Thursday, October 09, 2008

Anselm's Cur Deus Homo

I'm going to interrupt my series on N. T. Wright's Surprise By Hope to post a lecture I prepared and delivered this week in an introductory course in Systematic Theology at PTS. I'll return to the fifth and final installment of my series on Wright next week, which will address the pastoral implications of his argument, specifically as it relates to funeral practice. But this week, enjoy a taste of Anselm.

Text: Romans 5.6-11
[6] For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. [7] Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person--though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. [8] But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. [9] Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. [10] For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. [11] But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Most merciful and just God, we praise you for being a God of mercy and thank you for showing your mercy to us even while we were still sinners. In your son Jesus Christ you have shown your love for us, saving us from the threat of wrath and reconciling us to you as your dearly loved children. Through his death we have been reconciled and through his life we will be saved. Lord, teach us this hour to boast in you and you alone. Teach us through your son's example to act justly and to love mercy and walk humbly with you. Equip us with knowledge and wisdom so that we may speak your word of reconciliation and do your work of reconciliation. We eagerly anticipate what you will teach us as we converse with your servant Anselm, relying on your Spirit to guide us into all truth. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

When I was 11 years old, I drove my mom's Honda Accord through our garage door. A few months earlier my dad had taught me how to start a car, and so my folks would let me start it when I was waiting for them in the morning before school or after church while they talked to their friends. The car needed to warm up, especially during the winter. You'd start it and it would be all revved up for a few minutes and then eventual drop to a normal idle. So I thought I was really helping out by starting it, even though I suspect they were just trying to get me off their backs. One morning I thought I would help my mom out even more by putting the car in gear. Needless to say, I had no idea a car in reverse would just go without pressing the gas, but it did. And unfortunately this particular morning I apparently forgot to open the garage door, and so the neighors saw a 4-door maroon sedan crash through our garage door that morning, eventually coming to a screaching halt in the middle of the road.

Now the crash woke my father, who ran out terrified. That was his first response: fear. But fear quickly turned to a combination of disbelief and anger that I had done such a thing. There was no immediate consequence, other than showing up a little late to school. But eventually my father approached me with a plan: I would work so many hours of new duties and projects around the house to help pay for the new garage door. The amount of hours seemed astronomical to me, an impression I imprudently shared with my parents. They explained to me that my hours of work did not come close to paying for the new door. In fact, they did the math and showed me I was theoretically getting paid $60 per hour. My folks had required a justifiable payment from me which I could not pay in full, and so they found a way for me to learn a lesson about responsibility and restitution even while they foot the bill.

This is my story. But you all have stories like these. Stories of the strange interplay of justice and mercy. And many of you have heard these stories in sermons as a way of illustrating the saving significance of Jesus's death. These stories of justice and mercy highlight a certain line of soteriological thinking, embedded in refrains such as "Jesus died for your sins," "Jesus took my sins away," "Jesus was punished in our place," and "Jesus paid it all."

Our task today is twofold. First, I want to show you where this line of thinking comes from. Out of respect for Anselm, we must acknowledge this deep influence he has had on Western Christian soteriology even today. And out of respect for other streams and movements within Christianity, we must acknowledge that this is not the only way of thinking about salvation in Christ, but rather a particular formulation with its own particular genesis and development.

Second, I want you to see that much of what passes for a representation of this line of thinking today is a distortion of a rich tradition, even as we learn to acknowledge the problems inherent in this tradition. Earlier this week, my brother-in-law saw me reading Anselm on the shuttle. He asked me what my take on Anselm was. I said, "He's not as bad as everyone says he is, but there certainly are some problems." My hope is that those of you who have acquired a prejudice against Anselm and all he represents will begin to respect and even enjoy him, while those of you who consider yourselves champions of Anselmic soteriology will take pause and engage in some self-criticism.

To achieve these ends, let's engage in an analysis of Anselm's Cur Deus Homo, deploying the skills you have been honing in your weekly papers. In order to get a sense of the big picture, I'll organize my analytical commentary today around a narrative analysis of the text. Instead of just walking you through this rather long text, I have asked, "What story is Anselm telling us?" This is a good question to ask, provided one's reconstruction of the narrative is and remains rooted in the text itself and that one's reconstruction does not over-determine the interpretation of the text. With this big picture narrative in front of us, we will be able to engage in a conceptual analysis of selected passages along the way. Also, and especially in our discussion of the later stages of the story, we will seek to open ourselves up to be formed spiritually by the text. We'll do this by means of a rhetorical analysis, asking: "What is Anselm trying to do to us?" So, we begin with a narrative analysis to provide an overall structure within which we will also engage in conceptual and rhetorical modes of analysis. The pay off for employing these modes of analysis in tandem with each other is not only a deeper understanding of the text but also a deeper understanding of the God of whom the text speaks. Specifically, the honor of God, the justice and mercy of God, and the beauty of God will all come to the fore at key intervals within our commentary. So, without further ado, let's get into it.

