Notes on Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo: 8

Anselm spends the balance of Book One trying to defend the following argument:

[I]f it is unfitting for God to elevate man with any stain upon him, to that for which he made him free from all stain, lest it should seem that God had repented of his good intent, or was unable to accomplish his designs; far more is it impossible, on account of the same unfitness, that no man should be exalted to that state for which he was made. Therefore, a satisfaction such as we have above proved necessary for sin, must be found apart from the Christian faith, which no reason can show; or else we must accept the Christian doctrine. (Bk. One, Ch. XXV)

Let’s put it in more prosaic terms:

1. If God were to elevate man to eternal happiness with any “stain upon him,” then God would either have repented of his good intent (to make man free from stain of guilt or injustice) or God would be unable to accomplish his intention to make man free from stain.

2. It is unfitting that God should repent of his intent or be unable to to accomplish his intentions.

3. Therefore, God would not elevate main with any stain of guilt or injustice.

4. The only way for man to be elevated to eternal happiness without guilt or injustice is if satisfaction of sin is made.

5. Man is incapable of offering satisfaction for sin.

Therefore God must make satisfaction for sin.

Premise (1) receives support from the following considerations: Suppose, Anselm says, that God intended to bring some human beings to eternal happiness in order to populate his celestial kingdom. This is in order to replace those angels who fell and, perhaps, to make up a foreordained number of rational denizens of the kingdom. If God didn’t do this then “it will follow that God either could not accomplish the good which he begun, or he will repent of having undertaken it; either of which is absurd.”

But, Anselm asks, “Can you think that man, who has sinned, and never made satisfaction to God for his sin, but only been suffered to go unpunished, may become the equal of an angel who has never sinned?” In other words, if human beings are truly to be co-equal citizens in the kingdom of heaven, they have to be of the same stature as the unfallen angels. But how can a human sinner, who was neither punished nor made satisfaction for his sin, be the equal of a good angel who never disobeyed God? For “truth will not suffer man thus to be raised to an equality with holy beings.” For God to treat sinners as equals with unfallen angels would be a kind of lie.

Anselm goes on to argue by analogy that a man who had a precious pearl which fell into the mire wouldn’t replace it in its casket without first cleaning it from all defilement. Likewise, how can we say that God would elevate men to heavenly status without their first being cleansed from their guilt and sin?

Therefore, consider it settled that, without satisfaction, that is, without voluntary payment of the debt, God can neither pass by the sin unpunished, nor can the sinner attain 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. (Bk. One, Ch. XIX)

He later asserts that “no unjust person shall be admitted to happiness; for as that happiness is complete in which there is nothing wanting, so it can belong to no one who is not so pure as to have no injustice found in him.”

Premise (2) is to be taken as something like a self-evident truth, I think. If God repents of his intentions then his is subject to change. If he is unable to acheive his purposes he isn’t omnipotent. Either of these Anselm would regard as inconsistent with the divine nature.

(3) follows from (1) and (2).

(4) is a consequence of (3) and of what it means to make satisfaction for sin.

Anselm has three distinct, though related, arguments for (5). The first is that we already owe everything we have and are to God, so we have no “surplus” from which to draw in order to make satisfaction for sin. As Boso admits, “If in justice I owe God myself and all my powers, even when I do not sin, I have nothing left to render to him for my sin.”

The second argument is that any sin, however small, is infinite in gravity, and so nothing a finite creature could do could possible make satisfaction for even a single sin. This is becuase our obligation to God is absolute and “you make no satisfaction unless you restore something greater than the amount of that obligation, which should restrain you from committing the sin.”

The third argument is that since man’s original task in paradise was to overcome the power of the devil by resisting the devil’s temptations and blandishments, at which he failed. This is what man “stole” from God, threatening to frustrate God’s intentions for him. And the only way to undo this act of disobedience would be a perfect act of obedience in resisting the devils temptations. But no fallen human is capable of this since “a sinful man can by no means do this, for a sinner cannot justify a sinner.”

Here Boso objects that it seems unjust to demand of someone something (e.g. satisfaction for sin) that he is unable to provide. As Kant later said, “ought implies can.” But Anselm’s reply is that mankinds predicament, its damaged nature which is unable not to sin, is its own fault:

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. For not to have the power which one ought to have, is the same thing as to have the inability which one ought not to have. (Bk. One, Ch. XXIV)

Anselm seems to be following Augustine here in holding that the guilt of our first parents’ sin, which resulted in a human nature damaged and unable to avoid (much less make recompense for) sin, is imputed to all their descendents. I personally don’t find this any less problematic here than in Augustine. However, even if we hold people responsible only for the sins they voluntarily commit, Anselm’s other arguments about our inability to make satisfaction for our various sins don’t seem seem to depend on this kind of inherited guilt. That is, we could think of it as each one of us “recapitulating” the Fall individually.

From all this it follows that (to quote again the conclusion to the argument above):

a satisfaction such as we have above proved necessary for sin, must be found apart from the Christian faith, which no reason can show; or else we must accept the Christian doctrine.

I think (1) is the premise most of us are likely to balk at. Especially in the Lutheran tradition the righteousness of God is held to be displayed precisely in the justifying of sinners. This God who descends to have fellowship with sinners and outcasts is taken to be the very essence of the Gospel. Anselm’s insistence that no one can enjoy the presence of God without first being cleansed of sin and guilt seems to put conditions on God’s salvific will.

However, it can be said in Anselm’s defense that God’s holiness can’t abide the presence of sin and that God won’t let his purposes for creation be thwarted by sin. Also, we do seem to sense the need for a cleansing of some sort. C.S. Lewis writes in defense of the idea of purgatory that we would feel a ceratin “unfittingness” being admitted to our Father’s house covered in filth and clothed with rags. Moreover, the Lutheran and Reformed traditions do emphasize the idea that there is an expiatory aspect to Christ’s work; God loves us while we were yet sinners in that Christ died for us. There is a cost to God’s saving work, but the cost is borne by God himself.

One thought on “Notes on Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo: 8

  1. Looks like Anselm is perfectly in keeping with the core of the Christian tradition. Vicarious atonement. Perfect victim. Lamb of God.

    An idea that makes absolutely no moral sense whatsoever. But there it is, in plain sight.

    Liberals must generally find this particularly unacceptable, I would guess.

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