Reviewing “Why God Became Man” by Anselm of Canterbury

Anselm was a Benedictine monk, a philosopher, and a theologian. He served as the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109 AD. His work Cur Deus Homo, or Why God Became Man, covered Christian teachings of central importance: the incarnation, the sin of men, Christology, redemption by Christ, the doctrine of election etc. It answered the question why God had to become man for the salvation of the elects. The teaching was discussed through the dialogues between Anselm and Boso (one of Anselm’s students). There are two books for this work. While the first answered, with clear logic, how men sin, and why men’s sins are so great that they need Christ’s salvation, the second answered why it is Christ, with a perfect divine nature and a perfect human nature, who carried out the act of redemption of the human race.

In Book 1, Anselm and Boso started their conversations by defining which questions unbelievers have in general, including the irrationality of God descending into a woman’s womb, bearing the life of a man who suffered on earth, and being crucified on the cross. Then Anselm started explaining the necessity of all these for the redemption of the human race by a divine person. He first argued that it is the will of God that the death of a just man, Christ, happened. It is not that God is not omnipotent, as if Christ had to die out of obligation. He died voluntarily although His obedience did not demand it. A few verses were cited. (Phil. 2:8, Phil. 2:9, John 6:38, Rom. 8:32, and Matt. 26:39) Anselm wrote this in response to the Muslims (who believe God can forgive as He wishes), and the Jews (why the incarnation). This work is also believed to be a projection of hierarchical submission in the feudal society in the Middle Ages onto theology.

Then they spent an extended discussion regarding man’s sins and the recompense for them. Anselm defined that “to sin is nothing other than not to give God what is owed to him.” (page 283) And the debt which the human race ought to pay back to God is “all the will of a rational creature ought to be subject to the will of God.” (page 283) Just as men who sinned took away what God deserves, they are “under an obligation to repay to God an honor which he has violently taken from him,” (page 283) which is satisfactory to God. Then can God simply cancel the debt, or forgive the sins, out of mercy alone? Anselm explained that it does not fit God to do that. Canceling sins without any punishments would make sinners and non-sinners before God. This would make sinfulness in a position of greater freedom than righteousness. However, it does not fit God who is righteous and just. (pages 284-285) Hence, there ought to be a punishment for sinners, even though God is willing to forgive the sinners.

Anselm and Boso then turned their discussion about the fallen angels. Some angels fell because of their sins. Fallen angels were unable to reconcile with God because God did not give them perseverance. They came to the conclusions that the places of these bad angels have to be filled up from the human race. They even concluded that the human elect will not be less than the number of fallen angels. Although it is not clear these teachings about angels have scriptural basis, Anselm spent a considerable amount of effort to explain the necessity of electing human elects into the places of bad angels, thus requiring redeeming some people. And as good angels do not sin, the elects who replace the bad angels should be sinless as well. Therefore, the elected men have to be saved for the recompense for sin. (pages 289-301) However, in my opinion, without the angelology, the whole framework of Anselm’s teaching does not fall apart because God is willing to save men to restore the original purpose of creation, which will be covered in Book 2.

To fill the places of fallen angels, or to simply put humans back to the original places, Anselm argued that they have to be sinless. Anselm told an analogy that a rich man holds a precious pearl, which is knocked out of his hand into the mud by some others. Although the man can pick it up, he wants the pearl to be perfectly clean, without dirts. (page 301) It is the case that men needs to be saved before God can restore them into the place. This is another explanation why God cannot simply forgive men out of mercy alone, because it does not fit His characters.

Knowing that the recompense is necessary, it is logical to figure out how much it takes for men to repay God for what they have owed. It is agreed that “the recompense should be proportional to the size of the sin.” (page 303) Moreover, unfortunately, in addition to our own being and all that we are capable of, there are things needed to recompense that we could not pay for because our sins are heavy: we sin as our actions contradict the will of God so seriously that the whole universe needs to perish. The sin started in the Garden, when man was created without sins. He was placed there as God’s deputy (Gen. 1:28-30) and was able to overcome the devil. However, he chose to commit sin, despite his greater strength and his immortality. As a result, he is weak and mortal. He is responsible for the sin committed, and “needs to conquer the devil through the difficulty of sin.” (page 308) From many perspectives, it is concluded that the human race is unable to restore to the state of pure righteousness.

