A Non-Violent Reading of Anselm's Atonement Theology

Post by
Alvin Rapien

What I propose is a “non-violent” approach to Anselm’s theology of atonement, which interprets satisfaction theory (1) in its religious (rather than feudal) context and (2) within Anselm’s broader theology.

“Anselm understood Jesus’ death as the debt payment that satisfied the honor of God, and thus restored balance and order in the universe….  Maintaining order in the universe depends on maintaining the honor of God, which necessitates a debt payment – the death of Jesus – to cover the offense to Gods honor that was enacted by human sin…  Although Anselm’s understanding of satisfaction atonement differs significantly from penal substitutionary atonement, I have treated them together as two versions of atonement that depict a divine need for Jesus’ death and that thus direct the death of Jesus Godward.  Although in different ways, each depends on retribution.  The conclusion is inescapable that any and all versions of satisfaction atonement, regardless of their packaging, assume the violence of retribution or justice based on punishment, and depend on God-induced and God-directed violence.” [1]

The above passage indicates how Anselm is predominantly interpreted in atonement debates.  It is also widely acknowledged that the language of Anselm’s so-called “satisfaction theory of atonement” influenced later theologians to eventually articulate penal substitutionary atonement, which explains why some argue that Anselm’s atonement theology is directly related to penal substitution.[2]  Many assert that Anselm incorporated the language of the feudal system of his day, which led to a distorted idea of atonement: God is a feudal lord whose honor is offended and demands satisfaction through the form of violent punishment. Furthermore, the only one who can fully satisfy the infinitely offended God is the infinite God in human form, Jesus Christ.[3]

Others claim that Anselm “has a problem with forgiveness”. Anselm, in this reading, upholds justice and punishment as the only way to receive forgiveness: someone has to be punished in order to satisfy the justice of God.  This “satisfaction theory of atonement” flies in the face of the New Testament adage to not repay evil for evil.[4]

However, I want to critique such a reading of Anselm.  Instead, what I propose is a “non-violent” approach to Anselm’s theology of atonement, which interprets satisfaction theory (1) in its religious (rather than feudal) context and (2) within Anselm’s broader theology.

The Religious Language of Anselm

Jaroslav Pelikan interprets Anselm’s language of “satisfaction” not within the feudal system, but within the context of the then-developing “penitential system of the church”.[5]  One must consider Anselm’s place among the clergy, as a bishop of the church – as an ecclesial theologian who speaks in religious language.  Pelikan does just this, thereby illuminating the language of “satisfaction” within Anselm’s theology of atonement:

“The earliest of Latin theologians had already spoken of penance as a way of ‘making satisfaction to the Lord,’ and the term ‘satisfaction’ had become standard. When Anselm came to speak of what was required as a consequence of human sin, the satisfaction offered in penance was a natural analogy, but one that was inadequate because, even in rendering such satisfaction, man was giving God only what he owed him. But the satisfaction offered by the death of Christ possessed infinite worth, and thus the redemption on the cross could be seen as the one supreme act of penitential satisfaction. ‘Satisfaction,’ then, was another term for ‘sacrifice,’ and Christ’s sacrificial act of penance made even human acts of satisfaction worthy, since of themselves they were not. It also gave authority to the pronouncement of absolution by a ‘visible priest,’ for Christ as the true priest had earned such absolution for all sinners. It was fitting, then, that the act by which ‘our Christ has redeemed us through the cross’ should be appropriate by the individual through penance.” [6]

Such a reading belongs to the inner logic of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, where prayer is mentioned in connection with payment, such as section 1.19.  However, this does not solve the complicated language concerning honor, justice, and forgiveness.  Even if one interprets Christ’s death as a “sacrificial act of penance”, for what reason does Christ die? Here, many would respond (echoing or mocking Anselm): “to satisfy God’s honor and justice”.  Why is there a roadblock between humanity and salvation, a roadblock composed of God’s honor and justice?  We must first explore Anselm’s reasoning regarding why humanity should not simply be forgiven in light of his larger theological context.

