Anselm's Cur Deus Homo and the
of the Atonement
Rev. Angus Stewart
Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) is one of the most
important medieval theologians. If Bede is the most
historical and Wycliffe the most biblical, Anselm is the
most philosophical of great English pre-Reformation
This is not necessarily, or even, perhaps, ordinarily, a
good thing but if to it is added a dash of originality and,
in many areas, a high degree of theological acumen, we can
understand why Anselm has always commanded interest and
the history of the Western church, Anselm is seen as marking
the beginning of the scholastic period but his main
significance lies in two theological works. Anselm’s
Proslogion contains his famous ontological argument for
the existence of God and his Cur Deus Homo seeks to
answer the most profound of questions: Why did God become
man? The latter is, however, Anselm's most valuable work for
it marks a real progress in the history of dogma. “With the
Cur Deus Homo,” Schaff tells us, “a new chapter opens
in the development in the doctrine of the Atonement.”
Through the dialogue between Anselm and Boso, his pupil, in
Cur Deus Homo, it has pleased the Holy Spirit to lead
the church more fully into the truth.
II. An Analysis of
Cur Deus Homo
Anselm's inquiry Why did God become man? or Why a God-man?
is a perennially engaging question, touching upon an
immensely important issue: the necessity of the incarnation
(and the atonement).
Anselm's reply is, in essence, It was the only way to save
Taking this as a very brief summary of Anselm's position, we shall use
it as a point of entry in analyzing his Cur Deus Homo.
A. Mankind Is Lost
Anselm's answer has two major premises, the first being that
mankind is lost. For Anselm, God is that Being than
which nothing greater can be conceived (Proslogion).
God is perfect in all His virtues and utterly independent,
having all blessedness in Himself.
God is the eternal Trinity, the blessed Father, Son and Holy
Ghost (II:18). The creation of all things out of nothing
(I:20) was by His free act (II:5) and was “easy” for
Him (I:21). The creation belongs to Him (I:7) and He is the
giver of every good gift (I:10). God's greatest creations
are man and the angels.
Man was created with body and soul (II:3), a moral and
rational creature (I:15), without sin and able not to sin
(I:14). “Man being made holy was placed in paradise” but, to
his shame, “without compulsion and of his own accord,
allowed himself to be brought over to the will of the devil,
contrary to the will and honor of God” (I:22). Sin, as
Anselm puts it, “disturbs the order and beauty of the
universe” (I:15), so the whole physical creation is fallen.
Although the rupture in creation is a recurring thought in
Cur Deus Homo, Anselm rightly gives most attention to
the terrible rift between God and man. Man is now
wholly ruined. He is given over to the power of the devil
(I:7) and his sin brings death (I:9; II:2).
Anselm is very clear here on the (federal) headship of Adam
(I:3, 18; II:8) and the effect of Adam's sin on the whole of
his posterity (Christ excepted; II:18a), continually stating
that all men partake of his corruption and sin (I:3, 18, 23,
24; II:8, 16, 18a). God's just judgment on man compounds his
misery for He decreed that “he should not henceforth of
himself have the power to avoid sin or the punishment of
sin” (I:7). All men are “conquered by sin” and so “weakened
as to be unable, in themselves, to live ... without sinning”
the objection that, since man is unable to avoid sinning,
God ought not judge him, Anselm makes a good reply. He
likens man to a slave to whom his master assigned work and
warned against falling into a deep ditch, from which he
would be unable to extricate himself. The slave, despising
his master's command, promptly jumps into the ditch and so
is unable to complete his task. Similarly, says Anselm,
man's impotence serves rather to “increase his crime” and to
“double” his sin, since “his very inability is guilt, for he
ought not to have it” (I:24).
Man's hopelessness is augmented in light of the “so
many obligations” he has to fulfil (I:22). God demands of
every rational being that he maintain truth and justice, and
always obey and honour Him (I:9, 15). Anselm defines sin as
“nothing less than, not to render to God his due.” When Boso
asks what this debt is, Anselm replies, “Every wish of a
rational creature should be subject to the will of God”
Repeatedly Anselm states that man's “purpose” is “to be
happy in the enjoyment of God” (I:9) for this is the true
end of man's being (I:20).
Anselm's view of the purpose of man is very similar to the
first question and answer of the Westminster Shorter
Catechism. To its inquiry, “What is the chief end of
man?” comes the reply, “Man's chief end is to glorify God,
and to enjoy him for ever.”
Anselm also emphasizes the spirituality of true
obedience, for without “uprightness of will
... no work is acceptable [to God]” (I:11). It is no
wonder that sin is such a great burden (I:21) and a vast
debt (I:24), and that Boso is “alarmed” (I:22).
Anselm presses the matter further by showing its
“heinousness” (I:21) as against the supreme justice and
holiness of God. Man is a traitor (I:7) and a thief who
has robbed God of His honour (I:7, 11).
Anselm argues that even if a man were to be told that,
unless he commits “a sin so small as one look
contrary to the will of God,” an infinite number of worlds
would be destroyed, he ought to obey God.
