In my last post I suggested that Anselm’s argument in Cur Deus Homo does not depend on the notion that Christ suffered the full weight of the punishments that would otherwise be visited upon sinners, but rather on the notion that Christ voluntarily submitted to the same penalty that all human beings suffer involuntarily as a result of sin, namely death. On this reading ‘satisfaction’ does not refer to appeasing the infinite wrath of an angry God but to the payment of a debt with a gift of infinite value: the very life of God in Jesus.

Despite Anselm’s reputation as the ‘father of scholasticism’ there is an apophatic quality in his notion of a gift so valuable that it cannot be evaluated in any other way than by the language of negation, a gift that can only be described as not finite. This negation resists attempts to reduce his theory to sheer economics.1 One could even say that Anselm originated the idea of a gift that keeps on giving, though the phrase itself was evidently trademarked much later (according to Google Answers).

With certain modifications, however, Anselm’s treatise could underwrite the economy of salvation as it was managed by various agents of the Catholic Church on the eve of the Reformation. According to Anselm, Christ’s willing sacrifice covered all past sins and restored faithful Christians to a state in which they could atone for sins committed after this pardon (2.26). Presumably such atonement would involve accessing the infinite treasury of merit stored up for the faithful in Christ, but the precise mechanism for gaining such access could range from penance to almsgiving to arguably more ignoble practices. As Gary Anderson writes, works of mercy toward the poor appear to be meritorious even for Luther, at least in his early years. “What offends him is the act of granting indulgences for the restoration of St. Peter’s in Rome” (Sin: A History, p.163).

Ultimately I think it is impossible to extricate Anselm completely from the troubling economics of retributive justice, but the idea of retributive justice as it is deployed by Anselm himself should not be confused with the idea of redirected punishment that informs certain subsequent theories of the Atonement. In fact I suspect that such theories emerged in part because the practical development of Anselm’s notion of the gift issued forth in a theology of merit deemed unacceptable by Protestant divines, and in part because Anselm’s own explanation for the brutal manner of Christ’s death lapses into the very aesthetic categories that he eschews at the beginning of his treatise.

  1. Anselm does imply at two points that sin against an infinite God is itself infinite. That he is speaking hyperbolically is suggested by the qualification that satisfaction for human sin requires a payment greater than all the universe besides God (2.6). The debt for sin thus far exceeds what human beings are capable of paying but falls short of infinity. It is this infinite distance between what is owed and what Christ actually pays in recompense that appears to drive Anselm’s theology of the gift.