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It was the high noon of the Middle Ages, the 11th century (ad 1001 to 1100). Although closer to completion than ever, the project of establishing a “Christian Europe” was still a work in progress.

Like it or not, the middle 1,000 years or so of church history—from about 500 to 1500, the period we call the Middle Ages, or medieval period—are inextricably bound to the history of Europe. Up until then, Christianity was a thoroughly multi-continental movement, primarily because most Christians lived in the Roman Empire, which extended into Europe, Africa, and Asia. We know that the Gospel penetrated beyond the reach of Rome’s iron grip, since the book of Acts records the evangelism of people from what is now Iran (Acts 2:9) and Ethiopia (Acts 8:26-40), and that Nestorian Christians (who objected to Mary being called Θεοτόκος [theotokos], i.e., “God-Bearer,” or “Mother of God”) reached China in ad 635, and in one sense or another it would always continue to transcend its Mediterranean beginnings. But after the fall of Rome it was primarily in Europe that God chose to preserve His word and protect His people during a time when everything that “civilized” people had been depending upon to make sense of the world fell apart, and there was nothing to fall back on but God—or, as some less pious might prefer, God and a good sword.

Today people speak of “post-Christian Europe,” and we tend to think of “Christian Europe” as extending from the time of Constantine to perhaps the beginning of the 20th century. But for centuries after Constantine, a large portion of the continent remained pre-Christian, until it finally gave way to the tireless work of missionaries.

Historians are generally agreed that the baptism of Jagiello [king of the Lithuanians] marks the end of European paganism as an organized body, though not, certainly, of its influence as a subterranean force.

[Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions, (Harmondsworth, UK and New York, NY, USA: Penguin Books, 1964; 1984), 112.]

And when was Jagiello baptized? February 15, 1386, less than a hundred years before the birth of Martin Luther, who lived just a few hundred miles to the west! Not to mention the fact that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was considerably larger than modern-day Lithuania, extending as it did from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

For those whose lands that had been Christianized, the end of the 10th century in the year 1000 was accompanied by a widespread fear (or hope, depending on your point of view) that the presumed 1,000-year reign of Christ through his church was about to end and the Day of Judgment would soon follow. It proved to be but one of many similar eschatological miscalculations.

Europeans Begin to Unite; Christianity Begins to Divide

While a lot of Europeans in the year 1000 may not have been ready for The End, most of them surely were more than ready for an end to the turmoil of the first three medieval centuries. The Low Middle Ages (from approximately 500 to 1000) was a time of gradual transition for Europe from the instability of the disintegration of Rome and the political fragmentation (and sometimes chaos) that followed to the relative stability of feudalistic society. It began with multiple barbarian invasions that devastated and gradually dismantled the western end of the Roman Empire, leaving the Byzantines headquartered in Constantinople (now called Istanbul) with what was left of it in the east. Western Europe was hopelessly fractured into competing Gothic kingdoms until the Franks (who, in a roundabout way, eventually lent their name to the hot dog, a.k.a. the frankfurter) got to work on unifying what lands they could through generations of conquest which came to a climax on Christmas Day in the year 800, when Charlemagne (or Charles the Great, 768-814) was crowned King of the Franks by Pope Leo III in Rome.

Leo was deeply grateful to this Frankish king for recently rescuing him from almost certain death at the hands of his enemies. But it’s also very likely that he was looking over his shoulder to the East when he placed the crown on Charlemagne’s head, figuratively speaking. Many were sick and tired of the emperor in Constantinople butting into the affairs of the Italian peninsula, not to mention the taxes he wanted the pope to pay.

Meanwhile, one has to wonder whether Charlemagne was cringing just a little bit during his coronation ceremony. By extending his family’s empire to most of France, Germany, Italy, and everything in between, he had certainly earned the crown he was receiving. But receiving it from the pope implied that it was the pope’s to give, and thus he had more authority than Charlemagne. Whatever awkwardness may have been felt at that event was but a small taste of the power struggles between popes and rulers that would continue to erupt through the rest of the Middle Ages.