The point was well
understood by Boso: “When I consider the action itself
[i.e., the look], it appears very slight; but when I view it
as contrary to the will of God, I know of nothing so
grievous, and of no loss that will compare with it” (I:11).
Since “there is nothing less to be endured than that the
creature should take away the honour due to the creature
(I:13), we can understand that man desperately needs to be
freed from his sins or else suffer the wrath of God and hell
B. God Willed to Save
The second premise in our statement of Anselm's answer to
Cur Deus Homo? is that God willed to save mankind.
Anselm holds that it is fairly clear that God wills to save
He asks Boso, “Do you not perceive, from what we have said
above, that it is necessary for some men to attain
felicity?” (I:25). He is referring back to those passages in
Book I where he sets forth man's goal or purpose as the
happiness of enjoying God.
Anselm goes on to “prove” that this is the case at the start
of Book II. Man, he says, was created (and still is)
rational. But what is it to be rational other than to be
able to reason? Man is also moral.
Thus he reasons about moral issues, that is, he is able “to
discern justice and injustice, good and evil and between the
greater and the lesser good” (II:1).
Man, as a moral creature, must not merely distinguish
between good and evil (by his intellect), but also choose
between good and evil (by his will). God is good, so man,
His creature, must choose good and hate evil. Since it is
inconsistent with the wisdom of God that He should have made
man rational and moral but not enable him to fulfil the end
of his creation (the enjoyment of God), and inconsistent
with the power of God that He should so wish but not effect
it, it is clear that God will enable man to be happy in
Man is, however, since the fall, sinful and unable to choose
God. Thus God must restore man to holiness, for only then
can he choose the Supreme Good (II:1). In other words, God,
in keeping with His nature and His purpose for His creation,
must save man, for it is “necessary to complete in
human nature what he has begun” (II:4).
Anselm's use of the word “necessity” prompts an objection
from Boso: How can something be of necessity and yet
be of grace? Anselm then employs one of his many
illustrations: If a man willingly promises to give another
man something tomorrow, he is under necessity to give it (or
he makes himself a liar). When he does give it to him the
next day, his attitude still remaining the same, we can see
how the gift can be both necessary and free. Thus God's will
to save man is a willing necessity, for He is not
constrained by anything outside of Himself but only from
“the necessity of maintaining his honor; which necessity is
after all no more than this, viz., the immutability of his
Anselm sees another factor in God's will to save man: His
The atonement did not change God's attitude to man. Instead,
the love of God was active in providing man's salvation.
Anselm often speaks of Jehovah’s love or compassion (e.g.,
I:3, 6, 23, 24, 25; II:16, 20) and it is at the very least
implied in Book I, chapter 9, where he mentions the council
of the Trinity regarding man's redemption.
C. All Other Ways
of Salvation Are Impossible
We shall permit
Anselm to summarize our argument so far, using his reasoning
in Book I, chapter 10:
(1) “man was made for happiness”
(2) “no being can arrive at happiness, save by freedom from sin”
(3) “no man passes this life without sin”
(4) “remission of sin is necessary”
Anselm is right when he argues that salvation can only be
through the incarnation and death of Jesus Christ. It was
the only way to save mankind. In developing his
thesis, Anselm first shows how three other proposed ways are
1. A Man
Boso, stating that
“the mind of man would receive far more patiently” a
deliverance other than that through the incarnation,
proposes a sinless human being, not descended from Adam, as
man's saviour (I:5). Of the many objections which Anselm
could have raised here, he makes only one. He argues that
the man who would rescue mankind from hell would deserve
service. Thus man would still be in a position lower than
that of his created dignity for then he was only the servant
of God (I:5).
Anselm could have drawn out that that service which would be
due to this man would, at the very least, border on
religious veneration and so detract from the glory of
the Most High God. He could have argued here, as he does
elsewhere (II:8), that such a one not of Adam's race lacks
essential solidarity with our humanity. Furthermore, he
could have shown that a man, even a sinless man, could never
be of such intrinsic worth so as to redeem the vast
host of God’s people. Also, if Anselm had not been bound to
avoid references to the Bible, he could have pointed out
that it teaches that the saviour had to be a descendent of
Adam, Abraham, David, etc.
Boso apparently knew better than even to suggest a sinful
man as the saviour of mankind.
Neither does he venture to speak of a sinless descendent of
Adam for, as we have seen, Anselm's doctrine of original sin
would have proven insurmountable.
2. An Angel
Anselm's argument against a sinless man as a deliverer was
also intended to close the door on the notion of a good
angel as man's saviour. For how can a man, who was intended
to be “only the servant of God and an equal with the holy
angels,” be the servant of an angel (I:5)?
The arguments used against the sinless man as saviour, based
on the need for a solidarity with the human race, are even
more forceful with regard to an angel.
