With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Friday, August 03, 2007

"Take Me, And Redeem Yourself"

St. Anselm of Canterbury is well known as the first theologian in the medieval period to radically separate scripture from ratio and place an unprecedented trust in the efficacy of quiet reasoning. This gave an apologetic dimension to his thought, allowing it to engage with various unbelievers on the basis of “necessary reasons” rather than private revelation. His work Cur Deus Homo, completed in 1098 while he was still in exile, is itself a work of great apologetic weight. As G.R. Evans notes, Anselm’s generation was one in which Jews and Christians were in intimate intellectual contact, so much so that Jews were sometimes converted. Most often, however, Jews were unable to accept that God became incarnate in Christ. They charged that subjecting the divine to such a creaturely status did God both injury and insult.[1] Anselm addresses such arguments in the very thesis of his Cur Deus Homo: he means to show that the Incarnation was necessary, and that rather than do God any injustice, proclaiming that God became man is in fact the only way to properly honor Him. He proceeds by a way that is remoto Christo, bracketing Christ and Scripture, until he concludes on the basis of reason that all other accounts are incompatible with a true, reasonable notion of God. One aspect in which Anselm’s argument is particularly convincing is his account of divine mercy. As I will show, Anselm contemplates the various possibilities with regards to God’s merciful action and concludes that the only true mercy is the mercy of Christ crucified for our sins; that of God-become-man for our sake. By focusing on Anselm’s reasoning about the nature of mercy in relation to God’s justice, one can see that for Anselm the only acceptable account of mercy, one that is compatible with divine justice, is the one in which God renders satisfaction for man by becoming man in Christ.

Central to Anselm’s argument are the notions of justice and blessedness, in the context of which his account of mercy becomes intelligible. Justice is generally a state of “right order,” of rectitude; in this case, man “honoring” God by rendering him what is due. Man, as created out of nothing, is in perpetual state of owing God everything, including every movement of his will. Sin, then, is the state of failing to render God what is owed.[2] To reclaim justice in one’s relationship with God, either satisfaction must be paid (which man cannot pay, since he owes everything to God already and cannot make satisfaction with what he already owes) or he must be punished (God forcefully taking the honor he is owed by withholding blessedness from man and thereby instilling the subjection to God in him that sin by its very nature denies). But Anselm also argues that blessedness, the state of perfection and enjoyment which rational nature is ordained to, must be attained by man (or some men) in order for God’s purpose in the act of creation to be fulfilled; in other words, for God to maintain His honor and justice, to do justice in His relationship to Himself.[3] Both satisfaction and punishment result in the reestablishment of a just relationship. But it seems satisfaction cannot be made by those who are required to make it, and punishment, as the withholding of blessedness, cannot be absolute if God is to maintain His own honor in the act of creating rational natures. How then does mercy relate to these notions?

In the 24th chapter of the first book[4] of his Cur Deus Homo, Anselm enters into a detailed discussion of the nature of mercy. If mercy is the divine act by which God restores the potential for man to achieve blessedness despite his state of sin, there are a number of ways in which mercy can be understood, not all of which are of equal merit. If one takes God’s mercy as the forgiveness of what man owes because he cannot repay it, then “he can only be said to forgive one of two things”: God either 1) forgives “what man should willingly pay but cannot” for the sin he should never have committed, thereby deeming that man is no longer required to pay; or 2) God withholds the punishment he was going to inflict to restore His own honor, namely the withholding of blessedness.[5] But Anselm argues that both conceptions entail certain problems: in the first case, if man is no longer required to repay what he ought to repay willingly, then God is “remitting what he cannot get,”[6] namely God remits repayment because he is unable through man’s sinful state to obtain satisfaction and thus the maintenance of His honor. God, by letting the debt go unpaid, would still fail to reestablish justice and receive what He owes to Himself even in the act of creation. This mercy, Anselm believes, is “mockery” to ascribe to God.[7]

In the second case, if God does not withhold blessedness from man because he is unable to make satisfaction, then God is essentially bestowing blessedness on account of man’s sin. If God refuses to punish, the state that merited the punishment still remains in man, namely either the unwillingness or the inability to render God what he ought. But, as Anselm says, “… this kind of divine mercy is too directly opposed to God’s justice, which allows nothing but punishment to be repaid for sin.” Nothing, that is, based on the inability for man to make satisfaction. “Therefore,” Anselm continues, “since God cannot be in opposition to himself, it is impossible for him to be merciful in this way.”[8] Otherwise, God would be granting blessedness at the cost of His own dignity.

