Obedient death

Obedient death February 18, 2013

Anselm is commonly charged with portraying the Father as a sadistic child-abuser who demands a death from His innocent Son. In a 2009 article in The Saint Anselm Journal , Daniel Shannon argues that Anselm says no such thing, and that in fact “God did not compel the innocent to suffer nor compel Jesus to suffer and die for humanity.”

He bases this conclusion on Cur deus homo 1.9, where Anselm endorses Boso’s distinction between “what Christ did because of the demands of his obedience” and “the suffering, inflicted upon him because he maintained his obedience.”

The first refers to those things that the Father commands the Son; the second to the consequences that follow from that obedience. “Obedience did not demand” suffering and death in the sense that the Father never commanded Him, “Go and die.” Rather, because He “maintained truth and righteousness unflinchingly in his way of life and in what he said,” his life led by an irresistible logic toward death. Anselm sums the point this way: “He underwent death of his own accord, not out of an obedience consisting in the abandonment of his life, but out of an obedience consisting in his upholding of righteousness so bravely and pertinaciously that as a result he incurred death.” The Father instructed Him to die in the sense that “He gave the instructions as a result of which He incurred death.”

As part of his argument, Anselm denies what critics often attribute to him when he says that a man who never sinned would not be “under an obligation to suffer death” and it would not be “at all appropriate ( nequequam aestimabis convenire ) for God to force a creature . . . . to be pitiably afflicted, in spite of an absence of guilt.” Anselm’s answer to the question, Why did Jesus die? is that His courageous obedience led him into a deadly clash with the Jews, and he willingly went to death rather than shrink back from the way of obedience. Anselm comes out surprisingly well by NT Wright’s criterion of “crucifiability.”

Anselm concedes that in certain senses it is appropriate to speak of the Father wished the death of His Son. It’s not true in the sense that “the Father willed His Son’s death in preference to His life.” Rather, it is because the Father determined that the restoration of the world would be brought about by a satisfactory action of the magnitude of Jesus’ death. When Jesus prays in Gethsemane, it is as if he said (Anselm’s paraphrase): “Since you do not wish the reconciliation of the world to take place in any other way, I say that you are, in this way, willing my death. Let this will of yours come to pass, that is, let my death come to pass, so that the world may be reconciled to you.” In this scenario, the will of the Father is, strictly speaking, the reconciliation of the world. The death of Jesus realizes that purpose, but it does so in a negative fashion: The Father didn’t will the world’s restoration in any other way, and therefore the cross is the one way forward.

What is noteworthy in all this is the hesitation that Anselm has about speaking of Jesus’ death as the will of the Father in a direct and unqualified sense.

As before in my posts on Anselm, I am not defending or attacking Anselm; only trying to understand him.

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