19 October 2012

In Defense of Anselm

For all you theology folks out there, a review and defense of Anselm's Cur Deus Homo.


Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo is, perhaps, one of the more misunderstood works that will be covered this semester.  Reasons for this vary, yet it would be helpful to name just a few at the outset of our examination, so as to clear the ground for the rest of the remarks to follow.  These difficulties are important: they make this text unique, both stylistically and theologically.  Before leveling criticisms at Anselm and his atonement theory, we should keep in mind a historical caution: Anselm attempted to answer questions of the eleventh century, not those of the twenty-first.  Moreover, Anselm cannot necessarily be held responsible for Anselmians.[1]  In Cur Deus Homo, Anselm attempts to answer the self-evident question in the title of his work: Why did God become a human?  Anselm’s theory deserves an honest re-reading, not absent its theological consequences, but instead with a firm grip upon his historical context and the effectiveness of the method he used. 
Anselm is considered by many to be the “first” of the scholastics.  While it is dangerous to cut such a broad swath, it cannot be denied that Anselm’s style differs from early Church Fathers.  This work reaches maturity at a time of genre transition: Anselm is certainly not Augustine, nor is he Thomas Aquinas.[2]  Cur Deus Homo is set as a dialogue between Anselm himself and his student Boso.  Several times Anselm reminds his conversation partner (and by extension, the reader) that his logic will proceed strictly according to reason.  Anselm’s style is plodding, if not thorough.  A second difficulty is found in two of Anselm’s theological terms.  First, Anselm suggests that redemption is required because of God’s offended honor due to human sin.  Of course, Anselm is quick to note that God’s honor cannot be literally impinged, but it can thought be so.  This idea of honor is historically charged.  Yet, for Anselm and his students, “honor” served as an intelligible term.  In this sense, Anselm was an effective systematic theologian.  The second issue involves Anselm’s treatment of the way that the offense of sin must be “satisfied.”  This has, of course, unleashed a series of contemporary critiques.  However, it should be noted that the later theories of penal substitution, though perhaps finding their original basis in Anselm, are not fleshed out here.  In fact, Anselm’s theory largely focused upon God’s charity – both the will of the Father that humanity should be saved, as well as the willingness of the Son to die for the reparation of sins.
            Anselm’s argument follows a logical pattern itself and cannot be divorced from this pattern and maintain cogency. The discussion proceeds in a linear fashion, handling topics as they precede one from another. In the first book, he wishes to prove that no person can be saved without the work of Christ (Preface).  In the second, Anselm explains that human nature is inherently constructed to share eternity with God and thus emphasizes the importance of the work of redemption (Preface).  By the end of the preface, the reader is left to struggle with a theological dialectic that will bedevil Anselm himself throughout the work: is the Christ event, in and of itself, a historical inevitability, and thus something required so that humanity could be redeemed?  If this is so, of course, the omnipotence of God is weakened.  On the other hand, if God has willed from the beginning (or at least since sin entered the world) to redeem humanity through the innocent suffering of His Son, fully human and fully divine, what does this say of God’s goodness?  These two questions move to the very core of Anselm’s soteriology.  While it is likely impossible to disentangle this dialectic, it is reasonable to examine the issue in such a way as to make the inherent problems of Anselm’s theory intelligible.    Anselm describes God’s saving action in Christ by three causes and subsequent effects: disobedience by man, restored through “obedience of man,” sin begat by woman, answered by a woman being “the author of our justice,” and sin from the tree, met by “man’s bearing of suffering on a tree” (1.3).  Anselm then makes the point that redemption of man needed to be carried out by a human, yet if a human would have done so, this redeemer would (rightly) be considered god-like (1.4). 
Anselm develops his Christology previous to his soteriology.  He concludes that through Christ’s incarnation, “the nature of man is exalted,” yet the nature of God remains undefiled (1.8).  Anselm then develops the key to his Christology, and in a sense, a pillar of his soteriology.  He engages in an extended discussion about the will of Christ vis-à-vis that of the Father, specifically centering upon the Son’s death.  Anselm nuances his account so that the Son is not seen to be forced to give his life up as payment to the Father, but rather that He offers it freely so as to meet the requirements of justice.  The distinction here is fine, but important: Christ, as the perfectly just man, offers to God the Father what is deserved.  The Son is not forced by obedience itself, but because of his obedience, he offers his life freely (1.9)  Anselm is at pains to maintain the gratuity of Christ’s offering, yet at the same time establish the necessity of Christ’s action upon the cross.
            Before Anselm prescribes the salvific remedy of sin, he must first explain sin itself.  He defines it as acting contrary to the will of God (1.11).  To make recompense for sin, therefore, not only must the original offense be repaid, but further restitution made (1.11).  Such offense to God may not be simply forgotten, Anselm claims, or “God will be either unjust to himself or powerless […] (1.13).  At this point, Anselm engages in a long discourse on the nature and destiny of angels: this cannot be passed over lightly.  Anselm attempts to work out humanity’s place in God’s plan; he concludes that humans are mean to “replace” those angels which have fallen (1.19).  Here then, Anselm arrives at the core of his problem: if humans are supposed to replace those angels which have fallen, and only the pure and spotless are able to replace them, how can humanity be purified from sin?