In order to get a bird's eye view, let's transpose Anselm's argument into a story. Three basic elements of a story are character, setting and plot.
Who are the characters in Anselm's story?
• God.
• Angels, both good and bad (fallen).
• The Devil, chief among the fallen angels.
• Humans.
• Christ, the God-human.

Where does the story take place?
• Heaven, God's created abode where Christ and the Angels come from and where humans are destined to enjoy eternal happiness
• Earth, where both the fall and the incarnation take place.

What is the plot? Here we need to take a little more time. Remember Freytag's five stages of drama from high school English lit? Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Denouement. Let's use those stages to get a skeleton of the story before us, and then walk through each of stage in order to engage in a closer analysis.

1. Exposition: Humans are created for immortal happiness.
2. Rising Action: Humans fail to give honor to God but can’t repay it.
3. Climax: Christ, the God-human, dies to pay humanity's debt.
4. Falling Action: Christ gives his reward to humans, who imitate him in humble obedience.
5. Denouement: Humans enter the heavenly city, restoring order to the cosmos and enjoying divine blessedness forever.

Okay, with that in front of us, let's go through the story step-by-step, stopping along the way to assess the coherence of the narrative, clarify the concepts of the argument, and open ourselves up to the formative influence of the God of whom Anselm speaks.

1. Exposition: Humans are created for immortal happiness.

In the opening scenes of a dramatic narrative, the characters are introduced. God populates heaven and earth with angels and humans in proper proportion and harmony with each other and God. God as creator deserves the honor of his creatures, expressed through absolute obedience to his will. Such honor and obedience is not demanded arbitrarily, but precisely as the means to human happiness (II.1). Humans are destined for immortality, but their immortality is not guaranteed; they are able to die (I.18). They must persist in choosing the good to achieve true immortality, being not able to die, and so enjoy God's blessedness forever. Note the opening note of beauty, order, and harmony. Following the tradition, the beginning and end rhyme for Anselm. The beauty, order and harmony of the cosmos in relation to God and to itself is the goal that drives the narrative. This is easy to lose track off when we get into the ugliness of sin and atonement (note: the ugliness of the latter is only apparent). This is one of the benefits of narrative analysis: it keeps our mind on the big picture in the context of which we should understand the details, many of which are troubling at first glance and even at second glance. Well, on to those juicy details.

2. Rising Action: Humans fail to give honor to God and cannot repay it.

The exposition concludes with the inciting action: the first humans fall from grace by not giving God his due. The bad angels fall as well, but that's not the main line of the narrative. Although under the devil's influence, humans are culpable for dishonoring God. Now Anselm goes out of his way to say that God's honor cannot in fact be besmirched (I.15), as his honor is a se and immutable [review these terms]. But the revelation of God's honor on the world's stage can be besmirched. And this is not just a problem of appearances, because so dishonoring God wreaks havoc on the created order. And as Anselm repeatedly reminds us, God does not let anything go unregulated in his kingdom (I.12). So God must restore his honor on earth.

How does God restore his honor? Per his custom, Anselm lays out a couple options for rational consideration. Either (a) God can annihilate humans, (b) God can punish humans, or (c) humans can repay the debt of honor owed to God. So: (a) annihilation, (b) punishment, or (c) satisfaction. Now it is not hard to see the influence of Anselm's sociopolitical context here. In the context of medieval feudalism, the vassal owes honor to the lord of the realm. A lord cannot simply overlook a snub or insult from a vassal, because the security of the whole hierarchical system would be undermined. And so the lord would either punish the vassal or the vassal would find a way to make it up to the lord through assorted acts of devotion.

But here is where the analogy breaks down. For, contrary to many of his critics, Anselm does not paint God as a demanding thug consumed with his reputation. Rather, God's concern for his honor is good for us. The restoration of God's honor is the means by which human happiness is restored. This can be seen in the way Anselm sets aside option (a) annihilation. Anselm argues that if God annihilated his creatures then they would have been created to no avail. But God created humans with a purpose: namely, to attain blessed happiness in the vision of God (II.1, II.4). This reasoning is important because it reveals that Anselm is not solely concerned with the restoration of God's honor; he is also deeply concerned with the restoration of humanity to its destined happiness in God. So the divine dilemma is not only self-referential but concerns us and our well-being.

