Anselm on the Atonement

The following is a continuation of a study I began a few weeks ago (part 1, part 2) when I read about Anselm and his theory of the atonement as opposed to other views which don’t require the absolute necessity of the vicarious sacrifice of atonement of the God-Man.


There are a handful of theological heavyweights whose life’s work has been instrumental in the formation of Christian theology. Some of these men were accomplished scholars, some were reluctant monks or small town pastors who never sought the spotlight, but were thrust into it when serious heresies challenged the orthodoxy of the church. A handful of these men include:

Athanasius – Trinity and Defense of Biblical Christology
Augustine – Depravity: Nature of Man and Sin
Anselm – Substitutionary/Vicarious Doctrine of the Atonement
Luther – Justification by Faith Alone

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Anselm:

Anselm was one of the most important Christian thinkers of the eleventh century. He is most famous in philosophy for having discovered and articulated the so-called “ontological argument;” and in theology for his doctrine of the atonement. However, his work extends to many other important philosophical and theological matters, among which are: understanding the aspects and the unity of the divine nature; the extent of our possible knowledge and understanding of the divine nature; the complex nature of the will and its involvement in free choice; the interworkings of human willing and action and divine grace; the natures of truth and justice; the natures and origins of virtues and vices; the nature of evil as negation or privation; and the condition and implications of original sin.

Anselm’s Theory of the Atonement

This theory holds that sin is a violation of the divine honor or majesty and, as committed against an infinite being, deserves an infinite punishment. The majesty of God requires him to execute punishment, while the love of God pleads for the sparing of the guilty. This conflict of divine attributes is eternally reconciled by the voluntary sacrifice of the God-man, who bears in virtue of the
dignity of his person the intensively infinite punishment of sin, which must otherwise have been suffered extensively and eternally by sinners. This suffering of the God-man presents to the divine majesty an exact equivalent for the deserved sufferings of the elect and that, as the result of this
satisfaction of the divine claims, the elect sinners are pardoned and regenerated. This view was first broached by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) as a substitute for the earlier patristic view that Christ’s death was a ransom paid to Satan, to deliver sinners from his power.

Anselm’s acute, brief and beautiful treatise entitled “Cur Deus Homo” constitutes the greatest single contribution to the discussion of this doctrine. He shows that “whatever man owes, he owes to God, not to the devil. He who does not yield due honor to God, withholds from him what is his, and dishonors him and this is sin. It is necessary that either the stolen honor be restored, or that punishment follow.” Man, because of original sin, cannot make satisfaction for the dishonor done to God – “a sinner cannot justify a sinner.” Neither could an angel make this satisfaction. None can make it but God. “If then none can make it but God, and none owes it but man, it must needs be wrought out by God, made man.” The God-man, to make satisfaction for the sins of all of mankind, must “give to God, of his own, something that is more valuable than all that is under God.” Such a gift of infinite value was his death. The reward of his sacrifice turns to the advantage of man and thus, the justice and love of God are reconciled.

[Quote from AH Strong, who quotes Crippen’s analysis in “History of Christian Doctrine”, Systematic Theology, page 407]

Another Quote from AH Strong

“The justice of God demands satisfaction, and as an insult to infinite honor is itself infinite, the satisfaction must be infinite, i e., it must outweigh all that is not God. Such a penalty can only be paid by God himself and, as a penalty for man, must be paid under the form of man. Satisfaction is only
possible through the God-Man. Now this God-man, as sinless, is exempt from the punishment of sin; his passion is therefore voluntary, not given as due. The merit of it is therefore infinite; God’s justice is thus appeased, and his mercy may extend to man.”

[The Encyclopedia Britannica (as quoted by Strong in Systematic Theology)]

Strong references other defenses of this doctrine:

  • Treatises by Candlish and Smeaton
  • Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 2:470-540
  • Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin, II, 17:3; II, 16:7; II, 16:2

From Wikipedia…

The Satisfaction (or Commercial) theory of the atonement was formulated by Anselm of Canterbury in his book, Cur Deus Homo (lit. ‘Why the God-Man?’). He has introduced the idea of satisfaction as the chief demand of the nature of God, of punishment as a possible alternative of satisfaction and equally fulfilling the requirements of justice thus opening the way to the assertion of punishment as the true satisfaction of the law. In his view, God’s offended honor and dignity could only be satisfied by the sacrifice of the God-man, Jesus Christ. Anselm undertook to explain the rational necessity of the Christian mystery of the atonement. His philosophy rests on three positions—first, that satisfaction is necessary on account of God’s honour and justice; second, that such satisfaction can be given only by the peculiar personality of the God-man Jesus; and, third, that such satisfaction is really given by this God-man’s voluntary death.

According to this view, sin incurs a debt to Divine justice, a debt that must be paid somehow. Thus, no sin, according to Anselm, can be forgiven without satisfaction. However, the incurred debt is something far greater than a human being is capable of paying. All the service that a person can offer to God is already obligated on other debts to God…

The only way in which the satisfaction could be made─that humans could be set free from their sin─was by the coming of a Redeemer who is both God and man. He himself would have to be sinless, thus having no debt that he owed. His death is something greater than all the sins of all humanity. His death makes a superabundant satisfaction to the Divine Justice.


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