In her most recent book, The Crucifixion, Fleming Rutledge devotes a chapter to rescuing St. Anselm, the turn-of-the-second-millennium archbishop of Canterbury, from his modern critics. Anselm, she points out, “has been blamed for everything from the Crusades to the Iraq War. His ‘theory’ of ‘satisfaction’ has been reviled as juridical, feudal, rigid, absolutist, vengeful, sadistic, immoral, and violent.”
His theory, in case you’re wondering, is a relatively early—and certainly the most famous—formulation of what is known as the penal substitution theory of atonement (PSA). I strongly disagree that Anselm “invented” the theory—as if it weren’t writ large across the Bible. In fact, as Fleming writes in a footnote:
Sometimes Anselm is depicted as having single-handedly introduced an illegitimate perspective into Christianity (at the portentous and suspiciously precise date of the turn of the second millennium). This is inaccurate. Anselm’s insights are anticipated by Ambrose, Hilary of Poitiers, and Victorinus, among others… (not to mention Isa. 53:4-6; Rom. 5:12-21; 8:3-4; II Cor 5:21; Gal. 3:10-14; I Pet. 2:24; 3:18; etc.).
Indeed… Let’s not mention all these scripture passages! I love that she includes an “etc.” after seven references.
(For more on PSA and the Bible, New Testament scholar Robert Gagnon, of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, wrote an excellent essay defending penal substitution, arguing that it is the primary way that scripture understands the atonement, and that the Church Fathers themselves embraced it. I blogged about it here.)
I find the following excerpt from Rutledge (and Anselm) helpful (“Boso” is the name of Anselm’s imaginary dialogue partner.):
We can identify the center of Anselm’s logic in 2.6. Here, he urges that the weight of sin is so great… that there is no possibility of atonement or satisfaction unless the price paid is “greater than all the universe besides God.”
Boso. So it appears…
Anselm. Therefore none but God is able to make this satisfaction.
Boso. I cannot deny it.
Anselm. But none but a man ought to do this [he has already established that it is the guilty party, and no one else, who ought to make the restitution].
Boso. Nothing could be more just.
Anselm. If it be necessary, therefore… that [salvation] cannot be effected unless the aforesaid satisfaction be made, which none but God can make and none but man ought to make, it is necessary for the God-man to make it.
Boso. Now blessed be God! We have made a great discovery.
Rutledge has already argued in the chapter that when Anselm uses the word “satisfaction” he means “atonement” or “rectification”—God’s way of putting things right.
Finally, this eloquence:
And here is Anselm himself, speaking through Boso, giving a summary of the achievement of Christ that could hardly be bettered: “He freed us from our sins, and from his own wrath, and from hell, and from the power of the devil, whom he came to vanquish for us, because we were unable to do it, and he purchased fro us the kingdom of heaven; and by doing all the things, he manifested the greatness of his love toward us” (1.5).”
1. Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 146.
3. Ibid., 157-8.
4. Ibid., 164.