In fact a host of other insurmountable problems arise here,
making this easily the weakest of the three proposed “ways
3. A God of
Compassion Without Justice
Anselm feels that
this “alternative” is the most serious, as does Boso, who,
as devil's advocate, repeats the charge of the unbeliever
you say that God, who, as you believe, created the universe
by a word, could not do all these things [i.e., save man
without a satisfaction] by a simple command, you contradict
yourselves, for you make him powerless. Or, if you grant
that he could have done these things in some other way, but
did not wish to, how can you vindicate his wisdom, when you
assert that he desired, without any reason, to suffer things
Later, Anselm returns to this objection. “For God
to put away sin by compassion alone, without any payment of
the honor taken from him,” he variously describes as “not
right,” “not fitting,” “not proper,” “unbecoming,”
“incongruous” and “inconsistent” (I:12). He proceeds to give
five arguments, based on what is entailed in this false
First, Anselm states
that this would result in God's passing
over many things in His kingdom undischarged (I:12), which
cannot be, for we all know that “God leaves nothing
uncontrolled in his kingdom” (I:20).
Second, it would
follow “that with God there would be no difference between
the guilty and the not guilty” (I:12). Anselm may be
thinking here of fallen man's equality with pre-fall Adam
and/or with his equality in heaven with the angels, as he
says elsewhere, “it is not fitting that God should take
sinful man without an atonement” and bring him to glory,
“for truth will not suffer man thus to be raised to an
equality with holy beings” (I:19). For Anselm, God would
have been wiser to stop the fall from occurring, than to
allow it and then to permit man to enter the company of
angels without satisfaction. In so doing, he argues, God
would be like a man who allows a choice pearl to be knocked
out of his hand and fall into the mire, and then returns it
unwashed into the treasure box of his most precious
Third, since “sin is neither paid for nor unpunished it is
subject to no law.” Fourth, if God by His compassion can
cancel injustice, then injustice is like God, for both God
and injustice are subject to no external law. Fifth, how
then can God urge man not to take vengeance upon his
enemies, on the basis that He will execute vengeance,
since vengeance belongs to Him alone (I:12)?
This last argument, especially, gets at the heart of the
matter, for God, as God, must punish sin. Boso then
raises a further question, which serves to draw this out: If
man can forgive sin without satisfaction, why cannot God
(I:12)? Anselm agrees that God is “so merciful as that
nothing more merciful can be conceived” but adds that “we
ought so to interpret these things as that they may not seem
to interfere with his dignity.”
Just as God cannot lie (and this, far from proving any
deficiency in God, argues the excellency of His veracity),
even so He cannot be “merciful” in any way inconsistent with
His own divine character. For Anselm, if we ever conceive of
God as being merciful in this way, we should be forced to
conclude that the one we are thinking of is not God (I:12).
Quite simply, for the
creature to take away the honour due to the Creator, without
restoring what he took away, is “a thing than which no
greater injustice” can be suffered. Since “there is nothing
more just than Supreme Justice,” which is God, and God
“maintains nothing with more justice than the honor of his
own dignity,” “the honor taken away must be repaid, or
punishment will follow.” Boso concurs: “I think nothing more
reasonable can be said” (I:13).
D. Only One Who Is
Both God and Man Can Save Us
Anselm has shown us (1) that man is in desperate need of
salvation, (2) that God wills to save man and (3) that it is
impossible for God to save humanity through a sinless man or
a good angel or an act of God's forgiveness solely of
mercy. With the establishment of these three foundational
truths, the way is prepared for Anselm further to develop
his thesis: the incarnation of the Son of God was the only
way to save mankind.
Now we must consider the agent whom God, in His wisdom and
grace, has chosen to be our deliverer: Jesus Christ, who is
both God and man. Anselm's Christ is the
He is “very God and very man, one person in two natures, and
two natures in one person” (I:8), and that Person is the
eternal Son of God (II:13).
The Chalcedonian definition is particularly evident in
Book II, chapter 7, where Anselm rules out any “mixing” of
the two natures, into a third type of being, who is neither
God nor man, or the transmutation of Christ's Godhead into
His humanity or vice versa. The two natures can be
distinguished but not separated into two persons, for a
Nestorian Christ is not able to unite the properties and
works necessary for our salvation, in one redeemer.
Anselm shows that Christ must belong to Adam's race in order
to restore it (II:8). He has a quaint way of explaining how
“fitting” it is that Christ should have been born of a
virgin. He posits four ways in which God could have made
(1) of a man and a woman
(2) neither of a man nor a woman
(3) of a man but not a woman
(4) of a woman but not a man
The first is the
normal way, and the second and the third have already been
effected in Adam and Eve, respectively. Only the fourth had
never been used by God before and so, to manifest His power,
He used this means to form the human nature of Christ. Thus,
says Anselm, we “must affirm, beyond all doubt, that the
God-man should be born of a virgin” (II:8).
then proceeds to give another four arguments why it is
“appropriate” that Christ should be born of a woman. First,
as a woman was the occasion of man's sin and our
condemnation, so it was a woman through whom our salvation
came (in the Person of Jesus Christ). Second, this serves as
a comfort to women, who might despair of the salvation of
their sex, since the fall was occasioned by a woman. Third,
as a virgin brought all evil upon mankind, so another virgin
is the occasion of all good. Fourth, as the man from whom
the first woman was made was a virgin, so the woman from
whom Christ was made was also a virgin (II:8).