Having set aside the annihilation option, the only remaining options are punishment or satisfaction. Punishment versus satisfaction. That's the basic dilemma that drives the first book of Anselm's Cur Deus Homo. [Note: not penal substitution; cf. Hieb] Since this is a crucial conceptual pair, let's take a closer look at a particular passage. Turn with me to book I, chapter 11.
- question: logic of forgiveness
- sin = not giving God his due (i.e., injustice)
- debt = absolute submission to God's will
- sinner's debt: repay honor ... with interest! (restitution)

That's our problem. But now let's view this problem from God's perspective. Turn the page to the next chapter (I.12):
- divine forgiveness is not by mercy alone
- because of divine righteousness, sin is either punished or satisfied.
- the means of forgiveness must befit God's nature, which is just
So God must either punish or be repaid on account of his justice. Unregulated forgiveness is not an option. Now this may seem strange to your ears because you have heard that God loves you unconditionally. But the language of satisfaction as internal to the process of forgiveness would be familiar to Anselm's readers. The term “satisfaction” in fact comes from the practice of penance. The three acts of the penitent: contrition, confession, satisfaction. The act of the priest as God's representative: absolution. So satisfaction was seen as a natural part of the process of absolution or forgiveness.

But this sacramental background to satisfactionary thinking is not the whole story. For the sacramental system of penance itself rests, at least in Anselm's mind, on the doctrine of God. The reason that satisfaction is internal to forgiveness is because God is a just God. Now Anselm could affirm the grain of truth in the statement that God loves us unconditionally, inasmuch as the just requirements of the law are not imposed on God from without. But Anselm would argue that there are restraints that are internal to God's own nature. What is "necessary" for God is only what befits his consistent character (1.12; II.5). The one God is both merciful and just (I.24; II.20). So, unlike human judges, God need not and cannot choose between mercy and justice when God forgives. Divine forgiveness must be both merciful and just, or it is it not divine forgiveness. One of the ironies of the Anselmic tradition is the tendency to pit God's mercy and justice against one another, when Anselm's whole point is that they go together. There is a divine dilemma, but it's not between mercy and justice, but between punishment and satisfaction. Anselm's point is the God seeks a just means of satisfaction so that we might be shown mercy.

Shifting gears back from a conceptual to a narrative mode of analysis, we can see that this divine dilemma supplies the tension or rising action of the second act of the drama of salvation. The tension rises in Anselm's account by showing the impossibility of humans paying God back for their sin of dishonor (I.19-25). Unlike offences on the creaturely plane, a single act of disobedience to God is of cosmic proportion, on account of God's infinite worth. So nothing we can give God is sufficient to pay the debt we owe. Unless some alternative means of recompense presents itself, the only option left is punishment, which in this case means death and therefore the loss of eternal blessedness. The last portion of Book I is designed to let us hang for a little while in this suspense. Anselm is not only setting up for his argument in Book II, but also getting us to take a serious look at the problem that we have got ourselves into. By what means can we be saved? There seems to be no way out. Punishment awaits us. Who can save us? Enter the God-human, whose action constitutes the climax or turning point of the story.

3. Climax / Turning Point: Christ, the God-human dies to pay humanity's debt.

Look at II.6 with me for a moment: "If, therefore, as is agreed, it is necessary that the heavenly city should have its full complement made up from members of the human race, and this cannot be the case if the recompense of which we have spoken is not paid, which no one can pay except God, and no one ought to pay except man: it is necessary that a God-Man should pay it." Salvation comes through recompense, paying humanity's debt to God. Only a human ought to pay. But on account of the enormity of the debt, only God has the infinite worth at his disposal to pay it. And so the only means of recompense is a mediator who is both God and human.

In Anselm's narrative, the cross is the turning point. He talks a lot about the incarnation, and that's because he is trying to prove that the incarnation is the necessary precondition for the cross. But Christ's ontological constitution is not itself saving, as it was for, say, Gregory of Nyssa. Rather, Christ's ontological constitution makes him to be the kind of person who can save us through his death as a distinct act. [This is the crucial difference between D-soteriologies and A-soteriologies, despite the many motifs (restoration, imitation, etc.) they may share.] How does Christ's death save us? By sharing in our humanity, Christ is able to die. By sharing in God's divinity, Christ is unable to sin and so does not strictly have to die. On account of the infinite worth of this one divine-human person, the giving up of himself in death is a sufficient recompense for any and all dishonor shown to God. In other words, Jesus paid it all.

