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Anselm was born at Aosta in Piedmont (northern Italy) two years before William the Conqueror became Duke of Normandy. He was a studious youth, amiable, and often displayed a profound tenderness for animals. In despair over his relationship with his father he left home at the age of 23 and traveled north to Bec in Normandy. After the death of his father (who finally converted), Anselm became a monk (1060).


In 1063 he succeeded Lanfranc as prior of the abbey and held the post until 1078, at which time he became abbot, where he served until 1093. He then, somewhat reluctantly, accepted the position of Archbishop of Canterbury and went to Britain. These were troubled years for Anselm, eight of which (1097-1100, 1103-1106) were spent in exile. In 1494 he was canonized by Alexander VI.


His written works fall into three categories: philosophical/theological, devotional, and personal (the latter includes his letters of which there were over 400). The Monologion (Soliloquy), De Incarnatione Verbi, and De Processione all focus on the Trinity. The Proslogion (An Address; 1079) contains his famous Ontological argument for the existence of God. De Libertate and De Concordia address the problem of free will, and his most famous work, Cur Deus Homo addresses the incarnation and atonement.


Anselm's writings never gained the prominence of Augustine or Aquinas, but at times they exhibit a greater depth of insight and clarity of expression than either of the latter two. He was greatly dependent on Augustine (although he by no means merely repeated him) and has been dubbed "Alter Augustinus." He has been called the "Father of Scholasticism" and was the first to actively pursue the merging of faith and reason in hope of demonstrating the logical character of Christianity (it was he who popularized the concept of fides quaerens intellectum = faith seeking understanding).


A.            Cur Deus Homo ("Why God Became Man") and the Atonement


1.             Contextual background - Some, such as Richard Southern (St. Anselm and his Biographer [Cambridge Univ. Press, 1963]) have argued that Anselm's concept of the atonement can only be understood within the framework of medieval feudalism. The relation between God and man is like that of a feudal lord and his vassals, the latter of whom are obligated to render full service to their lord. In the language of feudalism, "a man's honor was his estate." There was no greater crime than disobeying one's lord and thus dishonoring his name and estate. Thus, according to this interpretation of Anselm, God is the feudal lord of the universe, his estate, whose honor consists in the "complex of service and worship which the whole creation, animate and inanimate, in heaven and earth owes to the creator" (Dillistone, The Christian Understanding of Atonement [Westminster Press], 193). By withholding service, i.e., through disobedience, mankind has dishonored God and is thus subject both to punishment and the obligation to restore to God and his estate the honor and service they have failed to provide.


Whereas Anselm may well have borrowed such concepts to communicate more effectively with his contemporaries, it is anything but certain that his doctrine of atonement is unintelligible apart from them.


2.             Purpose - Anselm declares his intent to demonstrate the necessity and nature of the incarnation and atonement of Christ relying wholly on reason and logic, apart from the revelation of God in Scripture. In this way he can more effectively refute pagan objections and place Christianity beyond attack by Jews and Muslims.


3.             Format - His argument is set forth in the form of a dialogue between himself and a student named Boso. The latter raises questions most frequently posed by unbelievers and Anselm seeks to answer them. The treatise is divided into two books, the first showing that it is impossible to be saved apart from Christ, the second showing that salvation has been provided through Christ, the God-man.


4.             Repudiation of the Ransom-to-Satan theory - Anselm breaks with Augustine by repudiating the so-called "classic" theory of the atonement. He insists there is no reason why God should not have dealt with Satan through force, for Satan had no right to punish mankind in the first place.


B.            The Logic of Cur Deus Homo


In keeping with Anselm's own approach, we will unpack the logic of his argument through a series of questions.


1.             What is sin? Anselm defines sin as the withholding by the creature from God the honor that is due him. Therefore, sin is debt, or the failure to render to God full and proper obedience:


"One who does not render this honor [i.e., obedience in every act of will] to God takes away from God what belongs to Him, and dishonors God, and to do this is to sin" (Book I, ch. 11).


"So then, every one who sins ought to pay back the honor of which he has robbed God; and this is the satisfaction which every sinner owes to God" (ibid.).


