Anselm of Canterbury: Father of the Satisfaction View of Atonement

Anselm’s work, Why God Became Man (Cur Deus Homo), was the foundational work on the satisfaction view of atonement. However, the ideas of satisfaction and substitution were not first ever spoken of by Anselm. They had been communicated by Athanasius in the fourth century and by others to follow. In his discourse with the Arians, he took the initiative to speak of the expiatory nature of Christ’s death on the cross. Athanasius was insistent that the sin of humanity was such a lazy attempt at reconciliation that it took more than mere repentance to satisfy God’s wrath. “But since God is both truthful and just, who can save, in this emergency, but the Logos who is above all created beings.”[1]

Amid all the heresies regarding Christ’s person and work, Anselm – via reason and logic – was instrumental in formulating, in full, the satisfaction view of atonement. He insisted, through his teaching and writings, that the payment for sin could not be met by merit or labor, but by justice and obeying the commandments of God.[2] His work, Why God Became Man, was a theological conversation between him and Boso, specifically dealing with this question: “By what logic or necessity did God become man, and by his death, as we believe and profess, restore life to the other person, angelic of human, or simply by willing it?”[3]

The question of the necessity of the incarnation and the importance of the justifying of sin brings with it many other difficulties and concerns for humanity and the doctrine of the atonement itself. Unable to answer every specific attribute of the formulated inquiry, however, Anselm plainly lays out the need for a person who is truly God and truly man to be the one who would satisfy the wrath of God for those whose relationship with God has been severed by sin, and the explanation of Jesus Christ as the one who died in the stead of sinners.

According to “Why God Became Man”

Anselm begins his discourse with Boso by establishing the need for humanity’s salvation by someone other than a human person. Boso’s question of divine intervention was a valid question. He observed, “If it were said that this liberation had been brought about by a non-divine person – either by an angel or by a human being – the human mind would accept this far more readily. For God should have created some man without sin, not out of raw material that was sinful and not as the issue of another man, but in the same way in which he had created Adam.”[4]

Anselm then affirms Boso’s statement by rendering that man would be a bondsman of one just like himself. The possibility of God creating someone without sin, according to Anselm, is impossible. There was no possible way for man to make a righteous judgment call on someone who is as sinful as himself. Therefore, as Anselm concludes in book one and section twenty-five, “man owes to God for his sin something which he is incapable of paying back, and cannot be saved unless he repays it.”[5]Although Anselm does conclude this way, it must be analyzed – at least in some respect – how he came to his conclusion.

Anselm had presented the idea that Jesus Christ was not involuntarily coming to earth to die for the sins of humanity. Instead, Christ had willingly gave up himself to die – the same idea that Paul wrote in Philippians chapter two. Anselm echoed Paul’s words that Jesus Christ placed all things aside, regarding his status of the King of Heaven, to come to earth and die freely for sinful humanity. There was no forcing from God the Father to influence Christ to leave Heaven to redeem humanity. His nature – especially his perfection – could not have done otherwise. He writes that ”Christ…had determined that the way in which he would demonstrate the exaltedness of his omnipotence should be none other than through his death.”[6]

The only rational option to believe, regarding the justification of humankind, is that God must act in such a way that his wrath and justice be satisfied. And the only way to do so, according to the archbishop, is by the Son of God dying voluntarily for the sins of humanity. Another rational belief is the extent of repayment via the death of the Son of God. The forgiveness given to human beings is given on what grounds? Anselm argues that the grounds are rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ and his obedience to the will of God the Father.[7] Jaroslav Pelikan proffers a similar thought: “If there were to be salvation, it was ‘necessary’ that God should provide it.”[8] The only possible way for salvation to occur for the human race was by the God of heaven willingly giving himself to save humankind.

