Previously in this series, I wrote brief biographic sketches of two men: Anselm of Canterbury and Peter Abelard. Today, I want to contrast their views of the world and theology, particularly the topic of the atonement.
Basically, the atonement is a theological shorthand for “how did Jesus’ death save people?” It is a complex issue that has been debated for centuries and there are lots of opinions on it.
Before we get into it, let’s summarize what we learned about these two men’s lives. Anselm was from landed aristocracy and was involved in a lot of political debates in both the ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ realms. Abelard was a peasant philosopher who wrote theological love letters to his beloved Eloise.
Both Anselm and Abelard opposed the popular theology of the atonement they encountered among their fellow clerics. Basically it was taught that Satan owned you and Christ bought you or ransomed you from him. Neither man found this acceptable (and neither did most of the church fathers, but it was popular nonetheless).
Anselm’s Famous Syllogism
In his essay “Cur Deus Homo?” (Why God Man?), Anselm laid out what is essentially the modern Western view of the atonement. Here are some essential statements of his syllogism:
Everyone who sins must pay to God the honor he has taken away, and this is satisfaction, which every sinner must make to God.
Nothing is less tolerable in the order of things than for a creature to take away the honor due to the Creator and not make recompense for what he takes away.
When you render to God what you owe to Him, even without having sinned, you ought not to count it as payment for a debt you owe because of sin.
it is necessary that the Heavenly City be completed from among men, and if this completion can occur only if the aforementioned satisfaction is made, and if only God can make this satisfaction and only a man ought to make it: it is necessary that a God-man make it.
Anselm goes on, but this begins us down the road. He builds his syllogism thus:
- Sin creates a debt from the creation to the Creator.
- The debt must be paid by man.
- The debt is too big for man and only God can pay it.
- Thus, only a God-man could pay it.
- Jesus alone can satisfy the debt.
Anselm’s rhetoric is sound. He rejects the idea that Satan is involved in the atonement at all. It is strictly God and man. This was a radical idea indeed.
But notice the financial nature of his argument. Sin creates a debt to God – a requirement for payment.
Abelard rejected Anselm’s financial syllogism. He argued that the God-man was not required for the Atonement. Instead, he argued that Jesus’ atonement for sin was a manifestation of the reality of love. In essence, that salvation through Jesus’ death was the definition of love. It was not a necessary act, but rather a volitional act.
Where Anselm lived in a world of fealty and ownership, Abelard lived in a world of unrealized love and devotion. He was free from the ‘worldly’ concerns that consumed Anselm, and thus did not feel it necessary to define God’s forgiveness of sin by necessity and debt but rather by feeling and love.
Thus, forgiveness of sin was not found in the satisfaction of a debt but rather in the knowing of love.
Our redemption through the suffering of Christ is that deeper love within us which not only frees us from slavery to sin but also secures for us the true liberty of the children of God, in order that we might do all things out of love rather than out of fear – love for him who has shown us such grace that no greater can be found.
Who Was Right?
I will leave the final interpretation to you. Personally, I think both Anselm and Abelard captured part of the idea of the Atonement. My interest in them is bound up in my belief that truth exists in tension – that God allows diverse experiences and thinking to mold our diverse thinking and we then frame our theological concepts. Theology is not the rule of one true over many, but many facets of one grand thought in the mind of God, sparkling and kindling passions in the hearts of man.
It is a poor testimony to the state of the church in the 12th century that Abelard was essentially hunted down by Bernard of Clairvaux because he disagreed with Anselm. His view, known as the Moral Theory today, is virtually unknown in the western church.
Anselm was a political favorite of popes; Abelard was an obscure monk teaching the masses. Anselm’s theory has become church dogma; Abelard’s is viewed as nearly (not quite) heretical. Instead of appreciating the wonderful tension of the truth, generations rejected Abelard because they HAD TO BE RIGHT.