The Atonement as Satisfaction

In the eleventh century St. Anselm, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote “Cur Deus Homo,” which translated is “Why God Became Man.”  In this work, he directly took on the idea that there was no true justice in the idea that God had to pay Satan a ransom to redeem His creation.  His focus becomes much more on what humanity owes God, and how we had failed in our relationship with Him.  We see a further development of the idea of a “substitutionary” atonement, whereby Christ becomes a “representative” or “substitute” for humanity in reconciling us to God.

There are a couple of important things to note about St. Anselm and his work.  One, it is not an “easy read.”  He writes in a two person dialog between himself, and his friend Boso.  Boso often poses questions and positions that Anselm seeks to either explain why they are correct, or why they may be in error.  He has to be read very carefully to understand his exact points, and he is often misinterpreted.  (You can find entire works explaining all the reasons certain views attributed to St. Anselm have been misinterpreted).  He uses terms like “honor” and “satisfaction” that have to be understood in the feudalism that defined his day.

A second point is that by writing as a singular bishop, St. Anselm’s work is that of a theologian, not the Magisterium of the Church.  That might seem like a fine point, but it’s an important one.  While his work has been used by the Magisterium to further the Catholic teaching and understanding of the atonement, the work itself in its entirety does not necessarily reflect Church teaching.  We don’t have to seek to resolve every aspect or point he makes to be in line with what the Church teaches.  His work is simply an important foundational piece that has been used to develop the Catholic understanding of the atonement.

St. Anselm’s work does not stand in contradiction to a view of atonement as Christus Victor, but is complimentary to it.  It delves more deeply into the understanding of Christ’s atoning work as sacrifice, and how this brings about our redemption.  As I mentioned, he rejects any idea that there is true justice found in God being required to pay Satan a “ransom” to redeem his creation.  He shifts the language from one of “ransom” to “debt,” and that debt is what mankind owes to God.  We all “owe” something to a relationship don’t we?  Our first parents by their disobedience had failed to honor their Creator, which grievously wounds our relationship to God.  St. Anselm’s focus is on what is needed to restore or bring “reparation” to that relationship.  And he is clear that we, in our current state, are not capable of repairing the brokenness of our relationship to God, each other, and the rest of creation.  Our predicament under the bondage of sin is such that nothing but divine intervention can redeem and restore us.

St. Anselm is most likely the originator of the concept that “Jesus paid a debt he did not owe, because I owed a debt I could not pay.”  He is clear that there is a debt owed to God.  He is also clear regarding what the debt is, and that is obedience.  This is where our first parents had failed, and it led them down a path of destruction not just for themselves, but for all of us.  They failed to maintain the holiness that allowed a relationship with God and creation to exist in harmony.  So Christ becomes one of us, and stands in our place as our substitute to offer his obedience to God in maintaining holiness on our behalf, no matter what the personal cost.  And this is the essence of St. Anselm’s idea of “satisfaction.”  It is important to note in the Catholic view of things that Christ does not substitute his obedience in our place so therefore we have no personal requirement of obedience.  Everything Christ does for us, he also does with us.

We can see the idea of Christ substituting his obedience for our disobedience in both Sacred Scripture and the Catechism:

Romans 5:18-19  “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men.  For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”

Philippians 2:8  “And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”

CCC614  This sacrifice of Christ is unique; it completes and surpasses all other sacrifices.  First, it is a gift from God the Father himself, for the Father handed his Son over to sinners in order to reconcile us with himself.  At the same time it is the offering of the Son of God made man, who in freedom and love offered his life to his Father through the Holy Spirit in reparation for our disobedience.

Jesus substitutes his obedience for our disobedience

CCC615 For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.  By his obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant, who “makes himself an offering for sin”, when “he bore the sin of many”, and who “shall make many to be accounted righteous”, for “he shall bear their iniquities”.  Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father.

CCC616  It is love “to the end” that confers on Christ’s sacrifice its value as redemption and reparation, as atonement and satisfaction.  He knew and loved us all when he offered his life. 

One of the important points to remember is that St. Anselm indicates that God is not interested in the death of Christ in order to restore our relationship to him, nor does he demand Christ’s death to satisfy divine justice.  St. Anselm is very clear that the Father finds no pleasure in Christ’s suffering nor does he desire it.  What God desired from Christ is obedience in maintaining holiness, complete and total, no matter what the personal cost.  And that obedience cost him his life at the hands of sinful men.  A key exchange in “Why God Became Man”:

Anselm: You surely will not think it proper for God to make his creature miserable without fault, when he had created him holy that he might enjoy a state of blessedness.  For it would be a miserable thing for man to die against his will.

Boso: It is plain that, if man had not sinned, God ought not to compel him to die.

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

God did not desire nor request the death of Christ.  His desire was for him to live a totally sinless life, to be obedient and without sin, unlike the first Adam.  So when St. Anselm reads in Sacred Scripture that “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?”  (Romans 8:32), he understands that to simply mean that God did not rescue Christ from sinful men.  God allowed the natural progression of the cosmic clash that occurred when sinful and fallen mankind encountered the holiness of Christ.

And even though St. Anselm also expresses that our sin had “dishonored” God, he is also very clear that the sinner in reality does nothing to God but rather to himself.  “But when he does not choose what he ought, he dishonors God, as far as the being himself is concerned, because he does not submit himself freely to God’s disposal.  And he disturbs the order and beauty of the universe, as relates to himself, although he cannot injure nor tarnish the power and majesty of God.”  This is consistent with the Catholic view that God is immutable (immutable1, immutable2, immutable3).  While our disobedience cannot impact God, it can have devastating effects on us.

More to come on this topic in my next post.

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