What part, if any, of Anselm’s approach to atonement could survive critical theological scrutiny today? Essay

Anselm (1033-1109) is described in the dictionary as ‘the most luminous and penetrating intellect between St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas’. Undeniably Anselm’s mind was intensely rationalist, as is demonstrated in his theology of the atonement. It is important to remember that one of Anselm’s earliest works Cur Deus Homo? 1 was one of the first essays in a systematic theology of the atonement, which endeavored to bring an intellectual shape to an area where there had been much disorder.

Anselm’s aim was to ‘reconcile philosophy and theology, Aristotelian logic and biblical revelation. ‘2 There appears to be mixed views in relation to Anselm’s achievements, and opinions vary from Professor James Denny’s tribute to it as ‘the truest and greatest book on the atonement that has ever been written’3 to Dr. Steven’s criticism ‘it would be difficult to name any prominent treatise on atonement, whose conception of sin is so essentially unethical and superficial.

I will examine the conflicting viewpoints on the subject, and evaluate whether Anselm’s work is able to survive a contemporary theological inspection. Although he includes biblical quotations and does refer to the Holy Spirit, Anselm actually makes little reference to the Bible or even to the tradition of the Church. It is apparent that his overriding concern was to be ‘agreeable to reason’ (Cur Deus Homo? ii. xi). Anselm chose to present his ideas in terms of the social bonds, which held together both the monastic and the secular life of his age.

In doing this he intended to make the process of atonement both vivid and convincing. But, how was he able to achieve this? Anselm sought to express the broad consensus that had arisen regarding the extent of the atonement from Augustine onwards: that in some sense Christ’s work is adequate for and can be made available for all, but that, however the connections between divine predestination, faith, the human will and the ministrations of the church may be understood, not all receive benefit from it.

John Stott discusses the context of Anselm’s atonement: His whole presentation reflects the feudal culture of his age, in which society was rigidly stratified, each person stood on the dignity which had been accorded him, the ‘proper’ or ‘becoming’ conduct of inferiors to superiors (and especially to the king) was laid down, breaches of this code were punished, and all debts must be honorably discharged. 5 ‘The Cur Deus Homo? was the product of a feudal and monastic world on the eye of a great transformation.

Anselm saw the relationship between God and man as that of a Lord and his vassals. The status of these dependants varied, but it was of little importance anyway; the main emphasis was placed upon their subordination to God’s will. Each class had a duty to render a full service to God or else loose their inheritance. This of course had already once occurred at the very beginning of history: the disobedience of Eve which condemned mankind to loose their inheritance. Some critics think that in light of Anselm’s feudal culture, he equated God with an oppressive ruler.

However, it is more commonly believed that just as a feudal ruler had a duty to maintain an orderly society (without which society would collapse), God was the upholder of universal justice. Such an exact religious feudal structure may be difficult for us to comprehend today, yet it must be remembered that Anselm wrote at a time of social change and when men needed an orderly framework in which to live. ‘Anselm’s exposition certainly provided such a framework, though there is no evidence that his argument was widely accepted.

It was a remarkable piece of logical reasoning and it carries conviction so long as the initial postulates are accepted. ‘7 However, Anselm’s account has also been subject to the critique of cultural relativism, which puts forward that feudal notions of honour which can be ‘paid off” simply do not make sense anymore. Yet as a matter of fact this type of feudal structure is still in existence today: ‘Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo? , fashioned out of a feudal culture, continues in the persistent juridical doctrine of penal substitution, still favoured by conservative evangelical piety.

There are, however, doubtless dangers with Anselm’s approach. Peter Lombard addresses the problem in his observation that Anselm ‘offered himself for all as far as the sufficiency of the price is concerned, but, as far as efficacy is concerned, for the elect only. ‘ It does seem that Anselm thought only a few (mostly monks! ) were worthy enough to receive pardon from God. However, his theology does, in effect, imply an opportunity for a potential universalism. In principle, the logic of the explanation does open up possibilities for all.

Significantly, Anselm challenged the idea which had survived a thousand years; that Christ had died as a ransom paid to the devil. In its place Anselm put forward that God owed the devil nothing but punishment for his seduction of man and usurpation of God’s authority. What is more, man owed God an infinite debt and therefore must offer the satisfaction. The satisfaction concept is the main thrust of Anselm’s atonement theory, and it is explained by using a metaphor obtained from the world of law.

Anselm describes his work as a programme to show ‘by necessary reasons (Christ being put out of sight, as if nothing had ever been known of him) that it is impossible for any man to be saved without him’ (Preface). Anselm saw man’s sin as a vast debt which required to be paid back to God, and yet man cannot pay for it, as all men are sinful. It is God alone who can offer the necessary satisfaction, yet this has to be made by a man as he is the guilty party. This clearly presents a moral dilemma, and the only way around it is for God himself to be man, this, says Anselm was the purpose of the incarnation.

