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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Review of “Allah: a Christian Response” by Miroslav Volf

Struggles between the Christians and Muslims have lasted for centuries. The struggles are both theological and political in nature. There have been efforts in reconciling Christians and Muslims, and even form governments over regions where both peoples coexist. How it goes is still questionable. Moreover, since the 911 attack on Ground Zero and Pentagon, people are exploring this question further into the theological aspect: is the God in the Bible and Quran the same god? Miroslav Volf attempted to answer these questions in his book Allah: a Christian Response.

Miroslav Volf is currently the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School, and the Director of the Yale Center for Truth and Faith. Born in the Balkan Peninsula, at the time under the rule of an officially Communist and atheist state (Yugoslavia), he managed to remain to be a proclaimed Christian; living with various other religious groups, he witnessed the conflicts between Christians and Muslims, and how these conflicts affect their private and public life. According to him, the Balkans do not argue who the true god is, but “[the issue] is… that the two religious communities give ultimate allegiance to two rival versions of the Master of the Universe.” (page 13) His background is one of the reasons of his interests in political theology and interfaith dialogues. He was the lead author of the Christian response to “A Common Word Between Us and You” written by a group of Muslim scholars.[1]

This book explores two important questions. The first question is: is Christian god and Muslim god the same God?[2] He argued for the same-God position by proving, according to the God described in Scripture and Quran, there are more similarities than differences. The second is: is it possible for Christians and Muslims to live together in harmony and form a government? His answer is yes.

The author first reviewed the history of the conversation between Christians and Muslims about the same-God question. Under the several failed attempts of the Crusades, and the strong new threat posed by Ottoman Empire, the Roman Catholic Church sought to have dialogues with the Muslims. (chapter 2) The author reviewed the work of Nicholas of Cusa, who argued Christians and Muslims worshipped the same God. He also argued if Muslims read the Quran carefully, they would have concluded God is triune despite their denial. On the other hand, the author also reviewed the viewpoints of Martin Luther, the Reformer, who did not say yes or no to the same-God question, but admitted that all monotheistic peoples “believe in the one true God.” (chapter 3)

The author then spent a significant portion of the book stating his stance about the same-God question. He examined the verses in Scripture and Quran for the description of God, and compared the practices of both Christians and Muslims. He showed that there are so many similarities that he would conclude they are describing the same God. (chapters 4-6) He then discussed the most controversial topic: the Trinity, which the Muslims declared heretical and polytheistic. (chapter 7) He tried to show that a lot of Muslims’ objections are not really what Christians claimed. (“Christians deny what Muslims deny… Christians affirm what Muslims affirm.” (page 143)) While the author rightly asserted that the doctrine of Trinity is “not an add-on” in Christianity (page 145), he is yet to prove God in the Quran is triune. He resorted to God’s incomprehensibility. He confessed that the Trinity can only be seen from God’s special revelation, which “has a trinitarian structure.” (page 147) In addition, the author compared the nature of love in both religions. (chapter 8) While both Christians and Muslims believe God is loving, only Christians believe God is love, which requires a triune God. The author attempted to show the levels of “unconditional-ness” of love are similar. He gave an example of Muslims’ loving their enemies, something commanded in the Christian Bible, although Quran teaches “teeth-for-teeth, eye-for-eye.”

In the last part of the book, the author dealt with the possibility of Christians and Muslims living together in harmony, and forming a single government. (chapters 10-13) Based on the author’s same-God thesis and the existence of the common ground, he proposed a rough government system that allows both groups to participate in a nation’s politics. He argued that political pluralism is feasible even if peoples are religiously exclusive. He lastly proposed “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of political wisdom in a multi-religious state,” (page 241) which, he thinks, is something people nowadays lack.

I appreciate the author’s effort in laying out the structure of the democratic government that tolerates both Christians and Muslims. Like other variants of the Christian religions such as Mormonism, Islam can also be seen as a variant of Christianity. Protestants have not fought a war with the Mormons despite the theological differences, they have been fighting against the Catholics in Northern Ireland, or the Muslims in the Middle East. All these struggles are more political and historical, rather than theological, in nature.

