[See first comment for explanation of this essay’s original setting.]

Anselm of Canterbury is probably best known for his arguments concerning the existence of God—especially what has come to be called the ontological argument. Though this essay explores other issues, his well-reasoned arguments for God’s existence reveal a primary characteristic of all his work, namely, the aim to explain by reason how the things he already believed made sense. This principle holds true for Cur Deus Homo? (hereafter CDH), in which Anselm attempts to explain the rationale behind God’s chosen method for saving the world. Though not as well known, CDH arguably exceeds all his other works in terms of influence on later Christian thought. In this paper I will explore CDH’s central concept of Christ’s death as a satisfaction for sin against his own historical context. I will argue that by communicating the atonement using language and thought forms relevant to his own day, Anselm offers a helpful and yet limited account of the meaning and saving significance of Jesus’ death on the cross.

I. Exposition of Cur Deus Homo?

The Latin title “Cur Deus Homo?” may be translated “Why God Became Man” or perhaps “Why a God-Man?,” both of which illustrate his main goal of explaining according to logic the reason why God saved the world the way he did. In his own words, “For what reason or necessity did God become man and, as we believe and confess, by his death restore life to the world, when he could have done this through another person (angelic or human), or even by a sheer act of will?” (1.1). Upon this question the whole work reflects.

Anselm wrote at the request of others who, while not aiming to depend upon reason to come to faith, sought the enjoyment of knowing their beliefs were not against reason, as well as the ability to answer those who question their faith from the outside. Within the work these concerns are embodied in the person of Boso, Anselm’s student and fictive conversation partner throughout CDH. Anselm opens by objecting to Boso that he is not fit to answer the question above, that the fathers have said all that needs said about the issue, and that “the deeper reasons for so great a thing remain hidden” (1.2). He asks that his words be taken for what they are—expressions of what made sense to him at the time.

In the first of his two short books into which he divides CDH, Anselm aims to answer the objections of unbelievers to the Christian faith on the grounds that it does not accord with reason. Some wonder why God could not have saved humankind through another person or perhaps an angel. Anselm explains that this person or angel would thus have earned human devotion, which is rightly directed to God alone. Humans would therefore not be restored to the dignity they would have enjoyed had they not sinned. Why, then, could God not have forgiven humans and conquered the devil by a simple act of the will? “For surely,” remarks Boso, “if for no reason a man did by hard labor what he could have done with ease, no one would regard him as wise” (1.6). Boso (embodying Anselm’s own opinions) then explains on his own the devil’s lack of jurisdiction over human beings, but wonders how the incarnation was not beneath the dignity and greatness of God. Anselm responds that the humiliating and laborious aspects of becoming a man applied only to Christ’s human nature. Nevertheless, Boso replies, how could God be seen as loving if he willed the torturous death of an innocent human person? Anselm then launches into a long argument about Christ’s having a choice in the matter. He eventually explains in what sense Christ’s death was the Father’s will: “Because the Father was unwilling for the human race to be restored unless man performed a great act, equal to the Son’s death” (1.9). Only thus may one say (as many Scriptures do) that the Father willed the death of the Son.

Boso refocuses the conversation on the puzzling question of the reasonableness and necessity of death, “for it is an extraordinary thing if God so delights in or stands in need of the blood of the innocent that apart from his death he cannot or will not spare the guilty” (1.10). Anselm begins his answer by exploring the nature and effects of sin. To sin is basically to not give God what is due him, namely, the subjection of the rational creature’s every inclination to his will. By paying this debt both humans and angels avoid sin; by failing to pay it they sin. “One who does not render this honor to God takes away from God what belongs to him, and dishonors God, and to do this is sin” (1.11). Everyone remains at fault who does not repay what s/he has stolen, which involves not only returning what was taken but also giving back more than was originally taken. “So, then, everyone who sins must repay to God the honor that was taken away, and this is the satisfaction that every sinner ought to make to God” (1.11).

