Theology Thursday – Anselm on the Incarnation

Anselm published the final version of Why God Became Man in 1094. It’s a stunning achievement, structured around a fictional dialogue between himself and a curious student, named Boso. It’s popular among many Christians to assume the medieval period was a “dark age” for the church; a time of intellectual bankruptcy and stagnation. Anselm’s work proves that theory wrong.

Step by step, like a Terminator after his prey, Anselm remorselessly and relentlessly proves the necessity and purpose of the incarnation. This book is one of the most important theological works you can read on the incarnation, sin and atonement.

In this excerpt, Anslem discusses whether Christ’s death was truly willing and voluntary:1

Boso: How it is that, even granted that the lowly things of which we speak with reference to Christ do not pertain to his divinity, it may seem to unbelievers that it is inappropriate that they are said of him even with reference to his humanity. How it is, consequently, that it may seem to them that this same man did not die voluntarily?

Anselm: When God does something, ‘the will of God’ ought to be sufficient explanation for us, even if we do not see why it is his will; for the will of God is never irrational.

Boso: That is true, supposing it is agreed that God’s will lay behind the action. The fact is that many people in no way accept that God wishes something, if reason seems to conflict with it.

Anselm: What seems to you to be in conflict with reason, if we affirm that God willed the things which we believe about his incarnation?

Boso: In brief: that the Most High should stoop to such humble things; that the Almighty should do something with such great laboriousness.

Anselm: People who say this do not understand what we believe. For we affirm that the divine nature is undoubtedly incapable of suffering, and cannot in any sense be brought low from its exalted standing, and cannot labour with difficulty over what it wishes to do.

But we say that the Lord Jesus Christ is true God and true man, one person in two natures and two natures in one person. In view of this, when we say that God is suffering some humiliation or weakness, we do not understand this in terms of the exaltedness of his non-suffering nature, but in terms of the weakness of the human substance which he was taking upon himself. And thus it is seen that there is no rational objection to our faith.

For we are not, in this way, implying lowliness on the part of the divine substance, but are making plain the existence of a single person comprising God and man. Therefore, in the incarnation of God it is understood that no humiliation of God came about: rather it is believed that human nature was exalted.

Boso: Very well. Let nothing which is said of Christ in terms of the weakness of mankind be reckoned to refer to his divine nature. But how will it possibly be proved a just and rational thing that God treated, and allowed to be treated, in this way, the man whom he, as Father, called his beloved Son in whom he was well pleased, and whose nature he, as Son, took upon himself?

For what justice is it for the man who was of all the most just to be put to death for a sinner? What man would not be judged worthy of condemnation, if he were to condemn someone innocent and release the guilty party?

For the argument seems to be moving towards the same unsatisfactory position which was referred to earlier. If God could not save sinners except by condemning a just man, where is his omnipotence? If, on the other hand, he was capable of doing so, but did not will it, how shall we defend his wisdom and justice?

Anselm: God the Father did not treat that man as you apparently understand him to have done; nor did he hand over an innocent man to be killed in place of the guilty party. For the Father did not coerce Christ to face death against his will, or give permission for him to be killed, but Christ himself of his own volition underwent death in order to save mankind.

Boso: Even if it was not against the will of Christ, since he consented to the will of the Father, it nevertheless seems that the Father did coerce him, through the instructions he gave him.

For it is said that Christ ‘humbled himself, becoming obedient even to death, death, moreover, on the cross; because of which God has raised him up on high’ [Phil. 2:8 f.], and that ‘He learnt obedience from his sufferings’ [Heb. 5:8], and that the Father ‘did not spare his only Son, but handed him over on behalf of us all’ [Rom. 8:31]. And the Son says the same: ‘I have not come to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me’ [John 6:38].

And, as he was about to go to his passion, he said, ‘I am acting in accordance with the command which my Father gave me’ [John 14:31]. Likewise: ‘The cup which my Father gave me, shall I not drink it?’ [John 18:11] And in another place: ‘Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not in accordance with my will but yours’ [Matt. 26:39]. And: ‘Father, if this cup cannot pass from me unless I drink it, let your will be done’ [Matt. 26:42].

Everywhere here it is apparent that Christ endured death under the compulsion of obedience, rather than through the intention of his own free will.

Anselm: You are not drawing a proper distinction, it seems to me, between, on the one hand, what Christ did because of the demands of his obedience, and, on the other, the suffering, inflicted upon him because he maintained his obedience, which he underwent even though his obedience did not demand it.

Boso: I need you to explain this more clearly.

Anselm: Why did the Jews persecute Christ to the extent of killing him?

Boso: For no other reason than that he had maintained truth and righteousness unflinchingly in his way of life and in what he said.

Anselm: This, I think, is what God demands from every rational creature, and every creature owes this to God as a matter of obedience.

Boso: That is what we ought to accept.

Anselm: Therefore that particular man, Christ, owed this obedience to God his Father, and his humanity owed it to his divinity, and the Father was demanding this from him.

Boso: No one could doubt this.

Anselm: See: here you have what Christ did because of the demands of his obedience.

Boso: That is true, and now I see what infliction it was that he underwent because he persevered in acting obediently. For it was death which was inflicted upon him owing to the fact that he remained steadfast in obedience, and it was this that he underwent. But I do not understand why his obedience does not demand this.

Anselm: Supposing a man had never sinned: would he be under an obligation to suffer death? Would God be obliged to demand this from him?

