Covenant Protestant Reformed Church
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Anselm's Cur Deus Homo and the
Reformed Doctrine of the Atonement

Rev. Angus Stewart


I. Introduction

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 thinkers.1 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 respect.

In 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.”2 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.3


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).4 Anselm's reply is, in essence, It was the only way to save mankind.5 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.6 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.7

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).8 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” (I:18).

To 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).9

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” (I:11).

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).10 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.”11 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).12 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 (I:6).

B. God Willed to Save Mankind

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 mankind.13 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.14 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).15 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 enjoying Him.

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 honor” (II:5).

Anselm sees another factor in God's will to save man: His love.16 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.17

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 insufficient.18

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.19

Boso apparently knew better than even to suggest a sinful man as the saviour of mankind.20 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.21

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.22 In fact a host of other insurmountable problems arise here, making this easily the weakest of the three proposed “ways of salvation.”

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 (I:6):

If 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 so unbecoming?

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 position.

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 possessions (I:19).

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)?23

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.”24 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 Chalcedonian Christ.25 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.26

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 Christ:

(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).

He 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).27

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.28 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).29

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).30 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 (II:13).

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).31 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).32 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”33 only by a “man, who must be at the same time Divine” (II:15).34

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).35 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

A. Angels

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).36 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 atonement.”37

B. Scripture

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.”38 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.39 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 understanding).40

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.”41 Reformed theology has sought to be explicitly scriptural in its doctrine of the atonement.42

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.43

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.”44 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.45 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.

D. Faith

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.46 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 solifideanism.47 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 faith” (II:17).

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 releasing others?

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 Gospel (II:20).48

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.49

E. Christ’s Penal Substitution

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.”50 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 (II:19).51 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.52

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.53 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 in us.54 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 us?55

F. The Extent of the Atonement

An 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 against.56 It might, at this stage, even be worth asking if the question had ever occurred to Anselm.

In 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.”

In 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.57 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,” Anselm replies,

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.”58 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.


IV. Conclusion

Anselm's “Cur Deus Homo is an epoch-making book, a masterpiece of theological learning,” declares Louis Berkhof, combining “metaphysical depth with clearness of presentation.”59 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.60 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.”61

Anselm ably disposes of the old Ransom-to-Satan Theory (I:7).62 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?63

As 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.”64 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 incongruity.”65 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 glorious atonement.66


1 Though born in Aosta, Italy, and spending a lot of time in France, his archbishopric in Canterbury associates him forever with England.
2 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 5, by David S. Schaff (Peabody, MA: Hendrikson, repr. 1996), p. 604.
3 “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).
4 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.
5 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 Court, 1962).
6 Cf. II:10: “whatsoever God has, he has perfectly of himself.”
7 “God has made nothing more valuable than rational existence capable of enjoying him” (II:4).
8 This terrible apostasy did not, of course, take God by surprise (II:5).
9 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).
10 E.g., I:10, 14, 16, 18; II:1, 2, 4.
11 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.
12 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 creatures (I:15).
13 He also, of course, affirms that “God owes no man anything” (I:19).
14 Anselm does not actually use the term “moral” but the idea undergirds the whole discussion.
15 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.”
16 Anselm also refers to man as being “precious in his [i.e., God's] sight” (I:4).
17 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).
18 Anselm refers to these three together in Book I, chapter 1.
19 See the first few chapters of Book I and Anselm's “Preface” to Cur Deus Homo. (Anselm, however, does not really succeed in this.)
20 Cf. I:23: “a sinner cannot justify a sinner.”
21 We are not, of course, speaking here of the One who is both man and God.
22 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).
23 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).
24 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).
25 See the Creed of Chalcedon (451).
26 Nestorius (d. 451), Bishop of Constantinople, was condemned as teaching that there are two persons in Christ.
27 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 somewhat weak.
28 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 senses).
29 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.
30 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.
31 Anselm rules out the kenotic theory of the incarnation by affirming that Christ, in the days of His humiliation, possessed “omnipotence” (II:11).
32 In Book II, chapter 10, Anselm proves that it is praiseworthy not to sin, even when sin is impossible.
33 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. 380-381.
34 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).
35 “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).
36 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).
37 Smeaton, Op. cit., p. 518.
38 Clark, Op. cit., p. 81.
39 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.”
40 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).
41 Clark, Op. cit., pp. 5-7, 81-82, 102-103, etc.
42 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).
43 Cf. John D. Hannah, “Anselm on the Doctrine of Atonement,” Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 135, no. 540 (Oct.-Dec., 1978), p. 339.
44 Smeaton, Op. cit., p. 516.
45 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.”
46 Note how the Holy Spirit connects the justice of God in Christ's redemption and man's justification in Romans 3:26.
47 Cf. James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification (Carlisle, PA: Banner, repr. 1984), pp. 96, 112.
48 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: Concordia, 1960]).
49 Cf. Luther's view of justification by faith as the article of a standing or falling church.
50 Louis Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1953), p. 177.
51 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.
52 Cf., e.g., Isaiah 53, where the servant of the Lord suffers for our sins, and Canons of Dordt II:2.
53 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).
54 Cf. Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. & A. 33.
55 Hannah, Op. cit., p. 340.
56 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).
57 Cf. Canons of Dordt II:R:6.
58 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).
59 Berkhof, Op. cit., p. 176.
60 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).
61 William G. T. Shedd, A History of Christian Doctrine, vol. 2 (New York: Scribner, Armstrong and Co., 1877), p. 275; italics Shedd's.
62 He recognized that “whatever was demanded of man, he owed to God and not to the devil” (II:19).
63 Cf. Herman Hoeksema and Herman Hanko, History of Dogma (Grand Rapids, MI: Theological School of the PRC, 1982), p. 37.
64 James Orr, The Progress of Dogma (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, repr. 1952), p. 28.
65 Smeaton, Op. cit., p. 520.
66 Ibid., p. 517.