Friday, July 16, 2010

Satisfying God’s Honour?

My Apologies for not posting in more than a month!

Stott has shown that in explaining the cross, theologians went through periods where different theories took priority. The early Greek church Fathers explained the cross in terms of Christ's satisfaction of the rights and claims of the devil. The early Latin church Fathers explained the cross in terms of satisfying God's law. A third theory of the atonement was first proposed by Anselm of Canterbury in the eleventh century. (Anselm was an Italian, but became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093 AD.)

Anselm's great work was Cur Deus Homo? (Why Did God become Man? Completed 1098.) His work is seen as a leading example of medieval 'scholasticism', which was an attempt to reconcile philosophy and theology, Aristotelian logic and Biblical revelation. While Anselm does include some Biblical quotes and considers the Bible a 'firm foundation', his prior commitment is to be 'agreeable to reason'.

Stott summarises Anselm's argument:
In Cur Deus Homo?, Anselm's great treatise on the relationship between the incarnation and the atonement, he agrees that the Devil needs to be overcome, but rejects the patristic ransom theories on the ground that 'God owed nothing to the devil but punishment' (ii.xix). Instead, man owed something to God, and this is the debt which needed to be repaid. For Anselm defines sin as 'not rendering to God what is his due' (i.xi), namely the submission of our entire will to his. To sin is, therefore, to take away from God what is his own', which means to steal from him and so dishonor him. If anybody imagines that God can simply forgive us in the same way that we are to forgive others, he has not yet considered the seriousness of sin (i.xxi). Being an inexcusable disobedience of God's known will, sin dishonours and insults him, and 'nothing is less tolerable . . . than that the creature should take away from the Creator the honour due to him, and not repay what he takes away' (i.xiii). God cannot overlook this. 'It is not proper for God to pass by sin thus unpunished' (i.xii). It is more than improper; it is impossible. 'If it is not becoming to God to do anything unjustly or irregularly, it is not within the scope of his liberty or kindness or will to let go unpunished the sinner who does not repay God what he has taken away' (i.xii). 'God upholds nothing more justly than he doth the honour of his own dignity' (i.xiii).
The question is then 'What can be done'?
If we are ever to be forgiven we must repay what we owe. Yet we are incapable of doing this, either for ourselves or for other people. Our present obedience and good works cannot make satisfaction for sins, since these are required of us anyway. So we cannot save ourselves. Nor can any other human being save us, since 'one who is a sinner cannot justify another sinner' (i.xxiii). Hence the dilemma with which Book 1 ends: 'man the sinner owes to God, on account of sin, what he cannot repay, and unless he repays it he cannot be saved' (i.xxv).
Near the beginning of book 2, the only possible way out of the human dilemma is laid out (as summarized by Stott):
'There is no one . . . who can make this satisfaction except God himself . . . but no one ought to make it except man; otherwise man does not make satisfaction.' Therefore, 'it is necessary that one who is God-man should make it' ( A being who is God and not man, or man and not God, or a mixture of both and therefore neither man nor God would not qualify. 'It is needful that the very same person who is to make this satisfaction be perfect God and perfect man, since no one can do it except one who is truly God, and no-one ought to do it except one who is truly man' (
This conclusion leads Anselm to introduce Christ. Christ was and is a unique person, since in him 'God the Word and man meet' (ii.ix). He also performed a unique work – giving himself up to death. Jesus' death was not given as a debt (since he did not sin and therefore did not need to die). Rather Jesus is seen to give himself freely for the honour of God. Serious as our sin might be, the life of the 'God-man' was so good, so exalted and so precious that its offering in death 'outweighs the number and greatness of all sins (ii.xiv), and due reparation has been made to the offended honour of God.

One of the great strengths of Anselm's argument is the seriousness with which he takes our sin as a willful rebellion against God. He also upholds the unchanging holiness of God and the unique perfection of Christ. However his presentation seems to overly reflect the attitudes of the feudal age, where society was rigidly divided, and each person stood on the dignity which was owed to them – especially the honour which was supposedly owed to the lords of a nation and to the king. Upholding the honour of the superior would require that satisfaction be made to that person.

It is a concern when God is portrayed as a feudal overlord who demands honour and punishes dishonour. While God certainly deserves our 'honour' it is questionable whether this approach does justice to the Biblical perspective. In particular there does not seem to be enough emphasis on either the question of justice or of the relational aspect of the consequence of sin (ie. the need for reconciliation). God willing, we will look at these in later posts.

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