Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (1033-1109), was a great theologian of the medieval Western church. Some consider him the father of scholasticism (the philosophical approach to faith through reason). He is known for his ontological argument for the existence of God and for his theory of substitutionary atonement.
Anselm was born in Aosta, Italy. In 1059 he became a Benedictine monk and resided at the abbey of Bec in Normandy. In 1063 he was made prior and then was appointed abbot in 1078. He held this position until 1093, at which time he became Archbishop of Canterbury. He remained the Archbishop until his death in 1109. King William II, and later, Henry I, called Anselm to England where they disagreed on investitures and other issues of church and state. Contrary to the king, Anselm believed that the church was independent of the king and was under the sole leadership of the Pope. Because of Anselm’s position, King Henry I exiled him to continental Europe for much of the time he was Archbishop. In 1720, Pope Clement XI declared Anselm a “Doctor of the Church.”
Anselm, like Saint Augustine of Hippo, believed that Christian faith comes through revelation, not philosophy. However, Anselm thought reason allowed one to understand one’s faith more fully and therefore found philosophy helpful for theology, especially in proving the existence of God. Anselm expounded on this belief in his work called Monologion in 1077. Anselm’s most famous work on the ontological existence of God, called Proslogion, came out a year later. In this work, he asserts that God is greater than the greatest conceivable being. He argues that this being must exist because if he did not, then God would be inferior to this being. Furthermore, he argues that a nonexistent being cannot be declared to be; therefore, God must exist. Also, he argues that God is eternal and timeless. If God were bound by the laws of time, then he would not be the greatest conceivable being; therefore, he must not be constrained by time. Anselm’s arguments are difficult to follow. Furthermore, they are short and succinct, so much so that philosophers and theologians continue to debate their meaning.
In another major work, Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man) completed in 1098, Anselm employed the same method of using reason to understand faith in explaining the incarnation of Christ and in developing his theory of substitutionary atonement, that is, why Christ has to die for humanity. This work takes the form of a dialogue with another monk at Bec. His basic argument is that because sin is against an infinite God, then its penalty is infinite. Because humanity sinned, only a human can pay the penalty. Thus, the incarnate Christ, God made human, is the only one who can legitimately pay the penalty and redeem humanity. Anselm’s theory gained wide acceptance in the 12th century, was held through the Protestant Reformation, and continues to be the dominant understanding of the atonement of Christ today.
See also Augustine of Hippo, Saint; Christianity; God
and Time; Salvation; Sin, Original
Davies, B. (Ed.). (1998). Anselm of Canterbury—The major works. New York: Oxford University Press.
Deane, S. N., & Evans, G. (Eds.). (1974). St. Anselm: Basic writings (2nd ed.). Peru, IL: Open Court.