Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109): Is it proper for God to put away sins by compassion alone, without any payment of debt?

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Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109) systematically set forth his argument for the necessity of Christ’s Incarnation and atoning death in his famous book Cur Deus Homo? A common misconception people have about God’s forgiveness is that He forgives purely out of love and compassion, without any regard to the demands of justice. But God’s justice and mercy are not antithetical; indeed we may receive God’s mercy precisely because of God’s justice against our sins having been satisfied on our behalf in the atonement of Christ. He is both just and the justifier of him who believes in Jesus (Rom. 3:36). Below, in dialogue with Boso (abbot of Bec), Anselm addresses this common misconception. The excerpt is from Cur Deus Homo, Book I, Chapter XII:

CHAPTER XII.

Whether it were proper for God to put away sins by compassion alone, without any payment of debt.

Anselm. Let us return and consider whether it were proper for God to put away sins by compassion alone, without any payment of the honor taken from him.

Boso. I do not see why it is not proper.

Anselm. To remit sin in this manner is nothing else than not to punish; and since it is not right to cancel sin without compensation or punishment; if it be not punished, then is it passed by undischarged.

Boso. What you say is reasonable.

Anselm. It is not fitting for God to pass over anything in his kingdom undischarged.

Boso. If I wish to oppose this, I fear to sin.

Anselm. It is, therefore, not proper for God thus to pass over sin unpunished.

Boso. Thus it follows.

Anselm. There is also another thing which follows if sin be passed by unpunished, viz., that with God there will be no difference between the guilty and the not guilty; and this is unbecoming to God.

Boso. I cannot deny it.

Anselm. Observe this also. Every one knows that justice to man is regulated by law, so that, according to the requirements of law, the measure of award is bestowed by God.

Boso. This is our belief.

Anselm. But if sin is neither paid for nor punished, it is subject to no law.

Boso. I cannot conceive it to be otherwise.

Anselm. Injustice, therefore, if it is cancelled by compassion alone, is more free than justice, which seems very inconsistent. And to these is also added a further incongruity, viz., that it makes injustice like God. For as God is subject to no law, so neither is injustice.

Boso. I cannot withstand your reasoning. But when God commands us in every case to forgive those who trespass against us, it seems inconsistent to enjoin a thing upon us which it is not proper for him to do himself.

Anselm. There is no inconsistency in God’s commanding us not to take upon ourselves what belongs to Him alone. For to execute vengeance belongs to none but Him who is Lord of all; for when the powers of the world rightly accomplish this end, God himself does it who appointed them for the purpose.

Boso. You have obviated the difficulty which I thought to exist; but there is another to which I would like to have your answer. For since God is so free as to be subject to no law, and to the judgment of no one, and is so merciful as that nothing more merciful can be conceived; and nothing is right or fit save as he wills; it seems a strange thing for us to say that be is wholly unwilling or unable to put away an injury done to himself, when we are wont to apply to him for indulgence with regard to those offences which we commit against others.

Anselm. What you say of God’s liberty and choice and compassion is true; but we ought so to interpret these things as that they may not seem to interfere with His dignity. For there is no liberty except as regards what is best or fitting; nor should that be called mercy which does anything improper for the Divine character. Moreover, when it is said that what God wishes is just, and that what He does not wish is unjust, we must not understand that if God wished anything improper it would be just, simply because he wished it. For if God wishes to lie, we must not conclude that it is right to lie, but rather that he is not God. For no will can ever wish to lie, unless truth in it is impaired, nay, unless the will itself be impaired by forsaking truth. When, then, it is said: “If God wishes to lie,” the meaning is simply this: “If the nature of God is such as that he wishes to lie;” and, therefore, it does not follow that falsehood is right, except it be understood in the same manner as when we speak of two impossible things: “If this be true, then that follows; because neither this nor that is true;” as if a man should say: “Supposing water to be dry, and fire to be moist;” for neither is the case. Therefore, with regard to these things, to speak the whole truth: If God desires a thing, it is right that he should desire that which involves no unfitness. For if God chooses that it should rain, it is right that it should rain; and if he desires that any man should die, then is it right that he should die. Wherefore, if it be not fitting for God to do anything unjustly, or out of course, it does not belong to his liberty or compassion or will to let the sinner go unpunished who makes no return to God of what the sinner has defrauded him.

Boso. You remove from me every possible objection which I had thought of bringing against you.

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The message of Christmas as summarized by the Gallic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism

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It is that time of the year when Christians around the world are commemorating the Incarnation of our Lord. For the past few years at Christmas time, I’ve always been drawn back to that great medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury‘s famous question: cur Deus homo? (why did God become a man?). French Reformed Protestants from the 16th century offered a succinct answer:

1559 GALLIC CONFESSION, ARTICLE XVI
We believe that God, in sending his Son, intended to show his love and inestimable goodness towards us, giving him up to die to accomplish all righteousness, and raising him from the dead to secure for us the heavenly life.

Together with this, the Heidelberg Catechism, in what is essentially a summary of the Christmas message (i.e. the reason for Christ’s Incarnation), states:

Question 12. Since then, by the righteous judgment of God, we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, is there no way by which we may escape that punishment, and be again received into favour?

Answer: God will have his justice satisfied: and therefore we must make this full satisfaction, either by ourselves, or by another.