Anselm explains why it must be the Son, rather than the
Father or the Spirit, who assumes flesh. He gives two main
reasons. First, only if the Son is incarnated will the
incongruity be avoided that there then would be two sons.
Second, it is appropriate that the Son, who is the very
image of God the Father, be the one used to restore the
image of God lost by fallen man (II:9).
Anselm goes on to show that Christ was sinless, the One with
whom God was well pleased (I:8). Although affirming that
Mary was a sinner, Anselm links Christ's being born sinless
too much to His being conceived “free from the sin of
fleshly gratification” (II:16) and to Mary's purity through
faith in Him (II:17).
Thus the work of the Holy Spirit in the conception and
preservation of Christ's holy, human nature is slighted
(Matt. 1:20; Luke 1:35). Regarding the impeccability of
Christ, Anselm is weak, saying, “he could lie ... if he
chose to” but being who He was He never could so choose
(II:10). Anselm's treatment of Christ's knowledge is also
not satisfactory. He seems to attribute “all knowledge” to
Christ in His human nature, even in his infancy
Anselm rightly argues that, since God is “beyond doubt
impassible” (I:8; cf. II:12), Christ had to be man in order
to suffer (e.g., II:18b).
The death of the man Christ Jesus, being that of One who was
sinless and being “above the call of duty” (II:11, 18b) and
being freely offered (I:9; II:11, 14, 18b, 19), was
so great a gift that it deserved a reward (II:20).
However, man's debt is so great that the satisfaction of it
has to be greater in value than an infinite number of
worlds, in fact, greater than all that is not God (I:21;
II:14). Thus it is absolutely necessary for our redeemer to
be true God also, for only then is Christ's death of
“infinite value” and only then can He “pay what is due for
the sins of the whole world” (II:14; cf. I:21; II:6, 11).
Therefore, the Almighty can “reconcile sinners to God”
only by a “man, who must be at the same time Divine”
For Anselm, the death of Christ is so great that it can save
Christ's murderers (II:15) and men from all ages, with its
efficacy even being retroactive (II:16, 17).
Thus God, in Christ, restores the honour due to Himself as
the blessed Father, Son and Holy Spirit (II:18b), and shows
us the greatness of His love and compassion to us (I:3),
that He might be just (or “honourable” as Anselm would say)
and the justifier (or “deliverer”) of him who believes in
Jesus (cf. Rom. 3:26).
III. Cur Deus Homo and
the Reformed Doctrine of the Atonement
Anselm's Cur Deus Homo has long been the subject of
intense study and has just as long received criticisms—some
fair and some not so fair, and some serious and some not so
serious. In the last category is his theory regarding the
relation between the number of angels (good and fallen) and
the number of elect men (I:16-18). Anselm himself says that
Boso's request that he treat this subject is to “bring in
other questions” (I:16) but Boso, after the “digression,”
opines “it has not been for nought” (I:18).
Anselm reckons that “as many men will be taken [to heaven]
as there are angels who remained steadfast” (I:18).
This speculation was occasioned by a strange exegesis of
Deuteronomy 32:8 (I:18) and an almost Pythagorean concern
for the “perfect number” (I:16-18). Anselm, to his credit,
was not dogmatic on this issue (“opposite opinions may be
held without hazard”), stating, “if I say anything which
plainly opposes the Holy Scriptures, it is false; and if I
am aware of it, I will no longer hold it” (I:18).
Thankfully, Anselm's digression on angels, though recurring
at later points (e.g., I:19), is not an intrinsic part of
his theory of the atonement. As Smeaton points out, “the
Reformation theology happily disembarrassed” itself, of “all
reference to the fall of angels in its doctrine of the
For Gordon Clark, who begins his book on the atonement, with
a chapter entitled “Introduction on Method,” Anselm's “fatal
flaw” is his profession “to obtain the doctrine of the
satisfaction without depending on Scripture.”
Without going too far into the difficult, and oft debated,
subject of Anselm's view of the relationship between faith
and reason, and the nature of a “rational proof,” we can say
that he did seek to present the biblical position on the
atonement, as he understood it.
No doubt, as he himself says, he could have filled out much
more about the life of Christ had he been allowed to use the
Scriptures (II:11) but still the debate moves within the
ambit of fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking
Clark, though, is undoubtedly correct: For a thoroughly
Christian treatment of the Lord's atonement (and indeed all
other doctrines), solid biblical exegesis is necessary, and
we must not lean on “reason” and “human experience.”
Reformed theology has sought to be explicitly scriptural
in its doctrine of the atonement.