Anselm then finally addresses the question of why God could not simply remit sins by an act of will. In this context he introduces the concept of irregularity—to remit sins without either punishment or payment is to do so irregularly, which is unfitting for God’s Kingdom. It is likewise unseemly to place those who have sinned on the same plane with those who have not. Sin must either be paid for or punished; otherwise it is subject to no law, which makes God out to be unjust (and thus unkind). In this way not only do God’s honor and justice remain intact, but also all things “hold their own place in this universe and maintain the beauty of its order” (1.15). After discussing the number of elect persons in relation to fallen angels, Anselm goes on to explain that satisfaction is also required by the blessedness for which God initially created humankind. In order to be raised unto blessedness, humans must be restored to the same state as those angels they will replace, which could not happen by a mere act of will.

Having established the necessity of satisfaction, he turns to the nature of this satisfaction as required by the weightiness of human sin. Humans cannot even repay God for one small sin, for something greater than the normal duty of perfect obedience is required for satisfaction to be achieved. In many other ways Anselm explains the impossible things man must accomplish for sin’s offense to be overcome. For God to mercifully overlook these matters would involve a “kind of divine mercy” that is “directly opposed to God’s justice” (1.24).

Anselm closes book one by returning to the basic framework for the whole discussion—proving from reason how Christ’s death provides salvation. The options are three: humans are not saved at all, they are saved apart from Christ, or they are saved because of him. Since the first is foolish, for God is certainly not unable to carry out what he intended, and the second cannot be proven be reason, salvation must exist nowhere else but within the Christian faith.

Anselm’s second book carries forward the same basic ideas, arguing from man’s intended purpose that the only way for God’s plan to be fulfilled would entail the sending of a God-Man, which is of course exactly what Christians believe has occurred. Each of the first few chapters may be summarized in simple sentences: God made humans as rational creatures to love and choose God for his own sake, for which reason they were created just. Had they not sinned, humans would never have died. To be properly restored requires the resurrection of human bodies. In this way God will fulfill his purposes in creation—not due to a necessity imposed from without, but that engendered by faithfulness to his own nature and honor.

How, then, will this be accomplished? In order for humankind to satisfy the debt of sin, they must give to God something greater than everything that is not God. Since nothing fits the description but God himself, satisfaction (and thus salvation) requires a God-Man (Deus Homo). This God-Man must not involve the blending of the two natures or the development of a third nature, for the divine and human natures must both be complete, and they must be complete in one man, for otherwise no one man would meet both of the necessary criteria for humankind to be saved. As Anselm puts it, “The person who is to make this satisfaction must be both perfect God and perfect man, because none but true God can make it, and none but true man owes it” (2.7). The God-Man must likewise come from the race of Adam—rather than being of a new created order—for Adam’s race is the one in need of restoration.

As one who completely avoids sin, the God-Man is not required to die as part of his natural obligation to obey God and live justly, as are all other men who owe the debt. Thus by dying, he offers himself as a gift to the honor of God in a way that transcends his normal obligation to obey, achieving satisfaction for man’s sin. Based on the surpassing greatness of this life, the God-Man’s freely given death is large enough to cover over all human sin, great though it is—even in the case of his own murderers (who committed this act in ignorance). Anselm later explains how exactly salvation followed from Christ’s death—namely, such a great gift freely given obviously merits a reward (since it was not owed). But the God-Man—owing nothing—was in need of no reward, and was thus able and willing to request that his reward be transferred to the human race, for whom the coming and death-gift were designed in the first place. Man is thus saved by God. God was not required to deliver man from the devil, but he called for man to overcome the devil and make satisfaction by justice. Exactly that which man was unable to do, God did by offering his Son as a means of satisfaction (an offering agreed to by the Son himself). All of this reveals the truest mercy and justice of God. With these thoughts Anselm brings to a close his argument for why God became human and died on a cross.

II. Analysis of Cur Deus Homo?

This middle section will attempt to summarize and evaluate Anselm’s formidable presentation of the role of Christ in the salvation of the world. His basic argument will be retraced by emphasizing its four basic convictions. This summary will focus on understanding why and how satisfaction works. Attention will then be drawn to four key strengths of Anselm’s presentation and approach, followed by four corresponding weaknesses.