As Western Europeans took steps to forge an uneasy bond between church and state, they also did things that alienated the Byzantine bishops, the Eastern Orthodox patriarchs. They tinkered with the wording of the Nicene Creed, argued about when to celebrate Christmas and Easter, disagreed over liturgy, and fought turf wars over ecclesiastical jurisdiction in the borderlands between East and West. But their biggest clash was over the authority of the pope. Was he truly the Pontifex Maximus (which ironically means “Greatest Bridge-maker” in Latin) to whom all other bishops should ultimately defer, or was he merely the first among equals? It would all explode in 1054 when Pope Leo IX excommunicated Michael Cerularius, Patriarch of Constantinople.

Despite that explosion, things began looking up for Western Europe in the 11th century. The last great raiding, pillaging, head-busting marauders, the Vikings, who had picked up where all those barbarians had left off a few centuries earlier, were beginning to settle down and dabble in long-term real estate development. The Norse explorer Leif Ericson (c. 970-c. 1020) landed somewhere around the eastern coast of Canada, perhaps at L’Anse-aux-Meadows, Newfoundland, at a time when, as scientists now tell us, the global warming of that period allowed grapes to grow there. Wherever it was in North America that Leif found those grapes, he named the place Vinland. This led to some short-lived settlements on a continent that would not be visited by Europeans again for nearly 500 years.

It turns out that some locals whom Leif’s people called the Skraelings (probably the now-extinct Beothuk natives) got a taste of the kind of Viking diplomacy that had been terrorizing most of Europe, North Africa, and West Asia for more than three centuries. Even Leif’s sword-wielding pregnant half-sister Freydís was more than they could handle. After a while, however, these strange fair-skinned intruders from across the water had enough and went back to Greenland.

As more of his fellow Vikings followed Leif’s lead by converting to Christianity and the consolidated Scandinavian kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway emerged, the 11th century witnessed the end of Viking raids and expansionism. The close of the Viking Age is usually dated at 1066, when a brilliant comet came to visit that would later bear the name of Sir Edmund Halley (1656-1742), who was the first to figure out that the comet that came in 1682 was the same one that had come in 1607, 1531, and so on all the way back to the time of William I, Duke of Normandy. William bucked the tradition that comets were supposed to be omens of doom and, after its April 1066 appearance, launched the September/October campaign that would make him King of England after the Battle of Hastings and change his name to William the Conqueror.

Ironically, although William himself had Viking blood in his veins, his conquest secured the fruits of a deal struck between his Viking ancestor, Rollo, and Charles III of Western Francia in 911. At that time the king allowed a group of “Northmen” to settle what is now Normandy provided they would put a halt to Viking raids on France. Now one of Rollo’s direct descendants would rule England, and Europe would begin to breathe more easily than it had been able to do in a long, long time.

In the Presence of Infidels

The pagan threat against Christian Europe had dissipated, at least from the North. Things had been going well lately. The year 988—just before yet another visit from Halley’s Comet—is traditionally considered the end of the final stage of the conversion of the Slavs to Christianity in Eastern Europe, despite the occasional pagan uprisings that followed in Slavic lands. One stronghold of paganism remained in the Baltic region which would eventually lead to the Northern Crusades (1147-1290), and nearly a century later the conversion of the Lithuanians. But other than that, from the Pyrenees Mountains along France’s southern border to the Principality of Kiev, the only nominally non-Christian group left in Europe of any size now was the Jews, who were only considered a “threat” when Europeans needed an excuse to persecute someone. For the first time in half a millennium, the specter of sporadic, sometimes regular foreign invasions was becoming a thing of the past.

Spain, however, was another story. Muslim armies had invaded Spain in 710, and the possibility that France would fall next remained until the Battle of Tours in 732. By the year 1000, the Reconquista—the 800-year-long recapturing of Spain from Islam, was less than half-way finished, even though half of the land had been retaken. The dawn of the 11th century would also witness the Muslim sack of the Italian city of Pisa (1004) and of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem (1009). Its dusk would witness the launch of the First Crusade to retake the Holy Land for Christendom by Pope Urban II (1095).

So there was never a time when European Christianity was totally insulated and isolated from the non-Christian world, and the beginning of the High Middle Ages in the 11th century was no exception. Western Christianity may have begun waking up and feeling its oats culturally and intellectually after a roughly 500-year-long slumber, but in another sense it had never fallen asleep, in that it never lost its awareness that it was an often-threatened, sometimes-shrinking island in a vast sea of unbelief.

