Did the Father Will the Son’s Death?

Did the Father Will the Son’s Death? December 12, 2017

Boso, Anselm’s interlocutor in Cur Deus Homo, cites a collection of New Testament texts, and concludes: “Christ endured death under the compulsion of obedience, rather than through the intention of his own free will” (276).

Anselm denies that there is any compulsion involved. While he acknowledges that the Father “wished” the death of the Son in a certain sense, that sense is carefully qualified. His offers several lines of response.

First, he argues that Boso has failed to make a crucial distinction “between, on the one hand, what Christ did because of the demands of his obedience, and, on the other, the suffering, inflicted upon him because he maintained his obedience, which he underwent even though his obedience did not demand it” (276).

That is, the Father never issued a command “Go die.” Rather, Jesus offered the obedience that the Father demands of all human beings, and this put Jesus on a collision course with God’s enemies. Boso comes to see that “it was death which was inflicted upon him owing to the fact that he remained steadfast in obedience, and it was this that he underwent” (277).

Or, as Anselm himself puts it, “God . . . did not force Christ to die, there being no sin in him. Rather, 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” (277).

This is supported, further, by Anselm’s insistence that it would not have been “appropriate for God to force a creature—whom he has created righteous for the purpose of happiness—to be pitiably afflicted, in spite of an absence of guilt” (277). He is referring to the original condition of Adam, who wasn’t mortal because he was not guilty of any sin. But the principle applies to Jesus too: For Anselm, it isn’t fitting that God should force Jesus to suffer innocently.

Thus, the various passages that speak of the Father giving Him the cup and of His obedience to death should be understood in this light. It is proper to say that “the Father instructed him to die” only in the sense that the Father “gave the instructions as a result of which he incurred death” (277).

Another angle: Anselm argues that the desire that impels Jesus to obedience comes from the Father: “no man possesses the truth that he teaches, or a just desire, from himself, but from God.” Jesus does the will of the Father in the sense that “the just desire which he had came not from his humanity but from his divinity” (278).

More fully, “in the same way that the Father is said to ‘draw’ a person by giving him a desire, likewise it is not out of keeping for the assertion to be made that he ‘impels’ him. . . . since everyone is ‘drawn’ or ‘impelled’ to something which he steadfastly desires, it is not inappropriate for it to be asserted of God that he ‘draws’ or ‘impels’ when he is the giver of such a desire. In this ‘drawing’ or ‘impulsion’ there is no inevitable element of violence which is understood to be present: rather a spontaneous and heartfelt wish to hold on to the good desire which has been received” (280).

Yet another dimension: The Father willed that the world would be saved only by an act of such magnitude as the self-offering of the Son. Insofar as the Father desired this means to achieve salvation, He also desired the death of the Son. But this is still governed by the qualifying “as if”: The Father, Anselm argues, doesn’t desire the death of the Son in a direct fashion, and certainly the Father doesn’t compel the Son.

In Anselm’s own words, “The Father . . . wished the death of the Son in the sense that it was not his will that the world should be saved by any means, as I have said, other than that a man should perform an action of this magnitude. Since no one else could perform the deed, this consideration was as weighty, from the point of view of the Son, in his desire for the salvation of mankind, as if the Father were instructing him to die” (279; emphasis added).

Jesus can speak of “the will of his Father not because the Father willed his Son’s death in preference to his life, but because the Father was unwilling for the restoration of the human race to be brought about by other means than that a man should perform an action of the magnitude of that death” (280).

Anselm distinguishes between the Father directly commanding or willing the death of the Son and the Father’s unwillingness to spare the Son, to rescue Him from the death that was the end of His obedience: “to say that God ‘did not spare his Son but handed him over on our behalf,’ is the same as saying: he did not release him” (280).

He observes that “when we see someone wishing to endure an affliction bravely, in order that he may bring a good desire to fulfilment, although we express a wish for him to endure that suffering, the object of our wish and our love is not his suffering, but his will-power” (280-1). So the Father will for His Son to persevere in obedience in the face of death, and the object of that will/wish isn’t the death itself but the perseverance.

Throughout, Anselm is guided by two principles that surface periodically throughout the discussion. One is the unfittingness/injustice of the Father positively and directly willing the death of His innocent Son; the other is that the Son gives Himself, laying down His life of His own volition. When He says “no one takes My life from Me,” Anselm thinks that it applies to the Father as to everyone else.

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