Old Dead Guys Notes #5– Anselm of Canterbury

Old Dead Guys Notes #5– Anselm of Canterbury

John Wiers, PhD 2020


  1. 1033-1109
  • Often called the First Scholastic theologian, he was famous for his attempts to formulate Christian doctrines primarily using human reasoning– although this needs much qualification– and his pioneering work on the atonement.  He is also famous for the first formulation of the so-called Ontological Argument for the existence of God. 
  • His main passion in life was solving intellectual puzzles. 
  • He was also an active churchman, serving as prior over the well-known monastery at Bec in Normandy, France, and as archbishop of Canterbury in England.
  • He very disliked his ecclesiastical work and would have much preferred to spend a life in quiet solitude and prayer, but like a number of other theologians he was pressed into administrative service– when he was nominated as Archbishop of Canterbury, they had to forcibly pry open his hands to put the bishop’s staff in and carry him to the cathedral.  He claimed that this made the appointment invalid, but the church said no it didn’t.
  • He was noted for his very pious life, yet was so effusive in his affection for fellow monks that there has been speculation– without any actual proof– that he was a closet homosexual.
  • He was not a very good administrator and most of his career as archbishop was in constant turmoil with the English kings, William II and Henry I, over who had jurisdiction to appoint bishops– this was a phase in the Investiture Controversies that wracked the church for a few hundred years.
  • He also supported popes that other kings and churchmen didn’t and this led to his spending considerable time in exile.
  • 600 years have passed since Augustine’s time and while Augustine is still the reigning theologian– Anselm was an Augustinian in most of his theology– the ecclesiastical and political climate had changed.  The papacy was firmly in place, the system of penance, etc was fully operational, and feudalism as a political/economic system was in full swing. 
  1. His life
    1. He was born in Aosta in Lombard, Italy, in the Italian Alps, near what is today the French-Italian border, near the shadow of the Matterhorn. 
  • He had a godly mother, but a father that he quarreled with most of childhood and youth.  One of his fellow monks wrote a bio of him, so we know a considerable amount about his life. 
  • He lived a bit of a rowdy life as a youth, leaving home after his mother died and wandering around France.
  • He always had a thirst for knowledge and in 1059 entered the monastery school in Bec, Normandy, where Lanfranc, a well-known scholar from Anselm’s home area, had become prior and church teacher.
  • He excelled in scholarly work, but was convinced to take monastic vows in 1060 and became a model monk.  He fasted and prayed for such long hours that he often had hallucinations. Yet he wished all could monks and nuns and find God. 
  • His earliest writings were prayers to the saints and letters to various monks– he would write such letters, which often dripped with emotional content all of his life.
  • In 1063, he became prior (abbot) of the monastery– Lanfranc had become prior of another monastery closely connected with the Norman knight William, who would become known as William the Conqueror– Lanfranc followed William to England and eventually became the first Norman archbishop of Canterbury.  It was said that Anselm cried, prostrate on the floor, when elected because he knew it would take him away from his study and devotional life. 
  • Anslem wrote 2 of his most important works, Monologian and Proslogian, during this time as abbot (prior) of Bec.
  1. Due to his friendship with Lanfranc he made several trips to England and won the respect of the Norman conquerors. 
  • When Lanfranc died in 1089, he had nominated Anselm before he died, and Anselm was finally forcibly made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093.
  • However disputes arose immediately between him and the king over jurisdiction and some of the disputes even turned violent.
  • It was further complicated in that Anselm support the legitimacy of Pope Urban II– the one who called the first Crusade– and the King did not.
  • Anselm went to Rome for papal advice and ultimately he wasn’t let back into England for 3 years. 
  • His 1st 5 years as archbishop were unproductive in writing theology, but during his exile he completed his greatest work, Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man) and another important work on the procession of the Holy Spirit which he wrote in preparation for being a delegate from the pope to a council that met with representatives of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
  • When William II died, he returned to England, but the same issues erupted with Henry I and Anselm would not compromise.
  • After 2 years of squabbling with the king, he again went to Rome to present his case to the pope and Henry wouldn’t let him back into England again until 1107.
  • He had poor health for the last 2 years and sought to impose clerical celibacy on the English clergy and had a long-standing dispute with the Archbishop of York over which had primacy in the English church.
  1. His Theology
    1. What is unique about his theology is that, in spite of obvious knowledge of scripture and earlier theologians-he was in most ways an Augustinian– he rarely quotes either and explicitly sets out to write theology using human reasoning without any appeals to authorities.
  • Yet he also explicitly says that he believes so that he can understand. Much of his theology was written piecemeal in response to questions from other monks that he had corresponded with. 
  • There are 2 key Latin phrases he uses: fides quaerum intellcutum (faith seeking understanding) and credo ut intelligum (I believe so that I may understand.)  
  • By faith, he didn’t mean mere intellectual assent, but an active seeking for God. Yet he never gives an explicit definition of faith. 
  • Pursuit of understanding was an act of obedience for Anselm. 
  • BTW, his Latin has been described as elegant.
  • Yet all of his works are couched in terms of devotion and the Proslogian is written as a prayer, working off the biblical phrase: The fool says in his heart that there is no God
  • Many have seen a tension between these, but this was a theme that will be seen in Augustine and later theologians such as Luther and Calvin.
  1. His notion of reason can also be a bit slippery.  Sometimes reason seems to be the end of a logical argument and at other times it seems to be a way to say: what seems fitting– an often used term in his writings.
  • He applied this to a number of basic areas of theology: original sin, the Trinity, but those that are most known are his Proslogian in which he argues for the existence of God in what has been called the Ontological Argument.
  • Even more famously, in his Cur Deus Homo— he argued that it is logically necessary or “fitting” that the incarnation and the death of Christ would be the only method God could have used to save humanity.
  • That argument would become the basis for most orthodox Roman Catholic and Protestant doctrines of the atonement.  It is often called the satisfaction view of the atonement.
  • He says his approach has validity because the Trinity is not explicitly stated in scripture and is faith seeking understanding.
  • He would have agreed with the idea that the creeds have real, but derived authority, so our reasoned out understanding of the implications of the faith are also true and doesn’t contradict scripture– i.e. “good and necessary consequences” as the Presbyterian creed, the Westminster Confession of Faith would say nearly 600 years later. 
  • Yet he never argued that reason alone could anywhere come near to plumbing the depths of the divine being.  Nor is he really an apologist in the sense of trying to “argue” someone into the faith.
  • He also recognized the “noetic influence of sin”– i.e. sin had affected our thinking. 
  1. The Proslogian
    1. While the Monologian, his first extended theological treatise, was a rather wide-ranging attempt at natural theology, that sought to establish the intellectual rationality of a number of Christian doctrines, the Proslogian is where he argues what seems at first like an unusual argument for the existence of God.