Waking Up to Reason

In the 11th century, “the new Europe was emerging, and European scholars, for reasons we may never confidently know, were aroused to an interest in logic and reason” (Edward Grant, God and Reason in the Middle Ages, [Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001], 41). And if there was anyone who embodied this interest, it was Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), who had one of the greatest and most influential minds of the Middle Ages. He was very much a man of logic and reason—a man of the 11th century.

It was Anselm’s century that paved the way for a veritable explosion of higher learning, leading to the founding of degree-granting institutions in Bologna, Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, Salamanca, Montpellier, Padua, Naples, and Toulouse by the early 13th century. This, in turn, set the stage for an educational system that persisted through the Late Middle Ages (1300-1500):

A medieval university education in arts was primarily an education in logic, natural philosophy, and the exact sciences, where reason functioned as the most important tool of interpretation and analysis. In the absence of courses in literature and history and other humanities subjects, the medieval university offered an education that was overwhelmingly oriented toward analytical subjects: logic, science, mathematics, and natural philosophy. Modern university students face nothing comparable. The incredible array of course offerings and majors available in a large, modern university makes it possible for students to avoid, almost completely, the rigors of analytical courses. This was not possible in the late Middle Ages, when the curriculum was much the same for all students, and was overwhelmingly analytical and rational. Never before had an analytical curriculum of such extent and range been implemented anywhere.

[Grant, ibid., 102.]

If our higher educational system can be lopsided in its neglect of analytical courses for many students today, the High Middle Ages gave birth to a system that neglected the humanities for all its students. Renaissance humanism, which was born when Petrarch discovered the eloquent Latin writings of Cicero in 1333, eventually reacted against this neglect and emphasized an orientation to the humanities because it had discovered that reason can only take you so far in the pursuit of knowledge. For example, you cannot recreate the philosophy of Socrates from scratch, not to mention his gadfly attitude, simply by using medieval academic methods. You need to have access to what Socrates actually said, preferably in the actual Greek words that Plato attributed to him.

Much of the knowledge that Western Europeans craved had been the lost during the period that can be described as “the lowest ebb of European civilization, between the fifth and tenth centuries” (Grant, ibid., 41). During those Dark Ages, direct access to the great thinkers of ancient Greece became a thing of the past. When students in many Western European universities were finally able to lay their hands on copies of the writings of Aristotle (384-322 bc), it was in Latin translations of commentaries written in Arabic by the Muslim scholar Averroes (ad 1126-1198). Even if they had had copies of Aristotle in the original Greek, a typical professor at the University of Paris or Oxford would have had no idea how to read them.

So when it came to designing a curriculum for the Middle Ages, the “schoolmen” of Anselm’s time, or “scholastics,” as they came to be known, had to work with what they had, which was a lot less than academics would have four centuries later. The medieval university system had grown out of the cathedral schools, which in turn had been established along with monastery schools by Charlemagne. Those schools had concentrated on subjects such as Latin, law, medicine, and church administration. The new universities, which started springing up as early as the 9th century, eventually focused on the seven liberal arts, which included the trivium—grammar, rhetoric, and logic (also called dialectic)—and the quadrivium—astronomy, geometry, arithmetic, and music, which were all taught as sciences (Grant, ibid., 27, 84). With these academic tools they addressed the great questions of their day—indeed, some of the great questions of all time—as best they could, and for their toilsome labor they have been rewarded with accusations of endless intellectual nit-picking and stories of speculations about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

What modern people often react to when they try to read scholastic literature is its rationalistic character, which to us can seem as arid and lifeless as Death Valley at high noon during a summer heat wave. But I suppose that’s what happens when you don’t have a large body of actual data to work with: you analyze to death what you do have. Even this, however, is a vast oversimplification, because for all their limitations and shortcomings, the scholastics succeeded in breaking new intellectual ground and carrying on academic discussions over multiple generations, thus paving the way for those who followed them.

