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Analyzing the Atonement: Anselm's Substitution Theory

Well this rather brief series is inching closer to its completion. From here on out, every atonement theory will be a variation on a theme. That them being substitution. 

Without a question, this broad and general perspective is the view of Evangelical America. But what most people don't realize is that the Recapitulation Theory dominated the church until the 11th century. It was only after Anselm that the Protestant form of Substitution developed in its modern sense.


Anselm's view came to life in his book Cur Deus Homo. It is an essential read for all historians of theology and makeshift philosophers. For those interested it can be read here. This book however was not principally concerned with the atonement. Instead like many theologians of his day, Anselm wrote to answer a basic "why?" question. Why did God become man?

Now the recapitulation theory has an answer for this. But it wasn't sufficiently shown why God couldn't become something else and still save humanity. So while the recapitulation theory held significant truth it wasn't the full answer "why man and not a rock?". To modern ears this sounds still but in Scholastic Catholicism this was the practice of the day.

It is this focus on "why man?" that lead to Anselm's break through in the atonement. In fact, Anselm's view differs enough from the modern Protestant view that its sufficient to just call it the Satisfaction Theory. And most of those differences stem solely from the fact that Anselm was not pursuing a full atonement view. In the end the view became the foundation for all Protestants and the most popular view in America.

The Debt of Sin

Starting from the basis of God's incredible nature and character, Anselm established that all mankind owes God their undivided love, adoration and obedience. Every moment of every single day is necessary to offer to God as a sacrifice to His worthiness. So what is to happen if a man "steals" a moment or action from God? What if a man chooses to disobey or be selfish by holding glory in reserve for himself? Well that man would owe a debt to God.

But how could the man pay back the debt? He owes every moment of his life to God already. If he offers those to God (even of a good heart) it could only pay the debt for that moment and could never cover the debt of his disobedience. This perspective leaves all men in a state of owing debt to God which no amount of good works could ever pay back.

This leaves a theological conundrum. Mankind needs someone to pay the debt. But mankind needs someone who is not previously obligated by nature to obedience to God.

The God-Man

That last sentence should cause some potential stumbles. Its a necessary thought but a striking one. Someone who didn't owe obedience needed to offer it. Only an non-created being could fulfill this. Only God could fulfill this.

But God must pay for men.  Using some tricky Aristotelian logic, Anselm shows it necessary that the nature of the being making the payment on debt must in fact be man. And through this Anselm has shown the "why" of Jesus Christ came to earth. God became man that He might make satisfaction on a debt we could never pay.


This view should feel familiar. But in light of our Protestant leanings it might answer too many questions in ways we are unfamiliar with. Or perhaps in other ways it answers none of the questions we are concerned with. 

Who did Christ do this for? How is it attributed to us? Many of these questions go unasked and thus unanswered. But Anselm led the way towards a much broader discussion of the atonement. 


Reformation Week (Part 2)

Reformation Week (Part 1)