Christ, one must remember, was sinless and God incarnate; and therefore he owed no such satisfaction. This is of great significance, as F. R, Barry writes: Thus by voluntary sacrifice of his passion and death he earned an ‘excess of merits’, infinite merits; and since the performance of penance (as Cyprian taught) can claim recognition from the divine justice, the offering of an infinite satisfaction secure from God the forgiveness of all sins ‘through the merits of Jesus Christ our Lord. ‘

This is the Latin doctrine of atonement in its finished and almost archetypal form. It is true that it is bound up with the sacrifice of Mass, but it is still held and taught in the liturgical and doctrinal language of reformed Churches as well as in the Roman. This surely demonstrates that Anselm’s theory would subsist theological scrutiny today. In spite of this though, it is accurate to say that it offered little to devout Christians and little comfort to the penitent sinner. Neither did it offer anything to help one deal with the traumas and tragedies of life.

Anselm’s argument depends upon a particular conception of justice. He maintains that it is not plausible for God to simply overlook breaches of the universal law. If an injustice was to go unpunished, the whole universe would be exposed as an unjust and irrational place. Furthermore, the God which is responsible for the world’s order would no longer be worthy of his very name. He writes that ‘if sin is…. remitted unpunished, he who sins and he who does not sin will be in the same position with God’ (I, xii).

The thrust lies in his proposal that God does not demand satisfaction for sin because he is actually personally affronted by transgression. Anselm’s account is now widely rejected, and we must recognise the reasons behind such rebuff. One fault that has been noted is that it often appears that Anselm is more concerned with the exercise of power rather than love: ‘the Son, with the Holy Father and the Holy Spirit, had determined to show the loftiness of his omnipotence by no other means than death’ (I,ix).

The problem with the theology of satisfaction is that it tends to focus on the legal and moral aspects rather than the divine-human relationship. ‘Added to this is the fact that aesthetic considerations make it appear almost that God is as much concerned to achieve a correct balance of numbers in heaven as to realise his love towards the creation. (See, for example, the title of I,xvi: ‘The reason why the number of the angels who fell is to be made up from among men’). ‘9 Evidently this would have little appeal to persons wishing to adopt a compassionate theory of atonement.

It has been commented that ‘Anselm’s theory can offer no assurance of God’s victory over the power of evil. ’10 The atonement thus becomes an almost futile process, what is the point in trying to get close to God, when he cannot even offer a triumph over evil? Anselm’s theory makes it difficult to believe that God is an omnipotent deity; this is a rather unsettling and frightening concept for those who have faith that their God will protect them from all evil. ‘What is missing from Anselm, but present in the Protestant theories, is the emphasis upon punishment.

Anselm fails to provide a clear expression of the relation between God’s honour which must be justified, and God’s justice which unavoidably punishes unatoned sin. Furthermore, if we are to trust that God’s honour is the principle consideration, there is ambiguity with regards to why repentance (according to Anselm) is not accepted as a satisfaction to that honour. Regardless of our own personal standpoints, it cannot be denied that Anselm’s achievement was immense. Indeed, it has laid down the foundations of atonement theory.

As a matter of fact it was Anselm’s work that was picked up and elaborated by the theologians of Protestant orthodoxy in the seventeenth century. J. K. Mozely holds it in very high esteem: If any one Christian work, outside the canon of the New Testament, may be described as “epoch-making,” it is the Cur Deus Homo? of Anselm. It has affected, though in different degrees, and by way now of attraction, now of repulsion, all soteriolgical thought since his time. 12 And, while F. W. Dillstone thinks that ‘Anselm’s dialectic was doubtless satisfying to the educated monk of his own day….

But neither to the philosopher nor to the man of the world is it likely to make any strong appeal today’13 others like Vernon White state that: Anselm’s basic claim could almost certainly be stripped of its feudal clothing and still survive in recognizable form. It therefore stands in the history of Christian thinking about soteriology as something much more than a museum piece. ’14 Ultimately Anselm helps to relieve the burden of guilt. Whilst critics may reject Anselm’s theory as little more than a release of a burden, it cannot be denied that he has had a significant influence on the theory of atonement:

The discovery of our often deeply hidden guilt-feeling gives a new key for the explanation of the tremendous effect of the Anselmian theory on personal piety, hymns, liturgies and much Christian preaching and teaching. 15 Anselm has helped us to remember what is at stake. Each time a Christian prays ‘through the merits of Christ’s death’, he or she is able to accept their infinite suffering of punishment, and that through the substitution suffering of Christ, they are released from sin and punishment.

Indeed, Anselm’s ideas may no longer be entirely accepted, but they have permanently been absorbed into the whole concept that is atonement today. 1 Anselm’s book Cur Deus Homo translates as ‘Why did God become man? ‘ In this work, he attempts to answer a question that was being asked by both believers and unbelievers: for what reason or necessity did God take upon Himself the humiliation and weakness of human nature in order to restore it?

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