Theology Thursday – Anselm on the Atonement

Anselm was a brilliant guy. A genius. He published his book Why God Became Man in 1097, so you could say it’s a bit of an antique. Anselm’s book is really about why Christ had to take on a human nature and be conceived of and born to a virgin. But, along the way, he tackled the reason for Christ’s death and thus popularized the “satisfaction theory” of atonement, which envisioned God as an overlord of sorts who was owed “satisfaction” or payment by his subjects for crimes committed, in order to set things right.

This theory is very intriguing, and it’s not too far from the penal substitution theory most conservative Christians are taught. Here is the excerpt:

What it is to sin and to give recompense for sin

Anselm: What we have to investigate, therefore, is the question: ‘By what rationale does God forgive the sins of men?’ And, so that we may do this more clearly, let us first see what it is to sin and what it is to give satisfaction for sin.

Boso: It is for you to demonstrate and for me to pay attention.

Anselm: If an angel or a man were always to render to God what he owes, he would never sin.

Boso: I cannot contradict this.

Anselm: Then, to sin is nothing other than not to give God what is owed to him.

Boso: What is the debt which we owe to God?

Anselm: All the will of a rational creature ought to be subject to the will of God.

Boso: Perfectly true.

God made us, so our duty is to be completely subject to God’s will in our lives. That’s an umbrella definition, but it seems more than big enough to cover the bases.

Anselm: This is the debt which an angel, and likewise a man, owes to God. No one sins through paying it, and everyone who does not pay it, sins. This is righteousness or uprightness of the will. It makes individuals righteous or upright in their heart, that is, their will. This is the sole honour, the complete honour, which we owe to God and which God demands from us. For only such a will, when it can act, performs actions which are pleasing to God. Even when it cannot act, it is pleasing in itself, because no work without it is pleasing. Someone who does not render to God this honour due to him is taking away from God what is his, and dishonouring God, and this is what it is to sin.

Anselm’s point is simple. God demands your entire will be subject to Him. You exist to serve Him. If you fail to do this, you commit sin and dishonor God, who is your Creator.

Anselm (cont’d): As long as he does not repay what he has taken away, he remains in a state of guilt. And it is not sufficient merely to repay what has been taken away: rather, he ought to pay back more than he took, in proportion to the insult which he has inflicted.

For just as, in the case of someone who injures the health of another, it is not sufficient for him to restore that person’s health, if he does not pay some compensation for the painful injury which has been inflicted, similarly it is not sufficient for someone who violates someone else’s honour, to restore that person’s honour, if he does not, in consequence of the harmful act of dishonour, give, as restitution to the person whom he has dishonoured, something pleasing to that person.

This makes sense. You can’t just repay God by doing what you should have done. No, you have to do more than that in order to set things right. Isn’t that what Leviticus says? If you steal from a guy, you have to pay him back more than what you stole (Lev 6:1-5). That’s why Jesus knew Zaccheaus was actually sorry (Lk 19:1-10).

Anselm (cont’d): One should also observe that when someone repays what he has unlawfully stolen, what he is under an obligation to give is not the same as what it would be possible to demand from him, were it not that he had seized the other person’s property. Therefore, everyone who sins is under an obligation to repay to God the honour which he has violently taken from him, and this is the satisfaction which every sinner is obliged to give to God.

Things won’t be right between you and God unless and until you repay the honor you stole from Him by your crimes. You have to “satisfy” God in order to set things right. This is not far at all from one aspect of the penal, substitutionary theory. The two theories are very, very close cousins. Perhaps even step-siblings.

Boso: With regard to all these matters, seeing we have undertaken to adopt a logical approach, I have nothing to say in contradiction, though you frighten me a little.

Who says Medieval guys didn’t have a sense of humor!?

Whether it is fitting for God to forgive a sin out of mercy alone, without any restitution of what is owed to him

Anselm: Let us now return to the main argument and see whether it is fitting for God to forgive a sin out of mercy alone, without any restitution of the honour taken away from him.

