Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Anselm of Canterbury: Satisfaction theory


Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Anselm was the abbot of a Benedictine monastery called the Abbey of Bec. He was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury under William II of England but had conflict with the king over differences of opinion on the authority of the church in relation to the state. Anselm spent much of his life in exile where he did most of his writing. Anselm is considered by some to be the father of Scholasticism. He wrote a very influential book on the incarnation and the atonement called “Cur Deus Homo?” or “Why did God become man?” It was in this book that he articulated his famous Satisfaction view of the Atonement.

Anselm, drawing from his own historical context, spoke of God as being like a feudal Lord. By sinning we have not only disobeyed God, but we also failed to ascribe him the honor due his name. A Lord must demand not only repayment of what was taken from him but his offended honor must also be satisfied.

“A person who does not render God this honor due Him, takes from God what is His and dishonors God, and this is to commit sin. Now, as long as he does not repay what he has plundered, he remains at fault. Neither is it enough merely to return what was taken away, but on account of the insult committed, he must give back more than he took away. For example, one who harms the health of another does not do enough if he restores his health, unless he makes some compensation for the injury of pain he has inflicted. Similarly, for one who violates the honor of some person, it does not suffice to render honor, if he does not make restitution of something pleasing to the person dishonored, in proportion to the injury of dishonor that has been inflicted…Thus, therefore, everyone who sins must pay to God the honor he has taken away, and this is satisfaction, which every sinner must make to God.”


God is just and so must always defend justice. Humanity has committed a great injustice by failing to ascribe to God the honor he deserves. God cannot simply forgive humanity without also satisfying the requirements of justice.

“Likewise, if there is nothing greater or better than God, there is nothing more just than for the supreme justice which is the same as God Himself, to preserve His honor in the order of the universe…God preserves nothing with greater justice than the honor of His dignity…Then it is necessary either that the honor taken away be restored, or that punishment follow. Otherwise, either God will not be just to Himself or He will be unable to attain either. And it would be monstrous even to entertain that thought.”

According to Anselm, no human being is able to offer to God the satisfaction he deserves. Because humanity was not able, God became human and offered satisfaction in our place.

“Man the sinner owes to God, on account of sin, what he cannot repay, and unless he repays it he cannot be saved…there is no-one…who can make this satisfaction except God himself…But no-one ought to make it except man; otherwise man does not make it.”



Jesus through his righteous life and perfect sacrifice not only pays our debt but offers God satisfaction through the greatness of what was offered. Anselm celebrates this as both merciful and just. Because we have received such mercy we should in turn be merciful.

“His death outweighs the number and greatness of all sin…God's mercy… is so great and so harmonious with His justice that it cannot be conceived to be greater or more just. Indeed, what can be thought to be more merciful than for God the Father to say to a sinner, condemned to eternal torments and having no way to redeem himself: "Receive my only begotten son and render him in place of yourself," and for the Son to say "Take me and redeem yourself"? For the Father and the Son do make these respective statements, as it were, when they call and draw us to the Christian faith. And what is more just than that He to whom is given a reward greater than every debt should forgive every debt if it is presented to Him with due affection?"


Anselm stresses the severity of sin and God’s righteous wrath at our disobedience. For Anselm, if we are to be reconciled to God, restitution needs to be made for the way in which we dishonored him. God finds away to love us while still preserving his honor.



1. What do you think of the idea that sin is failure to ascribe God the honor due his name?
2. Do you agree with Anselm’s contention that it would be a violation of justice for God to simply forgive sin?
3. How do you feel about the idea that Jesus had to suffer on the cross to satisfy God’s offended honor? Is it just for a righteous person to suffer in the place of the wicked?
4. Some people have argued that this theory of atonement changes the mind of God in relation to us, but leaves us unchanged. Do you think Anselm’s theory is incomplete?