Back in the 19th century, in London’s Central Criminal Court (also known as the Old Bailey), a witness might be asked the question, “What kind of night was it?” And it was considered neither odd nor impertinent for the response to come back, “It was a dark night.” [e.g., Henry Buckler, Criminal Central Court. Minutes of Evidence, Taken in Shorthand, Vol. 8, (London, UK: George Herbert, Cheapside, 1838), 202.] This kind of exchange probably also occurred many times in other courts, in other countries, and in other languages. The way our sprawling urban nights today are so brightly lit as to render most of the stars and the entire Milky Way galaxy invisible, it’s easy to forget that once upon a time, when weather was not a factor, there were only two kinds of nights: bright, clear nights that were lit up by the moon, and dark nights that were not.
It’s also easy to forget that, considering the span of recorded history, those days were really not that long ago. Thomas Edison invented the first commercially practical incandescent light in 1879, but it would be decades before all the major cities of North America and Europe would have electrical outlets to plug them into. The generation that grew up prior to urban electrification may be all but gone, but the one that grew up prior to the U.S. Rural Electrification Act of 1936 only started hitting retirement age in the last decade or so. Many of those people remember very dark nights, indeed.
But there is a darkness that no one alive today remembers. There was a time in European history when the light of ancient learning and culture from the glory days of Greece and Rome seemed all but extinguished. It seemed to be, as William Manchester (1922-2004) put it in the title of his bestselling book, A World Lit Only By Fire. At least, that’s the way it has seemed to many who have looked back on it. Depending on which historian you read, however, actually identifying that period can be like trying to nail Jello to a wall. For a while virtually the entire medieval period—the Middle Ages, which may be roughly defined as the years ad 500 to 1500—was referred to as “the Dark Ages.” But the closer scholars looked at it, the more difficult it became to maintain the idea that that entire millennium was one of unmitigated darkness, and so they began to revise the timeline by moving the darkness’s ending date earlier and earlier. (For an early account of the shift in scholarly consensus, see Theodor Ernst Mommsen, “Petrarch’s Conception of the ‘Dark Ages,'” Speculum, Vol. 17, No. 2 [Apr., 1942], pp. 226-242.) All this backpedaling leads to a very pertinent question.
How Dark Was It?
It was so dark, as someone once said, that I had to light a second match to see if my first match was lit! (Followed, of course, by the standard short drum roll and choked cymbal crash.) According to Manchester, medieval people had only one problem: they were so—well, medieval!
As medieval men, crippled by ten centuries of immobility, they viewed the world through distorted prisms peculiar to their age.
In all that time nothing of real consequence had either improved or declined. Except for the introduction of waterwheels in the 800s and windmills in the late 1100s, there had been no inventions of significance. No startling new ideas had appeared, no new territories outside Europe had been explored. Everything was as it had been for as long as the oldest European could remember.
[William Manchester, A World Lit Only By Fire, (Boston, New York, and London: Little, Brown and Company, 1993), 26-27.]
The problem here, which is obvious to specialists in medieval history, is that, perhaps because Manchester was straying from his own specialty of 20th century history when he wrote this, his caricature of the Middle Ages here is a load of rubbish. The same goes for his vindictive hatchet-job on the Protestant Reformation later in the book.
To medieval historian C. Warren Hollister (1930-1997), Manchester’s account would be but another dreary example of the “Rip Van Winkle theory” of the Middle Ages, in which “the medieval millennium was an obstacle, a sleeping wasteland between past glories and present hopes.”
There is an old-fashioned notion, long discredited yet still popularly accepted, that medieval Europe was a disastrous time. … The Middle Ages, stretching across a thousand years from the fifth century to the fifteenth, are still viewed by some as a long stupid detour in the march of human progress—a millennium of poverty, superstition, and gloom that divided the old golden age of the Roman Empire from the new golden age of the Italian Renaissance. During these years, as a famous historian said in 1860, human consciousness “lay dreaming or half awake.” Another (well-scrubbed) nineteenth century writer condemned the Middle Ages as “a thousand years without a bath.” To others they were simply the “Dark Ages,” recently described (facetiously) as the “one enormous hiccup in human progress.” At length, sometime in the fifteenth century, the darkness is supposed to have lifted. Europeans awakened, bathed, and began thinking again. After a long medieval intermission, the Grand March of Human Progress resumed.
[C. Warren Hollister and Judith Bennett, Medieval Europe: A Short History, 10th ed., (Boston, MA, USA: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2005), 1.]
