Anselm v. Calvin

Anselm of Canterbury was the first to attempt ...
Anselm of Canterbury was the first to attempt an ontological argument for God’s existence. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Church has never taken an official stance on what exactly it was that Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection accomplished in order to secure salvation for humanity. One of the most innovative theories of atonement is St. Anselm of Canterbury’s Satisfaction Theory. Unfortunately, most seminarians that encounter Anselm’s work do so through the lens of John Calvin’s Penal Substitutionary Atonement. Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) can be historically placed underneath the umbrella of satisfaction atonement, though it often comes with the temptation to identify PSA as the definitive satisfaction theory of atonement. As a student of Anselm’s teachings, I believe there are more powerful and deeply orthodox ways of understanding atonement in a satisfaction paradigm that do not involve Calvin’s theory. What follows is an attempt to distinguish Calvin and Anselm’s atonement theology from one another, concluding with a short explanation of why, in my opinion, Anselm’s theory is a better option.

Calvin’s Penal Substitutionary Atonement

To begin understanding Calvin’s soteriology, we must start with the fallen state of humanity. Humans are totally depraved, deformed by the curse of sin, and beyond any recognizable form of holiness in the eyes of God. God, being utterly Just and Holy cannot simply overlook sin, nor be in its presence. Therefore, sin had to be punished by necessity, which meant that unless God’s wrath was satisfied in some alternative way, every human being would have to be punished in the eternal torments of hell. Thus, that which needed to be satisfied in Calvin’s theory was the wrath of God toward sin, and Jesus was the substitute who took God’s wrath in our place.

Out of God’s love, God the Father sent God the Son to became a son of man and suffer all of the afflictions brought upon humanity by the curse of sin. Jesus, God’s only begotten son, suffered in body and soul all of which humanity must suffer; himself being innocent, he took the full curse of sin upon himself and subjected himself to the full wrath of God. Important to note is that Jesus didn’t just have to die, but had to die a death reserved for the worst sinners and criminals (crucifixion), after being publicly condemned by Pontius Pilate (in accordance with the Apostle’s Creed), and before descending into hell; all of this happened in order to undergo the full penalty of human sin. The resurrection is God’s vindication of Jesus, his victory over death and hell, and the sign of hope for the elect who will become purged from sin and redeemed by God’s irresistible grace.

Anselm’s satisfaction theory is often retroactively interpreted with Calvin’s theory in mind because many Christians are indoctrinated with the Calvinist understanding of atonement in their local Church before ever encountering the proto-scholastic thought of Anselm in college or seminary. This causes many distinguished aspects of Anselm’s theory to go unnoticed. For this reason, I will now present a brief synopsis of Anselm’s theory for contrast.

Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory of Atonement

To assess Anselm’s theory of atonement, we will begin again with the human condition. According to Anselm, humans were created by God and fell under the seduction of sin. Sin introduced dishonor for God in the place of honor, injustice in the place of justice, and disorder in the place of order. All of which thwarted God’s intended goal of a harmonious, heavenly city in which creation and God delighted in one another. As those who acted out of their free will, choosing to sin, humanity was obligated to make recompose for its sin, restoring God’s honor, and along with it, his justice and order. Yet humanity was unable to do such a thing because the affects of sin produced too heavy a weight for humanity to bear. God was capable of such restoration, able to give a recompense for humanity’s sins, but under no obligation to do so (meaning if he does enact such a restoration it’s out of his free will to do so and not an external indictment).

At this point God had two options. Either God could punish humanity for its sin, trapped as it were in a prison of its own making, or God could restore creation from its sin God’s self. Choosing the latter, God the Son chose to take on human nature in order to restore humanity to its former perfection.

God the Son became a human being, Jesus, and, being fully God and fully human, was capable of making recompense on behalf of those obligated to do so, satisfactorily restoring God’s honor among creation. Being a human, Jesus was already obligated to be righteous, but, being without sin, he wasn’t under the obligation to die. Thus, the giving of his life for God’s glory was the one thing that wasn’t otherwise required of him—something he could do to honor God like the martyrs who died for God’s glory (note: unlike Jesus, the martyrs were going to die anyway). Being fully God, Jesus is the greatest possible being, making his death the greatest possible injustice; thus the greatest possible good (God) underwent the greatest possible evil (crucifixion) for the sake of redeeming an undeserving humanity. And, by his voluntary death, Jesus secured the greatest possible reward. Since no reward could benefit Jesus, as he was already perfect, he was free to give his reward over to anyone of his choosing. God the Son therefore gave his reward over to the rest of humanity, enabling humanity to be liberated from sin’s bondage.

With these two distinct understandings of atonement parceled out above, let me explain what is problematic about Calvin’s theory and preferable in Anselm.

Why is Anselm’s Theory Better?

To depict the ways in which PSA is problematic one could refer to its implication of parental abuse, its glorification of retributive justice, etc. etc. Yet, I can sum up my concerns in one question. That is, in PSA, who is punishing whom? After all, it would appear that one person of the Trinity is punishing another, bound by an external logic of punishment that cannot be forgone in any other way. And, as Calvin’s theological determinism would suggest, this rather problematic depiction of Triune discord is what the Godhead had preferred all along out of all other possible options.

