Sunday, August 2, 2015

Anslem of Canterbury on the Atonement of Christ

In this classic text, originally written in Latin in 1098, Anselm sets out his understanding of the reason why God became human. The text as written here is basically a series of short extracts from the work, which sum up its central themes. The most important point to note is its emphasis that, on account of sin, humanity has an obligation to offer God an infinite satisfaction, which only God can meet. Therefore a God-man would have both the ability (as God) and obligation (as a human) to pay this satisfaction, and thus obtain forgiveness of sins. Anselm of Canterbury writes:

The problem is, how can God forgive human sin? To clear our thoughts let us first consider what sin is, and what satisfaction for sin is… To sin is to fail to render to God what God is entitled to. What is God entitled to? Righteousness, or rectitude of will. Anyone who fails to render this honour to God, robs God of that which belongs to God, and thus dishonours God. And what is satisfaction? It is not enough simply to restore what has been taken away; but, in consideration of the insult offered, more than what was taken away must be rendered back.

Let us consider whether God could properly remit sin by mercy alone without satisfaction. So to remit sin would be simply to abstain from punishing it. And since the only possible way of correcting sin, for which no satisfaction has been made, is to punish it; not to punish it, is to leave it uncorrected. But God cannot properly leave anything uncorrected in His Kingdom. Furthermore, to leave sin unpunished would be tantamount to treating the sinful and the sinless alike, which would be inconsistent with God’s nature. And this inconsistency is injustice. It is necessary, therefore, that either the honour taken away should be repaid, or punishment should be inflicted. Otherwise one of two things follows: either God is not just to his own nature; or God is powerless to do what ought to be done, which is blasphemous supposition. The satisfaction ought to be in proportion to the sin.

Yet you have not yet duly estimated the gravity of sin. Suppose that you were standing in God’s presence, and someone said to you “look over there.” And God said, “I am altogether unwilling that you should look.” Ask yourself whether there could be anything in the whole universe for the sake of which you would allow yourself that one look against the will of God. You should not act against the will of God, not even to prevent the whole creation from perishing. And if you were to act in this way, what could you pay for this sin? You could not make satisfaction for it, unless you were to pay something greater than the whole creation. All that is created, that is, all that is not God, cannot compensate for the sin in question.

It is necessary that God should fulfil His purpose respecting human nature. And this cannot be except there be a complete satisfaction made for sin; and this no sinner can make. Satisfaction cannot be made unless there is someone who is able to pay to God for the sin of humanity. This payment must be something greater than all that is beside God… Now nothing is greater than all that is not God, except God. So nobody can make this satisfaction except God. If, then, it is necessary that the kingdom of heaven should be fulfilled by the admission of humanity, and if we cannot be admitted unless this satisfaction for sin is first made, and if God only can, and only humanity ought to make this satisfaction, then it is necessary that someone must make it who is both God and a human being.

This person must have something to offer to God which is greater than all that is lower than God, and something that can be given to God voluntarily, and not as a matter of obligation. Mere obedience would not be a gift of this kind; for every rational creature owes this obedience as a duty to God. But [Jesus] Christ was in no way under any obligation to suffer death, in that Christ never sinned. So death was an offering that he could make as a matter of free will, rather than of debt.

Now anyone who could freely offer so great a gift to God, clearly ought to be rewarded in some way… But what reward could be given to someone who needed nothing, someone who demanded neither gift nor needed a pardon?... If the Son [of God] chose to make over the claim he had on God to humanity, could the Father justly forbid Him doing so, or refuse to humanity what the Son willed to give him? What greater mercy can be conceived than that God the Father should say to sinners, condemned to eternal torment and unable to redeemed themselves: “Receive my only Son, and offer him for yourselves,” while the Son himself said: “Take me, and redeem yourselves”? And what greater justice than that One who receives a payment far exceeding the amount due, should, if it be paid with a right intention, remit all that is due?


1) Extracts from Cur Deus homo, I. xi-xxi; ll.iv-xx; in S. Anselmi Opera Omnia, ed. F.S. Schmitt, vol.2 (Edinburgh: Nelson, 1946), 68.3-89.32; 99.3-132.6
2) The Christian Theology Reader, edited by Alister E. McGrath (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1995) pg. 182-183.
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