A thought or two:
First, it is important to distinguish Anselm's and Aquinas's understandings of the atonement from the penal understandings that were developed by Protestant theologians. Neither Anselm nor Aquinas, at least so I understand, taught that Jesus needed to be punished, in our place, to satisfy the demands of justice. As David Hart writes:
... the closer the attention one pays Anselm's argument, the harder it becomes to locate the exact point at which he supposedly breaks from patristic orthodoxy. The divine action follows the same course as in the "classic" model: human sin having disrupted the order of God's good creation, and humanity having been handed over to death and the devil's rule, God enters into a condition of estrangement and slavery to set humanity free .... Anselm's is not a new narrative of salvation. In truth, this facile distinction between a patristic soteriology concerned exclusively with the rescue of humanity from death and a theory of atonement concerned exclusively with remission from guilt - the distinction, that is, between "Physical" and "moral" theories - is supportable, if at all, only in terms of emphasis and imagery; Athanasius, Gregory of nysea, and John of Damascus (to name a few) were no less conscious than Anselm of the guilt overcome by Christ on the cross, nor he any less concerned than they with the Son's campaign against death's dominion .... And it is explicitly not a story about a sustitutionary sacrifice offered as a simple restitution for human guilt, but concerns, rather, the triumph over death, the devil, and sin accomplished in Christ's voluntary self-donation to the Father, which the Father receives (as Gregory the Theologian would say) "by economy", so that its benefits might rebound to those with whom Christ has assumed solidarity ....
Even here, then, in the text that most notoriously expounds the sacrificial logic of atonement, the idea of sacrifice is subverted from within: as the story of Christ's sacrifice belongs not to an ecomony of credit and exchange but to the trinitarian motion of love, it is given entirely as gift - a gift given when it should not have needed to be given again, by God, at a price that we imposed upon him .... the primordiality of the gift is the truth of Christ's paschal donation: the gift God gives in creation continues to be given again, ever more fully, in defiance of all rejection, economy, violence, and indifference; there is no division between justice and mercy in God, on Anselm's account, because both belong already to the giving of the gift - which precedes, exceeds, and annuls all debt.
Also see Eleonore Stump's discussion of Aquinas and atonement
. Personally, I find a satisfaction construal of atonement difficult to preach, as it is so vulnerable to misunderstanding.
Second, the language of satisfaction and debt is present in the Eastern tradition, as well as in Scripture. Sts. Athanasius and Nicholas Cabasilas immediately come to mind. It is also found in the liturgy:
Come, all ye peoples, and let us venerate the blessed Wood, through which the eternal justice has been brought to pass. For he who by a tree deceived our forefather Adam, is by the Cross himself deceived; and he who by tyranny gained possession of the creature endowed by God with royal dignity, is overthrown in headlong fall. By the Blood of God the poison of the serpent is washed away; and the curse of a just condemnation is loosed by the unjust punishment inflicted on the Just. For it was fitting that wood should be healed by wood, and that through the Passion of One Who knew not passion should be remitted all the sufferings of him who was condemned because of wood. But glory to Thee, O Christ our King, for Thy dread dispensation towards us, whereby Thou hast saved us all, for Thou art good and lovest mankind. (Vespers of the Exaltation, doxastikon for "Lord I have cried")
This language cannot be dismissed, but it does need to be properly interpreted.
Third, however we understand the wrath of God, it cannot be understood as competing with God's love and mercy. When we think of the divine wrath, it seems that we almost immediately assume a retributive understanding of punishment--an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. But I think this needs to be challenged, at least when we are contemplating the justice of God. The connection between sin and deserved punishment is by no means obvious. What exactly does "punishment," as well as other words like "debt" and "penalty," mean in this context? If I, with evil intent, inflict injury upon my brother, what does justice demand? Reparation immediately comes to mind. The person responsible for the injury needs to make just compensation and do all that he can to restore that which was lost and perhaps more than was lost. But beyond restitution, justice also requires that the evil-doer should repent and seek the forgiveness of the one he has unjustly injured. He needs to offer apology and make atonement and do penance, thereby demonstrating the sincerity and genuineness of his repentance. Beyond this, is further punishment needed? Does justice demand the direct infliction of suffering upon the one who has committed evil? If yes, why? Who benefits from the infliction of this suffering?
If we disobey the commandments of God, does God demand that the sinner be punished? Is such punishment a precondition for reconciliation between the sinner and God? We need to be clear. My sin does not literally injure or damage God. My sin does not literally
create a debt that needs to be paid. My sin does not literally
offend God's honor. My sin does not literally
grieve his heart. We, of course, employ such language, but it's all metaphor. God is God. My sin literally
makes no difference to him, but it makes all the difference to me, the sinner. I am the one who is directly injured by my sins. Sin diminishes me. Sin destroys me. Sin punishes me.
Theories of atonement abound in the history of the Church. Each, I think, illumines, to one degree or another, but some illumine more than others. Juridical models of atonement are particularly vulnerable to misunderstanding because they are so easily misinterpreted as declaring that man needs to propitiate the Deity before reconciliation can occur. But this is completely wrong. As revealed in the gospel, the love of God is unconditional. God is the one who graciously acts to restore sinful mankind to himself. God is the one who takes the initiative. God is the one who enters into the breach. God is the one who bears the costs. "But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was on him; and with his stripes we are healed."
For an evangelical presentation of the patristic understanding of the atonement Substitutionary Atonement in the Church Fathers
. I cannot vouch for its scholarly soundness, however.