ANSELM OF CANTERBURY (1033–1109)
Archbishop of Canterbury; sometimes described as the founder of Scholasticism
Born in Aosta (northwest Italy) of noble family, Anselm was educated at the abbey of St. Leger, where the classical curriculum trained him for the clarity of expression later characteristic of his writings. Anselm’s father intended him for a political career and opposed his son’s decision to become a monk. In 1057 Anselm left home and traveled in Burgundy (France) and Normandy for two years before settling in a Benedictine monastery at Bec, Normandy, to study under the renowned theologian Lanfranc. Anselm took monastic vows and succeeded his teacher as prior in 1063, a tribute to his intellect and piety. He later became abbot of Bec (1078–1093). Under Anselm’s leadership the monastery and its school became a prominent center of learning. Once when a neighboring abbot complained that he could not improve his boys no matter how much he beat them, Anselm gently responded with what sounds like a twentieth-century question: ‘Have you tried not beating them?’ Although he could be scathing in condemnation of monks who laid up treasure on earth, he showed compassion for ordinary human weakness. His humble faith produced the prayer, ‘Grant that I may taste by love what I apprehend by knowledge, that I may feel in my heart what I touch through the Spirit.’
After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, English lands were granted by William I (‘The Conqueror’) to the monastery of Bec. Because of that property, Anselm paid three visits to England, where he made a favorable impression on the clergy during a period of reorganization in their church. When the archbishopric of Canterbury became vacant on Lanfranc’s death in 1089, the English clergy urged that the abbot of Bec should succeed him. For the gentle monk it was not an inviting prospect. William II (‘Rufus’), who had come to the English throne in 1087, was notably disinclined to appoint someone with strong views about the rights and independence of the church. Indeed, the king was reluctant to appoint anyone at all. A four-year vacancy ensued, much to Rufus’s satisfaction, for the revenues of any vacant diocese went to the Crown. No help came from Rome, since at the time an unseemly squabble was going on between two rival claimants for the papacy.
Then the dilemma was unexpectedly resolved. Anselm, in England on monastic business, was called to hear the confession of the king who had become seriously ill. The apprehensive Rufus, it is related, forced the pastoral staff into Anselm’s clenched hands. The abbot protested, ‘You have yoked an old sheep with an untamed bull to the plough of the church, which ought to be drawn by two strong oxen.’ Anselm refused to be consecrated until Rufus restored certain lands to Canterbury, recognized the archbishop as his spiritual father, and acknowledged Urban II as the rightful pope (a choice forced upon Anselm because of his Norman connections). Rufus agreed, but he recovered and was never one for keeping his promises. The yokefellows did indeed prove incompatible. Again and again Rufus, one of the most evil and rapacious of English sovereigns, thwarted Anselm’s administration of the church and his concern for the spiritual welfare of the nation. The king would not even permit the archbishop to go on a visit to Rome. Anselm would not dilute his Christian principles to satisfy a royal tyrant, but his position gradually became so untenable that he left the country in 1097. He returned only after Rufus had died in mysterious circumstances and his brother Henry I had sent an invitation to the exiled primate (1100).
By that time the Investiture Controversy was at its height, and in keeping with a papal decree of 1099 Anselm declined to pay the expected homage to the new king or to consecrate bishops who had done so. Six unhappy years passed before a compromise was reached. Anselm was never at his best in political affairs, so his early rejection of a career in politics proved to be a wise decision. Only the last two years of his primacy were spent in peace. The papacy made some amends for the halfhearted support given him in England by canonizing him a little less than a half century after his death.
As a scholar, Anselm reintroduced the spirit of Augustine into theology. Much of Anselm’s writing was done during the placid decades at Bec—notably Monologion, De veritate, and Proslogion. Anselm sought to demonstrate the existence and attributes of God by an appeal to reason alone. He spoke of an absolute norm above time and space that could be comprehended by the mind of man. That norm was God, the ultimate standard of perfection. Anselm’s so-called Ontological Argument was that the existence of the idea of God necessarily implied the objective existence of God. He always insisted, however, that faith must precede reason: ‘I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand.’
To him is attributed what became known as the ‘satisfaction theory’ of the atonement, which sees God as the offended party and man as the offender. That view was elaborated in a famous work Cur Deus homo? (Why Did God Become Man?), which Anselm completed in 1098 in Italy. He rejected the view of the Atonement that saw it as the settlement of a lawsuit between God and the devil. Anselm’s hypothesis was that all human beings had sinned in and with Adam. God’s honor demanded that every creature should subject itself to him so that his eternal purposes should be completed. Since finite man could never make satisfaction to the infinite God, ‘no one but one who is God-man can make the satisfaction by which man is saved.’ The voluntary death of the sinless Christ on the cross was the only way and the only acceptable satisfaction.
Acknowledged as the greatest scholar between Augustine and Aquinas, Anselm’s distinctive characteristic was his resort to intellectual reasoning rather than to biblical tests and traditional writings—while still upholding the prime place of faith. His theology has had profound influence on many modern theologians, including Karl Barth.
J. D. Douglas
WHO’S WHO IN CHRISTIAN HISTORYJ. D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort,
EditorsDonald Mitchell, Associate Editor
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.