Anselm’s first of all teaches that humankind has offended God’s honor by not fulfilling the duty of perfect obedience. As rational creatures, humans owed God nothing less than total devotion in every inclination and action. By refusing to render God this due, humans place themselves in a position of debt before God. Sin is understood primarily as the failure to fulfill a duty and subsequent owing of a payment in recompense. By sinning, humankind has also disrupted the order, harmony, and beauty of the universe. Anselm’s critics often miss this last point, which distorts their understanding of the next basic tenet of Anselm’s argument.

Secondly, according to Anselm, God’s honor and justice require that human sin be either satisfied or punished. For God to forgive sin outright by a simple act of the will would introduce irregularity into God’s Kingdom of order and beauty. Anselm does not picture God as a distant offended monarch harshly demanding death in order to be appeased, but as one committed to the world as he created it. For God to go against his own character and plan would disrupt the universe’s harmony, thus rendering restoration impossible. Apart from satisfaction, God could only punish humankind in toto, which also remains out of the question since it would mean God’s failure to bring about his purposes for creation. Throughout CDH Anselm distinguishes satisfaction from punishment (cf. 1.13). Since Anselm viewed sin in terms of a debt incurred, by paying the debt humankind could avoid the punishment that would otherwise follow.

Thirdly, only a God-Man could offer the necessary satisfaction for human sin. Because refusing God his proper honor is such a great offense, an enormous gift is required to repay it. Humankind is uniquely responsible for providing this gift, since it was humans who committed the offense. Humans, however, are totally unable to do so, for all efforts to repay the debt serve only to fill up their present duty, failing to account for the past failure. The debt is so great, in fact, that only a being as great as everything less than God could repay it. Such a being would of course be God himself. Thus humankind’s ought and God’s ability combine to form the necessity of a God-Man (Deus Homo). According to Anselm, this was the only position that reason—not to mention Scriptural revelation—would allow.

Finally, the superior worth of the God-Man’s gift results in the possibility of human salvation. As this necessary God-Man, Christ in his death offered the repayment of a debt he did not owe. Though he owed God total obedience, he did not owe him death, since he had never sinned, and thus God could not fail to reward him for offering himself in this way. In no way did he need the reward engendered by this great gift, however, and seeing as how he purposed all along to save humankind by it, to whom else “would it be more fitting for him to assign the fruit and recompense of his death” (2.19). All that remains is for men and women to respond rightly to Scripture’s teaching on “the way to attain to a share in such great grace” (2.19).

These four basic convictions bring together the complicated argument that runs throughout the pages of CDH. Anselm’s answer to the question of why God became man has much to commend it. To begin with, although for the most part he avoids Scripture in keeping with his stated aim of arguing apart from revelation, Anselm’s presentation is broadly biblical. As in Scripture, Jesus’ death alone overcomes sin and offers salvation to all; through his death God’s justice and humankind’s sinfulness are accounted for, thus reconciling humans back to their Creator. Secondly, Anselm provides a logical rationale for Jesus being both Divine and Human. Having accepted by faith the Chalcedonian affirmation of Christ’s two natures within one person, he explained rationally why this had to be and how it effected salvation. Thirdly, Anselm’s arguments would make great sense within his own historical context. His feudalistic society was based on the honor of its lords, the harmony of the world being kept intact by vassals maintaining proper obligations of loyalty and respect. In this world “the seriousness of a crime stood in proportion to the rank of the offended victim,” and “one could make satisfaction with a person he had wronged by restoring to him something over and above what was initially taken.” Both concepts are clearly analogous to Anselm’s understanding of sin’s weightiness and the God-Man’s superior gift. Fourthly, Anselm finds a way to express the saving significance of Jesus’ death in legal terms without equating satisfaction with penance for sin.

