Anselm Reconsidered

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 9.19.00 PMAnselm Reconsidered

Jason Micheli will be posting reflections on Fleming Rutledge’s new book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, through Lent. Jason is a United Methodist pastor in DC who blogs at

Every year during Advent we let our confirmation students loose through the building to take an informal poll.

The question we give the confirmands is the same every year:

Why did Jesus come?

About 15% always respond that Jesus comes to teach us how to love one another and help the needy. I suppose those are the liberals.

Without fail, a reliable 85%, in so many words, reply that Jesus comes to die for our sins. That Jesus is born to die.

For us.

Instead of us.

In our place.

Every year the question is the same and, remarkably, every year so is the answer. The needle doesn’t move at all. More than 3/4 answer, year in and year out, that Jesus comes in order to die for us. As our substitute, suffering the death we deserve.

And, every year, more than a few of the confirmands bring those answers back to the confirmation class with a few questions of their own:

How does that work?

How come?

Why does God need someone to die in order to forgive us our sins?

The common and popular construal’s of the Church’s language for sin and substitution, as the confirmation students rightly inuit, are not without their problems. Indeed some presentations of the necessity of Christ’s death seem to raise problems bigger than the ones they’re meant to assuage.

Too often our translation of substitutionary atonement suggests that the incarnation is determined by us and our predicament.

It makes the incarnation contingent on us: on our sin, on the Fall, on Adam and Eve’s disobedience.

Instead of something that flows from God’s triune abundance, the incarnation is something compelled by our corruption. Instead of a gift God gives eternally out of perichoretic joy, the incarnation sounds like the outworking of God’s frustration and disappointment in us.

Incarnation and Salvation become something God has to do to rescue us from Sin. But to picture it that way is to presume that Jesus would not have come if we hadn’t sinned. That if there’d been no exit from Eden there’d have been no journey to Bethlehem.

To suggest that Jesus might not have come is to say that the incarnation is something less than an eternal, unchanging decision of God’s, and if the incarnation is not an eternal decision of God’s, if the incarnation is not something God was always going to do irrespective of a Fall, then at some point in time God changed his mind about us, towards us. Such a change in God, who is immutable, represents a seismic departure from the claims of the Church Fathers.

Less broadly, (sub)versions of substitutionary atonement frequently mute any sense of the saving significance of the resurrection while also treating the incarnation as a prelude to the primary narrative, lacking in any salvific dimension in its own right. Lost oftentimes in presentations of substitutionary atonement is the superabundance of God’s mercy, for it depicts God as demanding blood as the necessary recompense for our redemption, and, in doing so, can reduce the mystery of our salvation to a rigid schema of legalistic, mechanical steps of logic.

All of these criticisms with (sub)versions of substitutionary atonement are valid, but, as Fleming Rutledge argues in her book, The Crucifixion:

         the solution to the abuse of the tradition’s atonement language is not to jettison it.

She judges both conservatives, who reduce the bible’s substitutionary language to a rational ‘Romans Road’ schema, and liberals, who dismiss it by asking ‘How does that work?’ as being ‘overly literal, unimaginative, and tendentious.’ Both those who make their version of substitutionary atonement the gospel and those who disavow substitutionary atonement as antithetical to the gospel forget, chides Rutledge, that the Bible is art and so theology too must be a kind of art, expressing what cannot, by its very nature, be delimited to expression.

It risks little exaggeration to say that much atonement theology today has more to do with Anselm than it does with Jesus. So it comes as a surprise, perhaps, that Rutledge contends that Anselm, in Cur Deus Homo, should be read as what most take him to be the opposite of: an artist, attempting to illumine what will always necessarily remain ineffable.

She begins her appraisal of Anselm by asserting the legitimacy of substitutionary atonement’s overarching concerns:

Something is terribly wrong in the world and needs to be set right.

         God’s justice demands that sin not go unheeded.  

         Compassion alone will not make right what is wrong. Rectification requires the action of God from beyond our sphere.

The popular impressions of Anselm’s God as petty and capricious, easily offended and demanding a tribute of blood in order to forgive us, are so wildly off the mark Fleming Rutledge wonders if Anselm’s many critics have actually read Cur Deus Homo or, if they’ve paused to consider the title of it: ‘Why the God-Man?’ The title itself indicates that Anselm does not commit the misstep of which he’s commonly accused; namely, he does not pit the Father and Son against one another nor does he posit Christ’s humanity as the sole agent of our salvation, another frequent charge against him. As the title makes clear, from the front cover forward, Anselm sees salvation as a fully Trinitarian work enfolding incarnation and unfolding from it.

