foolish errors, give you a clear idea of the context, and even when disagreeing will cause you to think more carefully about your own perceptions of people and texts. It is an unfortunate tendency of English-speaking scholars (and Evangelical scholars are, alas, no different) to only read secondary literature written in English. Yet French, German and Italian medievalists have produced and are still producing some of the finest studies and most ground-breaking research on the history and literature of the period. To blind yourself to their contribution, or to rely on another scholar’s assessment of their work rather than read it yourself, is to cripple your study.

Since it is directed at non-specialists, Suffering, Not Power does not have the full scholarly apparatus of citations and discussions of secondary literature present in footnotes to a more technical work. Yet I have tried to show the fruit of engagement with previous scholarship by foregrounding the work of the French historian Jean Rivière (1878-1946), whose magisterial treatment of the history of the doctrine of the atonement is both foundational and surprisingly relevant to modern discussions. Rivière is someone whose full work is usually overlooked, despite its importance, and I hope to re-introduce him to readers and show why he is worth engaging.

Primary Texts

Skillful use of a broad range of sources, of historical context, of reception history, and of modern scholarship must nonetheless remain subordinate to the content of the medieval texts themselves. And good scholars of the Middle Ages read these primary texts in the original languages. Not only is this necessary to obtain a precise understanding of the theology of the atonement in the works studied, but many medieval writings have never been translated into English. Latin in particular is important–and not just a limited knowledge that allows one to decode a passage, but a familiarity that permits fluent reading. The vast amount of text to be studied requires such fluency, apart from the ever-present (and unfortunately ever-recurring) danger of mistranslation. For all the importance of Latin, however, other vernacular languages present in medieval texts should not be overlooked. Old French, medieval Italian, Occitan, Anglo-Saxon and others appear in many texts of great interest to historical theologians.

Primary texts are the core of Suffering, Not Power. I have provided extensive extracts from the selected works of Dante, Caesarius, and Haimo as well as shorter ones from the other documents included to complement them. While all have been translated into English, the original languages are included in footnotes. While most of them were written in Latin, a number of medieval Italian texts are also used. Another important part of using primary texts well is knowing how to find and access them, using the best editions available. I have tried to use modern critical editions whenever possible. Sometimes there was no critical edition, so I have had to fall back upon older printed editions, invariably reprinted in the Patrologia Latina, that massive collection of patristic and medieval texts assembled in the nineteenth century that remains a critical resource even today.


I hope to have done two things in Suffering, Not Power: 1) Demonstrate how to go about a rigorous historical study of the medieval atonement; and 2) Make the case that the root understanding of the atonement was a sacrifice of propitiation and expiation made by God to God. In other words, a theocentric rather than demonocentric atonement. If this book helps spur a more in-depth and responsible approach to the history of medieval Christianity within Evangelical circles, I will count it a success. If it also gives reassurance that orthodox theology is no novelty, and that Christians in past eras read the same Scriptures we do and drew broadly similar conclusions from it, I will count it an even greater success.

This article is a summary and preview of Benjamin Wheaton’s forthcoming book Suffering, Not Power: Atonement in the Middle Ages (Lexham Press, June 2022). It can be pre-ordered here.

Benjamin Wheaton earned his PhD in Medieval Studies from the University of Toronto. His research focuses in general on theology and society in Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, and in particular on the Christianity of Merovingian Francia. He lives in Toronto.


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