Getting Anselm right

I’m reading Robert Sherman’s King, Priest, and Prophet: A Trinitarian Theology of the Atonement, and I may provide a more complete summary of the book later. But for now I just wanted to highlight Sherman’s spirited defense of St. Anselm’s theory of the Atonement against some of its sloppier critics.

Longtime readers may know that this is a pet peeve of mine: people who use Anselm as the whipping boy for everything that’s wrong with Western understandings of Christ’s work on the cross. For instance, Anselm is routinely accused of holding to the crudest form of penal substitution when, in fact, he explicitly denies penal substitution!

Sherman takes aim at those critics who say that Anselm’s God is modeled on a petty feudal lord who must extract his pound of flesh to assuage his wounded honor. He notes that this manages to get Anselm wrong in a couple of fundamental ways. First, he points out that it totally misunderstands Anselm’s conception of God’s “honor.” Honor in Anselm’s scheme refers to the beauty and order of creation: sin can’t “hurt” God, but it can mar God’s good creation, which disrupts the divine intentions for that creation. And this is not some esoteric interpretation of Anselm; he’s very clear about it, as Sherman points out:

As far as God himself is concerned, nothing can be added to his honor or subtracted from it…. But when the particular creature, either by nature or reason, keeps the order that belongs to it and is, as it were, assigned to it, it is said to obey God and to honor him…. But when it does not will what it ought, it dishonors God, as far as it is concerned, since it does not readily submit itself to his direction, but disturbs the order and beauty of the universe, as far as lies in it, although of course it cannot injure or stain the power and dignity of God. (Anselm, Cur Deus Homo?, quoted by Sherman, p. 189)

The “order and beauty” of the universe is “disturbed,” for instance, when God’s creatures are victimized and abused, or when the natural environment is despoiled. Human sin has real effects–but for Anselm these are not effects on God’s being per se.

In fact, it literally makes no sense on Anselm’s understanding of God to suggest–as some critics do–that God’s pride is hurt by sin, and that he demands a blood-sacrifice to restore his honor. This is because, for Anselm, God is impassible–i.e., not subject to change–so nothing creatures can do can affect God’s blessedness. This doesn’t mean that sin isn’t serious–the disruption and defacement of creation threatens to undo God’s purposes. For this reason, God can’t simply “overlook” sin. (Sherman has an interesting discussion here of why simply appealing to the parable of the prodigal son isn’t sufficient to show that the Atonement doesn’t involve reparation for sin; since other creatures are affected by sin, more than simply forgiveness is needed.)

For Anselm, Christ’s sacrifice is not done to appease God’s wounded pride, but to restore the damage done to creation by human sin. The beauty of Christ’s self-giving, even unto death on the cross, “blots out” the ugliness of sin. As Sherman points out, Anselm’s conception of justice is more aesthetic than strictly retributive (Christ’s sacrifice is “a gift exceeding every debt” as David Bentley Hart has put it). Moreover, Christ’s sacrifice is not just to “cover” human sin, but to restore humanity to its proper end. In Jesus a new humanity is created–one in which we can participate. This restorative function is a key part of how Anselm understands the Atonement.

None of this is to suggest that Anselm is immune to criticism. But we should criticize what he actually said, not what we might imagine he said.

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4 thoughts on “Getting Anselm right

  1. Allen G. Anderson says:

    Have you picked up Kotsko’s “politics of redemption”? I haven’t read it (yet), but I did read an interview discussing the book. That being said, I don’t know what the nature of his criticism of Anselm is, but I anticipate he comes down pretty hard on him. I personally don’t feel I have much of a stake in the debate over Anselm as such, since I tend to take a more Eastern approach where equal emphasis is given to the incarnation as to the crucifixion and resurrection. I just wanted to know your thoughts if you’ve read it.

    • I haven’t read Kotsko’s book, but would be interested to do so.

      Have your read D.B. Hart’s treatment of Anselm? He argues that there’s less daylight between him and Eastern Orthodoxy than commonly thought. (I don’t know enough about EO to evaluate that claim.)

      Personally, I’m agnostic about whether Anselm provides the “correct” account of the Atonement–I just don’t like seeing him dismissed based on caricatures of his position.

  2. Christopher says:

    To rip St Anselm out of his feudal context does injustice to the radical nature of his understanding of Atonement, which has a social-critical component of his own society…

    • Yes–as I understand it, Anselm’s theory could be read as subversive both of the feudal order and of the church’s penitential system at the time.

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