ANSELM OF CANTERBURY is one of the most important theologians in the medieval period. Hailed by scholars as the founder of scholasticism, a critical and rational approach to theology, he is the author of significant treatises on the Incarnation and on grace and free will.
Anselm was born in the Piedmont near Aosta, a Burgundian town on the frontier with Lombardy. He entered the abbey at Bec as a novice in 1060. As his reputation as a teacher grew he became a magnet who attracted numerous students from distant regions. In 1078, he was elected as abbot of Bec. Under his leadership, the monastery at Bec became an intellectual centre.
In 1093, he was enthroned as the Archbishop of Canterbury, four years after the death of Lanfranc. During his tenure as Archbishop, Anselm was exiled a number of times due to conflicts with the reigning monarch, Rufus William. Anselm died on April 21, 1109. He was canonised in 1495 and honoured as Doctor of the Church in 1720.
Anselm gave Western Christianity a most succinct definition of theology as “faith seeking understanding” (Latin: fides quaerens intellectum). Following Augustine, Anselm by this definition shows that faith and reason are profoundly related. It was Augustine who first made this connection in his famous statement: “I believe in order that I may understand” (credo ut intelligam).
In Proslogion (1077-78), Anselm expands on this Augustinian dictum. He writes elegantly (I sometimes read this beautiful passage to my students as we begin a course in theology): “I do not attempt, Lord, to penetrate Thy depth, for by no means do I compare my intellect with it; but I desire to understand, to a degree, Thy truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order that I may understand.”
For Anselm the task of the theologian is to seek to understand what he holds by faith to be true. Such understanding can only be achieved through reason aided by the grace of God. Anselm’s theological method has led some modern scholars to misunderstand his entire project. In some of his writings, he attempts to explore theological issues through the use of reason alone, without appealing to Scripture or any other religious authority. Consequently, some scholars have mistakenly categorised him as an extreme rationalist. However, it is important to remember that Anselm wrote as a theologian and a believer. He already believes the tenets of the faith that he sought to prove by reason. He was therefore not attempting to arrive at the conclusions of faith through reason alone. Rather he was trying to demonstrate that that which faith holds to be true is reasonable. Not to do so would be irresponsible.
In Why God Became Man, he writes: “As it is the proper order that we should believe the deep things of the Christian faith before we presume to discuss them by reason, so it seems negligent to me if, after we have been established in the faith, we do not seek to understand what we believe.”
Anselm’s two great works, the Monologion and Proslogion are said to be the first systematic “natural theology” in the history of Christian thought. There can be no doubt that he wrote as a Christian because both works were written as prayers addressed to God. But in presenting his philosophical theology, he also wanted to provide an answer to the sceptics concerning aspects of Christian belief. His approach was also targeted at Muslim and Jewish intellectuals and philosophers, whose works were gaining prominence in Europe at that time. In these works, he famously presented what has come to be known as the ontological proof for the existence of God.
According to him, God is a “being that which nothing greater can be conceived”. Scholastic theologians after Anselm like Thomas Aquinas continued in this tradition by providing further proofs for God’s existence. Again, it must be clarified that these so-called proofs for giving Western theology a clear conception of the atonement in the form of the satisfaction theory. According to the Archbishop, human sin is such a great offence against the Creator that it leaves God with only two options: “It is necessary that either satisfaction or punishment follow every sin.”
Since punishment would bring about the destruction of the world, and therefore the frustration of the divine plan, God has chosen to provide a remedy (satisfactio). But a problem immediately presents itself: human beings in their sinfulness are unable to make satisfaction and God who could do so should not. It was thus necessary for God to take up human flesh to do this vital work.
Therefore, Anselm writes that since the satisfaction is such that “none but God can make and none but man ought to make, it is necessary for the God-man to make it”. As very God and very Man, the incarnate Son of God died on the cross for fallen human beings, thereby making satisfaction (satisfactio vicaria) for their sins.
Anselm’s theory of the atonement was very influential among the scholastic theologians in the Middle Ages. The historical theologian Justo González describes the Anselmian understanding of the atonement as “epoch-making”. “Although they did not follow it at every turn,” he continues, “most later medieval theologians interpreted the work of Christ in light of this treatise.” Among the Reformers, it was John Calvin who developed a theology of the atonement along Anselmian lines that is later called the penal substitution theory.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.