Boso: I do not see why this should not be fitting.

Isn’t this still a question, today? Why doesn’t God just forgive and forget? Why doesn’t He just be “loving” and forgive sin, without demanding satisfaction? Isn’t that what real love is, to forgive unconditionally?

Anselm: To forgive a sin in this way is nothing other than to refrain from inflicting punishment. And if no satisfaction is given, the way to regulate sin correctly is none other than to punish it. If, therefore, it is not punished, it is forgiven without its having been regulated.

Boso: What you say is logical.

If you don’t punish a criminal, then you’re left with unregulated lawlessness. We instinctively understand this in society, with the criminal justice system. This is why it’s “not fitting” if a municipality unconditionally “forgives” a serial killer, and lets him go without punishment. Why can’t we understand this when it comes to God’s criminal justice system, too?

Anselm: But it is not fitting for God to allow anything in his kingdom to slip by unregulated.

Boso: I am in fear of sinning, if I want to disagree.

Indeed.

Anselm: Therefore, it is not fitting for God to forgive a sin without punishment.

Boso: That follows.

I think it does, too.

Anselm: There is another thing which also follows, if a sin is forgiven without punishment: that the position of sinner and non-sinner before God will be similar— and this does not befit God.

Boso: I cannot deny it.

Why obey the law, if the law-breaker faces no penalty? Why shouldn’t we all just do whatever we want, if there’s no incentive for holy behavior? We’ll all be forgiven in the end, right? So, why not party?

Anselm: Consider this too. Everyone knows that the righteousness of mankind is subject to a law whereby it is rewarded by God with a recompense proportional to its magnitude.

Boso: This is our belief.

Anselm: If, however, sin is neither paid for nor punished, it is subject to no law.

Boso: I cannot interpret the matter in any other way.

I can’t, either …

Anselm: Therefore, sinfulness is in a position of greater freedom, if it is forgiven through mercy alone, than righteousness— and this seems extremely unfitting. And the incongruity extends even further: it makes sinfulness resemble God. For, just as God is subject to no law, the same is the case with sinfulness.

Boso: I cannot object to your reasoning. But, when God teaches us to forgive those who sin against us, he seems to be being contradictory— in teaching us to do something which it is not fitting for him to do himself.

Exactly! God wants us to forgive, but He won’t do the same without first demanding “satisfaction?” Why on earth? What a good question!

Anselm: There is no contradiction in this, because God is giving us this teaching in order that we should not presume to do something which belongs to God alone. For it belongs to no one to take vengeance, except to him who is Lord of all. I should explain that when earthly powers take action in this way in accordance with right, it is the Lord himself, by whom they have been appointed for the task, who is acting.

Interesting answer. God can demand satisfaction, because He is Creator, and vengeance belongs to Him (Deut 32:35).

Boso: You have removed what I thought to be an inherent contradiction …

If you’re interested in reading the book for yourself, you can purchase Anselm’s major works here

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There are 10 Comments

TylerR's picture

The ongoing discussion about Tim Tebow, his ripped pecs, and BJU has garnered more comments than poor Anselm has reads. So sad! It's almost as though that very thread demonstrates our total depravity, thus proving the very reason for Christ's willing sacrifice, thus providing a segue to discussing Anselm's view of the atonement ...

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

josh p's picture

Ok Tyler you baited me into it! In response to Anselm’s point about forgiveness, I am reading about Open Theism for class this week. It’s interesting to me that many of them deny Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement. I just want to ask on what grounds they can be forgiven then? 

I also wonder about the giving God His due part in relation to the Covenant of Works/Active Obedience of Christ paradigm that covenant theologians hold to. If Christ perfectly fulfilled the law in the believer’s stead, how is God satisfied by that? Isn’t that just giving God His due? Doesn’t His righteousness/holiness demand a correspondingly infinite roghteousness? 