            Anselm characterizes humanity’s sin as both incurring debt and removing itself from the state of blessedness present in the original human creation (1.19).  The depths of this sin, continues Anselm, is great.  And, because of the gravity of sin, a payment commensurate with the offenses must be offered to God in keeping with the demands of justice.  Herein is a scholastic contribution to the project of Christian soteriology.  It recognizes the uncomfortable truth that humanity has sinned and thus forever changed its relationship with God.  Plainly put: Anselmian atonement theory recognizes that humanity has done damage to God’s plan for his creation and that there are consequences to this.   Future good works are insufficient because they only do what is already expected of God.  Thus, there is no temporal means by which humans may make retroactive payment of their sin/debt back to God (1.20)  In Anselm’s own words: [Y]ou do not make satisfaction unless you repay something greater than that for the sake of which you were obliged not to commit the sin” (1.21).  Anselm notes that sin bears a double effect.  Man’s sin violates both the positive and negative precepts of God (1.24).  Since no person can be blessed while bearing this double mark, there must be some way by which it is removed. 
            Anselm articulates redemption as a “restoration” (2.4).  He underlines his belief that no one but God can make satisfaction for the sin of humanity, though man himself ought to provide this satisfaction.  The solution is found in the birth of the “God-Man”: Jesus Christ (2.6).  Christ thus fulfills the two Anselmian requirements of repayment.  He is totally obedient to God the Father, always conforming his will to that of the Father.  He therefore avoids the previously mentioned double sin.  Christ then goes beyond the righteousness required of humanity by freely offering his life.  Thus, Anselm concludes that “if to give one’s life is to accept death, the acceptance of death, like the giving of this life, outweighs all the sins of men” (2.14).  Christ’s incarnation and death, therefore, restores man to his original position, wiping away the debt his sin has incurred.  This atonement stretches beyond those who were alive during Christ’s life, but to all who bear the same human nature that Christ bore (2.16).
            Towards the end of Book Two, Anselm again engages in a detailed discussion regarding Christ and the Father’s will, specifically in reference to the former’s self-gift to the latter.  Anselm concludes, not without some discussion, that Christ does what he ought to have done, yet was not obligated to do.  Anselm thus describes the will of Christ as being so close to that of the Father, that there could be no real question over the obligation of Christ’s sacrifice. In other words, Christ’s sacrifice is of his own will, precisely because he is so attuned to the will of the Father (2.18).  This, at its very core, undergirds Anselm’s entire soteriological argument.  Christ has done what humanity has not been able to do: show complete obedience to the will of God.  Because of his total obedience, Christ receives a reward for his act and chooses to pass this gift of redemption to humanity (2.19).  Thus, in the final account, “God demanded that man should conquer the devil, so that he who had offended by sin should atone by holiness” (2.19).  This atonement is found in the offering of the Son by the Father and, at the same time, the Son’s total offering to the Father of himself in payment for the sins of those whose nature he shared (2.20).
            Anselm’s soteriology, therefore, is an extension of his Christology.  Despite many of the modern criticisms leveled against “atonement” theology, there are a few achievements that bear mentioning.  First, Anselm contributes to the on-going understanding of the relationship between Christ’s two wills, as well as Christ’s relationship to the Father.  Christ’s obedience to the Father is thus constructed in such a way as to maintain the sovereignty of his own will.  Secondly, Anselm develops a theological system in which the effects of sin continue to be taken seriously; because of the gravity of sin, the immensity of Christ’s redemptive act is reinforced.  Finally, Anselm makes an honest attempt to describe exactly why Christ became human and subsequently suffered and died.  While there is no obligation to accept Anselm’s theory in its entirety, his scholastic insistence upon attempting to answer the soteriological question is admirable.                                                  

Questions for Discussion:
1.      (1.14) Anselm asserts, “In this matter, we should observe that, just as man in sinning seizes what belongs to God, so God in punishing takes away what belongs to man.”  What is Anselm attributing as belonging to man?  Does this position represent a break from Patristic exegetes who attributed all of man’s faculties to God?  What is it in particular that God takes away?  Does such a “taking” call into question God’s impassibility maintained by Anselm?
2.      Anselm uses “satisfaction” and “debt” terminology: nowhere, however, is there the language of the “penal.”  If Anselm was given a fair re-reading, does it present an adequate summary of God’s salvific act in Christ?  If not, is it at least an acceptable interpretation?
3.      What place, if any, does the Resurrection play in Anselm’s scheme?  Or, perhaps more specifically, does the Resurrection play a specific role in the redemption of humanity in the “atonement” configuration?

[1] Cahill, Lisa. “Quaestio Disputata, The Atonement Paradign: Does It Still Have Explanatory Value?” in Theological Studies 68 (2007), 418-432, 421.
[2] I’m indebted to my brother, Charles Sammons, OFM Cap., for assisting me in seizing upon the “genre transition” present this work.

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