2.             Under what obligation does sin place mankind? According to Anselm, mankind is under a three-fold obligation: (1) we must immediately render to God full and proper obedience in everything; (2) we must pay back the honor due unto God of which, by our sin, we deprived him; and (3) we must pay back more (reparation) than we have taken away; this is because of the infinite degree of the insult we inflicted on God by dishonoring him. Hence, total obedience, repayment, and reparation are required of all humanity.


3.             What are the possible options left to mankind? There are only two: either we must be punished or we must make the required satisfaction. Punishment is less than desirable for all concerned, for God's plan to bring eternal happiness to his creation would suffer. Satisfaction is the only viable alternative.


4.             Is mankind able to make the required satisfaction? No, and for two reasons. First, we already owe God complete obedience and thus have nothing to offer to make satisfaction that is not already rightfully his. Second, sin is infinitely heinous because God, against whom it was committed, is infinitely holy. Thus, whatever satisfaction we make would be eternal in duration, for our sin offended an eternally righteous God.


5.             Why cannot God, in love and mercy, simply dismiss the offense and forgive us our sins? There are two reasons. First, if sin is not punished, it is not subject to any law or regulation. The sinner and saint would thus have equal standing before God, the former being regarded no differently than the latter. Second, it would overturn justice if the creature could defraud the creator of that which is his due. The justice of God has no less a right for expression than do his love and mercy.


6.             How, then, can satisfaction be made? Anselm put it this way (with slight paraphrasing):


"Satisfaction cannot be made unless there be some One able to pay God for man's sin something greater than all that is beside God. . . . Now nothing is greater than all that is beside God except God Himself. None therefore can make this satisfaction except God. And none ought to make it except man. . . . If, then, it be necessary that the kingdom of heaven be completed by man's admission, and if man cannot be admitted unless the aforesaid satisfaction for sin be first made, and if God only can, and man only ought to make this satisfaction, then necessarily One must make it who is both God and man" (Book II, ch. 6).


In other words, only we owe the debt, but we cannot pay it. Only God can pay the debt, but he does not owe it. Therefore, only a God-man, i.e., Jesus Christ, can both bear the guilt of human sin and pay the debt incurred by it. This is Cur Deus Homo . . . this is why God became man!


7.             How could the death of Christ honor God and sufficiently outweigh the sins of men? Anselm gives us three answers. (1) Since the God-man offered to God a gift he did not owe, the gift is adequate to pay for our sins. (2) The God-man did not deserve to die. His death was entirely voluntary. Thus his death, unlike that of all other men, was meritorious in God's sight. (3) Anselm points out that the assault on Christ is the greatest sin imagineable (Book II, ch. 14). Therefore, since he willed to endure this greatest of all injustices, the merit of his death is itself the greatest imagineable and more than suffices to outweigh the sins of mankind.


C.            Objections to the Logic of Cur Deus Homo


1.             In Anselm's model, God's justice is given a prominence to the exclusion of divine love.


This objection overlooks the fact that the death of Christ is a voluntary, self-sacrificial giving for the sake of sinners. We should also remember that Anselm posits two ways in which sin may be punished, "and the fact that God chooses the one that spares man and tasks God, --- the fact that he satisfies his own justice for the sinner, instead of leaving the sinner to satisfy it by an endless misery in his own person, --- shows in the most conclusive and affecting manner that Redemption has man's welfare in view, as well as the best interests of the universe, and the majestic glory of the divine nature" (William Shedd, History of Christian Doctrine, II:284).


Anselm himself says:


"the compassion of God, which appeared to be lost entirely when we were considering the justice of God and the sin of man, we have now found to be so great and so consistent with justice, that nothing greater or more just can be conceived of. For what compassion can equal the words of God the Father addressed to the sinner condemned to eternal punishment, and having no means of redeeming himself: "Take my only-begotten Son, and make him an offering for thyself;" or the words of the Son: "Take me, and ransom thy soul;" For this is what both say, when they invite and draw us to faith in the gospel" (Book II, ch. 20).


2.             It seems that Anselm focuses on the atoning value of Christ's death to the exclusion of the redemptive role of his life.


