Cur Deus Homo: Anselm of Canterbury and an Apologetic for the Incarnation


             Distinct in the Christian faith form all other worldviews is the doctrine of the Incarnation. Other religions and worldviews may include elements of a god walking among humanity (a virgin birth, or even a human becoming a god). However, no other faith claims that the Creator of the universe, out of love for His human creations, was born both human and God for the express purpose of suffering and dying to redeem His beloved. Although distinctiveness is not proof of the truth claim, Christianity can point to the logical framework of the doctrine of the Incarnation and the work of Anselm of Canterbury in Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man) to argue that truth claim.

            In this work, Anselm laid out an apologetic for the Incarnation which leads to the atonement for humanity. While not primarily concerned with the doctrine of Atonement, his arguments for the Incarnation does lead to that doctrine. This essay will argue that Cur Deus Homo (CDH) provided not just a theological and logical framework for the Incarnation, but also leads arguments of the Atonement.

The Problem

            Anselm wrote CDH as a debate between himself and one of his chief inquisitors, Boso. Boso is concerned with those who are not convinced that God had to become a human to save humanity. He has several alternatives which will be discussed in the next section, but first, the problem of sin must be addressed. Why does all of this have to happen in the first place? What is it about sin and the nature of humanity that would have God embark on this journey into His created world of humans as a human?

In Book 1, chapter 11 of CDH, Anselm begins to describe the problem with the following syllogism:

  1. If an angel or a man were to give to God what is owed to God, they would never sin.
  2. Sin is not giving to God what God is due.
  3. The wills of rational creatures ought to be subject to the will of God.
  4. The complete subjugation of the will is what is owed to God.
  5. “Therefore, everyone who sins is under an obligation to repay to God the honour which he has violently taken from him, and this is the satisfaction which every sinner is obliged to give to God.”[1]

What then is the punishment for sin? First, it must be understood that God cannot lose His honor.

For either a sinner of his own accord repays what he owes or God takes it from him against his—the sinner’s—will. This is because either a man of his own free will demonstrates the submission which he owes to God by not sinning, or alternatively by paying recompense for his sin, or else God brings him into submission to himself against his will, by subjecting him to torment, and in this way he shows that he is his Lord, something which the man himself refuses to admit voluntarily. In this connection, it needs to be borne in mind that, just as a man by sinning seizes what belongs to God, likewise God, by punishing him, takes away what belongs to man.[2]

Therefore, the person who sins takes what is owed to God and will eventually pay back to God what God is owed. That which is owed to God and thus taken from humanity should be equivalent to the enormity of sin. Humanity was created sinless but with the potentiality for sin. If the first humans decided not to sin, “this would vindicate and honour God and confound the devil, who, despite his greater strength, committed sin in heaven as a consequence of no one’s persuasion.”[3] However, the first humans did sin, via satanic persuasion, and this sin is passed to future generations. The payment for this sin is that man, once immortal in his sinlessness, is now mortal. Death, then, is the payment for what is owed to God.

Alternative Solutions to the Problem

            Boso was convinced that humanity owes God a debt that cannot be paid.[4] However, he was not convinced of the need for God to become a man. Chapter 5 in Book 1 starts with a suggestion from Boso that a non-human or Angel could have paid the price of humanity’s sin. Anselm quickly dispels this objection by stating that if a non-human were to pay the price, then humanity would owe their allegiance to that non-human and not to God.

            Boso then in chapter 6 brings up another objection. If God can do all things, why can’t He just forgive humanity and be done with it? If God can’t just forgive humanity, does that not make Him powerless? Or if God has the power to forgive but just chooses not to, doesn’t that go against His omnibenevolence? Anselm takes more time to unravel this objection.