Then, it is tempting to say, “a merciful God remits the debt of anyone who begs forgiveness on the ground that he is incapable of making repayment,” (page 311) but this kind of mercy contradicts God’s justice, as Anselm argued. However, given that God is willing to forgive men, it follows as a necessary consequence that mankind is saved by Christ, which is the main theme of Book 2.

In Book 2, Anselm and Boso continued the conversation, but turned their focus on biblical theology. Anselm recalled the creation of man at the beginning that “the nature of rational beings was created by God righteous in order that, through rejoicing in him, it might be blessedly happy… It is rational… in order that it may distinguish between right and wrong, and between the greater good and the lesser good.” (page 315) And man was so perfect that “if he had not sinned, he would never die… If man is to be restored in perfection, he ought to be reconstituted as the sort of being he would have been if he had not sinned.” (page 316) For this, God has two options: completing what God has begun, and destroying the current sinful human race to raise a new one. However, it has to be the former because among His creation, there is nothing more precious than man. Therefore, a redemption of the human race is needed.

The next question becomes how this redemption is brought about, and why it has to be acted by someone who is God and man. Anselm argued that it has to be God because to pay back the property of God, it has to be God himself; and it has to be man, because it is man who ought to repay the debt that he owed. (page 320) This person has to be perfect God and perfect Man, with two distinct natures in one Person, unlike what the Nestorians or the Monophysites claimed. This God-man came from God who assumed a human nature from the race of Adam and from a virgin woman. This man belongs to the race of Adam, instead of a newly created sinless man, so that it is appropriate for this man to pay recompense for the race of Adam. And why it is from a virgin woman? Anselm raised two points: first, to show God’s competence, as He had not made a man from a woman without a man (but He did from a man and a woman together as in usual practice, from neither a man nor a woman as in Adam’s creation, and from a man without a woman as in Eve’s creation); and second, the cause of human’s first sin originated from a woman, so that it is appropriate that “the medicine of sin and the cause of salvation should be born of a woman.” (page 323)

Another question is why it has to be the Second Person of the Trinity to incarnate. Anselm pointed out that it is more appropriate for the Son to make supplication to the Father than other Persons. And the Son, as the Person of the Word, is the Person that the men had sinned most specifically against.

Then Anselm and Boso returned back to the question whether Christ died voluntarily. The discussion brought about the important idea that Christ, as a perfect man, is immortal, but capable of committing sin just like Adam. However, He maintained righteousness while “being capable of abandoning it.” (page 327) Anselm eloquently stated “all capability is consequent upon will.” (page 326) Christ was capable of not dying (because of His righteousness), but He chose to die. His volunteer to do this is undoubtable. He died out of His own free will. And it is of His own power that He died, and rose again, as he is omnipotent, an attribute of His divine nature.

Christ assumed a human nature from the race of Adam and a virgin, He shared our discomforts and other weaknesses. However, out of the weaknesses we have, He did not take ignorance because ignorance is “never useful, always detrimental.” (page 333) Being the God-man, even though He took up the human nature, He is still fully divine: He still possesses the identity of God.

The human race had to die because of our sins, as Anselm and Boso had already argued earlier. And now they argued how Christ’s death is sufficient to outweigh the magnitude of all sins of the human race, committed both in the past and the future. As the sins of the human race have been directed against the Son, it is the Son, who need to be paid in order to pay for the debt due to our sins. It is the death of the Word through whom the Universe was created that the created Universe can be restored. If it were not this man dying, the whole Universe would be cursed to perish. And it is worth noting that this same death destroyed the sins of those who put Christ to death, because, as Apostle Paul wrote, that if they knew it, they would not crucify their God. (1 Cor. 2:8) Their sins were committed out of ignorance.

It is worth noting that the God-man was produced sinless out of the sinful human race in order to restore the creation. This restoration of creation is more miraculous than the creation itself. (page 337) Boso mentioned that it is undoubtable that Adam and Eve had a connection with the act of redemption although the Bible is not clear about it, (page 340) but this statement cannot be easily discerned.