B. Anselm argues that we can prove the existence of God because he defines God as: “that which none can conceive of as greater” and argues that if we can conceive that such a being exists, then he must exist.

  • That’s because Anselm argues that existence is greater than non-existence and thus be definition then God must exist.
  • Some have seen this as the most brilliant argument for God’s existence while others argue that it is a sleight of hand where words have changed meaning in the process of proof.
  • He added an appendix to his 2nd edition when a monk named Ganulio argued that he could conceive of a perfect island in his mind, but that didn’t make it exist.
  • Anselm responded that Ganulio had missed his point because an island was a created thing and thus wasn’t perfect in the way he was defining perfection.  God was perfect and thus must exist.
  • Later philosophers have been divided about his proof.  A number of famous philosophers have followed it, although sometimes in modified form, while others– often famous as well– have completely rejected it.
  • Some ( for example modern Reformed theologian, John Frame) have said that it is really a form of presuppositionalism and that he wasn’t really attempting to “prove” the existence of God as much as showing that it was necessary to assume it.  Frame says his definition of God is actually quite biblical.  Anselm adopts a biblical idea of what is perfection, including moral perfection.  We all long for such perfection and must assume it exists to make sense out our world. 

I. Another theologian, Roger Olson, says that Anselm is pointing to a “signal of transcendence” which points us to God because he is the reality that is perfect that we long for. 

