anselm on the atonement
St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) is well-known for a number of important contributions to the history of the west and western thought: the continuation and development of the Augustinian intellectual tradition, the so-called "ontological argument" for the existence of God, his pastoral practice within monasticism, his important role in England after the Norman Conquest, and so on.
Among the contributions for which Anselm has received both adulation and criticism is his theology of the atonement as that appears in Cur Deus Homo
, sometimes referred to as the "satisfaction theory" of the atonement and often seen as underlying the concept of penal substitution. Anselm's atonement theology has been impugned by theologians as disparate as Vladimir Lossky and René Girard, even to the point of some describing his view of the Son of God's atoning death as "cosmic child abuse."
While recent theologians such as John Milbank and Hans Boersma have defended aspects of Anselm's atonement theology, one of the most interesting recoveries of Anselm's thought is that of Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart in his essay "A Gift Exceeding Every Debt: An Eastern Orthodox Appreciation of Anselm's Cur Deus Homo
," (in Pro Ecclesia
, Vol. VII, No. 3, pp. 333-348).
Hart argues that there is a real continuity between the thought of the church Fathers, including the Eastern Fathers, and the thought of Anselm, so that his Cur Deus Homo
does not fix any definitive breach between the theological outlooks of East and West. Rather, Hart suggests, the change marked by Anselm is merely one of "accent."
Moreover, Hart notes that the emphases and commitments that undergird the atonement theologies of both East and West are rooted within the same narrative: Jesus Christ has trampled down death by death and God has acted decisively on our behalf to save us from the powers unto which we had delivered ourselves.
Hart defends this perspective in several stages, unfolding Anselm's thought as that appears in Cur Deus Homo
. He begins by noting that Anselm shared the basic Christian theological presupposition, rooted in the doctrine of creation, that all God's creatures - especially the human creature in his image - were created in order to participate in God's own life and blessedness. Human beings, however, due to their sin, have "fallen short of the glory of God" for which they were created, thereby robbing God's creation of it's proper beauty.
In Anselm's thought the honor of God necessitates that humanity restore what it has stolen and thereby restore the goodness of creation. Indeed, if God is God, humanity will
restore it. The difficulty, of course, is that fallen humanity is in no position to accomplish this and lacks what is necessary in order to restore creation's beauty.
Given who God is and what we might call his commitment of covenant love and grace towards his creation, Anselm maintains that God's own righteousness and honor render it unfitting that creation should lose the graciously given end for which God has created it. Moreover, it is unfitting that God, as creator, should abandon creation to the fate of frustration and death to which humans have diverted it.
Therefore, Jesus Christ, who is God himself come to us in a fully human form, must step in as human to restore creation on behalf of humanity. Christ offers up his own life for the honor of God. When this offering is accepted by God, God graciously restores creation through the humanity of Jesus. In Christ (that is, the whole Christ, Christus totus
), the stolen beauty and goodness that humanity owes to God is forgiven and there is salvation.
Nevertheless, as Hart explains Anselm here, the importance of the atonement is not, first of all, the salvation of humanity but rather God's own righteousness. His theory of the atonement, therefore, is a theological one (vindicating the righteousness of God) and not a merely economic one, otherwise Christ would be reduced to a commodity and the atonement would involve calculating an infinite exchange value, as part of an economy of credit.
Likewise, Anselm's theory of the atonement, according to Hart, is not a matter of violence or "cosmic child abuse" but of peace. God as Trinity is, for Anselm, the motion of an infinite love, in the words of Hart, "an infinite venturing forth and return, an action of reconciliation, response, and accord, in which any opposition of goods is already overcome."
As the Incarnate divine Son, Christ allows humanity to partake in the beauty of his eternal motion of love towards the Father by which he returns the gift of himself. When violence overcomes Christ, it is not a violence that is inherent to the divine life, but a price that we imposed upon God because of our sin, which made it necessary for the gift of participation in God to be given again by an innocent humanity, passing through death, overthrowing it.
Thus, for Anselm, the resurrection is not to be seen so much in terms of death's not being able to hold Christ because of his transcendent divinity. Rather, Hart suggests, Jesus' self-giving unto death was a fulfillment of the truly human vocation under the conditions of sin that made Christ necessary, a vocation of self-offering love to God from whom all things are received as gifts of love. On a purely economic theory of the atonement, the Father would have had to have retained the price of Christ's blood, but instead, the Father raises Christ as a free gift of grace and love.
On Anselm's theory of the atonement, as Hart understands it, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself all along, not in order to change his attitude towards humanity (since, after all, God does not change), but in order to accomplish for humanity what humanity could not accomplish for itself, drawing us, and creation with us, back into the movement of divine love for which it was created. God, in fact, always desires the salvation of creation, which was itself created as a result of God desiring its salvation.
Hart concludes his essay with a couple of reflections on the giftedness of creation, noting that in Christ the "gift God gives in creation continues to be given again, ever more fully," confronting and defeating the powers of sin and death. And, in the end, it is this gift of divine love that "precedes, exceeds, and annuls every debt."
Hart's interpretation of Anselm is fascinating and challenging, calling into question certain standard ways of understanding Anselm's "theory of the atonement." While there may be various points at which one might question Hart's account - and then there is, of course, the question of Anselm's relation to biblical teaching - any future discussions of Anselmian theories of the atonement will need to seriously examine Hart's reading.