Atonement (Part 1): A Quick Overview of Anselm’s Atonement Theory

Today we begin a quick series on the Doctrine of Atonement. We begin by looking at the theory which has framed much protestant discussion of atonement: St. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo.

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In Why God Became Man (Cur Deus Homo) Anselm is concerned with explaining the reasons for the incarnation of Christ. In the first part of the text, book one, he addresses the objections that people have put forth against the incarnation and he explains why it is impossible for humanity to be saved apart from him. In the second part of the text, book two, he addresses why it was necessary for the incarnation to occur.

In this brief blog (people have written entire dissertations on this subject!) I want to sketch out what I take to be Anselm’s message of the gospel as it is presented in Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man). In order to understand Anselm’s view of what the gospel is we must first get a grip on what he takes to be humanity’s purpose. Anselm believes that “human nature was created in order that hereafter the whole man, body and soul, should enjoy a blessed immortality”. He doesn’t elaborate much on what this blessedness is supposed to be like, but he does believe that the rational nature was created just so that it might enjoy the highest good, namely God. By enjoying God, human beings are blessed.

Anselm believes that something has occurred which has prevented human beings from attaining this blessedness. What has happened is that human beings have sinned. Since humans have sinned, they cannot attain blessedness. According to Anselm sin is “not to render his due to God”. But if sin is not rendering God his due, this begs the question, what is owed to God and what happened that humans have not rendered God his due? Anselm explains that what humans and angels owe to God is to be subject to the will of God. When one does not render one’s will to God one is taking honor away from God, therefore dishonoring him. He points out that the first instance of dishonoring God occurred when the first humans were conquered by the devil, thus subjecting themselves to the Devil’s will and not to God’s will. So for Anselm the problem is that humans have taken away honor from God.  If they are to attain blessedness they must not simply return what was taken away, they “must give back more than he (they) took away”. Thus, as long as man does not repay, he is unjust, and therefore he will not be blessed. So the question that Anselm leads his readers to ask is, how can they attain blessedness if there is a debt of honor owed to God that cannot be paid because all have sinned and are incapable of rendering the honor that God is due? There are several options. First God could remit the sin, however this option is ruled out for it would be unjust on God’s behalf to do this. A second option is that those who have taken honor away from God could be punished. A third option is that God could accept satisfaction for sin. However this satisfaction would have to be greater than the sin committed against him.  Satisfaction can be made “only when the debt that is due for sin according to the greatness of the sin has been repaid.”

However there is a problem with the notion that satisfaction can be made, namely that humans are incapable of making satisfaction since all humans are guilty of taking honor from God. This is a big problem for humans because no one has the right to make satisfaction except for man, but only God is capable of making satisfaction. The only solution would be that a God-Man makes satisfaction. This God-Man must be from the race of Adam to make satisfaction for sin, since it was humans from the race of Adam that committed the sins. Thus Anselm proceeds to explain how the God-Man was born of the race of Adam. This God man is the Son incarnate.

The God-Man lives a life free from sin thus he gives God what is due, his obedience. But the God-Man lives a life in which he gives more than what is due to God. He gives God his own life. God does not require the God-Man’s life as a debt, because there is no sin in him that would make it necessary for him to die. Because the God-man gives God more than God is due, God owes the God-Man a reward. However because the God-Man is God, he is in need of nothing, thus he has no need for the reward. Being that the reward must be given, the God-Man wills that what is owed to him by God be assigned to those for whom he died. Thus the merit which the God-Man has acquired through his death on the cross is freely given to the elect. This is the gospel according to Anselm, that humans have dishonored God and owe him a debt which is impossible to repay by anyone besides someone who is fully God and fully human, thankfully the God-man repays the debt and acquires honor that is due to him but is given to the elect. So for Anselm his gospel hangs upon the incarnation, that there is someone who is a God-man.

As Anselm explains the gospel in this dialogue, it often seems as though he believes that God necessarily acted the way that he did. This begs the question, is God bound to necessity? In one sense God is bound to necessity, but in another sense he is not. For Anselm the fact that God acts necessarily is not based upon any necessary conditions placed upon God from without. Any necessity that we might attribute to God is placed upon God by himself. For instance, God necessarily makes satisfaction for sin because it is God’s character to carry out what he began, namely of having a certain number of rational creatures enjoy blessedness and receiving the honor that he is due. A similar thing could be said for the fact that God necessarily cannot remit the sin, because it is part of God’s nature to be just and to be unjust would be against God’s nature. Thus if we are talking about any form of necessity in regards to God, it is not necessity imposed from the outside, but it is necessity that God has taken on upon himself, on account of his own changeless nature.

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