Atonement: Satisfaction Theory

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This week, in our continuing series of blogs on the atonement, we move into the medieval period. In the late 11th century, Anselm of Canterbury, a Doctor of the Church, was one of the most influential philosophers and theologians of the time. He was one of a new breed of scholars that approached topics from a rational stand point and emphasized logic over mysticism. When reading Anselm, modern evangelicals may be dismayed at the relatively small amounts of Scripture he uses to support his ideas. One of his more significant contributions was to the doctrine of the atonement (Sadler). Debate continues over how “new” Anselm’s ideas on atonement were at the time. While some believe he created a whole new system of thought, others claim that he simply refined ideas that had been present in the church from the start (Oden). Either way, Anselm’s influence continues to be felt in the church today. His views on the atonement form the backbone of Catholic theology on the topic and the reformers doctrine of penal substitution leans heavily on Anselm as well.

Anslem’ s atonement doctrine is found in his ground breaking book “Cur Deus Homo” which translates into English as “Why God Became Man”.  He sets out, in “Cur Dues Homo”, to give a reasoned answer for why the incarnation and death of Christ were necessary (Anselm). Surly, he argues, if there had been another means of accomplishing man’s salvation, God would have used it, rather than placing His Son on the cross.

Many of the medieval theologians, including Anselm, rejected the ransom theory developed by Origen and Gregory of Nyssa in favor of views that rely heavily logical consistency (Walters). Anselm did not believe that Satan had any legal rights over man at all. He rejected the idea of man having split allegiance between God and Satan; man owed all to God alone (Walters). In Anselm’s thinking Satan was nothing more than a thief who was himself under the jurisdiction of his creator. Both man and Satan belonged to God and their mutual rebellion does not place man under Satan’s legal control (Anselm Book 2, Ch. 7). Having rejected the ransom solution, Anselm then turns to an explanation of the need for satisfaction.

Satisfaction RequiredAnselm

Anselm believed that God created man holy. This original holiness was necessary, because only a holy creation could find its full joy and happiness in God. For Anselm the whole purpose of God in creating man boiled down to man choosing to love and worship God, the Supreme good, and finding happiness in enjoying God.

Wherefore rational nature was made holy, in order to be happy in enjoying the supreme good, which is God. Therefore man, whose nature is rational, was made holy for this end, that he might be happy in enjoying God (Anselm Book 2, Ch. 1).

Since man was created holy, he was, therefore, not subject to death. By sinning, man subjected himself to death, and doomed himself to misery. After the fall man was no longer holy, and therefore, can no longer fulfill his purpose of choosing and loving God. Anselm argued that unless man was holy he would not love holiness and could not find full joy in God. Having the ability to love holiness and then being powerless to actually be holy himself, would make man most miserable. For Anselm, the salvation of man was necessary so that the purpose of God in creating man could be accomplished. Salvation was all about restoring man to his original ability of finding joy in loving God.  In order to restore this ability in man and insure that His purpose in creating man was accomplished, God needed to remove sin from man. This was a task man could never hope to do for himself.

Therefore is it necessary for him to perfect in human nature what he has begun. But this, as we have already said, cannot be accomplished save by a complete expiation of sin, which no sinner can effect for himself (Anselm Book 2, Ch. 5).

Satisfaction and Sin

To understand Anslem, we must understand the way he defined sin. His conception of sin is somewhat different from the post-reformation conception.  Anselm believed that man owed obedience to the will of God, and that failing to give God what was due to Him was sin. Anselm described this indebtedness to God as a “debt of honor” (Anselm Book 1, Ch. 11) that man owed to God. Anselm does not emphasize the idea of law-breaking in relation to sin.  The idea of sin and law is not absent from Anselm, but it does not get the spotlight in his work like it does in the reformers.  Anselm tends to see sin as a debt that must be paid off by an equal restoration or payment of merit given to God (McGrath).

…every one who sins ought to pay back the honor of which he has robbed God; and this is the satisfaction which every sinner owes to God. . .

Moreover, so long as he does not restore what he has taken away, he remains in fault; and it will not suffice merely to restore what has been taken away, but, considering the contempt offered, he ought to restore more than he took away.

…he who violates another’s honor does not enough by merely rendering honor again, but must, according to the extent of the injury done, make restoration in some way satisfactory to the person whom he has dishonored (Anselm Book 1, Ch. 11).