At this point, it has been proved that man’s sins are so great that man cannot repay it themselves, and God cannot forgive man without recompense due to its righteousness, but God is willing to restore the human race back to the originally perfect human nature by redemption, by becoming man, assuming human nature in the same race of Adam, and giving himself to God to pay recompense to God Himself for the sin of the human race. While it does not fit God to simply cancel our debts without any punishment, God shows His mercy by becoming man to save us. This way of redemption does not make mercy and just mutually exclusive, but come together as God’s attributes in harmony.

As God adopt the human nature of Adam to carry out the redemption, devil, the fallen angel, cannot be saved through this way because there is no angel-God that is like man-God to perform this. (page 354-355) Anselm concluded by saying that all these are scriptural based.

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Assumptions of Creedalism

Apostle's Creed (taken from pathsofreturn.com)
Apostle’s Creed (taken from pathsofreturn.com)

I have been reading Carl Trueman’s The Creedal Imperative, a book written in response to the opposition against the use of traditional creeds in light of postmodernism and the Bible-Only biblicist view. I have read the first few chapters, in which Trueman outlined the reasons why creeds are not only important but essential.

Trueman made his argument through his three basic presuppositions.

  1. The past is important, and has things of positive relevance to teach us.

This is upholding the value of tradition of the ancient faith communities. The church as an authoritative institution endorsed the creeds and confessions because of the heated debates, discussions, and controversies in the past. Trueman spent a few chapters regarding the the development of Christology during the early church.

John Polkinghorne, an Anglican bishop and a former theoretical physicist, outlined the development of the concept of Trinity in the early church history. He compared this development with that of the grand unified theory (GUT) in high-energy physics. I didn’t appreciate the neatness and comprehensiveness of Trinity until I read Polkinghorne comparing it with the history of GUT.

Biblicists have to recognize that if they need to form their own creeds (probably by copying from ancient creeds) or teach their community to form these basic Christology, a big risk to take as creeds had formed over centuries in the early church history. Biblicism is one of the main sources of heresies. Members of some cults, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses or Living Stream Ministry, are very familiar with the Scripture too.

The formation of creeds and confessions is highly situational. I agree with the professor with the rejection of tabula rasa that regards creeds as “ahistorical and ‘unmarked’ expressions of teaching of Scriptures.”

2. Language must be an appropriate vehicle for the stable transmission of truth across time and geographical space.

This assumption is the one under the most attack. The changes in languages, the ambiguity, the method of interpretations… and the authority of creeds, conveyed in words, are something a lot of postmodernists do not like about.

John Frame tackled a lot of concerns regarding the use of words or languages in his The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. The vagueness in language, used in daily life and in Scripture, is unavoidable, but it suffices for the communications. Sometimes we argued because we “cut the pie differently,” and thus talk past each other. Trueman made a great deal about the use of words by citing a few biblical references, about the sufficiency of words (John 1:1-3, Genesis 1:1-4; words have power, and are used by God), the human use of languages (Genesis 2, Romans 5, 1 Corinthians 15; use of language by men who bear God’s image), and a form of sound words as commanded by Apostle Paul. (2 Timothy 1:9-10; Timothy, as a preacher and a teacher, should communicate the Scripture in “a form of sound words,” especially after all apostles passed away) Language was chosen by God to communicate the faith to later generations, and to protect the faith community from heresies. This is also the reasons why pastors, deacons, and elders should be able to teach in a form of sound words.

This is also highly situational.

3. There must be a body or an institution that can authoritatively compose and enforce creeds and confessions.

A creed is nothing if it is not enforced or endorsed by an authority. One of the characteristics of postmodernism is antiauthoritarianism, in which classical traditions are rejected. It is because the postmodernists feel that the written creeds are tools for the authority to oppress the weak and the underprivileged. Church disciplines are despised and deemed old-fashioned.

If one is a biblicist, he has to recognize that church traditions have such a rich history that they should submit to it. It is probably a matter of ecclesiology.

This is also highly situational.

Lastly, creeds and confessions are also highly normative, because faith is formulated in a form of sound words that people can follow easily.

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