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St. Anselm – Part One – His Faith

1033 – 1109

Part One

A brief biography prepared for Anselm Presbytery of the Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches
October, 2006
Jack E. Phelps

Unlike the doctrines of the Trinity and the Person of Christ, which stirred the early church and led to the convening of the great ecumenical councils, Biblical teachings on redemption did not become a focus of theological debate (except as a sub-point under the Incarnation) until the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, AD. When the Church needed orthodox guidance on the question however, God, in his providence, provided a man to articulate the doctrine clearly and powerfully.

After Anselm succeeded Lanfranc as archbishop of Canterbury, he spent several years working on his Cur Deus Homo. It was probably published in final form in 1098. In it, Anselm argued that the absolute necessity of the atonement was grounded in the honor of God. It was not merely God’s love which motivated the atonement, but the necessity of restoring the honor of God, which had been affronted when man refused to submit his will perfectly to God’s will. Either punishment or satisfaction must necessarily follow, so for God to save anyone, satisfaction was demanded by the very character of God. The need for complete reparation required that the one making the atonement be no less than God. But, likewise, because it was man who stood in need of making amends, the act of atonement must be made by man. Thus the title of the work, “Why God Became Man.” According to Anselm, the incarnation was the only solution available, given the dilemma.

The great strength of Anselm’s doctrine of redemption is its insistence that the doctrine rests on the immutable nature of God. It also unequivocally establishes the objective nature of the atonement. Its weakness is in its failure to include the relationship of Christ’s life to the atonement and the absence of any doctrine of the mystical union between Christ and the believer.

Anselm was a defender of orthodoxy on other key theological topics as well. During his first banishment from England because of his stand against abuses of the church, he ably defended the filioque clause of the Nicene Creed against the demands of the Eastern church at the Council of Bari (1098). He also wrote important works on proofs of the existence of God. As an Augustinian, he taught the basic harmony of reason and revelation, and from this foundation constructed his ontological proof for the existence of God. In effect, he said that since man cannot conceive of a higher, more perfect being than the Christian God, that God must, indeed, exist. If such a being can be thought of, it must actually exist.

An important short work on man’s will also came from Anselm’s pen, De Libertate Arbitrii (On Free Will). For Anselm, true freedom of the will is to be driven internally toward “rectitude.” Therefore, the first sinful act of Adam and Eve, while spontaneous, was not an act of true freedom. As a result, true freedom was lost at the fall when man became enslaved to sin.

Anselm conceived of original sin as “natural sin.” That is, not natural as of the original creation, but the natural condition of each individual human in the world that has resulted from the fall. The whole race sinned, because it was seminally present in Adam, but man does not inherit the specific sin of his immediate ancestors. Yet the guilt and pollution of sin are passed from father to child in every generation. Anselm’s teaching on the fall was consistent with Augustine’s and anticipated the covenantal formulations of the Reformation. He taught that in Adam, original (“natural”) sin resulted from his act of sin, while in his posterity the guilty acts of sin proceed from the “natural” (original) sin. With original sin, man lost the capability of self-determining holy behavior and became enslaved to sin (hence losing “true freedom”).

Anselm’s epistemology was Augustinian to the core. His dictum was essentially, “I believe, and from that I will be able to understand.” Truth, though an object reality, may only be found through “faith seeking understanding.” Opposed to this is the rationalistic apologetic so common today, which reflects Abelard’s, “I understand in order that I may come to believe.”
An able scholar, a defender of truth and orthodoxy, a courageous man of God, an articulate expositor; all these are elements that comprise the man, St. Anselm. Each of them separately and all of them collectively offer us, the men of Anselm Presbytery, a standard by which to measure ourselves and an example to follow in life and scholarship.