Notes on Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo: 3

One of the most vexing questions about the death of Christ theologically speaking is whether and in what sense we can say it was willed by God the Father. Was it specifically the death of Jesus that was required to reconcile God and sinners? Looming here is the modern critique of traditional Atonement theory as exhibiting “cosmic child abuse” and encouraging an abusive mentality in Christians.

Contrary to some accounts of his views, though, Anselm specifically denies that God willed the death of Jesus in any direct sense. Boso asks:

[H]ow will it ever be made out a just or reasonable thing that God should treat or suffer to be treated in such a manner, that man whom the Father called his beloved Son in whom he was well pleased, and whom the Son made himself? For what justice is there in his suffering death for the sinner, who was the most just of all men? What man, if he condemned the innocent to free the guilty, would not himself be judged worthy of condemnation? And so the matter seems to return to the same incongruity which is mentioned above. For if he could not save sinners in any other way than by condemning the just, where is his omnipotence? If, however, he could, but did not wish to, how shall we sustain his wisdom and justice? (Book One, Ch. VIII)

First of all, Anselm denies that the Son went to his death against his will, since “the Father did not compel him to suffer death, or even allow him to be slain, against his will, but of his own accord he endured death for the salvation of men.” But Boso replies that the Son nevertheless fulfilled his Father’s will in going to his death, so mustn’t we say that the Father willed the death of the Son?

Anselm goes on to distinguish the Son’s obedience from the consequences of that obedience. His mission, as it were, was “that, in word and in life, he invariably maintained truth and justice,” viz. what every human being owes to God. And it was on account of this that he was put to death. God doesn’t directly will the death of the Son; he wills that the Son should come into the world and lead a perfect human life. But, of course, God knew that this would lead to his death. His death, as it were, was a foreseeable but inintended outcome of his life of perfect obedience.

God did not, therefore, compel Christ to die; but he suffered death of his own will, not yielding up his life as an act of obedience, but on account of his obedience in maintaining holiness; for he held out so firmly in this obedience that he met death on account of it. It may, indeed be said, that the Father commanded him to die, when he enjoined that upon him on account of which he met death. It was in this sense, then, that “as the Father gave him the commandment, so he did, and the cup which He gave to him, he drank; and he was made obedient to the Father, even unto death;” and thus “he learned obedience from the things which he suffered,” that is, how far obedience should be maintained. (Book One, Ch. IX)

The gift that the Son gives isn’t his death per se, but his life of perfect obedience, the life that no other human being can offer. Still, it can be said that God wills the death of the Son in an indirect sense, as a necessary outcome of his mission:

So the Father desired the death of the Son, because he was not willing that the world should be saved in any other way, except by man’s doing so great a thing as that which I have mentioned. And this, since none other could accomplish it, availed as much with the Son, who so earnestly desired the salvation of man, as if the Father had commanded him to die; and, therefore, “as the Father gave him commandment, so he did, and the cup which the Father gave to him he drank, being obedient even unto death.” (Book One, Ch. IX)

Of course, even if we concede that the death of the Son wasn’t directly willed by God in the sense that he was appeased by it or required it, it still seems unjust to send an innocent man (much less the Son of God!) to his ceratin death if the same good could be obtained in any other way. This seems to be why Anselm needs a strong sense of the necessity of the Incarnation; if there was any other way for God to save us, then the price of the death of the Son, whether directly intended or not, would seem too high.

2 thoughts on “Notes on Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo: 3

  1. I don’t know why (ADD? lead poisoning?) but I often have trouble with the sort of abstract thinking required for philosophy and many areas of theology. I think that’s why I’ve always been attracted to historical theology. It’s a conversation with someone(s) else, someone really smart, from the past.

    I’ve gotten a lot more out of this discussion of the atonement than some other ones involving contemporary thinkers. Of course, it could just be Anselm’s eloquence!

    At any rate, you are very good at this sort of thing. What are your thoughts on Albertus Magnus? Kosuke Koyama? V.S. Solovyov? Harry Emerson Fosdick? Hippolytus? We want more!

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