More on Anselm and atonement

I just finished listening to this presentation by Fr. Thomas Williams–an Episcopal priest, distinguished philosopher, medieval scholar, and blogger–on Anselm and the atonement. Fr. Williams does a terrific job of clearing up some misconceptions about Anselm’s soteriology, and he provides a spirited defense of some of its essential elements.

One interesting and I think important distinction he makes is between a “substitutionary” understanding of atonement and a “vicarious” one. The former posits Jesus as an object (of God’s wrath, say) to whom something is done instead of us (our substitute); the latter emphasizes Jesus as the one who takes the initiative of acting on our behalf. Anselm emphatically takes the latter route.

Another key point is that Cur Deus Homo was written in response to the objection that God would be acting irrationally and in an “unseemly” fashion by securing our redemption through the Incarnation and Passion. After all, in the context of a classical view of God, it does seem a mark against the divine majesty for God to become a squalling, squirming human baby or to die a shameful death between two thieves on a cross. Thus Anselm was motivated to show not only that it was rational and fitting for God to act in this way, but that it was the only way God could’ve redeemed humanity. Even though he is associated with the slogan “faith seeking understanding,” Anselm holds that pure reason alone can demonstrate–without relying on scripture or Christian tradition–that, given human sin, God had to become incarnate. And yet, the only thing Anselm thinks he can show by pure reason is that the God-man must give up his life to provide satisfaction, not that he had to die in any particular way, such as crucifixion. Which is why, according to Fr. Williams, Anselm doesn’t go into the “gory details” of Jesus’ death, a la Mel Gibson (at least, not in CDH).

Fr. Williams provides a clear summary of Anselm’s key argument in the logically direct form beloved of analytic philosophers:

1. Necessarily, if human beings sin, God offers reconciliation.

2. Necessarily, if God offers reconciliation, the Son becomes incarnate and offers his life as a recompense.

Therefore, necessarily, if humans sin, the Son becomes incarnate and offers his life as a recompense.

Support for the first premise: God, by his very nature, will not let the project of creation come to nothing. The only alternatives in dealing with sin are punishment or recompense–and Anselm explicitly rejects punishment. Punishment may take care of the debt humanity owes to God, but it can’t restore the relationship. God doesn’t just want to right the balance, but to restore the relationship that sin has breached. (Which is why, incidentally, Anselm’s theory is not a variety of “penal substitution.” In Anselm’s account, punishment and satisfaction are mutually exclusive alternatives.)

Support for the second premise: The only way for reconciliation to happen is for the Son to become incarnate and offer himself. This is not something imposed on the God the Son by God the Father, because the Son has the purposes for creation in common with the Father. Christ’s self-offering, because his life is divine and therefore infinitely precious, can make up for the infinite badness of human sin. And because he is man, it is an offering made by humanity. Human beings have to do something to repair the relationship, but we can’t. Fortunately, the God-man can! However, the self-offering must be voluntary if it is to truly be an act of reconciliation. Violence–a death “unwillingly sustained”–can’t solve the problem. This goes some way, Fr. Williams maintains, toward addressing the critiques of feminists and others who see Anselmian atonement as tantamount to “divine child abuse.”

In Fr. Williams’ summary, Anselm’s argument can be stripped of some of the cruder commercial and feudal metaphors and essentially comes to this: The voluntary self-offering of the infinitely precious life of the God-man repairs the infinite breach that sin had opened between God and humanity and restores the possibility of eternal happiness that God had always intended.

Fr. Williams stresses that he’s not saying this is the right understanding of the Atonement. For that matter, Anselm says this too! The mysteries of the faith are so deep and inexhaustible, no one account gives you the uniquely right way of thinking about them. However, there does seem to be something deeply right about this basic picture. Anselm’s theory has been badly misrepresented by careless readings and second-hand rumors and should not be lightly dismissed.

Having Fr. Williams lay out Anselm’s position so clearly and elegantly reminded me how compelling it can be, but it also clarified some remaining issues I have with it, which I’d put under two headings:

Death as a result of sin. Jesus’ sacrifice is meritorious in part because, being sinless, he didn’t have to die. Anselm shares with most pre-modern theologians the belief that death occurred as a result of human sin. But living in a “post-Darwinian” world as we do, it’s much harder for most of us to see death as a result of sin. What happens to Anselm’s account if death is seen as a natural process rather than something that only enters the world in the train of human sin?

The apparent salvific irrelevance of Jesus’ specific life. Anselm’s rationalist methodology requires him to abstract away from the concrete details of Jesus’ life. But doesn’t this imply that the specific life the God-man led is irrelevant to our salvation? And doesn’t this seem contrary to the gospel accounts? In his proclamation of the Kingdom, his acts of healing and forgiveness, his miracles, his preaching, his consorting with sinners and outcasts, Jesus seemed to be mediating the salvation of God–restoring relationships and making new life possible. Can an Anselmian atonement theory make room for this?

I appreciate Fr. Williams’ effort to dispell the many misconceptions and half-truths that tend to circulate about Anselm, particularly in “liberal” theological circles. But I also think a satisfying contemporary theory of atonement would have to modify Anselm’s account, possibly in fairly significant ways.

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5 thoughts on “More on Anselm and atonement

  1. Great stuff!

    Some years back, I had worked my way through Anselm, but had also developed an appreciation for Aulén’s Christus Victor. (I rather liked John Warwick Montgomery’s review, included in his translation of Chytraeus “On Sacrifice.”) Modern Reformation was publishing an edition of the magazine titled “Saved from God.” This was based on one of R.C. Sproul’s stories where some evangelical Christian asked him, “Brother, are you saved?” and R.C. kept asking “Saved from what?” His point was that when we speak of being saved, it has to be from SOMETHING. So we were saved from the wrath of God. I wrote an article titled “Saved from God by God” for the issue, and the issue title was changed to reflect that. You don’t just want to emphasize that God is the injured party. You want to emphasize also that God is the party who provides reconciliation. Otherwise you can end up with a man-centered reconciliation, even if the Man in question happens to have a divine nature. Such a gospel doesn’t reveal the character of God Himself.

    What I love about Anselm is that he takes care of some ideas that many people harbor. The idea that we can atone for our own sins by deciding to amend. But this is as if you dented you landlord’s car, and suggested it could be paid for out of your rent money. The problem with that idea is you already owe it. Likewise with our own good works.

    Anyway, always a good subject. And the various writers often have good points to add to the discussion. Anyone who imagines Anselm or Abelard to be stupid hasn’t thought much. I’d hate to go up against either of them, myself.

  2. The distinction between substitutionary and vicarious is something that too few people make. St. Anselm is clear that Jesus is the God-Human and in Johannine fashion places initiative in Jesus. That makes all the difference.

  3. Modify Anselm’s account, or supplement it? I doubt that your last worry — that Anselm’s account gives no place to many of the details of Jesus’ life — requires us to abandon any of Anselm’s claims. I also wonder whether your impulse to see those details as important for our understanding of atonement is quite right; why think that the purpose of the Incarnation is nothing other than atonement? Why not think that the details of Jesus’ life that you mention serve more to reveal God for what God is than to play some role in atonement narrowly conceived?

    I appreciate you drawing attention to this material, though; I am certainly guilty of conflating Anselm with the most vulgar defenders of penal substitution, and you’ve shown me that I need to give the guy more credit.

  4. I guess my reason for saying that is that Jesus does things in the course of his ministry–like offering God’s love and forgiveness, reconciling people with God and one another–that look an awful lot like “atonement,” or at least what atonement is supposed to accomplish. But on Anselm’s account, nothing other than the death of the God-man is required to effect atonement.

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