Some thoughts about St Anselm

Image of an Archbishop from Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Auct. D. 2. 6 (12th c)

I had the opportunity to teach about St Anselm last night. Much of the lecture was taken up with investiture, and I’m still sorting that out in my mind — hopefully, thoughts to follow. I also had the opportunity to linger on his Prayers and Meditations. I believe that these are very important for us to understand the whole man of this Archbishop of Canterbury. St Anselm is more than the clear, systematised logic of his philosophical and theological treatises. He is also a man of great “religious feeling” (if you will), a man animated by his love of Christ, Christ’s church, as well as awareness of his own smallness and sinfulness.

This positioning of Anselm through the Prayers and Meditations helps us see that true Christian theology is always done in Evagrian mode: “If you truly pray, you are a theologian; if you are a theologian, you will truly pray.” The logical treatises, such as De Casu Diaboli are not detached from the saint’s life and worship. This is also a perspective potentially gained from the Life of St Anselm by Eadmer as well, which is why I chose to assign a portion of that text to my students.

A second approach to St Anselm requires us to grasp foundational truths that St Anselm affirmed. I say this because Anselm is famous today for two things:

  1. The ontological argument for the existence of God (in the Proslogion)
  2. Penal substitutionary atonement (in Cur Deus Homo — check out The Major Works)

The second of these is often misunderstood, most famously and egregiously as “divine child abuse.” To understand why Anselm’s atonement theory of satisfaction is not “divine child abuse”, it is worth knowing both what Anselm believes about God, and second, what penal substitutionary atonement theory actually teaches.

Anselm is a traditional, western Trinitarian. He believes that God is/has one essence/substance in three persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The three are co-equal and co-eternal. And one of these three, who is Himself fully God, chose to become human and die. Once you catch a glimpse of the historic doctrine of the Trinity, the idea that penal substitutionary atonement theory is “divine child abuse” is untenable, because it is not a father forcing or sending a son to die for other people because the father is angry. It is God choosing to take his own anger upon Himself in order to save other people.

I’m not saying this is an argument for why you ought to agree with St Anselm — it’s simply an argument that should make you set aside this caricature.

The theory itself is this: In Cur Deus Homo, St Anselm argues that offence against God requires balance, it requires an equitable return, something proportional to the offence. This is a basic principle of law and justice. Since God is infinite, offence against God carries with it infinite weight. No human being can redress the balance of sin against God. In the courtroom of heavenly justice, we will always be found guilty of infinite offence and thus sentenced to infinite punishment, eternal damnation. Therefore, God, in his mercy, chooses to condescend Himself to our weakness, take our flesh upon Himself, and take our place as a substitution by dying on the cross. This substitution of an infinite, perfect, good God in place of finite sinners, redresses the balance and pays the penalty for our sin in our place. By removing the penalty of sin from us, God makes it possible for us to be oned (to use the later language of Julian of Norwich), united, to him and participate in the divine life.

Penal substitutionary atonement theory has fallen out of fashion today. It was first articulated by St Anselm, and it came to dominate western theological discourse about the atonement until Aulen’s book Christus Victor in the 20th century. A quick example of this theory’s dominance is that it is the model of the atonement used by Edmund Spenser in A Hymn of Heavenly Love.

A final point on Cur Deus Homo. I read it and found it convincing. This does not mean that I do not also believe in the classic or Christus Victor model found in fathers like Athanasius and Leo. The two theories are not mutually exclusive but, rather, complement one another. Perhaps western theology lost sight of one for a while and thereby suffered — but this does not mean that rejecting Anselmian atonement theology redresses the balance.

In closing, St Anselm was a deep, profound thinker, steeped in prayer, in scripture, and in the tools of logic and dialectic from the classroom at Bec. He made two original and lasting contributions to theology as well as some important gains in the king-bishop relationship (but that’s perhaps for another post). Read his devotional works, read his theology, read his life.

The grace of God can make you a better Christian thereby.

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