Saint Anselm: God the Diver

Today is the feast day of Saint Anselm, and so I thought I would post something that brings together the thought of that great saint (and Doctor of the Church) and the commemoration of our redemption in Christ that we have just celebrated over the course of Holy Week, culminating in Easter Sunday. I would like to take a look at Saint Anselm’s great work on Incarnation and Atonement, Cur Deus Homo, where he considers the reasons that God entered into the human experience, and how it is that our redemption was achieved.

In Chapter XIX of the first book of this work, he explains to his interlocutor, Boso, as to why it is that man cannot be saved without satisfaction for sin. Anselm’s doctrine of the Atonement, particularly this element of satisfaction, has come in for a lot of criticism over the years (which I shall attempt to address later), but the passage below sheds a bit more light on what he actually meant by the term ‘satisfaction’, and provides an excellent imaginative description of how it is that God ‘dives down’ into our experience in order to restore us to the state we were meant to remain in:

Anselm: Suppose a rich man possessed a choice pearl which had never been defiled, and which could not be taken from his hands without his permission; and that he determined to commit it to the treasury of his dearest and most valuable possessions.

Boso: I accept your supposition.

Anselm: What if he should allow it to be struck from his hand and cast in the mire, though he might have prevented it; and afterwards taking it all soiled by the mire and unwashed, should commit it again to his beautiful and loved casket; will you consider him a wise man?

Boso: How can I? for would it not be far better to keep and preserve his pearl pure, than to have it polluted?

Anselm: Would not God be acting like this, who held man in paradise, as it were in his own hand, without sin, and destined to the society of angels, and allowed the devil, inflamed with envy, to cast him into the mire of sin, though truly with man’s consent? For, had God chosen to restrain the devil, the devil could not have tempted man. Now I say, would not God be acting like this, should he restore man, stained with the defilement of sin, unwashed, that is, without any satisfaction, and always to remain so; should He restore him at once to paradise, from which he had been thrust out?

Boso: I dare not deny the aptness of your comparison, were God to do this, and therefore do not admit that he can do this. For it should seem either that be could not accomplish what he designed, or else that be repented of his good intent, neither of which things is possible with God.

Anselm: Therefore, consider it settled that, without satisfaction, that is, without voluntary payment of the debt, God can neither pass by the sin unpunished, nor can the sinner attain that happiness, or happiness like that, which he had before he sinned; for man cannot in this way be restored, or become such as he was before he sinned.

from Cur Deus Homo, Book I, Chapter XIX.

            The predominant imagery here is that of God’s action, God stooping or diving down to us in order to retrieve us from the ‘mire of sin’ and cleanse us of the dirt our souls have accrued whilst living sinful lives. Anselm gives us a picture not of a debt being paid in legal terms (which his theory of the Atonement is often characterised as), but of restoring us back to a pristine state so that we may attain true happiness in communion with Him. The term ‘satisfaction’ is used to denote both the removal of sin, this washing of our souls, and the payment of a debt – so that the two can be seen as equivalent.

Furthermore, the debt paid is described as being entirely voluntary on God’s part, and is paid in order to remedy what we had done but that He had originally permitted to happen (the tempting of man by the devil and subsequent Fall). So, what it really seems we have here is, rather than God satisfying legal conditions, we see Him satisfying His own criteria of justice by restoring us to a holiness that we enjoyed prior to the Fall. He could not simply pronounce us forgiven but leave us still ‘defiled’ with sin – therefore the only way He could fulfill His own sense of justice would be to dive down into the mire and raise us back up again Himself.

This act of restoration though, as it involved human beings and needed to have more than just an external effect on us, had to involve an act which united God’s action with that of mankind – there had to be a representative of each party in the one single act of redemption; thus there had to be an Incarnation. Man was made in the image of God, and once that image had been marred by us, only the fullness of that image, the Word of God (c.f.; Hebrews 1:3) could restore it; but He had to be united to our human nature for the restoration to be a truly effective and organic one, as Saint Anselm explains:

For, as it is right for man to make atonement for the sin of man, it is also necessary that he who makes the atonement should be the very being who has sinned, or else one of the same race. Otherwise, neither Adam nor his race would make satisfaction for themselves. Therefore, as through Adam and Eve sin was propagated among all men, so none but themselves, or one born of them, ought to make atonement for the sin of men. And, since they cannot, one born of them must fulfill this work. Moreover, as Adam and his whole race, had he not sinned, would have stood firm without the support of any other being, so, after the fall, the same race must rise and be exalted by means of itself. For, whoever restores the race to its place, it will certainly stand by that being who has made this restoration.

ibid, Book II, Chapter VIII.

            In all this, Saint Anselm is making use of ideas and motifs that have a deep rooting in patristic tradition, and are by no means dependent upon feudal concepts of law (as so many critics have suggested). He may have used language drawn from his time, as everyone does, but the concepts themselves are reassuringly unoriginal. David Bentley Hart illustrates this by comparison of Anselm’s theory to patristic models (particularly that of Saint Athanasius in De Incarnatione Verbi Dei):

Far from an arbitrary rearrangement of jurisprudential transactions calculated to effect a kind of forensic reconciliation between humanity and God, the atonement as Cur Deus Homo depicts it is an assumption of solidarity with us by an infinitely merciful God in order to fulfill in us that beatitude intended in our creation (2.1), by accomplishing on our behalf what, in our impotence to do good and in his unwillingness to employ unjust means (1.12), could never otherwise have been brought to pass…

…Christ takes up the human story and tells it correctly, by giving the correct answer to God’s summons; in his life and death he renarrates humanity according to its true pattern of loving obedience, humility, and charity, thus showing all human stories of righteousness, honor, and justice to be tales of violence, falsehood, and death; and in allowing all of humanity to be resituated through his death within the retelling of their story, Christ restores them to communion with the God of infinite love who created them for his pleasure.

The Beauty of the Infinite (2003), pp.370-371, Eerdmans.

            This is the doctrine of recapitulation first used by Saint Irenaeus (or perhaps you could say by Saint Paul), and which forms the foundation for not only the bulk of patristic and medieval thought about the Atonement, but most of the ways we think about it now. Saint Anselm, Hart argues, is perhaps singled out as bucking the trend here, only because of the exceptional thoroughness and detail with which he worked out the implications of that foundational model.

The essence however, remains the same – by entering into our experience, and uniting Himself with human nature, Christ was able to enact humanly a life of perfect obedience to and love of the Father, under the same conditions of sin and death that we live in. By doing this, He lifted up humanity out of the ‘mire’ of sin, so that the pearl of God could be brought back into the light, cleansed, restored, and able to receive His love with no impediment. Saint Anselm reiterated this to his surrounding culture in order to remind people of the fundamental gratuity of our redemption, and the solidarity God shows by entering into our suffering and sin, only to transfigure it with love. Thank God, and Happy Easter!

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