Boso: In accordance with our beliefs, the man would not die, and neither would this be demanded from him. But I wish to hear a reasoned account of this matter from you.

Anselm: You do not deny that rational creation was created righteous, and was so created for the purpose of being happy in the fact of God’s delighted approval?

Boso: I do not deny this.

Anselm: You will, moreover, not reckon it to be at all appropriate for God to force a creature— whom he has created righteous for the purpose of happiness— to be pitiably afflicted, in spite of an absence of guilt?

Boso: It is evident that, if the man had not sinned, God ought not to demand death from him.

Anselm: God, therefore, did not force Christ to die, there being no sin in him. Rather, he underwent death of his own accord, not out of an obedience consisting in the abandonment of his life, but out of an obedience consisting in his upholding of righteousness so bravely and pertinaciously that as a result he incurred death.

Anselm: It was not, however, because the Son could not avoid death if he wished to, that he said that his cup could not pass from him if he did not drink it, but rather on the reasoning that— as has been said— it was impossible otherwise for the world to be saved. Therefore, his purpose in speaking those words was to teach the human race that it could not have been saved by any means other than by his death. He was not meaning to express the notion that he was utterly incapable of avoiding death. For all the sayings about Christ which are phrased in ways similar to these are to be interpreted in the light of a belief that he died not under any compulsion but of his own free will. For he was omnipotent, and it is said of him that, ‘he was sacrificed because he himself willed it’ [Isa. 53:7 Vulg.].

And he himself says, ‘I lay down my life so that I may own free will. For he was omnipotent, and it is said of him that, ‘he was sacrificed because he himself willed it’ [Isa. 53:7 Vulg.]. And he himself says, ‘I lay down my life so that I may take it a second time. No one is taking it away from me, but I am laying it down of my own accord. I have the power to lay it down and I have the power to take it again’ [John 10:17].

It cannot, therefore, be correctly said of him that he is in any way compelled to this action which he performs by his own power and will.

Boso: There is just one thing that does not seem to be fitting for such a Father with regard to such a Son— the fact that God allows him to be treated in this way, even if it is with his consent.

Anselm: On the contrary, it is most fitting that such a Father should agree with such a Son, if he has a desire which is praiseworthy in being conducive to the honour of God and useful in being aimed at the salvation of mankind, something which could not come about in any other way.

Boso: We are still involved in the question of how that death can be shown to be in accordance with reason, and necessary. For certainly, if it is not, it seems that the Son ought not to have wished it, nor the Father to have made it obligatory or permitted it. For the question is: why God could not save mankind in any other way.

Now, it seems unfitting for God to have saved mankind in that way, and it is not self-evident how that death to which you refer is an effective means of saving mankind. For it is a surprising supposition that God takes delight in, or is in need of, the blood of an innocent man, so as to be unwilling or unable to spare the guilty except in the event that the innocent has been killed.

… if you want to read Anselm’s answer to this next challenge, read the book.

Notes

1 St. Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, in Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford, UK: OUP, 1998; Kindle ed.), KL 5078-5133; 5198-5214.

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TylerR's picture

Editor

Read this excerpt from the article, about whether Christ really died voluntarily, and consider the force of the argument:

Anselm: You do not deny that rational creation was created righteous, and was so created for the purpose of being happy in the fact of God’s delighted approval?

Boso: I do not deny this.

This is simple - God created man to serve Him, and to have perfect happiness in this state of loving submission. So far, so good.

Anselm: You will, moreover, not reckon it to be at all appropriate for God to force a creature— whom he has created righteous for the purpose of happiness— to be pitiably afflicted, in spite of an absence of guilt?

Boso: It is evident that, if the man had not sinned, God ought not to demand death from him.

This, too, is rock-solid logic. God won't force a creature whom He created to be happy in serving Him, to be miserable - especially if the creature hasn't done anything wrong. Of course, Job might have something to say about that, but that isn't Anselm's point, here. The point is that, if a man hasn't sinned, God can't punish Him with death. This goes to Yahweh's moral character. So, what does this mean? What are the implications for the question at hand?  

Anselm: God, therefore, did not force Christ to die, there being no sin in him. Rather, he underwent death of his own accord, not out of an obedience consisting in the abandonment of his life, but out of an obedience consisting in his upholding of righteousness so bravely and pertinaciously that as a result he incurred death.

Do you see? Follow the train of thought:

  1. God cannot force a man to die, if he has not sinned. It would be unfitting and unjust for Him to do so.
  2. Christ did not sin
  3. Therefore, God did not force Him to die for our sins. To suggest this would be unfitting and unjust
  4. Therefore, Christ truly died willingly and voluntarily

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

Tyler, how is it that you manage this level of reading with kids, work, and all?  (do you sleep? Ha!)  Much appreciated--there is a theological world out there that too many of us don't even know exists, myself sometimes included.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Probably because I never watch television, and rarely watch movies. Anselm's Why God Became Man is maybe 100 - 125 pages. Not long, and it goes very, very fast due to how it's structured.

I listened to Carl Trueman's medieval church history lectures this year, and that opened up a nice world that I didn't know really existed. Anselm was an unexpected delight, even if he didn't use the KJV, and he wasn't a Baptist. I'd separate from him, but he's dead, so ...   

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ron Bean's picture

Tyler said: I'd separate from him, but he's dead, so ...   

It's the thought that counts!

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

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