Anselm on the Atonement
In Book I of Cur Deus Homo (Why the God-Man?), Anselm aims to show the impossibility of man’s achieving salvation for himself. In Book II, he seeks to show that Jesus Christ, the God-Man, is the necessary means of salvation.
His exposition of salvation through the God-Man is characterized by a serious attempt to hold together God’s freedom, holiness and love. He is concerned to show that this emphasis on Jesus Christ as the necessary means of salvation does not, in any way, compromise God’s nature. The necessity of which Anselm speaks is not a necessity which stands over against God. It is a necessity which is grounded in the nature of God.
It is, in fact, more accurately described as grace rather than necessity. There is no obligation upon God to save man. In free grace, He chooses to save man. Having made this choice, He then proceeds to accomplish this salvation in a way that is consistent with His own nature. He does so in such a way that His forgiveness is not simply a condoning of sin.
In I.5, Boso raises the question of whether salvation might have been effected by some “other being than God”. Responding to this suggestion, Anselm goes right to the heart of the problem inherent in this view: “if any other being could rescue man from eternal death, man would rightly be adjudged as the servant of that being”.
As well as opposing the idea that salvation can be effected by some “other being than God”, he also opposes the idea that man could be saved by some other being, not of Adam’s race. He argues thus: since it is man who owes the debt to God, it is man who must pay the debt.
The question might be raised whether this principle of payment should be extended beyond the idea of a representative Man paying the debt for all men. If, however, the idea of personal responsibility was understood to exclude the notion of vicariousness, man would simply receive his just deserts, reaping what he had sown.
When we allow for the idea of Christ being the representative Man – the second or last Adam (Romans 5:12-21), we must ask how He could assume humanity without also assuming a sinful nature. We must ask how, having assumed sinless humanity, He could save what He did not assume – sinful humanity.
Anselm’s response to this question will be considered later. It should be noted that he speaks here of something which is essentially a mystery, belonging to God. This is an interesting illustration of Anselm’s conviction that, for understanding, we are ultimately dependent on God (II.22). In observing this point, we may note that it would be inaccurate to describe Anselm’s methodology as rationalistic.
He does seek to develop his argument in accordance with reason. Reason is not, for him, our ultimate authority. He emphasizes that “Our labours and attempts are in vain without God. Man cannot seek God unless God Himself teaches him; nor find Him, unless He reveals Himself … The believer does not seek to understand, that he may believe, but he believes that he may understand: for unless he believed he would not understand”
Anselm teaches that God is not under obligation to provide salvation, yet only He can do this. He also insists that salvation must be provided by God, if man is to be a servant of God alone.
Concerning man’s part, we must understand that Anselm is not denying that salvation is fully the work of God. He seeks to hold together the emphases on God and Man. His emphasis is not so much that satisfaction is offered to God by a Man, who is also God. Rather, his emphasis is this: satisfaction is offered to God by the God-Man.
In I.6, Boso says, “If you say that God … could not do all these things by a simple command … you make him powerless … if you grant that He could have done these things in some other way, but did not wish to, how can you vindicate His wisdom …”. We need to take care that we do not attempt to define the character of God without reference to the incarnation and atonement of Jesus Christ. Here, we might emphasize the importance of Anselm’s principle – faith seeking understanding. We look at what God has done for us in Christ. By faith, we receive the salvation which God has provided for us in Christ. We learn how the character of God – His power and wisdom – are revealed to us in “Christ crucified … the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).
In I.7, we have Anselm’s refutation of the ransom theory. He does not wish to deny the reality of spiritual warfare. He does, however, stress that the conflict between God and Satan is not to be understood dualistically. The power that belongs to Satan has been given to him by God. We must see beyond this conflict, affirming that the ultimate triumph belongs to God since all things are under His control.
