This topic is presented somewhat out of order here, in order to hit Easter Sunday with it.

  1. Introduction
    1. As an Easter treat, let's talk about one of the greatest theologians of the Middle Ages, Anselm. In particular, his doctrine of the Atonement as stated in the classic book Cur Deus Homo. You may be surprised that, with the exception of some faint echoes from certain church fathers, e.g. Clement, "Barnabas," "Epistle to Diognetus," Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasius, and Augustine, there was no fully developed substitutionary theory of the Atonement until Anselm (1033-1109). (The list of church fathers is taken from pp. 159-160 of The Cross and Salvation by Bruce Demarest; see Bibliography. Demarest takes the view, however, that Anselm's doctrine should not be considered a penal substitutionary view.)
    2. Before we register our extreme surprise -- isn't the Atonement the heart of the Christian faith? -- let's think about what the Bible says to new believers about this topic.
  2. Gospel Presentations in the Bible
    1. For example: Acts 2:36-40; 3:12-26; 8:12; 8:37; 16:30-33; 17:30-31; 19:1-5; 26:20; 28:23-24
    2. Notice how they don't ever include any statement of the mechanism of the Atonement? Excursus: Why do evangelicals not only include it in all their gospel presentations, but make it the heart of the message? It is certainly interesting and maybe even essential (in hindsight) for the unbeliever to know how his sins are forgiven, but the book of Acts doesn't show clear cut cases where this was considered necessary.
    3. Many of the classic Atonement texts (e.g. Romans 5; Hebrews 7ff) are not as clear on the concept of Christ substituting for sinners as they might be. Others seem very clear. In hindsight we see all that clearly, but in the early church it was not seen clearly yet. Several ideas were swirling around in their minds: all Biblically based, such as victory, ransom, redemption, payment, blood, sacrifice, etc. But for a thousand years the classic theory was not primarily substitution. Anselm's genius was to take the Church back to God's very nature and see what the atonement was by looking at why it had to happen.
  3. The Ransom Theory of the Atonement
    1. Demarest says: "Many patristic authorities to the time of Anselm (d. 1109) and a few contemporary theologians interpret the Atonement as a cosmic victory over sin, death, and Satan. This classic, dramatic, or ransom theory, which depcits God trimphing over enslaving spiritual forces, was the dominant church view for 1,000 years. . . . The theory focuses not on Christ's bearing the sinner's penalty or propitiating God's wrath but upon his act of delivering believers from enslaving powers." He goes on to summarize two forms of the theory. 1. Christ's death was a ransom paid to the Devil, who had legal dominion over our souls because of our disobedience. (cf. Mk 10:45) 2. Christ did battle with Satan, triumphed once and for all, and rescued the captives. (cf. Col 2:15). But Anselm asked, when did the Devil get any legal right, since he was in the power of God at all times, and furthermore he was a thief because he persuaded Adam and Eve to forsake God? As far as "battle with the Devil," this is absurd because God is omnipotent and the Devil exists only by his good pleasure.
  4. Anselm
    1. Britannica article on Anselm is very helpful as an introduction. Not reproduced here for copyright reasons.
    2. To summarize for class purposes: Anselm (1033-1109) was a Benedictine monk born in Lombardy (in Northern Italy) who eventually became Archbishop of Canterbury right after the time of the Norman Conquest of England. Prior to this he was at the monastery of Bec in Normandy, which is where the Norman kings became acquainted with him. He was a very precise thinker and is regarded as the founder of Scholastisicm. Among his other accomplishments is the Ontological Argument for the existence of God, which we will not go into here. He began Cur Deus Homo in England and finished it in Italy. Even though he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, he spent much of his tenure in exile because he would not submit his church office to the whims of the kings of England. But he spent three peaceful years in England at the end of his life.
  5. Anselm's masterpiece Cur Deus Homo
    1. Anselm's book is structured as a dialogue between himself and Boso, a fellow monk and friend, who takes the role of questioner. They both agree that although reasons are not required for that which they already accept by faith, that reasons are helpful to bring joy to believers in the rationality of their faith and to comfort believers who might be confused by the arguments of non-Christians. So for most of the book, they agree not to appeal to Scripture or to Christ's actual existence, but content themselves to what they can prove by simple reason must be the case. Modern readers will not agree that the arguments are as tight as Anselm claims they are, but the arguments that are made have often stood the test of time.
    2. Boso asks why it was necessary for God to become man, which seems inappropriate for God, and worse, why the Son of God had to suffer, which seems to cast doubt not only on God's power but his wisdom, since there must have been easier ways to save man.
    3. Anselm rejects explanations which provide the Devil with a role in the transaction. The Devil is not a party to whom God is obligated, other than to punish him.
    4. Anselm explains that sin is at its root a deprivation of God's honor by refusing to render up what is due him, namely, that "Every inclination of the rational creature ought to be subject to the will of God." Further, the sin cannot be taken away until recompense is rendered to God, and this must include repayment over and above what has been taken.
    5. It would be unjust and unfitting for God to outright forgive the transgressions without any repayment. In essence, he would not be just, and thus he would not be God, in this case.
    6. God has decided that it is necessary that some men be saved, because a certain number has been decreed to be perfected, especially due to the fall of some of the angels. This view seems very strange to us, and has been abandoned by all theologians, but was widely believed in the middle ages, based upon a false Septuagint translation of Deut. 32:8.
    7. But the satisfaction must be according to the measure of the sin committed, which, since it was committed against God himself, was essentially infinite in its guilt. The repayment is beyond the power of any created being to give. And the payment must be made by man, and not some other creature, because it is man who performed the original sin.
    8. Therefore only a person who is both God and man can make the payment. God, so he can make an infinite payment, and man, so that the actual son of Adam can do this.