Another historian of the Middle Ages, Edward Grant, who further specializes in the history of science recently took Manchester to task.
It is difficult to imagine how Manchester managed to miss all the weighty and abundant evidence that contradict his claim that, apart from the introduction of waterwheels and windmills, nothing of real consequence had occurred in the Middle Ages.
[Edward Grant, God and Reason in the Middle Ages, (Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 348.]
Because it has been so misused, some historians shy completely away from the term “Dark Ages.” Its hard to find it outside the bibliographies in the five volumes of Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, (Chicago, IL, USA: University of Chicago Press, 1973–1990). Ironically, however, the roots of this unrealistically negative assessment of the medieval period can be traced back to the Middle Ages itself, in the writings of Petrarch (1304-1374), one of the early figures of the Renaissance (roughly 1300-1600) who is credited with inventing the concept of the “Dark Ages,” when he wrote,
Among the many subjects that interested me, I dwelt especially upon antiquity, for our own age has always repelled me, so that, had it not been for the love of those dear to me, I should have preferred to have been born in any other period than our own.
[“Francesco Petrarca to Posterity,” in J.H. Robinson and H.W. Rolfe, eds., Petrarch, the First Modern Scholar and Man of Letters, (New York, NY, USA and London, UK: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1899), 64.]
Eventually, however, the pendulum swung the other way. As advancing technology increased our cultural distance from the times of King Arthur, Charlemagne, and Richard the Lionheart, fawning nostalgia for the mystique of the Middle Ages replaced stereotypes of backwardness in some circles.
The romantics of the early nineteenth century replaced this negative view of the Middle Ages with the shining image of a Gothic culture steeped in idealism, spirituality, heroism, and adoration of women.
But the romantics lacked the scholarship, the learning and instruments of research, to go beyond the most superficial kind of inquiry into the medieval past. Both the Renaissance denigration of the Middle Ages and the romantic acclamation of medieval culture were almost exclusively based on mere ideological projections. The romantics liked the Middle Ages because they thought they saw in that world the beliefs and behavior that contrasted vividly with the rationalism of the Enlightenment, the mechanism of the Industrial Revolution, and the centralizing bureaucracy of the national state, which they found repulsive and conducive to dehumanization.
[Norman F. Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages, (New York, NY, USA: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991), 29.]
Such romanticism remains highly marketable in our day, as seen in the popularity of the recent films based on The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis were, after all, medievalists from Oxford and Cambridge universities who tended to look back on those times with a particular sense of yearning.
The truth, as is so often the case, apparently lies somewhere in the middle—the Middle Ages, that is. It turns out that Petrarch was born not too long after a mini-renaissance that ended about a century before the Renaissance began in Florence, Italy during his own century.
From about 1050 until 1250 European society experienced a regeneration of intellectual and cultural life which set it apart from the rest of the Middle Ages. In practically every arena of human endeavor—artistic, literary, architectural, musical, scholarly, scientific, and theological—there was a new self confidence and vigorous pursuit of hitherto neglected resources. This period has come to be known as the twelfth-century Renaissance, implying a rebirth of ancient culture.
[Carl A. Volz, The Medieval Church: From the Dawn of the Middle Ages to the Eve of the Reformation, (Nashville, TN, USA: Abingdon Press, 1997), 118.]
But for whatever reason, Petrarch was apparently not impressed with this prior revival in learning, which was immediately put into the service of the church. What did impress him was when he visited the ancient ruins in Rome, and when he read the eloquent Latin of Cicero (106-43 bc). The Italian Renaissance was ignited by a desire to recover the achievements of pagan culture, and from the beginning it was conscious of its vulnerability to the charge of preferring that culture over Christ. In Petrarch’s Secretum, he seems to personify the qualms of his own conscience in the person of St. Augustine, who accuses him of precisely that, while he defends his own piety. It is intriguing that Petrarch picked Augustine of Hippo (ad 354-430), who has been called “…almost the last great classical man—and very nearly the first medieval man” (Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, [New York, NY, USA: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1995], 39). Augustine can be thought of as a kind of bridge between two ages. Petrarch did not want to burn that bridge, although he might have set fire to his own age and left it to burn given half a chance.
The Dim Ages?
