“feudalism, run riot in the field of doctrine”? Sonderegger on Anselm and the Debt of Sin

companion to atonement

“Perhaps no other theologian was so honored in his day and rebuked in ours as St. Anselm of Canterbury.”

So opens Katherine Sonderegger’s essay, “Anselmian Atonement” in the new T&T Clark Companion to Atonement. There are many reasons for this disparity in evaluation, of course, but at the heart of it is the split between what Sonderegger dubs the “Theological Anselm” (the dry, cold, logician consumed with merciless ruminations on divine justice and honor known in modern, theological texts) and the “Historical Anselm” (the humane, prayerful, passionate churchman known to medievalists).

Despite the vast advances in historical scholarship helping us understand the latter, the former portrait lives on, dominating the discussion, and spoiling our view of the doctor and his work, especially with respect to atonement. Sonderegger’s own exposition aims to bring a sort of reconciliation between the two, showing a coherence between the two portraits which corrects the distortion. And she does so magnificently. At least to my sympathetic, non-specialist’s eye.

A bit of her exposition I found particularly helpful came in her treatment of one of Anselm’s central claims: to sin is an offense against God’s honor. From there the logic runs that since God is infinite, an offense against his infinite honor is proportionately infinite as well. In which case, only an infinite gift or an infinite punishment will do to atone for it. This basic argument passed into the theological tradition and has been a mainstay ever since.

Now, there are at least two main objections that may be lodged against it: first, that is is culturally limited, and second that it is simply wrong. Sonderegger takes them in turn.

First is the common argument that all of this is a cultural imposition of Germanic feudalism upon the Gospel:

…to our modern ears all this sounds like so much feudalism, run riot in the field of doctrine. To be sure, “honor,” especially as it is to person and office, belongs squarely in imperial, monarchical societies. But we need not reduce theological idiom to the culture out of which it springs. Indeed, our very ability to learn from the doctors of the church rests on a non-reductive account of theological discourse…

Could we not say, in more modern idiom, that certain acts take on a measure of harm or cruelty or folly in proportion to the significance and intimacy of the person wronged?…Consider the long overdue phone call to a neighbor and to one’s mother…The intuition may be argued against on certain abstract principles, but it is the rare conscientious son or daughter, I would wager, who would treat the slight of a missed telephone call as “all the same: between the neighbor and the mother. Our intuitions are strongly formed, I would say, by ties of loyalty, intimacy, and obligation; and to our flourishing. The salience of the person—her irreplaceable significance in our lives—weighs heavily in our moral reasoning. When we object—“You did that to your own mother?”—we replicate the form of Anselm’s claim that sin is principally a wrong against the Person and Honor of God. (182)

In response to the cultural objection, Sonderegger tells us we can’t be blinkered historicists. Yes, culture impacts our theological discourse, but it is not an imaginative or conceptual prison out of which we cannot escape. Sonderegger’s intellectual sympathy translating medieval concerns into modern ones in a way is an outstanding example of that. (As a side-note, though: Mary Douglas has suggested that the best analogy for Leviticus’s theology of “atoning” for the altar is, in fact, Medieval honor societies.)

But the second half of the quote begins to answer the second objection, which is to simply to challenge Anselm’s formula as straightforwardly false. I have to confess, the “infinite honor of the person” to the “infinite offense” formula was not always appealing to me. Considering the unique relation in which one stands to a parent or some other beloved highlights the propriety of a proportionate reckoning of offense against persons.

Your neighbor is a person worthy of respect, kindness, and so forth; there is a real obligation. Your mother, though? She gave birth to you. Fed you. Cleaned you. Nurtured you. Your obligation to her as a person outstrips your debt to your neighbor inestimably. How much more, then, your obligation to God your Maker, who created you and sustains your very being with a loving intimacy that is sui generis? Such an obligation must be absolute.

