THE ARGUMENT IN ANSELM`S TREATISE : “CUR DEUS HOMO” : (WHY GOD BECAME MAN)
The first thing we have to say is that St. Anselm is one of the most revered thinkers of early Christian theology and that his work “Cur Deus Homo” is held in the highest regard by the Catholic Church. Written in the closing years of the eleventh century, when Anselm was Archbishop of Canterbury, the treatise is one of several philosophical-religious works by him and possibly his greatest. He was acutely conscious of the need (as he saw it, in his time) to prove the reasonableness of religious belief and developed a theory of knowledge, seen best in his “De Veritate” (On Truth). Consequently Anselm explored the issue of revealed truth in its relation to reason. Faith , he contended, should be based on a rational believable system. Thus he aimed to inculcate both Christian “consciousness” and Christian beliefs, in a framework of intelligibility and reason in his readers, lay and clerical. Anselm believed in, and argued for, an absolute truth. This latter was seen in God who is the essence of ultimate truth. All of Anselm`s theory is predicated on the notion of God which must be clear and reasonable, and therefore his “arguments” depend totally on the/his acceptance of the idea of God.
It is important when considering Anselm`s work to keep in mind the religious outlook of the age. Parts of the treatise may on occasion seem verbose and tautologous even somewhat incomprehensible, and remote from modern thought. But he is never naive, developing his argument in detail. The age was a religion dominated age; a world (at least in the West) in thrall to Catholic ministers of religion. Writing about the year 1100, Anselm clearly felt there was a need to clarify, indeed to justify the concept of the meaning of the death on the cross. The traditional belief was that God became man (in Jesus) who by dying on the cross “saved” mankind from its sins. It also proved God`s love for us (mankind). But this “simple” concept raised questions among thinking deists and agnostics alike. How exactly did this death on the cross redeem Man and from exactly what, and to what degree, did this consummation succeed? Anselm attempted to answer these questions. Starting from the premise, universally believed at that time, that God was reconciled with sinners by means of Jesus` crucifixion, and that his death represented a sort of victory over the devil (by whose wiles Christ was killed) , Anselm determined to examine these beliefs (with which he did not agree) in minute detail and establish a reasoned contrary theory, which he did in CDH. His main a priori statement is denial of the belief that the devil ever had any rights over sinful mankind. Adam had sinned in the first place and therefore he it was who ab initio had dishonoured God. It was a type of debt owed to God and satisfaction was required. A man was incapable of rendering sufficient satisfaction to God, only he (God)could do this, but as the offence was committed by mankind, God became man in his son, Jesus Christ. and in this way paid the debt.
Anselm was above all motivated by his desire to present rational, compelling argument in his work, which could not be countermanded by those not fully convinced of the truth of Catholic Christianity. He clearly felt that much Catholic dogma was taken on trust by lay people and cleric alike. He determined to change that, and in his major treatise CDH, he approached subjects which were cardinal to the faith but which had never been scrutinised in detail before. Accordingly, main tenets of belief in religion were discussed and reason brought to bear in the discussion. Of course such subjects as the very existence of God, immortality of the soul, death and resurrection, incarnation were fundamentally believed in (by the faithful) but Anselm believed he was offering compelling reasons for belief, as opposed to acceptance by tradition of the Church and Bible.
The notable 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica encapsulates the thinking of Anselm in CDH. His theory rests on three positions: that satisfaction (for the injury to God, because of sin) is necessary on account of God`s honour and justice; that satisfaction can be given only by the peculiar personality of the God-man; that such satisfaction is really given by the voluntary death of this infinitely valuable person. All the actions of men are due to the furtherance of God`s glory; if there be sin, man of himself can give no satisfaction. But the justice of God demands satisfaction and as an insult to infinite honour is in itself infinite, the satisfaction must be infinite. Such a penalty can only be paid by God himself and as a penalty for man, must be paid under the form of man. Satisfaction is only possible through the God-man. This God-man, as sinless, is exempt from the punishment of sin; his passion is therefore voluntary, not given as due. The merit of it is therefore infinite ; God`s justice is thus appeased and his mercy may extend to man.