Given the unexamined caricatures about Anselm’s theology, a reader of Cur Deus Homo, for example, might be surprised to discover that nowhere does he speak of the penal suffering of Christ’s death.

         What’s critical for Anselm about Christ’s suffering and death is Christ’s innocence.

Even the logical steps Anselm takes with his interlocutor, Boso, which so many decry as coldly rationalistic, proceed from a primary question different from what his critics imagine. Rather than pondering how the Son’s blood persuades the angry Father to forgive us, as it is popularly supposed, Anselm reflects on why death’s defeat comes as it does, on the cross, if the devil has no rights over humanity. Already this latter question itself shows how off the mark are those who dismiss Anselm as injecting a new and altogether different understanding of the atonement in to the theology received from the Church Fathers.

To her side, Fleming Rutledge marshals David Bentley Hart, my former teacher and an Eastern Orthodox theologian who, one might anticipate, would have little appreciation for Anselm, the standard-bearer for Western atonement theology. Citing Hart’s essay, A Gift Exceeding Every Debt, Rutledge advances the unconventional argument that Anselm relies upon the very same story of the atonement as the ancient Church Fathers, a story told within the broad motifs of recapitulation and victory wherein the Second Adam re-narrates the human story, living obediently the life God intended originally for the First Adam and, in doing so even unto death on a cross, Christ tramples Death by death thereby restoring us to the Father.

What Anselm offers is not a different story of our salvation or a new theory of the atonement but a ‘change of accent.’

Behind his hyper focus on the necessity of the cross if the devil has no rights over us, and behind his exercise in logic that proceeds from it, Anselm, in fact, sees salvation as a unified victory of the Trinity against Sin and Death, or the devil. Christ’s sacrifice is not an external exchange of death and desert- a transaction. It is not, contrary to rumor, an expiation to a god abounding in steadfast wrath. Rather, says David Hart, Christ’s sacrifice owes to the internal relation of the divine will. As much as in the Church Fathers, God, in Cur Deus Homo, is the chief actor in the salvation story. The guilt of humanity’s sin, which is the rejection of the God who is Life, had placed humanity in bondage to Death. Christ’s self-offering in obedience sets aside our guilt, an act of pure grace, while his death defeats Death.

In this vein Anselm sounds little different than Gustav Aulen, whose ‘Christus Victor’ motif of the atonement is often held out as the opposite of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo. Indeed Aulen himself drew the contrast. Nonetheless, says Hart in his essay:

      ‘The closer the attention one pays to Anselm’s argument, the harder it becomes to locate a point at which he actually breaks from patristic orthodoxy. The divine action follows the same course as in the ‘classic’ model: sin having disrupted the order of God’s good creation, and humanity having been handed over to death and the devil, God enters into a condition of estrangement and slavery to set                 humanity free…[In Christ] humanity was placed between God and the devil to vanquish the latter for the honor of the former.’

         Its cliche, for those in mainline and progressive circles to say they favor the Church Fathers’ emphasis on the incarnation rather than the modern, Western emphasis upon the cross.

Such a position however, as both Rutledge and Hart point out, ignores how, in the Church Fathers especially, God’s conquest of Sin and Death is the only way we’re incorporated into an incarnate new humanity and that this new humanity is a present, social reality nowhere else but in the community that preaches Christ crucified and baptizes its members into his death and resurrection.

If Rutledge and Hart are correct and Anselm is well within the stream of patristic theology, bringing to focus what was latent and assumed in earlier writings, then what do we with the most troubling and caricatured of Anselm’s atonement analogies? As rookie theology students learn in too cursory a manner, Anselm likens our sin before God to a medieval lord whose ‘honor’ has been offended by his vassals and must be restored, satisfied. In The Crucifixion, Rutledge glosses over this piece from Hart’s A Gift Exceeding Every Debt, and it’s an omission that leads them to two, dissonant conclusions and reveals their underlying theological commitments.

Hart translates ‘honor’ as goodness, arguing that in Anselm’s day a lord’s honor was shorthand for the social order to which he was bound and responsible.

