Anselm on the Doctrine of Atonement -- By: John D. Hannah

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 135:540 (Oct 1978)
Article: Anselm on the Doctrine of Atonement
Author: John D. Hannah


Anselm on the Doctrine of Atonement

John D. Hannah

[John D. Hannah, Associate Professor of Historical Theology, Dallas Theological Seminary.]

The spotlight of the biblical record unmistakably focuses on Mount Calvary where the Son of God was ignominiously placarded on a cruel Roman instrument of justice. The subject of the death of Christ has been the concern of Christian scholars repeatedly throughout the history of the church. A monumental treatise on the subject of Christ’s death has been given to the church through St. Anselm (1033–1109), the famed archbishop of Canterbury, in his Cur Deus Homo. Mozley states, “If any one Christian work, outside the canon of the New Testament, may be described as ‘epochmaking,’ it is Cur Deus Homo.”1 However, the opinions scholars hold concerning Anselm’s concept of Christ’s death are widely discordant. James Denney calls the work “the truest and greatest book on the Atonement that has ever been written.”2 Leitch stated that “somewhere, in and around Anselm’s solution, we must find our own solution.”3 And yet Harnack feels free to say that “there are so many defects that this theory is entirely untenable.”4 With such a wide disparity of opinion within the matrix of the meaning of the most important event in human history, it behooves Christians to study it with the utmost frequency and diligence.

Cur Deus Homo is a two-part dialogue between Anselm and a disciple named Boso. Anselm seeks to explain the rationale for the Incarnation which he finds in the Cross. It is not a treatise to prove the doctrine of the Atonement, for reason cannot attain to faith, but it is an attempt to show those who already accept it that it is properly rational. “They make this request, not to attain to faith by way of reason, but to find delight in the understanding and contemplation of what they already believe; and also to be, so far as possible, ready always to satisfy everyone that asks them a reason of that hope which is in us.”5

Anselm’s Concept of the Atonement

Using the scholastic method of dialogue, Anselm seeks to explain the rationale for the Incarnation of Christ. “By what necessity and for what reason did God, although He is almighty, take on the lowliness and weakness of human nature, to restore it?”6 For Anselm and Boso the ultimate reason for the God-man is captured by a contemporary scholar: “The...

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