  1. Cur Deus Homo
    1. This is perhaps the most influential book on the doctrine of the atonement in the history of Christian theology. James Denney called it “the greatest book on the atonement.”
  • No earlier theologian had really set out a full doctrine of the atonement other than some discussions of Christ defeating the devil and ransoming us from his power.  Earlier theologians would use the phrase, “Christ died for our sins,” without any serious exploration of what that meant. 
  • It is set up as a dialogue between Anselm and a monk named Boso who plays the devil’s advocate.
  • He seems to have been stimulated to write it because of pressure from Jewish and Muslim scholars who claimed that the incarnation was irrational. It may have been especially because some Englishmen had converted to Judaism, including one prominent bishop.
  • The argument follows his “using human reason alone” method.
  • Yet his reason alone method often appeals to what is fitting or suitable.  For example the Son was the one who became incarnate because it is more “fitting” for a son to appeal to his father than the reverse. 
  • It includes a lengthy rabbit trail in which he speculates that God created humans to make up for the exact number of fallen angels because there were empty spaces in heaven.  However, Anselm argued that ultimately there would be more elect humans than fallen angels, lest we become cocky that we are equal to angels. 
  • He answers 4 basic objections
    • Why did God not just make another man like Adam and have him ransom Adam’s race?
    • Why could God not just forgive sin?
    • How could Jesus’ death honor God?
    • How could Christ’s sacrifice outweigh the sins of all men?
  1. Anselm begins with a rejection of the common ransom theory which was seen in a basic way in Augustine and a more developed way in some others. Some versions of that had used a crude fishhook model, while others had said that the devil had been fooled because Christ burst the bonds of death which couldn’t keep him. 
  • He argued that the devil had no JUST rights over God and thus God was not obligated to pay him any ransom.
  • While themes of the defeat of Satan are not absent from Cur Deus Homo as well as Jesus as a model of divine love, neither are prominent.
  • The answer to objection #1 is that this would have made humans servants to both God and the newly created human being. 
  • What is prominent is the idea that sin is dishonoring God.  We owed honor to God and our sin has dishonored him. In fact Anselm comes close to defining sin exclusively as dishonoring God. Thus it is unfitting for God to just forgive without his honor being upheld. 
  • His keynote themes are satisfaction and merit. 
  • God couldn’t just make another Adam because while he could honor God, he couldn’t make up for the dishonor we owed God. It wouldn’t be “fitting for God to be satisfied with that.” He said that the ultimate reasons God became man was because something had to be done to restore the ordered beauty of creation.  It was fitting that it should be restored. 
  • Anselm argued that God had intended that Adam should have overcome Satan through resisting his temptations which would have honored God because Satan had fallen without inducements from a tempter.  Adam would have vindicated God.  But Adam succumbed and thus dishonored God and the original obligation to conquer Satan was still there. 
  • God couldn’t just forgive sin either because the honor owed God must be repaid.
  • Christ death honored God because he honored God in his obedience unto death, a death he didn’t deserve.  Christ’s death was voluntary and thus had great merit to satisfy the justice of God. Yet he doesn’t discuss this in terms of the wrath of God. 
  • Christ’s death was of infinite value because it was the death of the God-man.
  • Since a reward was due to Christ, he can transfer it to anyone. 
  • While all of this seems quite familiar to modern evangelicals, it really isn’t exactly the same as Reformation penal substitution.
  • Anselm doesn’t really speak of substitution, but of Christ gaining super-abundant honor– honor above and beyond what he owed God.  Many have argued that medieval notions of honor owed to a Lord can be seen here.
  • Anselm also doesn’t really speak of penal atonement.  His version speaks of upholding the honor of God rather than of paying the penalty for our sins. He actually has minimal notions of a personal, covenantal relationship with God, always speaking in terms of honor to a Lord. 
  • In fact evangelical Anglican scholar, Gerald Bray, says that unlike Reformation doctrines of the atonement, Anselm speaks more of dying for sins, than of dying for sinners.  The benefits of his death are then placed into a divine treasury merit which the church doles out through the penitential system rather than the believer grasping Christ as his substitute by faith.  Similar thinking sometimes comes into evangelical thinking when language such as “Christ has died for your sins, now all you need to do is to cash the check.”  The difference is that evangelicals think the check is cashed all at once, while the Roman Catholic system gets the payments for sins on the installment plan.
  • What is important to see is that Anselm sees this as a totally rational explanation for both the incarnation and the atonement.
  • In his view Christ seems to have died as a generic human, rather than as a particular individual and thus his death is universal, all going to the treasury of merit.  It is not really penal and not really substitutionary– he never uses that word– because Christ isn’t dying for anyone in particular, but just generically for the human race. 
  • Anselm’s legacy
  • Abelard, a monk more noted for his illicit love affair with the beautiful Heloise- Hollywood made a movie out of this– rejected Anselm in place of a doctrine of the atonement that said it was primarily designed to show us how much God loves us to induce us to repent.  BTW, Abelard paid dearly for his love affair.  Some of Heloise’s relatives captured Anselm and castrated him. 
  • Bernard of Clairvaux–, who wrote, O Sacred Head Now Wounded, became the great champion of Anselm’s perspective and it gained popularity in the medieval church.   Thomas Aquinas adopted it as well.
  • The Protestant theologians would modify it, while keeping much of its basic structure, by emphasizing that the sufferings of Christ were penal, to satisfy the wrath of God, as well as his honor and to link it more closely to the love of God in sending Christ.
  • The Reformers would also emphasize the personal subsitutionary aspect of the atonement which led to their notions of particular, as opposed to universal atonement since true substitution can only be particular.  John Owen would be the master of that. 
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