Forgiveness and Restoration Anselm’s Theology

Anselm declares that it is “not fitting for God to pass over anything in his kingdom undischarged”.[7]  It would seem from this statement alone that Anselm apparently does have a problem with forgiveness.  However, Anselm gives two important reasons as to why God does not simply pass over sins unpunished.  First, if God simply forgives then “there will be no difference between the guilty and the not guilty; and this is unbecoming to God”.[8] Second, “without voluntary payment of the debt”, sinners are unable to enjoy the holy and heavenly presence of God due to their sinfulness since sin distorts one’s heart.  This distortion prevents one from “attain[ing] that happiness, or happiness like that, which he had before he sinned; for man cannot in this way be restored, or become such as he was before he sinned.”[9]  The first reason is one many find objectionable: why does it matter of one party is guilty and the other is not?  If God forgives, why does the gap between those that are guilty/non-guilty exist?  The answer lies within the second reason: it is not forgiveness alone that humanity needs, but also restoration.  In other words, as Daniel M. Bell, Jr. asserts, Anselm rejects “redemption as sheer negative pardon”; that is, atonement is not “simply letting sinners off the hook, as God simply ignoring our sin as we are left otherwise unchanged”.[10]  When humanity sins, the order and beauty of the universe is disturbed, so simply “forgiving and forgetting” is not enough to bring shalom to creation.

Since sin has corrupted humanity and the cosmos, making them unable to enjoy the gifts and presence of God, humanity needs more than a judicial declaration that one’s sins are forgiven.  Without restoration to holiness, humanity is unable to enjoy the supreme Good, which is God.[11] Forgiveness by itself does not sanctify: “Redemption construed as sheer negative pardon would result in humanity gaining entrance to heaven but still in need and thus devoid of blessedness.  As a result, heaven would be hell.”[12]  This sanctification is accomplished through restoration, which is at the heart of Anselm’s introductory thesis in Cur Deus Homo: “God became man, and by his own death, as we believe and affirm, restored life to the world”.[13] Overlooking this important aspect of anthropological restoration in Anselm’s theology obscures his illustration of atonement.  The telos of atonement is, according to Anselm, not the payment of debts but the restoration of the cosmos, which is reconciliation with God.

What of God’s Honor and the Necessity of Satisfaction?

We must now turn to the language of “honor” in regards to the Creator-creature relationship.  In Cur Deus Homo, Boso asks Anselm why God would allow the Divine honor to be affected in any way, since this would imply some weakness in the Divine perfection.  Anselm responds that a creature is unable to take away or add to the Creator; rather, this language functions as something creatures do in their relation to God, not actually affecting the Divine nature in and of itself:

“And when the being chooses what he ought, he honors God; not by bestowing anything upon him, but because he brings himself freely under God’s will and disposal, and maintains his own condition in the universe, and the beauty of the universe itself, as far as in him lies. But when he does not choose what he ought, he dishonors God, as far as the being himself is concerned, because he does not submit himself freely to God’s disposal. And he disturbs the order and beauty of the universe, as relates to himself, although he cannot injure nor tarnish the power and majesty of God…  It is then plain that no one can honor or dishonor God, as he [God] is in himself; but the creature, as far as he is concerned, appears to do this when he submits or opposes his will to the will of God.”[14]

Therefore, a superficial reading of Anselm’s language of creatures “dishonor[ing] God by sinning” must be corrected by the notion that Divine honor is ultimately untouched by creatures.[15] The superficial reading is usually supplemented by the critique that the concepts of “justice” and “necessity” somehow control Anselm’s formulation of atonement.  In other words, God is bound by some devotion to justice and must act in accordance with its regulations.  Again, Anselm dispels this myth by explicitly asserting “that it is improper to affirm of God that he does anything, or that he cannot do it, of necessity.”[16]  Rather, “all necessity and impossibility is under” God’s control, since “nothing is necessary” without Divine decree.[17] Anselm posits God as ultimately free, because “no necessity or impossibility exists before [God’s] choice or refusal, so neither do they interfere with his acting or not acting”.[18] With this understanding of forgiveness, restoration, honor, and necessity in place, we must now re-read Anselm’s atonement theology.

