St. Anselm on Seeking Satisfaction and Mercy

Today the Church celebrates the feast of St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury. St. Anselm’s motto fides quaerens intellectum, faith seeking understanding, is the motto of my graduate school. It sums up much of the theological tradition of the Church and Anselm’s own approach to the great mysteries of the faith. St. Anselm was born in 1033 and he added much to the theology of the Medieval period. His desire to grow in understanding was born of his faith in Jesus Christ. Due to Enlightenment thinking, some of his Christological work has been discarded as barbaric in its understanding and has been greatly misunderstood.

St. Anselm’s inquiry into why God has become man and why he died for us takes place within the perspective of faith. He intends to provide understanding and joy for those who contemplate what they believe and show non-Christians, Jews, and Moslems on the grounds of what they themselves believe) the existence of a just and merciful God and of human sinfulness), the necessity of the incarnation.

Roch A Kereszty, Jesus Christ: Fundamentals of Christology, 268.

The reality of Christianity hinges on the Paschal Mystery and the Incarnation. St. Anselm sought to understand the necessity of the Cross. He wanted to understand more fully why Christ had to die. St. Anselm understood the necessity of Christ’s death in terms of keeping the “just order of the universe”. As creatures who depend on the Creator for everything we should give everything to God, but we do not render this due when we sin.

This is all the honor and the only honor which we owe to God and which he requires of us….He who does not render this due honor to God, takes away from God what is God’s and dishonors God” and in this sin consists.

Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, I:1.

Honor is a concept that may be foreign in many circles today, but it was of great importance in Anselm’s day. It is a concept we ourselves need to understand more fully in our day-in-age. It means to render proper due. Since God is infinite and our Creator, proper due is to give our whole selves to Him. Honor has a second component, which is linked to restitution. When we dishonor or do something unjust we owe a debt to another person or to God. This is referred to as satisfaction.

By freely yielding to temptation of the devil, our ancestors have violated the honor due to God. Of course, if God’s honor is considered in itself, nothing can increase or decrease it. The sinner has dishonored God only in himself and thereby disturbed the order and the beauty of the universe. For this he must either suffer punishment involuntarily or provide a voluntary satisfaction. Even though God is so merciful that no greater mercy can be conceived of, he does not forgive us without satisfaction; mercy without justice would not be fitting for God, since it would allow disorder to enter into God’s kingdom.

Kereszty, 270.

It is at this point that some people begin to argue with Anselm’s position. Demanding satisfaction is seen as opposed to love and mercy. In reality, God is both justice and mercy and love requires both. God cannot allow us to sin carte blanche. It is false mercy to ignore offenses and not desire amends. God is the Creator of everything and we owe our very being to Him.

The amazing thing about this need for amends is that God knows we can never repay our offense. When we dishonor God, we dishonor He who is infinite. We do not have the ability as created rational creatures to offer infinite satisfaction, so in God’s ultimate act of love and mercy, He sends His Son to die for us. Only God, who is infinite, is capable of paying the debt for us, but He must also be ontologically the same as us, that is possessing a human nature. It is through the hypostatic union that Jesus Christ in being both God and man can offer Himself for us. Since He is divine He is without sin, and so, He is the perfect sacrifice to the Father.

But what can Jesus Christ, the God-man, offer as satisfaction to the Father? As a creature, he owes obedience in every act to God throughout his life This, then, cannot constitute a satisfaction. However, having committed no sin whatsoever, Jesus does not “owe” death. Nor may the Father impose on Jesus the obligation to die since this would be most unjust. Jesus freely chose to die in order to serve justice with courage. He “gave his precious life, in fact himself, I mean, such a unique person with such a unique act of will.

Ibid.

It is the ultimate act of mercy for Christ to die in our stead.

Can a more merciful way of acting be conceived than when God the Father tells the sinner who is condemned to eternal torments and deprived of what could redeem him, “Take my only Son and give him for yourself,” and the Son himself saying, “take me and redeem yourself”?

II:20

Anselm’s theory of satisfaction is largely misunderstood by those who view Jesus’ death on the Cross as satiating the bloodlust of an angry God. The best way to understand the idea of satisfaction is to look at it as a freely given sacrifice by the Son. In love, the Son offered to die for our sins. Christ came to heal the rift between the material and the immaterial. He came to heal us and show us the way to the Father. God knowing our tendency to depravity through sin, understood that the best way to do this was to come to us Himself. His greatest act of mercy is tied to His great condescension and sacrifice on our behalf, so that we could be His sons and daughters. In sending His Son, God did not satiate a thirst for blood and vengeance, instead He showed us that love requires self-emptying. He lived his own axiom: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13).”

St. Anselm’s contributions to the Church’s Christological understanding were born of his call to fides quaerens intellectum. It is a call for all people within the Mystical Body, not just theologians. In order to move deeper into the mysteries of the Faith, we must seek to grow in knowledge and understanding through study and prayer. On this feast day of St. Anselm, let us all embrace his call to fides quaerens intellectum. St. Anselm, ora pro nobis.

image: Triptych of Saint Anselm By Giogo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

By

Constance T. Hull is a wife, mother, homeschooler, and a graduate student theologian with an emphasis in philosophy.  Her desire is to live the wonder so passionately preached in the works of G.K. Chesterton and to share that with her daughter and others. While you can frequently find her head inside of a great work of theology or philosophy, she considers her husband and daughter to be her greatest teachers. She is passionate about beauty, working towards holiness, the Sacraments, and all things Catholic. She is also published at The Federalist, Public Discourse, and blogs frequently at Swimming the Depths (www.swimmingthedepths.com).

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  • faustinaagatha

    Thank you for this, Mrs Hull. I was inspired to go to daily mass yesterday for St Anselm’s feast day and to read some of a book of his Prayer-poems. Totally about asking that Grace supply for the weakness and sin of a poor soul. I remember long ago a protestant professor saying that the atonement was child abuse. In this book he has a prayer- poem to the Cross. That is not to be venerated for its cruelty but because it bore the Ultimate fruit of love.

  • Constance

    Thank you for reading! Yes, St. Anselm is one of those saints whose work is often maligned. It is easy to forget that theology develops over time and each orthodox theologian who has added to the Church’s understanding fits like a puzzle piece to give us a whole picture. It is Anselm’s theory of satisfaction that helps us to better understand the sacrifice of the Cross and its necessity. His work allowed for a deepening in understanding as well as continued work done by countless theologians since his time. Pax Christi.

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