In I.8-10, we are introduced to the question of the relation of the death of Christ to the will of God. Here, Anselm’s exposition is weak. He resorts to the doubtful method of defending God’s wisdom, righteousness and omnipotence by proving that Christ’s death is to be understood in terms of His own free will rather than the compelling will of the Father. This involves strained exegesis of Scripture (e.g. Philippians 2:8 ff., Matthew 26:39). It tends to conflict with Anselm’s main emphasis – salvation is initiated by God the Father and accomplished by God the Son.
In I.11-12, Anselm defines sin as “not to render God His due”. He maintains that “everyone who sins ought to pay back the honour of which he has robbed God … this is the satisfaction which every sinner owes to God”. He understands the payment of the debt thus: “he who violates another’s honour does not enough by merely rendering honour again, but must, according to the extent of the injury done, make restoration in some way satisfactory to the person whom he has dishonoured”.
It should be noted that Anselm sees the commercial ‘owing a debt’ and the moral ‘ought’ as equivalent to each other. His concept of God’s honour was influenced by the current notions of honour. His idea of the increased debt was tied in with the commercial notions of his time.
These factors do not completely undermine the value of his theological analysis. It would be inaccurate to describe his theory of the atonement as purely commercial. It would be unfair to draw too sharp a distinction between Anselm’s concept of honour and the Biblical concept of holiness.
On the other hand, it should be pointed out that the idea of the increased debt has unfortunate consequences:
(a) Christ is seen chiefly as man in His life – paying the debt He owed and as the God-Man in His death – dying the death which, as sinless Man, He did not need to die. This hardly seems to do justice to the unity of His Person throughout the whole course of His obedience.
(b) The idea of Christ’s death procuring a plus of merit as a reward which, since He did not require it for Himself, He gives to man in the form of forgiveness. There is, perhaps, a suggestion here that this is really the Roman Catholic doctrine of penance applied to the work of Christ.
In I.12, Anselm maintains that it is “not proper for God … to pass over sin unpunished”. If sin remained unpunished, there would be no difference between the guilty and the not-guilty. Sin would then be “subject to no law”. In this respect, sin would be like God. This would be an untenable position.
Boso challenges Anselm’s view at two points.
(a) Since God commands us to forgive others, it would be self-contradictory for Him to demand of us what is improper in Himself.
(b) Since God is so free that He is subject to no law and so kind that nothing kinder can be imagined and since nothing is right or proper unless He wills it, then it seems curious that He should not will or be permitted to forgive wrongdoing.
Anselm’s response to the first question misses the point. He maintains that vengeance is God’s prerogative. He fails to ground the command to be merciful in God’s mercy. Perhaps, Anselm might have made a more adequate response to this first question if he had spoken not only of the divine holiness, which calls for the punishment of sin, but also of the divine love which has provided forgiveness of sin through Jesus Christ.
In answer to the second question, Anselm argues that God is not free to will what is not right. The non-punishment of sin would constitute a breach of this principle.
What are we to make of Anselm’s argument?
* This discussion raises the question whether Anselm’s legal framework can be synthesized with a more personal understanding of God. It also raises the question of whether we can speak of forgiveness at all on the basis of Anselm’s conception of the punishment – satisfaction dichotomy.
* There seems to be a conflict between love and justice here. Anselm does not make direct reference to the God-Man until later in the book. This may explain why the discussion, at this point, seems somewhat artificial. At a later point, Anselm says that the word “grace” is the most appropriate word to describe God’s action in Christ. If this point had been made at this stage in the argument, Anselm’s case might have been strengthened.
* Love and wrath need not be seen as mutually contradictory attributes in God. Wrath might be seen as the instrument by which God, in love, clears away all hindrances to His love. The Cross would then be viewed as, at one and the same time, a revelation of both God’s love and His wrath. At this stage of his argument, Anselm’s words do not appear to lend themselves to this kind of interpretation. It should, however, be noted that his later statements - connecting salvation to grace – would be conducive to this interpretation.
* When Anselm says that man was created so that He might enjoy God, there is a suggestion that his theory of the atonement is open to being supplemented by a more personal understanding of the relationship between God and man. This would focus attention on our being brought into fellowship with God. The emphasis would be placed on the action of God’s love. In this context, His wrath may be seen as serving the purpose of His love.