When scholars finally began gaining access to Aristotle, Plato, and even the New Testament in their original Greek, the scholars of the Renaissance coined a slogan, “Ad fontes!”—“Back to the sources!”—and they went to work studying them. Thanks to the initiative of such enlightened Renaissance bankrollers as the Mèdici family, and the efforts of scholars such as Basilios Bessarion (1403-1472), the knowledge of Greek returned to Western Europe in the 15th century, not only sending the Renaissance into overdrive during that century, but paving the way for the Protestant Reformation in the next.

Meanwhile, Back in the Day

But those welcome developments were so far in the future that people did not even dream of them in Anselm’s day. Meanwhile, the pope had his hands full in a controversy known as the Investiture Struggle. The word “investiture” here refers to the installation of bishops, who upon installation receive vestments bearing the official insignias of their offices. For some reason the pope thought he should have final approval over the appointment and installation of bishops instead of emperors, kings, princes, and so on. But secular rulers couldn’t help but notice that bishops took in a lot of money from the parishes they oversaw, and that potential source of revenue was too tempting for many of them to avoid meddling in the appointments. They wanted someone who was “their man,” and in some cases keeping a man out of the office was the best way to seize control of the collection plates.

Ethnically speaking Anselm was a Lombard, a descendant of one of the Germanic barbarian peoples who had invaded the former Roman Empire. The Lombards began moving in around the beginning in the 6th century, settling in what is now northern Italy. Anselm’s career as Archbishop of Canterbury, England (from 1093 until his death in 1109) thrust him right into the middle of the Investiture Struggle, and he suffered exile from England twice, by King William II and by King Henry I, for standing on his principles.

But Anselm was not one to become obsessed with ecclesiastical power struggles. He was both a pastor and a scholar before he was an ecclesiastic, and like many others of his day who were genuinely concerned for the souls of those both inside and outside his flock, he was intensely aware that Christian teaching needed to be explained to both a needy church and a watching world.

So it was around the time of his first exile that Anselm took pen in hand and began writing one of the most remarkable books in all of church history. Its Latin title is not usually translated literally. Cur Deus Homo is a question that means, “Why [the] God-Man?” but is usually rendered as a statement: Why God Became Man. From either title we might be tempted to think it is a book that seeks to explain the purpose of the incarnation of Christ, and it certainly is that, but more to the point that Anselm was trying to make, it is a book that seeks to answer the question, “Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?”

Feeding the Church While Facing the World

Cur Deus Homo is divided into two books and written in the form of a dialogue between Anselm and an imaginary conversation partner named Boso. Before the dialogue starts, Anselm explains this to his readers, and he also explains the question he is really seeking to answer.

This is a question regularly thrown at us by unbelievers who deride Christian simplicity as absurd, and it preoccupies the minds of many of the faithful. The question is: for what reason or by what necessity did God become man, and by His death, as we believe and acknowledge, restore life to the world, although He could have accomplished this by means of another person, whether angelic or human, or simply by an act of His will?

[Anselm of Canterbury, “Why God Became Man,” in Why God Became Man and The Virgin Conception and Original Sin, Joseph M. Colleran, trans., (Albany, NY, USA: Magi Books, Inc. 1969), 64.]

Anselm knew that the scoffing of unbelievers against the very purpose for which Christ came into this world was an issue that was simultaneously pastoral, apologetic, and evangelistic. One of the things that unbelievers were scoffing at was something that was popularly taught, but which Anselm believed was a corruption of the Gospel: the notion that Christ’s death on the cross constituted a “ransom” paid to Satan in order to free sinners from captivity to him. In book 1, chapter 6, Anselm has Boso outline some of the objections unbelievers were hurling at the Gospel presentation they were hearing. If God is so powerful, they asked, why could he not defeat Satan with a simple command? And if He could have done that, doesn’t it make God look foolish for coming down and dying on a cross when He didn’t have to? After all, who is more powerful, God or Satan? Anselm is setting up an opportunity here to dispose of the ransom view as early as possible in his presentation.