Anselm’s concluding thoughts in book one of Why God Became Man are focused primarily on the payment humanity owes God as a repayment. Anselm notes that humanity has no possible way of repaying God for the sinfulness of their nature, but God in his great mercy provides a way for the sins to be wiped clean. Anselm likens this picture to a rich man holding a pearl who accidentally drops it in mud. He asks Boso what if the rich man “were to store it away in some clean and costly receptacle of his intending to keep it there in that state. Will you think him wise?”[9] Instead of God leaving the pearl (humanity) muddy and dirty in the case, he takes it and cleans it off before placing it back in the case.

Book two continues the conversation of these two men dealing with the crux of the atonement – the death of Christ and its payment for the sins of humanity. Boso asks the crucial question for his discourse with Anselm: “The substance of the question was: why God became man, so that he might save mankind through his death, when it appears that he could have done this in another way.”[10]

Anselm is still, by logic and reasoning, approaching the argument in a way that presents Christ’s death as a voluntary act on his part rather than a necessity. There was nothing requiring the Son of God to die for the sins of humankind,[11] however, there was a necessity to satisfy the justice of God. Forlines posits “The justice of God will not tolerate any attempt to set aside or diminish the penalty of the broken law of God.”[12] This is exactly the message Anselm communicates in book two and section fourteen. Anslem’s communication of Christ’s impeccable nature signifies that Christ, being without sin, satisfies God’s wrath by dying in the place of sinners. “If then, to accept death is to give one’s life, just as his life outweighs all the sins of mankind, so does his acceptance of death.”[13]

Anselm as Father of Satisfaction View of Atonement.

Anselm’s rhetoric regarding the incarnation and the death of the God-man can only be summarized in the nomenclature of the satisfaction view of atonement. Anselm writes that there has never been a human being who has ever given God a repayment for their sins in the form of death, nor have they ever given something back to God that which they did not owe him.[14] However, it was Christ who gave up himself willingly for the sins of humanity to reconcile creation back to God and paid a debt he did not owe. Only satisfactory or substitutionary vernacular describes the death of Christ in this way.

Conclusion

Because of the debates regarding the person and work of Jesus Christ that led up to the ninth and tenth centuries, Anselm was given a large platform to present his work on the atonement. Beginning with reason and logic, he showed how mankind’s sinful nature was only redeemable to God by one who took on the same nature but was also a divine being. And that this being was the one who willingly gave up his life as the payment for a debt he did not owe to God. Thus, making him the father of the satisfaction view of atonement.

Not only does atonement matter for theological formulation, it also matters for correct teaching and preaching. There is always a necessity to preach and teach the penal satisfaction view of atonement from the pulpit. If there is a lack of satisfaction atonement preached, there is a lacking gospel being presented. The only true way to present the gospel is through the lens of the satisfactory death of Christ on the cross.


[1]Robert D. Culver, “The Doctrine of Atonement Before Anselm” Global Journal of Classis Theology, http://www.globaljournalct.com/the-doctrine-of-the-atonement-before-anselm/.

[2]Jonathan Hill. Zondervan Handbook to the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 183.

[3]Anselm of Canterbury, The Major Works ed. Brian Davies and G.R. Evans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 265. (hereafter, Major Works)

[4]Anselm, Major Works, 270, Book 1, Section 5.

[5]Ibid, 314, 1.25.

[6]Ibid, 278, 1.9.

[7]Ibid, 283, 1.11.

[8] Jaroslav Pelikan. The Growth of Medieval Theology (600-1300) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 141.

[9]Anselm, Major Works, 301, 1.19.

[10]Ibid, 348, 2.18.

[11]According to conservative, evangelical theology, some would argue that God’s justice being satisfied would be why Christ’s death on the cross could be considered a necessity. This is, according to my research, no contradiction to Anselm’s doctrine of atonement. The archbishop’s focus is does not regarding the justice of God inasmuch as the  specific issue of the incarnation and the submission of Christ to the will of God the Father.. He wants his discourse to point to the reasoning behind the necessity of the God-man willingly giving up himself for the sins of humanity.

[12] Leroy Forlines, The Quest For Truth: Theology For Postmodern Times (Nashville: Randall House, 2001), 185.

[13]Anselm, Major Works, 335, 2. 14.

[14]Ibid, 349.

Ben Campbell

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