Sonderegger elaborates on this point:

Such a “personal calculation” remains notoriously difficult to fix. Anselm wisely refrains from offering a mechanism for weighing such loving fealty. Rather he appeals once again to our intuitions. When we fervently admit—“we would do anything for her!”—we do not offer an enumerated list of the tasks we would undertake for the beloved, nor do we aim to express the conviction that fifteen acts of love would be far more acceptable than twelve. We intend something far more tangible, earthy, and global than all that. Our deeds carry our heart: that is closer to the calculus here. The Good who is God outweighs infinite worlds of worlds: indeed, outstrips the good of saving them. God’s Goodness is Infinite, then—“positive Infinite,” in later scholastic terms. But unlike the negative form, the positive calculus remains ineffable. It is just who God is, what I mean by the very word “God,” that He is beyond any creaturely worth. Always he is greater: from this worshipping impulse springs the Name of God evoked in the Proslogion, “That than which none greater can be conceived.” (183)

This quote highlights something else we need consider. When thinking of the weight of the offense of sin against God, we can’t limit it merely to his “irreplaceable significance” to our lives in terms of his creative provision. There is also the simple beauty of God’s being in himself.

Return back to the analogy of an offense against your mother. It’s not just that she’s your mother who has done all of these wonderful things—it is the recognition that she herself, in her person beyond her relationship to you, is simply wonderful, who deservedly provokes a response of “loving fealty.” In that sense, it’s not just a matter of saying, “you did that to your own mother?”, in a generalizable sense of “we all owe our mothers a debt,” but that your own mother in particular is wonderful in a way demands a universal respect.

I’ll leave things here for now, but this is just one small sample of the way Sonderegger’s essay is a model of sympathetic exposition and the possibilities of an atonement theology which retrieves the insights past teachers without merely repeating them.

Soli Deo Gloria

9 thoughts on ““feudalism, run riot in the field of doctrine”? Sonderegger on Anselm and the Debt of Sin

  1. Well, I first wondered if the title of Sonderegger’s essay didn’t say something too much, as though “Anselmian Atonement” suggested that it was Anselm that provided the atonement we all needed. Besides that perhaps too quibbling point, it seems the analogy of our relationship with our mothers being somehow supreme falls altogether too flat in relation to biblical teaching. Her discussion seems quite in contrast to what Jesus says in Matthew 12:48-50, esp. 49-50, in which he exalts the position and pre-eminence of his disciples when he says “Here are my mother and my brothers!” “for whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother,” unquestionably relativizing one’s relationship with his/her mother. Going back a bit he says in Matthew 10:37 “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Then before that in Matthew 10:35 “For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” I know, Anselm’s and Sonderegger’s arguments are just that, arguments, but how might Jesus’s arguments impact those? The real question is not whether we can relate Anselm’s feudalistic context to our own, but whether his context is adequate to unpack the biblical covenantal context in an explicitly biblical manner that overwrites our own.

    • That’s a good qualification for the discussion, but the teaching you (rightly) highlight doesn’t negate another strand of Jesus’ teaching. When he denounces the practices of the Pharisees in Mark 7:9-13 he derides how they take things that would have been beneficial to their parents and pronounce them “corban.” A perversion of God-centered theology would applaud denying human beings what could be “devoted to God,” but Jesus instead has a sharp rebuke for such an attitude. Within this teaching is his affirmation that honoring father and mother is a good to be recognized and practiced and not to be hastily overturned even in devotion to God.

      I do not offer this counterpoint to negate what you have to say, only to remind us all that being faithful will mean taking in all of the data and affirming its irreducible complexity.

      • Who taught you that? Is that your own interpretation or were you taught that? What makes you think that what Jesus was talking about? Seems pretty far fetched.

      • Stephen, is your comment directed at mine? It’s hard for me to tell because Jesus’ denunciation of the practice of withholding goods from parents by pronouncing those things “corban” seems pretty uncontroversial.

      • So you don’t think Jesus was condemning the practice of withholding goods from parents by saying those goods were “corban”? I don’t follow what you’re taking issue with.

  2. Yeah, I will just add that Jesus’s teachings are so forceful and radical because they assume the importance of honoring one’s parents. That is the 4th commandment and the only commandment with a promise for a reason. That said, the 1st commandment is prior to all others for a reason as well. The relative is ation of the family and commitments towards parents is not a denial of their importance but an affirmation of the absoluteness of Jesus’s call to discipleship. Another way of putting it is that the demands to honor father and mother is only superceded by the demand to honor our heavenly Father.

  3. Pingback: On the “Legal Influence” of the Latin West (A thought on culture and atonement) | Reformedish
  4. Pingback: T & T Clark Companion to Atonement (Review) | Reformedish

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