Basically Anselm was attacking the long held theory originally advanced by such eminent thinkers of the Church, as Origen and Irenaeus that a kind of ransom situation prevailed whereby mankind was in thrall to the devil as a a result of man`s (original) sin. The death of Jesus therefore paid the ransom for mankind`s release. One of Anselm`s aims in the CDH, was to undermine the ransom belief and to advance arguments for his particular theory of Satisfaction Atonement. His most critical point was concerned with belittling the earlier theories, by denying that the devil had any hold over man who had been created by God; that it was a preposterous idea that a ransom could be demanded (by the devil) – from an infinite God! It was from this position that Anselm developed the argument summarised in the previous paragraph, that is, that Christ acted as a substitute, suffering for all mankind, in order to satisfy God`s honour. The issue of penal substitution may enter into any discussion of Anselmian thought which can be summarised as seeing substitution as paying the penalty of death , not as repaying God for lost honour. The conclusion is therefore that the death of Jesus did not mean paying a debt to Satan but to God. As the Wikipedia article on Atonement succinctly puts it: “Another distinction must be made between penal substitution (Christ punished instead of us) and substitutionary atonement (Christ suffers for us). Both affirm the substitutionary and vicarious nature of the atonement , but penal substitution offers a specific explanation as to what the suffering is for: punishment…penal substitution derives from the idea that divine forgiveness must satisfy divine justice.”
The main point at issue here is belief or not in the truth (or fact) that Jesus was actually the son of God, or indeed was therefore God himself come down to earth in bodily form to suffer a predestined death. Of course Anselm believed implicitly that Jesus was the son of God who redeemed the world by his crucifixion. Another school of belief holds that God did not send his son to earth to suffer but that He chose a man to represent Him and to pay the price of the sins of humanity. As the Wikipedia article puts it, if in the penal substitution understanding of the atonement, the death of Christ deals with sin and injustice, his resurrection is the renewal and restoration of righteousness.
The core of Anselm`s thesis lies in his definition of sin, i.e. not rendering his (man`s) due to God, so that effectively the honour of God is injured, as Anselm says, by the withdrawal of man`s service which he should offer (to God). Mankind had sinned against God so therefore as the only being worthy enough to adequately offer satisfaction God came to earth. At this juncture we may ask:what is sin? Its meaning, concept and origin? – apart from Anselm`s conception. It is a fundamental question. Before we attempt to answer it, we can encapsulate Anselm`s thinking: satisfaction for sins is due to God, and His demands for this are just; and this satisfaction is bestowed by Christ`s suffering and death on the cross, so that it follows man`s sins are forgiven and direct punishment (of man) is obviated.
Sin itself has no meaning in the absence of belief in God, A definition of sin is any act or thought contrary to God`s will or contrary to the teaching of a Church based on theological doctrine. Anydefinition of sin will refer to the “injury” done to God (by sin) Clearly great emphasis in the Bible is put upon sin, commission and avoidance. Translations from the original employed the word “sin”, even though the basic,true meaning was not necessarily that of “sin” but often meant rather falling short of a standard, or the missing of a mark. Accordingly, early translators originated the word “sin” to be followed as standard by future generations. The first mention of “sin” in the bible is to be found in Genesis, 4;7 where the Lord speaks to Cain, saying “…if you do not do well, sin is couching [lying] at the door…” The concept of “sin” had been born, via translators – and without question. The idea of an omnipotent, omniscient God who can be hurt, offended by mortals who then have to make some sort of restitution strains credulity. But this is precisely what Anselm is saying in his Cur Deus Homo treatise. Then it was the universal, basic belief; Christian or rather Catholic doctrine held (in the western world) complete sway.
We must of course look at Anselm`s thought in history`s perspective. Scrutiny through modern eyes is not always fruitful – or wise. Ideas of penal substitution or of atonement, indeed much of juridical thinking is different from the norms appertaining in Anselm`s day. A proper evaluation of CDH is not possible unless we accept the author`s beliefs, and viewpoint It is all too easy to examine the arguments in the treatise, from a modern perspective, which may not be sympathetic to traditional religious teaching. Indeed, reading the document from an agnostic or atheistic mind state will inevitably negative Anselm`s argument. Denial of the existence of God
means that the very import of the treatise is empty – (a point we can come back to later in this essay). For now, it would be better I think, to continue looking at CDH as Anselm wanted his contemporaries to look at it, That they possessed faith (in religion) was taken for granted; Anselm`s aim was not to replace faith with reason or understanding, Faith is essentially based on love for God and therefore to direct action consonant with God`s will.