To some extent this is true. However, Anselm's silence on this matter does not necessarily imply denial.


3.             Anselm's theory sets God the Father against God the Son, the former a reflection of severity and justice, the latter of mercy and helplessness.


This objection fails to consider two points: first, Christ offered himself voluntarily, not of compulsion; and second, Christ is himself God, not a helpless creature forced under foot by a ruthless and severe deity.


4.             Anselm's theory is grounded in human reasoning rather than the Scriptures.


This objection is essentially accurate. But Anselm himself acknowledged this to be his approach, with a view to the apologetic and evangelistic use of his treatise. Also, the question is not primarily, "Does he appeal to reason;" but rather, "Does his appeal to reason harmonize with Scripture;"


5.             Anselm's theory appears to sever satisfaction from punishment, making them mutually exclusive alternatives.


This, again, is partially correct. It wasn't until the Reformation that focus was placed on the doctrine of penal substitution in which satisfaction is achieved through vicarious suffering.


D.            The Positive Contributions of Anselm's Theory


1.             As J. K. Mozley states, "the outstanding merit of the theory is its sense of the seriousness of sin and its issue in guilt" (The Doctrine of the Atonement, 129). In other words, Anselm grounded the atonement in the reality of sin and the dictates of divine justice. Consider these two fundamental assertions:


"You have not yet considered what a heavy weight sin is" (Book I, ch. 21).


"It is not fitting for God to remit any irregularity in His kingdom" (Book I, ch. 12).


2.             He distanced the doctrine of the atonement from the bizarre imagery of the ransom to Satan theory so prominently held by many of the early fathers.


3.             He elevated the doctrine of the atonement from a place of secondary importance to the forefront of Christian thought and thus revitalized the content and urgency of the gospel message.


4.             He sought to establish the concept of atonement on both biblical and logical grounds so that it could withstand the objections of less favorable theories and its pagan adversaries.


5.             Anselm's theory actually had greater influence on subsequent generations than it did on his own. In particular, it provided the foundation on which the reformers, such as Luther and Calvin, would develop their understanding of atonement.


E.             The Abelardian Alternative


Peter Abelard (1079-1142) advocated an alternative interpretation of Christ's death known popularly as the moral influence theory. Abelard argued that there is nothing in God's nature that necessitates satisfaction or prevents him from indiscriminately forgiving all at any time. He argued that the love of God in giving up his Son was designed to kindle in our hearts a corresponding love and repentance which together become the ground for the forgiveness of our sins. Thus the object of Christ's death is not God but man. His aim was not to satisfy the Father's wrath but to stimulate our love. Consider Abelard's comments on Romans 3:19-26, perhaps the most important NT statement on the death of Christ:


"Now it seems to us that we have been justified by the blood of Christ and reconciled to God in this way: through this unique act of grace manifested to us" in that his Son has taken upon himself our nature and persevered therein in teaching us by word and example even unto death, he has more fully bound us to himself by love; with the result that our hearts should be enkindled by such a gift of divine grace, and true charity should not now shrink from enduring anything for him" (A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham, ed. Eugene R. Fairweather, 283).


"Yet everyone becomes more righteous ? by which we mean a greater lover of the Lord ? after the Passion of Christ than before, since a realized gift inspires greater love than one which is only hoped for. Wherefore, our redemption through Christ's suffering is that deeper affection in us which not only frees us from slavery to sin, but also wins for us the true liberty of sons of God, so that we do all things out of love rather than fear" (284).


In fairness to Abelard, it would be a mistake to conclude that he omitted all reference to the sacrifice of Christ as a payment for our sin. Yet, his emphasis is clearly on the subjective effects of that sacrifice rather than its objective relationship to the wrath of God.