Notice that Anselm believed the payment man owed to God needs to restore even more honor to God than his sin has robbed from God. This additional payment is needed, because of the greatness of the sin man has committed. The offense is so great that the repayment must be greater still.  Unless the honor of God is fully restored man can never be found faultless before God. The penal element of sin, which the reformers expound, does come up in Anselm too. He argues that God cannot simply cancel the sin of man without payment. He argues in book 1, chapter 12, of “Cur Deus Homo” that sin must be punished.   Making no difference between the guilty and the innocent would be unbecoming of God.  In fact, Anslem goes so far as to say that law regulates justice and that God awards man according to the requirements of law. It would be a mistake to read too much of reformation thought into Anselm, but the ideas of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others draw from are present throughout church history.

According to Anselm, God could not simply dismiss the sins of mankind due to His compassion. He argues that God is bound by His Divine character and dignity to do only what is fitting. Since it would be unjust for God to simply let the sinner go unpunished without repaying what he owes to God, God cannot do so (Anselm Book 1, Ch. 12).

Therefore the honor taken away must be repaid, or punishment must follow; otherwise, either God will not be just to himself, or he will be weak in respect to both parties; and this it is impious even to think of (Anselm Book 1, Ch. 13).

Jesus Christ and Satisfaction

There is no way for man to repay the debt of honor owed to God.  No matter how much good a person may do, how many prayers a person may pray, or how much love a person may have for God these cannot repay the honor owed, because people already owe all these to God.

When you render anything to God which you owe him, irrespective of your past sin, you should not reckon this as the debt which you owe for sin. But you owe God every one of those things which you have mentioned (Anselm Book 1, Ch. 20).

Even if acts of goodness and piety did repay honor to God, the sin of man was so grievous that anything we offer to God will pale in comparison. This salvation, Anselm argues in Book 2, chapter 5, “cannot be effected, except the price paid to God for the sin of man be something greater than all the universe besides God.” Of course, anyone capable of giving such a price to God must be greater than all but God Himself.  However, the payment must be made by man, because it is for man that it must be paid. This of course, brings Anselm to the incarnation. Only one who is both fully God and fully man has both the ability and the right to pay the debt of honor owed by man to God.

If it be necessary, therefore, as it appears, that the heavenly kingdom be made up of men, and this cannot be effected unless the aforesaid satisfaction be made, which none but God can make and none but man ought to make, it is necessary for the God-man to make it (Anselm Book 2, Ch. 6).

So, Christ Jesus is the God-man who came to earth in order to pay the debt of honor that God was owed from man, and which man had no hope of paying. But how exactly did Christ’s life and death pay this debt? The offering made to God needs to be greater than anything in creation, so Christ made an offering of Himself. Since he had committed no sin and had been 100% obedient to the will of God, he was not under the death sentence of the rest of humanity. His death was not required by justice.

Let us see whether, perchance, this may be to give up his life or to lay down his life, or to deliver himself up to death for God’s honor. For God will not demand this of him as a debt; for, as no sin will be found, he ought not to die, as we have already said (Anselm Book 2, Ch. 11).

Anselm argues that since it was God Himself suffering death he was not required to suffer, His sacrifice has inestimable value.  The death of Christ is so meritorious, that it deserves an exceedingly great reward. However, in the case of Christ, all things belonging to the Father also belong to Him. There is no reward that the Father can give to the Son, for the Son already possesses all things. Since this reward cannot be bestowed on Christ, it must be given to another. It is unthinkable, says Anselm, that the reward not be given at all, because that would make His death seem vain.  So, the Son gives His reward to humanity. The great honor He paid to God in His death was applied to the debt of man. It was in this way that Jesus secured the salvation of men and women.

Let us see whether, perchance, this may be to give up his life or to lay down his life, or to deliver himself up to death for God’s honor. For God will not demand this of him as a debt; for, as no sin will be found, he ought not to die, as we have already said.

Upon whom would he more properly bestow the reward accruing from his death, than upon those for whose salvation, as right reason teaches, he became man; and for whose sake, as we have already said, he left an example of suffering death to preserve holiness? For surely in vain will men imitate him, if they be not also partakers of his reward. Or whom could he more justly make heirs of the inheritance, which he does not need, and of the superfluity of his possessions, than his parents and brethren? What more proper than that, when he beholds so many of them weighed down by so heavy a debt, and wasting through poverty, in the depth of their miseries, he should remit the debt incurred by their sins, and give them what their transgressions had forfeited? (Anselm Book 2, Ch. 19)

Evangelical Evaluation

The description of Anselm’s doctrine of the atonement presented above is intended to be as unbiased as possible.  However, it is important that we take a moment to look at Anselm’s ideas from an evangelical perspective. Much can be said favorably for Anselm’s view of the atonement. He is the first theologian to give a fully worked out doctrine of atonement that was grounded in the nature of God (Berkhof).