But if there were periods of recovery, regeneration, and renaissance during the Middle Ages, this would seem to imply that something needed to be recovered, and therefore had been lost, even if only for a while and even if the sons of Petrarch might have exaggerated the extent of the loss. As we look back on the wave after wave of barbarian hordes who trampled over the Christianized Roman culture in the Western Europe of the fifth century until the last Roman emperor, the teenage Romulus Augustulus, finally handed over his crown to the Germanic Odoacer (who was a follower of the heretic Arius) in ad 476, it is difficult to avoid seeing clouds of darkness sweeping over that land. True, many of these barbarians actually admired the culture they had conquered, in much the same way the Romans had admired the Greeks before them, and for the next thousand years they fancied themselves as having extended it, until Voltaire (1664-1778) finally joked that the Holy Roman Empire was “ni saint, ni romain, ni empire” (“neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire”). But I sometimes wonder if watching a bunch of fifth century Goths trying on Roman tunics was like watching NFL linebackers try on ballet costumes.
It wasn’t simply that many of the new rulers of Rome couldn’t read Latin; it was that they couldn’t read! The lights may not have gone out completely, but the dimmer switch was definitely turned down quite a bit, at least for the first half of the Middle Ages, which is alternately referred to as the “Low Middle Ages” or the “Early Middle Ages.” Because of this, the concept of the Dark Ages, as well as the name, has been hard to shake. The popular historian Will Durant (1885-1981) used the term and marked its boundaries from ad 566 to 1095 (The Age of Faith, in The Story of Civilization series, Vo. 4, [New York, NY, USA: MJF Books, 1950; 1997], 422ff.). Church historian Kenneth Scott Latourette (1884-1968) bookended it from 500 to 950 (A History of Christianity, Vol. 1 [San Francisco, CA, USA: HarperCollins, 1975], 552), while the third chapter of A History of Christian Missions, (New York, NY, USA and Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books,1964; 1984), by missions historian Stephen Neill (1900-1984), is titled “The Dark Age, 500-1000.”The beginning of the Middle Ages was not only a bad time for Roman culture, it was a bad time for the church. For the first time since the apostles began spreading the Gospel, Christianity started losing both territory and churches. Until the Frankish king, Clovis I (c. 466-511), was baptized into Trinitarian Christianity near the end of the fifth century, the new Germanic rulers of Western Europe were dominated by Arians. The efforts to fight this Arianism were ultimately successful, but also helped plant seeds for the later division between Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy. In 589, the Third Council of Toledo, Spain voted to chant the Nicene-Chalcedonian creed during worship to help eradicate the Arian heresy in that now-Visigothic (i.e., Western Gothic) kingdom.
As for the wording, the inclusion of the Filoque clause in the third section of the creed devoted to the Holy Spirit constituted a major change. At the councils of Constantinople I (381) and Chalcedon (451), which had both devoted time to this wording as an aspect of Trinitarian definition, it was agreed that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. The addition “and from the Son” (in Latin, et ex Filio or Filoque) represented accepted belief but was not actually included in the East. …there should have been no dispute. … Nonetheless, the first Catholic Visigothic king can hardly have anticipated the extraordinary furore this clause would provoke.
[Judith Herrin, The Formation of Christendom, (Princeton, NJ, USA: Princeton University Press, 1987), 230-231.]
The furor would rage on for centuries as part of a laundry list of disputes between East and West that resulted in the Great Schism of 1054.
Around the time of Clovis’s conversion, the pagan Angles, Saxons, Frisians and Jutes from northern Europe (often condensed to “Anglo-Saxons”) began conquering formerly-Roman Britain, pushing the desperate Christian churches of the Britons westward into Wales and Cornwall, until a prolonged but successful effort to evangelize them began around the year 600. But this was small potatoes compared to what was about to get under way in what used to be merely a remote, desolate corner of the Roman Empire populated by backward nomads.
Beginning in ad 632, armies of former bedouins swept out of the Arabian peninsula, carrying with them the freshly-minted religion of Muhammed (c. 570-632), and conquering just about everything from the Indus River in the east to the Atlantic ocean in the west. Thousands of churches soon disappeared from the map in North Africa and the Middle East. If the Muslim hordes had not been stopped in central France at the Battle of Tours on October 10, 732, we might all be wearing turbans and burqas today. As it was, the Muslims kept nearly all of the Iberian Peninsula (which is now Spain and Portugal), and turned it into an Islamic caliphate. The Reconquista of Spain did not end until Abu Abdullah surrendered the Kingdom of Granada to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella on January 2, 1492, almost exactly seven months before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Little wonder Latourette calls this period the “Great Recession” of Christianity! From all outward appearances, by the year 950, “the outlook for Christianity was grim” (Latourette, ibid., 276).