His position is not without weaknesses, however, which may also be divided into four. First and foremost, Anselm assumes unscriptural requirements for what God can and cannot do. Most notable in this regard is God’s impassability, the protection of which (among other things) allows illogic into his discussion of Christ’s natures. Furthermore, he fails to adequately show (much less emphasize) how Jesus’ death fulfills God’s past history with Israel. His concept of justice is thus particularly jeopardized by ignoring the covenantal context against which the Bible (and especially Paul) holds God accountable to himself.

Secondly, he wrongly and awkwardly speaks of Christ’s two natures. Due in part to his desire to affirm God’s impassibility, he awkwardly differentiates between which parts of the God-Man truly experienced the humiliating aspects of humanness and death (his humanity did; his divinity did not). The same logical and ontological awkwardness enters his discussion of Christ on the cross, where “he offered his humanity to his divinity” (2.18). This manifests a division of the natures that goes against both Chalcedon and Scripture. Furthermore, his flat denial of any ignorance on the part of the human Christ seems to contradict the clear teaching of Scripture that he “in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4.15, NRSV).

Thirdly, while articulating the atonement in language his hearers could readily understand may be viewed as positive, he relies too heavily on logic that makes sense only within feudalism. One short example will suffice: explaining sin in terms of a debt incurred for honor withheld and atonement as subsequent satisfaction of that debt made sense to people living in Europe during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. However, his system would make less sense in cultures based on foundations other than honor and imbedded with practices not involving debt and satisfaction.

Fourthly, Anselm’s overemphasis on legal terminology and practices results in a one-dimensional view of sin and salvation that only takes into account part of the human condition as revealed in Scripture. He offers little to no reflection on sin as an ontological problem requiring transformation (or deification), for example, or as a relational dilemma calling for reconciliation. This one-sidedness results in a lack of integration between incarnation and atonement, leaving the saving significance of the former unexplained. The legal emphasis also offers little (or at least less than other models) in terms of ethical instruction and motivation.

III. Significance of Cur Deus Homo?

Though many have criticized Anselm’s case for the necessity of a God-Man dying on behalf of humanity, none can deny its ongoing influence. Although some of Anselm’s contemporaries (such as Abelard) moved in explicitly different directions on the meaning of the atonement, Cur Deus Homo? truly proved “epoch-making.” As Justo Gonzalez observes, “Although they did not follow it at every turn, most later medieval theologians interpreted the work of Christ in the light of this treatise.” In Roman Catholic circles, Anselm’s satisfaction model basically replaced the ransom theory. Perhaps even more significantly, both Martin Luther and John Calvin drank deeply from Anselm’s springs, taking up his arguments and carrying them further in the direction of penal substitution. The influence of the penal model can hardly be overstated, becoming as it has a virtual test of orthodoxy in many evangelical circles.

What about the present relevance of Anselm’s masterful defense of God’s ways? Of the many lessons to be learned from CDH, I will offer four positive and four negative. First among the positive principles is its appreciation for the weightiness of sin and the greatness of Jesus’ accomplishment. Anselm may be accused of many things, but none can deny the heaviness he assumes of the events he recounts. Also noteworthy is his attempt to respect and yet critique tradition, as he does with the ransom theory’s questionable assumptions about the devil’s rights to humankind. We also do well to embody his apologetic and evangelistic thrust, as well as his commitment to rigorous thinking. Negatively, Anselm embodies the dangers of leaving behind the story of God as revealed in Israel and Jesus (his life included). Neglecting this story and the Book that tells it led to two other deficiencies: allowing reason and logic to dictate what God can and cannot do, and failing to balance the many different metaphors Scripture uses to signify the saving significance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Lastly, though Anselm aims for faithfulness to Chalcedon, he fails to fully understand the ontological assumptions behind earlier presentations of atonement and salvation. These are all errors we must attempt to avoid.
In conclusion, Anselm provides an account of the meaning and saving significance of Jesus’ death that is helpful in that it communicates biblical truth logically and in language appropriate to its own setting. It remains limited, however, because this historical context is unrepeatable, and because it reflects only one aspect of Scripture’s teaching on the saving significance of Jesus the Christ. We must therefore continue to reflect on Anselm’s great work with appropriate attentiveness, critical thinking, humility, and appreciation.