    9. Further discussions follow, such as how Christ can be sinless, and what kind of being he must be, and what kind of necessity God is under, etc. But we can safely ignore these at this time due to time constraints. I highly recommend reading the entire book. It is less than 100 pages, and quite readable for something written in the 1000's.
    10. Justice and mercy are thus fully reconciled, and magnified, in this wonderful plan of salvation. Book II, Chapter 20, says this: "When we were considering God's justice and man's sin, God's mercy seemed to you to vanish. But we have found how great it really is, and how it is in such harmony with his justice that it cannot be conceived to be greater or more just. For, indeed, what greater mercy could be imagined, than for God the Father to say to the sinner, condemned to eternal torments, and without any power of redeeming himself from them, "Receive my only-begotten Son, and give him for yourself," and for the Son himself to say, "Take me and redeem yourself"? For they as much as say this when they call us and draw us to the Christian faith. And what could be more just, than for Him to whom the price more valuable than every debt is paid to forgive every debt (if the price is given with the right disposition)?"
  6. Later developments
    1. Even though there are differences (highlighted by Demarest, for instance) between Anselm's theory and the later Catholic/Protestant penal substitiutionary theories, Erickson rightly (I think) sees them as one basic theory. He says: ". . . the commercial or satisfaction theory . . . emphasizes that Christ died to satisfy a principle in the very nature of God the Father. Not only was the atonement not primarily directed at man, but it also did not involve any sort of payment to Satan" (Erickson, p. 796). "Obviously, of the several theories which we examined in the previous chapter, it is the satisfaction theory which seizes upon the essential aspect of Christ's atoning work. Christ died to satisfy the justice of God's nature. He rendered satisfaction to the Father so that we might be spared from the just deserts of our sins. In view of the other basic themes of the satisfaction theory, which have been more fully spelled out in this chapter, it is also commonly referred to as the "penal-substitution theory" of the atonement" (Erickson, p. 815).
    2. Anselm was the first to state this theory, and it took over almost completely in the West. Dowley states, "This explanation was widely accepted in Europe and changed the whole outlook concerning the incarnation and the atonement" (p. 282). Schaff's comment is, "It is the merit of Anselm's argument that, while Athanasius and Augustine had laid stress upon the article that through Christ's sufferings atonement was made, Anselm explained the necessity of those sufferings. He also did the most valuable service of setting aside the view, which had been handed down from the Fathers, that Christ's death was a ransom-price paid to Satan. Even Augustine had asserted the rights of the devil. Again, Anselm laid proper stress upon the guilt of sin. He made earnest with it, not as a mistake, but as a violation of law, a derogation from the honor due to God." (V, p. 606).
    3. Berkhof has one of the best summaries of the defects that remained in Anselm's theory compared to that of the Reformation. "(a) It erroneously represents punishment and satisfaction as alternatives from which God could choose. (b) It has no place for the idea that in His suffering Christ endured the penalty of sin, since it regards the sufferings of Christ as a voluntary tribute to the honour of God, a superfluous merit which served to compensate for the demerits of others. . . . (c) It is inconsistent in so far as it starts out with the principle of 'private law' or custom, according to which the injured party may demand whatever satisfaction he sees fit, and then, in order to establish the absolute necessity of the atonemnt passes over to the standpoint of public law. (d) It is one-sided in basing redemption exclusively on the death of Christ, and denying the atoning significance of His life. And (e) it represents the application of the merits of Christ to the sinner as a merely external transaction. There is no hint of the mystical union of Christ and believers." (The History of Christian Doctrines pp. 173-74)
      [But don't forget that the basis of Cur Deus Homo was to explore what could be known by sheer reasonableness, and Anselm doesn't try to expound the biblical passages. Had he done so, it is not certain that all the above defects would have remained.]
    4. The penal view became fully developed in the Protestant Reformers (Demarest, p. 160). Luther and Calvin locate the necessity of the atonement in the breaking of God's law, which he cannot with justice overlook. Punishment must be performed for such breakage. Jesus Christ takes the place, and the punishment, of poor sinners for their salvation. The Heidelberg Catechism states, "What does it mean that He suffered? A. That all the time He lived on earth, but especially at the end of His life, He bore, in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race, in order that by His passion, as the only atoning sacrifice, He might redeem our body and soul from everlasting damnation and obtain for us the grace of God, righteousness, and eternal life" (Q. 37). "Why was it necessary for Christ to humble Himself even unto death? A. Because, by reason of the justice and truth of God, satisfaction for our sins could be made no otherwise than by the death of the Son of God" (Q. 40). The Westminster Confession states, "The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience and sacrifice of himself, which he through the eternal Spirit once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father; and purchased not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto him" (viii.5).
  7. Summary
    1. Let Schaff speak again: "The subject of the atonement was not exhausted by the argument of the Cur Deus homo. No one theory can comprehend its whole meaning. Certain biblical features have been made prominent since his day which Anselm did not emphasize. Each creative age has its own statement of theology, and now one aspect and now another aspect of the unchangeable biblical truth is made prominent. The different theories must be put into their proper places as fragments of the full statement of truth." (V, p. 606).
    2. Nevertheless we can be grateful to Anselm. Humanly speaking, it is to him that we owe many truths that we regard as most commonplace and obvious today: the infinite guilt of our offense against God and the corresponding necessity of the infinitely valuable offering; the concept of the justice of God as applied to man's salvation; the relation of who Christ is to what he was able to do, our common statement that punishment must happen somewhere, either to you or to Christ. All these truths are clearly taught in Scripture, but it is to him that we owe their first clear statement.

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Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2013 by Mark S. Ritchie. Permission is granted to use materials herein for the building up of the Christian Church. Bibliographic entries for published works quoted may be found in Bibliography page.