Andrew K's picture

I've just started Anselm on my own, so I didn't think I had anything intelligent to add to the discussion yet. ;) 

But I'm very glad to see the post here, and others like it.

AndyE's picture

TylerR wrote:

The ongoing discussion about Tim Tebow, his ripped pecs, and BJU has garnered more comments than poor Anselm has reads. So sad! It's almost as though that very thread demonstrates our total depravity, thus proving the very reason for Christ's willing sacrifice, thus providing a segue to discussing Anselm's view of the atonement ...

If Anselm was a famous athlete, or if he had been invited to speak at Bob Jones, I’m sure this post would have garnered more attention.

I read it but I couldn't quite grasp his view of the atonement based on the short section you quoted.  Having just taught through Romans 1-4, my thinking regarding the atonement is focused on God being both just and the justifier. What Jesus did on the cross in regard to the atonement was done so that God the Father could justly declare guilty sinners righteous.  That means, per Rom 3:31, that the Law of God had to be upheld in this whole process. Sinners need their sins forgiven and the wrath of God appeased. This works because Jesus was our substitute who paid the penalty of our sins and took the wrath of God upon himself. I’m not sure if I see this substitutionary aspect of the atonement clearly in Anselm, or I might just not understand him.

 The other thing is that he is approaching this logically rather than textually (at least in what you quoted) and that approach always leaves me unsatisfied (pun might be noted here).  At its core, the gospel is the revelation of the righteousness of God in the person of Jesus Christ. We aren’t going to get at the full truth of the atonement without exploring its mechanics from the text of Scripture.

Andrew K's picture

AndyE wrote:

 

TylerR wrote:

 

The ongoing discussion about Tim Tebow, his ripped pecs, and BJU has garnered more comments than poor Anselm has reads. So sad! It's almost as though that very thread demonstrates our total depravity, thus proving the very reason for Christ's willing sacrifice, thus providing a segue to discussing Anselm's view of the atonement ...

 

 

If Anselm was a famous athlete, or if he had been invited to speak at Bob Jones, I’m sure this post would have garnered more attention.

I read it but I couldn't quite grasp his view of the atonement based on the short section you quoted.  Having just taught through Romans 1-4, my thinking regarding the atonement is focused on God being both just and the justifier. What Jesus did on the cross in regard to the atonement was done so that God the Father could justly declare guilty sinners righteous.  That means, per Rom 3:31, that the Law of God had to be upheld in this whole process. Sinners need their sins forgiven and the wrath of God appeased. This works because Jesus was our substitute who paid the penalty of our sins and took the wrath of God upon himself. I’m not sure if I see this substitutionary aspect of the atonement clearly in Anselm, or I might just not understand him.

 The other thing is that he is approaching this logically rather than textually (at least in what you quoted) and that approach always leaves me unsatisfied (pun might be noted here).  At its core, the gospel is the revelation of the righteousness of God in the person of Jesus Christ. We aren’t going to get at the full truth of the atonement without exploring its mechanics from the text of Scripture.

Ha, can you imagine if someone who held all of Anselm's views were to speak at BJU? That would definitely get attention. 

TylerR's picture

I suggest a dialogue between Tim Tebow and Anselm (the former Archbishop of Canterbury), moderated by Bob Jones III ...

To be serious for a moment:

  • Josh - I reject the covenant theology framework for Scripture, but I certainly believe in Christ's active and passive obedience. That is, He was perfect and sinless in our place, on our behalf (active obedience), and he willingly allowed Himself to be arrested, tried, tortured and executed for our sins, in our place, as our substitute (passive obedience). A good, friendly place to see this position is in McCune's systematic, in his discussion on Christology (vol. 2). As far as open theism goes, people who actually believe this are biblically illiterate, unsaved, or both. I am confident about being that blunt on this matter, even though the spirit of our age frowns on dogmaticism!
  • AndyE - you're right about Anselm arguing on logic, not Scripture. He would have made an excellent lawyer. Anselm does cover the points you raise, but I didn't have time ot provide excerpts. I'll probably do that in subsequent articles. His book is short, and very fast. I read it in two days, after work. I think you'd be blessed if you purchased his major works, and read Why God Became Man. It would be a wonderful required reading for a Christology class, to accompany a systematic.  