F.             Anselm and the Ontological Argument for God's Existence


Anselm's argument for the existence of God began with his definition of God as "that than which no greater thing can be thought/conceived" (aliquid quo maius cogitari non potest). He said that if this definition is true, God necessarily exists. He explains:


"This [definition of God] is indeed so true that it cannot be thought of as not being true. For it is quite possible to think of something whose non-existence cannot be thought of. This must be greater than something whose non-existence can be thought of. So if this thing (than which no greater thing can be thought) can be thought of as not existing, then, that very thing which a greater thing cannot be thought is not that than which a greater cannot be thought. This is a contradiction. So it is true that there exists something than which nothing greater can be thought, that it cannot be thought of as not existing. And you are this thing, O Lord our God! So truly therefore do you exist, O Lord my God, that you cannot be thought of as not existing, and with good reason; for if a human mind could think of anything greater than you, the creature would rise above the Creator and judge you; which is obviously absurd. And in truth whatever else there be beside you may be thought of as not existing. So you alone, most truly of all, and therefore most of all, have existence: because whatever else exists, does not exist as truly as you, and therefore exists to a lesser degree" (Proslogion, 3).


His argument appears to be that, assuming this definition of God, the mere idea of such a God is inferior to the reality of such a God. And since the idea of such a God undeniably exists, God himself must exist. As McGrath says, "if this definition of God is correct, and exists in the human mind, then the corresponding reality must also exist" (HT, 128). For the idea to exist without the reality would be to deny the definition of God which we have already assumed. Thus, to accept the definition of God is to accept his existence.




Does the mere supposition of a possible God require an actual God?


If it is possible that a necessary being exists (and it is), is it therefore also necessary that he exists?


A necessary being may exist, but must a necessary being actually exist? If not, then he's not necessary. A necessary being, if he is truly necessary, must exist or else he would not be a necessary being.


Is it possible to think of the non-existence of God? Not if God is defined as "that than which none greater can be conceived," because that being necessarily exists.


Can Anselm's "being" be thought to not exist? No, because Anselm's "being" is "that than which none greater can be conceived" and such a being, by definition, must exist. You can't conceive of a being not existing who, by definition, must exist.


But that would seem only to tell me about what you are capable of conceiving but not about the actual existence of what you conceive.


A Supplement to the Study of Anselm:

Observations on Anselm's

"De Incarnatione Verbi"


According to Anselm, we may speak about the persons of the Godhead with respect to what is common to all (divine nature) or proper to each (personal distinction).


The persons of the Trinity are three "things" only insofar as the Father is the Father and not the Son, the Son is the Son and not the Father, and the Spirit is the Spirit and neither the Son nor the Father. But if a "thing" refers to an individual substance, then God is not three "things", else He would be composite, and hence not God. An adversary of Anselm's argued that if the persons of the Trinity are not three individual and separate substances then the Father and the Spirit would have been incarnate with the Son. I.e., if the Father is numerically one and the same with the Son, then we can't affirm something of the Son (such as incarnation) and deny it of the Father.


In his response, Anselm addresses three issues:


First, he seeks to prove that even if there were three "gods" this would not prevent the Father and the Spirit from being incarnate with the Son.


Second, he seeks to show that there are not, in fact, three "gods".


Third, he seeks to show that the incarnation of one does not necessitate the incarnation of the other two.


As to . . .


(1)           If three gods exist, each must be essentially (but not numerically) where and what the other two are, else one be God and the other two not (or one superior and the other two inferior).


(2)           God must be the supreme good (cf. ontological argument). But the supreme good cannot be composite or plural, because a simple or single being is greater than a plural or composite one.


(3)           God is numerically one only with respect to nature. With respect to persons he is numerically three. In the incarnation, God assumed manhood into a unity of person with the Son, not nature. Therefore, the persons of the Father and Spirit are excluded from the incarnation.


Is not the Son, then, by reason of the incarnation (i.e., his humanity), inferior to the Father and the Spirit? No, because that by reason of which the Father and Spirit would be superior, namely, a common divine nature and attributes, belongs to the Son as well, even as incarnate.


The Inter-Trinitarian relationships


Father                    is                                God from whom God exists

                                    is not                       God from God


Son                           is                                God from God

                                    is                               God from whom God exists


Spirit                       is                                God from God

                                    is not                       God from whom God exists



To put it in other terms:


The Father begets the Son and is He from whom the Spirit proceeds, but the Father is neither begotten nor does He proceed.


The Son is begotten and is He from whom the Spirit proceeds, but He neither begets nor proceeds.


The Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son, but He neither begets nor is He one from whom any proceed.