In fact, both views criticized above are attempts to render an account of mercy that does not require the reestablishment of justice in man’s relationship with God. The first case is forgiveness that denies the need for satisfaction, and the second is a denial that punishment is the only just alternative to satisfaction. Anselm shows that both views are ultimately committed to a denial of God’s self-consistency, his honor. God’s honor can be viewed as the compatibility of all of God’s actions with each other, deriving from a single divine nature that in its perfection is incapable of contradicting itself; a nature that can only do justice to itself. So as we have briefly seen, in God’s act of creation, he establishes creatures in an ordered relation to Himself, an order that reflects the supreme beauty of His own nature in its perfect honor and self-consistency. We have seen that sin is the perversion of that divinely established order, and both views of mercy above in some way attempt to be compatible with that perversion: either by denying that satisfaction must be paid for the debt of sin or by denying that punishment is the only other just means of treating such disorder. Both views then render accounts of divine mercy as consistent with the endurance of disorder and injustice, and thus contradict God’s ordered act of creation, by rendering it unfulfilled. This mercy then entails a God who is opposed to Himself, inconsistent in His action, and thus imperfect in the justice His nature maintains with itself in the maintenance of His honor. If this divine order is found to be inconsistent, so too the order that is established in creation that mirrors it. Sin, then would be indistinguishable from justice, or as Anselm notes, injustice would be a state of freedom resembling God.[9] If this mercy leads to such imperfection in God, Anselm would argue that injustice and disorder are not given a divine sanction, but rather we are not dealing with God.[10] What good then is the mercy of a being that is found to be less than God? It seems that we, like Boso, must search for “another kind of divine mercy.”[11]

The only acceptable form of mercy then must be of the following kind: it must be compatible with divine justice in order to truly be the mercy of God. Mercy entails the reestablishment of justice in man’s relationship with God, for the sake of his honor or self-consistency.[12] For the same reason, this mercy is that by which not only justice is reestablished but blessedness achieved for man in the next life: “that ultimate mercy by which, after this life, he makes man blessed.”[13] If mercy were not that action by which blessedness was achieved, God’s action in creating rational nature would be unfulfilled, and an unacceptable notion of God would enter once more. One can see immediately then that punishment cannot be the means of reestablishing that order when mercy is granted, because it is precisely the withholding of blessedness. Mercy must then be of the form that it implies the payment of man’s satisfaction for sin. And yet, God’s justice requires that man ought to make the satisfaction because it is man and none other that merited the debt of sin, and if another makes it, it is not properly man that makes satisfaction.[14] Paradox looms: as we have briefly noted, sin renders man unable to make satisfaction because he only has it within his power to give to God what he always already owed in virtue of being created. God, Anselm notes, is the only one who has the power to give more than everything creation already owes, but man ought to give it.[15] Mercy must then not only entail the telos of blessedness for man and his satisfaction for sin, but it must somehow do so in a way in which God makes the satisfaction (because only He is able) and man makes the satisfaction (because only he ought to).

The God-man, Anselm concludes, is the only acceptable shape that mercy can take. There must be one person who is both fully God and fully man, and this according to Christian witness, is precisely what is found in Jesus Christ. One person fulfills both requirements, for as fully man, He assumes the debt of sin, and as fully God, He has the power to make satisfaction. The Christian teaching of the hypostatic union is the only resolution: for if there were two persons, one divine and another man, one would remain in debt unable to pay while the other would be able to pay but lacking debt. Similarly, a tertium quid of divine and human natures would render a being neither fully human nor fully divine, thus neither fully needing to nor fully capable of making satisfaction.[16] Thus, in Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ alone does mercy find its full embodiment. Consequently, all other attempts to explain divine mercy without reliance on Christ result in a “God” opposed to Himself, a “God” who is properly “merciless,” and thus no true “God” at all. Only in the God-man who was born of a virgin, descended from Adam in the flesh, who suffered and died for our sins, does mercy shine forth in a way harmonious with divine justice. As Anselm notes in response to unbelievers: no greater mercy can be imagined. Christians do not dishonor God by proclaiming the Incarnation, but rather are the only ones who praise and honor the true God, who is perfect in His self-consistency and justice.[17][18] Mercy only shines through in the sacrifice of the Cross, when God the Father says to the sinner “Receive my only-begotten Son, and give him for yourself,” and when the Son says “Take me, and redeem yourself.”

Primary Sources:

St. Anselm, Cur Deus Homo- Why God Became Man in A Scholastic Miscellany:
Anselm to Ockham
, The Library of Christian Classics, vol.10. Philadelphia/London: Westminster Press, 1956. pp.100-146.

