Anselm vs Penal Substitution

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Anselm of Canterbury's work "Cur Deus Homo" (which translates as "Why the God-man?") is usually credited with being the first articulation of what would later become the doctrine of Penal Substitution. However a closer reading of Anselm indicates that he would have in all likelihood have rejected Penal Substitution.

The first important thing to note is that in Anselmian Satisfaction there is a distinction between satisfaction and punishment. In Penal Substitution they are the same: the punishment is what satisfies justice. In Anselmian Satisfaction satisfaction is an alternative to punishment. The satisfaction is what restores honor so that punishment can be averted

"The honor taken away must be repaid, or punishment must follow" (bk 1 ch 8)

Satisfaction here takes the form of restoration, mending what has been broken, paying back what was taken, etc. If the guilty party is unable to make this restitution then the only alternative is punishment. The principle is taken from the legal courts of the time where a person would either be required to pay a fine, or if they could not afford it they would be punished instead. In Anselmian Satisfaction, since we cannot ourselves make satisfaction and restore God's honor since even if we led a perfect life we would only be giving what is our due, we are headed for punishment. So Christ not only lives a sinless life, which is again his due, but also is willing to endure death for the sake of love. This goes beyond the call of duty and thus honors God, restoring God's honor which Anselm saw as the central problem of the Atonement.

In contrast to this, Penal Substitution does not see satisfaction and punishment as two separate alternatives, but as the same: it is the punishment that satisfies God. Anselm would have likely agreed that it was appropriate to punish the guilty, and that in the absence of restoration (satisfaction) that punishment was appropriate. However he would not have agreed that it was fitting for the innocent Son to be punished in order to justify the guilty.

"What justice is there in his suffering death for the sinner, who was the most just of all men? What man, if he condemned the innocent to free the guilty, would not himself be judged worthy of condemnation?"

Anselm's answer to this is that

"God the Father did not treat that man as you seem to suppose, nor put to death the innocent for the guilty"

he goes on to say

"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." (bk 1 end of ch 8 and begin 9)

In other words, God did not require or take pleasure or satisfaction in Christ's suffering, rather Christ suffered because he was obedient to love to the point of suffering and even death. One can think of a firefighter who is wounded going into a burning building trying to save people from the flames. No one is "satisfied" that the firefighter was hurt in the fire. What is heroic is that despite the danger and pain that firefighter went into the inferno for the sake of saving others.

Anselm is right to reject "condemning the innocent to free the guilty" whichPenal Substitution proposes. However there are some problems with Anselm' theory as well. The largest of which is that it is rooted in what is called "natural law" which means that rather than looking at the revelation of God in Scripture, he instead looks to human laws and cultural understandings of what is right and "must be" and then imposes this on God.

I would like to suggest further that there is a difference between Anselm's natural law of "reason" as he calls it which is based on the cultural assumptions of his time and arbitrary and artificial human laws on the one hand, and a truly "natural law" on the other hand based on laws of nature. For instance when Anselm claims that there must either be satisfaction (restitution) or punishment, this is in fact arbitrary. Why must there be? Couldn't I simply decide to forgive instead? This was the argument of Socinus, and it is a compelling one. In cases of human reaction the two options Anselm gives are not the only ones available.

But what happens if we think if this in terms not of artificial human law, but in terms of natural sickness? Then the statement becomes that either the wound is treated (satisfaction), or it will fester (punishment). Either the sickness is cured (satisfaction), or it will result in death (punishment). Here we have a model that makes much more sense than a legal one. There is no third option of simply ignoring the sickness, and the act of mercy instead of being a passive non-action of not punishing becomes here active healing. Furhter the satisfaction does not seem to be applealing to vanity or vengeance, but simply to solving a real problem and the "punishment" again is not arbitrary (so we can ask: why not just forgive?) but is a natural consequence. Sickness, if untreated leads to death.

In Anselm's theory Christ needed to first restore God's honor before God could show us favor. In Penal Substitution Christ had to first be punished before God would show us favor. In a medical view however, the act of the physician is an act of favor. The "problem" is not with God but with us. We are the ones who need to be reconciled, who need to be fixed, not God. Again, to apply Anselm's argument here: Christ does not suffer in order to appease or satisfy God, rather God in Christ loves us so much that he enters into our world of sickness, coming to heal and restore us, and in loves us to the point of making himself subject to our sickness. He takes this sickness upon himself (and here I am leaving Anselm and adding in Christus Victor) and overcomes it thus setting us free from its hold.



At 10:55 AM, Blogger Josh Foreman said...

Great stuff. Thanks for bringing this subject up. It really shows how powerful metaphor is in determining our views on things. I always knew the angry God demanding payment didn't fit.

At 10:32 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

This is the position of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Cristus victor and St ireneaus's recapituliation of man theory.


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