Anselm’s insistence that God is totally and utterly obliged to act according to the principles of justice throughout the redemption of humanity marks a decisive break with the dubious morality of the Christus victor view (McGrath Part 3, The Cross and Forgiveness).

However, Anselm stresses the “honor” of God rather than the holiness of God that cannot tolerate sin. For Anslem, the death on the cross was not paid as a “penalty” for sin. This is a difference easy to miss when reading Anselm, but it is not minor. Anselm presents the death of Christ as a tribute to God that brings great honor, not has a payment for sin (Berkhof). This is confusing, because Anselm does talk often about “paying” what is owed to God, but for Anslem the thing owed to God is not punishment for sin, but honor. In Anselm’s thought either sin must be punished or the honor sin took from God must be paid. The reformers taught that Christ was not repaying the honor of God, but that He was taking the punishment for sin upon Himself.  Sometimes Anselm’s view is called the “commercial” view because of the way Anselm viewed the debt of man similarly to a financial debt. Man owed God honor and Christ paid it. This is analogous to owing money to the bank, and someone else paying it off. By dying on the cross Jesus received a great reward that he credited to mankind.

Anselm also ignores the very important question of how the merit of Christ is appropriated. Anselm wasn’t a Universalist; he believed that some would have the satisfaction required paid by Christ and some would not. Yet, he never explains how a person receives the merit of Christ.

In Anselm’s representation there is merely an external transfer of the merits of Christ to man. It contains no indication of the way in which the work of Christ for man is communicated to man (Berkhof The Nature of the Atonement).

Later writers, most especially, Thomas Aquinas, answered this question for Anselm.  I have begun using the word “merit” because the word has become very important in Catholic doctrine. According to Aquinas, and modern Catholics, the merit earned by Christ and by which our debt to God is paid is accessed through the church and the sacraments it administers. The belief in indulgences and purgatory both grew out a belief in the “merit” needed to repay God for sin. The doctrine of a “Treasury of Merit” is still a hallmark of Catholic doctrine today. Although I believe Anselm would not have approved, later theologians taught that saints could also accumulate “extra” merit that was added to the treasury and that the church could dispense these merits.  During the more corrupt periods of church history the church handed out these merits in exchange for service. During the crusades various popes offered forgiveness to those willing to go and fight for the church.  Purgatory became the place people who still owe for their sins go until they have paid for their sins. Living Christians can accumulate merit on behalf of those in purgatory and shorten the time they must stay there.

Unfortunately, Anselm has nothing to say about the mystical union between Christ and the believer. The reformers taught that by faith believers come into union with Christ and it is by this union that believers receive salvation. Perhaps the mystical nature of this relationship was not attractive to the rationalist mindset of Anselm, but modern evangelicals believe that faith is the means by which we appropriate salvation.

It should be noted that unlike some medieval theologians, Anselm maintained a very objective view of atonement.  He believed that the cross also had a subjective element, but our salvation is wholly objective in nature. Christ really did something on the cross; He offered something substantive and brings real change in man. Thankfully, the cross as a transforming act in the hearts of people that brings real change (not simply a change of perception or thinking) won out and became the dominant view of the church throughout its history.

Works Cited

Anselm. Cur Deus Homo. Wyatt North Publsihing , 2012. iBooks E-Book.

Berkhof, Louis. The History of Christian Doctrine. London: The Banner of Truth, 1996.

McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology: An Introduction. John Wiley and Sons, 2012. Kindle Edition E-Book.

Oden, Thomas. Classic Christanity. Harper One, 2009. Kindle Edition.

Sadler, Greg. “St. Anslem of Canterbury.” 20 October 2006. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web Article. 23 September 2013. <>.

Walters, GwenfairM. “The Atonement in Medival Theology.” The Glory of the Atonement. Ed. Frank A. James III Charles E. Hill. Downers Grove: Intervaristy PRess, 2004. Kindle Edition E-Book.