Put biblically, God’s ‘social order’ is creation itself and God’s honor is God’s Goodness to which the good creation corresponds. God’s goodness (honor) requires God to act for his good creation. God cannot not intervene to rectify a creation distorted by Sin and Death.

So then, contrary to the abundant caricatures, Anselm’s God is not an infinitely offended god who demands blood sacrifice, even his own, in order to rectify our relationship with him. Anselm’s is an infinitely merciful triune God who, in order to fulfill his creative intent, says Hart:

         ‘…recapitulates humanity by passing through all the violences of sin and death, rendering to God the obedience that is his due, and so transforms the event of his death into an occasion of infinite blessings…Christ’s death does not even effect a change in God’s attitude towards humanity; God’s attitude never alters: he desires the salvation of his creatures, and will not abandon them even to their own cruelties.’

Atonement in Anselm then is quite the opposite of what many take it be. It is not an economic exchange our corruption compelled God to transact. It is the motion of triune perichoretic love, the Father offering the Son to and for us in our estrangement, the Son offering his life in obedience to the Father even though that obedience leads to a cross, and the Father vindicating the Son’s loving obedience by raising him from the dead, a motion where there is no distinction between God’s justice and God’s mercy for Easter shows God’s utmost Law to be steadfast love to his creatures.

In The Crucifixion, Fleming Rutledge judges that those who resist substitutionary language disregard the extent to which the claim Christ’s death is ‘for sin’ is found all over the New Testament. It simply overwhelms any other manner of speaking of the cross. Rutledge helpfully corrects the misunderstanding behind much of the resistance to substitution that ‘sin’ here refers to our individual sins. The substitutionary death of Christ is instead a death for our collective sin, she argues with the long record of the prophets as her evidence. A theology of the cross is deficient if it neglects an account of the corporate and systemic nature of sin. As Rutledge distinguishes, Sin is an alien power to which we’re in bondage, but sin is also a kind of contagion of our nature, for, in our bondage, we become active agents of Sin. We require, therefore, two modes of deliverance. We need God to remove our guilt but also to liberate us from the Power of Sin.

While I believe Fleming Rutledge offers a fuller account of the Sin for which Christ dies, her reliance upon David Hart’s retrieval of Anselm neglects the way Hart emphasizes the necessarily nonviolent mode of the atonement as its understood in the Fathers and- Hart contends- Anselm.

Rutledge avoids the common problems with substitutionary atonement. She makes clear it is not merely our individual sin (read: moral impurity) for which Jesus dies. She insists we must not divide the Father’s and Son’s wills against one another, that the cross in no way effects a change in God, and that God’s wrath is poured out on the cross not against his creatures but against the Sin that enslaves them. Still, Rutledge sees the cross as an act of ‘disruptive grace.’ It is an apocalyptic battle waged by God.

In other words-

         Even after Rutledge resolves the popular problems with substitution, a  graver problem remains:         

         God chooses violence to be the means by which we’re delivered.

Whether or not the fact of God endorsing and using such violence is ameliorated by the fact that God suffers it in our stead is a matter of debate.

         To my mind, a more urgent question becomes whether or not a community of perichoretic love, the Trinity, whose very nature is peace, could ever employ violence to good ends?

Is not such an act contrary to God’s nature?

In his retrieval of Cur Deus Homo, David Hart argues that Anselm, in harmony with the Fathers before him, does not view God as using the violence of the cross as the means to remit sin. Quite the opposite, the violence of the cross is our violence, our choice. The cross is a product of the system of Sin to which we’re bound, says Hart, ‘the violence that befalls Christ belongs to our order of justice, an order overcome by his sacrifice, which is one of peace.’

Hart argues that the same boundless gift God gives in creation the Son gives back in his obedient life offered to God even unto the cross and that such a superabundant gift ‘draws creation back into the eternal motion of divine love for which it was fashioned.’ Thus, Hart concludes, Christ subverts the very logic of substitution and sacrifice from within by subsuming it into the trinitarian motion of love.

As opposed to a violent, apocalyptic defeat of Sin through the cross, Christ’s obedience is simply, as Anselm puts it, ‘a gift that exceeds our every debt.’

How that works exactly, Anselm doesn’t explain. He was after all, despite his rationalistic appearances, an artist. 

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