Satisfaction in “Cur Deus Homo?”

Bad Anselm

The very name Anselm of Canterbury leaves a bad taste in many peoples mouths today. This is because Anselm has been associated with what has been called “the satisfaction theory of the atonement. So what is this satisfaction theory? A short description from the Theopedia defines it as follows:

The Satisfaction (or Commercial) theory of the atonement was formulated by the medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) in his book, Cur Deus Homo (lit. ‘Why the God Man’). In his view, God’s offended honor and dignity could only be satisfied by the sacrifice of the God-man, Jesus Christ.

Anslem believed that humans could not render to God more than what was due to him. The satisfaction due to God was greater than what all created beings are capable of doing, since they can only do what is already required of them. Therefore, God had to make satisfaction for himself. Yet if this satisfaction was going to avail for humans, it had to be made by a human. Therefore only a being that was both God and man could satisfy God and give him the honor that is due him.

The classic Anselmian formulation of the Satisfaction View needs to be distinguished from Penal Substitution. Penal Substitution states that Christ bore the penalty for sin, in place of those sinners united to him by faith. Anselm, by contrast, regarded human sin as defrauding God of the honour he is due. Christ’s death, the ultimate act of obedience, gives God great honour. As it was beyond the call of duty for Christ, it is more honour than he was obliged to give. Christ’s surplus can therefore repay our deficit. Hence Christ’s death is substitutionary in this sense: he pays the honour instead of us. But that substitution is not penal; his death pays our honour not our penalty.

The Protestant reformers shifted the focus of this satisfaction theory to concentrate not merely on divine offense but on divine justice. God’s righteousness demands punishment for human sin. God in his grace both exacts punishment and supplies the one to bear it.

This is an important difference. For Anselm, Christ obeyed where we should have obeyed; for John Calvin, he was punished where we should have been punished.

Theopedia.

This is a good place to begin understanding, and appreciating, Anselm’s soteriology. The attentive reader will already have picked up on the similarities between satisfaction as described above and that of St. Benedict’s Rule. The distinction made above between punishment (penal substitution theory) and satisfaction theory (Anselm, but also the Rule of St. Benedict) is very important. I think it would be true to say that in Anselmian thought we are not saved from God but we are saved by the God-man: Jesus Christ. In penal substitution we are saved by God but also from God. But still satisfaction theory makes the atonement a transaction of divine financing and Anselm is responsible for this misconstruction of the atonement.

Bad Anselm!

Rectitude, essence, and reference to God

Anselm is a Platonist. To provide some context to the argument in Cur Deus Homo we need to take this into account. In Platonism things are what they are because of their “essence” or “form.” A circle is a circle because it participates in the form (essence) of “circle-ness. A human being is a human being because he participates in human-ness, etc. Ever since St. Augustine of Hippo these “essences” or “forms” have been considered to exist in the “mind of God.” All things to be what they are must therefore be oriented toward God. That is to be a circle the circle must participate in circleness which exists in the mind of God. The same is true for human beings. The proper participation and orientation Anselm calls “rectitude.” To be rectitudinous is therefore simply to be what one “ought to be.”

Now human beings, unlike circles, are able to make choice and to (in a sense) lessen their participation in human-ness and thereby and to that extent turn away from God. This is what sin is. By sin we fail to be rectitudinous. Sin results in a distortion of the created order and therefore in a lack of rectitude. This disrupts the relationship of the created world with its Creator and needs to be addressed.

Satisfaction and salvation

According to Anselm sin “consists in not rendering to God what is due him” (G. Mansini, “St. Anselm, Satisfactio, and the Rule of St. Benedict,” p. 103). Anselm explains this to Boso in Cur Deus Homo? Bk. I chapter 11 (scroll down). Sin results in the disruption of the order and beauty of the universe. This order and beauty is God’s honor and it is “external to God” because:

… it is evident that no one can honor or dishonor God as he is in himself; but someone seems to do so, to the extent that he can, when he subjects his will to the will of God or withdraws it from the will of God.

Cur Deus Homo, Bk. I, Chapter 15 (Jasper Hopkins translation).

This an important point. Previously Anselm had said that it is God’s honor which is offended and that requires either punishment or satisfaction. Here, upon being asked, Anselm further refines what this offended honor is. It appears that it is not so much that God had his divine toes stepped on and is now furious with the offender. Rather it seems to be the case that the divine order and beauty of creation has been disrupted. That the orientation toward God has been knocked out of whack and has become dis-oriented. It is this which prevents God and sinful creatures to relate as they ought. The problem is not that God has flown into a fit of murderous rage to be cooled in murdering his innocent Son on the Cross. That idea is the result of simply failing to read what Anselm is actually saying. In fact, it seems to me, most people repeating this horrible narrative have simply failed to pay close enough attention to Anselm’s argument (if they have read him at all ! ).

The disrupted order must be restored. Anselm believes that this restoration takes the form of human beings (that are saved) taking the place left open by the angels who had fallen (following Satan’s rebellion). How is this restoration to take place? Either by punishment (Curd Deus Homo?, Bk. I chapter 14) or by satisfaction (Cur Deus Homo?, Bk I, chapter 16 & 19). But simply offering God what is due to him is not enough. Satisfaction must be supereregatory: satisfaction must consist in giving back more than what is already owed. In other words: it is not enough to simply say sorry. After all, “sorry,” does nothing to restore or repair. Restoration requires “undoing” the evil that was done. This undoing is not in the power of a human being to perform and necessitates the God-man. Since man owns the problem God cannot (externally) do away with the problem (it violates God’s nature to do so). God must become  man and from the inside out and clean up the mess we had made.

Next we will take a look at the conceptual content of Anselmian “satisfaction” and how it corresponds to the concept of “satisfaction” in the Rule of Benedict.

[to be continued]

Fr. Gregory Wassen