Another difficulty encountered in a reading of CDH lies in the nature of God (as then universally comprehended) which is that of a vengeful godhead. This of course is nothing new: throughout the Bible, God is depicted as wrathfull, bent on death and destruction. One of Anselm`s major principles in his writing is that appeasement is necessary on the part of humanity to avoid the continuance of His displeasure. Neither position I would venture to say is tenable now. An almighty God, creator of the universe, would not be in need of our service or submission. However, in Anselm`s eyes the anger of God arises out of his love for us and has the aim of helping the sinful. As human beings, the burden of his thesis is we had sinned greatly, beginning with Adam and Eve, and therefore owed a debt to God. Was Jesus an innocent man who was unjustly punished (by God) is a question which may come to mind – but the concept is basically irreligious! On the other hand, Christ many times foretold his eventual fate, i.e. his death was voluntary. Here it is possible to say that Jesus himself believed he was the son of God, but is there reliable statement or evidence that this was so?. Anselm`s main thesis is that Jesus was God made man, and that therefore God did not punish Jesus. The latter shared God`s will, which was to release humanity from sin and death. Various “models” concerning approaches to CDH have been promulgated, many of them based on passages in the New Testament where the death of Jesus is seen as a type of “ransom”. As Neelands so succinctly puts it (in his article in the Saint Anselm Journal, 2005) “The person whose freedom is to be purchased must rely on another to purchase and restore the freedom that is the presumed natural state.”
The idea of ransom paid to Satan held sway for centuries until it was demolished by Anselm. The essence of Anselm`s argument is that Satan, the original transgressor, could not possibly have rights to anything but punishment. Indeed something had to be paid – but not to Satan. God had himself had a “right” to a type of recompense, and thus from the date of CDH, Anselm`s doctrine of Satisfaction was adopted.
Looking more closely at the treatise, it may be worthwhile at this juncture to see exactly what Anselm himself stated in his Preface to CDH. [All references and quotations are taken from the Oxford World`s Classics edition, edited by Brian Davies and G.R.Evans, “THE MAJOR WORKS”] The author divided the work into two books, the first of which [he says in the Preface] “contains the objections of unbelievers who reject the Christian faith because they think it militates against reason, and the answers given by the faithful. And eventually it proves by unavoidable logical steps,that, supposing Christ were left out of the case, as if there had never existed anything to do with him , it is impossible that, without him, any member of the human race could be saved. In the second book similarly the supposition is made that if nothing were known about Christ and it is demonstrated with no less clear logic and truth: that human nature was instituted with the specific aim that at some stage the whole human being should enjoy blessed immortality, “whole” meaning “with both body and soul”; that it was inevitable that the outcome concerning mankind which was the reason behind man`s creation should become a reality but that this could only happen through the agency of a Man-God; and that it is from necessity that all the things which we believe about God have come to pass.”
One of the major planks in Anselm`s argument is contained in the first paragraph of book 2, where he writes “It ought not to be doubted that the nature of rational beings was created by God righteous in order that through rejoicing in him, it might be blessedly happy”. Man has therefore the faculty of reasoning, so that he can tell good from bad. This was the original state of Man or at least God`s intention. As Anselm states, “the rational nature was created to love and choose the supreme good above all things”. It follows that mankind was created in the beginning by God with the intention that eventually Adam and his progeny would enjoy endless communion with him.This endless communion was according to Anselmian doctrine part of God`s purpose for man, as he makes clear in the passage in book 2, where he speaks about man being set in paradise, not being susceptible to the wiles of the devil, thereby honoring God since “man ….would have refused to sin on earth. Man would therefore prove both his obedience and the weakness of the devil, living in a state of grace in Eden”. As we know this was not to be and so raises a question about the heavenly plan. To ensure this plan was successful the God-man had to be sacrificed..
These lines of thought in Anselm`s treatise lead on to a consideration of the nature of sin, which as we have seen, according to him, is an affront to God and his honour. This concept of sin was the first time in Church theology that such a definition had been spelt out so clearly. The entire fabric of the thesis of CDH hinges on the acceptance of this definition. Sin is a type of violation. God could punish the transgression or accept some sort of satisfaction, claims Anselm In the event, God chose satisfaction by means of the death of Christ. This was the purpose of Anselm in writing the treatise: to prove the necessity of Christ`s immolation on the cross. As Anselm says, “there is nothing above everything that is not God, save God himself. Then no one but God can make this satisfaction”, (Book 2). A God-Man is necessary for this task. The man part is able to die but the God part will live on – hence the resurrection. As Scott Foutz in his article inQuodlibet (1994) so clearly phrases it, “the only feasible argument whereby mankind may be relieved of its debt and restored to its original purpose, becomes in Anselm`s argument proof of its reasonableness, necessity and truth. In this way Anselm presents the necessity of Christ having to die upon the cross for the sake of mankind”.