On the other hand, in Anselm’s theory, it is clear that God the Son wasn’t punished by God the Father, but that God the Father and God the Son shared the same will as coequal members of the Trinity. Moreover, God the Son voluntarily laid down his life to restore his own honor, along with the honor of the Father and the Spirit, as he was in fact fully God. Thus, in Anselm’s system, we can definitively say the Father didn’t punish the Son because Anselm is very careful in demonstrating that a distinction between the will of God the Father and God the Son is a failure to understand the Trinitarian backdrop of the incarnation. Anselm makes it clear that the person of the Son taking on human nature is part of the shared Trinitarian mission to avoid any form of punishment. By God choosing to find a way to make recompense, God is saying “no” to redemptive punishment and retributive justice. This isn’t quite so clear in Calvin’s theory. Since Calvin’s Godhead demands punishment, which means one person of the Trinity must punish another, it must be accounted for how PSA can maintain the unified will of the Godhead in each of its persons.

Anselm’s presentation is deeply orthodox in its understanding of the Trinity. In my opinion, it’s also more Biblical in its rejection of retributive justice, and its orientation toward sacrificial love over divine wrath. It’s my hope that from my brief synopsis above that I have articulated at least some of the many contrasts between Calvin and Anselm’s atonement theories. More importantly, I hope that everyone would take the time to read Anselm’s work with fresh eyes so as to discover many powerful qualities that I wasn’t able to dive into here.


Further Reading:

St. Anselm of Canterbury’s Cur Deus Homo (Eng. Why God Became Man)

Book II of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion

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5 Replies to “Anselm v. Calvin”

  1. The key for me is that the satisfaction of honor responds to our need, not God’s. Isaiah 6 captures the dishonor of being in God’s presence when you’re “a man of unclean lips from a people of unclean lips.” It’s unbearable. In Isaiah’s case, the seraph touches his lips with a burning coal. In our case, Jesus replaces the burning coal. What’s problematic to me is when the satisfaction of honor becomes an abstraction between God and God.

    1. Hi Morgan,

      Yes I share your concerns, and thanks for voicing them. But I might also have an answer to some portion of them.

      So, for Anselm, God’s honor–as it exists within God’s self–cannot be added to or substracted from. In other words, no amount of human or angelic sin could make God less good or honorable than God is, always has been, and forever will be. What needs to be restored, then, is God’s honor among the created order. What this means is that when creatures sin, they create a rift between creation and God–or the Good and the lesser forms that the Good established–making an imbalance in the creation. So God’s restoration of God’s honor isn’t to say that God is catty and needs a tribute paid to him. Instead, Jesus had to offer something unrequired of himself (the only thing fitting this criteria being his life) in order to satisfy God’s honor as it extends among creation. What this means then is that God is re established as the Supreme Good within the created order, sin has been defeated and dealt with according (without the offering of cheap grace), and the Godhead is once again able to be honored as Ultimate. This is what God did, not merely as an abstraction, but abstractly, in order to very tangibly remove the bonds of sin that shackled creatures down. So you’re right that it is God interacting with God’s self, but it is God as the God-man acting corporately on behalf of humanity to shift the cosmic balance back to proper awe and worship of the Godhead, unhindered by the bonds of sin. So humanity, imitating their head, act as a corporate body that lives into the mighty works of Jesus.

      Does that make any sense or help any?

  2. “Either God could punish humanity for its sin, trapped as it were in a prison of its own making, or God could find some way around having to punish humanity by making recompense for sin God’s self.”

    Make recompense… to whom? Whom did God have to pay off? Himself?

    While Anselm’s theory is free of Calvinism’s problem of “God punishing God”, it still seems to depend on the idea that there is a law to which God Himself must submit in order to be “just”. How is this not obviously problematic for anyone committed to orthodoxy (which the author appears to claim to be)? Am I missing something here?

    1. The charge that God is bound by something that’s beyond God, rendering God less than this “something else” is an accusation that often gets made by people who have either never read Anselm or have read him with their pre-conceived ideas of his theory. He makes clear in his other works (the Monologian and the Proslogion) that God is the supreme good and, more than anything else, supremely perfect. There’s nothing outside of God that can add to God or take away from God. But God’s honor and justice “among creation” is what has been restored with the recompense; God’s essence of Justice and Honor isn’t changed at all in the process. God is perfect but creation has dishonored God’s honor among the created order and therefore scrambled creation out of step with God’s will for creation; and sin is serious and sin has to be punished. God cannot simply overlook sin and pronounce forgiveness without dealing with the injustice and dishonoring of God that sin’s bondage brings upon humanity. Therefore, yes, God must punish sin because of God’s own internal nature and integrity to God’s self; God must also remain consistent in God’s steadfast grace and love. Therefore God can either punish every creature for its sin or do something of such a magnitude that it outweighs the human act of disobedience that is original sin; God chose to maintain God’s integrity as the most Just and the most Loving and not punish anyone/thing by carrying out an action of the magnitude that can defeat sin and death. Thus, the Son (as a human) honors himself along with the Father and the Spirit, by offering to God (the Holy Trinity) that which can outweigh sin–that is, the voluntary death of the supremely valuable God man, and the resurrection by which all are redeemed from the very real bondage of sin. His Trinitarian emphasis and high Christology is heavily orthodox. He is also a doctor of the Church; to suggest Anselm is not orthodox is silly; Calvin, on the other hand, is a bit more grey.

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