Now we need to stop here to assess what Anselm has accomplished. First of all, he has presented a masterful argument for the coherence of Chalcedonian Christology with the larger body of Christian thought (cf. I.8; II.7). He has shown that the incarnation is not some sort of oddity attached to the Christian faith, but a logically necessary belief for those who believe everything else Christianity teaches. [FQI] Of course, the irony is that he has turned the doctrinal tradition on its head by arguing from his own idiosyncratic soteriology to the dogmatically secured doctrine of the incarnation. He thereby gives the impression that his soteriology is more dogmatically secure than Chalcedonian Christology, when the reality is opposite. Now I say "impression," because in the context of Anselm's procedure of faith seeking understanding no one doctrine forms the foundation for all the others. Rather, this is a coherence argument. But the impression is nevertheless there. I, for one, find the argument to be both powerful and beautiful, so much so that it lends credence to his soteriology. But we must be careful to not grant it dogmatic status too quickly.

In the process of making this masterful argument, he has made two major shifts in the way the story of redemption is told: one regarding the characters and the other regarding the plot. Regarding the characters, he has found a way to sideline the devil's role in the story. The devil is still there, but his role is significantly diminished. This move is not an accident, but a direct though respectful critique of Augustine. Augustine and other patristic theologians would also say that in the death of Christ God rendered a payment. But they understood this payment as a ransom, with the devil as its recipient. Anselm says No to this whole way of thinking, because it gives the devil too much authority and turns redemption into a gladiator game. Instead, the payment is an act of devotion and obedience, with God as its recipient (I.7; II.19). The positive consequence of this shift is that the mythological cosmic battle with the devil is de-centered so that the moral encounter between God and humanity may take center stage. The negative consequence is that dual protagonists in this story (God and humanity) are at the same time the antagonists, God in terms of his wrath and humanity in terms of its sin. This is one of those points where the tradition flowing from Anselm becomes so easily distorted, painting God as a bloodthirsty tyrant who thinks being human is a capital crime. I believe these distortions can be overcome, but it requires considerable care and constructive energy.

Regarding the plot, by making the cross (as a distinct act apart from the incarnation) the climax of the story, Anselm managed to forget the resurrection. Now observing what is missing is always a tricky endeavor. I've encouraged my preceptees to beware of arguments from silence. Why? Because Cur Deus Homo is not the only treatise Anselm wrote, and so he may say much about the resurrection elsewhere (in documents either extant or lost, or in his undocumented preaching and teaching). Furthermore, noting a missing element in a text does not imply that the person does not believe in it, but only that it performs no function in the text at hand. Lastly, an argument from silence places on the one making it a heavy burden of proof to demonstrate that the missing element should be there. With these caveats in place, however, we can justifiably ask: Whatever happened to the resurrection? If atonement is finished on the cross, what is the purpose of the resurrection? Now many answers have been provided to this question throughout the development of second millennium Western Christian theology. But the fact that it even needs to be asked shows that Anselmic soteriology can be fully formulated without reference to the resurrection. I, for one, consider this a problem. [And in the interest of full disclosure, my dissertation research is focused on the doctrine of resurrection in conversation with the modern Anselm, Karl Barth].

Okay, enough assessment. Back to the story.

4. Falling Action: Christ gives his reward to humans, who imitate him in humble obedience.

Although Anselm does not spend much time explicitly addressing the here and now appropriation of salvation, he does directly address the effects of the climactic action of Christ in terms of reward and imitation in book II, chapter 19. Here's a revealing quote: "On whom is it more appropriate to bestow the reward and recompense for his death than on those for whose salvation, as the logic of truth teaches us, he made himself a man, and for whom, as we have said, he set an example, by his death, of dying for the sake of righteousness? For they will be imitators of him in vain, if they are not to be sharers in his reward" (II.19). Since Christ's life is of infinite worth, he not only can give up his life to God the father as a recompense on our behalf but also is in no need of a reward from God the father for this great act of self-sacrifice. And so the reward of eternal blessedness, which Christ deserves but does not need, is shared with his human brothers and sisters. But with which of his many brothers and sisters is this reward shared? Well, obviously those who are like him, those who imitate him in his love for justice.

Cast in the light of this concluding call to imitate Christ, the whole of Cur Deus Homo can be read as a description of divine pedagogy: the life and death of the God-human teaches us how to live. Why did God become human? The answer is not only "to die for our sins," but also "to teach us how to live." In Christ God has taught us to be merciful in our execution of justice and just in our acts of mercy. In Christ God has taught us to obey him in all things whatever the circumstance. In Christ God has taught us to live righteously not for the sake of reward but out of sheer love for God. In Christ God has taught us to give of our own self for others. Now all the proper caveats need to be introduced here: we are not God, and so we cannot punish sinners justly, demand infinite restitution for dishonor, subsist in two natures, die for the sins of the world, or give and receive honor within a communion of three persons in one being. [Note: response to 'divine child abuse' line of criticism]. Anselm introduces such caveats from time to time (e.g., I.12). But the caveats are not the point. The point is that in Christ God has introduced us to his character and calls us to "Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (Eph 5:1-2). May it be so with us.