C. The Honour of God
For Anselm's “honour of God,” the Reformers and their
successors have substituted “the justice of God,” in keeping
with the biblical terminology and idea. Although it is often
alleged that Anselm's use of the term “honour” owes more to
medieval and feudal imagery, it cannot be denied that he
uses the word in an essentially Christian sense, as an
attribute of the great Triune God, and in keeping with His
truth, mercy, wisdom and compassion.
More serious is his somewhat surprising omission of any
“express mention of the law,” which, as any good
Presbyterian knows, is “the standard of obedience.”
Anselm would be in full accord with the Westminster
Shorter Catechism's explanation of the “duty which God
requireth of man” as “obedience to his revealed will” (Q. &
A. 39) but he has nothing to say regarding the next
question, which speaks of that “rule of obedience” which God
has revealed to man: “the moral law.” Doubtless, Anselm had
the Ten Commandments memorized and advocated obedience to
them but his thorough treatment of sin is still somewhat
incomplete because of their omission.
This may have been due to his being constrained to argue
remoto Christo and without the Bible or it may have been
merely an oversight occasioned by his excessive haste to
publish (see Anselm's “Preface” to Cur Deus Homo).
Whatever the reason
for this omission, the Reformers, in speaking of God's
justice rather than the more general “honour” and relating
God's justice to His law, as the codified expression of His
justice, formulated the doctrine of the atonement in greater
harmony with the biblical presentation.
Given Anselm's place in the church's history and his
speaking of God's honour rather than justice or
righteousness, we can hardly expect a well-drafted
presentation of justification by faith.
Yet, given the remarks of some, we are surprised that he
says so much in this area and that what he says is so good.
For Anselm, Christ reconciles, restores, redeems, rescues,
releases and delivers mankind. He speaks of God's salvation
as being “unmerited” (I:3) and “of grace” (e.g., II:5), and
there is nothing in Cur Deus Homo contrary to
Anselm speaks throughout of faith and, in one important
passage, declares regarding unbelievers,
let them cease from
mocking us, and let them hasten to unite themselves with us,
who do not doubt but that man can be saved through Christ;
else let them despair of being saved at all. And if this
terrifies them, let them believe in Christ as we do, that
they may be saved (I:24).
“Christian faith” for
Anselm has content: “Christian doctrine.” “The Catholic
faith,” he says, chiefly enjoins upon us things “with regard
to Christ” and His “salvation of men, and how God saves man
by compassion” (I:25). Thus Boso can speak of “the
consolation of faith” (I:21). Regarding the Virgin Mary,
Anselm tells us, she “was purified by the power of his
[Christ's] death” and “this could only be effected by true
When Anselm asks Boso
what payment he can make to God for his sin, Boso lists
“repentance, a broken and a contrite heart, self denial,
various bodily sufferings, pity in giving and forgiving, and
obedience” (I:20). Boso then goes on to ask,
Do I not honor God,
when for his love and fear, in heartfelt contrition I give
up worldly joy, and despise, amidst abstinence and toils,
the delights and ease of this life, and submit obediently to
him, freely bestowing my possessions in giving to and
Anselm responds in
terms reminiscent of Luke 17:10: “But what do you give God
by your obedience, which is not owed him already, since he
demands from you all that you are and have and can become?”
Boso gets the point: I cannot “pay any of my debt to God”
(I:20). Thus Anselm, destroying man's merit, shuts us up to
prayer for the free mercy of God in Christ:
For what compassion can excel these words of the Father,
addressed to the sinner doomed to eternal torments and
having no way of escape: “Take my only begotten Son and make
him an offering for yourself;” or these words of the Son:
“Take me, and ransom your souls.” For these are the voices
they utter, when inviting and leading us to faith in the
The church's understanding of faith was further developed by
the Reformers. Justification by faith was given a central
place and was presented antithetically to combat the
works-salvation of Roman Catholicism.
E. Christ’s Penal
Anselm, while speaking often of Christ's suffering and
satisfaction, and of His dying for us, never says that
Christ died as our substitute and was
punished for our
sins. In his theology, Christ's satisfaction was “a gift
rather than a punishment.”
Omitting Christ's penal substitution, Anselm
held that, as the sinless God-man, Christ's free death was
of infinite worth, and able to restore the divine honour and
merit a reward.
Anselm seems to (momentarily) forget about the human nature
of Christ, for he says that, since Christ is God, He is
incapable of receiving any gift and so passes it on to man
For Anselm, since man was made in order to be happy in
enjoying God and Christ came to redeem him, it is logical
that the reward which man receives is salvation. Anselm is
right when he presents man with one of two options, either
satisfaction or punishment (I:19), but, unlike the
Reformation, he does not explain that the way of
satisfaction is through punishment, the vicarious
suffering of Jesus Christ. Similarly, his definition of
satisfaction as merely a “voluntary payment of debt” (I:19)
is insufficient, since he omits the penal and
substitutionary nature of Christ's sufferings, for the
Lord did not die as a private individual but as our
federal head, as our sin-bearer.
