On this day, February 21, 1109, we commemorate the death of Anselm of Canterbury. He is so named because he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093, a position which, to this day, is the foremost seat of ecclesiastical power in England. An avid writer, logician, and churchman, Anselm is considered the father of Scholasticism and a foundational theologian of Western Christendom.
Anselm was born in 1033 to a devout noble family in the Italian city of Aosta, which lies on the border between modern-day Italy and France. The piety of his family and their regular pilgrimages made a lasting impression on the young Anselm. As Anselm came of age, he decided to become a monk and eventually joined the Benedictine abbey of Bec under the tutelage of a renowned theologian named Lanfranc.
Lanfranc’s fame is due primarily to his part in settling a major controversy of the 11th century over the Lord’s Supper: whether or not the elements of bread and wine were substantially (in the Aristotelian sense) changed into the body and blood of Christ. What resulted is the Roman Catholic Church’s first confession of the doctrine of transubstantiation. This is to say that the substance of the bread and the wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ while the accidents or outward appearance of bread and wine remain.
In 1063, Anselm succeeded Lanfranc as Prior of Bec and was promoted to Abbot in 1078. Under Anselm’s leadership, Bec became one of the most renowned monasteries in France. It is also during this time that Anselm did the majority of his most profound thinking and writing. What makes his work unique is the methodology he used to handle theological questions. This methodology would later be called “Scholasticism” and can be defined as the rational attempt to understand the revealed data of faith by means of a logical apparatus.
Anselm believed that man’s reason was fully capable of logically proving the truths of the faith. With the reemergence of Aristotle’s logic during the 11th century, nothing, not even the so-called “mysteries of the faith,” seemed out of the realm of rational analysis, explanation, and defense. Thus, from Anselm’s time at Bec, we receive works such as his Monologion and Proslogion, which set out to logically prove the necessity of God’s existence by definition. His argumentation for the existence of God, also called the Ontological Argument, was a favorite of later philosophers including Descartes, Leibniz, and Hegel and still makes an appearance in modern philosophy textbooks, even though it received harsh criticism at the time of its writing.
Other mysteries such as the Trinity and the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son were also tackled by Anselm using the Scholastic methodology. Anselm’s writing on the Holy Spirit and the Trinity are his most practical because they stood against the tritheism confessed by Roscelin of Compiegne, who was forced to repent of this heresy at the Council of Soissons.
Anselm’s most influential work, however, is on the mystery of God’s incarnation and redemption of mankind, Cur Deus Homo, or Why God Became Man. Here, once again, Anselm set out to prove, without the aid of Scripture or the Church Fathers, the logical necessity of God’s incarnation to redeem mankind. Anselm argued that in the Fall, mankind robbed God of his divine honor and therefore owes God an eternal debt that must be paid. Man could never pay such a great debt; therefore God is compelled by divine justice to become a sinless God-man and make the infinite payment man owes to satisfy the wrath of God. Christ’s sacrifice to the Father merits the reward of divine grace, which is shared with his disciples as they participate in acts of penance and the Eucharistic sacrifice.
Consequently, it is this work that formed the theological foundation for the Roman Catholic eucharistic-penitential system that persisted unchallenged until the Reformation. Since then, it has received much critique as being neither an ancient way of speaking about the incarnation and redemption nor the primary message of the New Testament. As evidence of Anselm’s influence throughout the ages though, this legal understanding of the work of Christ still persists in modern Roman Catholic understanding of the Lord’s Supper and Penance, and even in Protestant discussions on the work of Christ.
Anselm’s scholastic methodology, in general, has historically been critiqued as being too rationalistic, and this is not an entirely unfair critique. Anselm’s uses logic intentionally to the exclusion of the sacred word. To rely on something or someone outside of God and his word, for Luther, is a form of Enthusiasm. To deny that our mental faculties are damaged by original sin seems doubly problematic. Additionally, for Luther, this kind of argumentation reverses the created order and begets pride. Instead of God being the justifier of the sinning man, man is the justifier of God (theodicy) who is put into the seat of judgment.
To be fair, this critique ought to be tempered by the idea of Anselm captured in phrases like fides quaerens intellectum [faith seeking understanding] and credo ut intelligam [I believe in order to understand] found throughout his works. For Anselm, rational inquiry always presupposes faith in Christ, and thus speculation is not done for the purpose of creating faith but for bolstering it. He was always, first and foremost, a man of the church even as his escapades drove him into the academy.
Though not without his faults, Anselm of Canterbury is unquestionably one of the great theologians of the last millennium. His writing on the Trinity, Incarnation, Eucharist, Penance, and Atonement has forever shaped Western Christendom and the way we do theology.