Secondary Sources:

Evans, G.R. “Anselm of Canterbury.” The Medieval Theologians ed. G.R. Evans. Malden. Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2001. pp. 94-101

[1] Evans, G.R. “Anselm of Canterbury.” The Medieval Theologians ed. G.R. Evans. Malden. Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2001. p. 99; see also Cur Deus Homo, bk.1, ch.III and ch.VI
St. Anselm, Cur Deus Homo- Why God Became Man in A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham, The Library of Christian Classics, vol.10. Philadelphia/London: Westminster Press, 1956. bk.1, ch.XI, p.119
Ibid., bk.1, ch.XIII, p.122; See also bk.1, ch.XXV (p.145) and ch.IV (p.148); bk.1 ch.XII, p. 120-121; and bk.1, ch.XIX, p.134
[4] Also bk.1, ch.XII, p.120
[5] Ibid., bk.1, ch.XXIV, p.143
[6] Ibid., bk.1, ch.XXIV, p.143
[7] Ibid., bk.1, ch.XXIV, p.143
[8] Ibid., bk.1, ch.XXIV, p.143
[9] Ibid., bk.1, ch.XII, p.120; cf. bk.1, ch.XII, p.120: “…if sin is thus remitted unpunished…He who sin and he who does not sin will be in the same position with God.”
[10] Ibid., bk.1, ch.XII, p.121
[11] Ibid., bk.1, ch.XXIV, p.143
Forgiveness “should be granted only when the debt that is due for sin according to the greatness of the sin has been repaid.” cf. bk.1, ch.XII, p.121 and bk.1, ch.XIX, p. 136: “He who does not pay says, ‘Forgive,’ in vain.”
[13] Ibid., bk.1, ch.XXIV, p.144
[14] Ibid., bk.2, ch.VI, p.151
[15] Ibid., bk.2, ch.VI, p.150-151
[16] Ibid., bk.2, ch. VII, p.151-152
[17] Ibid., bk.1 ch.III, p. 104: “We do no injury or insult to God, but with heartfelt thanks we praise and proclaim the ineffable height of his mercy. It is precisely insofar as he has restored us, marvelously and beyond expectation, from the great and merited evils under which we lay to the great and unmerited goods that we had lost, that he has shown greater love and mercy toward us.” (emphasis mine)
[18] Ibid., bk.2, ch.XX, p. 182


  • At 8/04/2007 1:53 AM, Blogger A.K. Schwarz said…

    Thanks for the post! Excellent to see that you have brought St. Anselm into the light of this blog. A good encapsulation of the argument in Cur Deus Homo. Anselm is a worthy figure for this blog which is attentive particularly to the place of Beauty in relation to Truth and Goodness. Just a few comments to complement the post: 1)Anselm's use of "ratio" is infused with a great awareness of beauty, put largely into terms of fittingness or "convenientia." David S. Hogg has a recent work entitled "Anselm of Canterbury: The Beauty of Theology" (based on my initial read, I'm not sure if "aesthetic" in relation to Anselm is explained clearly enough--but, it's an important treatment). Also, Balthasar's reflections on Anselm are important too in this regard. 2) Anselm's understanding of satisfaction has often received short shrift and is often grossly misunderstood in various ways. This post invites another look at Anselm from a positive perspective. 3) The intertwining of justice and mercy is an important theme, as you point out. I think one of the powerful ideas that shines through Anselm is that God's mercy does not trump iustitia (justice/righteousness) but actually brings about iustitia in the most amazing way through Christ--mercy that is justifying. 4) In addition, Anselm's logic hinges upon a rich understanding of God's honor (embracing the ordo rerum--order of things), and his theological understanding of satisfaction goes deeper than an argument based on God's honor simplistically understood (including an awareness of the human need of restoration via satisfaction--his Meditation on Human Redemption is a fantastic complement to the CDH, composed basically as a meditation on the CDH). 5) Finally, while feudal categories and Teutonic law are often cited as the main context for Anselm's juridical categories (such as "satisfactio"), it is important to keep in mind the larger context of the term: The Scriptural foundations are there; Tertullian brought "satisfactio" into Christian vocabulary; "satisfactio" is in the Rule of St. Benedict; and "satisfactio" is rooted in a penitential context (I don't believe this last aspect has been appreciated enough). Thanks again!