            First, God had to act against the Satanic power that tempted humanity in the first place. The path He chose was justice and not power. “In this way, therefore, the devil is said to harass mankind justly, because God permits this justly, and man suffers it justly. But again, this so-called just suffering on the part of man: it is not following his own justice that he is said to suffer it, but because he is being punished according to the just judgment of God.”[5] This punishment, or “bond” which is payment due to God must be paid by humanity, not by the devil. For humanity freely sinned, and God’s justice demands payment. It isn’t that God chooses unforgiveness or is powerless to forgive, but God is due His honor. Here, in chapter 13 Anselm presents another syllogism:

  1. There is nothing more grievous than a creature taking honor away from its Creator.
  2. There is nothing more unjust than to tolerate the most intolerable thing.
  3. Therefore, one cannot say that God should tolerate the greatest injustice – or to put it another way, not give back to God what God is due.
  4. If God the greatest thing and nothing is greater than He, then there is no other entity other than God who can preserve God’s justice.
  5. Therefore, there is nothing more just than God’s dignity.
  6. Therefore, the necessary consequence of humanity’s sin is humanity must pay back God or suffer punishment as payback.
  7. If there is no payback to God, then God would be then without power and therefore not God.[6]

Anselm further states:

It is impossible for God to lose his honour. For either a sinner of his own accord repays what he owes or God takes it from him against his—the sinner’s—will. This is because either a man of his own free will demonstrates the submission which he owes to God by not sinning, or alternatively by paying recompense for his sin, or else God brings him into submission to himself against his will, by subjecting him to torment, and in this way he shows that he is his Lord, something which the man himself refuses to admit voluntarily.[7]

Therefore, the Incarnation

            Humanity’s problem is well established. Either humans pay back God what he is owed or suffer punishment. Because humanity cannot payback God, the punishment then is the loss of their immortality – death. If humanity had never sinned, they would not have to die.[8] But God is not through with humanity. God wants to complete what He has started with His creation. “It is necessary, therefore, that, with regard to the nature of mankind, God should finish what he has begun. However, this cannot be done, as we have said, except through the paying of complete recompense for sin, something which no sinner can bring about.”[9] Book 2 Chapter 6 introduces the syllogism for the argument for God becoming human.

  1. Only God or something greater than God can pay God back.
  2. “Someone who can give to God from his own property something which exceeds everything which is inferior to God, must himself be superior to everything that exists apart from God.”[10]
  3. There is nothing superior to God.
  4. The obligation for repayment is with humanity.
  5. Therefore, for God to fulfill His desires for humanity and pay back what He is owed, He must become a human for there is no one else who can payback God but God Himself[11]

If there is going to be payback for the indignity done to God, and if God is going to fulfill His desires for His creation, then He must become a man (Incarnation) and live a sinless life (so as not to incur) debt, and then take the consequences for humanity – death (Atonement).

For God will not do it because it will not be his obligation to do it, and a man will not do it because he will not be able to. In order, therefore, that a God-Man should bring about what is necessary, it is essential that the same one person who will make the recompense should be perfect God and perfect man. For he cannot do this if he is not true God, and he has no obligation to do so if he is not a true man.[12]

Conclusion: The Atonement

The next question then is how the Man-God can pay the price on behalf of all humanity. Anselm explains this by going back to the original humans. God created man, and He created woman. From these first humans, all humanity multiplied. As stated earlier it is not in human nature to die, but because of the sin of Adam and Eve, death has come to humanity. To bring humans back to their intended state of immortality (which is not of their own power but of God’s power) God must become a human. To complete the atonement for man, one who is perfect and of the line of Adam can pay the price for the whole line of humanity. Angels couldn’t do this because they are not from the line of Adam and Eve. But Jesus, fully God and fully man (Incarnation) can voluntarily pay this price owed to God (Atonement).

There can, moreover, be nothing that a man may suffer—voluntarily and without owing repayment of a debt—more painful or more difficult than death. And there is no act of self-giving whereby a man may give himself to God greater than when he hands himself over to death for God’s glory…The one whose will it is to be to pay recompense for the sin of mankind ought therefore to have the characteristic of being able to die if he wishes.[13]

            This atonement covers all sins. And the miracle is not just that God created humanity in the first place, but that once fallen, God’s amazing love for His creation lead him to redeem – pay the debt – when His creation fell from grace. Humanity deserved death. God, in the form of incarnated man, atoned for sin and provided eternal life.

[1] Anselm of Canterbury, The Major Works (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), Kindle Edition 283-284.

[2] Ibid, 287.

[3] Ibid, 307.

[4] Ibid, 304.

[5] Ibid, 273.

[6] Ibid, 286-287.

[7] Ibid, 287

[8] Ibid, 316.

[9] Ibid, 317.

[10] Ibid, 319-320.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, 321.

[13] Ibid, 331.

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