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

josh p's picture

Tyler, that’s a little short of the covenantal understanding in my opinion. Their position has more to do with Christ’s role as the second Adam and doing what was not done in the covenant of works.  I think we’ve discussed this before but the best critique of it is Andrew Snelling’s dissertation at TMS. I have read McCune on it. 

TylerR's picture

Yes, I remember our prior discussion, now. Sorry!

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Bert Perry's picture

I remember, when listening to Charles Koelsch's recitations of Spurgeon's sermons, that Spurgeon does a lot of the same thing as does Anselm--a little more Scripture, but really he uses his text as a launching pad and presumes the listener will fill in the gaps.  I wonder if that's part of what Anselm does, as some literature (e.g. Canterbury Tales, Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede) indicates that at least among some classes of people--those who could afford to go on pilgrimages, monks like Bede--there was a certain amount of Biblical knowledge that the author could assume.

A strong argument in favor of this--think Twain's indictment of Arthurian England in Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court--is that Anselm is not using Dark Ages "justice" as his starting point, but rather closer to Torah justice in arguing for restitution.  

ScottS's picture

Regarding Anselm's "Whether it is fitting for God to forgive a sin out of mercy alone, without any restitution of what is owed to him," I prefer to take a more biblical answer. It is God that bound himself to the punishment of mankind for sin by death (Gen 2:16-17), which God is true (Ps 31:5, Jn 3:33, Rom 3:4) and righteous (Ps 50:6, Dan 9:14, Rom 10:3), both of which characteristics are expressed in Dt 32:4, and manifest in his judgments (Rev 16:7).

So the penalty must be paid, whether or not God chooses to show mercy and forgive.

And thus while I believe God can mercifully forgive without atonement, such forgiveness does not of itself alleviate (1) the need for the penalty due for God to be faithful to his word and himself, nor alleviate (2) the relational rift between God and man (which requires a two-way reconciliation).

Therefore, atonement is needed to alleviate the punishment, as he is the God who forgives, but also must needs take vengeance on evil (Exo 34:7, Num 14:18, Ps 99:8). Yet if God's forgiveness is not received, then relationship is not healed. God has forgiveness waiting for those who have rebelled (Dan 9:9), and can even freely grant forgiveness toward men if he chooses (Mt 9:2, Lk 23:34), but two-way reconciliation only occurs when one asks for it (Ps 86:5, Lk 17:4), for the one asking forgiveness realizes the gravity of the offense, and loves more the one who forgives so much (Lk 7:40-50). People's eyes need to be open to receive the forgiveness offered in the gospel (Acts 26:18), the forgiveness shown in their redemption from sin's penalty of death by Christ's death (Eph 1:7).

God, expressing his willingness to forgive, has reconciled the world to himself with respect to his law that brought death, not imputing (i.e. forgiving) their trespasses toward that offense (2 Cor 5:19), but he uses believers to call on individuals to be reconciled to him (2 Cor 5:20), so that relationship can be restored by their becoming "the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Cor 5:21; through faith, so Rom 4:11, 22-25). Forgiveness is not enough; God needs to be able to see individuals to be as righteous as he is for relationship to be restored and wrath against their unrighteousness removed.

It is this last part that more biblically fits Anselm's "repaying" more than owed, though it is not really a repayment. People already owe God to be fully righteous, but fail. God pays the penalty for sin (which makes mankind able to be freed from death by the resurrection), but perfect, everlasting righteousness is the only thing that can bring right relationship to the righteous God, and that righteousness is freely given to those who believe (which makes mankind able to avoid his wrath, ultimately and finally expressed in the second death, and exist eternally with God forever).

That's my answer to why forgiveness is not enough.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

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