Related to this is Anselm's failure to treat of the
substance of what later came to be known as Christ's
active and passive obedience. True, Anselm does speak of
Christ's suffering (passive obedience), and Christ's
sinlessness and obedience to the Father (active obedience)
but only the fact of Christ's righteous acts are seen
and not their true significance in their vicarious
nature, as Christ's living and dying on our behalf
and for us. Thus Christ is not seen as the One who
merited perfect righteousness and suffered the wrath of God
due to us for our sins.
The whole idea of Christ as our substitute, surety, vicar
and federal head is missing.
Since Anselm fails to grasp the idea of Christ for us
in our justification, it is not surprising that he gives
only a very rudimentary expression of the work of Christ
On this last point, however, we must be more lenient, since
a treatment of soteriology is not within Anselm's “scope and
purpose,” for the question is, after all, Why did God become
man? and not, What benefits does the God-man communicate to
F. The Extent of
inquiry into Anselm's view of the extent of the atonement is
fraught with difficulties. Calvin, in whose battles this was
not an issue, for example, has been quoted both for and
It might, at this stage, even be worth asking if the
question had ever occurred to Anselm.
Book II, chapter 18a, one might think, when he speaks of
Christ making “ample satisfaction for the sins of the whole
world,” that he held to a general atonement. But when we
realize that even Scripture uses these terms (e.g., I John
2:2) and note that Anselm immediately adds “and infinitely
more,” we understand that he is not speaking of the extent
but of the intrinsic worth of Christ's salvation, as
Canons of Dordt II:2: “The death of the Son of God is
the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for
sin; and is of infinite worth and value, abundantly
sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.”
fact, there is nothing substantial in the whole of Cur
Deus Homo to argue that it teaches a general or
ineffectual atonement. Nowhere, for example, does he
discourse of the potentiality associated with the
Arminian view or of man's alleged free will.
A case can even be made for particular redemption. The
clearest statement occurs in Book II, chapter 19, where,
after Boso says that “the gift [of salvation] should be
given by the Father to whomsoever the Son wished,”
Upon whom would he more properly bestow the reward accruing
from his death, than upon those for whose salvation,
as right reason teaches, he became man; and for whose
sake as we have already said, he left an example of
suffering death to preserve holiness ... Or whom could he
more justly make heirs of the inheritance, which he does not
need, and of the superfluity of his possessions, than his
parents and brethren?
This passage oozes with the particularity and
intent of the atonement. And now what could be more
fitting than to engage one Gomaro in a dialogue with Anselm
(being careful to ascribe to him nothing but what is in
keeping with his Cur Deus Homo)?
Gomaro: You speak often about “the elect.”
How are they redeemed?
Anselm: Through the satisfaction of Jesus Christ, for this is why God became man.
Gomaro: Why then do unbelievers go to hell?
Anselm: They are punished for the great debt of their sins.
Gomaro: If their sins were punished on themselves, they were not
satisfied by Christ, since it would be incongruous for the
infinitely wise God to satisfy for sins twice.
Anselm: Reason does demand that it is either punishment or
satisfaction for sins but not both.
Gomaro: Then Christ did not make satisfaction for those who are in
hell but only for the elect?
Anselm: I see no way of opposing you.
Gomaro: I have here the pronouncements of a venerable church assembly,
dealing with many important subjects, including “Of the
Death of Christ and the Redemption of Men Thereby.” Would
you like a copy?
Anselm: Yes. My faith is always seeking understanding.
Anselm's “Cur Deus Homo is an epoch-making book, a
masterpiece of theological learning,” declares Louis
Berkhof, combining “metaphysical depth with clearness of
In many ways it is a model of doctrinal development. Anselm
builds his doctrine of the atonement on the previous work of
the church: her formulations of the doctrine of the Trinity
(the early ecumenical creeds), original sin (Augustine) and
the Person of Christ (especially the Creed of Chalcedon).
Viewing man as a rational creature, in the light of the
great obligations placed upon him, Anselm sees man as
hopelessly lost, in his heinous dishonouring of the infinite
honour of God. Thus he grounds the absolute necessity of
the atonement in the very Being of God Himself.
As Shedd puts it, in Anselm's Cur Deus Homo, we have
the first systematic and scientific “metaphysique of
the Christian Doctrine of the Atonement.”
Anselm ably disposes of the old Ransom-to-Satan Theory
To those who seek to resurrect the Example Theory of the
Atonement, his words still ring out through the centuries:
“You have not as yet estimated the great burden of sin”
(I:21)! As we read the Heidelberg Catechism's Lord's
Days 5 and 6, we can almost hear the great archbishop ask,
Cur Deus Homo?
we have seen, Cur Deus Homo has its faults but, with
James Orr, we must put this down to “the necessary defects
of first great attempts.”
Smeaton's analysis bears repeating: Anselm “laid the
foundation for all the subsequent groundings of the
doctrine; and the advances made at the Reformation did not
subvert the foundation laid, but fitted into it without
As the name of Athanasius is recorded in connection with the
deity of Christ and Augustine is forever associated with the
doctrines of efficacious grace and Luther is synonymous with
justification by faith alone, so it is only fitting to
connect Anselm's name with the necessity of our Lord’s
Though born in Aosta, Italy, and spending a lot of time
in France, his archbishopric in Canterbury associates
him forever with England.
Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 5, by
David S. Schaff (Peabody, MA: Hendrikson, repr. 1996),
“Boso takes the part of the ‘unbeliever,’ at least in
principle, though as the two become more and more
engrossed in the discussion he slips out of his role
from time to time” (Gillian R. Evans,
Anselm [Wilton, CT: Morehouse-Barlow, 1989], p. 72).
George Smeaton prefers the latter (The
Apostle's Doctrine of the Atonement [Winona
Lake, IN: Alpha Publications, repr. 1979], p. 511).
However, it must not be understood by analogy from, say,
an (imaginary) ape-man who is half ape and half man. Our
Saviour is fully God and fully man in one divine Person.
Cf. Cur Deus Homo I:10, where Anselm says that
except through Christ's incarnation and death “the world
could not otherwise be saved.” All quotations from this
work are from St. Anselm: Basic Writings, ed. Charles
Hartshorne, trans. S. N. Deane (La Salle, IL: Open
Cf. II:10: “whatsoever God has, he has perfectly of
“God has made nothing more valuable than rational
existence capable of enjoying him” (II:4).
This terrible apostasy did not, of course, take God by
Cf. Heidelberg Catechism,
Q. & A. 9. David, after confessing, “Against
thee, thee only have I sinned,” adds, “I was shapen in
iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me,” not
mitigate his sin, but to aggravate it (Ps. 51:4-5).
E.g., I:10, 14, 16, 18; II:1, 2, 4.
In the terminology of Cur Deus Homo, Anselm might
have replied, “Man was made to bring honour to God, and
to enjoy Him as the Supreme Good.” For Anselm on God as
the Supreme Good, see II:1.
Anselm speaks here not of the intrinsic honour of
God but of the declarative honour of God, that
honour which is ascribed to him by rational
He also, of course, affirms that “God owes no man
Anselm does not actually use the term “moral” but
the idea undergirds the whole discussion.
Anselm then proceeds to make the logical leap from “is”
to “ought.” However, given that he is arguing on the
presuppositions that God created man, that God is
“infinite wisdom” (I:15) and His works are, therefore,
purposeful, we shall not deem this an example of
the “naturalistic fallacy.”
Anselm also refers to man as being “precious in his
[i.e., God's] sight” (I:4).
Contrast H. D. McDonald's erroneous comment on Anselm's
Cur Deus Homo: “the love of God is given no
emphasis as a motive in his scheme of redemption” (The
Atonement of the Death of Christ: in Faith, Revelation
and History [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1985],
p. 171). For Anselm, his treatment of the honour and
justice of God only serves to magnify the love of God in
saving us (II:20).
Anselm refers to these three together in Book I, chapter
See the first few chapters of Book I and Anselm's
“Preface” to Cur Deus Homo.
(Anselm, however, does not really succeed in this.)
Cf. I:23: “a sinner cannot justify a sinner.”
We are not, of course, speaking here of the One who is
both man and God.
This also works the other way round, for the death of
One who is God and man cannot effect the
redemption of fallen angels, since (speaking
hypothetically) “fallen angels cannot be saved, but by
the death of a God-angel” (II:21).
Notice how Anselm, contrary to his intention to argue
without using the Scriptures, slips in a biblical
reference (e.g., Deut. 32:35; Heb. 10:30).
If God forgave sins without satisfaction, He would show
more interest in the salvation of sinners than in His
own glory (cf. James H. Thornwell, “The Necessity of the
Atonement,” in The Collected Writings of James Henry Thornwell
[Carlisle, PA: Banner, repr. 1974], pp. 210-261).
Nestorius (d. 451), Bishop of Constantinople, was
condemned as teaching that there are two persons in
The first and third reasons, it will be noticed, are
very similar and who can prove that Adam and Eve did not
have sex before the fall? Also, the fourth reason is
It is appropriate that “the Son of God and the son of
the virgin” (II:17) be the same Person. If, say, the
Father (in human nature) was the son of Mary, then He is
both Father and son (though in two different
For a fuller treatment of why it should be the Second
Person of the Trinity who became incarnate, see Francis
Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 2
(Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, repr. 1994), pp. 304-305.
Anselm applies Psalm 51:7 to Mary (II:16), making it
clear that he did not hold to the immaculate conception,
contrary to later Roman dogma.
Anselm rules out the kenotic theory of the incarnation
by affirming that Christ, in the days of His
humiliation, possessed “omnipotence” (II:11).
In Book II, chapter 10, Anselm proves that it is
praiseworthy not to sin, even when sin is impossible.
Anselm is in keeping with the apostolic identification
of God as the subject, and man as the object, of
reconciliation (II Cor. 5:18-20). See Herman Hoeksema,
Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: RFPA, 1966), pp.
Similarly, Anselm says that, since the required
satisfaction is one which “none but God can make and
none but man ought to make, it is necessary for the
God-man to make it” (II:6).