- When we see His wrath serving the purpose of His love, we would emphasize that the atonement is grounded in God’s eternal love. His love precedes the atonement.
- When we look from the historical event of Christ’s towards our receiving God’s forgiveness, we might speak of atonement preceding forgiveness. Forgiveness is made available to us because Jesus Christ has died for us.
In I.14, Boso asks the question “whether the punishment of the sinner is an honour to God, or how it is an honour”. Anselm seeks to show that man cannot be saved without satisfaction for sin. He emphasizes that satisfaction should be proportionate to guilt (I.20). Stressing the gravity of sin, he maintains that “remission ought not to take place, save by the payment of the debt incurred by sin” (I.24). He insists that this cannot be done by a sinful man “for a sinner cannot justify a sinner” (I.23). He emphasizes that “salvation must necessarily be by Christ” (I.25). With this statement, he sets the scene for Book II.
In II.1, Anselm speaks of “the enjoyment of God”. This indicates that he does not wish to reduce our relationship with God to a commercial level. While much of Anselm’s terminology is commercial, there is some awareness of the need, in our understanding of the atonement, for the language of personal relationships. It would, therefore, be inappropriate to describe his theory of the atonement as a purely commercial theory.
This tension between the commercial and the personal reflects a similar tension in the New Testament. There, we find legal terminology alongside the more personal emphasis on restoration of fellowship with God.
Here, we have an important problem of formulating an adequate doctrine of the atonement. We need to bring together the legal and personal categories found in the New Testament in a way that does not devalue one or other of these approaches.
In II.3-4, Anselm argues that “man was so made as not to be necessarily subject to death”. Here, he seeks to take account of the New Testament teaching regarding sin – “the wages of sin is death” – and salvation – “the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
In II.5, Anselm discusses necessity as it relates to God. He writes, “when one benefits from a necessity to which he is unwittingly subjected”, this does not deserve thanks. On the other hand, “when he freely places himself under the necessity of benefiting another, and sustains that necessity without reluctance, then he certainly deserves greater thanks for the favour”. Emphasizing that this is “not … necessity but grace”, Anselm maintains that “God does nothing by necessity, since He is not compelled or restrained by anything.” The only ‘necessity’ that applies to God is that He acts in accordance with His own nature. This is not, however, something extrinsic to Him. It is intrinsic to Him. His decision to save man is determined by nothing other than His free grace.
In II.6, Anselm speaks of the satisfaction that must be made to God’s holiness – “none but God can make” it, “none but man ought to make”, “it is necessary for the God-Man to make it.” He maintains that the One who makes this satisfaction must be both fully God and fully Man. He must be truly Man yet without sin. He must be truly God since He alone can make this satisfaction.
In connection with Christ’s death, Anselm emphasizes that He die not die because He owed a debt. The way in which he speaks of Christ’s life – man ought to make the satisfaction – leaves him open to the charge of thinking of Christ as a man in His life and as the God-Man in His death. This shift of emphasis leaves us wondering whether Anselm has given an adequate exposition of the unity of Christ’s Person, The heavy emphasis on the death of the God-Man leaves us wondering what importance ought to be attached to the whole course of His obedience.
In II.10, Anselm discusses whether Christ could have sinned. He says that Christ could have sinned had He chosen to do so. He then states that, given the Person Christ is – the God-Man, He could not have chosen to sin.
In his discussion of Christ’s death, Anselm seeks to defend Christ’s freedom: “I do not think mortality inheres in the essential nature of man, but only as corrupted.” Thus, he emphasizes that Christ, the God-Man, was under no obligation to die. He maintains that Christ, because of His omnipotence, was able to lay down His life that He might take it again.
While not without difficulties, Anselm’s theory of the atonement has a great deal of value in it. Especially noteworthy is his concern to ground the atonement in the character of God.