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.