Anselm of Canterbury is credited with having invented with what is called the “satisfaction” theory of atonement in his classic work Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man). In a severely condensed nutshell, humanity sins against its Creator, incurring an infinite debt of sin, having slighted the infinitely worthy Triune God’s honor and marring the beauty and order of his universe. This moral debt is owed to God and yet is unpayable twice over, not only because the debt is infinite, but because humanity has wounded itself and is now no longer even able to render the obedience it still owes, much less the outstanding debt. And yet, humanity is the one who owes the debt and so is the only one who ought to pay it.
God, though, being faithful to his creation and to his purposes for the good of his humanity aims to reconcile humanity to himself. To do so, the Son comes, assumes our human nature alongside his divine nature, lives a perfect life, dies a death he does not owe, and in virtue of his infinite goodness, offers it up as a good exceeding every debt in order to settle the debt of sin. He can do this on our behalf because he is true man. But the offering of this man can cover our debt because it is also the humble offering of the infinite God.
Now, there are a number of objections that have been lodged against it over the years–some of them which I myself share. One which I think has been quite unfair, though, is that Anselm’s logical presentation is of a “rationalist” sort, with one of the implications being that it’s connected to a rather cold sort of faith, narrowly concerned with ledgers and miserliness. That it’s the kind of faith that cuts the nerve of piety and true spiritual vitality.
I think it’s unfair because, first, it ignores the way the form of Anselm’s argument–the dialogue–shapes the presentation. Second, it ignores the deep beauty and grace which shapes his other works, many of which are written in the form of prayers to God, or spoken to the Christian soul.
We were given one such work in my seminar on atonement at Trinity, “A Meditation on Human Redemption” and I thought it worth sharing an excerpt we read in class the other day:
O Christian soul, soul raised up from grievous death, soul redeemed and freed by the blood of God from wretched bondage: arouse your mind, remember your resurrection, contemplate your redemption and liberation. Consider anew where and what the strength of your salvation is, spend time in meditating upon this strength, delight in reflecting upon it. Shake off your disinclination, constrain yourself, strive with your mind toward this end. Taste the goodness of your Redeemer, be aflame with love for your Savior, chew His words as a honey-comb, suck out their flavor, which is sweeter than honey, swallow their health-giving sweetness. Chew by thinking, suck by understanding, swallow by loving and rejoicing. Rejoice in chewing, be glad in sucking, delight in swallowing.
Where, then, and what is the strength and might of your salvation? Assuredly, Christ has resurrected you. That Good Samaritan has healed you, that Good Friend has redeemed and freed you by sacrificing His own soul life. Yes, it was Christ. Therefore, the strength of Christ is the strength of your salvation. Where is the strength of Christ? Surely horns are in His hands; there His strength is hidden. Strength is indeed in His hands because His hands were nailed to the arms of the cross. But what strength can there be in such weakness, what majesty in such humiliation, what worthy of reverence in such contempt? But surely because it is disguised in weakness it is something hidden, because veiled in humiliation it is something concealed, because covered with contempt it is something inaccessible. O hidden might! A man appended to a cross suspends the eternal death impending over the human race; a man fastened to a cross unfastens a world affixed to endless death! O concealed power! A man condemned with thieves saves men condemned with demons; a man stretched out on a cross draws all things unto Himself! O unseen strength! One soul yielded up in the torment [of crucifixion] draws countless souls from the torments of Hell; a man undergoes bodily death and abolishes spiritual death!
It’s been a while since I’ve read something that thick with spiritual vitality. The doctrinal content is rich, but this is not the language of detached doctrinal discussion, but that of prayer, praise, and adoration.
What’s funny, though, is that he continues from there in a similar mode of prayerful reasoning, to work through much of the same logic of salvation as he outlines in Cur Deus Homo. For example:
For the life of that man Jesus is more precious than everything that is not God, and it surpasses every debt owed by sinners as satisfaction. For if putting Him to death [is a sin which] surpasses the multitude and magnitude of all conceivable sins which are not against the person of God, clearly His life is a good greater than the evil of all those sins which are not against the person of God. To honor the Father, that man Jesus – who was not obliged to die, because not a sinner freely gave something of His own when He permitted His life to be taken from Him for the sake of justice. He permitted this in order to show to all others by example that they ought not to forsake the justice of God even because of death, which inevitably they are obliged to undergo at some time or other; for He who was not obliged to undergo death and who, having kept justice, could have avoided death, freely and for the sake of justice endured death, which was inflicted upon Him. Thus, in that man human nature freely and out of no obligation gave to God something its own, so that it might redeem itself in others in whom it did not have what it, as a result of indebtedness, was required to pay.
This same “logic” of satisfaction is what leads Anselm to comfort the believer with the beauty of their redemption given in Christ. No dry, detached piety here, but rich, spiritual truth.
I’ve nothing more to say except to close with one more excerpt which I hope encourages and comforts you today:
Behold, O Christian soul, this is the strength of your salvation, this is what has made possible your freedom, this is the cost of your redemption. You were in bondage, but through the cross you have been redeemed. You were a servant, but through the cross you have been set free. You are an exile who in this manner has been led back home, someone lost who has been found, someone dead who has been revived. O man, let your heart feed upon these thoughts. Let it chew continually upon them, let it suck upon them and swallow them whenever your mouth receives the body and blood of your Redeemer. In this life make these thoughts your daily bread, your nourishment, your provision. For through these thoughts and only through them will you remain in Christ and Christ in you; and only through them will your joy be full in the life to come.
Soli Deo Gloria