The author proposed political pluralism for a multi-religious state. To me, it is feasible, and there are examples. Malaysia, though officially a Muslim state, have Indians that practice Hinduism, and Chinese that practice Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity, under a constitutional monarchy.[3] Lebanon has been a religiously diverse country too, having Muslims, Christians, and Druze people, running a parliamentary republic.[4] They are not free of conflicts, but it is possible if certain factors, such as the quality of citizens, the tolerance, the level of their God-fearing, are present. However, as Thomas Schelling pointed out from his agent-based model of segregation, while they can be neighbors, moderate segregation is avoidable when stability is achieved.[5] There is not a need to completely integrate different groups of people in one community.

The author held a very controversial, or “hot and spicy” (page 13), viewpoint on the same-God question. The same viewpoint led to the resignation of Larycia Hawkins in Wheaton College recently.[6] His analysis on the similarities about God’s description by Christians and Muslims is excellent, but he did not convincingly reconcile the differences, particularly on the Trinity. It is not surprising that he cannot reconcile the differences regarding the Trinity as “we owe our knowledge of this doctrine (Trinity) solely to God’s special revelation.”[7] He did not even discuss the discrepancies in their historical narratives (for example, whether Abraham sacrificed Isaac or Ishmael). Moreover, even if he were able to prove the same-God proposition, it would not mean the Muslims are eternally saved. And political pluralism, which he envisioned, does not depend on this proposition. In fact, it is very reasonable for the author to be able to discover so many similarities because through the truths about God are revealed to men through nature, (Ps. 19:1, Rom. 1:19) even though the knowledge is distorted by human finitude and fallenness.

Exploring the same-God question, the author did not state that Muslims are actually saved. Nor did he state any “techniques” or “tricks” to proselyte in Muslim communities. The author’s interest is on politics rather than evangelism. But it does not mean his discussion is not useful for evangelism. Whether the same-God question is relevant, or has a positive answer, it is a good gap-bridging dialogue for any evangelistic effort. His ideas regarding political pluralism are applicable outside politics.

Throughout the whole book, the author put an emphasis on the similarities between Christianity and Islam. He did not overlook the differences, but a more balanced view can be achieved by adding more weights to them. Knowing the similarities and differences help reducing the conflicts, which is one of the themes that the author tried to bring out. As J. D. Greear said, “we need to know our Muslim neighbors in order to love our Muslim neighbors. That includes having a clear picture of what they believe.”[8]

No matter what the best answers to the questions that the author raised are, “[loving] the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might,” (Deut. 6:5) and “[loving] your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39) are the two most important commandments. In the parable of the good Samaritans, Jesus implied that the neighbor can be even “foreigners” or people of other faiths. These biblical principles are not based on any possible answers to the questions discussed by the author.

[1] “Miroslav Volf,” Yale Center for Faith & Culture, accessed Apr 2, 2016,

[2] Or more technically, as the author quoted Keith DeRose, “whether the thoughts and utterances of Muslims that are expressed in terms of being about ‘God’… have the God that Christians worship as their object.” (page 84)

[3] Malaysia,” the World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency, accessed March 30, 2016,

[4] François Massoulié, Crisis in the Middle East: a century in focus (Witney, UK: Windrush Press, 1999), 134-151.

[5] Thomas Schelling, “Dynamic Models of Segregation,” Journal of Mathematical Sociology 1 (1971), 143-145.

[6] The author wrote an article in response to Larycia Hawkins’ resignation, reasserting his position in this book: Miroslav Volf, “Wheaton professor’s suspension is about anti-Muslim bigotry, not theology,” Washington Post, December 17, 2015, accessed April 2, 2016,

[7] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 329.

[8] J. D. Greear, “Theologies Compared and Contrasted,” Tabletalk Magazine, April 2016, 19.

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