Anselm on the Atonement
I thought that I would continue Xavier’s examination of Anselm by looking at his view of the Atonement. I find Anselm very interesting because it seems to me his theology reveals a lot about how people in the medieval world thought. He was a man of the times so to speak.
This comes out in his doctrine of the Atonement. Although most of us probably take the idea of Jesus dying in our place (penal substitution) and of Jesus satisfying God’s wrath for us to be the norm in the church, this view wasn’t adopted until 11th century. Until Anselm the atonement was viewed primarily as having an effect on humanity, whether that be paying Satan a ransom for our freedom, or the removal of sin as a disease. With Anselm, however, it was God that was affected by the atonement and not us per se. God had been dishonored by man’s sin and “demanded satisfaction.”
It has been argued that Anselm’s view of the atonement was decisively colored by the world in which he lived. Otto Weber writes: “But the fact remains that Anselm constructs ‘satisfaction’ abstractly, as an a priori. This is the result of his realism. But that does not make it right.” H.D. Mcdonald ties together everything I have thus far written: “Anselm has in fact built his theory of atonement on a view of God other than he himself affirmed, for his theory is based on the analogy of God as a medieval sovereign quick to react to personal affront to his dignity. But that is not an adequate guide to an understanding of Christ’s work (emphasis mine).”
While Anselm’s view definitely has some merit, it does appear that his worldview prevented him from seeing the truth in the first 1000 years of Christian thought on the atonement. Hopefully scholars today can be creative and inventive but heed this lesson from history and not throw the baby out with the bathwater.