5. Denouement: Humans enter the heavenly city, restoring order to the cosmos and enjoying divine blessedness forever.

In the final stage of a comedic drama, we find the protagonist in a situation as good as, if not better than, where they started. Humans are in a sense restored, but not in the sense of a do-over (and so with the potential of falling again) but in the sense of finally reaching the destiny for which God created them. What is this destiny? To be forever happy in the enjoyment of God. It is impossible for a sinner to enter into happiness, both because of the affront to God's honor within the created order and because the debt owed to God would spoil the enjoyment of God. So the recompense paid by the God-human is the means by which this barrier is removed. But salvation is completed not in the removal of the barrier but in arriving at the goal.

Having come to the end of the plot, you can see how the "death of Christ" and "going to heaven" are so closely tied in contemporary preaching and evangelism. But the reduction of salvation to these two foci is a distortion of Anselm's intentions, even if he left the door wide open to it. Anselm understands the salvation of humanity as instrumental to God's restoration of the cosmos. He makes this point by means of his claim that the number of restored humans makes up for the number of the fallen angels. The excursus on angels (I.16-18) is not irrelevant to his soteriology, and the conclusions of that section reappear at crucial moments (e.g., II.6). In sending Christ to atone for our sins, God is restoring order to the universe. So the restoration motif provides the context for Anselm's atonement-driven soteriology. Losing sight of this will inevitably lead to a reductionistic "die and go to heaven" understanding of salvation.

As we come to the end of the story, we see that it rhymes with the beginning. The original beauty, order and harmony of the cosmos are restored. With this goal in mind, everything else takes on a different hue. The work of God in Christ is the rational and just means by which the wise God skillfully orchestrates the masterpiece of his creation. The human works of humble obedience bring us into harmony with Christ as his imitators and into harmony with God's good creation. By our little acts of submission to God we are "maintaining the beauty of the universe" (I.15). And even the work of theology because an aesthetic exercise. As Anselm explains in the opening lines of this treatise, Christians seek to perceive the logical coherence of Christian doctrines, the "utility and beauty of its logic," "in order that they may take delight in the understanding and contemplation of the things which they believe" (I.1). This aesthetic appreciation for Christian doctrine is not only enjoyable in itself but also useful for training us to be "ready always to give satisfaction to all who ask the reason for the hope that is in us [I Pet 3:15]" (I.1). May our time spent wrestling with Anselm today help you to catch a glimpse of the beauty and utility of theology.

Any thoughts?


Aulen, Gustaf. Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement. New York: Macmillan, 1969.

Balthasar, Hans Urs von. Theo-Drama. Vol. IV. Ignatius Press, 1994. Cf. ch. 3, esp. pp. 255-261.

Browning, Don S. Atonement and Psychotherapy. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966. Cf. ch. 3.

Charry, Ellen. By the Renewing of Your Minds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Cf. ch. 7, esp. 168-172.

Eckardt, Burnell F. Anselm and Luther on the Atonement: Was it "Necessary"? San Francisco: Mellen Research University Press, 1992.

Fortin, John R., ed., Saint Anselm: His Origins and Influence. Lewiston, N.Y. : E. Mellen Press, 2001. Cf. esp. chs. 1, 4, 6.

Heyer, George S. "St. Anselm on the Harmony Between God's Mercy and God's Justice," in The Heritage of Christian Thought, eds. R. E. Cushman and E. Grislis. New York: Harper & Row. Pp. 31-40.

Murphy, Jeffrie G. and Hampton, Jean. Forgiveness and Mercy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Steindl, Helmut. Genugtuung: Biblisches Versöhnungsdenken, eine Quelle für Anselms Stisfaktionstheorie? Freiburg, Switzerland: Universitätsverlag, 1989. An English-language book review by Colin Gunton can be found in Journal of Theological Studies 43:1 (Apr 1992), pp. 283-286.

Williams, George Huntston. Anselm: Communion and Atonement. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 1960.

1 comment:

David W. Congdon said...


This is a very nice lecture. I was wondering if you would explain what "D-soteriologies" and "A-soteriologies" are, and if you would elaborate on what your response in class was to the "divine child abuse" argument, since in the posted text you simply mention where you gave that response. Thanks!