Anselm anticipates reformers

In speaking of Christís atonement at least some of the early Church Fathers had developed a theory which became quite popular even though it lacked scriptural support.

Scripture abused

The two main texts which were abused to propound the theory that Christ, by his death, paid a ransom to Satan, are Colossians 2:15 and Hebrews 2:14.

Christ's death on the cross not only rendered the believer's indebtedness null and void, but also represented his victory over the principalities and powers (Colossians 2:14-15). Satan attempted to destroy Christ by killing him, but his death was really his victory over all evil forces and not theirs over him.

Instead of Christ paying a ransom to Satan, it is here said that Christ made a public spectacle of them by leading them as captives in his victory procession. Spoiled literally means stripped, as was done to enemies. Satan is the loser while Jesus is Christus Victor. Not even the faintest idea of a ransom to Satan is to be found here.

With his indulgence in speculative theology, it is no wonder that Origen developed such theories. In this case, the "ransom to Satan" is not culled from Scripture.

Likewise, in Hebrews 2:14, we have no mention of a ransom to Satan. Rather we have one of the profoundest statements in all Holy Writ about the Incarnation. And one of its purposes was to destroy Satan. By his death (for that is why the Son of God became incarnate) he stripped the devil of his power and wrested from his hands his most awful weapon: death. This does not mean that the devil had absolute power in the infliction of physical death (cf. Deuteronomy 32:39; 1 Samuel 2:6). The death which Christ dies was "the wages of sin" - a penal infliction of the Law, suffering the wrath of a holy God. Now Satan had a just claim against us that we should die. There is justice in the claim of Satan. It is quite true that Satan is only a usurper, but in saving men God deals in perfect righteousness, justice, and truth. Our redemption is in harmony with the principles of righteousness and equity, on which God has founded all things. When Christ died our very death, when He was made sin and a curse for us, then all the power of Satan was gone. And now what can Satan say? The justice of the Law is vindicated. The penalty due to the broken law Jesus endured, and now, as the law is honoured, sin put away, death swallowed up, Christ has destroyed the devil, that is, rendered him powerless (katargeo). Satan was stripped of his power of death: this was accomplished by the laying down of the Saviorís life.

In this verse Satan's defeat and our liberation are highlighted, but "a ransom to Satan" is missing. Rather Christ had to die to satisfy God's absolute righteousness, that God might be just and the justifier of him that believes in Jesus.

Anselm came on the scene when ďa ransom to SatanĒ was still being taught and assumed to be correct. His landmark work Cur Deus Homo? (Why God became man?) set dogmatics on a new direction, much more biblically grounded.

Anselm anticipates the Reformers in their doctrine of the atonement and our appropriation of it.

Sin an insult to God...a breaking of Godís Law

Anselm described sin as an affront and insult to God's majesty. While it is true as far as it goes, Anselm's concepts are taken from a king or feudal landlord whose dignity has been besmirched.

The Reformers went further than that; in a more biblical sense, sin is the breaking of God's law, which demands death to the offender. It is God's justice that has to be vindicated. God's mercy is bestowed because his righteousness is exalted and honoured: Christ was exposed as a propitiation by his blood to be received by faith. This was to prove or show God's righteousness: in forgiving sin God has to be God. He cannot be indulgent or indifferent to sin; sin must be punished. Thus Anselm at least dealt with sin as an affront to God primarily rather than sin holding us in bondage to Satan. This thought the Reformers developed along biblical lines.

Our essential need

Secondly, Anselm saw the need for satisfaction. An atonement was not optional if man is to be saved: it is a sine qua non. This dilemma is solved by the incarnation, and Christ's voluntary atonement.

The Reformers too saw the primary truth concerning this: the Son of God became the son of man to make the sons of man sons of God: by his death. The king came to die. Indeed he is our Prophet, and his prophetic office is essential, but the primary purpose of the incarnation remains his death. Bethlehem points inexorably to Calvary. On this point both Anselm and the Reformers complemented each other.

Thirdly, by his death, Christ gained merit with God, which merit is freely made over to man, who can then pay God "with Christ." This is Anselm's position. We have no merit, but the merit we need is found in Christ. Therefore the obtain salvation one must take Christ and present him to God as his own merit.

The logician rejoices

Despite his theological weaknesses, Anselm was a light for his generation. I believe that a Christian may happily prove inconsistent in his beliefs, for while he may be trapped by a lot of parapharnalia, invented by man, yet his eyes may be fixed on Jesus and his hope may be entrenched in him alone.

I think Anselm is such a case. Though he may not have had assurance during his lifetime of his interest in Christ, yet he knew that liberation from sin and hell is granted us by Jesus Christ. He saw the purpose of the incarnation and the central place of Christ's passion and self-sacrifice.

He realized that what was impossible for him to achieve (for no-one is able to repay God an infinite debt incurred by sin) Christ did on his behalf. He rejoiced because he saw Christ offered to him (and to all hearers of the gospel) and he saw this way of escape so logical, so rational, so sweet and so desirable, not only for him but for all the world. He stands in wonder of all this, of such a manifestation of God's love.

"In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent his Son to be a propitiation for our sins." I think such biblical statements meant a lot to Anselm. He believed them and acted upon them. He could therefore say to others: "Here is the price of your redemption. You were a bond-slate, and by this Man you are free. By Him you are brought back from exile. Lost, you are restored. Dead, you are raised." For him, Christ is the key, the only remedy to repay the sinner's debt.

A logician such as Anselm proved to be, seeing how one act of God leads inevitably to another, must indeed rejoice when it dawns upon him that all this is done on the sinner's behalf.

Paving the way

However inadequately expressed, Anselm's presentation paves the way for the richer presentation of the Protestant Reformers. Caught up in the Catholicism of his day, Anselm still - perhaps unconsciously but surely inconsistently - sought merit with Mary, the saints, the use of the sacraments, etc. The Reformers found merit in Christ alone, and in this way their uncompromising stand on the gospel of grace is more prominent that their worthy predecessor.

Also, whereas in Anselm's mind Christ's atonement was indefinite (anyone can avail himself of it), for the Reformers, in harmony with Scripture, the atonement was made for particular persons, i.e., for the exclusive benefit of God's elect. "The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep." "Christ loved the church and gave himself for her." Anselm disregards this testimony and leaves the atonement open, making an appeal to man at large to profit from it. "Whosoever will may be saved. Despisers will be justly damned, for they do not pay God the debt they owe" (referring to Christ). The Reformers, of course, placed no limitation to the value of Christ's death: it is of infinite value, but the objective of his death was definite. It was to assure the salvation of certain people, and none others.

Lastly, justification by faith alone was largely unknown to Anselm. He barely hints at it; though his is convinced that man's hope is to be found in Christ, it seems that he does not rejoice in God's act of acquittal of the believing sinner, for there is no understanding of it.

The Reformers maintained that Christ is the anchor of our salvation, for sure, but they also expound God's manner of it. They propound justification by faith alone as the article by which a church stands or falls. Quite correctly, they made it the touchstone of sound doctrine.

Anselm sees the need of faith in order to appropriate the benefits of the atonement, to make amends to God. The Reformers see faith as Christ's procured gift for his people by which they are united to him. And being in Him, and by his merit, they are reckoned and accounted righteous, not for any righteousness wrought in them or by them, but by the righteousness of Christ alone.

Though deficient, Anselm's contribution to theology is significant, but it remained for the Reformers to expound it fully and clearly.