Picking Up the Pieces
Sometimes it’s impossible to make a long story short. I remember when Reader’s Digest tried it with the Bible back in 1982. It wasn’t pretty. (Does anyone today still own one of those things?) And yet here I have attempted to make a very long story as short as I can in order to ask one question: Why is it that no systematic statement of the doctrine of Christ’s atonement was made during the first one thousand years of church history?The atonement is the subject I have actually been dealing with up to this point, as you can see from my previous articles, and we have followed the history of this doctrine up to the beginning of the Middle Ages. But once we come to that point, it is as though we come to the edge of a cliff. The cliff is located approximately at the beginning of the sixth century. We look down from the cliff to see a canyon that stretches some 500 years ahead of us until our eyes come to another cliff in the middle of the 11th century. In the canyon, it is not simply that theological progress in understanding the doctrine of the atonement stops. All theological progress stops.
As we look backwards, over our shoulders, we see the plateau on which we are standing. It represents roughly the past 300 years, beginning around the time of Constantine (c. 272-337) and the Council of Nicaea (325). In many ways, these have been good years. The new freedom from persecution has given the church the opportunity to deal with attacks from heretics who would destroy the biblical doctrines of God, Christ, and the grace by which we are saved. (I’m thinking primarily of Arius and Pelagius here, but there were others.)It hadn’t all been fun and games, and sometimes our side seemed to be losing, but for the most part we made progress under the protective arm of a strong empire. But now that luxury is about to disintegrate and vanish.
As we peer over the cliff, we see the fall of that empire, the ravages of war, the threat of infidel armies from without and the challenge of pagan peoples within. It was nice to have the past three centuries to hammer out a good portion of our theology and nail it down, but now we have to concentrate on consolidating our gains, preserving what we have, and weathering the storm.
But it’s not as though no rays of sunshine ever poked through gloom during the first half of the Middle Ages. As entire congregations of Christians were devoured by advancing Muslim armies in North Africa, pagans by the thousands continued to pour into the churches of Europe. These new believers were very conscious of the continuing threats to the church’s existence. They knew they had a lot to learn before they could pick up the theological discussions of the late classical period and advance them to their logical conclusions. It was a time to be conservative rather than creative.
The span of time between Gregory the Great and the beginning of the scholastic era (from 600 to 1050) was not distinguished for developments in the field of theology. Nevertheless, one thing about this period was remarkable: the enthusiasm with which the newly Christianized peoples devoted themselves to the cultural resources made available by Christianity and antiquity. The era of the Carolignian Empire was the golden age in this respect. This era also included a number of important theologians, such as Alcuin (d. 804), Rabanus Maurus (d. 856) Radbertus (d. 865), Ratramnus (d. after 868), and Hincmar of Reims (d. 882). But their activity did not take the form of a new orientation of theological thought; they rather collected and reproduced the older tradition.
[Bengt Hägglund, History of Theology, Gene J. Lund, trans., (St. Louis, MO, USA: Concordia Publishing House, 1968), 151.]
Much the way a country housewife would seal up preserves and store them in her cupboard for a long winter, those Christians who could read and write labored to preserve the documents of Christianity. Higher learning took refuge in monasteries where manuscripts of the Bible, the church fathers, and classical Greek and Roman authors (although the Greek language itself was soon lost in the West) were copied and recopied.
If only they had been read as carefully as they had been copied.
Blaming It on the System (or Lack Thereof)
In an episode from the the 1980s and ’90s TV sitcom Cheers, Dr. Frasier Crane attempts to elevate the intellectual profiles and broaden the cultural horizons of his fellow bar patrons by reading Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities to them in its entirety.
He opens the book and begins, of course, with, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.””Wait, whoa, whoa, whoa,” interrupts barstool potato Norm Peterson. “Which was it?”Undeterred, he plows on. Eventually, however, he feels compelled, out of frustration, to spice up the story a bit by introducing such new things into it as Apache attack helicopters in order to keep his friends’ attention. When, at the end, Frazier substitutes “It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done…”with something along the lines of, “It is a far, far better butt-kicking I give, than I have ever butt-kicked…” we sort of get the impression that the heart and soul of Dickens’ original story has been replaced with something more in keeping with the spirit of the times, even if it earned the adulation of Frazier’s drinking companions.Something like this began happening to the doctrine of the atonement before the Middle Ages even started. We have already shown in “The Lamb that Was Slain” and “Losing Sight of the Lamb” that the heart and soul of Christ’s atonement in the teaching of the apostles and the early church was that He died as our substitute to pay the penalty for our sins. Many have tried to brush off this fact or minimize its significance by pointing out the obvious question we just repeated here and have, to some extent, already answered by saying that there was no systematic statement of Christ’s penal substitution during the church’s first millennium in part because the church was not forced to make one and it already had its hands full with other issues.
