St Anselm’s atonement theory falls within the family of satisfaction theories of the atonement. Satisfaction theories roughly argues that because of the injustice and disorder brought about by sin, the life, death and resurrection of Christ was given to make reparations or restitution for sin.
The widespread misconception about Anselm’s theory is that it was the precursor to Aquinas’s penal atonement or the Protestant’s penal substitutionary atonement. (Despite it having earlier expression in Church Fathers like Athanasius). In so far as Anselm was concerned with the penalty and debt of sin as in incursion to God’s honour or justice needing restitution that is true. However, Anselm is quite clear that satisfaction was an alternative to punishment for sin, “aut poena aut satisfaction”. Sin must either be punished or satisfied, thus for Anselm they aren’t the same thing. Furthermore unlike Aquinas, Athanasius and Calvin, Anselm explicitly denies that Christ’s obedience consists of undergoing death or that Christ suffered the penalty or punishment of sin as is obvious in the following passages:
Anselm. It seems to me that you do not rightly understand the difference between what he did at the demand of obedience, and what he suffered, not demanded by obedience, but inflicted on him, because he kept his obedience perfect.
Boso. I need to have you explain it more clearly.
Anselm. Why did the Jews persecute him even unto death?
Boso. For nothing else, but that, in word and in life, he invariably maintained truth and justice.
Anselm. God did not, therefore, compel Christ to die; but he suffered death of his own will, not yielding up his life as an act of obedience, but on account of his obedience in maintaining holiness; for he held out so firmly in this obedience that he met death on account of it.
These are rather illuminating words in so far as Anselm does not think that Christ’s death, in itself, was part of the atonement transaction between Christ and God. What Christ owed to God was to maintain holiness which Christ did even if it meant his death. Thus by itself, the death itself was not required or intrinsically valuable, whether as a way of bearing the wrath or punishment of God, etc, but what made Christ’s death meritorious or valuable was that it was something which he willingly endured in aid of the greater end of maintaining holiness, truth and justice. In short, Christ’s righteousness consists in the fact that Christ obeyed God to the very bitter end.
The Reward Theory
Anselm argued that because Christ obeyed God perfectly, therefore Christ merits a reward from the Father. However, Christ needs nothing because he is God. Therefore what Christ does instead is to ask of the Father for the lives and forgiveness of sinners instead. Thus the “debt” of sin which we have incurred is “balanced out” by Christ’s merits. Remember, for Anselm our sinfulness puts us in God’s debt, because we owe him holiness which we have not given him. This debt or incursion to the divine honour or justice can either be paid by “satisfaction” or punishment. Therefore Christ’s righteousness and merits “satisfies” this incursion to the divine honour and allows God to forgive us our debts to him and restore us to fellowship.
A Biblical Reading: The Prayers of the Righteous
Many have complained that this theory is too mechanical, too commercial, not forgetting the employment of feudal terms alien to the Scriptures. I think there is a grain of truth to such objections. However, I think this abstract theory can be given a rather concrete biblical reading. It would be based on James 5:16 verse about how the “prayers of a righteous man availeth much”.
The idea therefore is that because Christ lived a righteous life in obedience to God’s will to the very end, his prayers and intercessions for our salvation “availeth much”. Therefore on the basis of Christ’s righteous life, we maybe assured that his prayers to God for our forgiveness and restoration would most certainly be heard and granted and Christ’s righteousness is the sure ground of our faith. This of course is the main theme of Hebrews whereby Christ is our High priest who has lived righteously and suffered and therefore has been rewarded and elevated to God’s right hand where he can make intercessions for us all forevermore.
We can even develop Anselm theory further by arguing that since it is against Christ whom we have wronged by our sins, of which the crucifixion is the exemplar, thus we are placed in Christ’s debt. Furthermore, because Christ died an unjust death, and since Christ lived a perfectly righteous life, therefore God’s justice owes it to Christ to “right the wrong” done to Christ, that is, make satisfaction for Christ. God therefore places our fate, all of us who have wronged Christ, into Christ’s own hands (John 5:22: “For the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgement to the Son”) Christ therefore forgives those who repent and believe in him and will punish those who refuse at the last judgement.
Conclusion: To the Righteous belongs the Kingdom
St Anselm I think has struck upon an important vein in the biblical conception of the atonement, albeit framed in rather archaic categories. Despite his denial of the penal element of the atonement, however his theory does not necessarily preclude those. Aquinas of course would attempt to synthesise Anselm’s insights along with the penal elements.
I think however that the core intuition which guides Anselm’s theory is that of Matthew 5:10: “Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’s sake, for their is the Kingdom of Heaven”. And we are convinced that God loves and blesses the righteous, and the blessings of one undefiled, pure and righteous life on earth would flow unto the multitude, yea, even unto the very sinners who have wronged the righteous one.