For us and for our salvation?:

That Jesus died for our sins is so ingrained in Christianity it seems almost absurd to question it. It’s in our creed: “For our sake, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” It’s in our prayers: “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world.” It’s in our hymns: “Who did once upon a cross, Alleluia! Suffer to redeem our loss, Alleluia!”

But the concept of atonement—that God and humanity have been reconciled through Jesus—hasn’t always focused so exclusively on Jesus’ death as a sacrifice and payment for sin. Like most teachings, it has evolved over the past 20 centuries of Christian thought, and today is being critiqued by some as problematic, not only for what it says about God but also for what it may mean for victims of violence.

This is an interesting and nuanced article about the history of theologies of salvation in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches. Few people realize that the story of salvation which is usually identified as “Christian” is actually more accurately called “Anselmian” — that is, derived from the theology of the 12th century theologian, St. Anselm — and that it is only one of several competing theologies of salvation.

Indeed, according to Father Robert Barron, professor of systematic theology at Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary, who is himself sympathetic to Anselmian theology, many modern Protestants and Catholics even “out-Anselm Anselm,” taking his theology to lengths he himself would not have approved:

Without overstating Anselm’s theories, Barron rises to defend him, noting that he, like his medieval contemporaries, saw God as utterly perfect, never needing anything from creation nor experiencing passing emotions. Anselm’s atonement theology “does not mean that God has fallen into an emotional snit or that he is a raging dysfunctional father demanding to be placated, or that he needs to see blood before his rage will die down,” Barron explains. “All of that would have struck Anselm as pagan and idolatrous, utterly irreconcilable with a proper understanding of the transcendence of God.”

I see this as somewhat parallel to the issue of Creationism: many people identify think that every Christian must believe that the universe was created six thousand years ago, in six days, and many people similarly believe that every Christian must believe that Jesus had to die to appease God’s demand for retributive justice in the face of human sin. Both have some Biblical justification, both have been supported by fathers of the Church, both have been accepted by many good and thoughtful people, and in both cases, the idea that those beliefs are necessary and defining for Christians have driven many people far away from Christianity.

5 thoughts on “Anselmianity?”

  1. Atonement theology was always one of the things that got me into trouble with many of the Christians I met at university. The evangelical church (in particular) seems to simply ignore the facts that penal substitutionary is far from the only intepretation, and that you can hold to the centrality of Christ’s death and resurrection without buying into a later penal interpretation of that. Personally, I think what I find hardest about a hardline penal substitutionary understanding is that it provides no framework for understanding the resurrection.

  2. I think that a lot of folks, when you sit down and talk to them, would say that Anselm’s atonement mechanism is only one facet of a much more complex idea of atonement that they carry around with them. The concept of the substitute is obviously a thread in the OT sacrificial system, not just an “anselmian” thing. But added to this is the whole “Christus Victor” concept, re-popularized by folks like Gustav Aulen. Abelard was more of a exemplar view. All are true. Calvin actually did pretty well with this by not narrowing it down any further than the prophet-preist-king concept, allowing for victor-concepts as well as substitute concepts.

    I think that the idea of penal substitution is often seen as harsh when it is not fully “Trinityized”. It wasn’t that nice Jesus saved us from mean God. It was that the Trinity “swollowed” its own wrath.

  3. Good points, Jeff. Obviously Anselm didn’t create doctrine ex nihilo; he just expressed one thread of an ongoing dialogue in such a compelling form that it kind of took over. I don’t know much about Christus Victor and Aulen, is there a place I could learn more about that?

  4. Best place is probably Aulen’s book, “Christus Victor”. He expresses it pretty well as a “history of ideas” discussion, contrasting the “classic” view, the “Latin” viw (Anselm), and the “exemplar” view, I think. Good stuff. A lot of people have done variations on it since him. I think that it was originally an idea from Irenaeus. Basically it takes the ideas of Christ being a ‘ransom” to the powers of evil, sin and the devil, and develops it into an idea that the atonement was christ’s paradoxical victory over all these forces. Kind of like a chess gambit that appears to be loosing but winds up winning the game.

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