Anselm was a brilliant guy. A genius. This past year, I read his book Why God Became Man. He published it in 1097, so you could say it’s a bit of a antique. Anselm’s book is really about why Christ had to take on a human nature and be conceived of and born to a virgin. But, along the way, he tackled the reason for Christ’s death and thus popularized the “satisfaction theory” of atonement, which envisioned God as an overlord of sorts who was owed “satisfaction” or payment by his subjects for crimes committed, in order to set things right.
This theory is very intriguing, and it’s not too far from the penal substitution theory most conservative Christians are taught. I’m confident in saying this, because I doubt many Christians (even those in academia who ought to know better) have actually read Anselm’s book. I have.
Here, I want to provide an extended excerpt, and some brief commentary. Anselm’s book is fascinating for two reasons; (1) he structures it as a dialogue between himself and a bright student named Boso, and (2) he’s remorselessly logical. Anselm would have been a swell lawyer.
As you read this, remember two things:
- There really were Christians in the Medieval period
- Christians in 1097 really were smart
Here we go …
What it is to sin and to give recompense for sin
Anselm: What we have to investigate, therefore, is the question: ‘By what rationale does God forgive the sins of men?’ And, so that we may do this more clearly, let us first see what it is to sin and what it is to give satisfaction for sin.
Boso: It is for you to demonstrate and for me to pay attention.
Anselm: If an angel or a man were always to render to God what he owes, he would never sin.
Boso: I cannot contradict this.
Anselm: Then, to sin is nothing other than not to give God what is owed to him.
Boso: What is the debt which we owe to God?
Anselm: All the will of a rational creature ought to be subject to the will of God.
Boso: Perfectly true.
This is pretty brief, but it’s good enough for me. God made us, so our duty is to be completely subject to God’s will in our lives. That’s an umbrella definition, but it’s more than big enough to cover the bases. So far, so good.
Anselm: This is the debt which an angel, and likewise a man, owes to God. No one sins through paying it, and everyone who does not pay it, sins. This is righteousness or uprightness of the will. It makes individuals righteous or upright in their heart, that is, their will. This is the sole honour, the complete honour, which we owe to God and which God demands from us. For only such a will, when it can act, performs actions which are pleasing to God. Even when it cannot act, it is pleasing in itself, because no work without it is pleasing. Someone who does not render to God this honour due to him is taking away from God what is his, and dishonouring God, and this is what it is to sin.
God demands your entire will be subject to Him. You exist to serve Him. If you fail to do this, you commit sin and dishonor God, who is your Creator. This is fine. Excellent stuff.
As long as he does not repay what he has taken away, he remains in a state of guilt. And it is not sufficient merely to repay what has been taken away: rather, he ought to pay back more than he took, in proportion to the insult which he has inflicted.
For just as, in the case of someone who injures the health of another, it is not sufficient for him to restore that person’s health, if he does not pay some compensation for the painful injury which has been inflicted, similarly it is not sufficient for someone who violates someone else’s honour, to restore that person’s honour, if he does not, in consequence of the harmful act of dishonour, give, as restitution to the person whom he has dishonoured, something pleasing to that person.
This makes sense, doesn’t it? You can’t just repay God by doing what you should have done. No, you have to do more than that in order to set things right. Isn’t that what Leviticus says? If you steal from a guy, you have to pay him back more than what you stole (Lev 6:1-5). That’s why Jesus knew Zaccheaus was actually sorry (Lk 19:1-10).
One should also observe that when someone repays what he has unlawfully stolen, what he is under an obligation to give is not the same as what it would be possible to demand from him, were it not that he had seized the other person’s property. Therefore, everyone who sins is under an obligation to repay to God the honour which he has violently taken from him, and this is the satisfaction which every sinner is obliged to give to God.
Things won’t be right between you and God unless and until you repay the honor you stole from Him by your crimes. You have to “satisfy” God in order to set things right. This is not far at all from the penal, substitutionary theory. The two theories are very, very close cousins. Perhaps even step-siblings.
Boso: With regard to all these matters, seeing we have undertaken to adopt a logical approach, I have nothing to say in contradiction, though you frighten me a little.
Who says Medieval guys don’t have a sense of humor!?
Whether it is fitting for God to forgive a sin out of mercy alone, without any restitution of what is owed to him
Anselm: Let us now return to the main argument and see whether it is fitting for God to forgive a sin out of mercy alone, without any restitution of the honour taken away from him.
Boso: I do not see why this should not be fitting.
Isn’t this still a question, today? Why doesn’t God just forgive and forget? Why doesn’t He just be “loving” and forgive sin, without demanding satisfaction? Isn’t that what real love is, to forgive unconditionally?
Anselm: To forgive a sin in this way is nothing other than to refrain from inflicting punishment. And if no satisfaction is given, the way to regulate sin correctly is none other than to punish it. If, therefore, it is not punished, it is forgiven without its having been regulated.
Boso: What you say is logical.
