Once more into the breach…

At the risk of boring readers to tears, Robert Jenson’s article on the atonement prompted me to write something about the oft-made criticism that Anselm imports the conceptual apparatus of feudal law into his theory of atonement and that this distorts the idea of God by replacing it with a deity who is an easily offended feudal lord writ large demanding his pound of flesh.

But, as John McIntyre demonstrates in his excellent book St. Anselm and His Critics, those who’ve made this criticism often fail to read Anselm closely and don’t seem to realize that he’s pouring his own meaning into terms that seem to be drawn from feudal social arrangements such as “honor” and “satisfaction.”

Anselm’s account of the atonement is rooted from first to last in his understanding of the divine nature, and he reworks the notions of honor and satisfaction accordingly. McIntyre argues that a, if not the, key to understanding CDH is the concept of God’s aseity. This is theological jargon referring to the idea that God exists in and through himself, utterly independent of anything else. There is nothing “external” to God which constrains him to act in certain ways.

Thus, there isn’t an order of justice that has to be satisfied by God before he can be merciful to us, as though God were caught in some web of rules. And God’s “honor” for Anselm doesn’t refer to his wounded pride. God’s justice and purpose in creating the world are entirely internal to his nature, and his justice isn’t separate from his love. I think Anselm would agree with N.T. Wright’s point that “wrath,” understood as God’s hatred of sin, is inseparable from his love. How can God not hate that which destroys and corrupts his good creation?

That’s why, for Anselm, the atonement is entirely a provision of God’s love, and not something “imposed” on God from without. Such an idea is absurd in the strongest possible sense. In the Incarnation of the Son God provides for the satisfaction of justice by restoring the harmony and beauty of his creation which has been defaced by sin. But this is rooted in God’s love – love for his creation and inexorable desire that it be brought to fulfillment. Where Anselm differs from Wright and other proponents of a “penal” substitution is that Anselm sees satisfaction as the alternative to punishment. Christ isn’t punished in our place; the self-offering of the God-man provides for a gift so beautiful and good that it effaces or “outweighs” the disorder created by sin. Therefore anyone who “pleads the sacrifice of Christ” is brought into reconciliation with God.

Indeed, the concepts of honor and satisfaction are stretched beyond anything that would really make sense in a human social or legal relationship. God’s honor can’t be damaged, as Anselm points out, because God is unlimited bliss. The best we can say is that his “honor” refers to his unchangeable will to bring creation to its intended consummation. And “satisfaction” is no longer a kind of tit-for-tat proportionate recompense for discrete offenses. The gift of the God-man posesses infinite worth, completely outstripping the evil of human sin. Interesting, McIntyre argues that Anselm in fact subverts the medieval penitential system which prescribed specific penances for particular sins and lays the groundwork for justification by faith: the sacrifice of Christ truly is a once and for all response to human sin.

So, Anselm’s theory isn’t best understood as an attempt to project a feudal social order onto the Christian story even if he employed the language of feudalism. It’s based first and foremost on Anselm’s understanding of God. Admittedly, this is an understanding that is both deeply Christian and deeply influenced by Platonism, making it suspect to a lot of contemporary theology, but that’s a different issue.

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5 thoughts on “Once more into the breach…”

  1. Thanks for giving a better summary of Anselm’s idea than any other I’ve heard.

    I found this interesting in the article you linked: “But it remains that Anselm’s transaction of honor as imagined has little resemblance to the story narrated in Scripture…” It seems to me that though the honor/shame system might not be on the surface of the biblical text it’s certainly a fixture of New Testament Jewish culture (at least according to David deSilva). If that’s the case then the feudal system of Anselm’s day might have more similarities than our more achievement/guilt culture.

  2. Hi Lee,

    Great post, but I think you possibly over-stated your case a little.

    I think that you are right to insist that Anselm fuses new meaning in feudal ideas, but it’s possible that in doing so he allowed the feudal ideas to thus re-mould his meaning. (I’m trying to come up with some analogy about containers shaping the liquid pured into them, but will leave it at that!)

    From my reading of him, I’d say that Anselm’s understanding of the ‘nature’ of God is significantly different from how we might use that idea today. (In fact, it’s not a term/concept that I find particularly helpful.) I’d go so far as to say that Anselm is mislead into including the idea of God’s status within his being – due to trying to employ feudal ideas – and he thus does become guilty of the kind of claims his opponents throw at him (implicitly, at least).

    Abelard is far more appealing to me, picking up on the good in these ideas, whilst dismissing the unhelpful.

    Nevertheless, these have been interesting posts. Thanks.

  3. Thanks for the comments, all.

    Jason – interesting point about honor/shame. Interestingly, in his quasi-defense of Anselm, William Placher recasts the argument in terms of God’s holiness, which he holds to more consonant with the biblical witness. But there might be a bridge there between different notions of “honor.”

    Graham – What’s a blog-post for if not over-stating one’s case? ;)

    I think that’s a fair point; since all of us are influenced by our times I guess it would be surprising if Anselm’s ideas weren’t shaped to some extent by his social situtation. I do think that the concept of honor gets seriously reworked when you take into account Anselm’s notion of God’s perfection, impassibility, etc. – his honor literally can’t be damaged! Though I’m not sure A. is entirely consistent on this point.

    I haven’t spent much time with Abelard – I like what I’ve read in the secondary sources (and based on that it seems to me the usual critiques of Abelard are equally off base in terms of what he actually said), but the primary sources don’t seem widely available.

  4. I’ve really enjoyed these post on Anselm, Lee, keep it up! You have a real talent for analyzing texts.

    Since I love complicating things, I might be inclined to argue that those who accuse Anselm of being “feudal” in some way, don’t understand what the feudal system really was and how the very term “feudalism” is a gross oversimplification. Policial systems varied widely accross Western Europe and over the thousand years we’ve stuck with the label of “The Middle Ages”. Compare medieval England and Italy, for instance. Or England in 973 with England in 1473.

    Part of the task of theology is restating the faith in the language of the place and time in which the church finds itself. I don’t know if Anselm’s “trying” to use the language of feudalism, but he is using the language of the time and place(s) in which he ministered and taught. Anselm was born in medieval Italy and spent his career in medieval Normandy and England. It seems unfair to criticize him for being born when he was and being a teacher when and where he was. As if our theological heroes or we ourselves were unmoved movers free of the shackles of our own times and places.

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