Question 13. Can we ourselves then make this satisfaction?

Answer: By no means; but on the contrary we daily increase our debt.

Question 14. Can there be found anywhere, one, who is a mere creature, able to satisfy for us?

Answer: None; for, first, God will not punish any other creature for the sin which man has committed; and further, no mere creature can sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin, so as to deliver others from it.

Question 15. What sort of a mediator and deliverer then must we seek for?

Answer: For one who is very man, and perfectly righteous; and yet more powerful than all creatures; that is, one who is also very God.

Question 16. Why must he be very man, and also perfectly righteous?

Answer: Because the justice of God requires that the same human nature which has sinned, should likewise make satisfaction for sin; and one, who is himself a sinner, cannot satisfy for others.

Question 17. Why must he in one person be also very God?

Answer: That he might, by the power of his Godhead sustain in his human nature, the burden of God’s wrath; and might obtain for, and restore to us, righteousness and life.

Question 18. Who then is that Mediator, who is in one person both very God, and a real righteous man?

Answer: Our Lord Jesus Christ: “who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.”

Question 19. Whence knowest thou this?

Answer: From the holy gospel, which God himself first revealed in Paradise; and afterwards published by the patriarchs and prophets, and represented by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law; and lastly, has fulfilled it by his only begotten Son.

John Calvin (1509-1564) on penal substitutionary atonement

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The uniqueness of the Person of Christ pays dividends in the work of Christ: Christ’s divine nature enables him to pay the penalty for sin; his human nature enables him to do so on humanity’s behalf. This is in keeping with Anselm‘s teaching on the atoning work of Christ in his well-known work Cur Deus Homo?, but it conceives the satisfaction of Christ less as payment of a debt and more as a payment of a penalty, to satisfy God’s justice and the demands of the law and to redeem humanity from the power of sin and death into which their sin had enslaved them. This is shown below in a short excerpt from John Calvin (1509-1564):

“Moreover, it was especially necessary for this cause also that he who was to be our Redeemer should be truly God and man. It was his to swallow up death: who but Life could do so? It was his to conquer sin: who could do so save Righteousness itself? It was his to put to flight the powers of the air and the world: who could do so but the mighty power superior to both? But who possesses life and righteousness, and the dominion and government of heaven, but God alone? Therefore, God, in his infinite mercy, having determined to redeem us, became himself our Redeemer in the person of his only begotten Son…

Another principal part of our reconciliation with God was, that man, who had lost himself by his disobedience, should, by way of remedy, oppose to it obedience, satisfy the justice of God, and pay the penalty of sin. Therefore, our Lord came forth very man, adopted the person of Adam, and assumed his name, that he might in his stead obey the Father; that he might present our flesh as the price of satisfaction to the just judgment of God, and in the same flesh pay the penalty which we had incurred. Finally, since as God only he could not suffer, and as man only could not overcome death, he united the human nature with the divine, that he might subject the weakness of the one to death as an expiation of sin, and by the power of the other, maintaining a struggle with death, might gain us the victory. Those, therefore, who rob Christ of divinity or humanity either detract from his majesty and glory, or obscure his goodness. On the other hand, they are no less injurious to men, undermining and subverting their faith, which, unless it rest on this foundation, cannot stand.”

– John Calvin (1509-1564), Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.xii.2-3

Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033–1109): “That your joy may be complete”

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This prayer from Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033–1109) can be found in his famous Proslogion, which he wrote in 1077-1078.

“I pray, O God, that I may know You and love You, so that I may rejoice in You. And if I cannot do so fully in this life may I progress gradually until it comes to fullness. Let the knowledge of You grow in me here, and there [in heaven] be made complete; let Your love grow in me here and there be made complete, so that here my joy may be great in hope, and there be complete in reality. Lord, by Your Son You command, or rather, counsel us to ask and you promise that we shall receive so that our ‘joy may be complete’ [John 16:24]. I ask, Lord, as You counsel through our admirable counselor. May I receive what You promise through Your truth so that my ‘joy may be complete’.  God of truth, I ask that I may receive so that my ‘joy may be complete’. Until then let my mind meditate on it, let my tongue speak of it, let my heart love it, let my mouth preach it. Let my soul hunger for it, let my flesh thirst for it, my whole being desire it, until I enter into the ‘joy of the Lord’ [Matt. 25:21], who is God, Three in One, ‘blessed forever. Amen’ [Rom 9:5].”

Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033–1109) and his famous prayer

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Many of us may have heard the famous line of Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033–1109), “I believe so that I may understand” (Credo ut intelligam).  That famous line is part of a longer (and very profound) prayer we may not have heard.  Here it is (at least part of it).  Read it slowly and deeply.

“I acknowledge, Lord, and I give thanks that You have created Your image in me, so that I may remember You, think of You, love You.  But this image is so effaced and worn away by vice, so darkened by the smoke of sin, that it cannot do what it was made to do unless You renew and reform it.  I do not try, Lord, to attain Your lofty heights, because my understanding is in no way equal to it.  But I do desire to understand Your truth a little, that truth my heart believes and loves.  For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand.  For I believe this also, that ‘unless I believe, I shall not understand’ [Is. 7:9].”

Amen. This prayer puts us in our rightful place before God: bowing at his feet, in need of everything.

The quote is found in Proslogion, which can be found in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, p. 87.