Anselm tackles first a question which we know to have been current in contemporary academic debate, because it crops up in the record of the work of schools in northern France at this date: whether the Devil had any actual rights over man. If he did, then part of what needed to be done was the payment of a ransom to the Devil to deliver mankind. Anselm has no quarrel with the feudal imagery in which this position is expressed. But he cannot accept that the Devil can have any rights in the matter. Those who have submitted themselves to him as sinners he has stolen from God their rightful Lord. It cannot be necessary to pay a ransom to a usurper and a thief. Thus Anselm puts the Devil out of the picture at the outset (CDH I.7). The inclusion of this passage is of interest because it shows that the ‘unbelievers’, if they were indeed principally Jews, were in some measure acquainted with contemporary Christian theological speculation, even, in a loose sense, part of the academic community, if we may call it that.

[G.R. Evans, Anselm, (London, UK and New York, NY, USA: Coninuum, 1989; 2001), 74]

There are a couple of things that make reading Cur Deus Homo refreshing. Despite Anselm’s emphasis on reason and logic, his dialogue with Boso never becomes dry, boring, or overly-technical. This is all the more remarkable given the fact that Anselm is often called the father of scholasticism, thus putting to the lie stereotypes indicating the primary use for medieval scholastics is either as a cure for insomnia or as a good doorstop. Furthermore, Anselm is constantly bringing Scripture into the discussion. As Evans noted earlier in her book, “Anselm demonstrates again and again throughout his writings the primacy of Scripture’s authority for him” (ibid., 40). So in the process of rebutting the ransom view, Anselm cites Colossians 2:14, saying to Boso in book 1, chapter 7,

Suppose, now, someone cites that handwriting of the decree which the Apostle says was against us and was blotted out by the death of Christ. Someone may think this means that the devil, as if under some sort of signed contract, justly exacted sin of man, before the passion of Christ, as a sort of interest on the first sin which he persuaded man to commit and as a penalty for sin, so that thereby he would seem to prove his just rights over man. I cannot at all agree with this interpretation. That handwriting, surely, is not the devil’s, for it is called the handwriting of the decree. Now, that decree was not the devil’s but God’s. For it was decreed by a just judgment of God and confirmed as it were, by a signed document, that man who had freely sinned could not, by himself, avoid either sin or the punishment for sin.

[Anselm, “Why God Became Man,” in ibid., 73. Emphasis in the original.]

As Anselm had already explained in this chapter, both the devil and man “belong to no one but God, and neither one is exempt from the power of God” (ibid., 72). So the cross could not possibly be a case of the Son of God showing up unaccompanied and unarmed in a remote location to turn over a ransom to Satan in exchange for hostages. Such a scenario does not even address the real question. The real question according to Anselm was not, “How can God free man from the power of Satan?” but rather “How can God forgive man’s sin?” But in answering the real question, Anselm exposed some real weaknesses in his understanding of Scripture.

Anselm: We must inquire, now, into the reason why God forgives the sins of men. And to do this more clearly, let us first see what “to sin” and “to satisfy for sin” mean.

Boso: It is your function to explain, and mine to listen.

Anselm: If an angel or a human being always rendered to God what he should, he would never sin.

Boso: I can only agree.

Anselm:  “To sin,” then, is nothing else than not to render God His due.

Boso:  What is the debt we owe God?

Anselm: The will of every rational creature must be subject to the will of God.

Boso:  Perfectly true.

Anselm: This is the debt which angel and man owe to God, so that no one sins if he pays it and anyone who does not pay it, sins. … A person who does not render God this honor due Him, takes from God what is His and dishonors God, and this is to commit sin.

[Anselm, “Why God Became Man,” book 1, chapter 11, in ibid., 84.]

Anselm got a lot of things right in Cur Deus Homo. Sin truly is a grave offense against God. And since humanity had sinned so gravely, humanity would have to pay the necessary penalty for sin. But humanity is unable to pay that penalty; in fact, humanity has dug itself into such a deep hole here that only God Himself can lift it out. So redemption must be accomplished by someone Who is both God and man. It was not simply one option out of others that God could have chosen by which to save us; it was the only possible way. Thus the answer to the question, “Why the God-man?” And all of these are good components of a good answer.