But it should also be pointed out that to say that the lack of a systematic statement, such as a creedal affirmation, casts doubt on penal substitution is like saying that because no one made a globe representing the Earth prior to Columbus therefore no one believed that the world was round. No self-respecting Greek philosopher since the time of Pythagoras in the 6th century bc questioned the fact that he lived on big sphere, and when the Indian astronomer and mathematician Aryabhata (ad 476-550) calculated the Earth’s circumference he was off by less than two tenths of a percent (about 38 miles or 62 kilometers)! Pointing out that penal substitution is not enshrined in one of the early creeds merely begs the question of whether or not it was nevertheless believed by the orthodox, universal church, which it demonstrably was.
But such an argument also misconstrues what is meant by the word “systematic” here. The lack of a systematic presentation does not mean the lack of a doctrine. And if there had been no doctrine of the atonement in the apostolic church, there would have been nothing to systematize, which would render every attempt to do so automatically suspect.
To systematize theology means to present it in a coherent, comprehensive manner which shows how each aspect of theology is related to the other aspects.
The method employed by the systematic theologian is to seek to organize thematically the various dimensions and emphases of Scripture and in particular to show their inter-relatedness as they communicate the word of God.
[T.W.J. Morrow, “Systematic Theology,” in Sinclair B. Ferguson, David F. Wright, and J.I. Packer, New Dictionary of Theology, (Downers Grove, IL, USA and Leicester, UK: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 671.]
The need to ensure that “the interrelatedness of its parts is evidenced” is also included in the defintion supplied by Bruce A. Demarest (“Systematic Theology,” in Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., [Grand Rapids, MI, USA and Carlisle, UK: Baker Books and Paternoster Press, 2002], 1162). But one need not go to the trouble of systematizing a doctrine in either a creed, a confession, or a work of theology, in order to teach it. And, as we shall see later, it is far from true to say that penal substitution has never been formulated in a church confession. Penal substitution had been the central understanding of the Gospel in the early church, and it would be again during the Protestant Reformation.
The Lamb Gets Lost in the Plotline
Over time, however, a different idea gradually gained more attention. It started out as merely the sketch of a storyline in the writings of the second century church father Irenaeus, who died in the year 202. In his book, Adversus Hæreses, or Against Heresies, “Irenaeus clearly portrays Christ’s redemptive actions as focused on the devil and his evil dominion over humanity. The devil was ‘envious of God’s workmanship, and took in hand to render this [workmanship] at enmity with God.’” (Christopher A. Hall, Learning Theology With the Church Fathers, [Downers Grove, IL, USA: InterVarsity Press, 2002], 128, citing Against Heresies 4.40.3. Bracketed text is in the original.) In portraying the fall of mankind as Satan’s way of luring us away from God and death of Christ as God’s way of buying back His own property, Irenaeus gave birth to the “ransom” view of the atonement (Hall, ibid., 129; cf. Against Heresies 5.1.1).
In a world still alert to the presence of spiritual forces, including the activities of demons, the premise that Irenaeus laid out was attention-getting, but it would be up to others to develop it into something that could eventually be adapted as a screenplay. In his Commentary on the Apostle’s Creed, Rufinus of Aquileia (c. 345-411) wrote:
The purpose of the Incarnation…was that the divine virtue of the Son of God might be as it were a hook hidden beneath the form of human flesh…to lure on the prince of this age to a contest; that the Son might offer him his flesh as a bait that then the divinity which lay beneath might catch him and hold him fast with its hook. … Then, as a fish when it seizes a baited hook not only fails to drag off the bait but is itself dragged out of the water to serve as food for others; so he that had the power of death seized the body of Jesus in death, unaware of the hook of divinity concealed therein. Having swallowed it, he was caught straightway; the bars of hell were burst, and he was, as it were, drawn up from the pit, to become food for others. …
[Henry Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd ed., (London and Oxford, UK, and New York, NY, USA: Oxford University Press, 1967), 34-35. Also in the Ancient Christian Writers series, J.N.D. Kelly, ed., Vol. 20, (New York, NY and Ramsey, NJ, USA: Newman Press and Paulist Press, 1954).]