Re-Reading Anselm’s Atonement Theology

One of the major issues within Cur Deus Homo is Anselm’s declaration that humanity is indebted to God, but is unable to pay it:

“[Humanity] has voluntarily brought upon himself a debt which he cannot pay, and by his own fault disabled himself, so that he can neither escape his previous obligation not to sin, nor pay the debt which he has incurred by sin. For his very inability is guilt, because he ought not to have it; nay, he ought to be free from it; for as it is a crime not to have what he ought, it is also a crime to have what he ought not. Therefore, as it is a crime in man not to have that power which he received to avoid sin, it is also a crime to have that inability by which he can neither do right and avoid sin, nor restore the debt which he owes on account of his sin. For it is by his own free action that he loses that power, and falls into this inability.”  [19]

Despite humanity’s inability to repay the debt to God, Anselm refers to humanity as an “inexcusable” party.[20]  What is this “debt” that humanity owes to God?  Boso asks this question to Anselm, and the latter responds that “[e]very wish of a rational creature should be subject to the will of God.”[21] Expanding on this answer, Anselm states that the “uprightness of will… is the sole and complete debt of honor which we owe to God, and which God requires of us.”[22]  It is, as we have seen earlier, “when the being chooses what he ought, he honors God”. However, in order to make things right again, to bring shalom to the relationship, it is not enough that one simply begins to honor God again in their will and actions.  Rather, the transgressor “must, according to the extent of the injury done, make restoration in some way satisfactory to the person whom he has dishonored.”[23] However, how does a creature make up the debt owed to the Creator?

Anselm interrogates Boso regarding what he does as payment to God for his sins.  Boso responds: “Repentance, a broken and contrite heart, self-denial, various bodily sufferings, pity in giving and forgiving, and obedience.”[24]  With Anselm pressing him further, Boso articulates that these actions honor God because he “submit[s] obediently to [God], freely bestowing my possessions in giving to and releasing others”.[25] Anselm incisively responds:

“When you render anything to God which you owe him, irrespective of your past sin, you should not reckon this as the debt which you owe for sin. But you [already] owe God every one of those things which you have mentioned… For you do not deserve to have a thing which you do not love and desire for its own sake, and the want of which at present, together with the great danger of never getting it, causes you no grief… But you ought to view the gifts which you bestow as a part of your debt, since you know that what you give comes not from yourself, but from him whose servant both you are and he also to whom you give… But what do you give to God by your obedience, which is not owed him already, since he demands from you all that you are and have and can become?”  [26]

In other words, if everything bestowed upon creatures is already a gift and owed to the Creator, how can creatures restore that which they have taken away?  Conceding to Anselm’s argument, Boso replies: “Truly I dare not say that in all these things I pay any portion of my debt to God.”[27] How, then, will humanity be saved?  Boso somberly declares that he sees “no way of escape”, and that he must turn to his Christian faith for answers.  Anselm refrains from turning to Christ, stating that “we set aside Christ and his religion as if they did not exist, when we proposed to inquire whether his coming were necessary to man’s salvation.”[28]  The apologetic nature of Cur Deus Homo is reinforced here, with the dilemma of how humanity pays it debt to God still unresolved.  After several chapters concerning the burden of sin and debt to God, Anselm ultimately concludes at the end of Book I of Cur Deus Homo that if “it is false that man cannot be saved all, or that he can be saved in any other way, his salvation must necessarily be by Christ.”[29]

Christ and the Salvation of Humanity

As God incarnate, Christ “was not bound to do anything as a debt”, making “him [free] from all obligation, except to do as he chose.”[30]  However, how did pay the debt humanity owes to God?

Drawing on the Chalcedonian formula that Christ is both fully God and fully man, Anselm remarks that “the united natures of Christ… perform[ed] that part of the work needful for man’s restoration which the human nature could not do.”  This “work” was paying God due honor with is entire life, even to the point of death.  This is in accordance with what Anselm states in Book I of Cur Deus Homo: “And when the being chooses what he ought, he honors God”.  As the Incarnate God, Christ perfectly lived out a human life who devoted his entire human will to God.  Christ “gave his humanity to his divinity”, even to the point of death.  In this way, we can say that “the Son freely gave himself to the Father.”[31]Thus, Christ’s death was a totally free choice and not a death forced by necessity, debt, or due honor to the Father.[32] Christ gave up his own life of pure obedience, a life that is described as a precious gift by Anselm, to the Father.[33] It is at this point that Anselm brings up a Divine dilemma:

“He who rewards another either gives him something which he does not have, or else remits some rightful claim upon him. But anterior to the great offering of the Son, all things belonging to the Father were his, nor did he ever owe anything which could be forgiven him. How then can a reward be bestowed on one who needs nothing, and to whom no gift or release can be made?” [34]

Since Christ needs nothing by virtue of being God, what happens to the reward of the Father?  This “reward so large and so deserved” is given to those who are united with Christ.  Since Christ was also fully human, the Son fulfilled and even exceeded the debt humanity owed to God, allowing humanity to go so far as to participate in the Divine life.  “God is said to have done what that man did, on account of the personal union made [in Christ between the Divine and human natures]…  God demanded that man should conquer the devil, so that he who had offended by sin should atone by holiness.”[35] Note the language of the latter statement: atonement is made through holiness via obedience of the Son, not punishment.  Anselm notes that the debt of humanity is not paid, but graciously exceeded, for “the gift of [Christ’s] life surpasses all the sins of men”.[36] Bell summarizes Christ’s work not as a human payment of debt, but as a Divine donation:

“Satisfaction is a matter of God’s desire for humanity being accomplished.  In this sense, Christ’s faithfulness even to the point of death on the cross marks not a divine demand for retribution but a divine refusal to hold our rebellion against us.  The Father’s love and the Son’s faithfulness to the desire to redeem us is such that God will even go the cross rather than withdraw the offer of reconciliation.  As such, the atonement is not a propitiation offered to appease an angry God but an expiation – a removal of the obstacle to communion that is sin – effected by the Father in the Son through the Spirit for us in our sinful obstinacy… Christ’s sacrifice is the donation of obedience and praise (the return of love) offered by the Son to the Father, and his role is substitutionary in that the Son offers the worship we cannot.  This is all to say that Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice is an instantiation of the divine plenitude and superabundance that created, sustains, and now enables us to return to our source, to participate in the divine life, in the reciprocity that is the Triune circle of love that is our true end and for which we were created.”  [37]

Anselm’s atonement theology does not necessitate violence; the Father does not demand the blood of the Son as payment for debts.  No persons of the Trinity are bound by necessity.  Rather, the Trinitarian God freely receives and gives, allowing humanity to freely participate in the Divine life, thus restoring humanity to imitate and participate in Christ and to freely give our own lives to God.  It is by participating in the life and love of God, and not through violence, that the universe is brought into shalom.

[1] J. Denny Weaver, “Narrative Christus Victor: The Answer to Anselmian Atonement Violence”, Atonement and Violence: A Theological Conversation, ed. John Sanders, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006), 8-9.  Author’s emphasis.
[2]  Note the language of Weaver in the above passage: “…I have treated them [Anselm’s satisfaction atonement and penal substitutionary atonement] together as two versions of atonement that depict a divine need for Jesus’ death…”.  Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 4, Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700) (Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press, 1985), 24-26.
[3]  J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement, 2nd Ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2011), 236-237.
[4] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice in Love (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 191-192.
[5]  Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 3, The Growth of Medieval Theology (600-1300)(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 143.
[6]  Ibid.
[7]  Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, 1.12.
[8]  Ibid.
[9]  Ibid, 1.19.
[10]  Daniel M. Bell, Jr., The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World (The Church and Postmodern Culture), (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 151.
[11]  Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, 1.24 and 2.1-2.
[12]  Bell, Economy of Desire, 151.
[13]  Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, 1.1.
[14]  Ibid., 1.15.  Emphasis mine.
[15]  Ibid., 2.11.
[16]  Ibid., 2.18a.
[17]  Ibid.
[18]  Ibid.
[19]  Ibid., 1.24.
[20] Ibid.
[21]  Ibid., 1.11.
[22]  Ibid.
[23]  Ibid.
[24] Ibid., 1.20.
[25]  Ibid.
[26]  Ibid.
[27]  Ibid.
[28] Ibid.
[29]  Ibid., 1.25.
[30]  Ibid., 2.18b.
[31] Ibid.
[32]  Ibid., 2.18a.
[33]  Ibid., 2.18b.
[34]  Ibid., 2.19.
[35]  Ibid.  Emphasis mine.
[36]  Ibid., 2.14.
[37] Bell, Economy of Desire, 152.

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