Where I Ruminate on Why St. Anselm Is Still Worth Reading

On my blog list of theologians I read I have put St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), whose book on the atonement, Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Human), remains an important witness to the center of the Christian faith.  My own little book on the atonement, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross:  Reflections on the Atonement, has a strong Anselmian objective flavor, although with some qualifications.

Karl Barth was strongly influenced by Anselm.   What impressed Karl Barth so much when he delved into Anselm’s “proof” for the existence of God in the early Twentieth Century was that it took the being of God seriously. In the late medieval world in which Anselm lived the existence of God was presumed by most scholars, yet Anselm struggled to articulate what was widely believed in a rational, or at least reasonable, way. Barth’s context couldn’t have been more different, modernity itself being defined as the time when God is not a factor, but Barth found in Anselm a model for doing theology which took God as God seriously and not as some extension of human knowing or being. This was a key in Barth’s radical rethinking of the theological project of his time.

At the point at which Barth was digging into his life project, the magisterial Church Dogmatics, Anselm provided a model. The humility of Anselm before the mystery and majesty of God, yet his confidence in the reality of God, are reflected in Barth’s great work. And the ironclad Chalcedonian conviction that in Jesus Christ we are dealing at the same time with God and man is seen in both theologians throughout their respective work.

Anselm was an original and innovative thinker and he is still worth studying. His “proofs” may not quite get from here to there, but one could do worse than ponder them, and his much maligned atonement theory, whatever its liabilities, still puts its weight where it belongs, on God’s free and sovereign activity in and through the cross of Jesus Christ, which does something rather than shows something (as per Abelard), something we can not do for ourselves.

When I visited Canterbury cathedral in 1993 there was a chapel dedicated to St. Anselm with votive candles burning away. I had a rare Protestant devotional moment of gratitude and awe for this man who lived over nine hundred years ago, and whose work still quietly witnesses to God in Christ.

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