If you think this outline bears a strong resemblance to the ending of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, you’re not alone (cf. Charles Taliaferro and Rachel Traughber, “The Atonement in Narnia,” in Gregory Bassham and Jerry L. Walls, The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy: The Lion, the Witch, and the Worldview, [Chicago, IL, USA: Open Court Publishing Co., 2005], 245ff.).
“Have you forgotten the Deep Magic?” asked the Witch.”Let us say I have forgotten it,” answered Aslan gravely. “Tell us of this Deep Magic.””Tell you?” said the Witch, her voice growing suddenly shriller. “Tell you what is written on that very Table of Stone which stands beside us? Tell you what is written in letters deep as a spear is long on the fire-stones on the Secret Hill? Tell you what is engraved on the scepter of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea? You at least know the Magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning. You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill.”[C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, (New York, NY, USA: Scholastic, Inc., reprinted 1994), 141-142.]
The “Table of Stone” sounds much like a fictionalization of the stone tablets of Moses on Mount Sinai, but those tablets contained no such message. “The wages of sin is death,” wrote Paul (Rom. 6:23), but Satan is not the appointed executioner. Nor can the meaning of Christ’s atonement be quite summarized the way Aslan summarized his own resurrection.
“But what does it all mean?” asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.”It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward. And now—””Oh yes. Now?” said Lucy, jumping up and clapping her hands.”Oh, children,” said the Lion, “I feel my strength coming back to me. Oh, children, catch me if you can!”[Ibid., 163.]
Aslan was the bait, and the White Witch had taken it. He was the cheese in the mousetrap, and now she was caught. And while the hook here is the moral power of Aslan’s innocence and willingness to be sacrificed instead of the divine power of Christ’s nature, perhaps Rufinus of Aquileia would realize that this is simply a bit of necessary dramatic license in the adaptation of a story that has already taken plenty of it.
Many down through the years have tried to find support for this interpretation of the atonement in Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, when he wrote:
But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
[1 Corinthians 2:7-8, ESV]
But this is not likely, and is in any event sharply contested. The problem with it is that the context supports the view that Paul was referring to the earthly rulers who actually ordered the crucifixion of Christ, and the notion that “the rulers of this age” could have meant Satan and his demons is a later Gnostic interpretation (cf. Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Commentary on the New Testament, [Grand Rapids, MI, USA: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987], 103-104).
We can be thankful that, to a fairly good extent, Lewis preserves the penal substitutionary aspect of the atonement here. Edmund had committed a crime. He needed to pay for that crime. Aslan made the payment in his place. This is very good biblical allegory, indeed. But the fact remains that during those dark days of the Low Middle Ages, from about the sixth to the eleventh centuries when Christian theologians were more concerned about preserving traditions than investigating them, the ransom story got much more attention than the penal substitution doctrine.
And why not? It was a story! It has all the requisite elements of character development, good versus evil, betrayal, and suspense—and besides, the bad guy gets it in the end! Dramas always sell better than documentaries, and theaters are always better attended than lectures. So it should come as no surprise that this ransom view came to have a profound influence on the medieval Christian mind, just as it has great marketing potential in our own. Who needs all that sleepy, propositional, theological stuff anyway?Besides, who during the Classical and Middle Ages had not heard enthralling tales of someone being kidnapped and held for ransom? What if another individual—perhaps a famous person, an attractive person, a wealthy person, someone you would want to be like—intervened and offered himself in place of the captive, and then overcame the captors with a feat of strength? Many medieval serfs longed to participate in some adventure in which righteousness triumphed over evil, which explains the attraction of the Crusades beginning near the end of the eleventh century. Many others felt that the church could get more mileage out of a heroic Christ than from the actual biblical reason that He went to the cross in the first place, and so the former eventually eclipsed the latter in popular piety.
But as the previously-mentioned mini-renaissance with its “regeneration of intellectual and cultural life” (Volz, ibid.) began to make an impact on higher learning at the midpoint of the Middle Ages, Christian theologians took a closer look at this ransom view, which had retained the substitutionary aspect but had all but shorn it of its penal aspect. The reaction against it that followed would decisively impact the Western church for the following millennium.