Missing the Mark

But Anselm also got some pretty important things wrong. Instead of defining sin in terms of violating God’s moral law, as we find it defined in Scripture, he defined sin in terms of insulting God’s honor. Instead of describing the penalty for sin in terms of bearing the curse of the broken moral law and suffering the horrors of spiritual death, he described it in terms of making restitution for a theft, albeit one more along the lines of grand larceny than petty theft, but still, a “theft of honor” that is a far cry from the divine retribution for sin taught in Scripture. I usually make every effort to resist caricaturing views with which I disagree, but Anselm makes it difficult at this point, because the way he defined sin and described its penalty make it sound as though the atonement consisted in soothing His wounded ego rather than in allowing Him to be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26, ESV). He wrote:

Neither is it enough merely to return what was taken away, but on account of the insult committed, he must give back more than he took away. For example, one who harms the health of another does not do enough if he restores his health, unless he makes some compensation for the injury of pain he has inflicted. Similarly, for one who violates the honor of some person, it does not suffice to render honor, if he does not make restitution of something pleasing to the person dishonored, in proportion to the injury of dishonor that has been inflicted. This also must be given attention: when someone pays back what he unjustly pilfered, he must give what could not be demanded of him if he had not defrauded the other person. Thus, therefore, everyone who sins must pay to God the honor he has taken away, and that is satisfaction, which every sinner must make to God.

[Anselm, ibid., 84-85.]

It is certainly true that through sin humanity had dug itself into a hole so deep it could not pull itself out of it, but comparing the depth of that hole to legal damages for God’s pain and suffering is not the biblical way of explaining it.

But the single most problematic thing in Cur Deus Homo is the manner in which Anselm separated the the concepts of punishment for sin and satisfaction for sin. He uses the words “punish” and “punishment” quite a few times, but stops short saying that Christ bore our punishment on the cross. Instead of bearing punishment, Anselm said that Christ made satisfaction on the cross. He divided the two concepts based on his principle that “it is necessary that satisfaction or punishment follow every sin” (book 1, chapter 15 in ibid., 91, emphasis added). While the word “satisfaction” already had a long history of use, it was specifically identified with the penalty for sin rather than distinguished from it, as when Hilary of Poitiers (c. 315-366) wrote, “That passion was freely undertaken precisely to make satisfaction for penal obligation” (Patrologiae Latina, Vol. 9, Migne, ed., [Paris: 1844], column 344; cited by Joseph M. Colleran in “Introduction,” in Anselm, ibid., 46). In Anselm’s cultural background, however, penalty and satisfaction were not the same thing.

Perhaps the most common objection that has been made against the “satisfaction-theory” is that it is based on an analogy with Germanic law, and is colored by a feudal notion of “honor” that is not worthy of God.

It was, indeed, a practice in Teutonic law to require and accept a payment of money (Wergeld) as a “satisfaction” instead of inflicting a punishment such as incarceration on a malefactor, especially if his offence was to insult or “impugn the honor” of a member of the nobility.

[Colleran, ibid.]

The concept of paying fines instead of suffering penalties was also found among Celtic peoples (John T. McNeill and Helena M. Gamer, Medieval Handbooks of Penance, [New York, NY, USA: Columbia University Press, 1938; 1990], 35). But it would be wrong to assume that Anselm cut his doctrine of the atonement out of whole cloth he took from the looms of feudal culture. Instead, he worked with the material he inherited from the church fathers, and much of it had been woven by a fellow named Tertullian (c. 160-c. 225) who introduced “satisfaction” as a special word in the church’s lexicon. Since Tertullian was not the most lucid writer on the planet and took some theological left-turns of his own, he is additionally responsible for much of the confusion that Anselm also inherited. Tertullian sometimes used the word “satisfaction” as a way of speaking of atonement in general (Apology 5, in Alexander Robertson and James Donaldson, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, [Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers, reprinted 2004], 21), but most times he used it to refer to works he believed Christians must do to satisfy God even after they have repented (Against Marcion 4.21, ibid., 382; On Repentance 1.5, 1.10, ibid., 660, 664). Behind all this laid his mistaken assumption that repentance itself is a work that must be added to Christ’s work on the cross, as expressed in his declaration that, “…by repentance God is appeased” (On Repentance 1.9, ibid., 664).

