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.