“Such virtue is there in his death that its power is
extended to those far remote in place or time” (II:16;
cf. Westminster Confession VIII:5).
Anselm states clearly, though speculatively, that “there
will be more happy men than doomed angels”
(I:18), contrary to the normally accurate Gordon H.
Clark, who says, “Anselm calculated the number of elect
saints as equal to the number of the fallen
angels” (The Atonement [Jefferson, MD: Trinity Foundation,
1987], p. 81; italics mine).
Smeaton, Op. cit.,
Clark, Op. cit.,
In Book II, chapter 19, Anselm says to Boso that in
their discussion, “by the help of God, we have somewhat
examined” “the Scriptures, which rest on solid truth as
a firm foundation.”
Yet it cannot be denied that Cur Deus Homo was
also designed as an apologetic to convince “infidels”
(I:1-6; II:22) and that Anselm speaks of “infallible
reason” (II:21), though he also, in a different context,
refers (depreciatingly) to “mere reason” (II:11).
Clark, Op. cit.,
pp. 5-7, 81-82, 102-103, etc.
However, on one aspect of the atonement, its
necessity, even Reformed theology has often used a
more philosophical approach, with insufficient attention
to the Scriptures (e.g., Thornwell, Op. cit.,
pp. 210-263). John Murray's chapter on this subject
evinces a much healthier approach (Redemption—Accomplished
and Applied [Aylesbury, Bucks: Banner, repr.
1979], pp. 9-18).
Cf. John D. Hannah, “Anselm on the Doctrine of
Atonement,” Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 135, no. 540
(Oct.-Dec., 1978), p. 339.
Smeaton, Op. cit.,
Note how the Apostle Paul in Romans discusses man's sin
(1:18-3:20) and, in this connection, the role of the
law (2:17f.; 3:19-20), before speaking of Christ's
redemption (3:21f.), since “by the law is the knowledge
of sin” (3:20; cf. 5:13-14; 7:7ff.). Similarly, when the
Heidelberg Catechism speaks “Of the Misery of
Man,” before its treatment “Of Man's Deliverance,” it
begins with Question 3: “Whence knowest thou thy
misery?” to which the catechumen responds, “Out of the
law of God.”
Note how the Holy Spirit connects the justice of God
in Christ's redemption and man's justification in
Cf. James Buchanan,
The Doctrine of Justification (Carlisle, PA: Banner, repr.
1984), pp. 96, 112.
When G. H. Williams argues that Cur Deus Homo
makes best sense when viewed in the light of a
sacramental soteriology, effected through the eucharist,
he has to seek “proof” for his thesis from the
contemporary religious scene and other of Anselm's
writings, only coming up with “hints” and “allusions” in
the book itself (Anselm:
Communion and Atonement [Saint Louis, MO:
Cf. Luther's view of justification by faith as the
article of a standing or falling church.
Louis Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines (Grand
Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1953), p. 177.
This is contrary to the Bible, which teaches that
Christ, in His exaltation, receives all authority
(Matt. 28:18), power (Eph. 1:19-20) and glory (Phil.
2:9-11). For more details, see the Westminster Larger
Catechism, Q. & A. 51-56.
Cf., e.g., Isaiah 53, where the servant of the Lord
suffers for our sins, and Canons of Dordt
Speaking of the Holy Supper, our Heidelberg Catechism
states, “all his sufferings and obedience are as certainly ours, as
if we had in our own persons suffered and made
satisfaction for own sins to God” (A. 79).
Cf. Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. & A. 33.
Hannah, Op. cit., p. 340.
However, see this fine treatment of the
subject: Jonathan H. Rainbow, The Will of
God and the Cross: An Historical and Theological Study
of John Calvin’s Doctrine of Limited Redemption
(Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2009).
Cf. Canons of Dordt II:R:6.
Cf., e.g., I:18. Jaroslav Pelikan correctly speaks of
Anselm's “emphasis on divine election as the basis of
the creation and redemption of man” (The
Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of
Doctrine, vol. 3 [Chicago, IL: University of
Chicago Press, 1978], p. 272).
Berkhof, Op. cit.,
Here Anselm is in advance of the three cardinal
Reformers, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli and John
Calvin, and even some of their successors, including
Jerome Zanchius, Samuel Rutherford and William Twisse
(cf. Louis Berkhof, Vicarious Atonement
Through Christ [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,
1936], pp. 47-49; Systematic Theology
[Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, repr. 1996], p. 369).
William G. T. Shedd,
A History of Christian Doctrine, vol. 2 (New York:
Scribner, Armstrong and Co., 1877), p. 275; italics
He recognized that “whatever was demanded of man,
he owed to God and not to the devil” (II:19).
Cf. Herman Hoeksema and Herman Hanko,
History of Dogma
(Grand Rapids, MI: Theological School of the PRC, 1982),
James Orr, The
Progress of Dogma (Grand Rapids, MI:
Eerdmans, repr. 1952), p. 28.
Smeaton, Op. cit.,