If you don’t punish a criminal, then you’re left with unregulated lawlessness. We instinctively understand this in society, with the criminal justice system. This is why it’s “not fitting” if a municipality unconditionally “forgives” a serial killer, and lets him go without punishment. Why can’t we understand this when it comes to God’s criminal justice system, too?
Anselm: But it is not fitting for God to allow anything in his kingdom to slip by unregulated.
Boso: I am in fear of sinning, if I want to disagree.
Anselm: Therefore, it is not fitting for God to forgive a sin without punishment.
Boso: That follows.
Yes, it does.
Anselm: There is another thing which also follows, if a sin is forgiven without punishment: that the position of sinner and non-sinner before God will be similar— and this does not befit God.
Boso: I cannot deny it.
Why obey the law, if the law-breaker faces no penalty? Why shouldn’t we all just do whatever we want, if there’s no incentive for holy behavior? We’ll all be forgiven in the end, right? So, why not party?
Anselm: Consider this too. Everyone knows that the righteousness of mankind is subject to a law whereby it is rewarded by God with a recompense proportional to its magnitude.
Boso: This is our belief.
Anselm: If, however, sin is neither paid for nor punished, it is subject to no law.
Boso: I cannot interpret the matter in any other way.
Nor can I …
Anselm: Therefore, sinfulness is in a position of greater freedom, if it is forgiven through mercy alone, than righteousness— and this seems extremely unfitting. And the incongruity extends even further: it makes sinfulness resemble God. For, just as God is subject to no law, the same is the case with sinfulness.
Boso: I cannot object to your reasoning. But, when God teaches us to forgive those who sin against us, he seems to be being contradictory— in teaching us to do something which it is not fitting for him to do himself.
Exactly! God wants us to forgive, but He won’t do the same without first demanding “satisfaction?” Why on earth? What a good question!
Anselm: There is no contradiction in this, because God is giving us this teaching in order that we should not presume to do something which belongs to God alone. For it belongs to no one to take vengeance, except to him who is Lord of all. I should explain that when earthly powers take action in this way in accordance with right, it is the Lord himself, by whom they have been appointed for the task, who is acting.
Interesting answer. God can demand satisfaction, because He is Creator, and vengeance belongs to Him (Deut 32:35).
Boso: You have removed what I thought to be an inherent contradiction. But there is another matter about which I want your answer. For, since God is so free that he is subject to no law and no judgement, and is so benevolent that nothing can be conceived of more benevolent than he, and since there is nothing right or proper except what he wishes, it does seem surprising that we should be saying that he is in no way willing to forgive an injury to himself, or that it is not permissible for him to do so, whereas we are in the habit of seeking forgiveness from him even for things we do to other people.
Boso wants to know why God is intent on demanding satisfaction when He Himself can set (or abolish) the very principles by which he demands this satisfaction! In other words:
- God made this standard,
- which means He’s not bound by it (i.e. it’s not an external compulsion forced upon Him),
- which means He could abolish the requirement for satisfaction if He wanted to.
Anselm: What you say about God’s freedom, his will and his benevolence is true, but we ought, in our reasoning, to understand these concepts in such a way as not to impugn his dignity. For the term ‘freedom’ relates only to the freedom to perform what is advantageous or fitting, and one should not give the name of ‘benevolence’ to something which brings about a result unfitting for God. A statement that, ‘What God wills is just and what he does not will is unjust’, is not to be understood as meaning that, ‘If God wishes anything whatsoever that is unfitting, it is just, since it is he who wills it’.
Ok, fair enough. God will not will something that is against His own character. To suggest He would do so impugns His dignity. Got it.
For the argument that, ‘If it is God’s will to tell a lie, it is just to tell a lie’, is a non sequitur. Rather, the liar is not God. For a will cannot wish to tell a lie, if it is not one in which the truth has been corrupted, or, more accurately, one which has been corrupted by the fact of deserting the truth. When, therefore, one says, ‘If it is God’s will to tell a lie’, this is no different from saying, ‘If God is a being such as to wish to tell a lie’. It does not follow, then, that telling a lie is just.
Unless, that is, we adopt an interpretation of the kind used when we say with reference to two impossibles, ‘If this thing is so, then that thing is so’, when neither ‘this’ nor ‘that’ is the case; for instance, if one were to say, ‘If water is dry, then fire is wet’, given that neither is true. It is therefore only true to make the statement, ‘If it is God’s will, then it is just’, about things which it is not unfitting for God to wish. For if it is God’s will that it should rain, then it is a just thing that it should rain; and if it is his will that some man should be killed, then it is just that he should be killed.
In consequence of this reasoning, if it is not fitting for God to do anything in an unjust and unregulated manner, it does not belong to his freedom or benevolence or will to release unpunished a sinner who has not repaid to God what he has taken away from him.
Boso: You are removing all the objections which I thought could be raised against you.
Hopefully, this little excerpt is having the same impact on you as it did on poor Boso! Why don’t you buy Anselm’s major works, and read this little book for yourself?