Later on in the first millennium of the Western church, “satisfaction” came to be primarily connected to the Catholic sacrament of penance, which included works of satisfaction that needed to be performed after making confession to a priest. While the priest absolved the penitent from the eternal penalties due to sin, the penitent still needed to “work off” the temporal penalties by giving alms, doing good deeds, fasting or praying. Any temporal penalties left unpaid at the time of death would be taken care of in Purgatory. But by Anselm’s time, instead of enduring prolonged fasts or chanting psalms for weeks on end, penitents could pay a fine for serious sins—an alternative form of satisfaction that was encouraged by medieval culture (McNeill and Gamer, ibid., 35-36). It was from this context that Anselm borrowed the word “satisfaction.” Just as in many medieval settings it was possible to pay a very large fine instead of enduring punishment for, say, murder, and just as it was possible to lessen the rigors of penance by paying a fine, so Christ was able to pay such a huge fine, or satisfaction, that we did not have to undergo the punishment that was due us. Consequently, not only were Christ’s suffering not penal in nature, according to Anslem, but strictly speaking, “…the Anselmian doctrine is not a doctrine of ‘substitution,’ if this signifies a kind of transaction between Father and Son, to which mankind is juridicially related” (Eugene R. Fairweather, “Introduction to Anselm of Canterbury,” in A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham, [Philadelphia, PA, USA: The Westminster Press, 1956], 57). In other words, in Anselm’s teaching, Christ did not vicariously endure our punishment on the cross, but made an alternative form of “satisfaction” so we would not have to endure our punishment. And as he saw it, this analogy would help demonstrate just how necessary the cross was to people of his day.

Anselm’s innovation was not that he viewed Christ’s death as a sacrifice for our sins. It was that, whereas earlier the predominant emphasis had been that incarnation and satisfaction were not absolutely necessary but only “fitting,” Anselm looked for a ground with which to prove the opposite. He found it in the position that sin always has to result either in punishment or in satisfaction and that if God wants to forgive and save humanity, no other than a “God-man” can give God that satisfaction and restore his honor. Because Christ was that “God-man,” his totally voluntary death was of such immense value that he not only delivered people from punishment but in addition earned merit; and since he himself did not need that merit, he relinquished it for the benefit of humankind, in whose place he had restored God’s honor.

[Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, John Vriend, trans., (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Baker Academic, 2006), 343. Emphasis mine.]

But in his zeal to prove that Christ’s death was necessary in terms he thought his contemporaries could understand, Anselm watered down the nature of sin, its penalty, and the meaning of Christ’s work on the cross. This is made all the more ironic by Anselm’s famous chiding of Boso in book 1, chapter 21: “You have not yet considered what a great burden sin is” (ibid., 108).

For Anselm, the reason Christ’s death delivered sinners from punishment was not because in His death He bore their punishment. Rather it was because His death was the ultimate expression of His obedience, and His obedience was the satisfaction that God accepted instead of punishing the sinners (see Anselm, book 2, chapter 18, in ibid., 155-159). Christ’s death simply showed that He “went all the way” in His obedience, so in a way it could be more accurate to say that, for Anselm, Christ ultimately atoned for sins more by the life He lived than by the death He died.

But according to Scripture, sin is not merely an insult to God’s honor; it is a violation of His very nature as expressed in His moral law. Because of this, sin’s penalty cannot be replaced by some kind of alternative fine or satisfaction in lieu of actual punishment. And while Christ’s life certainly honored His Father, the purpose of His death was to satisfy God’s justice—specifically, His righteous wrath due to sin.

By the time he had completed all 47 chapters in Books 1 and 2 of Cur Deus Homo, Anselm had accomplished something that for some reason no one had ever attempted: the first systematic treatment of the doctrine of the atonement. It was not quite “a full-scale theological system, with a place for everything and everything in its place” (per Marcia Colish in Edward Grant, ibid., 65), not even in terms of describing the entire doctrine of the atonement, although as a systematic treatment its core issues it was a major accomplishment. But sorting out the good and the bad in Anselm’s “satisfaction” view of the atonement would continue for another 500 years or so. Even today some people remain a little unclear on what Anselm actually said, along with the larger issues involved.

Still Hazy After All These Years

Not too long ago, Anglican theologian and bishop of Durham, England, N.T. Wright appeared to be hopping mad. His friend, Steve Chalke, had co-authored a book that contained the following statement:

The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed.

[Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus, (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Zondervan Publishing, 2003), 182.]

Many took umbrage at this remark. They took it as an unfair slam on the historic teaching that on the cross Christ bore the punishment for our sins as our substitute. Eventually authors Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach responded with a patient, measured response in their book, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Wheaton, IL, USA: Crossway Books, 2007), 228-233, although they also registered complaints about “cosmic child abuse” rhetoric later on pages 326-328.

Dr. Wright was not amused. He tried to turn the tables on those who would pick on his friend Chalke in the third part of an article titled, “The Cross and the Caricatures: a response to Robert Jenson, Jeffrey John, and a new volume entitled Pierced for Our Transgressions” on the Anglican website Fulcrum (dated “Eastertide 2007″), which raised quite a stir in the blogosphere when people read Wright’s remark,

I hope it is now clear what I meant by saying that my main problem with Pierced for Our Transgressions is that it is hopelessly sub-biblical.

[“The Cross and the Caricatures”]

What did he think of the fact that the book comes with ringing endorsements from 46 well-known Christian scholars and leaders, including D.A. Carson, Peter Adam, Sinclair Ferguson, Timothy George, I. Howard Marshall, Peter T. O’Brien, J.I. Packer, and David F. Wells, just to name a few?

My heart sinks when I read what the great contemporary heroes of conservative Christianity have said inside the front cover.


The hubris of these remarks combined with Wright’s refusal to see that Chalke was clearly denying the doctrine of penal substitution sent his stock down on a number of exchanges, and in some circles his own theological commitment on this point was called into question. But one remark he made concerning Anselm’s view of the atonement comes in for special mention here. A lot of what Wright said about Anselm is correct, but in a parenthetical aside he wrote:

It is not clear to me why J[effery], O[vey] and S[ach] omit all mention or discussion of Anselm from their list…


The authors replied to this remark on their web site, which is named after their book.

As a postscript, we should say something in reply to Wright’s surprise that we ‘omit all mention or discussion of Anselm.’ The reason is simply that, contrary to (popular?) belief, Anselm did not teach penal substitution. Yes, he brought to prominence the vocabulary of ‘satisfaction’, which became important in later formulations. But in Anselm’s feudal thought-world, it was God’s honour that needed to be satisfied by substitutionary obedience, not his justice by substitutionary penalty. Thus his omission from our list of those who have endorsed penal substitution was not accidental.

[“N.T. Wright on Pierced for our Transgressions”]

You could not ask for a better or more concise diagnosis of where Anselm went off-track. When he redefines sin in terms of dishonor rather than lawlessness (1 Jn. 3:4) and uses that as the starting-point for his understanding of Christ’s death, “Anselm is unconsciously adopting a feudal frame of reference, in which the notion of the honour due to a lord is mixed in with the Biblical concept of God as Lord” (G.R. Evans, ibid., 76). This should give us pause. If someone as brilliant as Anselm could have his understanding of Scripture clouded by his contemporary culture, what makes us think that we are immune? It also demonstrates that we can’t take for granted that theologians down through the ages always used the same terms to mean the same things. While usage of the word “satisfaction” in connection with the atonement before and after Anselm was consistent with penal substitution, his own use of the term was not.

I believe that what Anselm himself would have us do is continue to check our understanding of Scripture against Scripture itself, using tools that were not available to him during his lifetime. I also believe that when we do, we will discover that we cannot substantially improve on what was written by the author of the Epistle to Diognetus in the 2nd century. The “wages” of our unrighteousness, he reminded us, are “punishment and death.” But in his love and patience and mercy the Second Person of the Trinity “took upon himself our sins.” God gave up “his own Son as a ransom [λύτρον: the price of release from slavery] for us, the holy one for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty, ‘the just for the unjust,’ the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal.” And when we listen to the testimony of church history we shall hear the echoes of all those who have also found this truth of Christ’s penal substitution on our behalf in Scripture, and we will join them in the everlasting chorus that the epistle started ages ago: “O the sweet exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous man, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners!” [Epistle to Diognetus 9:2-5, in Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, updated edition, (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Baker Books, 1999), 547.]