  • At 8/05/2007 8:54 PM, Blogger A.K. Schwarz said…

    I was just revisiting this post (can you see that I'm interested in Anselm?), and I want to make a quick comment on your first statement: "St. Anselm of Canterbury is well known as the first theologian in the medieval period to radically separate scripture from ratio and place an unprecedented trust in the efficacy of quiet reasoning." While this statement is intending legitimately to show the particular uniqueness Anselm exemplified in his theological reasoning (e.g., bracketing Scripture, etc.), I believe it would be important to correct the phrase that Anselm "radically separat[ed] scripture from ratio." His method of bracketing is not really separation at all. Anselm's ratio is never separated from the Word of God. While he may not use scriptural texts as proof texts or sound bites in his reasoning in the CDH (or elsewhere), his ratio is imbued and shaped by Scripture, by the Word of God. The authority of Scripture always had the upperhand for Anselm, and he recognized this authority even when he would use a method of bracketing. Thus, the passage at the end of the CDH that deserves more mining in Anselmian scholarship (using E. Fairweather's trans.): "...I think that whatever is contained in the New and Old Testaments has been proved by the solution of the one question we put forward." Anselm sees himself as having proven the truth of the God-man, "[a]nd the God-Man himself establishes the New Testament and proves the truth of the Old." There's a fascinating relationship here between ratio and the Logos that's worth more exploration. In the end, Anselm's reasoning is thoroughly Scriptural but in a deeper sense than meets the eye--this connects to your post about "chewing the Word." Anselm chewed the Word and integrated it into his ratio so uniquely that he he would be called the "Father of Scholasticism." Yet even this title fails to capture all that Anselm was... Thanks again!

  • At 8/07/2007 8:15 AM, Blogger D. W. McClain said…

    Thanks for the helpful summation of Anselm's work in this area. I've wanted to explore Anselm for a while now, but never seem to make the time. Your post spurs me on!

  • At 8/07/2007 8:46 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    Thanks for the response. It sounds as though you are the resident expert on St. Anselm! You are quite right: I believe in general Anselm's thoughts on satisfaction get a very reductive treatment and the key is a "mercy that is justifying" found in Christ. My treatment, sadly, is restricted to a rather light reading of the CDH, so no doubt notions such as God's honor, satisfaction, ratio, etc. are not seen in their proper "richness."

    I think the power of Anselm's arguments lies in that with which Anselm concerned himself so much: the appeal of necessary reason. The context of feudal categories and Teutonic law does little to dull the undeniable appeal of common sense that even his understanding of satisfaction glows with.

    And, again, you are correct: my use of "separate" should be amended. Perhaps "distinguish" would be more appropriate. The intent was to point to a "separation" for the purpose of drawing Scripture and ratio into union.

    For I do not believe Anselm ever conceived of ratio as anything but a path to God, and a mode of His revelation. He had, I was taught, a very optimistic view of reason, but always one in which ratio was a phase that should end in prayer/love and flow from faith: as if a purifying fire to strengthen it.

    I was also taught that Anselm implemented a practice of meditation devoid of the mysteries of Scripture; one that was purely an intellectual enterprise (which he nonetheless saw as an experience of God). And his search for the necessary "rationes" of faith, which have universal appeal, was always meant to sustain and strengthen sources of authority such as Scripture.

    One mustn't forget that this man also wrote deep prayers as well as proofs of God's existence, and in the background of everything is his place in the tradition of lectio divina. Every path remoto Christo, ultimately leads to the affirmation that the only reasonable path is via Christ.

    Pax Christi,

  • At 8/28/2007 10:40 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    Great exchange, fellas.

    I think a very accurate portrayal of Anselm comes to light amidst these various approaches. Though, as Pat acknolwedges too, I think Andy is correct to point out that Anselm's use of reason is always a participated sense of reason.

    It's really, I think, Abelard who is the first to begin weilding reason in a sort of autonomy, even though reason's autonomy doesn't emerge with vigor until much later. Nonetheless, Abelard believed, for exampe, that the Trinity could in fact be made intelligible within the gambit of human reason, even though he intended it to be human reason that has opened itself to divine revelation. Abelard is one of the most interesting figures regarding this issue, I think. He seems to have anticipated the postmodern emphasis on the nothingness beyond reason. On the one hand, he knows of the apophatic tradition handed down by the Fathers, but on the other hand he seems unwiling to allow anything beyond the grasp of reason to have any intelligibility. The postmoderns seem to do the same thing, by "baptizing nihilism" to borrow a phrase from many anti-postmodernists.

    Still, I think at times Anselm and even Aquinas get painted with strokes that are better representative of Abelard. Anslem certainly conceives of a sense of reason that is everywhere funded by faith and revelation. Though, for his part, he is probably the first to behold their harmony, which of course becomes the mark of scholasticism. Anyway, I think you both hit on all this.

    A good analysis of Cur Deus Homo, in fact of the best I've read, can be found in D. Hart's Beauty of the Infinite, in the section entitled: "Salvation". Hart is of course taken up with the project of seeking to convert the nihil, or 'nothing' that postmodernity sees beyond reason into the infinite beauty of a loving God. Check it out if ya'll haven't yet.


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