Methoblogger Morgan Guyton wrote recently about his perception of the way contemporary evangelicals misunderstand and misuse the theology of Anselm of Canterbury. His description and post got me wanting to learn more about Anselm’s theology. I’ve only read bits of it here and there, including in my Intro to Theology class at United Theological Seminary. So, I purchased a book with some of Anselm’s major writings, including his essays on incarnation and atonement.
In his treatise Why God Became Man, Anselm writes about the gravity of sin. To make his point, Anselm proposes a hypothetical situation. He asks the reader to imagine we are standing before God. A person tells us to look to the left. God, however, commands us not to turn our eyes to the left. In this situation, Anselm asks, is there any thing that would cause you to ignore God’s command?
Anselm argues that our answer should be no. Indeed, he argues that even if there were a multitude of universes and that by looking to the left we could keep them all from being destroyed, we should not violate the will and command of God, which would be sin. Even the smallest sin, he argues, is as weighty as the choice to let a thousand inhabited worlds be obliterated. To ignore the will of God in any way is of incalculable consequence.
“[T]his is how gravely we sin whenever we knowingly do something, however small, contrary to the will of God. For we are always in his presence, and He always commands us not to sin.
I can hear how Anselm’s view plays out in some later theology. John Wesley agreed fully that any sin we commit is of such high consequence that there is nothing we could ever do to set things right. Reinhold Niebuhr would argue to the contrary that there are degrees of sin. A little sin is little and a big sin is big. I presume Niebuhr would argue that there are times when it would be okay to look left when God says not to.
What I’m not certain about is how biblical Anselm’s view of sin is. I am certainly mindful of the death of Uzzah when God struck him down for reaching out to keep the Ark of the Covenant from jostling. I think of Ananias and Sapphira lying at the first stewardship meeting.
It gets me thinking and asking: How big a deal is it to knowingly violate the will of God?