The death of Christ however was a voluntary act: something willingly undertaken. (Throughout the New Testament, Jesus says he is destined to make the supreme sacrifice for humanity.) If we believe (as Anselm`s contemporaries did) that God intended his son Jesus to die on the cross, then one lesson is made clear to Man: the necessity for obedience. One view is that it is unjust that an innocent man (Jesus) should have to die for sinful humanity. The proviso is of course that “this Man freely offered to the Father” (book 2) his personal sacrifice. God accepted the death as satisfaction for his injured majesty. The subsequent benefit was, as it were, passed on to mankind, since clearly Christ, as God the Son, a sinless man, could not accept the benefit. It seems appropriate to end this section with another quote from the Foutz article as it so neatly summarises the position so far reached: Christ…”accomplished …infinite merit in his work on the cross. This merit then restores mankind in the sight of God, enabling the original purpose of God to be fulfilled, namely, that man as a rational creature may eternally enjoy contemplation of God`s presence.”
CDH is written in the form of a dialogue between Anselm and one Boso who was a monk of Bec, formerly Anselm`s pupil. Boso asks the questions and takes the part of the unbeliever or doubter. Anselm had been Abbot of Bec, in Normandy.
In his commendation of the work to the then Pope (Urban II) Anselm says: “I am attempting for a little while, insofar as the heavenly grace deigns to allow me, to arise to contemplate the logic of our beliefs…” and thereby sets out the purpose of his treatise. In his own list of chapters, it is possible to regard chapter 18 (of book 2) as expressing the essence of his aim: “How the life of Christ is recompense paid to God for the sins of mankind, and how Christ was obliged, and was not obliged, to suffer”. The question on which the whole work hangs (as he himself said) is: “By what logic or necessity did God become man, and by his death, as we believe, and profess, restore life to the world when he could have done this through the agency of some other person, angelic or human, or simply by willing it”, Anselm was in no doubt that even in his day there were unbelievers in revealed truth (by the Catholic Church) as he remarks in chapter 3, “Allow me then to use words characteristic of unbelievers. For it is only fair , at a time when we are keen to explore the logic of our faith, to set out the objections of those who are totally unwilling to come to this faith without a logical reason for doing so”.
One of Anselm`s aims, as we have remarked was to rebut the long held belief that something was owed (by man) to the devil. “Take that other thing ….that God was obliged to act against the devil by justice, in order to set mankind free, …and so the devil would lose the power which he used to have over sinners. Otherwise, so we argue, God would have been doing unjust violence against the devil, since the latter was the lawful possessor of man…not by violence…rather it was man who had gone over to the devil of his free will. I do not see what validity there is in that argument”. Referring again to unbelievers, Anselm replying to a point of Boso`s, states that “You ought to demand an answer now from those people [such as the followers of Gnosticism ] on whose behalf you are speaking, who do not believe that Christ is necessary for the salvation of mankind. They should state by what kind of means mankind can be saved without Christ” – the burden of Anselm`s exercise. In chapter 11, in answer to a question of Boso, Anselm makes a telling point. “If man sinned through pleasure [eating the apple] , is it not fitting that he should give recompense through pain? ….is it not justice that man in giving recompense for sin should for the honour of God defeat the devil with the greatest possible difficulty [man having been tricked in the easiest possible way in the first place] Is it not fitting that man who by sinning removed himself as far as he possibly could away from God should as recompense to God, make a gift of himself in an act of the greatest possible self-giving?”
Anselm of course believed implicitly in the teachings of the Church. Hence belief in God`s existence, the devil, angels, sin, the entirety of the Bible, were intrinsically accepted, and never questioned. This is not now universally agreed. Anselm was writing for a specific, believing audience not many of whom were literate, except for the educated elite of the law and clergy. He bases his argument on the supposition that fellow cognoscenti would recognise this and would therefore be able to disseminate his principles among the populace. The argument is logically followed through and is generally convincing if one holds the same beliefs as the author. The treatise was not meant to convince the agnostic. In its time it is a great work; one whose tenets that held sway for centuries in the Catholic Church. Viewed through modern eyes it seems somewhat pedantic and dated. It cannot be assumed now that an increasingly critical audience has the same belief as then in the verity of the devil, angels, the Bible, sin and the existence of God. The idea of “sin” (in a religious sense) is something crucial to Anselm`s work. Sin is an offence against God, according to Anselm. What therefore is the understanding if belief in God is lacking? Belief is (in this context) something taken on trust; there is no evidence pointing to the existence of God, unless the Bible writers are regarded as infallible in their accounts. The difficulty is that we do not know much about these writers and their times.
The idea of God is crucial – to religions generally. In man`s early existence, in pre-history, nothing was known about the cause of natural phenomena, thunder, lightning, etc., and the daily appearance and disappearance of sun, moon and stars; there are many others, of course. Thus the idea of supernatural beings arose, who were responsible for these events. This in fact, is the beginning of religion. So at first this religion was polytheistic, and its distinctive feature then was appeasement: sacrifice to the gods. This form of worship of several gods is thought to have originated with Hinduism about 2500 years ago. Monotheistic systems began at the time of Abraham, about 2000 BC, at least in connection with the Judeo and later Christian lines. It is not possible to overestimate the significance of the Jewish nation in the development of monotheistic religious thought in say the approximately 1000 years BC. According to the Old Testament, the creation of the world, Genesis and Exodus and all subsequent events of (religious) note, are related by “prophets”, but we do not know when and who the real authors are. Reading the OT, one is struck most forcibly by the apparent dialogue between man and God. The people we are led to believe whom God “chose” to convey his wishes for the future, were the Jewish nation. But this import is communicated by the Jewish writers themselves in the OT Scripture. Several debatable issues arise here. Why did God chose the Jews to be his “mouthpiece” as it were? And why and how did the prophets arise in Israel? The most obvious answer is that the writers of the OT had an axe to grind, a personal (speaking collectively) animus which naturally led them to put Jewry in the most favourable light. Accordingly in this ethos, “Holy men” rose from the ranks to direct descendants yet unborn and to channel their countrymen`s aims and aspirations into what they perceived as the right course, itself derived from the ancient concept of God/gods worship. Naturally they gained in estimation from their compatriots, and were able to wield a power (albeit moral or spiritual). The populace revered these oracular figures and in the fullness of time their utterances were collected into a “Canon”.given names, and ever afterwards believed if not obeyed.
Another point arises from this consideration. Why the Jews as the “chosen”, by whom
the tenets of Christianity were promulgated. There were other nations in the world at this time. Christianity evolved from the Jewish nation, Christ was himself a Jew – this we all know. If the very existence of God is denied who might have chosen the Jews as a literate and intelligent people who did not dominate
and subjugate other nations, but had suffered and was destined to suffer. The real reason however as to why the Jewish nation was “chosen” is as suggested above, that the Bible is written by Jews and therefore it appears that the Jews were chosen, especially as it is given out that the writers of Scripture were at all stages guided by God. In fact, the very first line of the first book of the Bible, mentions the word “God”. We must remember that the books of the bible were written over a very long period of time.
It was also of great kudos to claim that God actually spoke to Jewish personages. The idea of God or gods derived from very early pre-history as we have earlier remarked. By Biblical times, polytheism had become monotheism, and “revelations” given by God via mankind became the Old Testament, which as we have seen was not actually written down until centuries later. Thus the allusions to “God” throughout the OT was the evolvement of a very old tradition or practice which the prophets kept alive. The constant evocation by the prophets of God`s power, generally his wrath, served to keep people`s noses to the religious grindstone, at the same time creating a power base for themselves. It was soon realised by the early Christian Church that making people believe in religious dogma was an excellent way of controlling them. This was of course after Christ`s death and resurrection, and led to the writing of what we now know as the New Testament.
It is generally accepted that Jesus did live and was crucified; that he believed he was the Son of God. The big problem is that the idea of God derived from a time when nothing was known about the causes of deleterious events. The name was a convenient shorthand for explaining the unexplainable and for attempts to be on the side of the angels, as the saying is. Unfortunately the Churches subsequently created as a result of Christ`s ministry, built their entire dogma on the concept of an all-powerful God. The narratives of the NT laid the foundation for future delusion. The writers (who ever they were) knew the prominence and status they would achieve by their writings, not one of whom was an eye witness of the events they so vividly described. Only comparatively recently has the concept of an omniscient, omnipotent God been looked at and its absurdity revealed. When people were in a state of ignorance, this belief in God and the Devil held sway.
At this juncture we can make concluding remarks on CHD. From the point of view of theists the treatise is masterful and convincing, a veritable paean of praise to God`s majesty and justice. Anselm was a figure of his time, believing in the all-mighty godhead, creator of heaven and earth. Unfortunately there is not one shred of evidence to support this belief. A rational perspective of CDH is somewhat less credulous. A God of the nature portrayed in CDH could not possibly exist. The argument is not fallacious; the philosophy is.